One For All

Author: Cyclone <cyclone[at]>

Feedback: Please be gentle.

Distribution: Gimme credit and a link. Plus, archived at

Rating: I'm gonna go say PG.

Spoilers: Up to Graduation, then AU version of events after that.

Disclaimer: The characters depicted herein belong to the almighty Joss. I'm just borrowing them for a while.

Summary: Thanks to Xander's sacrifice, the Slayer and Slayerettes can live normal lives... until now.

Author's Note: Too many plot bunnies. Just... too... many...

Latest addition


"I still think this was a terribly big mistake, Xander."

"I know you do, G-man, but..." Xander gazed back down at the bright lights of Sunnydale at night and sighed, "...they've earned this. They deserve a chance to live normal lives."

"He's right," Angel said, nodding.

"Are you saying you two don't?" the Watcher asked, arching an eyebrow at him.

Angel shook his head, "I don't. Not yet, anyway."

Xander chuckled, "As for me... maybe I do, maybe I don't. Doesn't much matter. I chose this path, and I don't intend to leave it."

"Xander, didn't _they_ deserve a choice?"

The younger man whirled and cut him off, "Giles, they did this because they felt obligated to. I do it... because it gives some meaning to my life. Besides, they've all wished they could live normal lives at one time or another."

"I understand," Giles said, holding his hands up defensively. "I'm just playing devil's advocate."

Xander sighed and looked back at the city, "I know, Giles. You haven't said anything I haven't thought myself a dozen times already."

"I suspected as much."

"Look," Xander said, turning back to Giles, "you're sure the Hellmouth's closed for good?"

"It is."

"And the Council?"

"They've already found the Slayer who was called when Faith flat- lined after Buffy stabbed her. As far as they know, Faith's the only Slayer in Sunnydale."

"Will they remember?"

"Only if something truly shatters the spell's delusion or reverses the spell. Xander, Angel..."

"We know. They won't remember us." He sighed again, hesitated, and said, "You'll take care of 'em, right? In case some demon that the spell missed shows up thinking Buffy's still the Slayer?"

"I will."

"Faith too?"


"Thanks, G-... Giles."

"We'd better get going," Angel said, rising to his feet. "I'd like to get to L.A. before dawn."

Xander shook his head as the two walked away, "You're going to the City of Angels. I'm still amazed."

"At what?"

"That you actually have a sense of humor, Deadboy."


Giles shook his head in amusement as he watched the two champions walk off into the night.

Chapter 1

Xander pulled the trigger, igniting the last flare shell in his shotgun. Fire erupted from the weapon's muzzle and incinerated the vampire in front of him.

He dropped the shotgun and slammed his stake into another vampire's heart, then whirled around and lashed out with his foot at a third. His Slayer-enhanced kick shattered the third vampire's ribcage, but he didn't move to finish him off just yet.

Instead, he steadied himself and faced off against the leader of the vampire gang. Baring his teeth, the large vampire licked his fangs in anticipation and said, "You know, I always thought the Slayer was supposed to be a girl. I guess you're just sissy enough to qualify, huh?"

Xander rolled his eyes and simply raised his hand, "Incendere."

The lead vampire had perhaps a quarter of a second to regret his words before the column of flame that leaped from Xander's hand reduced him to ash.

Xander snorted and calmly retrieved his shotgun and crouched over the last surviving vampire. He raised his stake, preparing to finish him off.

"Wait!" the vampire croaked, somehow managing to speak despite his shattered ribcage. "Something big's going down! I can tell you about it."

"I don't make deals with dead men," Xander told him, swinging the stake down.

"It's about the Hellmouth!" the vampire shrieked desperately, his eyes screwed shut. After a moment -- realizing he still wasn't dust - - the vampire cautiously opened his eyes again.

Xander had lowered the stake.

"Talk fast."

And the vampire did, babbling everything he knew.

"Thanks for the info," Xander said grimly... and raised his stake again.

"Hey, wait, what are you do-?"


"I told you," Xander said, rising. "I don't make deals with dead men."

Picking up his shotgun and dusting himself off, he sighed, "I hate Cleveland."



The redhead turned and smiled at her husband as he stepped out onto the balcony, "Hey."

"What's wrong?" Oz asked. "Is it that thing again?"

She nodded and said quietly, "Yeah. I just... can't shake that feeling, that something's missing. It's like... like there's this great big hole in my life... in my heart. Like I'm walking around with my right arm missing without even realizing I'm supposed to have one."

He nodded. He'd heard all this before, over the past few years. It was the one thing he felt that was getting between them... and he didn't even know why.

"You should get some sleep."

"I know. But I can't," she said, leaning into his arms. "Help me forget?" she asked quietly, tilting her head toward him.

He kissed her, shoving aside the fear that whatever it was she couldn't remember would find her... and take her from him.


"What's wrong, Willow?"

"Huh?" the redhead asked, jerking her head up. "What? What do you mean, 'what's wrong?'"

"You zoned out, all gloomy-like, and you've barely even touched your omelette, which I'm sure must be a sign of the apocalypse," Buffy deadpanned. "So, c'mon. Spill, Will."

"Uh, well, you remember that thing we couldn't remember?"

"Um, if I remembered it, wouldn't that mean we could remember it?"

"Buffy!" Willow scowled. "Please! You're as bad as..." she trailed off, frowning. Shaking it off, she said, "Anyway, you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I know," Buffy said wistfully. She'd felt the same thing herself, and it kept coming up at the most inappropriate times. Way too many dates had gone south because of it. "Just trying to lighten the mood. The not-memories bothering you again?"

"Yeah," Willow said with a dejected sigh, "and I think it's starting to bother Oz, too."

"What do you mean?"

"Well... it's just... he's looking at me different and checking up on me more often. Like he's expecting me to cheat on him or something, which is ridiculous, because I've _never_ cheated on him... have I?" she asked, suddenly uncertain.

Buffy raised an eyebrow, "You'd know better than me."

Willow shook her head, "No, of course I've never cheated on him. I'd remember if I did... wouldn't I?"

"I sure hope so," Buffy replied. "Where'd the fun be if you didn't?"

Willow shot her an Outrage Face and was about to reprove her again when her cell phone rang.

"Hello? Oh, hi, sweetie. I'm having lunch with Buffy. Yeah, the diner down on Fourth Street. Yeah, I am," She giggled, "All right, I'll ask for a doggie bag."

Hanging up, she looked up at Buffy, and her smile quickly faded. "See? See? See what I mean?" she babbled, pointing dramatically at her cell phone. "Always checking on me!"


"I don't see why I have to wait down here. I see her every day, so what's the big deal?"

"Patience, Conner," Angel said patiently as they waited in what had been the Hyperion Hotel's lobby and was now the front room for Angel Investigations.

The miracle child's attitude had been improving remarkably well over the past few years -- for example, he was no longer trying to kill Angel whenever an opportunity presented itself -- but he was still a little rough around the edges.

"Yes, _Dad_," he growled back. "And why do I have to wear this suit?" he asked, tugging at his tuxedo's collar. "It itches."

"Tradition," Angel grinned. "There are some traditions that you just have to follow, son."

"Besides," Cordy said, "they won't let you in the door unless you're wearing formal. The look suits you anyway, and believe me, I know fashion."

"Right, right..." Conner muttered as motion at the top of the stairs caught his eye, "...whoa."

Dawn blushed at his frank stare and slowly descended. Blushing even harder, she asked, "So, uh, you like?"

Conner nodded, "Uh huh."

"Ahh!" Cordy cried out suddenly, clutching her head.

Everyone turned suddenly.

"Cordy?" Angel asked tentatively. "What is it? Is it a vision?"

Catching her breath, Cordy nodded.

"But... the headaches..." Angel said uncertainly. Cordy's visions hadn't caused headaches since Skip had transfused the demon into her.

She looked up, "It's big. Really big."

"How big?"

"End of the world big, boss-vamp," came a voice from the top of the stairs.

Dawn frowned, "I thought you were still asleep, sis?"

Kennedy nodded, "Slayer dream. Apocalypse is coming. Again."

Angel's eyes narrowed, "C'mon. Let's get the team together."


Detective Buffy Anne Summers, SPD, homicide division, had seen her fair share of gruesome murder scenes. Although not as large as L.A. or San Francisco, Sunnydale still had enough sickos to keep her division busy.

But _this_ guy was definitely striving to new heights of gore and creativity.

It was the third such double murder already, each time on the night of the full moon. The victims all fit the same profile -- Caucasian women in their mid-twenties, one blonde, one redhead. Each time, both were disfigured, and their organs were removed with a surgical precision.

Their blood -- and the blood of the third "victim," invariably a wolf of some kind that received the same treatment the human victims did -- was used to draw pentagrams around the three bodies, with the organs placed at certain junctions in the diagram.

She sighed as she locked her desk up and rose to her feet, stifling a yawn. *Hmm,* she thought, *maybe Carlos is right. Maybe I _should_ quit working so late.*

She thought about that for a moment, then snorted. Her partner was the _last_ person she was going to accept advice about her private life from, what with all the voodoo junk and stinky herbs and incense he kept pissing around with.

Shaking her head, she stepped out and began the short walk to her car.

"Well, well, well, lookie what we have here."

Buffy cocked an eyebrow at the trio of toughs eyeing her. "Okay, I know crooks are stupid... but a mugging in front of a police station? You guys must be shooting for a record."

"You could say that," the leader grinned.

She left her pistol holstered. She didn't need a gun to deal with three unarmed muggers. Besides, she preferred the up-close-and- personal approach. Raising her fists, she said, "Well, come on. I don't have all night."

They launched themselves at her, and she easily nailed the leader with a lightning fast right to the bridge of the nose that sent him stumbling back, clutching his face and swearing colorfully.

She lashed out with a kick at the second one, but he ducked and grinned. She tried to punch him, and he caught her wrist easily. The third member of the small gang grabbed her other arm, and she found herself pinned between them.

The leader stood and glared at her, "Now you're gonna pay for that."

"Geez," she said in disgust at his deformed face, "get a plastic surgeon, ass-face." With that, she suddenly kicked out at him with both feet, using his two cronies for support. Struck solidly in the chest, he stumbled back again...

...and vanished into a cloud of dust. She stared in confusion at the man standing where the gang leader had been a moment ago.

"Didn't your momma teach you not to play with your food?"

*'Food'?* Buffy wondered incredulously.

"It's _him_!" one of them said fearfully as he released her and backed away.

The other jerked on her arm and pulled her toward him. "Don't! Or the lady gets it!"

The man's eyes narrowed, "Wrong move." His eyes flicked over to the other one, and he said, "But you first."

He flung something at the other thug, and it struck him in the chest. Buffy blinked in disbelief as the thug crumbled to dust.

Her rescuer turned and took a couple of steps toward them, but the mugger -- if these guys really were muggers, which she was seriously beginning to doubt -- jerked her back again and snarled, "Don't come any closer! I'll kill her! I swear!"

"Oh, I believe you," the man said, leveling a shotgun at them. "But you were planning on doing that from the moment you jumped her, so what guarantee do I have that you'll let her go if I let you go?"

"A-all right!" the thug said, throwing her to the side. "She's free to go! Just... just don't... hey! WAIT!"


The man pulled back his weapon -- in the darkness, she couldn't quite make out what it was -- from where he'd thrust it into the last thug's chest and tucked it into his jacket.

"What _were_ those things?" she asked, not sure she wanted to know the answer.

He turned and smiled grimly, "You're better off not knowing, believe me."

"Okay," she accepted... for now. Stepping in front of him, she said, "Next question: Who are you?"

"Let's just say..." he hesitated, "...I'm a friend."

She cocked an eyebrow, "What if I don't want a friend?"

He grinned, "I didn't say I was yours."

For some reason, that statement tugged at some long-forgotten part of her memory, and she leaned into him, listening to his heart beating in his chest. He froze in surprise for a moment, then gently wrapped his arms around her. She tilted her head back, ignoring the part of her brain that was screaming, *Hello! You do NOT kiss strangers you meet in the middle of the night!*

"Mmm..." she moaned into the kiss, and when he pulled away, she looked at him uncertainly. "I know you..."

He backed away and shook his head sadly, "No. You don't. Good night, Detective. Stay safe... and don't _ever_ invite anyone in after dark."

She blinked, and before she could react, he was jogging away. She sprinted after him, "Wait! Who _are_ you?!"

Ignoring her, he straddled a black motorcycle and raced off. She stumbled to a halt and tried in vain to read the license plate.

"Who was that?" she wondered.

Chapter 2

Vinny Delgado was not having a good night. Turned during the gangster era of the 1920s, Delgado knew how to keep a low profile, and that had allowed him to survive these eighty-some years.

But that hadn't helped him tonight.

"I know he w-was here, in Cleveland," Tara said. "Wh-where is he now?"

The vampire snarled wordlessly at her, and she clenched her fist. The mystical bands of energy that bound the vampire and held him aloft constricted, and Vinny howled in pain.

"All right! All right! I'll talk!"

She loosened the bindings, and Vinny hissed in relief, then said, "Yeah, he was here. He took out Wasserman's gang and flew out a week ago. Word is, he was heading for the Hellmouth."

"'H-Hellmouth'?" Tara frowned in confusion. "Where's that?"

He blinked, "You don't know?"

"Just answer the question," she said, flexing her hand again. The bindings tightened slightly, reminding him of what she could do.

"It's in Sunnydale!" he shrieked out in panic. "D-down in California."

Tara nodded, "Th-thank you."

She backed away cautiously and stepped out of the building, then released the spell.

Vinny rose from where the spell had dropped him and snarled, "Stupid witch." Well, at least he'd get a meal out of this.


His eyes bulged, and he stared at the dark figure that clutched his throat and held him dangling off the ground. "Who were you talking about, bloodsucker?" the dark man asked, his voice a low hiss.

"The Hunter!" he rasped. "Th-that male Slayer!"


The pressure around his throat vanished, and he dropped to the ground, staring wildly around. He saw a ring glint in the darkness before the man-shaped region of deeper shadow vanished.

"So, _they're_ after him too," he chuckled, grinning ferally. "Things are looking up."


Fred shook her head and closed the massive tome, "Sorry, I just... I can't find anything." She sighed, "Maybe we should..."

"No!" Gunn whirled and glared at her.

"But, Charles..."

"We are _not_ calling Wesley."

"I don't believe that's your call to make, Gunn," Wesley said from the door. Gunn turned and stared, but Wesley ignored him. Looking at Angel, the ex-Watcher said, "All right, Angel. I'm here. What do you need?"

Gunn stared at Angel, "_You_ called him? After what he did?"

"Shut it, Gunn," Angel said. "There isn't a person in this room without a guilty conscience. Wes, Cordy had a vision, a big one. Kennedy had another Slayer dream too."

"Are they connected?"

"That's the problem. We don't know," Angel sighed. "We haven't been able to make any sense out of them, except that it's big."

"How big?"

"Apocalypse big."

Wesley raised an eyebrow, "Another one?"


"Hey, Rupes!" Buffy called as she entered the Magic Box.

The British shopkeeper looked up and scowled, "I do wish you would stop calling me by that infernal nickname, Detective Summers."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Buffy said. "Tell you what, Rupes, you start calling me Buffy, and I'll start calling you Rupert. Or Giles, if you prefer."

"Oh, never mind," Giles said in aggravation. The more different he kept his current relationship with Buffy than his previous one, the less likely he was to slip. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Detective?"

"Business, Rupes, sorry. We've got a serial killer on our hands, cult-related. Last three full moons, someone dissected a couple of hot ladies and a wolf each night, and whoever it is is big on the hocus pocus too. With the next full moon just a couple days away..."

Giles nodded and frowned, "A wolf? That seems rather... odd."

"Yeah," Buffy said, "and we have no idea where this psycho's getting them. We've a body count of six, no ID on two of 'em, and no leads except for the diagrams and the wolves. Zoo says all their wolves are accounted for, so that lead's a dead end. Can you come down to the station, have a look at what we have?"

"Ah, well, certainly," he turned. "Faith?"

"No worries, G. I'll hold down the fort."


"So," Buffy said, "any of this look familiar, Rupes?"

"Ah," he stuttered, "n-no. No, I can't say that it does. I mean, the pentagrams, obviously, are a common symbol of satanism, and the triangle and arrangement suggests that the, err, victims were intended as, well, symbols of... something or someone. I-I can't say for sure who or what."

Buffy frowned, "You sure?"

He nodded, "Y-yes. Quite. I... I don't think I'll be much more use here, Detective, but I'll see what I can find in my archives."

With that, Giles scrambled out, depositing his Police Consultant card at the front desk.

"What's with him?" Carlos asked.

"I don't know..." Buffy murmured, frowning, "but I think he knows more than he's letting on. I'll handle it."


"Faith," Giles said, storming into the Magic Box, "where did Xander say he was going again?"

"Down to L.A., to talk to A and his gang," the Slayer replied. "Why?"

"We have to warn him, quickly."

"About what?"

He told her.



"I can't make out the exact details," Wesley said, "but it clearly indicates it will be happening somewhere near L.A., if not in the city itself." He sighed and looked up. "I'm sorry, Angel, but... there's just not enough in here," he waved toward the huge pile of books beside him. "I don't know what it is."

"Yeah, well I do."

Angel turned, "Harris. I thought you were in Cleveland."

"Emergency came up. Got some news and just finished confirming it. It's the Hellmouth."

"The Hellmouth?" Wesley asked, rising to his feet.

Xander nodded, "It's reopening."


"I'm telling you, Willow, Rupes is hiding something," Buffy said. "He's worried. Really worried."

"And why are you telling _me_?" Willow pouted. "I've got my own problems, remember?"

Buffy shot her a sympathetic smile, "Things getting worse with Oz?"

"Yeah," the redhead said dejectedly, "he refuses to talk about it, and with the Dingoes' records sinking into obscurity, I'm having to work more overtime at the company just to keep things in the black. I'm starting to see code in my sleep."

"You think he resents it?" Buffy asked. "That you're bringing in the bacon? Err, so to speak," she added at Willow's glare.

Willow sighed and shook her head, "No. No, that's not like Oz at all. I'm just... I still feel like I'm getting that jealous vibe off him."

Buffy rolled her eyes, "Oh, come on, Willow. Jealous of what? Someone or something you can't even remember? That's silly."

"Don't you think I know that?" Willow snapped. "I know it's ridiculous, but that's the vibe I'm getting."

Buffy sighed, "I know, I know. It's just..."

"You're worried about Rupert, I know," Willow said, then frowned. "Are you _sure_ you're just friends?"

Buffy glared at her, "Don't go there, Wills. Do. Not. Go. There. He dated my _mom_, for Christ's sakes. That's just... eww." She shook her head, "It's not just that, anyway. Something happened the other night, and... I'm not sure what to make of it."

"What happened?"

"Well... I met this guy..."

"Ooh! Was he cute?"

"Willow!" Buffy shot her a Look. "I don't even know his _name_." A small smile appeared on her face as she remembered her rescuer, and she said, "But, for record: Yes, he was cute. In fact, I would go as far as to say that he was well into the 'hot' territory."

She shook her head, "But that's _not_ what I'm talking about. He... well, let me start over. I was working late at the station, and while I was on my way to my car, these three thugs jumped me. Long story short, they kicked my ass, but this guy comes out of nowhere and saves me."

"A mysterious hero crusading against injustice in the night?" Willow asked, cocking an eyebrow. "What, you mean you got rescued by Batman?"

Buffy rolled her eyes, "_No_. Who's telling this story anyway?"

"Sorry. Shutting up now."

"Thank you. Where was I? Oh yeah. The weird part is that those three goons just, well, went poof."


"Yeah, they just... sorta... crumbled to dust." Buffy shook her head in aggravation, "Oh, never mind. I probably just imagined it."

Willow frowned.


"You okay, Harris?"

Xander shook his head and looked up, "Yeah, Deadboy. I'm fine. Just a little lightheaded."

"Maybe you should sit down."

"I didn't know you cared," Xander said, grinning.

"I don't," Angel growled under his breath, "but can you imagine what Cordy'd do to me if something happened to you?"

The male Slayer snorted, "Oh, yeah. It's good to see Queen C back. Nice Cordy just gave me the creeps."

"Tell me about it," Angel said sourly, shaking his head. "I should have known she was possessed that year." He looked up, "You sure you're okay?"

Xander nodded, "Yeah, it's no big deal. Been happening every full moon for the last few months. The wolf must be getting antsy."

"Vision!" the object of their earlier discussion suddenly shouted.

They scrambled over, and Angel said, "What's happening? Where is it?"

"I-I don't know. It's dark... a warehouse! On the waterfront... a boat... the S.S. Miscast," she blinked and looked up in confusion. "It's gone. I didn't see anything. No demons, no people... just the place."

Angel's face darkened, "Let's move."


"So, what's the game plan?" Gunn asked, hefting his hubcap axe. "Charge right in or just set the place on fire?"

Xander shook his head, "No. We don't know what we're dealing with here. Recon sweep first. Deadboy, you go around back; I'll take the front. Rest of you, stay here. We'll call if things get hairy."


Angel quietly pried off the wooden board over the broken window and slid into the warehouse. He looked around, eyes darting left and right.

So far, nothing.

He crept around, between the crates, sword at the ready. The ensouled vampire saw movement out of the corner of his eye and whirled around, lashing out with his weapon.

The blur rushed past him, underfoot, and he felt something slice across his leg, sending him down to one knee.


Xander allowed his shotgun to lead the way. He had already chambered a slug from the dual-feed shotgun's box magazine. When the Powers That Be sent a vision, he doubted they'd be dealing with just vampires.

"Welcome, Hunter."

He whirled around and leveled his shotgun at the voice. He frowned, "Who the hell are you?"

"I... am Drang," the Asian man smiled. He was lit by a magical green flame that hovered above his hand, and it was obvious that he was quite blind, his sightless eyes containing no pupil or iris... merely all white.

"Okay," Xander said, "you got my attention. What do you want?"

"Your head," Drang said simply. "Oh, and let me introduce you to my brother, Drom."

Drang gestured, and Xander turned. His eyes widened, and he swung his shotgun around and fired. Drom was unusually large, even for a Fyarl demon, but a twelve-gauge slug in the chest was still more than enough to throw him back.

Xander swung the shotgun around toward Drang and pumped another slug into the chamber. Bracing the weapon against his shoulder, he said, "Not really seeing the family resemblance."


Xander blinked as he picked himself up, rubbing his chest where the Fyarl demon has backhanded him. Drom walked steadily toward him, snarling in his language.

Drang smiled again and shook his head, "You shouldn't have said that. He's very sensitive about that."

Xander stared. "What the...? Since when the hell were Fyarl demons bulletproof?!" he demanded incredulously.



Gunn suddenly stopped twirling his axe and straightened up. "You hear that?"

"That's Xander's gun," Cordy said. "We should..."

"Uh, guys," Fred interrupted. "I think we've got bigger problems right now."

They turned to where Fred was pointing.

"That's a lot of vamps," Kennedy commented.

"They outnumber us ten to one," Conner said idly. "Not exactly fair, is it?"

Kennedy grinned, "I'll fight with one hand."


Xander rolled to his feet and gasped for air. There was no _way_ that Fyarl demon should be that fast.

*Damn it!* he swore to himself. *Should've seen this coming. Should've loaded the silver flechette.* Instead, he reached over his shoulder and pulled his sword free from his baldric.

He whirled around and thrust the blade into the Fyarl demon's gut. The multiple blessings and additional magical enhancements he'd cast on the weapon paid off as Drom howled in pain and backed away.

"Incendere!" he said, uttering the first spell that came to mind.

The stream of fire flew toward Drom... and parted as it struck an invisible sphere around him.

*Of course!* he thought. *A spell! Why didn't I realize that before?


He scampered away and scooped up his shotgun as he passed by it. He scanned the warehouse. There was no sign of the Eastern mystic.

Xander looked behind him again and saw Drom stomping implacably toward him. He gestured and muttered in Latin. Spikes erupted from the ground between him and Drom, slowing the Fyarl demon's progress as he reloaded his shotgun, this time with silver flechette.

He raised the weapon again and fired.

He breathed a sigh of relief when the silver needles penetrated Drom's chest, unimpeded by the protective spell, slaying the Fyarl demon.

"You killed him."

Xander turned and fired his shotgun reflexively at Drang, but this time, the silver needles were deflected harmlessly.

"I'll be back, Hunter," Drang said, "and you will die. Dreg!"

Suddenly, a two-foot gremlin scampered toward Drang from the darkness, and the two vanished in a blinding flash of light. Angel staggered from the shadows where the gremlin appeared from.

"Geez, Deadboy, you don't look so good," Xander said, eyeing the ensouled vampire, whose clothing was badly shredded and whose skin wasn't faring much better.

Angel glared at him, "Gremlins are fast. What happened?"

"Looks like the vision was a fake. Some kind of lure. Let's see if I can find anything on this guy," Xander said, crouching over the Fyarl demon's body.

"Well?" Angel asked, limping toward him.

The Hunter held up the oversized ring, fitted for the massive calloused hands of the Fyarl demon, and Angel paled even more than usual.

"The Order of Taraka."

Chapter 3

Four times, he pumped the shotgun, and four times, he pulled the trigger.

Four times, fire erupted from the shotgun's muzzle and incinerated his target.

Xander dropped the weapon, even though it still had a silver flechette shell in the box magazine, and twirled his sword around. The ensorcelled blade arced through the air and decapitated another vampire as he began to cut a swath of dust through the vampiric horde.

"Xander, look out!" Kennedy warned, hurling an axe toward him. He ducked, and the axe flew over his head, and he felt dust shower him from behind.

He grinned and swung his sword at another vampire, "Thanks, Ken!"

Kennedy scowled at the nickname but decided let it slide. For now.

Dawn fired her crossbow again, and the last vampire crumbled to dust. The Key made flesh grinned and threw up a fist victoriously. "Yesss! _Five_ vampires!"

Conner smiled, "Nice shot."

"Oh, my God!" Cordy cried out, rushing to Angel's side. "What happened?" She turned and glared at Xander, "How could you let something like this happen to him?!"

Xander held up his hands defensively, "Don't look at me. He got torn up all on his own this time."

"Harris..." Angel growled warningly at Xander. Looking at Cordy, he said, "Gremlin. Two feet tall, lightning fast. Had a double-bladed short sword and knew how to use it. But that's not our biggest problem right now."

Cordy nodded, "The Hellmouth." Angel shook his head, and she frowned quizzically, "Not the Hellmouth?"

"He's talking about the Order of Taraka," Xander said. "Someone contracted them to take me out. This whole setup was a trap. Eastern mystic faked up the vision and boosted a Fyarl demon until the damn thing was bulletproof."

"'The Order of Taraka'?" Cordy looked up at him, frowning. "Wait, wait, isn't that the bunch Spike hired to kill B-... _her_?" she asked, not wanting to invoke the former Slayer's name.

Xander nodded as he crouched down to pick up his shotgun.

"And now they're after _you_?!" she shrieked.

"Yeah," he said with a shrug, straightening to his feet. "Let's get back to the hotel."

"Oh, God," she muttered. "We have to do something, get you somewhere safe..."

"Safe? From the Tarakans?" Xander snorted, stowing his gear in the trunk and climbing into the shotgun seat. "No. I go into hiding, they'll find me anyway, and a lot of people might die in the meantime 'cause I'm not out there to save them."

"This isn't the time for your macho heroism, Xander!" Cordy snapped angrily. "They're going to _kill_ you!"

"And how's that different from usual, Cor?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "From the moment I joined the fight, I knew some demon was going to kill me. I accepted that a long time ago, and I'm not gonna quit just because someone started _paying_ them to. Now, are we going or not?"


"Answer the bloody phone!" Giles snarled as the far end continued to ring. After a moment, he slammed the phone back onto the hook and sighed. "Blast!"

Looking up at Faith, he shook his head, "No answer."


They filed into the hotel, one by one... and stopped.

"Hey, Miss J," Kennedy grinned.

"Patty," Wesley raised an eyebrow. "You're back."

"Hello, Kennedy, Wes," the woman said, nodding at them in turn and briefly shooting Wesley a small smile.

"What did the Council have to say?" Wesley asked.

"All in good time, old friend," she said absently. Her brown hair was done up in a tight bun, and her icy blue eyes swept across the team, stopping when her gaze rested on Xander. She extended a hand toward him and said coolly, "I don't believe we've met. You must be Alexander."

He nodded and shook her hand, "And you must be Kennedy's Watcher, Patricia Johnson."

She smiled, and her face turned warm and friendly with that single change of expression, "A pleasure to meet you, young man. Pity I have to leave so soon." She looked at Kennedy, "I'm afraid the Council wants us to deal with a... 'situation' that cropped up in Mexico City."

The Slayer frowned, "What sort of situation?"

"I'll explain on the way. We don't have much time," the Watcher said briskly walking toward the door.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Kennedy said, holding up a hand to forestall her Watcher. "I can't just up and leave like this."

"I'm sure _Angelus_ can handle things in L.A.," Patricia said frostily, looking evenly at the ensouled vampire. "Unless, of course, you don't trust him."

Kennedy snorted, "I trust him about as far I can throw him... and with Slayer strength, that's pretty damn far. No, I'm worried about Dawn."

"I can take care of myself!" Dawn protested.

"Now isn't the time to be discussing this, Kennedy," the older woman said, a hint of steel in her voice. "We have a reported increase in both the vampire population _and_ their organization, and we've just lost contact with the local observation group. They need the Slayer, and it's far too dangerous to bring another civilian in."

Kennedy hesitated, then turned to Angel, "Take care of Dawn."

He nodded, "She'll be safe."

The Slayer nodded, "C'mon, Miss J. Let's go."

The two departed, and Xander shivered. Angel looked at him, "What's wrong?"

He shook his head, "I dunno. That lady just gives me the creeps, the way she shifts gears like that."

Angel shrugged, "She's usually like that. She doesn't like me much."

"Gee, I never would've guessed," Xander said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "What tipped you off?"

The vampire scowled, "Would you let me finish? As I was saying, she doesn't like me, but she's up front about it. Kinda like you."

"Look," Xander said, "can I crash here tonight? It's late, and I sorta want to be conscious when I get back to Sunnydale."

"No," Angel said, "we're leaving now." Xander opened his mouth to protest, but Angel turned and said, "Wesley, can Wyndam-Pryce Investigations pick up the slack?"

"Always," Wesley nodded.

"Cordy," Angel turned to the seer, "I want you in charge. Work with Wesley and make sure everyone stays... alive."

"You got it."

"C'mon, Harris."


//Angel Investigations. We help the hopeless.//

"Cordelia?" Giles asked.

//Giles, hey! What's up?//

"Something rather important," he said gravely. "Is Xander there?"

//Sorry, you just missed him. He and Angel just left for Sunnydale.//

"Oh, I-I see," he said. "I'll tell them when they get here then. How are things in L.A.?"

//Same as usual. Mostly, anyway. Xander showed up, told us about the Hellmouth. Oh, and Miss Johnson got back from the Council meeting and took Kennedy down to Mexico for some Slayer-related thing.//

"Ah. I see," he frowned. The Council had been keeping closer tabs on Patricia since that awful debacle two years ago... closer than they'd ever done before with any active field Watcher. There were times -- such as now -- when he wondered just what exactly these "meetings" entailed...

//Anything else, Giles?// Cordy asked, breaking his train of thought.

"Uh, no. Th-thank you."

//Later, then.//

"G-goodbye, Cordelia."


"They're _what_?"

"They're trying to reverse the spell, X," Faith said.

"I-indeed," Giles said, pushing his glasses back up. "I'm still not one hundred percent sure, but that does appear to be the intent of the spell."

"Why didn't you tell us earlier?" Angel asked.

"I hadn't pinpointed the exact nature of it yet," Giles explained. "As it is, all I know for certain is that the target of the spell is either the spell you cast after graduation or the abilites you gained from it, Xander."

Xander looked over at Angel, "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

The vampire nodded grimly, "The Order. It has to be. The timing's just too convenient."

Giles frowned, "Excuse me, but... what 'Order'?"

Xander grimaced, "Sorry, G-man. Haven't filled you in yet. We just found out ourselves last night. Someone's contracted the Order of Taraka to take me out."

"My word."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Faith said. "Someone put a hitman on your tail?"

"Not just an assassin," Giles said gravely, "but an entire order of assassins who will not stop until the contract is carried out. Xander, you should-..."

"No," Xander cut him off. "I heard the same spiel from Cordy, and I'll tell you what I told her: As soon as I got into this, I knew I was on borrowed time. Just because the demons are getting paid this time doesn't change a thing."

"X, I dunno..." Faith said uncertainly.

"It's _my_ life on the line, Faith," he said, glaring at her. "It's my call. I'm not running. I'm not hiding. If they want me, I'm gonna make sure they earn every penny of their fee. Just drop it, okay? Both of you. We have to focus on the Hellmouth."

"R-right," Giles nodded hesitantly. "O-of course."


Xander whirled his sword around and decapitated the vampire. He frowned, "That's makes six tonight so far."

"And the night's still young," Faith said. It was only four hours past sunset.

"Damn it!" Xander snarled, sliding his sword back into his baldric. "A week ago, it took us all night to get that many. The undead are getting pretty restless."

"Yeah," Angel said grimly. "I can feel the energy. It's building, and the demon in me's getting stronger."

Xander glanced sideways at him, "You aren't gonna go Evil Deadboy on us, are you?"

Angel closed his eyes and shook his head. "I can handle it. I did it before, back when..." he trailed off.

"Back when B was the Slayer." The two each shot her a Look, and she looked at them incredulously, "What _is_ it with you two? Why do you always get so antsy talking about her?"

"Because," Xander said slowly, "it still hurts, knowing that she -- and they -- won't even remember us."

"Oh," Faith said. "I-I'm sorry."

"That's oka- look out!" Xander leaped and tackled Faith to the ground as _something_ hurtled over them. Rolling over and kipping to his feet, Xander took stock of his opponent.

The attacker wore a helmet and a metal face mask that concealed the lower half of his face, leaving only a slit at eye level exposed. He wore a dark purple cape that hung down behind him to knee level, attached to the large metallic shoulder pads. The rest of his costume was black and would have blended into the night were it not for his cape. On his forearms and over his hands were large metallic gauntlets, covered with small hooked blades.

Out of a tiny aperture in the left gauntlet stretched a dull grey line, almost invisible in the darkness, and Xander tracked the line to the other end... where it led into Angel's chest. The attacker yanked his left arm back, and a small harpoon tore out of the ensouled vampire, sending him to the ground in pain as it retracted into the gauntlet, the barbs folding neatly against the shaft.

"Nice outfit," Xander said, drawing his sword again. He _really_ wished he'd brought his shotgun, but ammo for it was costly enough, and it attracted way too much attention for regular patrols. "Let me guess: You're with the Order."

The Tarakan didn't answer. Instead, he thrust his left arm toward Xander and snapped his wrist down. The line shot out toward Xander, and he sidestepped, bringing his sword down on the wire. But the wire -- steel, Xander belatedly realized -- held and suddenly retracted. The barbs had snapped open again and caught his blade, sending it flying from his hands.

Faith suddenly appeared from Xander's left, launching a vicious kick to the attacker's head, sending him stumbling backward. "Huh. So you're a Tarakan." She shook her head, "So far... not impressed."

Suddenly, the assassin surged forward, lashing out with his right hand, and Faith staggered back and groaned, clutching her gut. The assassin rose. Two long blades that had extended from his right wrist retracted back into the gauntlet. The blades were smeared with blood.

Faith's blood.

He thrust his left arm out toward Xander and snapped his wrist down again. Xander steeled himself and grabbed the cable as it shot toward him, stopping the harpoon mere inches from his face, the barbs snapping open and causing him to flinch back.

He yanked the cable, and the assassin stumbled toward him, right into his left cross. The punch crumpled the assassin's metal mask as if it were tin foil... which made sense, as it _was_ tin foil.

Suddenly, the assassin stumbled back, and Xander found himself holding the detached cable as the assassin extended the twin blades from his right gauntlet and lashed out at him. Xander held up the cable between his hands, blocking the slash.

The assassin swung low, and Xander blocked again. A third attack, and Xander blocked and spun around the assassin, looping the cable around his throat and pulling it tight.

For several long seconds, the assassin scrabbled futilely at the cable, his eyes bulging, before he finally slumped to the ground, dead.

Xander sank to his knees for a moment. Picking something up, he struggled to his feet and said, "Faith, Deadboy, you okay?"

"I'll live," Faith said through gritted teeth.

Angel rose to his feet, leaning heavily against the tree.

He limped over to them and swore, "Aw, Christ. Let's get you two back to the Magic Box."


"Damn it, X," Faith muttered as Giles taped up her injury. "Every time you're around, someone tries to split me open like a trout."

"Yeah, yeah," Xander said. "You can beat me up for it later. Just be glad it was a shallow cut." He looked over at Angel, "How're you feeling?"

"Like the walking dead," Angel said with a smirk.

"Damn," Xander commented, "you must be _really_ out of it. You're making jokes."

"Ha. Ha," Angel glared.

Giles shook his head, "Are you sure it was the Order?"

Xander wordlessly pulled the ring from his pocket and tossed it to the ex-Watcher. He sighed, "Look, I'm gonna go for a walk."

"Is that wise?"

"No worries, G-man. I'm packing," Xander said, strapping on a shoulder holster with a 9mm, then shrugging on his black duster.

After he stepped out, Xander inhaled deeply through his nose, smelling the clean night air. *God damn it,* he thought. *Faith and Angel nearly bought it just for being near me. I can't stay here, or I'll be putting them in danger.*


He looked up and smiled, "Detective Summers. What's a good, upstanding citizen such as yourself doing out at this hour?"

"Checking out a report of suspicious activity," Buffy said coolly. "What are you doing outside Rupes' place?"

He raised an eyebrow, "'Rupes'?" *Note to self: Rib the G-man about Buffy's nickname for him.*

"I'm still waiting," Buffy crossed her arms impatiently.

"I'm a friend of Giles," Xander said. "Was in town, thought I'd drop by... and you could say... I needed a little air."

"All right," Buffy said. "Can you at least tell me your name?"

"Alex," he said.

"Alex," she repeated, then smiled. "It's a nice name. Fits you, I think, after saving me like that. So, you gonna tell me what those three goons you saved me from were?"

He shook his head, "Like I said, you're better off not knowing."

"What if I run into more?" she asked, looking out into the dark street.

"I'll be around."

"Yeah, well..." she said, turning, and frowned. "Where'd he go?"

Chapter 4

Xander stared at the ceiling and sighed as he once again pondered this strange arrangement. It seemed that every time he came by Sunnydale, he wound up in bed with Faith.

It made a strange sort of sense. They were both Slayers, and Slaying got them both hot. This was just their way of cooling down. But that didn't make it feel any less wrong.

"Mmm..." Faith moaned as she shifted awake, "...penny for your thoughts, boytoy?"

He smiled and turned to look at her, "Is that all they're worth?"

She cocked an eyebrow, "A nickel?"

He shook his head, "Sorry. Not for sale. How's your stomach doing?"

"You saw it up close and personal last night," she grinned.

"Okay, how's it feel then?" Her wicked smile broadened, and he added, "You _know_ what I mean, Faith."

Her smile faded, "It's better. Doesn't hurt like hell to bend over any more." She snaked an arm around him and kissed him. With a wink, she asked, "You ready for round two, lover boy?"


"Xander, I cannot believe you could be so careless," Giles said, shaking his head. "I thought you'd learned by now."

"Careless? About what?"

Giles sighed, "Buffy showed up today, asking about a friend of mine named Alex who was in town at the moment and had a propensity for disappearing."

"Oh," Xander shrugged. "That. She wasn't going to give up until she had an answer... Rupes."

"You could have at least warned me about it!" Giles snapped. "And why didn't you tell me you'd saved her from a vampire attack before you went to Los Angeles?"

"Didn't seem important," Xander said. "What'd you tell her?"

"I told her that..."


"...he 'appreciates his privacy,'" Buffy said, annoyed. "Rupes said he'd be breaking a hard-earned trust if he told me."

Willow pouted in sympathy, "Well, that's not fair. Rupert knows he can trust you. But at least you have a name now, right?"

"Yeah," Buffy said with a slight smile. "Alex," she said dreamily. "It's short for Alexander. Means 'protector,' did you know that?"

"Sounds like you're hooked on him."

"Oh yeah," Buffy said. "I dunno... tall, dark, handsome, and he's good in a fight too. What's not to like? Also... I can't shake this feeling that I know him from somewhere. Like he's one of the not- memories... and I really want to remember."


"What's the latest apocalypse, G-man?"

"A, um, a demon. Valkorr, Collector of Souls, is expected to emerge from his slumber during the rising of the Hellmouth's power, on a night of the new moon."

"Tomorrow night," Xander nodded. At Giles' look, he shrugged and said, "Hey, when you're a werewolf, you tend to keep track of things like that."

"Yes, I suppose you would," Giles said. "I-in any case, we must act quickly. A-an archaeological dig has recently, um, unearthed his sarcophagus."

"So how tough is this demon?"

"Ah, well, the last time he awoke, a regiment of the U.S. Cavalry fought him to a standstill... losing half their forces in the process before he stopped to recover. It appears that Mayor Wilkins... dealt with him."

"So," Xander said thoughtfully, "we're gonna have to break out the big guns. You still have my stockpile?"



"What's this?" Faith asked, looking at the weapon Xander had handed her.

"Fianchi SPAS-12," Xander replied absently. "Twelve-gauge semi- automatic shotgun. Here," he pulled off a box of shotgun slugs and slid it across the table to her, "load it up. Those slugs are blessed, so it should give you some extra punch."

He held up his own weapon, an Objective Infantry Combat Weapon he had "requisitioned" some time ago and left with Giles after test- firing it a few times. Sighting down the weapon, he checked its condition and nodded in satisfaction as he began to load it. Sliding the extra clips into his combat webbing, he reached over and began loading additional weapons.

"Is that a hand grenade?" Angel asked.

Xander looked up and grinned, "Not just any hand grenade. This is the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch."

Giles snickered, then chuckled, then laughed. At Angel and Faith's blank expressions, Xander rolled his eyes, "Oh, come _on_. Don't tell me _Giles_ is the only one who watches Monty Python?" Shaking his head in disappointment, Xander looked at Giles, "You got the rocket launchers?"

Composing himself, Giles nodded, "Indeed."

"You sure you know to use 'em? We've only got two shots, and I don't want you to miss."

"I won't."


Angel shifted his grip uncomfortably on the matching FN P-90s Xander had given him. He usually didn't use such modern weapons, and the crash course Xander had given him didn't mean he was any more comfortable with them.

It didn't help that Xander had made it explicitly clear that the ammunition was illegal and expensive and that the guns were equally illegal and virtually irreplaceable.

"All right," Xander said, "remember the plan. We go in, bypass the zombie minions this guy's supposed to have, then unload on him. If the guns don't work, we lure him out, and the G-man hits him with the rocket launchers."

The other three nodded.

"Let's go."

They nodded, and Xander led the way onto the dig. Soon, the darkness of the tunnel engulfed them. Xander held up his hand.


A small glowing orb appeared, hovering over his hand. It lit the tunnel but cast a peculiar greenish tint on everything.

"Neat trick," Faith commented.

Xander snorted, "Magic isn't just about cursing vampires and throwing fireballs, Faith."


The shotgun thundered deafeningly in the tunnel, and Xander turned to Faith and bellowed, "Don't waste your ammo on these guys!" Matching actions to words, he used the stock of his OICW to club in the skull of a nearby zombie.

The battle was joined.


The battle had begun auspiciously enough. The zombies were virtually no threat to the three experienced demon hunters, and Xander's first shot -- a 20mm grenade from the launcher attached the OICW -- slammed into Valkorr's chest, sending the demon flying back against the cave wall. As they continued to sustain fire on the demon, the zombies lost coordination... until they paused to reload.

Now, Valkorr held Angel up by the throat. Angel raised both guns and fired. Blessed 5.7mm rounds sprayed at Valkorr from point blank range, slamming into the demon's chest and staggering him... but he didn't let go. The slides locked, and Angel dropped the two empty guns, reaching for his sword.

He never reached it.

"A fine addition," Valkorr rumbled, touching Angel's chest with his other hand. Angel howled, his back arching as he writhed in pain. Energy flowed from Angel's chest into Valkorr's hand.

The demon dropped him to the ground and turned to face the others, "Thank you, Slayers."

The vampire picked himself up, working his neck around... and smiled.

"Well," Angelus said, "it's good to be back."


"Abort, Giles, abort! Damn it, abort!" Xander called as he emptied the last few rounds from the OICW. Leaping into the pickup's passenger seat, he grabbed the BAR he'd left for Giles to defend himself with should the need arise.

"Why?" Giles asked. "What happened?"

"Bastard took Deadboy's soul!" Xander snarled. He flicked the safety off and, bracing the weapon, he pulled the trigger, emptying its magazine in seconds.

Faith leaped over into the bed of the pickup and yelled, "Move it, G!"


"Ah, well," Valkorr said. "Another time then, Slayers."

"Well, thanks for the favor, soulstealer," Angelus said. "Be seeing you."

"It was a pleasure," Valkorr replied. "It is a fine soul. Never have I seen its like."

"Yeah, yeah," Angelus snorted. "Go ahead and keep it. I sure as hell don't want it back."

That said, the vampire ambled away, whistling cheerfully. He had a phone call to make.


Buffy yawned sleepily as she picked up the phone.

"Mmm... hello?" she mumbled muzzily.

//Hello, lover. *click*//

She bolted upright, suddenly wide awake. "Hello? Hello?! Who the hell is this?!" For some reason, the voice sent a chill down her spine.

//If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try again.//

For a long moment, she stared at the phone, unable to bring herself to move, as the recorded message repeated itself.

The phone fell from her limp hand, bouncing off the bed and clattering to the floor, but she made no move to pick it up. Instead, she curled up into a fetal position and, for reasons she could not identify, began to cry.

"Oh, God..."


"Oz..." Willow said tiredly, looking at her husband, who was doing a good job of imitating a kicked puppy. "We're already a month behind on the mortgage."

"I know," he said reluctantly. "I just... I don't want to lose you."

"You don't trust me," she stated, a hint of accusation in her voice.

He shook his head, "No, baby, I do trust you." He hesitated and looked out the window at the darkened street, "But... it's not safe out there at night."

"Oz, this is _Sunnydale_," Willow said. "This isn't L.A. or New York. I'll be _fine_."

Not wanting to argue any more, she turned and left, closing the door with a little more force than was really necessary. Her shoulders sagged for a moment before she squared them and marched toward the car.

*Damn it!* she thought. *Everything's falling apart! First the band's popularity sinks, then we fall behind on our payments, Oz is getting paranoid... at this rate, I'll be looking for a job in a couple of months.*

With a defeated sigh, she started the engine and began the drive to work for another late-night programming session.


"Okay, we got everything?" Xander asked. He looked at Giles and raised an eyebrow, "Two Orbs of Thesulah?"

"It was all I could find," the ex-Watcher said apologetically.

He shook his head, "No big. We only need one. If this works."

"Are you sure you can do this?"

"Wills pulled it off from a hospital bed, G-man," Xander said, "and I've got every ounce of witchy power she had. I can do this. I just hope I don't make a mistake."

"All right," Giles said hesitantly. "Well, we'd best get started then, shan't we?"


"How do know I'm saying this right?" Faith asked.

"I wrote it out phonetically. Think Hooked on Phonics, and you'll be fine."

Giles licked his lips and took the same role he did when they first tried the spell. "Quod perditum est, invenietur."

"Not dead nor not of the living," Xander intoned solemnly. "Spirits of the interregnum I call..."


Valkorr frowned as he felt an inner tug.

The feeling drew him, and he followed.


"Asa sa fie! Asa sa fie!" Xander's voice rose. "Acum! Acum!"

He slumped in his chair, exhausted. "Did it... did it work?"

"The Orb is still there," Giles replied, brow wrinkled in confusion.


"It failed because the soul you seek... is now mine."

Valkorr had arrived.

Chapter 5

Xander grunted as he slammed into the shelf-lined wall of the Magic Box, smashing the shelves to splinters. Blinking vinegar out of his eyes and pulling frog legs out of his hair, he staggered to his feet.

He groped blindly for a weapon, finally closing his hands around the shaft of an axe. Twirling the massive weapon, he leaped back into the fray, chopping off Valkorr's arm as he held Faith up by the throat.

"Thanks for the save, X," Faith said as she dropped to the ground in a crouch

Valkorr backed away cautiously, his heel knocking the Orb of Thesulah they had attempted to use. Valkorr blinked and bent down, picking up the Orb with his remaining hand, chillingly unconcerned about his missing arm.

"Rather crude device," Valkorr said, holding up the Orb of Thesulah, "but... ingenius nonetheless." He clenched his hand into a fist, crushing the Orb easily. "Such a thing could prove... inconvenient."


Valkorr stumbled back and to his left. Leaning heavily on the counter, Giles snapped open the double-barreled shotgun and fumbled to reload the weapon.

Valkorr snarled, and with a sudden splurt of demonic ichor, a new arm suddenly sprouted from the stump, covered in green blood. He flexed his new arm experimentally and said, "This is growing tiresome. I _will_ have your souls, Slayers. It is only a matter of time."

"Fall back!" Xander shouted, waving the other two back. "Faith, help Giles!"

Faith nodded and hauled the Englishman's arm over her shoulders. She head for the back room, Giles stumbling along beside her.

"Eat this, asshole!" Xander snarled, pulling out his "Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch" and extracting the pin. He hurled the grenade at Valkorr and stepped back, slamming the door behind him.

The explosion shook the entire building, but Xander didn't waste any time. "Sewers, now!" he ordered, already prying open the sewer entrance. They hurriedly clambered down the ladder and limped away.

"Where we headed, X?"

"Airport," he said curtly. "I called in some backup when the strike mission went FUBAR."

"Backup?" Giles blinked at him, not certain he had heard correctly.

"Yeah," Xander said. "Don't worry. They'll take care of him. I hope."

*Don't let me down, Finn,* he thought fervently, *or you'll be picking us up with a sponge.*


"Ahh," Faith muttered as she clambered out of the manhole, pulling Giles up behind her, "fresh air."

"Yeah," Xander said, climbing up behind her, "makes you wonder how the vamps can stand living there."

"Heh," Faith said with a trace of humor, then winced. "Damn, I haven't hurt this bad since..." she trailed off.

Xander nodded, "I know."

The three of them staggered onto the deserted air strip, taking shelter in a hangar. Security at Sunnydale airport -- as it tended to be everywhere in Sunnydale -- was pretty lax.

"Where is this backup?" Giles asked, looking around.

"They'll be here," Xander replied firmly.

"Well, they'd better get here soon," Faith said, "'cause I see V on the way here... and he's not too happy."

Xander straightened and grabbed the nearest likely weapon -- a large wrench -- and readied himself for the upcoming ordeal. Faith armed herself with a similiar-sized pipe, and Giles opted for a power drill.

"We're screwed, ya know that, right?" Faith commented idly.

"Oh, yeah," Xander replied conversationally, "but we can at least make him work for it."

"Indeed," Giles said bravely.

"You are fools," Valkorr said with a derisive snort. "Come, then, and meet your doom."

"Well, hi, Doom," Xander quipped. "Lemme introduce you to a friend of mine. Incendere!"

Valkorr stepped back from the flames, then snorted again when the fires flickered and faded. "Harmless trickery. Is this all that the great Hunter has to offer?"

Xander started, and Valkorr smiled, "Oh, yes, I've heard about you. I could sense the Slayer essence in you at our first meeting, though I did not understand it. A few inquiries revealed a rather sketchy account of your exploits, Hunter. I must say, your soul will make quite the centerpiece for my collection."

"You'll have to come get it first," Xander said snidely, "or were you planning on boring us to death?"

"As you wish."

"Aw, crap."


Willow blinked at the ringing cell phone. *God,* she thought, flushing and looking around to see if anyone saw her, *I fell asleep!*

Shaking that thought away and stifling a yawn, she picked up the phone, "Hello?"

//Willow, it's Abbey.//

Abigail Matzeder was a CSI investigator for SPD and a friend of Buffy's. Willow didn't know her all that well, though, so the call puzzled her.

"Ab? What's up?"

//Somebody blew up the Magic Box.//

"They blew up Rupert's place?!"


"A-as in 'Boom' blew up?"

//Willow, you're babbling.//

"S-sorry, it's just... Rupert! I-is he...?"

//We can't find him... or any parts of him.//

"Oh, God. H-have you told Buffy yet?"

//I tried. Her phone line's busy.//

"Oh. W-well, I was just about to head home. I-I can swing by her place."

//I'm sure she'll appreciate it.//


"Aw, damn..." Xander said as he tried to get back to his feet. Valkorr casually backhanded Faith, sending her sailing through the air. She slammed into a small Beechcraft and crumpled to the ground with a sickening thump.

"F-fulmenos venite!" a voice called from behind Valkorr.


Valkorr slumped to the ground, clearly stunned by the lightning bolt, and Xander looked up, "Tara."

The witch smiled faintly, "In trouble again, Alexander?"

"As always," he cracked. "What... what are you doing here?"

"Th-this can w-wait," she said. "We should go. Now."

He shook his head, "No. Not... leaving them."

She glanced over at Faith and Giles, then clasped her hand in his. Abruptly, he realized what she intended, and he nodded. Combining their power, the two levitated Faith and Giles toward them, and they hurried away as fast as they could... a sort of half-walking, half- running hobble.


Graham Miller shifted uncomfortably. The C-130's turboprops hummed and throbbed, vibrating the entire craft, but that wasn't the cause of his discomfort.

He glanced across the cargo bay at the other men... and the strange looks they'd been giving him ever since they'd taken off.

Odds were, they were wondering the same thing he was. HST activity in Sunnydale had _plummeted_ when the program started, forcing the move to San Francisco. Why were they being called back there _now_?

And the weapons and equipment that had been assigned to this mission... this was a _hell_ of a lot of firepower for one HST.

"Agent Miller," the pilot called, "we're approaching the LZ now. Looks like there's some kind of activity on the strip."

"What?" Graham rose and clambered over to the cockpit. "Let me see."

After squinting for a moment, he turned back, "Sergeant, glasses."

When the NCO handed him the field glasses, he looked again... and swore. "Gear up, people. HST activity on the LZ. We're going in hot. Roll out on touch down."


Xander looked up and grinned.

"What the bloody hell is that?" Giles yelled over the engine roar.

"C-130 transport," Xander yelled back. "That would be the pizza I ordered!"

"_WHAT_?!" Giles stared at him as though he had gone insane.

The aircraft touched down briefly, and the rear loading ramp opened. Figure tumbled out of the plane one by one, eventually joining in a cohesive formation.

The commandos dropped into combat formation and opened fire on Valkorr, who stumbled back under the sustained gunfire. At Xander's urging, the four of them made their way to the unit.

Xander searched the faces until he found one familiar one, "Miller! Where's Finn?"

"He couldn't make it. Suvolte demon in Chechnya. What's this HST's capabilities?"

"Rapidly regenerative," Xander said. "Cautious around fire, but not hurt too badly by it. I hit this guy with a blessed grenade, and he still kept coming."

"Any weaknesses?"

"Unknown," Xander said, then frowned. "Wait, electricity. Maybe. It seemed to stun him pretty badly earlier."

Graham nodded and turned to his troops, "Tasers!"

Meanwhile, Xander sidled over to Tara and asked, "Think you can pull off another lightning spell?"

She frowned, "I'm not the one who nearly died a moment ago."

He grinned, "Good."

Graham glanced at Xander, and at his nod, the commando bellowed, "Fire!"

Dozens of electrical stun bolts blasted out at Valkorr, who howled in pain.

Joining hands, Xander and Tara both incanted, "Fulmenos venite!"

Twin lightning bolts lanced down from the cloudless night sky and struck Valkorr. The demon's cry grew louder, and he sank to his knees. Out of his mouth flew ghostly images that shrieked away in all directions.

One slammed into Xander's chest, passing through him, and he suddenly saw a kaleidoscope of nonsensical images... and blacked out.


"Buffy? Are you there?" Willow called.

After a long moment, the door swung open. Buffy smiled weakly, "Hey, Willow. What is it?"

"Abbey tried to call you, said your phone was busy. What's wrong, Buffy?"

Buffy shook her head, "N-nothing. Just a... prank call and a nightmare, so I left the phone off the hook. What's up?"

"Oh, w-well, Abbey said someone blew up Rupert's store."

"Oh, God," Buffy gasped, suddenly wide awake, thoughts of the mysterious phone call shoved to the back of her mind. "Was anyone hurt?"

"They don't know."

Buffy nodded, "Look, I'll head over there, see what happened. You head on home, okay?"



When Xander blinked his eyes open, he saw Graham and Tara standing over him, concerned looks on their faces.

"You're all right," Tara sighed in relief.

Graham smiled, "Good thing too. I'd hate to explain to Anya that you'd be missing her and Finn's wedding because you got killed on my watch."

"So..." Xander mumbled, "we got him?"

"Yeah," Graham said. His face turned worried, and he asked hesitantly, "What _were_ those things?"

"Souls," he said curtly. Sitting up, he looked around, "Faith? Giles?"

"Medic's tending to 'em," Graham replied. "He'll be over to check on you in a moment."

Xander waved it off, "I'll be fine. This op getting the official cover up?"

Graham nodded. "I'll handle it."

"Good. Here's a piece of advice..."


"I'm Lieutenant Miller, military attache to the NSA."

Detective Stein frowned, "What do you want?"

"To tell you what happened here," Graham said. "As far as you or the press is concerned, there was a firefight that started when a drug deal turned ugly. Some barrels of jet fuel ignited, causing the destruction you see there," he pointed at the crater where Valkorr had met his end. After a moment, he added, "They were dealing in PCP."

Stein frozed and paled, then nodded slowly. "Right. Gang-related. PCP."

*Damn!* Graham thought, surprised. *Harris was right. It actually worked!*

"Is that all, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, Detective."


"So, who were those guys, X?"

"Yes, Xander, I'm most curious about that myself."

"They're part of a group called the Initiative," Xander replied. "They were planning to set up in Sunnydale, but with the Hellmouth closed, they moved their operations to San Fran. Things went to hell when one of their little projects got out of hand, and the unit was officially disbanded."

"Then how is it they have access to such... resources?" Giles asked, frowning.

"They were _officially_ disbanded," Xander repeated. "In reality, they just got shuffled around a bit, and their mission was redefined. Now, they're under the NSA so they can operate outside the States, and their sole job is the extermination of Hostile Sub- Terrestrials." At their blank looks, he added, "That's bureaucratspeak for demons."

He sighed and rolled his neck around, working out the kinks, then said, "Look, I promised Tara I'd meet her at her hotel later, so I'd better get going."

Chapter 6

"So," Tara said, unsure what else to say now that she had found him.

"So," Xander replied.

"Faith's the Slayer, huh?" she asked.

"One of them," he shrugged.

"She's very pretty."

Xander paused to consider that comment. Tara and Faith? Oddly enough, he could see that working. "What brings you to Sunnydale?"

"You, actually."


She nodded, "Alexander, you... you don't know what my... family... is like." She took a deep breath and said, "Th-they raised me... t-to think... I was a demon. Th-that I w-w-was evil and that... that they could control me, o-or I'd... kill people. A-and I believed them. I- I mean... th-the magic... th-that isn't... normal, you know?"

He nodded wordlessly and pulled her into a comforting hug. This was obviously very difficult for her.

She leaned into his chest and continued quietly, "B-but then... I met you. Y-you saved me from th-those vampires, a-and... you were human. You had... all those powers, and you were still human. I-I began looking around, casting every spell I could find to find out... they lied to me, Alexander."

She sobbed into his shirt, and after a moment, she said, "I... I knew I couldn't stay... but I had nowhere else to go. S-so I started tracking you down."

He pulled back and brushed a lock of hair out of her face, "How long have you been following me?"

"T-two years."

"On the road for two years," he said, stunned. "All alone, all by yourself, just to find me?"

She nodded and whispered, "You're the only one I can turn to."

After a long moment, she spoke again.

"Stay with me tonight, Alexander. Please?"

He blinked, "What? But... Tara..."

"Not... not sex," she quickly reassured him, then amended, "not if you don't want to." Turning a little red, she said, "J-just... I... I don't want to be alone again."

He looked at her carefully, wondering just what sort of hell could put that kind of tremor in her voice. Here was someone who had courageously faced off against a soul-sucking demon that shrugged off blessed fragmentation grenades and fire spells, and she was trembling.


"It's okay," he said, brushing a lock of hair back from her face. "You're not alone, and..." Suddenly, he shoved her back, onto the bed, and threw himself on top of her.

She blinked in surprise as she heard something whiz overhead. Xander held her close and rolled off the bed just as something stabbed into the mattress where they were a moment ago.

Rolling to his feet, he grabbed his sword. Glancing over at the far wall, he noted the dying tongues of fire where the projectiles had struck it.

*Great,* he thought sourly. *Flaming shuriken. It's the super death ninja from _hell_.*

And indeed, the attacker looked like a ninja, complete with all- concealing black outfit and ninjato. A ring gleamed prominently on the ninja's finger. The ninja leaped to the attack, swinging the straight sword at him in a high arc. Xander parried, and the battle was joined.

The ninja trapped Xander's sword against the wall, and with a quick kick, snapped the enchanted blade near the hilt.

"Oh, shit."

Xander backed away and drew his 9mm, calling out, "Tara, get down!"

He snapped off a double tap, but the ninja merely leaped over the bullets. Tracking the Tarakan's aerial arc, Xander fired three more times.

The three bullets whined off the assassin's ninjato as he deflected them, one by one.

Xander dropped the pistol and slapped his hands together on either side of the descending blade, catching the sword and stopping it mere inches from his face.

The ninja leaped back, abandoning the weapon, and drew an identical one from over his shoulder.

"Of _course_ he's got two," Xander muttered irritably as he reversed his grip on the captured weapon. Things were not looking good. This guy was fast, and Xander was still worn out from the battle with Valkorr.

He needed to finish this... and fast.

Xander charged at the assassin, who easily blocked the attack... but Xander grabbed the ninja's wrist and muttered fiercely, "Ignis."

His eyes flashed solid black for a moment as fire spread from beneath Xander's hand across the Tarakan's body. The ninja uttered not a sound -- not even a whimper or gurgle -- as he backed away, still ablaze.

Collapsing to the ground, the ninja's body was soon consumed by the flames. Xander sank to his knees, then crawled over and plucked the ring out of the ashes.

"That's... three," he said, rising to his feet and dropping the ring into his pocket.

"What... what was that?" Tara asked, wide-eyed.

"The reason I can't stay," Xander said grimly. "Someone's contracted the Order of Taraka to kill me. Anyone I'm near is in danger."

"But... I..."

"Talk to Giles and Faith," he said. "They're good people, and they won't turn their backs on you."

With that, he gathered his gear and left.


"Rupes, Faith, you're all right!" Buffy said, pulling them into a group hug.

"I-indeed," Giles replied. "Wh-what happened?"

"Somebody blew up the Magic Box. Any idea who'd want to blow you to itty bitty bits?"

Giles shook his head, "No, no idea."


Xander pulled his motorcycle over and glanced at the picture in his locket. It was only at times like this -- when the hopelessness almost seemed to overwhelm him -- that he brought it out. It was a golden locket, and it held a picture of him, Buffy, and Willow, during one of the old guard's rare moments of carefree happiness.

Engraved on the back was a single world: Reasons.

_They_ were his reasons. For living, for fighting, for hunting down every demon or other supernatural critter that preyed on humans. Every life he saved, he saved for their sake, knowing that if it weren't for him, the Powers That Be would find some way to drag them back into the darkness... away from the happiness they deserved.

He closed the locket and tucked it back into his shirt, then looked up at the house across the street and smiled, reassured that one of his Reasons was safe at home. Still, he'd better keep an eye on her. With the Hellmouth opening, it wasn't safe to be out this late at night.

"Always were a workaholic, Wills," he said with a smile.

The smile quickly faded. *Wait a minute...*


"How many times to I have to tell you?" Willow demanded. "I fell asleep at the desk! Then there was the whole blowing-up of Rupert's place. I said I'm sorry, but you _know_ how rough the new coding is."

"Willow, baby," Oz said hesitantly, "it's just... well... a little fantastic." Why, after all, would anyone want to blow up a harmless magic shop?

"You really don't trust me anymore, Oz," Willow said, hurt and shaking her head sadly. "Why?"

"I..." Oz stopped, unsure what to say. How could he explain to her that he just had this odd feeling lately that there was someone else in her life? Someone who would have a place in her heart he could never touch? Someone... he was immensely jealous of.

Willow blinked back tears and turned away, "I'm going out. When you're ready to talk, call my cell."

With that, she stormed out the front door. The redhead fumbled for her keys as she headed for her car. She leaned against the car and wiped tears from her eyes with her sleeve.

"Mmph!" she cried out as someone grabbed her from behind, clamping a hand over her mouth.

"Willow!" she heard Oz's plaintive voice.

She dropped her purse and rammed her elbow back, stomping her heel on her assailant's foot.

Cursing colorfully, her assailant released her and stumbled away.

"Oz!" she cried out when she saw her husband leap on the kidnapper's back, only to be thrown halfway across the yard. She stumbled back, turned, and ran.

Suddenly, another man stepped out around her car and barred her path. His face was deformed and twisted. Grinning ferally, he stepped forward...

...and crumbled to dust.

She blinked. A man straddled a motorcycle and stretched a hand out toward her. He looked... familiar, somehow.

"Come with me if you want to live," he said gravely. His face split into a wide grin, "Man, I've always wanted to say that."

"Terminator," she said reflexively. "One or two." She frowned, "Well, except that last part." Shaking her head, she grabbed his arm and swung up onto the bike. She didn't know why, but she knew she could trust him.

He revved the engine and took off.

She just hoped Oz was all right.


April handed the short male off to the vampire and said, "Take him to the master. I will find the other."

The vampire nodded and climbed back into their van. April looked at available transports and found a good candidate. Smashing the window of the van with her bare hand, she unlocked it and climbed in, ignoring the broken shards of glass.

It took her only a few minutes to hotwire the vehicle and begin pursuit.


"We're being followed!" Willow said, then did a double take. "It's Oz's van!"

Xander acknowledged the information with a grim nod as he hopped the bike off the road and into the park. "Hold on tight," he said. He felt her arms tighten around his waist, and he let go of the handlebars. His right hand reached down to the sling where his shotgun rested, his left reaching above him.

Snatching the tree branch, he swung up onto the branch, Willow's grip getting even tighter. He raised the shotgun, pumped a slug into the chamber, and fired at Oz's van as it passed by.

The van swerved and slammed into a tree, throwing the driver out the windshield. Xander lowered Willow to the ground and jumped down after her. Raising the shotgun cautiously, he approached their pursuer.

The young woman rose, and Xander shook his head in disbelief, "A robot. A freaking robot. Okay, this is taking the Terminator thing a _bit_ too far here."

He pumped his shotgun again and fired. The slug slammed into the robot's chest, sending it flying back.

*Well,* Xander thought, *at least it's not bulletproof.*

As the robot struggled back to its feet, Xander chambered the last slug and pointed it straight at the robot's head.

"Hasta la vista, baby," he said... and pulled the trigger.


"Damn it!" Warren snarled. "Next time, I'm making it bulletproof."

"Is there a problem?" a voice asked.

He spun around on the office chair and shook his head, "No, no. I got the short guy, but there was a little... technical difficulty in getting the redhead. It may take a little longer, and expenses just went up."

"Can you make the deadline?"

"Won't be a problem."

"Good. For your sake."


"So, uh, that was a robot?" Willow asked timidly.

Xander nodded, "Yeah."

"And that guy that turned to dust?"

"A vampire."

"A vampire," she repeated. "I need to sit down." Matching actions to words, she set heavily on a nearby stone bench. Looking up, she asked, "Why were they after me?"

He shook his head, "I don't know." After a moment, he said, "Look, here." He reached under his jacket and pulled out a stake. Handing it to her, he said, "Just in case. Vampires are getting more common in Sunnydale. Stake through the heart, decapitation, and they dust. Fire, sunlight, holy water, and holy symbols all burn them."

Xander ducked his head down and reached for his cross, "All right, I know you're Jewish, and this is kinda blasphemous, but..."

As he pulled off his cross, something fell to the ground.

Willow bent down and picked it up. It was a locket, and it was open.

Xander paled, "Uh, you know, I-I can explain that..."

She shook her head. "You don't have to explain the picture..." she looked up at him, "...Xander."

*Oh, crap.*


Laurel Alena Syrine ran down the alley from the two monsters. They had looked human at first, but then their faces... changed. She suppressed a shudder at the memory and glanced over her shoulder fearfully. What _were_ those things?

"Ahh!" she cried at as she collided with something.

"Shh, shh, it's all right," a soothing male voice said. The shadowy figure stepped past her and moved with lightning speed. The two monsters crumbled to dust.

"Oh, God," she said. "I don't know how I can thank you."

"I can think of a way."

"Huh?" she blinked and looked up at him.

And screamed.


"How could I forget you, Xander?" Willow said, on the verge of bursting into tears.

"Hey," he said, pulling her into a hug, "it's okay, Wills. No big."

"'No big'? 'No big'? Xander, how can you _say_ that?! It's definitely a big! You're my _Xander_! A-and I'm your Willow... a- and I _forgot_ you!" She sobbed into his chest and mumbled, "I've been a bad Willow."

"No," Xander said. "Don't say that, Wills."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not true," he replied. "You forgot... because I made you forget."

"What?" she looked up at him, confused.

"I cast a spell after graduation," he said. "I took your talent for witchcraft, Buffy's Slayer powers, and Oz's lycanthropy. I changed your memories. I... I made you forget me, Angel, all the Hellmouthy stuff."


"To... to give you guys a chance," he said, her hair back. "At normal lives, at happiness. You and Buffy deserve that, more than anyone."

"Oh, Xander..."

She tilted her head up and pulled herself toward him, but he stopped her, placing a finger on her lips.

She blinked, "Xander?"

With a sad smile, he said, "You're Mrs. Osbourne now, remember?" He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.

"Oh, God," she said, her eyes wide. "Oz! H-he... the vampire, it..."

"Don't worry, Wills," Xander said, his eyes hard. "We'll find him, and we'll make whoever's behind this pay."


Giles opened the door to Faith's apartment -- where he was recuperating from the ordeal with Valkorr, since his own loft above the Magic Box was now cordoned off as part of a crime scene -- and saw Xander and Willow standing outside.

"Um, hello, X- Alex, miss," Giles said hesitantly.

"Forget it, G-man," Xander said. "She remembers. Some vampires and a robot went after her. They took Oz. Something's brewing, and I want to know what."

"Oh, dear," Giles frowned.

"Look, you guys hit the books. I'm hitting the sack. I'm just about dead on my feet here. Ran into another Tarakan before rescuing Wills." Xander paused and asked, "Any word on Angel?"

"Yeah," Faith replied. "He got his soul back. He's in the spare room, catching some Zs. Take my room, X."

Willow frowned at the Slayer but refrained from commenting.

Xander stepped into the bedroom and, without bothering to undress, collapsed into bed.

And he slept.

And he dreamed.

And he remembered.

Chapter 7

Diego Salvatore lunged at the Slayer, aggressively thrusting his sword toward her. She easily caught the blade on her own, deflecting the initial attack, but with a flick of his wrist, Diego pressed the assault, keeping her on the defensive.

He swung his sword horizontally across her midsection, missing by mere inches as she leaped back.

She winced when she felt the tip of his weapon press against her throat. She closed her eyes and awaited the inevitable.

"Ginny, you're still relying too heavily on your Slayer instincts," Diego said, disappointed. "They've served you well, but against an intelligent and skilled foe, they'll get you killed."

Her name was Virginia Maxwell. It was 1883, and they had arrived at the Hellmouth only a few days ago.

"Things are different here on La Boca," the Spaniard said with a frustrated sigh. "Vampires are stronger and faster than they were in Jamestown, and they won't be the only diablos we'll be facing."

"I don't know what all the fuss is about," Ginny said indignantly. "I have this." She held up her Peacemaker. It was a beautiful weapon, nickel-plated, pearl-handled, with scroll-work engraved along the barrel and the symbol she had designed inlaid in silver on either side of the handle. It was a cross with the letter "S" -- for "Slayer" -- intertwined around it.

"Silver bullets won't kill everything, Lone Ranger," Diego reminded her, using the nickname she had acquired on the road here, "and you only have six shots. The old ways are still best."

"Right, right," the English orphan said dismissively.

Diego frowned disapprovingly, "You wield my family's ancestral sword, and yet, you mock the tradition that comes with it." Shaking his head in resignation, he said, "Just remember, senorita. A good marksman needs bullets, but a good swordsman merely requires a sharp blade."

He straightened and said, "Again."

"Senor Salvatore!" a friendly voice called.

Diego turned and smiled, "Dick, what is it? And how many times must I tell you to call me Diego?"

Richard Wilkins smiled and shook his head, "That just wouldn't be proper. As for the reason I'm here, one of the prospectors dug up something a little strange. I was wondering if you'd mind taking a look at it."

"Not at all," Diego said. He turned to Ginny, "Looks like you get out of training early today. We begin again tomorrow at dawn."

The Slayer groaned.


"Hmm..." Diego examined the massive stone block. "Fascinating... the markings here appear similar to certain Oriental scripts," shaking his head, he murmured thoughtfully, "but I can't imagine how something like this could make its way to the New World."

"Is it dangerous?" Tyler -- the prospector who had found it -- asked anxiously.

"Possibly," Diego hedged. "The Chinese had developed gunpowder long before it made its way to the West. It may be booby-trapped. I suggest we handle with... extreme caution." He looked up, "I think we'd best leave it where it is until we've had more time to study it."

There were nods of agreement all around, and after a moment, Wilkins clapped his hands cheerfully, "Well! Enough of that gloominess. What say we get started on figuring this thing out, hmm?"


Diego raced home, swearing in his native language, and when that proved insufficient, he switched to English. Then Latin.

"Ginny!" he called, swinging the door open.

"Whaaad?" the Slayer asked, yawning sleepily as she climbed down the stairs. "'Snot dawn yet. 'S'nother vampire?" Although they were living on La Boca Del Infierno, the population was small enough that vampires were a fairly infrequent problem.

Diego shook his head, "Tyler unearthed a demon yesterday."

That snapped her to full alertness, "A demon? What kind?"

"I am not sure," Diego shook his head. "It's a sarcophagus of some kind. While I was studying his find, it opened."

"All right," Ginny said, grabbing the lever-action. "Let me get dressed."

"No," Diego shook his head, "you're not going out there until we can be sure we know how to kill it." He took the lever-action from her and turned to put it back on the rack above the fireplace.

He never saw Ginny's blow coming.


Xander's eyes snapped open, and he gasped for air blinking rapidly as his eyes adjusted. That was one hell of a dream. He shuddered and looked around.

And froze.

Curled up against him, his right arm wrapped around her, was one Willow Danielle Rosenberg Osbourne. She had an arm draped over him and a contented smile on her sleeping face.

*What the HELL?!*

"Willow?" he squeaked.

"Mmm..." she moaned, snuggling closer. She blinked her eyes open, "Yeah, Xander?"

A moment passed in utter silence, and then her eyes bulged, "Xander?!"

He nodded, "Could I, uh, could I have my arm back?"

"Eep!" she eeped and scrambled away from him. "Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God." She looked at him in wild-eyed panic, "I cheated on Oz! Again! Really cheated!"

Xander shook his head, "No, no. We didn't... we didn't do anything. Look, we're still dressed, right?"

She looked down, then sighed in relief.

"Um," Xander stammered, "well, uh... I'll... be going now." He swung his legs off the bed and stumbled off to the bathroom.


Xander shivered in the shower as the cold water cascaded over him. It was a little uncomfortable, but after the... incident... that morning, he welcomed the biting cold.

After a moment, he turned up the heat, and let the hot water soak into his body, still battered and bruised from the fights the previous night. Strained muscles and abraded skin stung for a moment at first, but the sensation quickly turned soothing, and he luxuriated in the feeling.

"Ahh..." he sighed. He slumped against the tiled wall, eyes closed as the memories returned. "Damn it..." he muttered, his tears blending with the shower water.

'I-I'm sorry,' the memory replayed itself in his mind's eye, as clear as the night it had happened. 'But if I wanna make things right with Oz, my hands, my -- all my stuff -- has to be for him only.'


"So, what's the news?" Xander asked, towelling his hair and looking around. His heart sank when he looked at Willow, who studiously ignored him.

"I'm sorry, Xander, but..." Giles shook his head, "...I'm afraid we have yet to find anything conclusive."

He frowned, "All right. You guys keep working on that. I'll check in on Deadboy."

Xander turned and slipped into the guest room, pushing it open only enough to let him and closing the door behind him. "Hey, Paleface, how you doing?"

The vampire looked up and said quietly, "Been better." Angel studied Xander thoughtfully for a long moment, then asked, "Why?"

"Why what?" Xander asked, puzzled.

"Why didn't you stake me?" Angel elaborated. "You... you know what I'm capable of without my soul. I thought... I thought, of all people, I could trust you to do... what needed to be done."

Shaking his head, Xander explained, "Ends and means, Angel, ends and means. I've seen the good you do in L.A. You're a Champion. The world needs you."

"I never thought I'd ever hear a compliment from you."

"Yeah, well," Xander shrugged, turning back to the door, "don't expect it to happen again any time soon."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Angel grinned.


"This isn't helping," Xander muttered, throwing the book down. "I'm gonna check on Buffy and Tara, then maybe see if I can shake some info out of the local scum." He glanced at Giles, "Is Willy still running his place?"

Giles nodded, "Indeed."

"You want some backup, X?" Faith asked.

Xander hesitated, then nodded, "Yeah. With the Hellmouth reopening, who knows what might be in there now."

He turned and walked out, not noticing the forlorn look on Willow's face as she watched him go, Faith a step behind him.


"So, how'd it go with Red last night?"

"How'd what go?" Xander asked, irritated.

"You know..." Faith said suggestively.

He froze as he came to a realization. He turned, "It was you, wasn't it? That put her in bed with me."

"Well, yeah."

"How could you?" he asked in disbelief. "God, Faith, she's a married woman! I know you like to play fast and loose with things like that, but _some_ people take those things seriously."

"Hey, I was just..."

"Trying to help?" he finished bitterly. "Faith, she can't even _look_ at me, she's so ashamed. I don't need that kind of help."

"Oh, come on, Xander," Faith growled in frustration. "Didn't you see how she looked at you last night? She still loves you, X."

He snorted, "No, she doesn't. If she did, she wouldn't have gone back to Oz after the Fluke. You know what I'm talking about; you were there." Turning and walking toward the stairwell, he added, "Besides, I can't let myself fall in love again."

Faith called after him, "It's too late for that, X." He paused, and she continued, "I can see it in your eyes."

Xander shook his head and continued on his way.

The Slayer sighed and blinked back tears. "Damn it, X," she murmured softly, frustrated and hurt by his anger, "I was just trying to help."


"Hey, Tara."

"A-Alexander," she stammered. "Y-you came back."

He smiled, "Hey, just I 'cause I couldn't stay never meant I wasn't gonna come back. How are you feeling?"

"F-fine, I guess," she said, stepping aside and waving for him to enter. He obliged her and looked around the hotel room for a long moment before speaking.

"You didn't talk to Giles or Faith," he commented.

She cringed, "I... I was afraid."

He turned and stroked her cheek. His voice soft, he said, "Hey, I'm not accusing you or anything. It's just... I really think they can help you."

She smiled faintly. "Th-thank you, but..." she shook her head, "...I don't think I'm ready for that yet."

He nodded and said gently, "All right. I can understand that. Just... just promise me you'll talk to someone, okay? Open up a little. As cute as the shy act is, it's good to have friends."

The witch blushed and said quietly but firmly, "O-only if you do the same."

Xander blinked, "What?"

"Y-you're hurting, Alexander," she said softly. "I-I can see it in your aura. In your eyes." He flinched, and she wrapped her arms around him and whispered in his ear, "Let me help?"

He brushed her hair back and murmured, "Tara, I really don't think... mmph!"

Xander reassessed his situation and decided he liked it. Okay, so there _was_ the bout of depression from the whole incident with Willow... but this was definitely not of the bad.

When she pulled away, he paused to catch his breath and said, "Well, uh, that was... unexpected."

"Shh..." she said, sliding her hands up the back of his shirt. "No need for words now, Alexander." She pulled him close and kissed him again.


Faith knocked on the door to Xander's apartment, but the response came from behind her.

"Faith," Xander said flatly. "What are you doing here?"

The Slayer turned away from the door to his apartment and poked him in the chest angrily, "Looking for you, you jackass! We're on apocalypse watch again, remember?"

His expression darkened, "Anything happen?"

Faith rolled her eyes, "If it had, would we be standin' around talking about it? Where the hell _were_ you, X? I stopped by Willy's, he didn't even know you were back in town. I thought you were gonna shake him down?"

Xander bristled and turned away, growling, "That's none of your business, Faith."

"It damn well is my business!" she shot back, grabbing his shoulder. "We're on the clock here, Xandman, and you _know_ what happens if the timer hits zero."

He spun and knocked her arm away, drawing his fist back. He froze for a moment, then lowered his hand and bit out, "I told you. It's none of your business. Did Willy have anything to say?"

Faith shook her head, "No word, assuming he wasn't lying his ass off again."



There was a knock on the door to Faith's apartment. Faith and Angel were out looking for Xander, and Willow was snoozing peacefully on the couch.

Which left Giles to answer the door.

The visitor smiled when the ex-Watcher opened the door.

"Hello, Rip-..."


Sprawled on the floor of the hallway, Ethan Rayne rubbed the bruise rapidly forming on his cheek and glared at Giles, "Bloody hell, Ripper! Is that any way to greet an old friend?"

"I don't have time for your antics, Ethan," Giles said evenly as the chaos mage picked himself up. Giles's eyes narrowed as a thought struck him, "Ethan, if you're responsible for these cult killings..."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Ethan held up his hands defensively. "That's not me! Outright murder's not my style; you _know_ that, Ripper."

"Then why are you here?"

"I know who contracted the Order."


Heather Michaels ran as fast as she could through the park. So far, her track team training was keeping her ahead of the... things... that were chasing her... but only just barely.

Her foot caught on a root, and she stumbled, crying out in pain. She forced herself to her feet, ignoring what felt like a twisted ankle, and hobbled along.

Suddenly, a hand grabbed her arm, and she shrieked in fear.

"Hey, whoa, I'm on your side," the black-clad figure reassured her, his voice strong but comforting. "Don't worry. I'll take care of them."

He turned, and something popped out of his sleeves as he lunged at Heather's pursuers. With a strange wooshing sound, they vanished. She couldn't be sure in the darkness, but it looked like they had just... crumbled in place.

She hobbled over to her savior, "A-are they dead?"

"Yes," he said.

"Thank you," she said, sighing in relief. "If you hadn't come, I..."

She froze when she saw his face.

And screamed.

Chapter 8

"So, you're really not gonna tell me?"

Xander shook his head as he donned his helmet and straddled his bike, "I'm really not."

"Well, didja at least get a chance to check in on B?"

"She was on duty when I stopped by. Didn't actually see her, but if she's not safe in friggin' police station..."

"Read that loud and clear, X," Faith said, wrapping her arms around his waist. "Hit it."

He revved the engine and drove off.


"Why are we stopping, X?"

"Just being paranoid," he murmured back, watching the apartment complex. "Buffy usually heads home around this time." He scanned the parking lot, and his gaze settled on one particular vehicle. "Right on schedule."

"Geez, X, you've been in town for less than a month, and you already know her schedule? Can you say 'stalker'?"

"Don't start," he growled irritably. "I get enough of that from Giles. Besides, I knew her schedule before I came back. I had Giles keeping track of her and Wills, just in case. Oz too." The last, though, sounded more like an afterthought. Faith frowned... but said nothing.

Buffy disappeared into the building, and Xander let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

"Okay, she's safe," Faith said. "Can we go now?"

"I just want to do a perimeter check," Xander said, climbing off. "Take the bike. I'll catch up."

The Slayer rolled her eyes but nodded. "All right, X."

Xander watched Faith drive off on his bike, then squared his shoulders and headed toward the apartment complex.


Buffy felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She was being watched. She paused only for a moment to ascertain where her observer was, then moved as if nothing had happened. The detective walked past the window, as if heading toward the nightstand.

Then moved.

She threw a spearhand at the lurking shadowy figure, who tumbled back in surprise. She didn't let him fall, though, grabbing his shirt and hauling him in through the window. She dumped him unceremoniously on his back on the floor and kneeled on his throat, keeping enough weight off of it to keep from crushing his trachea.

He blinked up at her with very familiar brown eyes. "Alex?"

He nodded, a sheepish look on his face.

Rising to her feet, she glowered at him, "What the hell are you doing here, Alex?" She shook her head and muttered, "Hero one night, peeping Tom the next." She smirked at him, "I guess you men _are_ all alike."

"On behalf of my gender, 'Hey!'" he protested. "Besides, I was worried about you, okay? I... have some information that suggests someone might be gunning for you."

"Really?" Buffy frowned. "Who?"

"I, uh..."



Faith chained the bike and headed into the apartment building, then paused and turned in the lighted doorway, "A, is that you?"

"Yeah, it's me," the vampire said, stepping out of the shadows.

She frowned, "Hey, what's that on your lips?"

His hand shot up to his face, and he quickly wiped it off. "Blood," he said curtly. "Stopped by the butcher's," he explained, holding up several pouches full of the red liquid. "The supply I brought is starting to run out."

Faith nodded slowly, "Right."

"You find Harris?"

"Yeah, he's making a last-minute check on B."



Xander licked his lips and tasted the mixture of sweat and blood, but it was a subconscious action. His attention was totally devoted to tracking the little gremlin in front of him.

He was _fast_! Xander had heard that gremlins were fast, but the reality of it seemed to defy the laws of physics. He was bleeding from several long but shallow cuts all over his body.

And why was Drang just standing there?! The Eastern mystic didn't seem the type to just sit and watch, especially not after his reaction to what Xander had done to Drom.

Dreg blurred, and Xander moved. With Slayer reflexes -- as fast to a vampire as a vampire was to an average human -- and Army Ranger training magically hard-wired into his memory and perfected over the past seven years, he was a formidable combatant, but all his reflexes and skills seemed useless against the lightning-fast gremlin as he felt pain lance up his right leg.

Another cut. Like the others, shallow and not too serious... but he knew it wouldn't stay like that for long. The gremlin was wearing him down.


Buffy shook her head clear. The explosion had dazed her, and she was still feeling a little dizzy. Looking up, she tried to make sense of what she was seeing.

Alex seemed to be moving sluggishly -- as though he were underwater or something like that -- and the short little... thing... was slashing away at him with impunity. Her gaze shifted to the blind Chinese man who was apparently intent on the battle.

And she suddenly had a hunch as to what was happening. She deftly reached under her mattress for her backup piece. It was spurless .38 Special five-shooter with a five-inch barrel. Simple and ugly, but also compact and reliable.

She aimed the stubby black weapon at the Asian man and squeezed off two shots.


Deed without thought. Action without hesitation.

These were fundamental concepts taught at the temple where the orphan now known as Drang grew up. He had learned them well by the time he slew his mentor. He had been thirteen at the time.

Those two principles had kept him alive for over two centuries, given him time to cultivate his new family.

So when the blonde woman shot at him, he reacted without thinking, halting the bullets in mid-air with his chi.

It cost him a precious moment of concentration, however, and the spell he had woven around the Hunter... slipped.


Xander blinked in surprise as Dreg -- in mid-blur, about to strike -- suddenly slowed, though still quite fast.

But not faster than him.

His hand closed around the gremlin's spindly neck, and he pulled it close. With a practiced ease, he shifted his grip and twisted, snapping Dreg's neck like a twig in a classic and brutally efficient move.

Shaking his head clear, Xander straightened up, dropping the gremlin's lifeless form to the floor, and slowly -- out of both caution and pain -- approached Drang.

Fury boiled in Drang's sightless eyes, "You! Murderer!"

Xander actually blinked at that, then protested, "Hey, _you're_ the assassins here!"

If Drang had even heard Xander, he didn't show it. Instead, he thrust his hands toward Xander, palms first, "Shishi houkou dan!"

A massive beam of greenish-bluish energy blasted from Drang's hands toward Xander. The Hunter threw himself to the ground and was deafened by the sonic boom as it passed. He felt heat along his back just from his proximity to the blast.

Xander rolled over and kipped up...

...only to find that Drang had, once again, vanished.

He sank back to his knees and fought to catch his breath.

"Alex, are you okay?"

He rose to his feet and nodded, "I will be, Buffster. Haven't lost too much blood, and the wounds aren't too deep. I'll be fine."

"Thank God," she said, sighing in relief. She pulled him into a hug and told him quietly and sincerely, "I don't know what I'd do if you... if I lost you, Alex."

She pulled him close and kissed him.


"Mmm..." This was nice, Buffy decided. Something about what Alex had called her nagged at her, but that wasn't important. What was important was that Alex was okay. She decided that she liked being in his arms, kissing him, kissing A-... Angel?

Her eyes snapped open, and she pulled back, staring at him in shock, "Xander?!"

Yes, it was him. Older, more serious, and harder around the edges than she remembered him... but it was him.

What the hell was going on?!

She stumbled back, then turned and fled.


"Faith!" Buffy pounded on the apartment door. "Faith, open up! I need to find Gi-..."

The door opened, and she blinked, "Giles? Giles! You're here!"

The ex-Watcher nodded tiredly, "What is it, Detective?"

"Don't 'Detective' me, Giles," she scowled, barging in past him. Turning around, she ranted, "Do you know who I was just kissing?! Xander." Giles's eyes widened in shock and darted to the corner, but Buffy didn't notice. "I'm not supposed to be kissing Xander! I'm not even supposed to think he's hot. He's _Xander_. And now I think I really like him, even though I'm still trying to figure out where my memories have been since graduation, not to _mention_ the lack of Slayer powers and Hellmouthy stuff..."

Giles coughed uncomfortably, "Well, I, uh, well... that's... umm... quite an interesting... story, Detective..."

"Drop the act, G-man," Xander said tiredly, entering the apartment. "She remembers." He looked at Buffy curiously, "You really think I'm hot?"

"Yes. I mean no!" She stalked over and punched him in the arm. *When did his arm get so... hard?* Shaking that thought off, she glared at him and accused, "This is all your fault!"

"_My_ fault?" Xander stared at her incredulously.

"Yes!" she spat. "All sneaking around like... like..." she froze as she looked over Xander's shoulder and noticed the dark-clad figure standing in the corner, then squeaked out fearfully, "...Angel?"

The vampire stepped out of the shadows and nodded slowly. When he spoke, his voice was thick with inner pain, "Yeah, Buffy. It's me."

"Oh, God..." Buffy murmured, her eyes flicking toward Xander as she thought back to what she had just blurted out to Giles. She took a step toward her former lover, "Angel, I..."

He stepped back, maintaining the distance between them, and said calmly, "Don't. You know why I left. That hasn't changed."

She bit her lip and blinked back tears. After years of not remembering, the emotions struck back full force, still raw along with the memories.

Giles shook his head as he watched the drama playing out, *Good heavens, everything's coming crashing down all at once, and if what Ethan told me is true...* He shook that thought away. He had to make sure first. There would be very dangerous repercussions if they acted, and the chaos mage had been lying... or just plain wrong.


In the darkened room, Drang seethed with rage.

"Forget the contract, Hunter," he hissed, his sightless eyes blazing, casting flickering shadows against the walls. "You killed my brothers. Now... it's _personal_."

That was when It came, lunging at him from the shadows, no more than a blur even to his inner eye.

Fear clawed at his withered heart... but found no purchase.

Desire and understanding filled him, and he welcomed It.



Tara blinked sleepily. What had woken her up? It had sounded like...


There it was again. Someone was pounding on the door to her hotel room; it seemed urgent.

"Hold on," she murmured, stifling a yawn. However urgent it seemed to be, she couldn't muster enough energy to rush over. She sat up, rose to her feet, and headed for the door. It was probably Alexander.

She opened the door... and paled as her sleepiness evaporated. Her eyes went wide, and her breath caught. It wasn't Alexander; it was someone she hadn't expected -- or wanted -- to meet ever again. Someone who was still the centerpiece of her nightmares.

She shook her head in denial, otherwise paralyzed by fear. "No... Goddess, no..." she whimpered as the memories -- and the terror -- returned, undimmed by time. She stumbled back and tripped, falling to the floor, sprawled on her back.

"Hello, luv," Spike said cheerfully, his demonic face twisted into a sadistic grin.

Chapter 9

"C'mon, Kitten," Spike grinned, stepping into the hotel room, unbarred by her temporary residence, "let's have some fun."

Something in Tara's mind snapped. She wasn't going to let him get her, not again. She reacted, driving her heel into his crotch. As the vampire doubled over, she scrambled to her feet and ran, shoving him aside.

"Bloody _bitch_!"


"All right," Xander said. "We've got to regroup, guys. Hellmouth's reopening, Oz was kidnapped, and..." he trailed off and looked around, "...where's Faith?"

"Um, perhaps she's still out looking for you," Giles suggested. Buffy and Willow both shifted uncomfortably at the mention of the dark-haired Slayer.

Xander shook his head, "When I stopped by Buffy's, I told her to take my bike back here. It's in the parking lot downstairs."

"She went for a walk." Giles and Xander turned to Angel, who elaborated, "She said she had some things to think about."

Xander snorted, "Knowing her, she's looking for vamp ass to kick." He shook his head, "But why now? She knows we're on a timetable here. Hell, she gave me a lecture about it not more than an hour ago."

Willow frowned. Faith? Being responsible? She shot an incredulous look at Buffy, but the ex-Slayer wasn't surprised. Unlike Willow, she'd gotten to know the reformed Slayer even when the spell was still active, and she knew just how much Faith had matured over the years.

Angel shrugged, "I stopped trying to figure that girl out a long time ago, Harris."

Xander sighed. Things were falling apart, and...


Xander whirled around and grabbed his shotgun. Pumping a slug into the chamber, he held the weapon ready, pointed at the ceiling, and waved everyone else back. He opened the door.

And caught Tara as she stumbled into his chest, crying hysterically. He reflexively pulled her into a hug with his left arm and shifted so that he was between her and the door. He let the shotgun in his right hand drop level, his eyes quickly scanning down the hallway for trouble. Faith had chosen an apartment located at the end of the hallway, so he had a clear view of the entire corridor.

It was empty.

Keeping the shotgun leveled and ready, he looked down at Tara, "What's wrong?"

Buffy and Willow watched uncertainly... and with a hint of jealousy. Who was this woman?

"I-it's _him_," she managed in a small voice.

"Who?" Xander asked.


Xander looked up and hissed, "Spike. I see the sunburn got better."

"Nice to see you too, Droopy Boy," Spike replied. "Ready for another rematch?"

The Hunter ignored him and looked down at Tara, "What did he do to you?"

She shuddered, and Xander wondered just what Spike could have done to shake her up so badly. What had happened to the calm and methodical warrior-witch that had saved them from Valkorr?

"The scars," she whispered. He blinked uncomprehendingly for a moment... then suddenly, he understood.

He closed his eyes and lowered the shotgun to the ground. He extracted two sets of brass knuckles and slid them on, then stepped out into the hallway. "You want a rematch, Spike? Well, come on then."

"That bird must be mighty important to you," Spike smirked. "You _really_ want to make me hurt." It was true. Had he followed his recent fighting patterns, the Hunter would have gone straight for the easiest and fastest kill.

"We gonna talk or fight?" Xander snapped.

Spike sniffed the air, then snapped his fingers in melodramatic realization, "O' course!" He waggled his eyebrows suggestively at Xander and said, "She's a real screamer, that one. But then," Spike's smiled turned sinister, "you already knew that, didn't you, mate?"

Xander roared incoherently and charged Spike, while behind him, Tara looked away and cringed. She didn't want to think about it, but her mind wasn't cooperating.

Spike dodged the first blow, but the second one plowed into his gut, causing him to double over. He stumbled back and shook his head clear. That punch had _hurt_.

Xander held up his fists, and Spike muttered in grudging admiration, "Clever."

Tiny crosses were etched into the striking surface of the brass knuckles.

Spike stretched his neck out and leaped toward the Hunter, lashing out with over a century's worth of combat experience. Xander whirled around and nearly caught Spike in the throat with his foot, but the vampire ducked under it and caught hold of the Hunter's leg, slamming him against the wall.

"Time for dinner," Spike grinned, baring his fangs.

"Not tonight," Xander shot back... and jammed his foot down on Spike's, crushing the extremity. He shoved the vampire back against the opposite wall, then hauled him up and hurled him down the corridor, away from Faith's apartment. Reaching out toward the apartment, Xander telekinetically sent his shotgun skittering across the floor toward him. Catching the weapon and bracing it against his shoulder, he fired.

Spike stumbled back and gurgled as his stolen blood flooded his punctured right lung and spilled out his mouth. Xander flipped the selector to the tube magazine and chambered a flare shell.

Just as Xander pulled the trigger, Spike hurled himself across the hall, crashing through the apartment door. The cone of flame narrowly missed the vampire.

"Damn!" Xander muttered, pumping another flare shell into the chamber and running in pursuit. He swung around just before reaching the apartment and, spotting Spike, fired.

And missed as the vampire dove into the next room. Xander followed, working the pump again. He found himself in a kitchen and leveled the shotgun again. Another blast of fire missed its target as Spike took cover behind the counter and struggled with the window.

Xander pumped the shotgun and fired again, just as badly-wounded vampire tumbled out the window. Spike felt the blast of flame physically shove him out as he tumbled down the side of the building and into the back of a passing garbage truck.

Running over to the window, Xander leaned out with the shotgun and worked the pump again. He lined up the ring sight on Spike and pulled the trigger.


"Damn it!!!" he cursed furiously. He was muttering to himself as he stalked back out. "How the hell did he get in here anyway without an invi-..." he trailed off as he saw the answer to his unfinished question.

Taped to the apartment door -- which was now lying on the floor just inside the doorway -- was a paper sign with a phone number and the words "For Rent" printed in large orange letters.


Buffy and Willow leaned out on the railing of the balcony. They were waiting for Faith, and Xander had taken Tara into the guest room for a quiet heart-to-heart.

"What did he _do_ to her?" Willow wondered aloud.

Buffy shook her head and replied distantly, "I don't know, but I can make a few guesses. I've seen that look before at the precinct."

"You have?"

"Yeah," Buffy said, "but it's not my place to tell." The ex-Slayer's eyes dropped, "And it's all my fault."

Willow turned and stared at the blonde incredulously, "_What_?"

"Seriously!" Buffy said, meeting her gaze. "I... remember when Spike kidnapped you and Xander? Wanted you to cast a love spell on Dru for him?"

"Yeah," Willow said uncomfortably. _That_ had not been one of her favorite nights, and it wasn't even because of the whole kidnapping bit.

"After he gave up on the spell," Buffy said, "he told us where you were and walked away. I... I had a chance, right there. I could have staked him. I _should_ have staked him... but I didn't. I just let him walk away, and Tara paid the price. Tara... and who knows how many others."


They both spun, and Willow asked tentatively, "H-how's Tara?"

"She's coping," Xander said. He looked at Buffy, "But let's not change the subject here. Don't blame yourself, Buff; it's not your fault."

"Isn't it?" Buffy snapped. "If I'd staked him, he'd never have..." she stuttered to a halt. It wasn't her place to talk about what she'd recognized in Tara's face. After all, she could be wrong.

"Maybe," Xander said. "But Buffy, odds are, he would've gotten away anyway."

"Xander," Buffy argued, "he was drunk."

Xander shook his head, "He's cunning, skilled, and luckier than any being on this Earth has a right to be. I've run into him a dozen times over the last seven years. Sometimes he was sober, sometimes he was drunk, and sometimes he was high on something else and even more out of it. But each time, he got away. He's got more lives than a cat. Besides, what he does isn't your fault. It's his and no one else's."

"But, I..."

"You kept your word, Buffy," Xander cut her off. "You proved yourself better than him." He leaned on the railing and looked out at the city, then murmured softly, "Better than us."

Buffy turned, "Xander? What are you talking about?"

He closed his eyes and shook his head, "I don't wanna talk about it, Buff."

Buffy bit her lip but acquiesced, "All right. I suppose I'd better get some shut-eye."

With that, Buffy turned and left Willow and Xander alone on tbe balcony, pausing at the door to shoot the Hunter one last lingering look. She called back, "Oh, and Xander? Don't think this means you're off the hook about that spell. We're gonna have a _long_ talk about that later."

He winced and nodded. "Right, Buff, gotcha."

Shaking her head, she stepped inside and closed the door behind her.

"So," Willow said, "you gonna talk now?"


"Don't. Resolve Face," Willow said seriously. "This... it's hurting you, Xander, tearing you up inside. I wanna help. I... have to help... or I can't be Willow."

He looked at her for a long moment, then relented.

"I..." he started hesitantly, "...I've killed more than just demons and vampires, Wills."

Her eyes widened, "Y-you mean...?"

"Yeah," he said, his voice raw.

"Who were they?" she asked quietly.

"Lots of different kinds. Demon worshippers, bounty hunters that were after my head, people like Wilkins who sold their souls, even a bunch of lawyers who worked for this evil law firm in L.A."

"Evil people."

"Uh, yeah, I guess, but Wills... they were still people."

"Shh..." She pulled him into a hug, "It's okay, Xander."

"But... I..."

"Xander, I trust you," she said firmly. "I know that... whatever you did... it was only to protect us. All of us."

"Thanks, Wills," he croaked out softly.



"Yes, Xander?" the Watched looked up tiredly.

"Can I have a look at some of your Watcher diaries?"

"Umm, certainly. Why?"

"I... have my reasons."

Chapter 10

It is with a heavy heart that I record this event for the Council's archives.

My charge, Virginia Maxwell, the Vampire Slayer, is dead.

I did not wake from my enforced slumber until just a few hours ago, and by then, it was too late. It was morning, and I was greeted at the door by Richard Wilkins, for once devoid of his usual cheer.

While on his way to visit one of the prospectors, he had found her on the edge of town. The local doctor's looking her over, but the initial examination results are rather telling. Several of her bones were broken, and she had sustained numerous other injuries, but nothing that would be life-threatening to a Slayer, which suggests a more mystical cause of death.

For now, I shall pay my respects and ensure she gets a proper burial before I continue my research on this demon. She deserves that much at least.

Diego Salvatore


Her body has been properly interred, and my own research into the demon has turned up nothing so far. Two of the prospectors and their families have vanished. I have cabled a request for additional information from the New York branch.

A regiment of the Cavalry is expected to arrive tomorrow.

I fear that will not be enough.

Diego Salvatore


The Cavalry regiment arrived this morning, as did a telegraphed response from New York.

The demon appears to be Valkorr, Collector of Souls, and if that is the case, I truly do not believe even a thousand men-at-arms will prove sufficient. Unfortunately, the New York branch could not locate any information regarding any of Valkorr's weaknesses.

Further research is necessary. Local legends may provide some useful information, so I have arranged a meeting with the chief of the local Indian tribe, the Chumash.

Diego Salvatore


Discussion with the Chumash has led me to the conclusion that Valkorr may have been active here before. Their legends include one about a "spirit thief" who was defeated by the "thunder spirits."

When I return to La Boca tomorrow, I will wire this and my theories to New York.

Diego Salvatore


Xander put the Watcher diary down. That was the last entry. Besides, he knew what had happened next.

He remembered it.


Diego rode hard toward the sounds of battle and found himself in a warzone. He gently nudged his horse around and scanned the area with his eyes until he found a familiar face.

"Dick, what happened?"

Richard Wilkins looked around cautiously and said, "It was a demon, Senor Salvatore. A big one. We, ah, we think we managed to stop it."

Diego dismounted, "How?"

"We, ah, we shot it. A lot."

The Watcher shook his head, "That won't be enough. Listen, Dick, I have a plan, but we don't have much time. I'll need your help."

It was pity he didn't have time to work on that lightning spell. A binding would have to do.


"There he is," Diego whispered.

The Watcher turned... but Wilkins was nowhere to be seen. "Dick? Where...?"

He was cut off as a hand solidly clamped down on his mouth and pulled him back. He struggled, but the tingling in his skin told him that whoever it was was magically enhanced... and he was thus helpless.

His captor threw him at Valkorr's feet, and the demon grinned down at him.

"Now, you know the deal, Valky," a cheerful voice said from behind him. "You get his soul, my soul, and the Slayer's soul, you stay quiet for another hundred and twenty three years."

Diego rolled over and stared, "Dick?"

"Sorry, chum, but I have some pretty high ambitions," Wilkins said with an apologetic shrug, "and playing nice isn't going to get me there."

"The sacrifice has been made; the pact is sealed," Valkorr intoned solemnly, picking up Diego by the throat.

Diego howled.


Xander's eyes snapped open, and he bolted up suddenly. He blinked and looked around.

"Xander, you're awake."

He turned, "Hey, Buff." He glanced out the window and frowned, "The sun isn't up yet?"

"More like the sun's already down," Buffy smiled. "You slept all day. We had some hot chocolate. I'll heat up a cup for ya."

"I did? Why didn't anyone wake me?" he asked, pulling off the blanket that covered him, then stared at it. He didn't remember getting a blanket last night. "Especially for the hot chocolate," he added absently.

"You'd had a long night. We figured you needed the rest," she said, leaning in the doorway that led to the kitchen. "Oh... I figured you could use it," she said, nodding to the blanket. She turned as the microwave beeped and returned with two steaming cups of hot chocolate. She sat on a chair next to him and handed him one of the mugs.

"Thanks, Buff," he smiled and took the mug, sipping it carefully. "So where is everyone?"

Buffy sighed, "Sleeping, mostly. Faith still hasn't come back, and Angel went looking for her."

"Damn," he murmured.

She nodded, "Yeah, I'm worried too."

They sat in companionable silence.

After the moment, Buffy sighed and said, "Xander... we need to talk."

He flinched, "Buff, if this is about that spell, now really isn't..."

"No," she interrupted, "it's not." She shot him a playful look and winked, "I wanna compare notes with Willow first."

He winced.

"_And_ make sure Giles and Angel are there too. They had a part in it too." Her smile slipped, and she said, "No, it's... it's about us."

He blinked. "'Us'?"


"As in you and me?" he asked, puzzled.

"You and me," she said. "Xander, I... where do we stand? A-are we friends?"

"'Course we are, Buff, you know that," he said, leaning back. "Well, now that the memory part of spell's broken, we are, anyway."

"Could we be... more?" she asked timidly.

A look of understanding crossed his face, and he said slowly, "Buffy... why are you asking?"

"Because... I want us to be."

"But why?" he asked bluntly. "Buffy, think carefully. Why are you attracted to me? Is it because I was all mysterious and hero-like?"

She opened her mouth but couldn't think of anything to say to that.

He sighed, "Buffy, you said it yourself. Before you got your memories back, I was pulling the same mysterious stranger stunt Deadboy did. That's not me, Buff, you know that."

"Yes, it is, Xander," she said softly. "You just never let us see it before. If you weren't a hero, you wouldn't have cast that spell."

He shook his head adamantly, "Buffy, you're falling in love with an illusion. And even if that was the real me... there's Tara."

"Tara? Oh," Buffy said, her shoulder slumping. "So... you two really are...?"


"Oh." After a moment, she sighed and said, "I guess I missed my chance, huh?"

"Buffy," he said, searching for a way to say this, to explain to her just how much she meant to him, "you and Willow... you guys are the reasons I keep fighting. There's a part of my heart that will _always_ belong to you, no matter what."

She smiled faintly, "That's... I'm glad."

The lock in the front door clicked.

They both turned toward the door as it swung open to reveal...

"Faith!" Xander said, smiling broadly.

"Hi, Xander, Buffy," the dark-haired Slayer nodded listlessly at each of them.

Xander frowned. She looked like she'd just gone through the wringer, her face bruised and battered, and there was an odd-looking patch on her neck. "Geez, Faith, what happened? You look like hell warmed over."

The brunette cracked a faint smile and replied, "You know me. I went looking for trouble."

"And found it, I see," Xander said sternly. This wasn't the time for Faith's thrillseeking.

"Yeah, well," Faith shrugged, "could you stow the lecture for now? I need to talk to Buffy. Alone."

Buffy blinked in surprise and nodded, "Okay." The blonde detective stepped outside the apartment and closed the door behind her.

The ex-Slayer turned... and doubled over as her successor drove a fist into her gut. Fighting to catch her breath, Buffy was thoroughly defenseless against Faith's next attack. She saw the flying toward her face... and then nothing.



Xander whirled around and yanked the door open. He saw Faith running down the hallway, Buffy slung over her shoulder in a fireman's carry. "Faith?! What the hell are you doing?!"

But the Slayer didn't respond. His hand dropped down to where his Beretta would be... if he hadn't given it to Tara. The witch still hadn't given it back yet, and he was still waiting on the custom pistol he'd ordered for her. Cursing under his breath, he followed, running full tilt.

He pulled himself up onto the banister and slid down. Halfway down the last flight, he vaulted over the banister to the ground level and took off at a run as soon as his feet hit the floor. He burst out into the parking lot and looked around.

But it was deserted.

"God damn it," he murmured.

And suddenly, he understood what must have happened and why Faith had betrayed them.


Angel entered the darkened apartment and looked around. There was a lone figure standing on the balcony, back to the door, and it took the vampire a moment to recognize the unruly mop of dark hair.

"Harris?" he asked, stepping out onto the balcony.

"Hey, Deadboy."

"What's going on? Where is every-..." he trailed off as he suddenly found himself staring down the barrel of Xander's twelve-gauge. The lights in the apartment flashed on, silhouetting him from behind, and he heard footsteps behind him too.

"So," the Hunter said evenly, "how about you tell us what _really_ happened to Faith, now, okay... Angelus?"


Chapter 11

"What makes you think I'm Angelus?" the vampire asked calmly.

"You want to take this, Giles, or should I?" Xander asked.

The ex-Watcher's voice came from behind the former Scourge of Europe, "Go ahead, Xander. You were the one who figured it out, after all."

"Okay," Xander said, "so here's what gave you away, Evil Deadboy. First off, you'd pretended to have your soul before, so I was a little careful. Second, you were the last person to see Faith before she was turned, and she kidnapped Buffy. Sounds just like your style."

"Whoa, Faith was turned? She kidnapped Buffy?"

"Quit playing dumb, Deadboy," Xander snorted. "She showed up with a patch on her neck -- right where, say, a vampire would bite her -- and wouldn't even enter her own apartment. Plus, we never actually got around to checking to see if your soul really went back to you after we killed Valkorr."

"That's all circumstantial."

"Maybe, but if you really do have your soul, you wouldn't mind if we lock you up and recast the curse, now would you?"


Janet Saunders kicked her assailant between the legs and brought her knee up in his face. As he staggered back up, she hissed, "What the hell does it take to put you _down_?!"

She whirled into a spin kick and caught him across the face, but she failed to retract her leg fast enough. Faster than should have been humanly possible, her opponent caught hold of her ankle and yanked with preternatural strength, pulling her off-balance.

Just as she tumbled to the ground, tucking in and rolling into his legs, she felt dust scatter over her. Shaking dust from her hair, she stood up and looked around. "What the hell?"

"You okay?"

She turned, "Yeah... thanks. What hap- SHIT!" She backed away and dropped into a martial arts stance when she saw her dark- clad "rescuer."

But her martial arts would not save her this night.


"Asa sa fie! Asa sa fie!" Xander's voice rose. "Acum! Acum!"

A thunderous roar filled the room, and the Orb of Thesulah glowed briefly... and exploded.

"That... that didn't happen before," Willow said, a worried look on her face as she lowered her arm -- held protectively in front of her face -- and peeked at the shattered remnants of the Orb. "At least... I don't think it did."

Xander shook his head clear and looked at her quizzically, "You don't know?"

She shrugged, "There was the whole 'possessed by another spirit' thing, and the spell took a lot out of me. I kinda passed out pretty quick." She frowned, "Lots of things about that night after the whole coma thing are pretty fuzzy, actually."

Xander bit his lip and nodded, "Oh." He turned and waved everyone into position. Leading the way, he cautiously opened the cell that had once been a closet. They had modified it in the early days, when he still lacked control over the wolf, and they had never bothered to convert it back.

The vampire within looked up and said quietly, "I was telling the truth."

Xander nodded, "I know."

He stepped back, and Angel stepped past him into the main room and said, "But you know? Funny thing happened. I guess the spell has a side effect when I already have a soul."

Xander tensed, "What sort of side effect?"

Angel shook his head and walked over near where Tara stood, clutching a tranquilizer rifle and eyeing him uncertainly.

"Oh, don't worry. Soul's still here. But the thing is..."

Suddenly, the vampire moved, thrusting an elbow into Tara's gut and catching the tranquilizer rifle as she dropped to the floor.

He grinned ferally at Xander and fired, "'s not in charge anymore." Xander felt the dart prick his arm, and his vision went blurry even as he tried unsuccessfully to grab his shotgun.

Giles fired his crossbow, but Angelus easily caught the quarrel in mid-air and hurled it back, impaling the Brit in the shoulder. The vampire turned to Willow, who held up her cross fearfully.

He grinned and simply batted it aside. "A good Jewish girl like you shouldn't be carrying things like that," he said, waving a reprimanding finger at her. He grabbed her and ran a tongue up her throat, "Mmm... you taste sweet." He stiffened, then threw her to the ground and winked at her, "I'll be back for you later."

Angelus flashed a glare at Tara as she recovered and began gathering power. He turned and fled, diving out onto the balcony and over the railing.


A stream of flames erupted from Tara's hand and leaped out over the balcony, but the fire spell missed the plummeting vampire completely.


Buffy groaned as she blinked her eyes sleepily.

"You're awake," a relieved voice said.

Her eyes snapped open, and she looked around, "Oz? What... what happened? How long was I out?"

"Not sure," he replied. "Can't really tell time in here. He brought you in... maybe a day ago."

"'He'?" He who?" she asked, sitting up.

"Him," Oz nodded to the front of the prison cell. On the other side of the bars stood a rather short and vaguely familiar young man with dark hair and a patch on his throat.

Buffy searched her memory, and it finally clicked. The high school clock tower. "Jonathan? What are you doing?"

The once-suicidal nerd-among-nerds didn't stir. Oz shook his head, "He doesn't talk much."

"Yeah," Buffy murmured, "he makes you look positively chatty."


"Hey, Warren," Andrew Wells called, peering at the monitor. "Look like she's awake now."

"Is she?" the robot-maker asked, looking up. He ducked back down and shook his head, "Doesn't matter to us. Now... let's see..." He studied the patch on the unconscious Faith's neck and nodded, muttering to himself, "Accelerated degradation, but the mind control chip looks like it's still working just fine."

"Don't worry so much," Andrew whined. "Why do you always worry so much? Mind control chips worked for Jervis Tetch when he became the Mad Hatter, and we're _much_ smarter than that wannabe."

Warren simply shook his head in resignation. Andrew was helpful sometimes, but his inability to separate reality from comic books was grating.


"Here," Xander said.

Tara blinked and took the double-barreled shotgun. "Why give me this, Alexander?"

He shrugged, "With variable loads and the extra punch, shotguns are the best guns a demon hunter can have. Magic won't always help, and I want to make sure you're prepared."

He handed her two boxes of ammunition, "Blessed slugs and silver flechette... and _these,_," he pulled out two odd-looking rounds, "are really special. Gunpowder-propelled stakes. Too long to work in a pump, and I haven't tested 'em yet, so don't rely on 'em."

"Th-thank you."

He closed his eyes and sighed, "I've got another gun on special order for you. I'll get it to you as soon as it comes in." He nodded at the shotgun, "It's a two-stage trigger. Halfway to fire the left barrel, the rest of the way to fire the right barrel." Xander rose, "Look, get familiar with it. I'm gonna go check on Willow."

"Alexander," she called as he was about to leave the room.

He turned, "What?"

"It's not your fault."

He shook his head and walked out, "Yes, it is."



The redhead looked up, "Xander?"

"Hey," he said. "Look, Wills, I'm sorry."

She frowned, "For what?"

He sighed, "Everything."

"Oh," she said, unsure how to respond to that.

He gave a reassuring smile that she saw right through, but she did not interrupt, "I'm going to try a locator spell on Buffy and Oz in the morning. Don't worry. We'll find them. How are you holding up?"

"I'm fine," she said quietly, knowing that she was as transparent as Xander had been a moment ago.

"Good night, Willow."



She licked her lips and said in a small voice, "Stay with me tonight? Please?" He opened his mouth to protest, but she didn't let him, "I... after what happened... I don't want to be alone."

He looked at her and wordlessly turned away, leaving the room.

She sighed, slumping her shoulders, not sure if she was disappointed or relieved. What on Earth had possessed her to ask something like that?

The door opened again, and she blinked as she caught the pillow flying toward her. Xander stood in the doorway, a strained grin on his face. He winked, "Be just like in grade school, huh? What say we get up early for some good old-fashioned toons while we're at it, huh?"

She smiled, "Sounds like a plan."

Buffy, Faith, Oz... they were in trouble. But at this point, Willow was willing to take any spark of happiness she could get.


Xander snapped his eyes open at the ear-splitting screech that reverberated through the apartment.

He shoved Willow off the bed and hurled himself to the side. The Hunter rolled across the floor and up to his feet, shotgun in hand, racking the slide even as he swung the muzzle around and scanned the room.

Xander crouched by Willow, who was clutching her head and covering her ears against the noise. He paused and dropped the spell. "You okay?"

She nodded, "I think so. What was that?"

"Alarm spell," he said. "I cast it last night... just in case." He turned and pushed his shotgun into her hands, "Here. Cover me." He rose and drew his machete -- he had yet to replace his sword -- before she could protest, then opened the door carefully.

The room outside was dark, and that set off more than a few alarm bells in Xander's head, but he stepped out anyway. He couldn't think only of his own safety. He never could.

The darkness swallowed him, and he found himself unable to see anything, not even his own hand.

He held up a hand, "Lumos."



Suddenly, someone pulled him in a headlock from behind, and he dropped the machete, reaching up to try and free himself.

He gasped and shivered as heat suddenly fled his body, leeched away by his attacker. *So... cold...*

Xander twisted and rammed his elbow back, striking something. The arms grappling him vanished, and he whirled around, lashing out with a powerful roundhouse kick.

He struck, and followed up with a snap kick and left cross, but somehow, his opponent evaded him. And he was still unable to see.

This was _not_ good.

He dropped to his knees and felt around. Where the _hell_ was that damned machete?

Tara still had his Beretta, Willow had his shotgun, and he hadn't found a replacement for his sword yet. That meant, aside from the dropped machete, he only had two stakes and a grenade with him.

This was _definitely_ not good.

He resolved to carry more guns in the future. An extra sidearm or two, perhaps.

Assuming he survived this, that is.

Xander may have been blinded, but his other senses were working just fine, so when he heard the scrape of steel against wood from the floor near him, he dove. He felt something slice into his shoulder as it flew past.

Then, twin thunder roared within the room, deafening him... and his vision cleared. He quickly rolled on his back and kipped up. A shadowy figure backed away as Tara unloaded the other barrel of her new shotgun into him, and Willow racked the slide of his Russian pump- action.

"Xander?" Willow said tentatively, giving him a worried look.

"Are you all right, Alexander?" Tara asked.

"Yeah," Xander replied curtly as he eyed the shadowy figure.

Shrouded in darkness, Xander's attacker seemed to wear the shadows like a cloak wrapped around him, and only a single metallic glint -- which Xander belatedly recognized as another Tarakan ring -- broke the shadowy cloak in sharp contrast to the different shades of black. There seemed to almost be a fog of darkness that rolled off the assassin like some sort of diffuse gas.

He scooted over and yanked his machete from where it had lodged in the wall -- his instincts had been on the money; his assailant had picked it up and thrown it at him -- and lunged at the Tarakan.

The huge knife's blade easily sank into the patch of darkness, meeting resistance more appropriate to a tub of softened butter than any living body.

One tendril of darkness suddenly shot across the ground and crawled up Xander's body, wrapping around him and blinding him again, but the Hunter merely charged forward, groping until his hands met the same resistance as his machete had earlier.


A very human cry of pain sounded, and Xander's vision cleared again. A patch of darkness scuttled away across the floor. Gunfire echoed again -- Tara had obviously reloaded, and Willow still had ammunition left -- but the shadow merely rippled from the impacts like a puddle of pudding... unharmed.

Xander hurled the machete and followed, but the dark patch merely flowed around it, skittering under the front door... and by the time he swung the door open, it was gone.



Kendrix howled in pain as he returned from shadowform. He collapsed to the floor of Janet Saunders' apartment. He fought through the pain and crawled up to the bed, collapsing into it.

He needed to feed again. The Hunter had hurt him, badly, and he still had a job to do.