Post-Graduate Work

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

Rating: PG.

Disclaimer: All of the really good characters belong to Mutant Enemy and crack-head Joss Whedon, although he doesn't deserve any of them, considering the way he's pretty much destroyed them the past couple years. I'm just borrowing them for a while. There is no intent to profit from this. Only the story is mine.

Category: various Xander relationships

Summary: What happens when Xander and Giles are the only survivors of Sunnydale's Class of 1999 Graduation?

Time frame: Alternate Buffy-verse, branching off during Graduation.

Character Bashing: None.

Latest addition

Chapter 1

"Come on, Buff! Where the hell are you? I can't wait much longer - Come on!"

Xander Harris frantically looked for any sign of the woman he loved as he watched the tail of the Mayor's newly transformed, gigantic snake-like body slither down the main hallway of Sunnydale High School. Based on estimates they had made of the Mayor's projected size and weight, they had decided they could wait a maximum of forty- five seconds after he entered the building before they had to trigger the explosives they had filled the library with.

From the speed with which he had watched the Mayor move, Xander thought they may have been overly optimistic about how slow he would be. He would wait until the very last fraction of a second that he could before blowing the building, but when the time came, he *would* do it.

*That* was why Buffy had chosen *him* to hold the detonator. She knew that, regardless of what the costs might be, she could depend on him to pull that trigger. Even before he had been possessed by the Soldier Spirit, he had always been the calm voice of rationality, the one who could evaluate all of the consequences of an action and then do what had to be done, regardless of the cost, to himself or others.

It was that aspect of him that was holding the detonator now. As his eyes filled with tears, he concluded the countdown he had started the moment that Buffy had entered the school and his thumb pressed down on the button that would send the ignition signal through the wires so painstakingly laid through the hallways last night to the fuses buried within the twelve hundred pounds of the fuel oil-fertilizer mixture with which they had packed the library.

< I love you, Buffy. Please forgive me, > he thought as he watched the library explode, the bright yellow and red colors of the flames lighting up the unnaturally eclipse-darkened sky above the school as the brick and mortar walls fragmented and filled the air around them, smoke and dust choking the lungs and blinding the eyes of the survivors.

He was still standing in the same spot when Giles finally located him some indefinite time later.

"Xander! Have you seen Buffy? I can't seem to locate her anywhere," the ex- (now *very* ex-) librarian asked him.

"She never made it out." The brunet's voice was calm and very matter of fact as he answered the question, the tone usually heard by emergency personnel when they spoke with surviving disaster victims who have suffered massive emotional shocks.

"Excuse me? What did you say?" The Englishman's question was excessively polite, even more so than his normal 'genteel English gentleman' manner required. Cordelia noticed that as she approached the two of them, and also noticed the words most certainly did not match the expression in his eyes, at all.

"She never made it out." The one-time, so-called Zeppo repeated his words, either oblivious or uncaring about the fires lighting the ex- Watcher's eyes.

"And you set the bomb off , anyway?" Cordy's vision seemed to blur for a moment while remaining completely focused as she heard Giles speak, as she suddenly saw two distinct images of Giles, superimposed one upon the other. One image was that of the neatly dressed, tweed- wearing Watcher/ librarian she had come to know and respect these past couple years, while the second looked to be a wild-eyed hellraiser clad in jeans, a torn T-shirt and a battered leather motorcycle jacket, his eyes glaring about him with a level of emotion she had seen in them only a few ties before, his expression promising the worst of all possible worlds for the recipient of his ire.

"You killed her, you bloody useless bastard!"

Cordy never even saw him move. One moment Giles was standing there, staring at her ex-boyfriend, the next, he was straddling Xander's prone form, his hands locked around the youth's throat, throttling him.

What scared her more than even the ex-Watcher's actions were Xander's. Or more precisely, his complete lack of reaction. He simply lay there, making no attempt at all to try to stop the Englishman.

"Giles! Stop! You can't do this!" Cordy found herself screaming at him, futilely trying to break their mentor's grip as he ignored both her words and her actions.

Desperately, she grabbed up a nearby fragment of a shelving support and swung it wildly, the blow striking Giles in the shoulder and glancing off his head, upsetting his balance enough that she could shove him off the disturbingly-non-struggling youth.

"Godammit, you stupid little bint! What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" he snarled at her as he rolled to his feet and rubbed his shoulder and head where she had struck him.

"Trying to stop you from killing my ex-boyfriend," she screamed back at him, waving the shattered fragment in vague threatening motions towards him as he approached her.

"He killed her, Cordelia!! He killed Buffy!" the librarian almost literally snarled at her. Ripper was obviously in command here, now, and looking to hurt someone as a means of dealing with his own pain.

"Buffy died in the explosion, Giles," Cordy corrected him, praying that he would at least listen to her for a moment before doing anything. "The same explosion that killed the Mayor. She knew there was a chance she wouldn't make it out in time, but she chose to go in there anyway, Giles. Because that was the only way she could be sure of getting him in there. She knew what she was doing, Giles. She knew she was sacrificing herself to save everyone else, and she did it anyway.

"She was a hero, Giles, and that's what heroes do."

"And that bloody useless bastard set off the bomb and he killed her!" Ripper screamed, snatching the makeshift club out of from her hands and shoving her out of the way as he stalked towards the teen still lying motionless on the ground before him.

"That's right, he did! 'Cause that's what Buffy made him promise to do!" the former cheerleader screamed at him, reminding him of the vow Buffy had elicited from the brunet as she scrambled back to her feet from where she had fallen.

"Look at him, Giles! He *wants* you to kill him!" Cordy told him, gesturing towards her ex. "Do you really think that he wants to go on living right now? He thinks he's responsible for Buffy's death, just like you do, and he *wants* you to kill him! He can't kill himself, so he wants you to do it for him!" she explained.

Something in her words must have gotten through to 'Rupert' because the glare in his eyes suddenly seem to dim, and he fell to his knees, a lost expression on his face.

"She's dead, Cordelia. Buffy's dead."

The look on Giles' face as he spoke made her feel even more helpless and hopeless now than she had been when she had seen Xander lying on the ground.

"Yeah, Giles, I know. Let's go find out who's still alive."


"I'm telling you, Giles, there's no other choice left! We've got to do it!"

The youth sitting across the table from him most certainly looked like Xander Harris, Giles reflected as he considered the words he had just heard, but that was as far as the resemblance went. The eyes that looked back at him now didn't have the spark, the zest for life, that Xander had possessed. These eyes had seen too much in their short span here.

Too much horror.

Too much sadness.

Too much death to hold onto the spark. They had lost some indefinable quality that had let them enjoy the world around them.

All that survived in those eyes now was duty and responsibility.

That, and a soul-deep anger and rage at the forces responsible for their loss. An anger that was determined to make those forces pay, and pay deeply, for what they had taken.

Considering the losses they had suffered, Giles could well understand the determination that now drove the young man before him.

Buffy's death in the explosion that had destroyed the Mayor would have been a devastating enough blow by itself, but Cordelia's friend Aura's report after the battle, that she had last seen Willow running into the school to escape a group of vampires intent on tearing her to pieces, had been the follow-up blow that had seemed to shatter Xander's soul into irreparable fragments. Like Buffy, no identifiable trace of the witch's body had been recovered once the emergency rescue personnel had arrived and begun sorting through the still smoking debris of the library, so the surviving Scooby Gang members, together with Joyce Summers, had been forced to bury empty caskets when it came time for the funerals.

Oz, too, had been reported as killed during the fight with the Mayor's vampires. The young musician had involuntarily shifted into his wolfen persona almost immediately after the unnatural ecliptic darkness accompanying the Mayor's Ascension had covered the area. But some fragment of the his human personality must have survived the involuntary transformation, however, because the wolf had ignored the panicking throngs of terrified students surrounding him and had, instead, headed straight towards the approaching vampires and torn into them with unparalleled viciousness. The young lycanthrope's death at the hands of the vampires was attributable solely to their weight of numbers, for Oz had most certainly cut a lethal swath through them before he was overwhelmed.

Upon learning of the circumstances surrounding his death, Giles had taken it upon himself to ascertain the exact status of the young man's corpse, fearing that any instinctive or involuntary ingestion of the vampires' blood by the wolf might initiate a transformation into a vampire.

Thus, the former librarian was present when the (currently) red- haired young man's body shuddered and apparently returned to life in the town morgue. Oz had managed to catch Giles' wrist as he attempted to plunge a stake into his heart, and had calmly reassured the ex-Watcher of his non-undead status by easily handling the blessed crucifix and swallowing a mouthful from the holy water bottle that all of the Scooby Gang habitually carried with them.

Unfortunately, the fact that he had been officially identified and catalogued as a victim of the 'gas explosion' responsible for destroying the high school, combined with the devastating news of Willow's death, had forced the young lycanthrope/musician to leave Sunnydale, to begin his life anew elsewhere, hopefully under more benign and opportune circumstances.

Cordelia had left Sunnydale, also, seeking to start her life over in a (hopefully) less demon-friendly environment. Why the young woman had chosen San Francisco as the place to do so Giles could not fathom, but he, together with Xander, had wished her well, after first extracting a promise from her that she would call them immediately, should she ever require assistance of *any* sort.

Angel had disappeared almost immediately after learning about Buffy and Willow's deaths, and neither Giles nor Xander knew, nor cared in the least, what had become of him.

Joyce Summer's decision to sell her home and business and leave the town ultimately responsible for killing her daughter was quite understandable and had come as no surprise, and had, indeed, been the only thing that had made Xander smile since that horrendous day that had scarred them all. The idea that someone he loved and cared about was escaping this cursed place had actually lifted his spirits for a short period of time.

The ultimate result of all of these events, though, was to leave Xander and himself as the sole remaining combatants for the forces of Light in Sunnydale.

The Council was presently unaware of Faith's current comatose status in Sunnydale General hospital, since Wesley had been one of the several dozen casualties of the 'gas explosion' at the school and he had, apparently, neglected to inform the Council of all of the events that occurred immediately prior to the Graduation debacle.

To the best of the Council's knowledge, based on Giles' carefully worded post-battle report, the brunette was 'somewhere' in the area and believed to be still carrying on with her Slaying duties. Because the arcane energies emitted by the Hellmouth made scrying and location spells extremely volatile and unreliable unless extremely careful and time-consuming preparations were made beforehand, and the fact that there were no lack of locations in which she could shelter herself, should they choose to conduct a physical search of the area, the Council had opted to simply bide their time, in the expectations that her lone-wolf persona and lack of adequate back-up and support would solve their problem for them in the not-too-distant future.

The ex-Watcher was determined, after all the losses they had just suffered, to offer the lost young woman a second chance at life and an opportunity to salvage her redemption and her soul, even if it might be in an effort to save his own in the process.

If that meant lying to the Council and possibly bringing their wrath down on his head, so be it.

The problem they currently faced, however, was that, with Faith still comatose, the Hellmouth was without any form of guardian or champion, offering a perfect opportunity to any ambitious demon, warlock or whatever, to move in and establish a power base.

The solution Xander had just presented him would provide them with just that guardian, although at considerable risk to the young man who had conceived of it.

In short, Xander had proposed they perform a modification of a summoning ritual to 're-energize' the templates of both the Hyena and Soldier Spirits that had once possessed him, and which he believed still lay dormant within him. When Giles had expressed concern that he might not be able to control the Hyena Spirit, Xander had insisted that, with the aid and strength of the Soldier Spirit and the proper modifications to the ritual, all three spirits, his own, the Hyena and the Soldier, could be melded together and incorporated into a fusion, leaving behind but a single individual.

While acknowledging the benefits of the idea, the aspect of the proposed course of action Giles feared most was that the individual remaining at the conclusion of the ritual would not be Xander Harris, the youth he had finally admitted to himself that he now looked upon as his son.

< Haven't I lost enough already? > he silently asked the heavens.

Two of the girls he had come to look upon as daughters had been cruelly stolen from him, while the third had fled far away in an effort to be safe, not that he begrudged her that safety in the least. The other youth he had begun to look upon as a son had been forced to leave also, decimating their family and leaving only Xander to remain here with him.

And now, in an attempt to protect an ignorant and usually ungrateful populace, he was once more being asked to offer up the last surviving member of his family.

< You've taken all my other children, Lord, > he thought. < Why must you demand I offer you Xander, too? >

Unfortunately, he knew his child well enough to realize that, should he refuse to participate in the suggested plan, Xander would attempt to perform the ritual alone.

< Damn me, > he thought, realizing his decision had already been made for him. < Oh wait! You already have! >

Reluctantly, he nodded his assent, and prayed that whatever powers might be watching would finally take pity on them and not let this plan get buggered up, too.


"She's WHAT?"

"Pregnant, Giles. You know - expecting, with child, in the family way, going to have a baby. Any of these phrases ring a bell here?"

Despite his surprise, shock and sheer, dumb astonishment at the report he had just received, a part of Giles was overjoyed to see the change that the news had produced in his 'son.' The spark of life that had been missing for so long was once again present, and he could only surmise that the information he had just received was the cause.

"But - but - how long?" he managed to sputter. "When is the baby due? Who is the father? Was she molested by someone on the hospital staff?" he demanded.

If that were the case, that some deviant, perverted bastard on the staff had raped that helpless girl while she lay comatose, then God himself wouldn't be able to save the misbegotten son of a bitch! He was going to find the bugger responsible and -

Ripper's plans for handling the perpetrator responsible were sidetracked by Xander's next words.

"The doctors say she's about six months along, she's due in approximately mid-September or so, and I'm the father." The brunet's final words had brought with them a smile so bright and wide that it would have dusted any vamp in the vicinity instantly.

"What? But how - ? When -?" More sputtering incoherence from the man who prided himself on the extent of his vocabulary in seven languages.

"I'm gonna assume you already know about the 'how,' G-Man," Xander grinned at the man who had filled the position of 'father' in his heart years before, "so I'll just explain the 'when'."

"Remember the night the Sisters of Jhe tried to re-open the Hellmouth and you guys were trying to keep me out of the loop?" he asked. "I came across a couple of those 'desperately in need of hair care' bitches trying to lay the smack down on Faith while I was out driving around, so I kinda drove over one of them with Uncle Rory's car, as I was offering Faith a ride home.

"Well, once we got back to her motel room, one thing kind of led to another, which led to the current situation," he concluded.

"Oh. I see. Well, uhm, while I am not trying to be crude about anything, Xander," Giles began, trying to phrase his next question as delicately as possible, "I need to ask, exactly what is it that leads you to believe that you are, indeed, the father of this child? Faith was, uhm, rather prone, uh, to impulsive behavior, at times. And, and your statement that she is approximately, uh, six months along in her pregnancy most definitely does not correlate with the time frame you had related during which, you say, the two of you were, uhm, intimate," he concluded.

"Relax, Giles," the young man advised his surrogate father smiled at him. "I'm well aware of Faith's 'impulsive behavior.' That's part of the reason we're in this situation, now. And as far as me being the father, there's several reasons for me to think that.

"First off, I had the hospital run some blood tests last week, when I initially learned of her condition. The scent of a pregnant woman is quite unmistakable, you know," he confided as he tapped the side of his nose.

"Faith's blood type is B positive, and the baby's is AB negative, like mine. AB is a relatively small percentage of the general population nationwide, so the odds are very good that the baby is mine.

"Second, once I realized that she was pregnant, I started checking out some of the older Watchers' diaries, and found out that pregnant Slayers gestate approximately fifty percent faster than a normal human woman does, which would make the time frame issue fit a lot better.

"But the real reason I believe I'm the father is because my Hyena aspect thought so the moment I walked into her room. The best way I can explain it is to tell you, the baby smells like me, to me," Xander finished, "and there's nothing Faith or anyone else can say to make me think otherwise. If it comes down to it, I'll demand a DNA test to prove paternity.

"'Cause the only way I'm not going to be a father to this child is if I'm dead."


Anya casually walked into Giles' apartment, and the former librarian walked over to confront her.

"You should lock your door," she told him before he could say a word. "Anything could just walk in here, you know."

"Believe me, I'm kicking myself," he assured her, giving her a mild glare which she ignored as she looked around, as if searching for something, or someone.

"Anya?" Xander said in surprise, as he walked in from the den, carrying a crate of books. "Last time I saw you, you were fleeing in terror. So. How'd that work out for you?"

"I need to talk to Xander," the brunette stated, looking at Xander for a moment before turning and glaring at Giles. "Go away."

Smiling at Xander, she grabbed his hand and began leading him out the door. "Xander, come with me."

Xander tossed a puzzled look back at Giles before shrugging and following her, shutting the door behind him.

"Your mother said you were working here," she said, continuing to stare at him intently.

"Yeah, Giles needed some help moving some furniture and stuff around. Not to be rude, Anya, but what do you want? We're kind of busy here."

"Where is our relationship going?" the ex-demon asked him abruptly, her brow furrowed with concern.

"Our what?" Xander asked her, bewildered by the question. "Our who?"

"Relationship. What kind do we have. And what is it progressing toward?"

"Uh ... We have a relationship?" he asked, flabbergasted by this unexpected revelation.

"Yeah. We went to the prom."

"Yeah. On our one and only date. Second date called on account of snake, remember?" he reminded her. "And then, there's the whole 'you used to be a man-killing demon' thing. Which to be fair, is as much my issue as it is yours," he admitted.

"I can't stop thinking about you. Sometimes in my dreams, you're all naked," she told him as she stepped towards him, eyes widening enticingly as she approached.

"Really? You know, if I'm in the checkout line at the Wal-Mart, I've had the same one," he replied, automatically making a smart remark while his brain tried to reboot after having frozen up at the mind- numbing statements the former demon had just made.

"So, I can assume a standing Friday night date and a mutual recognition of Prom Night as our dating anniversary?" the brunette stated definitively, as though they were discussing one of the basic laws of nature in a classroom.

"Whoa! Anya! Slow down there," Xander stated emphatically, holding both hands up in a 'Stop!' gesture. "In fact, come to a screeching halt. We have no relationship, aside from the one date. And the fact that you tried to have Cordelia wish me out of existence," he added, after a moment's thought.

"But, Xander -"

"Anya, listen to me. You have been a human being for less than a year. You need to work on that part of your life first, and figure out exactly what you want to be, what you want to do with your life. And I'm not interested in getting involved in any type of relationship, anyway. Not with you, or anyone else, for that matter," he explained.

"You, you, you pig, you! You're so typically male!! You get what you want, and then you toss a woman aside, and go on, looking for another woman to seduce, take advantage of and then break her heart, too!" she screamed at him, her face taking on a bright red coloring.

"Anya!" Xander interrupted her tirade before she could continue. "We had one date! To the school Prom. Because neither of us wanted to stay home or go alone," he pointed out. "And I kissed you only after you practically ordered me to do so! So don't try to make out like I took advantage of you and then dumped you, 'cause we both know better! You were the one who left, not me!"

"But I've changed my mind, now," Anya protested, her brow furrowed with distress. "I want to be with you, now."

"Anya, I cannot be in any type of relationship with you. Not now, not ever," Xander told her, his voice a bit gentler than it had been. "There's this girl, see. And she's having our baby. And I have to be there. I *want* to be there. For both of them.

"And I can't do that and still have a relationship with you. It wouldn't be fair to them. Or you. Or to me."

"All - all right." There were tears in her eyes as she spoke to him. "I don't like it, but I understand. If I kept trying to change your mind, then I would be like the other women that became involved with the men I used to punish," she said, as she realized what her role would be if she continued to pursue him.

"I won't bother you, anymore, Xander," the former demon promised. "Goodbye."

"Goodbye, Anya," the former so-called Zeppo replied, as he watched her turn and walk away. "I hope everything works out for you."

Hidden in the shadows of the neighboring apartment building, a dark- haired, vein-y faced figure watched the two converse and then walk away.

"I'm glad to see you've learned something from your time as a human, Anyanka," Halfrek murmured in a low voice.

"A child needs their parents to be together, in order to grow up happy. Justice would demand that anyone who would try to prevent them from being together be punished. I am glad you will not need to learn that lesson."


"AAAAUUUGGGGHHHHH! God Almighty! That's it!!! Let me up! I'm going home! Get the hell out of my way, I'm leaving!"

"Please, Faith, just lay back, try to relax and breathe. We're almost there, now, I can see the baby's head."

The obstetrician was calm and matter-of-fact about everything going on. After all, this was something she did pretty much everyday here.

"Oh God, I can't do this, anymore! Let me up!"

"Faith, honey, just relax. It's almost over."

"This is all your fault, Xander! I swear to god, you ever come near me again, and I'll rip it off and shove it so far up your - AAAUUGGHHHH! God, that hurts!"

Even the nurses had to wince a little at that threat and the tone of voice it was delivered in.

"Okay, Faith, I think our little darling's ready to make her appearance, now. When I tell you, I want you to push. Okay, now - Push!"



The sounds of a baby's loud and indignant protests at the cold and hostile world she suddenly found herself in filled the room.

"Congratulations, Faith, Xander, your daughter has a healthy set of lungs. Now just give us a minute or so to finish checking her out and we'll give her to you to hold, Faith. Have you decided on a name for her yet?"

"Joyce Nicole Harris, doc," Faith replied, her eyes filling up with unshed tears as she looked at her daughter. "We're naming her after the two women who were our real mothers. Joyce was Xander's mother and Nicole was mine. We're gonna call her Joy."

"A beautiful name for a beautiful little girl. I'm sure you're all going to make each other very happy."


"Giles, has the Council said anything to you about anyone sending any kind of special teams into Sunnydale recently?" Xander asked his mentor as he began his post-patrol cleaning of his weapons.

"No, I haven't spoken to anyone affiliated with the Council for the past several weeks, Xander. Why do you ask?" the shop owner asked, looking up from his cataloguing of the various 'new' ancient texts they had recently managed to acquire.

"I ran across a team of uniformed men taking down a vampire while I was checking out the UC Sunnydale campus earlier this evening," he replied, as he stripped and checked the action of the paintball pistol he had started carrying with him.

All three of the remaining Scooby Gang members now carried at least one air pistol and one regular firearm with them when they patrolled; they could no longer afford to ignore whatever technological advantages that were available to them. (Not that they really could have afforded to do so, earlier.)

The Watcher's board tasked with evaluating the potential uses of any new technological weapons or devices were notoriously slow in their acceptance of basically anything created after the beginning of the 18th century, stating that they wished to determine the 'appropriateness' of incorporating the proposed equipment into the Slayer's armory.

Xander, Faith and Giles, however, being on the front lines where your equipment often determined whether or not you made it home after patrol, were much more interested in the practicality of the weapons under consideration, so their usability criteria consisted of two basic questions: did it help them kill vampires and demons faster and with less risk, and if so, how soon could they get one?

After a great deal of on-line research and field testing of various body armors, Xander and Faith had finally settled on a new material, Zylon, which had only recently appeared on the market, as the product that offered the best combination of puncture and slash resistance along with the least impediment to their agility and ability to dodge an opponent's attacks. Although the price was a bit expensive, they had decided the protection the body armor offered was more than worthwhile. Anything that improved their chances of coming home alive each night was definitely of the good.

In addition to the paintball pistols they all used for long-distance vampire suppression now, Xander also carried a 9mm Walther P-99 semiautomatic, along with a .22 LR Smith and Wesson 617 revolver as a backup piece, both using specially made magnesium and thermite tipped 'demon-killer' bullets guaranteed to toast anything hit from the inside out. Combined with his longsword, a tanto style combat knife on his lower left leg, the squeeze bottle of holy water and half-dozen stakes carried in a specially tailored combat vest and the throat mike/ear plug transceiver units that enabled them to keep in touch and call for help in case of emergency, he was more than a match for virtually anything he might meet during his patrols.

Faith, on her part, carried a 9mm Glock 26 semiautomatic and the 617 revolver for backup, along with an enchanted knife that she had claimed as booty from the body of one of the Tarrakan assassins who had stalked them the year before. Should hand-to-hand combat became necessary, though, she much preferred using the pair of matched tomahawk style axes her husband had forged for her and given to her as a birthday gift earlier in the year. Unlike the young hell-raiser without any ties who had first moved into town more than three years before, this Faith, the loving mother and wife, usually tried to avoid hand-to-hand fights, if at all possible, preferring the quick kill from a distance that would allow her to get back to her family more quickly, easily and safely.

Giles, being somewhat of a traditionalist, carried a 9 mm Browning Hi- Power semi-automatic, the standard sidearm for the British army, along with a 617 revolver as his backup, and a short handled, wide- bladed axe as his weapon of last resort.

Pistol-grip Winchester 1300 pump-action shotguns, with eight shot magazines loaded with wooden pellet-filled or incendiary shells, for those instances when they might need to clear a room (or crypt) quickly, competed their arsenal.

"They were using some sort of 'Star Trek' kind of gun that shot lightning bolts," the ex-Zeppo continued his report as he loaded several magazines with the magnesium/ thermite tips they had developed through trial and error in the field. "Seemed to act like a super-Tazer and took the vamp they zapped with it down real quick. The weird part was that they didn't dust him right away, though. They wrapped him up in some heavy chains with some kind of muzzle over his face and then started carrying him off somewhere. I was gonna follow them and see where they went, but then I ran across a fresh Feyoral demon's scent and figured I should take care of that first. By the time I finished with that pug-ugly, it was close to an hour later, so I figured I'd go back to the spot tomorrow morning and try to follow the group's scent to wherever they took him."

"That entire incident sounds quite strange, Xander," the ex-librarian agreed, as he re-shelved several of the texts he had been examining. "Do you think you'll need any assistance when you try to pick up the trail tomorrow? I could delay opening up for several hours," Giles offered.

"Nah, I don't think that's necessary," Xander shook his head negatively. "They were headed towards the old frat house area, so I was thinking that tomorrow morning Faith and I could head over that way with Joy in her stroller and see if I can pick up anything. I've seen a lot of the other married students playing with their kids around there, so we should be able to blend in without any problems. Faith doesn't have any classes until after lunch tomorrow, so we should have plenty of time in the morning to see what's what."


"I'm getting some seriously heavy demon vibes from this place, Boytoy," Faith quietly advised her husband under cover of a brilliant smile as they sat on one of the campus benches lining the various pathways crisscrossing the UC Sunnydale campus. She was currently feeding Joy a cup of ice cream, while she and Xander ate their own cones.

"It feels like maybe a couple dozen demons, total, but the weird thing is that it's like there's a whole bunch of different ones all kind of clumped together, with only maybe two or three of any particular kind, and even then, they're not real close to each other, space wise," she noted. "And according to Jeeves, that kind of thing just doesn't happen. At least, not naturally."

"According to the G-man's U.S. Geological Survey maps, this whole area is honeycombed with caverns," Xander offered his comment as he smiled while watching Joy intently focus on Faith's hands and the spoon holding the new treat she had only recently discovered and which was now liberally smeared across her face and clothes.

"I've got a bad feeling about this whole thing, Faith," he told her as he casually surveyed the campus around them. "That bomb shelter door that the scent trail from last night led to is way too close to the campus here to make me comfortable. I'm betting that the tunnel on the other side of that door leads to the basement of one of the buildings here on campus, and just the idea of that makes me very nervous."

"How come, babe?" the Slayer asked, wondering exactly what it was that had her husband worried. She knew him well enough to realize that he often saw far different aspects of a problem than she or Giles did, and oftentimes his concerns were quite different from those people expected him to have.

"Well, Girltoy," he grinned back at her, "think about it. This entire campus is the property of the state of California, and nothing gets built here without some government official okaying it after a great deal of inspection and evaluation and careful review to make sure that there isn't any possibility that it's going to come back and bite them in the ass some day in some way. Unless, of course, they're told to do so by someone much further up the food chain, which relieves them of responsibility of any kind.

"That door we found earlier is too far back in the woods to be there for any reason other than to provide an easy way to let people get in and out of one of these buildings without being seen, and the lock on it only opens if you use a key card in it. Not wanting to be seen means that whoever is involved doesn't want anyone to know about whatever it is that they're doing, which means it's either illegal, classified, or maybe some covert operation, or, most likely, some combination of all three of the above. The key card part means that whoever is responsible for it wants, and/or needs, to restrict access into and out of whatever is behind that door.

"The guys I saw last night worked together very smoothly, like it was something they had practiced and had been doing a lot, which means that they've been around for at least a little while without us or anyone else, especially the demons around here, knowing about it. And that fact, added to everything else we've discovered, makes my Soldier aspect believe there's some kind of covert unit operating in this area, which means that it's probably classified out the wazoo and quite likely illegal as hell," he finished up just as Faith finished feeding Joy, who was now loudly announcing to all and sundry her displeasure at the fact that her new treat was now all gone.

As Faith cleaned the baby's face with a wipe, ignoring Joy's howls of protest, she glanced over at Xander and asked, "So, what do we do now?"

"Well, there's no real rush at the moment, so the first things we do are to get Joy back home and then get you to class," the self- employed carpenter/contractor replied. "Then, tonight, I hang out around that door we found this morning and wait to see who, if anyone, comes out of it, then follow them around and see what they're doing.

"After we know what that is, then you, me and Giles decide what we need to do about it," as he plucked Joy from Faith's arms and held her up, smiling at the laughter now bubbling from the little girl. "If it makes Joy's and our lives safer, then we help them out.

"But if it looks like it might put any of you guys at risk, then I'm gonna shut them down," he stated, a look of grim determination on his face.

"Anyway I can."


"All right, Slayer, I'm done playing," the blond-haired vamp grinned as he slowly advanced on the brunette woman who looked as though she was barely managing to hold herself upright, her right arm hanging at an odd angle. The bright sunshine bathing the campus made the dead- white pallor of the speaker all the more noticeable, not that the ridged forehead and fangs weren't already a giveaway that there was something different about him.

"Killing you is gonna complete my hat trick, pet, and that delicious Slayer blood I'm gonna get from draining you is gonna make me stronger than ever before. Pretty soon, this Big Bad is gonna be a genuine legend, and people are gonna tremble even more than they do now, when they hear Spike's come to town," the bleached bloodsucker smiled at the thought.

"Hey, I've got an idea. How's about I turn you and then we both go after the Watcher's Council, and slaughter everyone we can find?" the vampire suggested, pausing for a moment to leer at the brunette's lush figure. "We'd make a great team, pet. We could leave a trail of blood and bodies behind us that'll carve us a place in history no one else'll ever get close to."

"I don't think so, Peroxide Boy. And as far as you being a legend goes? All you're ever gonna be is just a bad memory, asshole," Faith snarled at him, straightening herself to her full height through an act of sheer willpower. "The only people who're gonna remember you at all are the clerks in the Council's Records Room, when they make a list of all the wannabe vamps who thought they were gonna be something more important than just another pile of dust

"If you think you're gonna be walking away from this one, Spike, you're not just undead, you're brain-dead," she told him, the smile on her face as she looked at him that of a hungry predator looking at its next meal.

"Oh really, Slayer?" the Bleached Bad laughed. " 'Cause from where I'm standing, it looks like I'm the one with all the cards. Thanks to this dandy little bauble, here, I'm pretty much invulnerable to anything you might throw at me," he sneered, unable to resist gloating a bit as he held his hand up and wiggled his fingers to show off the silver ring with the dark stone he wore on his right ring finger. "Sunlight, stakes, decapitation, holy water - none of those things bother me anymore. You can 't hurt me, Slayer, so why don't you just lay down and die right now? It'll hurt a whole lot less than what I'm gonna do if you don't," he promised.

"Excuse me, sir, but would you be interested in some prime tickets for the astronomy exhibition?"

Caught unaware by the apparent non-sequitur, Spike reflexively began turning towards the familiar, but unexpected, voice behind him, and barely caught the blur heading towards him from the corner of his eye a split-second before something heavy and metallic smashed forcefully against the side of his head and drove him to land full-length on one of the concrete walkways crisscrossing the school campus.

"It'll help you see a lot of stars," the annoyingly recognizable voice continued, as the vampire immediately began scrambling back to his feet a moment before he felt something hard and metallic impacting against his right kneecap, shattering it into numerous fragments that even his supernatural healing ability would require several minutes, at a minimum, to repair. Stifling a scream of agony, he fell to the ground, his hands instinctively reaching to cradle his crushed extremity.

Looking up at his assailant as he frantically tried to regain his feet and escape the additional blows he knew would be coming, the vampire saw the tall brunet youth he had kidnapped and tormented along with the redheaded witch nearly two years before.

He also saw the metal crowbar in the youth's right hand that was swinging down to smash against the vampire's left elbow and drop him back onto the pavement with a muffled scream. In addition to the crowbar in his hand, his adversary had a tool belt with a carpenter's claw hammer and various other construction tools hanging from it buckled around his hips.

"You know, I've been getting real tired of guys hitting on my wife, just because she's gorgeous and incredibly sexy," Xander said conversationally, as he casually swung the crowbar against his adversary's left kneecap, shattering that also, before switching hands and breaking the vamp's upraised right forearm just above the wrist.

"But I'm even more tired of things like you just trying to hit her. You guys're really beginning to piss me off," he said, having to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the anguished screams of his opponent.

Keeping just outside of his prey's now handicapped reach, the demon hunter turned to address his wife.

"Do you want to finish this up, honey, or should I?" he asked cordially, trying to mask his concern as he quickly took in all the details of her appearance.

The blood splattered all over Faith looked like most of it was probably hers, and the way she was stiffly holding her right arm indicated a probable dislocation of the shoulder, and maybe a fractured forearm, too. Judging from the way she was slightly favoring her right side, the brunette most likely also had several cracked ribs, which along with the cuts and bruises should all be healed within two days, at most.

All in all, he'd seen her look worse, but not by much, and not very often.

Just the thought that this demon had tried to hurt his wife had probably raised his blood pressure twenty points; seeing what this creature had actually done to her jumped it up probably another fifty, he mused idly as he waited for an answer.

"You can do it, babe," Faith replied, as she slowly began making her way over to join him. "I'm feeling kind of tired; I was up three different times last night with Joy. Those new teeth coming in are making her really cranky."

"Any special requests, sweetheart?" the contractor/demon hunter asked before turning back to his quarry, who was futilely trying to crawl away as the two spoke.

"Well, according to Short, Blond and Broken there, that ring he's wearing is what's protecting him from the sunlight right now," the Slayer replied. "And he said that it'd protect him from stakes, holy water and decapitation, too. I'm pretty sure Rupe would probably like to get a look at it, if he could."

"You got it, honey," Xander smiled, as he carefully stepped on the blond vamp's right arm to hold it in place and then used the crowbar to break all of the fingers on that hand to prevent the demon from struggling effectively against him.

The moment the ring slid off his finger, Spike gave a final scream that quickly faded away as his long-dead body promptly burst into flame before turning to dust.

"It's not that I'm not glad to see you, babe," Faith said, as she wearily let herself slump against Xander as he came up and gently pulled her into a short and cautious hug, "but how did you know where we were and that I could use some help?"

"Well, I'm still working on the repairs the Epsilon Sigma frat house needed after their party last weekend, so when I heard someone downstairs yelling about some crazy people fighting over near the Science building, I thought I'd head over and see what was going on," he replied as he slid his arm around her back and then carefully scooped her legs up to carry her. The fact that she didn't immediately begin berating him and demand he put her back down gave him an indication of just how injured and weary she was.

"So you heard someone mentioning 'crazy people' and, right away, you thought of me?" she asked, as she tilted her head to look up at him as she let herself slump against his chest.

"That's so touching," she grinned, as she let herself relax in her husband's arms.

"Well, I wasn't sure it was you, at first," Xander admitted with a grin of his own as he looked down at her. "Now, if he had said 'drop dead gorgeous and crazy,' I would have known it was you, right away. As it was, I had to wait and see to make sure."

"You're such a romantic, Mr. Harris."

"Thank you, Mrs. Harris. Now let's get you to the ER. I'm pretty sure your arm is dislocated and maybe broken, and I think some of your ribs are, too."

"I'm pretty sure you're right. That bastard was one rough sonofabitch."

"Maybe if you're lucky, they'll use that colored stuff they have for casts now on your arm."

"Glad to see you recognize what the important things in life are, stud."


"AAAAIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEE!!!!!!!" As Riley smashed the small wooden box, Faith's scream echoed through the bell tower and the Gentlemen's heads began exploding, splattering the walls and floors with a revolting and foul-smelling combination of blood and ichor.

"Dammit!" Faith cursed as she wiped her face clean of some of the mess that had splashed on her and tried to brush the revolting clumps of viscera off her jacket and pants. "This stuff smells worse than Joy's diapers! I'm gonna have to get some more extra-strength All! to get rid of this stink!" she grumbled to herself.

"Faith? What are you doing here?" Riley questioned her as he circled the room, making sure that all of the Gentlemen and their straight- jacketed servants were really dead. "And how is it you could fight these things? They've got to be two or three times stronger than a normal human being!"

"Actually, they're more like four to five times stronger than a normal human, Cornfed," the brunette corrected him. "And what are you doing here?" she asked, pointedly returning the question.

"Well, I, uh, saw a light up here when I was walking back to the frat house after, uh, a, uh, game of paintball," the commando began, as he continued examining what remained of the creatures that had been terrorizing the town, while thinking quickly and trying to avoid any obvious lies, "so I came up to make sure that it wasn't a fire or anything like that starting up here. This place is really very important historically, you know."

"Look, Riley, stow the chicken shit explanations, okay?" Faith brusquely interrupted him before he could say anything more. "You're about as convincing with that 'paintball' line as Parker Abrams would be telling people he's joining a monastic order, you know?"

The two of them both grinned momentarily as they considered that image, while Faith also remembered, with mischievous delight, the expression on the upperclassman's face when she had whispered into his ear exactly what she would do if his hands ever again 'accidentally' touched her without her permission, before finishing up with the clincher, "...and if my husband ever found out what you did, they'd be finding very small pieces of you scattered around the area in a ten mile radius for the next two months..."

"I'm thinking you're involved with that black-ops group that's been running around the campus here, zapping the things that go bump in the night," the brunette opined to the agent, watching him out of the corner of her eye as she, too, checked the area, and was rewarded with seeing him blanch the slightest bit at her suggestion.

"And before you start denying anything, or you or any of your buddies go all gung ho and think about trying to take me into custody or anything, Rambo," she continued, as she pulled out her cell phone and hit speed-dial, wanting to keep him on the defensive, "I just want to warn you that all that that would get you guys is a lot of broken bones and a whole shit load more trouble than you can possibly imagine.

"Hold on a minute, okay?" she told him, before he could reply, holding up a finger to him in a 'Wait!' gesture as she heard someone pick up on the other end.

"Hey, babe, how are things at your end?...I'm all finished up here, so I should be home soon... Did Joy get her ten o'clock dose of her antibiotic?... Good... Look, I've got to swing by the supermarket on my way home for some more detergent. You wouldn't believe how bad these things smell after they explode... I'll tell you all about it when I get home, okay?... All right... See you shortly... Give Joy a kiss goodnight for me... Love ya," she concluded her end of the conversation, then stowed the phone back in her pocket

"Joy's got a cold and an ear infection," Faith explained when she saw Riley staring at her, a strange look on his face. "Something wrong with that, Cornfed?" she asked somewhat belligerently, a trace of the 'old' Faith peeking out of her new mother-wife-college student persona.

"Oh. Uh, no! Not at all, Faith!" Riley immediately replied placatingly, holding up his hands in front of him in a 'Hold on!' type of gesture. "Just trying to adjust to seeing you kicking the snot out of these guys the way you did, and then incorporating that into the Faith Harris image I see in my classes, that's all."

"Okay, that's cool. Look, I'll give you a call tomorrow, so we can all get together and talk," Faith told him. "There's a whole bunch of things going on in this town that you probably don't know squat about, and I think we need to talk about exactly what it is you guys are doing here, too. Okay?"


"So, doc, you're saying that dear old Maggie has been building her own personal Frankenstein monster, using the best military technology available, along with the spare demon parts she's been able to divert from the various programs that her pet mad scientists have been running while experimenting on all of the demons your field teams have been capturing, and that now ol' Frankie boy has turned around and killed her and just about everyone else involved in his creation?" Faith asked in her most reasonable tone of voice, as she and Giles and the remaining Initiative field teams were briefed by the surviving base scientists on the admittedly meager data they had been able to assemble from the remnants of the ADAM project data files.

The former librarian cringed inwardly as soon as he heard his Slayer begin speaking, recognizing that particular manner of speech as the one the Dark Slayer normally adopted just before she began ripping things apart (usually literally) and generally leaving a path of mayhem and destruction behind her.

"And, to make matters even more interesting, this do-it-yourself super-monster is now running around town free, and we have no real idea what his programming is, although we can make a pretty good guess that it doesn't forbid him from killing people, and some of your guys think he may be interested in making more just like him, so that he doesn't get lonely.

"Have I missed anything here?" she concluded.


"The, the only solution that I have managed to discover would, uh, involve the three of us merging ourselves into a single entity. Mind, body and soul are, uh, the requisite characteristics that we would then provide to, to create this entity," Giles informed them, as they sat around the coffee table in the Harris' living room.

"You would provide the body aspect, Faith, because your Slayer characteristics would be considered innate to your body, while you would be contributing the emotions and the driving will, so to speak, which forms the soul facet, Xander," the reinstated Watcher explained to his 'children' as they listened attentively from their positions on the couch, "although your physical abilities would still undoubtedly be combined with Faith's, while my knowledge of magic and spellcasting would supply the third portion, the mind.

"The, uhm, the resulting being would then possess the aggregate of all of our abilities and power, making the fusion superior to this Adam creature the, uh, the Initiative has managed to create," he observed, his forehead wrinkled with concern.

"I know that this is far from an ideal solution to the problem we now face, but it is the only one I have been able to unearth that I feel would have any real chance of success. Do you have any questions about this?" he asked, looking at his children.

"Will this help us kill this bastard and keep Joy safe?" Faith asked the question uppermost in both their minds.

At Giles' answering nod, the two mystical warriors glanced at each other and smiled.

"Then, let's do it, so we can go bury this asshole, once and for all," Xander said.


"So, you are the Slayer that Mother's files described," the seven- foot tall cyber-demon-android stated as he looked across the room hidden inside the Initiative's base at a mystically augmented Faith/Xander/Giles.

"Got it in one, Robbie," the composite Slayer agreed. "Have you got any last words you want tell me before I shut you down?"

"Yes," Adam smiled at her, as he raised his right arm, and it began morphing into a mini-gun. "Die!"

"Ain't gonna happen," the amalgamation decreed, as she/they started forward at the same instant Adam began raising his arm.

As the Giles' portion of the fusion chanted a defensive spell that would help ward them against any physical assaults, the Xander/Faith segment, using their combined speed to reach the cyber-demon-android faster than it had believed possible, attacked, their left hand grasping and crushing the min-gun and tearing it free from the arm assembly housing it, while their right hand drove forward, the enchanted knife slicing deep into Adam's chest and then downward, eviscerating the technological golem.

As the knife then swung upwards, distracting the monster with an attack on the creature's neck, Xander/Faith's now-free hand plunged into the gaping hole in its chest and ripped out the small reactor providing it the power it needed to function.

"This is impossible," Adam stated, as he saw his opponent holding his power source. "Your personnel file indicated that you were not nearly this fast or strong."

"We cheated," Faith/Xander/Giles smiled at the android, before the knife sliced through his neck and his head dropped to the floor.


Correspondence from the offices of Murdock & Wells, Attorneys at Law, Denver, CO:

"... It is with deep regret that we inform you of the passing of Ms. Joyce Summers on February 11 of this year of a brain aneurysm..."


"We sent the Key to the Slayer, so that she could protect it. Should the Beast gain control of it, she would use it to open up a gateway to her home, and the world will end as all the dimensions crash down into each other."

"Okay, I hear you, man, you sent the Key to the Slayer. Now tell me what it looks like. How big is it? What color? What's it made of? Come on, man, tell me - what's it look like?"

Xander was practically screaming as he questioned the dying man. It was obvious the guy didn't have much time left - minutes maybe, if that, and he could hear the psycho blonde buried under all that rubble over there screaming about him ruining her dress as she slowly dug her way free. He had to find out as much as he could about this Key thing so he could make sure it couldn't threaten his family in any way, and he had to do it as quickly as possible. He had realized he couldn't go one on one with that headcase barely five seconds into the fight, after she shrugged off his first blows.

"We needed her to care about it, so that she would protect it as best she could," the monk gasped out. Xander could hear the faint gurgle in his lungs as he spoke, as the blood from his injuries slowly filled them up.

"I am truly sorry," the man whispered, his strength almost completely gone. "We needed her to care about the Key, and what more could a mother care about, than her own child?"

"WHAT? NO!" Xander screamed, as realization of what the words meant suddenly kicked in. "NO!! Don't you do this to us, you bastards!! No fucking way!! Do you hear me?! NO FUCKING WAY!!! I'll see you all in Hell first!! Do you hear me? I'll see you all in Hell first!! BASTARDS!!"

The expressionless eyes of the man in his arms gazed up at him, unseeing and uncaring, as he screamed his futile protests at the skies above.


"So tell me again, why, exactly, you guys have set yourselves up here in these old ruins of the high school, which, incidentally, look as though they should belong in Beirut," Riley noted, parenthetically, as he helped Xander unload two crates of Stinger anti-tank missiles from the back of his pickup.

"Oh, by the way," he added, " I am really not here now, helping you unload these *extremely* illegal items you seemed to have tripped over somewhere in your travels. If anyone's interested, I'm currently hiking my way along the Appalachian Trail for the next week, along with Graham, Forrest and the rest of the guys. If you need any backup, just give us a call and we'll be here ASAP."

"Thanks, man, I can't begin to tell you how much we appreciate this," the brunet replied, as they stacked the crate alongside several crates of ammunition. Looking at the supplies already stored here, Riley decided, it appeared Faith and Xander were ready for a small war.

"As far as why we're here," Xander explained, "there's some loony- tune psycho-blonde bimbo from another dimension out there who's looking for Joy, 'cause she's somehow gotten the idea in her head that she can use her in some ritual to get herself back home, and we're here because the Hellmouth's energies will interfere with any spells she might try to use to locate her."

Although he hated not telling his friend the full story, there was no way Xander was going to give any government group any information about his child's possible capabilities. Considered on a simple need- to-know basis, no one outside the Scoobies needed to know.

"Why does she think having Joy would help her accomplish something like that?" the commando team leader asked, his brow furrowed with concern for his friend's family.

Before Xander could say anything further, he heard Giles joining the conversation.

"Well, Riley, the fact that Joy is the child of a Slayer is, in and of itself alone, quite significant and noteworthy. When you add to that the fact that she was also conceived in the vicinity of a Hellmouth, a veritable nexus of arcane energy, it could conceivably lead some people to believe that she would be a powerful focus that could be used to augment any type of ritual one might wish to perform," the Watcher smoothly explained.

Giles had no qualms at all about lying to anyone about anything, especially if it assured the safety of his granddaughter, but fortunately, in this instance, everything he had said was completely true regarding the circumstances of Joy's birth. The fact that the child was also potentially a source of almost unimaginable power had never arisen, and there was no reason that he could see to tell anyone about it, anyway.

"Hey, Riley," Faith greeted him as she entered the debris-strewn ruins of the library, carrying a sleeping Joy in her arms. She walked over and kissed him on the cheek, receiving the same back from him as he gave her and Joy a quick hug. "Tell the guys thanks for everything you've done for us, okay? Like Xand said, we really do appreciate it."

"Hey, it's what friends do for each other," he told her. "You guys have helped us every time we've had a problem, now it's our chance to help you.

"We want to make sure you guys are around long enough for all of us to start busting on the guys Joy, here, is eventually going to start bringing home, you know," he said with a grin. "Can you imagine the expression on the poor kid's face when he walks in and meets all her honorary uncles for the first time, and we start giving him the third degree? Nobody wants to miss out on a chance like that! Just let us know what we can do, okay?"

"Will do, man," Xander smiled back, as they began heading back to where Riley had parked the pickup. "And again, thanks. For everything."

"Are you guys sure you don't want anyone else up here with you? We could at least help with the watches at night," the soldier suggested yet again.

"Thank you, but no. We'll be fine," Giles answered, smiling appreciatively at the commando leader's offer. "The fewer people about, the less likely the chances of anyone suspecting where we might be. It's also much easier to magically conceal a small number of people from any type of scrying and location spells that might be used," he explained.

"Okay then, we'll be waiting to hear from you," the soldier told them, as he started the engine.

"Remember, if we don't hear from you every twelve hours, somebody'll be up to check," he reminded them before he drove off.

"So, any better idea about how long we have to keep hiding, Giles?" Xander asked as they returned to their temporary camp inside the school.

"All the portents from the seers I have been able to speak with indicate that there will be several instances of significant import occurring within the next twelve to twenty-four hours," came the Watcher's response. "That is the clearest and best information we have been able to come up with. Other than that, no one seems able to provide anything aside from vague prognostications speaking of battle, loss and triumph by the side best prepared.

"I have even gone so far as to contact an old friend who has, on occasion and with great reluctance and extreme efforts, performed divinations for the Council in the past," the Englishman continued. "Her only response to my questions was yet another enigmatic verse, that 'Beauty and Duty will clash, and will not be seen again 'til their cycle returns once more, at the call of the weeping willow.'

"When I pressed her for more detail," he elaborated, "she told me that that was all that she could tell me or anyone, and that whatever these upcoming events might be, they would provide the forces of Light with an unparalleled opportunity to gain dominance over the Darkness."

"I guess Cryptic 101 is still a required course at all of the big psychic universities, huh, G?" Faith stated, as she carefully laid Joy down in her portable crib. "I gotta say, all of this obscure and mysterious bullshit is really beginning to piss me off something fierce.

"I just want to know how we can get rid of this Hell-bitch, so we don't have to worry about her trying to grab Joy anymore," she concluded. "There is no way I'm letting my baby get involved with any of the stuff that's been going done around here, lately. The worst thing Joy is ever gonna have to worry about is choosing the color of her Prom dress."

"Amen, darling," Xander agreed, leaning in and kissing her forehead. "Now, why don't you go lie down and try to catch some rest now? You were up with Joy real early this morning, and we're all gonna need to be in top shape for whatever's coming. Okay?"


Several hours later
The burned-out library
Sunnydale High School ruins

The faintest indications of energy beginning to swirl around the blasted confines of the library and barely audible crackling and popping sounds were their first indications that something was happening. After first making certain that he hadn't dozed off and been dreaming, Giles quietly awoke both his children and they began preparing themselves for whatever might be approaching.

As the miasma of multi-colored energy tendrils started to dance erratically about the center of the room, Xander picked up his Barrett M-82A1 .50 machine gun, complete with a custom-made 30-round drum magazine, and Giles began gathering the arcane energy surrounding them, the syllables for a massive lightning bolt spell poised on his lips, while Faith prepared to bolt, if necessary, with a still-slumbering Joy in one arm and an MP5A1, filled with blessed mixed hollow point and magnesium tipped-ammunition, in her free hand.

The leaping stands of multicolored light cavorted wildly, coalescing into a small glowing dot that slowly expanded into a glowing disc of lambent blue-white light that illuminated the surrounding area with a soft radiance. Shadowy forms barely visible inside the discs looked as though they were gaining solidity as they watched attentively, seeming to the vigilant onlookers as though they were slowly approaching the surface of the disc from some great distance deep inside.

After several moments, the apparently struggling figures looked as if they were close enough to touch, should anyone be foolish enough to actually reach out and feel the shimmering disc. Then, with a sudden, unexpected, silent flash, the disc seemed to explode outwards, and the shadowy figures contained within fell to the charred floorboards below, groaning quietly.

All three of the adults who had witnessed the event stared in shocked astonishment at the two figures lying on the floor before them, numb disbelief on their faces.

After a moment's pause to accept what their eyes were seeing, Giles, Xander and Faith rushed over to the two people coughing and shaking uncontrollably on the floor.

As he pulled the red-haired figure into a reclining position, Xander could hardly believe his eyes as the girl opened her own eyes and stared up at him in surprise.

"Xander?" she managed to gasp, before apparently fainting in his arms.

"Willow?" he asked fearfully, before looking over to the equally limp, unconscious figure lying in Giles' arms. "Buffy?"

Chapter 2

"I was being chased by this group of vamps after the bowstring on my crossbow snapped, and one of them ripped my bag of spell components and I lost pretty much everything I had brought with me," Willow was telling them, as the newly-reunited group sat around in a circle, everyone staring at each other in a mixture of disbelief, confusion and stunned happiness and joy.

The looks on both Giles' and Faith's faces had mirrored Xander's perfectly after they had recognized the faces of their believed-dead, suddenly-newly-appeared friends, who were now apparently lying unconscious on the scorched floor of the ruined library. A quick field medic-level examination had determined that neither woman seemed to have any immediately life-threatening injuries, although each of them sported a large number of cuts, scratches, abrasions and contusions, and Buffy also had a large bruise on her left temple that had both Giles and Xander concerned about the possibility of a concussion, although the fact that the blonde had soon awoken from her apparent fainting spell had reassured them somewhat.

The girls' recognition of Faith had posed a bit of a problem for Xander and Giles initially, but the girls' weakened state had allowed Xander and Giles restrain them long enough to at least assure them all of a conditional secession of hostilities while the two men explained all that had happened since Graduation.

Both Buffy and Willow's reflexive preliminary hostility had eventually turned to a very guarded acceptance, after finding out that they had somehow been transported two years into their future and that the brunette was now not only reformed but happily married to Xander, and had then moved to a very tentative, incipient friendliness upon discovering the existence of Joy.

After she and Buffy had fussed sufficiently over the now-awake and laughing baby (despite any reservations they might hold regarding her mother, Xander was still her father, and Joy was quite definitely adorable, there was absolutely no question about that!), Willow begun her explanation of how the two of them had not only survived the Graduation debacle but managed to somehow appear here, two years later.

"Anyway, I was trying to get away from the vamps and the only possible way I could see was through the school, so I started running down the side hallway and I was intending to get out through the back door of the library, like Buffy was going to do, but when I got there, I saw the Mayor mange to knock her away from the window and back towards the stacks where you and Cordy used to go, 'to check for reference materials'," the redhead teased her childhood friend with a wide grin.

The brunet shifted uncomfortably as looked out of the corners of his eyes, trying to innocuously check out his wife's reaction to the reference to his former girlfriend, only to find her also grinning at him, having obviously anticipated his reaction to Willow's words.

"Yeah, Mayor McMonster could move a lot faster than we expected," Buffy agreed, giving a sidelong glance towards Faith as she tried to gauge the younger (was she actually younger now, since the two Scoobies had time jumped those two years? she wondered) Slayer's reaction to her mention of her former mentor.

"Hey, nothing to worry about here, B," Faith announced, having noticed the senior Slayer's surreptitious evaluation of her while she spoke. "Giles, Xander and I worked out all the problems about me and the Big Boss and my authority issues a while back."

The brunette then turned to face her elder compatriot more fully as she spoke.

"Look, I can understand you guys still being a little leery about me, especially since you just put me in the hospital last night as far as you're concerned, B," she continued, "but I'm a completely different person than the one you remember.

"I was royally screwed up back then," Faith admitted, staring off into the distance as she spoke. "I was scared and angry and bitter about how my life was turning out, and I was way jealous of you, B. You had hit the good-life lottery, and I was just so damned mad at you that you didn't seem to appreciate everything you had going for you," she confessed, turning her head and looking the Blonde Slayer straight in the eye as she spoke.

"You had a mother who not only gave a shit about you as a daughter, but who was doing everything she could to support you with the Slaying stuff. You had friends who cared enough about you to want to help out, people who were willing to put their own asses on the line if that was what was needed to try to keep you safe. You had a Watcher who cared so much about you and your safety that he got canned from his job, but who hung around anyway, to try to help keep you safe and alive. I looked at you having all this stuff that I had only dreamed about, and I saw that you were taking it all for granted, and it pissed me off no end, because I didn't have jack- shit, let alone anything close to what you had," the brunette explained.

"You - you never said anything to us," Buffy protested, staring at the younger Slayer in a mix of confusion and disagreement. "How were we supposed to know how things were with you if you wouldn't tell us anything?"

"I had my pride, B, and that was pretty much all I had. What was I supposed to say?" Faith challenged her, holding their stare as she spoke. "Just walk in one day and say, 'Hey guys, guess what? My mother walked out on me and my dad for good when I was nine years old, not that she was around all that much before that, or of any use when she was around and sober. And after that, dear old dad started crawling into the bottle every night, instead of just on weekends, and his asshole friends started hanging around the house more and more, with their booze and their whores and their drugs.' ?

"After she left, I had take care of myself, because absolutely nobody gave a shit about whether I was around or not, except when it came to cooking and cleaning up the kitchen and shopping for food for everybody," she continued, .

"Of course, that all changed when I turned thirteen and started filling out some," the Dark Slayer added, a bitter smile on her face as old memories once again ran through her mind. Buffy and Willow both noticed as Xander silently reached over and took hold of the brunette's hand, squeezing it softly, as she paused for a moment.

"One of the asshole's drinking buddies finally noticed I was growing up, and decided he was gonna be my first, regardless of what I might think about it. I was in the kitchen, making dinner for everybody when he came in and tried to put some moves on me. I told him to stop, and when he wouldn't listen, I kicked him in the balls and then hit him with the pan I was heating the spaghetti sauce up in," she smiled as she recalled the satisfaction she had felt at that act of defiance. "Everyone in the house could hear him screaming from being burned by the sauce, and they all came running in to see what was going on."

Giles sat quietly off to the side and watched the two recently returned distaff Scoobies' reactions, having heard all of this before, and reflexively forced down Ripper's impulse to find both of those bloody bastards, and anyone else who had stood by and let his daughter be neglected and hurt, and break a few dozen bones while he decided exactly what he would do to them as recompense for her distress.

"When he realized what his buddy had been trying to do, my father started kicking the living shit of him. I can't begin to tell you how happy I was when I saw him do that, because it made me feel like he really cared about me, even if he never said anything like that to me, before.

"At least I was, until I heard him cursing the bastard out and telling him he had promised me to his bookie, in return for clearing his slate," Faith said, as the two other women gasped in horror and disbelief at that revelation. "I packed my stuff, not that there was all that much of it, and took off that night and never looked back. Life on the street wasn't any kind of picnic, I can tell you that, but it was way better than living in a place where you knew someone would try to sell you off to any sleazebag with the money.

"If I had to sell my ass, at least I'd be getting the money for it, not that piece of shit," she said, her mouth looking more like a harsh slash across her face than a smile, at that moment. Seeing the horror-struck looks on the girls' faces at her statement (Willow looked as though she might actually be physically sick), the brunette told them in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, "You'd be amazed at what you're willing to do to get enough money for a meal, when you can't even find anything to eat in a dumpster, guys. I was on my own for almost two years, until I got Called, and Lynda found me."

The brunette's eyes lit up with happiness and her expression softened for a moment, as she remembered the time she had shared with her Watcher. "She was like the mother I had always wanted and never had, ya know. She told me that she was there to help me, to teach me what I needed to know about vampires and demons, things I needed to know if I wanted to live longer than a couple weeks. I didn't trust her at first and treated her like shit, but she wouldn't give up on me. She just kept on being there, telling me things I needed to know, like the best and fastest way to kill whatever it was I was fighting, the best places to look to find Gorzandi demons, that Molokai demons will die if they're exposed to a mixture of beetle root, ginseng and crushed papaya, stuff like that. Everything was going great, and we kicked demon ass everywhere we went. At least we did until we ran across Kakistos, and he killed her, and then I was all alone again, only with a master vampire chasing me across the country, now, and nobody who cared about me in the least."

Xander cleared his throat a bit noisily at that statement, and Faith turned her head to beam at Xander.

"At least that was what I thought, until I met Boytoy, here," she smiled at her husband. "I didn't realize it when we met, but he was the best reason I could have to live. It took me making some of the biggest mistakes of my life, almost killing him and almost getting killed myself, to make me realize that there were people out there who didn't care about my past and who could and did care about me, for myself." The brunette's eyes glistened with unshed tears as she beamed with happiness as her former nemeses watched, speechless at all the revelations they had heard.

"I've got my own family, now, and everything I ever wanted - a husband that loves me, a beautiful little baby girl, and a father I know cares about me, who I can trust not to screw me over and try to sell me to his bookie to square his gambling debts," she said as she smiled over at Xander as he held Joy, and Giles, who returned her smile with one of his own. "We've got our own place, now, I'm in college, studying for a degree, and I've got everything I ever wanted in my life. Believe me, I'm not gonna do *anything* that might screw this up."

"Faith, I - I - don't, uh, I don't know, uh, what to say," Buffy stammered, looking at the woman across from her. "I - I'm sorry that you felt like couldn't tell us anything," she managed to get out.

"You - your father - Faith, I don't - I can't -" Willow semi-babbled, staring at the brunette with a horrified expression on her face. "Oh goddess! I'm -I'm sorry you had to - to do what you, you did - We should have been better friends -"

"You can trust Faith now the same way you trust me, Will, Buffy," Xander spoke up in support of his wife. "Yeah, she did have some major issues with trusting people and letting them get close to her when she first showed up here, but she's not the person you remember. I swear to you, on my life, you *can* trust her. Just as much as you trust me."

"Indeed, Buffy, Willow," Giles addressed both girls as he, too, chimed in his full-hearted support for his surrogate daughter. "Once she came out of the coma she had been in, and was made aware of the changes that had ensued during her absence and the potential magnitude that her actions had to affect the balance here on the Hellmouth, Faith fully embraced her responsibilities as the Slayer and, since then, her actions have been exemplary. She has worked just as hard as you did, Buffy, when we first believed you to be the sole combatant against the forces of darkness, here in Sunnydale.

"Fortunately for all our sakes, that is no longer the case."

Seeing the incomprehension in the newcomers' eyes his words had engendered, he added, "Don't worry. There have been a number of significant changes that have occurred here in Sunnydale since your disappearance, and I will be delighted to explain all of them to you, at length. But before we do that, we need to find out how it is you managed to survive the Ascension and subsequently arrive here.

"I believe you were explaining what had happened in the library before we ended up being sidetracked, Willow?" the Englishman reminded her, his happiness and delight at seeing the two of them once again, alive and well, lighting up his face.

"Oh yeah, that's right," the redheaded Wiccan agreed. "Well, like I said, I saw the Mayor manage to hit Buffy while he was chasing her, and she flew back into the stacks, where he couldn't get at her easily, so I went around the back way to try and find her while he was ranting about how we couldn't stop him, no matter what we tried to do.

"I think it was just about that time when he finally noticed all of the bags and drums of the fuel oil and fertilizer mix that we had moved in there, and I knew we didn't have a lot of time, so when I remembered a gateway spell I had read about in one of Jenny's spell books, I tried to gate us out of there, because there was no way we would be able to get out through either the rear window or one of the doors before the Mayor could get to us," she explained.

"The portal formed just like the book said it would, and I grabbed Buffy and dove through with her, probably just before you set off the bomb, Xander. But, I guess I must have transposed the spatial and temporal coordinates, because instead of transporting us a hundred yards outside the school, it sent us here, which, from what you told us, is about a hundred weeks after Graduation," she finished up her explanation, as she reached down and picked up her bottle of spring water top take a sip.

"Good lord, Willow, the two of you could have been killed using that spell!" Giles exclaimed, his face a combination of surprise, alarm, dismay and consternation as she completed her recitation. "You, you could have materialized several stories above the ground and fallen to your deaths, or possibly have appeared within some other existing solid object!"

"Actually, Giles, it's really pretty safe, according to Jenny's notes about the spell, because you won't move at all if there's something already in the spot you're trying to get to," the redhead corrected her mentor's statement. "But, more to the point, our only choices at that moment were the Mayor, the bomb or the portal."

"Yeah, gotta go with the Willster on this one, G-Man," Xander chimed in, as he got up and moved behind both Willow and Buffy, leaning forward to hug them both. "With choices like that, Door Number Three is definitely the winner!"

Realizing the truth of Xander's statement, the ex-librarian immediately sought to make amends.

"You are quite correct, Xander, and I apologize for my outburst, Willow," Giles said, looking over at his two lost children and smiling widely. "It seems old habits die hard, and concern about your spellcasting capabilities seems to be one of mine, although your presence here now adequately demonstrates that my concerns are overwrought. I cannot begin to express just how happy I am to see the two of you here, safe and alive."

"And we are extremely happy to be here to make you guys happy," Buffy grinned back, feeling a bit more reassured now about her and Willow's somewhat anomalous return to the place which held so many memories for all of them.

"Speaking of which, what exactly are you guys doing here?" the Blonde Slayer brought up one of the questions that had been puzzling her. "Faith said you two've got your own place, and the burned out ruins of our old high school are most definitely not the place for a camping experience, especially with a baby.

"So what's going on to make you guys take this little beauty here away from her home and hang out at a place like this?" she asked, as she got up and moved to crouch down next to Joy's portable crib and gaze down at the peacefully sleeping toddler.

Seeing the grim looks that passed among their three friends, the two time-lost Scoobies immediately realized that trouble still actively sought out the guardians of the Hellmouth, regardless of who they might be.

A quick synopsis of the past two years' history quickly caught up the new arrivals.

Willow, although happy to discover that her parents had survived the Graduation debacle, was somewhat dismayed when she learned that they, too, had moved away after her funeral, talking about accepting any of several teaching positions in Europe that had been offered them.

"Wow! Guess we can't keep calling you the normal guy, anymore, huh, Xand?" was Buffy's primary comment upon learning of Xander's reactivation of, and merger with, the Hyena and Soldier Spirits templates, accompanied by Willow's wide-eyed nod of agreement.

"Actually, Buffy, I seriously doubt that we could ever have properly applied the term 'normal' to Xander, irregardless of his actual capabilities," was Giles' droll observation, which elicited wide- eyed, dumbfounded looks from both of the newcomers at his display of humor, an indignant 'Hey!' from the target of his wit, and a brief snort of laughter from Faith.

Both girls had stared in horrified disbelief when told of Joyce Summer's passing, before breaking down into tears, Giles' reassurance to Buffy that Joyce had passed away almost instantly and without any pain from the aneurysm providing little solace to either of them.

Once it seemed as though they had temporarily exhausted their tears over hearing of Joyce's fate and now appeared to be in a sort of dazed emotional shock, Xander, Faith and Giles then took turns informing the two time-travelers of the recent appearance of Glory and her search for the "Key" which would return her to her home dimension, ending with the revelation by the monk of the "Key's" true identity.

"So, you're telling us that this Hell-bitch is looking for Joy so she can use her to rip open a portal between here and her home, huh?" Willow asked, summarizing the most recent information they had just received as she wiped at the tear tracks streaking her cheeks and only succeeded in smudging the grime on her face even more.

"Yeah, that's pretty much it in a nutshell," Xander agreed, as he pulled his cell phone out of one of the assault vest's pockets. "Which is why I'm gonna call Riley and get him to come pick you guys up and get you out of here before she shows up.

"You guys need to get looked over a bit more thoroughly, to make sure your little excursion doesn't have any long-term effects we might have missed," he paused to explain before punching his speed-dial.

"Uh-uh, Xand," Willow shook her head negatively. "Put the phone away! I'm not going anywhere! I'm staying here with you guys."

"Will, don't worry, you can trust these guys," he reassured his childhood friend. "They'll take care of both of you and make sure everything is cool until this whole thing with Glory is over and we can come pick you up."

"I'm not going, Xander! Don't even try to argue! Look! Resolve Face, see?" the redhead interrupted him, pointing out her expression to him the same way she had done dozens of times while they were in high school.

"Put your phone away, Xand," Buffy repeated the redhead's words from her position next to the crib, looking down at the quietly sleeping baby. "Will's right. We're not going anywhere. I am most definitely *not* leaving you guys alone to face off against this uber- skank you've been telling us about, so that she can grab this little cherub, here.

"You guys are all the family I've - we've got left, now," she explained, turning to take them all in with a glance, her eyes glistening slightly with the lingering trace of her tears, "and there's no way I'm gonna let that bitch get anywhere near this little darling. The only thing my niece, here, is ever gonna worry about is deciding who she's going to let take her to her Prom.

"She is my niece, right?" the blonde asked, a bit hesitantly, and Faith could clearly hear the hint of fear of rejection and doubt in her voice as she asked the question.

"Damn straight, B," the brunette immediately reassured her, jumping up to walk over and pull the senior Slayer into a hug. The blonde stiffened reflexively for a brief second, before relaxing and returning the embrace. "We're all family here. A little dysfunctional, maybe, but we're still a family.

"That goes for you, too, Red, so get yourself over here, okay?" Faith added before anyone else could say anything, looking over and holding out her arm for the witch to join her and Buffy.

It took the barest fraction of second for the apprentice witch to join the other two women in the hug, as Xander and Giles exchanged happy and relieved smiles as they watched.

The happy family mood was broken a moment later, as Xander caught the slightest scuff of a foot moving across broken rubble and a shift in the wind brought him the faintest hint of another presence, and he immediately shifted into "Protector" mode.

"Possible hostiles," he announced quietly as he whirled around and snatched up the Barrett, leveling it at the fire-blackened and charred library entrance as he positioned himself between it and the others. He gave a small prayer of thanks for the modifications Graham had one of the Initiative's gunsmiths make on the rifle as he flicked the selector switch to 'FULL" - a fully automatic .50 caliber weapon was something you just didn't find at most gunshops.

Giles moved to flank him, the words of the lightning bolt spell quietly flowing from his lips, small sparks dancing across his fingertips, as Faith quickly gathered up Joy and grabbed the MP5A1 she had held earlier. Buffy grabbed a longsword lying nearby in one hand and a mace with her other as she moved up to take up a position just to Xander's left, while Willow hurriedly cocked Giles' crossbow and also moved to position herself between the library entrance and Faith, while the brunette carefully slid Joy into a baby carrier strapped to her chest.

"You know, I'm starting to get the impression you guys have been avoiding me," they heard a somewhat lilting, slightly nasal voice announce as they watched an attractive, well-built blonde stroll into the library and pause, hands on her hips and a smirk adorning her classically beautiful features. She was wearing a red silk spaghetti- strap top, black Donna Karan pants and black high-heeled sandals, and looked every inch the fashion plate pin-up she was.

"Well, how about that," Xander automatically snapped back at her. "She's looks like Harmony, but she can understand and use three syllable words. Color me amazed."

"I'm gonna color you blood-red, sweetie, if you don't watch that smart mouth of yours," the blonde sneered at him. "And I'll be using her blood to do it," she added, pointing to Faith.

"Threatening my family definitely isn't getting you any gold stars, here, Bore-ificus," Xander told her. "So, why don't you just run along home now and let us get back to the campfire songfest we had planned? We were just about to start 'Row, row, row your boat' and it's one of my favorites."

"You're really beginning to piss me off, Slayer," the blonde ignored Xander as she turned her gaze to Faith. "All you have to do is just give me back my Key, and nobody'll get hurt. It's mine, and I'm getting real tired of all you monkeys hiding it, so I can't go home.

"I'm tired of being stuck in this shit-hole dimension of yours, I'm tired of having to look for my Key, and I WANT TO GO HOME!!!" she screamed, stomping her foot like a child having a hissy-fit, although not many children could crack and fracture an oaken floor the way she had just done.

The look on her face was that of a five-year-old about to throw a tantrum because they didn't get their way, but Xander was quite certain that this one would be much more dangerous than one thrown by any normal child.

Accordingly, he simply pulled the trigger and held it back as he emptied the Barrett's drum magazine into the blonde, watching impassively as she was thrown backwards into the darkness by the multiple impacts of the .50 caliber projectiles.

"THAT'S IT!!!"

The outraged scream echoed around the ruined walls, as Glory reappeared at the library's entrance only seconds later. Her red silk top and black pants were tattered and torn to little more than rags and the heel of one of her sandals was missing, making her limp in a way that would have been almost comical, if everyone watching didn't know that the damage Xander had just inflicted would have destroyed an armored troop carrier.

"This was my favorite top!" she shrieked, as she paused to kick off her sandals. "And now it's ruined!"

Before she could say anything more, Giles completed his incantation and threw both his hands out towards the blonde, and lightning leapt from his fingers, to hurl her backwards against the already battered and damaged wall behind her, causing the wall and the structure above it to collapse on top of her.

Buffy and Willow stared in stunned disbelief for a moment, as they listened to the outraged shrieking and cursing emanating from beneath the pile of rubble and watched the debris slowly begin to shift, apparently of its own accord, while the other three Scoobies, having either previously witnessed or been informed of the results of similar occurrences, quickly began implementing previously discussed emergency plans.

"Faith! World Tour! Giles! Ice cream run! Now!" Xander yelled, as he headed towards the boxes stacked against the back wall.

As Xander broke open one of the crates holding the Stinger missiles that Riley had delivered earlier, Faith threw the group a worried, heartsick look and took off deeper into the ruins of the school, away from the scene of their latest confrontation.

Giles, meanwhile, was busy chanting and gesturing towards the pile of rubble under which Glory was buried, and Buffy and Willow were astonished to see the air above the rubble seem to glow and swirl a moment, before a large mass of ice suddenly formed around the pile of debris, eliciting another loud, but muffled, shriek of outrage. The two girls also saw the Watcher slump back against the wall behind him, apparently exhausted.

Xander quickly pulled two of the Stingers from their shipping containers and moved back to his previous position, carefully setting one of the missiles against the wall before beginning to fiddle with the controls of the one he still held.

The sounds of multiple gunfire and ricocheting bullets filled the halls a moment later, and Faith quickly came running back into the library, her body curled protectively around the baby carrier she wore, her MP5 spitting short, controlled bursts back into the darkness behind her as she returned the fire from her unseen assailants, while Joy howled her displeasure at being awoken so unceremoniously.

"She's got somebody out there with automatic weapons," the brunette gasped, as she quickly changed clips while the others looked at her in alarm.

"Good lord! You're bleeding, Faith!" Giles noted the splotches of red color splattering her left sleeve as he pushed himself off the wall and snatched up his own MP5 and headed towards her.

"Somebody, help me check Joy!" the brunette requested, as she awkwardly tried to unlock the harness one-handedly while keeping an eye on the hallway she had just exited.

Willow and Buffy both rushed over to help her as Xander and Giles each took up guard positions at the library's entrances, the two men throwing worried glances back at the women as they anxiously waited for news of the situation.

"What happened, Faith?" Xander demanded, as he watched for any sign of an approaching enemy, while Glory's barely audible screams of rage provided a background chorus to his words.

"I was about halfway down the hallway when I heard something moving about eighty, maybe ninety, feet further down, so I moved off to the side, right before somebody opened up on me. Sounded like they might be using AK-47's," the dark-haired Slayer said, as she anxiously watched Willow examining the now screaming baby, while Buffy examined her sister Slayer for signs of injury.

"Joy's fine," the witch announced a moment later, the relief in her voice obvious to all as she finished checking Joy over.

"Faith's been hit twice in the upper arm," Buffy announced, as she began wrapping gauze around the bandages she had pressed against the bleeding wounds. "I think the bullets went right through, but I don't think it's real serious; it looks like the bleeding's slowing down."

"Uh, guys, it looks like we might have a problem over here," Willow stated, as she pointed at the large mass of rubble under which Glory was buried, which was slowly shifting position as they watched, the ice atop it cracking in several places as the rubble moved.

"What, exactly, is that bitch?" Buffy asked in shocked disbelief, her eyes narrowed as she looked around the burned-out remnants of their old meeting place. "I don't know of any kind of demon that can just shrug off all the damage this skank has been taking.

"Even the Judge couldn't shrug off an anti-tank missile," she commented as she watched incredulously as the pile of debris shifted position yet again.

"That is the most significant part of the problem we have been facing, Buffy," Giles answered, as he hefted the Stinger Xander had handed him and began prepping it for use. "We have absolutely no reliable information regarding this creature's capabilities, strengths or weaknesses upon which we can form a plan. Just rumors and legends to go on. Not even the Council has any reliable information as to who, or what, she may actually be," he stated, discouragement evident in his voice.

"We have been groping in the dark in our attempts to deal with Glory, with only myths and fragments of legends upon which we might base any type of strategy," he continued, "and, accordingly, have been unable to formulate any type of reactive measures of any real consequence."

"If we could get a decent tissue sample to analyze, I'm sure we could come up with something that would work against her," Willow chimed in, her science nerd background coming to the fore.

"You really think so, Will?" Xander looked at her with a mixture of hope and desperation.

"We'd at least know what she is, Xander, and I'm certain we could eventually develop *something* we could use against her," the redhead stated with as much conviction as she could muster.

"Tissue sample, huh?" the other Scoobies could hear Xander mutter, as he glanced around the room, obviously considering all the various aspects of their situation.

"Wills, do you think you can cast that teleportation spell of yours again? *Exactly* the same way you cast it initially?" he asked, as he turned his head slightly to look at her, all the while keeping the slowly shifting pile of rubble in sight.

"Uh, I - I'm not sure, Xand," the redhead confessed. "It takes a lot of energy, and I don't think I have enough left right now to do it again, yet. I only cast it about two hours ago by my timeframe. I haven't had enough time to rest yet, to restore the energy, and Ms. Calendar never got around to showing my how to tap ambient energy from the area around me. She said that it could draw attention to me, and I didn't know enough yet to let me protect myself from other practitioners."

"Well then, you can tap my power, Willow," Giles immediately interjected. "Use my energy to augment yours. That is something we are quite capable of doing."

"Would that work, Will?" the tall brunet asked her, watching carefully as the epicenter of the rubble's motion slowly inched closer to them.

"Uhm, yeah, we could do that," the Wicca nodded her head in agreement, after but a moment's thought. "I'll be casting the spell, but I'll be using Giles' energy to power it, like a car battery."

"Okay, then, that's what we'll need you to do," he stated. "About how long do you need to get ready?"

"I can do it in about ten, maybe fifteen seconds," came the reply. "But it'll only last for about thirty seconds."

"Even better," Xander smiled, as all of the parts to a plan began falling into place. "As soon as I give the word, you guys get that portal up and running, and try to get it as close to Giles' old office as you can.

"Buffy, you're between me and Faith and Joy. You're their bodyguard, the backstop in case that bitch gets by me, okay?" he indicated her position behind him

The Slayer smiled and nodded her agreement, rolling her neck and shoulders to loosen them slightly as she took up her assigned position. "You got it, Xand."

"Faith, let me have your knife, please," he instructed the dark Slayer, catching the sheathed fourteen inch blade his wife lobbed to him and attaching it to his web belt.

"All right, here's the plan, guys," he addressed the others in a low voice. "Like Arnold once said, 'If it bleeds, we can kill it', " he mimicked the actor's accent, drawing a quick grin from the girls.

"I'm hoping I'm gonna be able to use this to slice and dice the Bitch- Queen once she gets out from under the rubble, there," he explained, indicating the knife in his hand. "I'm thinking if it can cut through a steel door like tissue paper, it just might be able to get Bore-y's attention.

"And, if I can open her up a little, then maybe these babies can do some real good," he said, tapping the Stingers by him with his free hand.

"If that doesn't work and we can't turn her into road kill, Plan B is to throw her into the portal. That way, we get two years to prepare for her return, and with that much time to get ready, we should be able to hand her her ass on a platter when she does get back. You should be able to use any blood or skin on the knife for an analysis, if we need it, right, Will?" At the redhead's nod of agreement, Xander continued.

"Faith, Buffy, while I'm busy occupying Glory, the second either of you sees a chance, you two run as fast as you can, and you get Joy out of here. I don't think Glory has anyone hidden out front, she's too arrogant to even consider that anyone could get by her. Once you guys're out of here, Faith, you contact Riley and the rest of the team and have them help you get out of town ASAP, okay?

"After we get things settled down here with this bimbo, then I'll get in touch with Riley and he'll put me in touch with you, and everything'll be copasetic," he finished summing up his plan of action.

"Like hell!" Faith exploded. "I'm not gonna leave you here alone with that bitch, X-Man! She'll kill you!"

"This isn't up for debate, Faith," Xander replied, looking his wife square in the eye.

"Our first priority here is to get Joy to safety, and you know it. And she's gonna be a lot safer with two Slayers guarding her than with only one. Even if that one is you, babe," he smiled at her.

"Anyway, you can stop worrying about me, 'cause my plan involves a whole lot of 'Xander definitely not getting killed' parts. And, besides, I'm not gonna be alone here, either. Giles and Willow are gonna be here with me. With you and Buffy taking care of Joy, what better backup could I ask for?" he asked, as he pasted his trademarked 'Xander Harris grin' on his face.

"Anybody have any questions?" he asked, as he looked at his family a final time and picked up one of the Stingers he had opened up just a short time before. Only silence answered him, although each of the girls seemed to be having a problem with dust or something else in their eyes, as they wiped their sleeves across their faces.

"You better not get yourself killed, Boytoy," Faith warned him, as she leaned in to give him a quick, but hard, kiss, "or I'll find some way to bring you back, just so I can kick your ass up around your shoulders!"

"And I'll find her the spell, Xand," Willow promised, a wan smile on her face as she moved in to give him a quick hug.

"And I'll help her with the ass-kicking!" Buffy chimed in, as she also hugged him.

"And I'll be there to stomp on any pieces that might remain," Giles added, a tight grin on his face, as he stared affectionately at the young man he called 'son.'

"All right!" Xander laughed, clapping his hands together. "On that cheerful note, then, let's go put this bitch in the ground!"

As the tall brunet headed towards the self-proclaimed 'god,' Giles picked up the remaining Stinger and moved to stand by Willow, off to one side of his 'son's' position, while Buffy dropped back to a position directly in front of Faith and Joy, who were as far from the mound of rubble currently covering the 'goddess' as they could get.

"Don't worry, Faith," Buffy confided over her shoulder, as they watched and waited for Glory to emerge. "Xand always manages to come through, no matter what the odds are. He's never let anything stop him yet, and he's not going to start now. Not when it involves you guys."

The blonde reflected for a moment about the apparent incongruity of her currently acting as a bodyguard for Faith, the woman she had tried to kill just the night before by her recollection, then shrugged and put the thought out of her mind. The multiple emotional shocks she had experienced earlier while hearing about everything that had happened in the two years they had been 'gone' had left her in a state of numb bemusement.

It was enough for her, now, to know that she was standing between a helpless infant and the current 'Big Bad' that wanted to hurt her. The fact that the infant was a member of her extended family just reinforced for her the importance of what she was doing.

The pile of debris began shifting more noticeably as they watched, the ice atop it fracturing and falling to the ground in varying-sized chunks as large cracks ripped their way through the gigantic mass topping the wreckage. After several more moments of watching the toppling ice chunks, the newly reunited Scooby gang saw shattered brick and mortar tumbled away from the figure slowly rising from beneath the fragmented walls.

"That's the last straw!" they heard a nasal voice announce in an outraged tone. "I want my Key, Slayer, and I'm gonna get it if I have to kill every one of you thrice-damned monkeys, here and in every other town I find in this shithole dimension of yours! I WANT TO GO HOME!"

The figure standing before them looked like a store mannequin that had been dumped into a land fill, run over by a tractor and then dropped into a sewage-treatment waste product tank and left to marinate for a few weeks. The self-proclaimed Hellgod's hair was sticking out at varying angles from her head and her clothes were neither clean enough nor substantial enough to be used as rags, while the dust and grime that covered her gave her the appearance of a coal miner who had been entombed underground for several weeks.

"You know, Bore-y, you really look like shit."

Xander's casual comment immediately focused their opponent's attention on him, and she rushed him at a speed that caught most of the Scoobies by surprise, getting her in close enough to Xander that he was unable to launch the Stinger at her before she was on top of him.

Xander barely managed to roll with Glory's first punch, but her second caught him almost square on his right side, and he thought he could actually hear several of his ribs breaking under the impact of her fist.

His immediate, reflexive return attack caught the disheveled blonde flush on the jaw, but barely staggered her, and failed utterly to make her take even a step back. The mad goddess' speed was astonishing, and he took another barely-deflected blow to the body, this time feeling the ribs on his left side break and fracture. Another couple shots like that, and he'd be a pile of jello quivering on the floor.

As he attempted to duck under her next attack, Xander slid Faith's blade out of its sheath and drove it inward towards his opponent's torso. The blonde's down-driving left arm blocked his strike partially, diverting the blade from its target, her solar plexus, and he felt the point bit into her lower abdomen as a mixed scream of disbelief and pain erupted from her lips. He also felt as though someone had slammed a sledgehammer against his forearm, and he was relatively certain that at least one, if not both, of the bones there had broken from the impact. He did, however, manage to retain his hold on the knife despite the throbbing pain that now enveloped the lower part of his arm.

"That HURT!!!" she shrieked in amazement, as she carelessly tossed him to the side, her hand going to her side and coming away bloody. Staring at it in disbelief, the crazed deity looked over at Xander, her eyes wide with both pain and outrage.

"You cut me, you monkey!" she said, her voice full of incredulity as though the concept of her being injured by anyone or anything was unfathomable. "You cut me!"

"Will, PLAN B!!!!" Xander called out, as he looked at the relatively shallow gash he had inflicted on the blonde's side.

The Hellgod was bleeding, true, but the injury was far from serious, let alone life-threatening. If she had been willing to stand motionless and let him hack away at her for a half-hour or so, he might be able to do some significant damage, but with the situation as it currently stood, he might as well be shooting a rhinoceros with a BB gun. It might be quite annoying for the target, but there was relatively nothing for them to really worry about.

"Here's a one-time offer, bitch," he announced loudly, drawing his opponent's attention back to him again. "If you run your skanky ass off right now, I'll let you go. But if you stay, I'm gonna turn you into fish bait."

Off to the side, he could hear and see Willow and Giles chanting and gesturing, conjuring the temporal displacement portal that had delivered the redhead and the Slayer to this location earlier this evening. Xander's intent, now, was to continue to distract the demented Hell-goddess until they could hopefully introduce her to the portal, and allow them time to prepare for her return.

Looking up from her blood-streaked hand to her antagonist, Glory's eyes took on an even more sanity-impaired expression than she had been wearing, before she leapt at him, screaming what Xander assumed were imprecations in some incomprehensible language.

Shifting into a defensive stance, Xander grasped one of her outstretched arms and smoothly pivoted into a shoulder throw that hurled her across half the length of the room, to slam down brutally onto the fire-blackened floor and skid a dozen feet on her ass. The blonde was back on her feet again almost instantly, and again rushed him, only to receive a second slash across her ribs as Xander managed to sidestep and evade her attack yet again, while inflicting another injury to the previously unscathed goddess.

From the corner of his eye, he could see Faith and Buffy heading for the library doors through which Glory had made her entrance only a short time before, and his hopes rose that he would be able to keep this looneytoon distracted until the two Slayers had made good their escape and Willow and Giles had finished conjuring the portal.

Unfortunately, however, Glory evidently caught a glimpse of motion and turned to see the two women escaping.

"Hey! Get back here, Slayer!" the blonde called, as she immediately took off, heading for them.

Xander angled towards them and intercepted her after three steps, kicking her feet out from under her and taking her down with a sliding tackle any soccer player would have been proud to have called their own. He quickly scrambled back to his feet, interposing himself between her and the entrance before she could resume her pursuit of the fleeing Scoobies.

Looking over the Hellgod's shoulder, he could see that Willow and Giles had succeeded in their efforts, the portal softly glowing as it hung a few inches above the ground only a few yards away. If he could just manage to shove her through that, their troubles would be over, at least for the time being.

"Okay, that's it, monkey boy!" Glory screamed furiously. "I'm hungry and now, you're lunch!"

She grinned malevolently as she reached out towards him, her hands beginning to glow softly in the same manner the Scoobies had seen once before, when the insane Hellgod had sucked the sanity from one of the Initiative's field operatives before snapping his neck and tossing him aside like an empty candy wrapper.

Her attack on Xander was momentarily thwarted, though, as a mace came hurtling through the air to impact ineffectually against the back of her head. Turning to look over her shoulder, Glory saw Giles leveling a crossbow at her and she laughed mockingly as she nonchalantly batted the quarrel aside as it flew towards her.

Xander took advantage of her fleeting distraction to rush forward and body slam the self-styled blonde goddess, wrapping his arm around her waist to lift her off the floor as he drove forward, heading for the portal. The blonde twisted in his grip, to grab hold of his shirt as they moved, and her left hand slammed against his face, to slowly begin sinking into his flesh with a burning sensation, as though a blowtorch were being forced deep into the muscles and tendons and bone beneath the skin.

Combined with the injuries he had already taken, Xander realized that left unchecked, Glory would be after Faith, Joy and Buffy in less than a minute after disposing of him.

"Will! Analysis!" he shouted, as he dropped the knife, still gleaming wetly with Glory's skin and blood, to the ground at his feet.


"Xander!!! NOOOOO!!!!"

Willow screamed a futile protest as she watched her childhood friend body slam the nasty-voiced, fashion-fixated, Hollywood-stereotypical pneumatic-doll psycho-bitch that had been threatening them non-stop after crawling out from under several tons of building rubble and gather her up in his arms as he headed towards the portal she and Giles had just finished creating.

At the moment, the self-styled Hell-goddess might look more like Wile E. Coyote from the Roadrunner cartoons, after triggering yet another debacle using his latest ACME Manufacturing Co. gadget, but there was no disputing the fact that she seemed to be pretty much unstoppable, at least with anything they currently could put their hands on.

The original 'Plan B' that Xander had proposed had been to throw the uber-skank into the portal and then work like hell to get ready for her return some two years down the road, but given the strength and toughness this 'Glory' creature had already displayed, even that didn't appear as though it was going to be a feasible solution.

If she had only taken the time to learn some *useful* spells, instead of spending most of her spare time hacking the Mayor's and the town's computers trying to find something they might be able to use against him, then maybe she'd be able to contribute, be able to something useful against this bitch, instead of needing to borrow energy from Giles to power up her spell. She couldn't even cock one of the spare crossbows right now, that was how weak she was, not that that would do much good against this - this creature! All she could do right now was stand back and watch, and hope and pray that whatever powers were looking down on them were feeling benevolent towards them, and would let their last minute 'Hail Mary' scheme succeed after everything else had failed.

Suddenly, at the very instant she watched her Xander-shaped friend scoop up their opponent and begin heading towards the portal as he shouted to her and dropped the knife painted with the blonde's flesh and blood to the charred floor of the library, she suddenly KNEW, with horrified certainty, exactly what he was planning to do.

And that she was completely powerless to prevent it.

Time suddenly seemed to slow down, just like it always did in the movies, and she watched helplessly, unable to react in time, as Xander drove forward, carrying their adversary closer to the portal. Off to the side, she could see Giles also heading towards the struggling duo, a battle axe upraised in his hands in what would only be a vain attempt to help his surrogate son subdue the threat to his grandchild.

The redhead could hear her own words seem to echo endlessly in a slow, drawn-out bass-voiced Doppler-like effect, as she screamed in impotent fear and protest against what appeared to be a preordained path her friend willingly trod, refusing their opponent any opportunity to counteract his actions by diving headlong into the flickering, gauze-like web of energy, the screaming Hell-goddess still held securely in his arms.

As the pair of combatants vanished into the glittering eddy of light, everything immediately snapped back to normal, and Willow and Giles found themselves staring helplessly at each other as the portal abruptly winked out of existence.

Chapter 3

After Xander's rather - unorthodox - interim solution to the problem of Glory, both of the time-lost women moved in with Faith and Joy, at the Dark Slayer's insistence, since the Harris house had the additional bedrooms and living space that Giles' bachelor apartment so severely lacked.

Faith actually seemed to be eager for their company, although Willow couldn't begin to understand how the brunette could even stand to look at her, considering how dismally she had failed to help them in their battle against Glory.

Faith's husband, her own best friend since kindergarten, was gone because of her failure, and yet the woman had still offered them a place to live. Xander and Giles had been right - this Faith was nothing at all like the one she had thought she known, back in the time before Graduation, before she and Buffy had been thrown two years into a future neither would have recognized.

That fact was emphasized even more emphatically shortly after the ragtag, emotionally distraught group had arrived at the Harris home.

After tending to Joy's needs and setting the once-again slumbering baby down in her crib in her room, and pointing out the location of the bathrooms, towels, and the various personal hygiene products stocked in various closets, then urging both of the new arrivals to help themselves to anything in her wardrobe they liked, Faith had then called one of her and Xander's friends, someone named Riley Finn, and informed him of everything that had happened earlier that night.

From what the two girls could gather from a brief explanation from Giles, Finn was an agent for some type of covert government agency that had been tasked with capturing and examining the various species of demons that congregated in the vicinity of the Hellmouth. He and his people had not only begun working closely with Faith, Xander and Giles shortly after their first meeting, they had apparently incorporated the Scoobies, and Joy, into the loose-knit, extended family structure the group's members had developed among themselves.

Upon hearing the news of Xander's disappearance, Finn and two other members of the group, Graham and Forrest, had immediately come over, and in addition to providing emotional support to Faith, had assured her and Giles of both their personal help and any official assistance that the Scooby Gang might need to help retrieve Xander.

Buffy and Willow had both been pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome they received from the Initiative members after being introduced as 'family' by Faith and Giles, as well as by the offers of assistance Finn had extended them should they encounter any problems reintegrating into society after their prolonged absence.

It had only been a short time later, when Willow had been in the kitchen, bustling about and making pots of tea and coffee for everyone, that she had heard Finn excuse himself for a moment and step outside the back door. She had listened quietly as he called his headquarters and ordered a fully armed squad be deployed to the Harris residence with instructions to "discreetly establish an outer perimeter" to further ensure Faith and Joy's safety. It was when she heard him specifically state that "if necessary, the use of lethal force is authorized in the protection of the Harris household" that she began to realize just how much these people truly cared about her friends, the only family she and Buffy had left.

That latter realization only made the witch all the more morose as she pondered again the fact that she had been unable to help save her oldest friend from the latest menace to hit their town looking for trouble.

It had seemed that all of the remaining Initiative group members, once they were notified of Xander's actions, had made a point of stopping by the house at various times during the course of the day as their duties permitted, to express their own personal assurances to Faith that any aid she or Joy might ever need was there, and awaiting only her request for it to appear.

Watching Faith's interactions with the various Initiative members, Buffy and Willow were amazed to witness the younger Slayer being treated as though she were a favorite younger sister by the men and Joy their niece.

What was even more surprising, though, was seeing the brunette reacting in a like manner to all of the attention she received, joking and hugging or lightly smacking the guys' arms or shoulders in reaction to their greetings and condolences, her behavior that of a family member and not the sexy, smoldering temptress out to incite carnal desires in every man she met that they had known in high school.

The two girls' quiet discussions later, when they had finally sought out their beds for some long delayed rest, had centered around the enormous differences between this new world in which they found themselves and their former home, nearly two years in the past.

On a more personal level, Willow had been astonished when Finn, after being given a brief explanation of the girls' appearance at the library and learning of the particular circumstances of Xander and Glory's departure, had later sought her out to ask her, very politely, if she would be willing to discuss with and possibly demonstrate her Wiccan skills to some of the Initiative's researchers at some future date, since she was the first non-hostile magic practitioner aside from Giles the Initiative had encountered. Her surprised, stammering semi-agreement had brought a pleased smile to the agent's face, and a promise to check back later to arrange a mutually convenient time, once things had settled down, a suggestion she had eagerly agreed to.


It had only taken a few days for them to set up the new routines in the now Xander-less household.

In addition to helping to care for Joy, a task that Buffy seemed to delight in as she doted shamelessly on her niece, the group had, under Willow's direction, set up an analytical laboratory in the house's separate two-story garage/caretaker's cottage that rivaled that of any of the local colleges or professional laboratories in the area.

The first pieces of equipment for the lab had begun arriving only two days after Xander and Glory had entered the portal, and just one day after Willow had borrowed Faith's laptop and then secluded herself in the den for nearly fifteen hours straight, leaving only for the occasional bathroom break or to get something to eat or drink.

When she had finally emerged from her self-imposed exile and had been questioned by the others regarding what she had been doing, the hacker had curtly informed them that they would be better off not knowing the details.

It was as she had handed out various documents informing them of the existence of numerous bank accounts and trust funds that they could draw upon to provide for their living expenses that the brunette had voiced the thoughts that they had all been thinking.

"I don't take charity, Red," she had stated flatly. "Not from anybody. I never have, and I don't intend to start now. I may not know exactly what I'm gonna be doing right now, but Joy and I will be fine. I appreciate the thought, believe me, but you keep it. You're gonna need it more than we will, what with your parents not being around and everything."

"It's not charity, Faith," Willow had reassured her, her eyes dull and red from a combination of fatigue and tears. "And it's not gonna leave me broke, or anything like it. Consider it payment due for everything you and Xander and Giles have been doing around here for the past couple years. And Buffy and I are both set up pretty well, too," she had added, the slightest bit of a smile finally coming to her face.

"All right, then, who or what did you hack to get all of this?" the Dark Slayer demanded, indicating the printouts she had been given earlier and to which she had given more than just a cursory glance. "According to this stuff, I've suddenly got a total of fourteen personal checking and savings accounts with a total of nearly a million and a half dollars, and Joy's got three trust funds with her name on them that are worth well over a million dollars. I think I'd probably remember anything having to do with totals like that!"

"Relax, Faith. I didn't do anything illegal. Well, nothing anyone can prove. And it was only slightly illegal, anyway," the hacker replied, drawing faint smiles from her companions at her qualification.

Seeing the questions in her friends' faces, Willow collapsed onto the couch and indicated that the rest of them should sit down, too.

"Two days before Graduation," she began her explanations, once everyone had taken a seat, "I was hacking through the Mayor's files, looking for pretty much anything we might be able to use against him, and I found a couple references to some off-shore accounts he had set up. Since I didn't have time to check any of them out, I copied all of those files over into a secure niche in the Sunnydale PD network that I created a couple years ago, and then deleted all the references to them that I could find."

The other Scoobies just listened quietly, gazing patiently at the witch as she spoke and waiting to hear the rest of the story.

"So, anyway, I checked out the files this morning and it turns out that they were all personal accounts the Mayor had evidently set up to hide money he had gotten from various sources. I think he might have been selling magic books and other stuff that he didn't want, after he took them from any enemies he defeated. We know he was in control of this area for well over a century, so he would have made it a point to wipe out any possible opponents or competitors who wanted to control the Hellmouth as soon as he could, and he probably took any magic items and anything of value they had, so that no one else could use them against him," she elaborated, her hands darting around in the air for emphasis as she spoke.

"I figured that, since the Mayor's not around now, we might as well use it, because the equipment we're gonna need to analyze those samples of Glory's blood we've got is gonna cost a lot more than any of us could save up for a long time."

Faith could see Giles nodding his head in agreement with Willow's reasoning. It also made exactly the kind of sense that the demonic Ward Cleaver would have agreed with, were he still around to comment, she mused.

"Excellent thinking, Willow," Giles smiled at one of three women who had carved out a place in his heart. "Once again, you've provided us with a solution to our problems that none of us could have come up with."

"Thanks, Giles," the redhead gave him a small smile at the compliment, before continuing with her account of events.

"I transferred about a third of the money he had hidden there back into the States, and I divided it equally among all five of us, and Joy, too. That's why we all have so many accounts; it was easier to handle the money transfers that way," she continued her explanation. "And then I transferred another third of the money and used it to set up a research foundation. That's where the money for the equipment we need is gonna be coming from, guys. The rest I transferred to some other off-shore accounts I set up for us, just in case someone should come looking for the Mayor's stuff.

"Oh, and none of you guys need to worry about the IRS or anything like that, either," she reassured everyone. "I went in and reworked all of our taxes, so it looks like we all inherited all of this money last year, and all of the taxes have been settled. I also left a worm program in the main IRS databanks that will be downloaded into all of their systems that will alter any old records they might have stored, so that as soon as anyone brings any of our records up on their system, they'll be altered to match the new figures," she added, matter-of-factly.

"Oh, and, uh, Faith, I made up separate tax returns for you and Xander, 'cause it was simpler for the program to handle everything that way. Xander's got fourteen personal separate checking and saving accounts, just like all of us do, and there's three others for his business.

"You don't mind, do you ?" she asked, the least bit timidly.

"You wanna know if I'm upset because you made me, my husband and our daughter all millionaires, Red?" Faith grinned at the somewhat reticent hacker, shaking her head in bemusement. The witch got wound up about the strangest things, sometimes.

"Well, I suppose I'll let you slide this one time, but if you ever do it again," the brunette warned the redhead with a glint in her eye, winking lasciviously at her and making Willow blush vividly, "I'm gonna have no other choice but to kiss you! Probably with a lot of tongue!"

As she heard Faith say that, an image of the two of them doing just that flashed through the redhead's mind, and Willow suddenly found herself flushing and wondering, for just an instant, exactly what it would feel like to do just that. What was equally disturbing was the warmth in her loins that thought inspired.

Then the moment passed, and she shook her head vigorously to clear it of the image, before deliberately turning her thoughts to the details of what she needed to begin doing the next day.

Buffy had grinned widely and Giles had pretended not to have heard anything as the redhead blushed an even brighter red at the Dark Slayer's comments.

"Wow, Will, H & R Block should be worrying big time about you cutting into their business come tax time," Buffy commented from her position in the rocking chair Faith and Xander had gotten for Joy. "The best they can do is just get you a refund. You make people millionaires!"

The red-haired cybernetic insurgent smiled back at her family for a moment before her smile faded slightly and her eyes filled with tears as she once again felt the absence of the final member of her family, and the reason why he was gone.

"Okay, guys, I - I'm gonna, ah, go to, to bed," Willow mumbled, as she got up from her seat and made a beeline for her bedroom.

"Some of the equipment we need is gonna be delivered tomorrow, and I'm kinda tired," she made a semi-explanation, as she wiped her eyes with her sleeve as she made her exit. "Good night."

Faith, Buffy and Giles all exchanged puzzled glances as Willow hurried out of the room, aware that something was bothering their friend, but uncertain, at the moment, as to exactly what it might be.


Once the equipment she had ordered began arriving, Willow had thrown herself whole-heartedly into the assembly and integration of the various items, making certain of the accuracy and repeatability of each instrument's function, both alone and when in combination with the other devices she had procured. Although Faith, Buffy and Giles were all eager to assist her, the bulk of the work fell on the redhead's shoulders due to the others' complete unfamiliarity with the purpose and functions of pretty much all of the equipment.

Once she was satisfied that the all of the connections and calibrations were correct, the hacker turned witch had begun spending twelve to fourteen hours a day at the equipment, running every diagnostic test she could think of when she wasn't using her laptop, surfing the net for any other tests she could use to determine just exactly what it was they had been fighting.

Faith and Buffy had taken to bringing Willow her meals in the lab and forcing her to stop her activities only long enough to wolf down her food, since she invariably neglected to join the two of them and Joy, and occasionally Giles, for dinner, when he stopped by after closing the Magic Box each night.

The shopkeeper had made it a habit now of stopping in and attempting to talk to her as she drove herself tirelessly in her labors, commenting on whatever tidbits of arcane lore he had gleaned from his various conversations with customers in the course of his day and trying to pull her into a dialogue, usually with as much success as either of the Slayers had achieved.


Willow's lab
Three weeks after 'the portal thing'

"Look, Red, you've got to slow down some. You're gonna kill yourself if you don't back off and start getting some regular meals and more than two hours sleep at a time."

The Dark Slayer was standing in the doorway of the makeshift lab, observing the woman she had threatened to gut two years before as she fluidly danced back and forth among the various pieces of equipment that populated the room.

As she watched, the thought passed fleetingly through Faith's mind that her pallor and the dark circles lining the redhead's eyes now gave her an eerie passing resemblance to Ricky Raccoon, the name Xander had bestowed on Joy's favorite stuffed animal.

"Let me alone, Faith. I'm fine. I'm almost finished this sequence, and I think this one is going to tell us exactly what we need to know." The hacker/Wicca seemed completely focused on the complex assembly of testing apparatus before her and didn't even spare her companion a glance.

"That's what you said about the test you were running yesterday, and the tests the day before that, and the tests the day before that. It's not gonna kill you to take a step back and relax for a couple hours, you know," the brunette calmly advised.

"No, but it may kill Xander, if we're not ready when they show up," came the flat, emotionless response.

"Boytoy knew exactly what he was doing, Red. And the risks involved," Faith replied calmly, studying her friend's intense fixation on the equipment before her. "He'd done pretty much the same thing plenty of times before that, so it's not like we could say it was completely unexpected. By any of us."

The lack of response from the redhead to her comments and her continuing focus on her work was beginning to trouble the Dark Slayer more than a little.

True, one of Willow's more notable characteristics was her ability to focus fully and completely on the task before her in order to get the results she wanted, but this monomaniacal concentration she had been displaying for the past several weeks was beginning to alarm Buffy and Giles, too.

"It's not gonna help anyone if you collapse from exhaustion, you know," Faith said after it became apparent that her earlier statement wasn't going to receive any response.

"I wouldn't really mind the feeding you part too much, you know," she then continued, "'cause I'm used to having to clean Joy up after she eats, but I gotta tell you right now, I'm definitely drawing the line at changing diapers. You're just gonna have to get up and use the toilet like everyone else, Red."

"Huh??" The complete incongruity of the remark caught Willow's attention and caused her to pause in what she was doing to turn and face the brunette.

"Wha- what did you say?" The redhead sputtered as she stared at Faith, a look of utter confusion and incomprehension on her face as the brunette Slayer continued speaking.

"Look, I can see how B loves the whole domestic scene and the helping take care of Joy part - she doesn't even mind changing her diapers, not even the really bad ones that smell like she's been eating Xander's chili - but I just don't think she'll feel the same way about taking care of you, Red, no matter how long you've been friends," Faith told her, a somber, totally serious look on her face.

"See, you just don't inspire the same 'oh, you're so adorably cute' kind of feelings that babies do," she elaborated, as Willow just stared at her uncomprehendingly, a blank look on her face. "Nothing personal, mind you - you're just a little too old for that. I know that some older guys might dig that stuff, but I just don't see B being into that kind of thing."

"Have you been drinking, Faith?" Willow asked her, her eyebrows drawn together into a puzzled frown.

"No," the brunette shook her head. "What makes ya ask that?"

"Because you're not making any sense at all."

"How would you know, Sabrina? You haven't been paying attention to anything anyone's been saying for weeks now."

"I've been busy," Willow protested automatically, turning back to the equipment she had been using. "I've got to determine exactly what Glory is, so we can be prepared for when she and Xan -, for when they show up. I don't have any time to waste."

"Having you collapse because you drove yourself into a physical breakdown isn't gonna help anyone," the brunette observed. "Especially if you continue not getting the results you want."

"You don't understand," Willow snapped at her. "I don't have any time to waste!"

She turned again to face the Slayer and Faith was surprised to see the tears streaming down the redhead's face

"I *have* to find out what that bitch is!!" Willow half-screamed at her. "'Cause if I don't we won't know how to stop her when they finally do show up and then she'll come after Joy and me and you and Xander and Buffy and everyone else around will all be dead because that's the only way she'll be able to get to her and she'll kill Joy opening the gate to her home and everybody and everything in the world will die when the gate collapses and there won't be anything left except rubble and it'll all be my fault because I didn't know enough to help stop her so Xander had to sacrifice himself and it's all my fault that it happened and now Joy doesn't have her daddy here to help raise her and you don't have your husband and it's all my fault and I'm so sorry Faith I'm so sorry I'm so sorry I'm so sorry," her semi-babble trailed off into just grief-stricken sobs as she seemed to collapse against the table behind her, sliding down against the equipment to the floor and huddling there, head leaning against her knees, crying inconsolably.

"Hey, Red, chill," Faith murmured, as she rushed over and pulled the weeping redhead into her arms, after first giving a call for Buffy and Giles. "It's not your fault. Not at all," she tried to reassure her, talking over the redhead's exhausted denials.

"That bitch is a Hell goddess," the brunette reminded the desolate hacker. "We almost got our asses handed to us a lot of times when we were just fighting vamps and demons, remember? I'd expect a god to be at least a little harder to handle, wouldn't you?" she joked feebly.

"And as far as you being responsible for anything that happened, you just forget that riff, okay?" she continued, gently lifting the redhead's face so that she could look her in the eye. "It's nobody's fault. If you're gonna blame somebody, blame that bitch for being a psycho, or the monks for implanting the Key energy into Joy, or me for getting pregnant, or Boytoy for knocking me up in the first place. It doesn't matter who did what," she said, her own eyes now brimming with unshed tears. "You guys are here, now, and you're doing your best to help me and Joy get Xander back, and that's something nobody else can do.

"The two of you stood there backing us up when she showed up, even though both of you had been beat to hell after taking care of the Mayor. You and Buffy could have walked away then and none of us would have thought anything of it, Red, especially after the way things went down between us before Graduation. But you didn't," the brunette continued, her hands still gently holding the other woman's face as she gazed into Willow's eyes. "You stayed to help us -to help save my baby - and I can't even begin to tell you just how much that means to me. Joy is alive and unhurt and still here because you cast that portal spell, and there is no way I can begin to make you understand how much I owe you for that."

Buffy and Giles had arrived in response to Faith's call for assistance by this time, but hearing Faith speaking to Willow, they remained at the entrance to the lab, keeping quiet and letting the two talk.

"So, I want you to just listen to me for a minute, Willow," Faith went on as she held the other girl's tearful gaze. "As far as everybody here is concerned, everything that happened is nobody's fault except Glory's, understand? Shit happens sometimes, that's all. We're gonna figure out what we have to do to stop her, and then we're all gonna stomp that bitch's skanky ass flat into the ground when she and Boytoy show up. We just need you to calm down and relax, 'cause you're just gonna put yourself into the hospital if you keep on like you're doing. Okay? Can you do that?" she asked, as she carefully leaned forward and bestowed a light kiss on the redhead's forehead.

Looking into Faith's eyes and realizing, with heart-felt relief, incredulity and gratitude, that she meant every word, Willow blinked away her tears, smiled faintly and nodded her agreement.


The Harris residence
Much later that night

Faith and Buffy were sprawled across the couch and one of the overstuffed chairs, respectively, idly watching a rebroadcast of the late evening news and relaxing with cups of hot chocolate after completing their patrol. Giles had gone back to his apartment after accompanying them, the vague rumors of a new 'Big Bad' that had moved into town turning out to be the overblown boasting of a newly arrived would-be 'master' vampire and his entourage, all of whom, it turned out, had been suffering from serious delusions of adequacy.

Willow, nearly at the point of collapse from both physical and emotional exhaustion earlier in the evening, had only remained home from the battle to baby-sit Joy at the unrelenting insistence of all three of her fellow Scooby Gang members and a promise that they would call on her cell phone if they should need her assistance. Upon the 'victorious' return of the three from their patrol, she had quickly sought out her bed and collapsed into an exhausted sleep, enjoying the first peaceful slumber she had had since their exodus from the ruins of the old high school three weeks before.

The 'major battle' the Scoobies had been expecting had lasted all of four minutes, and that included the additional time it had taken Buffy to chase down the last two minions who had taken off immediately upon seeing their sire dusted. After seeing the caliber of opponents their opposition had gathered to attack them, both of the women were feeling a bit disappointed and, actually, somewhat insulted at the ease of their victory.

"Were those clowns lame or what?" Faith asked rhetorically, as she slumped against the couch cushions and took a sip of her hot chocolate, seasoned with the slightest dash of cherry and cinnamon flavors. She slurped in some of the still un-melted mini- marshmallows floating on the surface of the beverage, deciding that Xander introducing her to this concoction was one of the more subtle pleasures in life that she now enjoyed, thanks to him.

"Tell me about it," Buffy agreed with a grin, snuggled into the corner of her chair, her feet propped up on the footstool in front of her, her own half-drained cup of chocolate-y goodness cradled on her stomach. "I almost felt embarrassed for them, even before the fight started. Then, when that one guy dropped back into that 'battle stance', " she indicated the quotes with her fingers, "I thought I was gonna fall over, laughing. Talk about watching too many Saturday afternoon kung-fu movies..." she snickered, before lifting her cup for another sip of chocolate-y delicious-ness.

"If you hadn't staked him, I think his boss might've, afterwards," Faith suggested with an equally wide grin. "I was gonna ask if he'd been turned by a vampire ninja turtle, but you dusted him before I could get around to it."

"You know, we really should be thankful for these clowns showing up here," Buffy observed, still grinning. "I think there's some kind of bad guy rule about there only being one 'Big Bad' allowed around the Hellmouth at a time, so if they hadn't turned up, somebody competent might've been here in their place, instead."

"Yeah, you've got a point there, B," Faith agreed absently, her eyes focused on some thought or memory only she could see. "Of course, with the two of us here, we kinda outnumber the bad guys, unless they start showing up in the dozens."

The brunette smiled as she recalled a memory summoned up by her choice of words.

"That reminds me - it must have been almost a year ago, not too long after Joy was born - when I was just starting back on patrol, and this gang of nine vamps suddenly showed up all at once, over in Blessed Redeemer cemetery," she said, her face lighting up as she spoke.

Buffy noticed that Faith's voice had grown somewhat mellower as she related the story, and her whole body seemed to soften a bit, some of her normal aggression seeming to disappear.

"Xan had been insisting that I not go out alone 'cause it was too soon after having Joy, and I was insisting that I could patrol by myself, and we had been arguing for most of an hour before he finally agreed that I didn't need a 'babysitter' to go with me when I went out on patrol.

"So, there I am, walking along all by myself, with just four stakes and a loaded crossbow, 'cause I haven't really gotten around to learning how to shoot very well yet, what with the pregnancy, morning sickness and everything else going on in our lives, and up pop nine bloodsuckers to welcome me back to my old job," she recounted.

"Well, you know how I am, B, always ready for a scrap, so when the first four vamps show up, I'm thinking that it might be a bit challenging, but hey, it's nothing I can't handle. Then another two show up, and then three more after them, and I'm suddenly thinking that I don't want Joy growing up without a mother, and that maybe Xan really did have a point about patrolling by myself."

Buffy was sitting up a little straighter, intrigued by her sister Slayer's story. "Well, obviously, you got away, so what did you do?" she asked, fascinated by the tale. "What happened?"

"Xan happened." Faith smiled at the memory. "I'm standing there, figuring that if I'm gonna go, I'm gonna take as many of these assholes with me as I can, and suddenly, he comes strolling up real casual-like, just like he was on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. He walks up to stand next to me, then looks at the head vamp and says, real serious-like, 'We've got you outnumbered here, asshole, two to nine. Are you going to make us chase you, or can I just kill you right here?' "

Buffy laughed out loud when she heard that and clapped her hands in appreciation. "Oh my god, that's funny! Yeah, that's definitely Xander!" she agreed. "So what did Leader Guy say?"

"He just stared at him for a minute, along with the rest of his minions, like he couldn't believe what he just heard, and then, just as he opens his mouth to say something, Xan interrupts him and says, 'Okay, here is fine,' and he pulls out his Beretta from under his jacket and caps him with it. One shot, right through the heart, and he's dust in the wind," the brunette laughed as Buffy's goggle- eyed stare as she described the occurrences of that might.

"Xander SHOT him?" the blonde Slayer asked, flabbergasted at the revelation of her best friend's actions.

"Yep," Faith nodded, "using tracer ammunition. Burns them up from the inside out - real nasty stuff. We've been using pistols for the better part of a year now, B, against pretty much anything we find. Anyway, he caught everyone flat-footed with that. And then he nailed another three before they finally woke up and started attacking us. Of course, by that time, it was only two to five, and we dusted the rest of them easy. Barely even broke a sweat," she added.

"That was the first time I ever heard him say something like that," the brunette said reflectively. "But you know the really funny thing about it, B? I'm sure he was completely serious when he said it. As far as Xan was concerned, we did really have them outnumbered. It was like he figured that with the equivalent of two Slayers here, we could take on pretty much anything that came around."

"So, Xander's pretty much all supercharged now, huh?" Buffy asked. "What with the Hyena Spirit and the Soldier Spirit merger thing, I mean. I could barely believe it when I saw him fighting Glory. He looked like one of those action heroes you see in the movies, except that *he* was for real."

"Yeah, well, X-Man's not exactly like us, B, but he's still pretty much hell on wheels," the brunette agreed. "He's a lot stronger than me, and you too, I guess, but not nearly as fast or agile. Maybe a little bit above your usual vamp, but not that much more. And he's just as good at hand to hand as we are. But when it comes down to weapons, B, the boy's got no equal," the dark Slayer offered her 'professional' opinion. "He's a real ace with a blade, and a wicked good shot, better than anyone I've ever seen. And he can strip, clean and reassemble just about any kind of gun you can name, blindfolded; not to mention, he can make bombs out of just about anything he can find lying around the house.

"If he weren't on our side, I'd be plenty worried about him, and what he might be doing," she added, parenthetically.

With that assessment given, a tranquil silence ensued for a short while as the two women quietly pondered their own thoughts, before Buffy looked up and over at her sibling Slayer.

"Ah, Faith," she began somewhat hesitantly, "uh, Giles and I heard you talking to Will, earlier this afternoon. It was really nice of you to say everything you did, and I wanted to tell you that I really appreciated your telling her that. She's been my best friend ever since I first got here, and she's been hurting a lot about Xander being gone."

The blonde Slayer looked her brunette counterpart straight in the eye as she continued speaking.

"I also wanted to tell you, again, just how much I appreciate you letting us stay here with you and Joy, and your being so nice to us. Especially after the way I treated you, before everything went bad," she said, holding her gaze steady. "I want to apologize for the way I treated you and the way I acted. I wasn't nice to you at all, after you showed up.

"I guess it was mostly because I was feeling pretty insecure and I was afraid that you were gonna take my place with everybody," she reluctantly admitted.

"Not a chance in hell of that ever happening, B," Faith snorted, holding her own gaze steady as she listened to the older (was B *really* the older Slayer now, she wondered, since she and Red had skipped over nearly two years going through that portal?) Slayer apologize. "God, Xan thought you could do no wrong and that the sun practically rose and set on your ass! There's no way any of the guys would ever have wanted me in your place. They all thought you could practically walk on water. You were Little Miss Perfect Slayer!"

"Are you kidding? Me, Miss Perfect Slayer?" Buffy asked, wide-eyed with disbelief at Faith's statement. "I screwed up big plenty of times, Faith. You mean to tell me, Xander never said anything to you about the beginning of junior year, when the Master's minions kidnapped Giles, Will, Cordy and Jenny Calendar, so they could resurrect him? I was still pretty messed up emotionally back then from the Master draining and killing me, and I wasn't doing anywhere near my best as far as the Slaying went, and the guys ended up getting kidnapped because of it.

"Xan was hyper upset about it, and when we were getting ready to rescue them, he told me that if anything happened to Willow, he'd kill me," the smaller blonde confided. "And when I looked over at him, I believed he meant it, Faith."

"*Xan* threatened to kill *you*, B?" Faith repeated incredulously, her eyebrows nearly reaching her hairline. "No way!"

"Yeah, he did," Buffy reaffirmed her earlier statement. "He thought that it was because of me that the others had been taken, so if anything happened to them, it would be my responsibility. And he was right. If I had been doing my job, the Master's minions would have been dust, and Willow, Giles, Cordy and Jenny Calendar would never have been taken."

The blonde Slayer shook her head, as if to dismiss the unpleasant memories.

"Anyway, we're getting away from what I wanted to say," she went on, after a moment. "I was mean and rude and I never made any real effort to help you fit in, and I want you to know that I really regret everything I did, and everything I didn't do but should have, back then.

"Will you forgive me?"

The blonde's words were spoken quietly, and Faith could feel the sincerity in Buffy's voice. She caught the blonde's eyes and stared intently into them for a moment before answering.

"We both made mistakes, B. Lots of them," the brunette said. "I need your forgiveness for what I did as much as you think you need mine. As far as I'm concerned, we're square on everything that happened back then. If I was still holding a grudge, I would never have asked you guys to stay here with me and Joy.

"And as far as things between us go now, if you heard me and Red this afternoon, you must have heard me when I told her how I felt about you guys staying to help us against Glory. You two stood between a Hell goddess and my baby, B," Faith continued, with only the faintest tremor in her voice betraying the emotions surging through her. "I can't think of anything I could do to ever thank you enough for that. Whatever you want, I'll do my best to get it for you. You just tell me what it is."

The two women remained staring for a moment longer, before they each got up and met in the space between them, hugging each other tightly while tears silently ran down their faces.


Slowly swirling, wildly scattered handfuls of blue-white stars scattered across the vast panoramic vista that stretched out endlessly before his eyes.

Disorientating cascades of colors/sounds/smells/tastes/textures/feelings for which there were no words to adequately describe/encompass/express/portray/take in.

Confusion, as clusters of slowly pulsating organisms a bitter diminished E flat in color cried out in furry cinnamon voices as they flew/swam/fell past him before being replaced by other even more outrageous phantasms passing before his eyes/ears/skin/nose.

Bewilderment at where he was.

Wonder at the beauty and majesty that surrounded him.

Incomprehension of an environment the human mind had not yet developed enough to understand.

He was falling down an apparently endless, shadowy shaft with some lunatic screaming incomprehensible curses at him and shoving burning hot skewers deep into his face while...something...was trying to suck all of his thoughts out of his mind.

He realized with a sudden start that he knew what was happening. He had seen something like this on one of the old movies he and Faith had been watching on the Science Fiction Channel not too long ago.

It was one of those creatures from the movie! It was attacking him because he knew that they existed, and it was trying to suck out his memories so that he couldn't tell anyone about its existence.

The monster had taken the form of a human woman to lull him into a false sense of security, so that it could get close enough to attack him, but he knew what it intended now, and he would stop it, once and for all!

As the creature's fingers/tentacles/appendages of thought tried to worm their way into his brain to devour it, Xander's Soldier aspect recognized the foreign metaphysical concepts for the invaders they were and marshaled his resources to battle them.

As the Soldier aspect determined the best methods of defense available and quickly set to work erecting the mental barricades around the portions of the ego/mind gestalt they needed to defend, the Heart brought to the forefront of his consciousness the memories of Joy, Faith, Buffy, Willow, Giles and the innumerable other people who had ever held any part of his affection and which the invader threatened, to form a rally point upon which he could focus his considerable Will, while the Hyena launched their assault upon the invader.

Snarling his rage at the invader's incursion, the Hyena aspect of Xander's mind attacked, his ethereal fangs and claws ripping through the psychic flesh of his opponent like a chain saw through a sheet of cardboard, ripping and tearing with a viciousness compounded of fury, rage, fear and a determination to completely destroy anything that might potentially threaten any of his loved ones.

With a horrified 'scream' of fear and disbelief, the invader recoiled instantly, withdrawing as quickly and completely from Xander's mind as it could, fleeing from a force it had never before encountered in its countless thousands of years of feeding on human minds.


As they fell through the portal the surprisingly clever mortals had opened and managed to hurl her into, Glory shrank away in stark fear and terror from the creature she had attacked so heedlessly only a moment before.

Never before in all the millennia of her existence had she encountered anything like this. She had always been invulnerable and invincible, able to shrug off and ignore anything these monkeys had ever used against her.

No one had ever really been able to hurt her in all the thousands of years she had been exiled to this plane. Even that one Slayer she had encountered a few hundred years before had never been able to seriously injure her.

It had been fun, toying with her for a while, letting selected bits of information be gained by the Slayer's Watcher and his fellow Council of fools over the course of months and allowing the child to believe that she might actually be able to hurt her, before she finally tired of the game and sought her out for battle, ending it by finally tossing the Chosen One off that cliff. The girl's scream of disbelief, anger and fear as she fell had been music to her ears.

It was so seldom that she found anything able to distract her attention for any length of time.

This - thing - however, was different. Despite its unexpected strength and durability - sort of like a Slayer, but most definitely male - the being looked and smelled and bled like a human and she had fully expected to suck its sanity out without any problem.

When she sank her fingers into his mind, however, she had not only been unable to drain his sanity, she had actually been attacked. And, even more significantly, HURT!!

Whatever it was she had encountered, it had torn long, agonizing, painful furrows through her psyche, damaging the already fragile framework of her mind even more, and weakening her even further, reducing her power to a level she had never before had to experience.

Had she been in her home dimension, at this diminished level of force, she would have been prey to a host of enemies, all of whom would be delighted to drain her life force, sucking her dry and discarding her the way she had been doing to these apes during the course of her banishment here. As it was, the creature was not pursuing her, and appeared to be content with having fought off her attack, so she was, for the moment, safe.

What had just happened here only reinforced the importance of her finding the Key. She *had* to escape from that pesthole she had been banished to and get back to her home, where she could replenish her energies and re-establish herself as the ruler of all she surveyed. Where she could do as she pleased without any repercussions.

And any worry that she might run into something scarier than she was.


The Harris residence
Four weeks after 'the portal thing'

Buffy was headed towards the kitchen after her post-patrol shower, intending to get a cup of hot chocolate-y goodness before retiring for the night, when she heard what sounded like a low moan coming from the den.

Pausing only to grab two of the numerous stakes carefully hidden throughout the house, the Blonde Slayer cautiously approached, grasped the doorknob and twisted it open as quietly as she could manage, then shoved the door open and darted into the room, stakes poised and ready to strike whatever it was that had been foolish enough to invade the Scooby Gang's home.

She was completely unprepared, however, to find Faith huddled in one of the overstuffed chairs in the far corner of the room, her knees pulled up to her chest, her nose running, tearstains streaked across her face, silently crying her eyes out, with only an occasional sob betraying her.

"Faith! Are you okay? What's wrong? What's the matter?" Buffy asked, rushing over to the younger Slayer after first giving a quick look around the rest of the room to make sure nobody and nothing else was present.

"Leave me alone, B," the brunette muttered, trying to turn away from the older girl and conceal her face. "I'm fine. Go to bed."

"Faith, you're not fine, and I'm not going anywhere until I'm sure you're okay," the blonde answered reasonably as she dropped to kneel next to the chair.

"So, come on and tell me, what's wrong?" she repeated, as she gently reached out and pulled the brunette's face around to look at her. "If we don't know what's wrong, we can't fix it."

For a moment, it seemed as though the younger girl was about to continue her denial of anything being wrong, but as Faith looked into the older girl's eyes, she saw nothing but honest concern for her well-being, and the barriers holding back the pent-up emotions she had been denying for weeks suddenly burst and all of the repressed fears and uncertainties came flooding out.

"Oh god, Buffy, I'm scared that I'm never gonna see him again!" the brunette wailed disconsolately, turning to let the blonde pull her into a desperately needed reassuring hug.

"I'm scared that he's never gonna make it back here, cause that bitch has drained him dry and killed him," Faith confessed between body- racking sobs. "I'm scared that he's never gonna see Joy grow up, and I'm never gonna feel him holding me again, and I don't know what I'm gonna do without him!"

Buffy pulled the larger girl against her, patting her back and letting her cry away her fears as she murmured suitably vague reassurances that everything would be okay, and that they would get the brunette's husband back in perfectly fine working order.

"I can't sleep in our bed, anymore. Not with Xan gone," Faith admitted in a quiet whisper a few minutes later, after she had temporarily cried her eyes dry, not moving from her position in Buffy's arms, her head cradled on the blonde's shoulder. She was feeling safe and comfortable for the first time since Xander had dragged Glory through the portal, and she wanted to soak up as much of this good feeling as she could.

"Every night, I lay up there for hours before I fall asleep," she revealed, quietly enjoying the sense of safety and well-being she was currently feeling. "And then, when I finally do sleep, after a while, I'll roll over to snuggle up against him, and when I can't find him, I wake up and then I remember everything, and I can't get back to sleep again for hours, and then everything starts all over again." The quiet desperation Buffy could hear in Faith's voice made the blonde's own breath catch, reminding her of her own feelings of hopelessness and anxiety during the long months that Angelus had commanded the body of the first man she had fallen in love with.

"We're gonna get him back, Faith. I promise, we're gonna get him back and he's gonna be fine, and then we're gonna beat that skank's flabby cellulite ass into the ground before we send her back to Hell." Buffy's voice was calm and reassuring and confident in Faith's ear, as her hands continued to rub and lightly pat the brunette's back as she spoke.

"You know that Xander always keeps his promises. Well, he told all of us that he wasn't going to let anything happen to him, right? So he's gotta come out of this okay, 'cause if he doesn't, he'll be breaking his promise. Besides, he knows how pissed all of us would be if he lets himself get killed." Faith could easily hear the smile in Buffy's voice as she asked, "Do you really think he'd want all three of us pissed off at him at the same time?"

"No," the brunette gave a short laugh and shook her head as she, reluctantly, pulled away from the blonde's arms, just a little bit. "Boytoy always did have good survival instincts. Even if he never paid a lot of attention to them. Not even he's boneheaded enough to do something like that."

"All right, then. Now you know - he's gonna be fine," Buffy smiled at her, relieved to see that the Dark Slayer's eyes didn't seem quite as desolate, now.

Faith smiled slightly at the other Slayer as she said, "Thanks, B. For everything. I really appreciate it. I don't know what I would do, if you guys weren't around helping us out." As their eyes met again, a surge of lust, affection, a need to feel close to someone, to be desired and appreciated by someone, took her over, and she wanted nothing more at that moment than to be held and comforted and reassured.

She caught herself almost immediately as she reflexively began leaning forward towards the blonde's face, stopping scant inches from the tempting red lips and quickly pulled back, and embarrassment, disappointment and relief at her aborted action flooded through her. Just what the hell did she think she was doing? she asked herself, as she looked at the other Slayer.

Gazing into Buffy's blue eyes, Faith thought (or was it that she hoped?) she might have seen a reflection of the same confused mix of emotions she found herself feeling right now.

Mumbling a subdued good-night, Buffy quietly turned and hurried out of the den and upstairs to her bedroom, followed a scant few moments later by Faith.


Willow's lab
Sunday afternoon, approximately seven weeks after 'the portal thing'


Giles came charging in through the front door of the lab, a mid-sized war axe in his hands, almost ripping the door from its hinges, in response to the redhead's scream as a bare two seconds later, Faith and Buffy burst through the back door, tomahawks and sword in their respective hands. The fact that he had been working on his motorcycle, just outside the converted garage, accounted for his appearance prior to the two Slayers.

"Willow!! Are you all right? What seems to be the problem?" Giles demanded, as he searched the room for any sign of danger, before finally noticing that their resident genius was dancing joyously in the middle of her lab, arms upraised and several sheets of paper clenched in her fists, screaming happily at the top of her lungs.

"YES!!! YES!!! Y-Y-Y-E-E-E-E-E-S-S-S-S-S!!! GODDESS!! I DID IT!! I DID IT!!!!" The hacker/witch was screaming triumphantly, waving the papers she was holding like a victory flag.

"What's going on, Will? Sounds like you just found out you have a winning lottery ticket," Buffy smiled, lowering her sword as she mentally stepped out of 'Slayer Mode' and back into 'Buffy Mode' and watched her friend truly smile with happiness for the first time in nearly two months. Alongside her, Faith did much the same thing, relaxing and dropping back into her 'Mother/wife/normal person' mindset.

"Even better, guys!" the hacker/witch crowed jubilantly as she bestowed a million amp smile on everyone. "I've got it! I've finally figured out what she is and how she gets her power!"

"By her, you mean Glory - right?" Faith asked, her voice cautious, as if hesitant to display any sign of emotion prematurely, lest her hopes be crushed by bad news.

"Yes, that's exactly who I mean!" the redhead beamed as she rushed over and tried to embrace all three currently remaining members of the Scooby Gang at the same time. "I finally figured out where she's getting her power from, and that means we can find a way to block her from accessing it!"

"So, that means - ?" Buffy asked, also hesitant to speak the words aloud, as if to avoid jinxing their fervently hoped-for result.

"Yes!" Willow confirmed the unspoken hope they all had been quietly cherishing the past several weeks.

"That means that now that bitch's ass is OURS!"

A truly feral smile had slid over the redhead's face as she spoke, one she could see mirrored in all three of her companions' faces.

A smile that would have sent chills down the spine of anyone looking in on them at that moment, and one that promised only the most dire of futures for the focus of their attentions.

Chapter 4

An Initiative conference room
Seven and one half weeks after 'the portal thing'


The speaker was a three star general whose appearance at the Initiative's base earlier that day had seemed to inspire a level of respect in Finn and his cohorts that verged on an almost religious awe. The agent's subsequent introduction of the officer to the Scooby Gang as General Harold Cassius Marchinko had then produced a momentary sphere of silence in everyone present around them when the general had looked at Giles and their mentor's long unused nickname had issued from the visitor's lips.


The former librarian's response generated looks of shocked surprise and disbelief in all of the military personnel present as well as the Englishman's surrogate children, which was only exacerbated when the two men smiled at each other and thrown their arms around each other, pounding each other's back in a display of affection that the three distaff members of the Scooby Gang would have believed both impossible and unnatural for the Englishman.

"What in the hell are you doing here?" The question had erupted from both men's mouths virtually simultaneously.

The Scooby women's request/demand for an explanation from their mentor/father figure of his recognition of and by the general had eventually received a semi-intelligible account of a series of incidents two decades before involving several horribly murdered/ ritually sacrificed adolescent women, newly promoted second lieutenants, vengeful young Englishmen, cult members summoning demons which subsequently ran amok, widespread violence, excessive gunfire, large quantities of high explosives, condemned buildings which mysteriously collapsed, ensuring the demise of all of the aforementioned cultists and demons who didn't already have one or more bullet holes through their forehead, and of course, ultimately, large quantities of both alcohol and women with dubious reputations.

While the fact that Giles would vouch for the new arrival would normally go a long way towards establishing the General's credibility with the Scooby Gang, his first action after all of the introductions had concluded was what had immediately cemented him in their good graces, forever.

After opening his briefcase, the soldier had removed a manila folder and then turned to face Faith, the expression on his face somber and grave as he took her hand in his.

"Mrs. Harris, first of all, I want to express my deepest sympathies about the current absence of your husband and thank you and all of your family," here, he looked around to make sure that the rest of the Scooby Gang knew they were all included in his remarks, "for the work you all have been doing here over the past several years, even before the Initiative began its operations. If there is anything at all we can do to help you in your efforts to rescue your husband, please let me know and I'll do my best to get it to you," he assured the brunette.

He then opened the folder and handed out small packets of paper to each of them, as he began explaining their significance.

"Al right then, let's get down to business," the general then stated. "First off, I want to tell you that these papers are the result of efforts initiated by Lt. Commander Finn several months ago. Assuming that you agree to our offers, of course, they establish that you, Mrs. Harris, as well as your husband, Miss Summers, Miss Rosenberg and, of course, Ripper here, are now recognized as active field agents of the Initiative Project, on detached duty and acting as an independent unit.

"Along with this recognition," he noted, "comes the authority to take whatever actions you deem necessary on any operations in which you are involved, contingent upon your later providing a satisfactory explanation to headquarters, once the operation is completed. It also entitles you to requisition the services of any military, federal or local municipal government agency or activity and any federal or military assets that you determine you may need in the course of your efforts, again, contingent upon your delivering a satisfactory explanation for the use of such services or assets," he informed them all, grinning at the amazed looks on their faces the news produced.

"Additionally, as federal agents, you would be authorized to carry any weapons you deem necessary to the course of your work, including concealed firearms. Of possible additional interest to you is the fact that any person or legal entity, such as a local police force, for instance," he suggested, with a slight twinkle in his eye, "that might attempt to obstruct any efforts you are taking in the course of your work can be charged with interfering with a federal agent in the pursuit of their duties.

"Mr. and Mrs. Harris, Miss Summers and Miss Rosenberg have all tentatively been classified as GS-10 level agents, and Ripper here has been classified as a GS-11, since he's ostensibly your unit's supervisor, and you all will receive security clearance ratings through 'Top Secret,' which will enable you to access all of the information that the Initiative and any similar activities have gathered. There is still some additional remaining paperwork involved in setting you people up as an independent unit, but it's nothing you younger people need to be concerned about - Ripper and I'll sort everything out, once you all decide if you're going to accept our offer."

"I think I'll let you all alone, now, so that you can look over the paperwork, and give the idea some thought," Marchinko concluded, seeing the somewhat lost and bewildered looks the young women now wore, and the somewhat more cynical look on Ripper's face. "Suppose we re-convene in an hour, and Miss Rosenberg can give us her briefing, then. All right?"


Since the familiarity of the two group's leaders had eliminated the usual need to establish the credibility of both the project under discussion and its personnel to upper echelon management, Willow was able to launch into the core of her presentation immediately upon their occupation of the high-security briefing room.

"As you have already been informed, General, our group managed to obtain tissue and blood samples from Glory during our last encounter, and I have been running tests on them in an effort to determine exactly what she is and what she is capable of doing."

Willow's voice carried easily through the briefing room as she made her presentation, and every eye in the room was fastened on her as she moved about her podium, giving her their complete attention.

Under most circumstances, the knowledge that she was the focus of everyone's attention would have reduced the normally quiet and reticent redhead to a quivering mass of jelly, too self-conscious to even think of speaking before any large group.

Now, however, the significance of the conceptual breakthrough she had made, combined with the importance of making certain that the people gathered together in this room understood the significance of her discovery with regard to their ability to react to Glory's eventual reappearance, had ensured that the hacker/witch had maintained her equanimity in the face of what would have, at one time, been daunting circumstances.

"Based on the data and information that I've developed, Glory appears to be a member of a species that has evolved to a state in which aspects of themselves now exist in several additional dimensions than most organisms with which we are currently familiar do. Whether this ability arose as a necessary requisite for survival in their native environment, because they have existed long enough to simply happen upon it as a possible evolutionary development, or because it was artificially engineered or bred into them is both unknown and immaterial to us, at the present time."

"Excuse me, Miss Rosenberg, but I don't see how having new and additional confirmation that this 'Glory' creature is a non-human is of any significance to us here, today. We were already aware of her status as a likely demonic entity, so this does nothing more but tell us something that we already knew," Marchinko politely interrupted her.

"Actually, General, what I've established beyond any reasonable doubt is the fact that Glory is not a demonic entity, but an entirely different genus of creature than any we have previously encountered," Willow politely corrected him, as she activated the room's projector and a series of charts and figure appeared on the whiteboard to her left.

"I've already supplied Lt. Commander Finn and his people with copies of all my research, General, and all of the Initiative's scientific staff have tentatively agreed with the conclusions I came to the other day. Without getting too technical, sir, all of the beings or creatures that human beings have previously encountered exist in the same multi-dimensional universal matrix that we, as humans, occupy. All of the demons that we have records of dealings with appear to draw their energy from the same dimensions that witches and other magic-working humans access, which is why we are each susceptible to the others' supernatural abilities.

"Glory, and other beings like her, however, exist in at least two or more additional dimensions than humans and other creatures like us do, and are able to access and draw supplementary energy from these dimensions which they then metabolize and use for both sustenance and to reinforce their physical bodies to a degree that basically renders them relatively impervious to harm from any conventional energies that we can access.

"In the simplest terms possible, sir," the redhead summarized, "the ability to access these forms of energy keeps her alive and in the prime of health, makes her pretty much immune to anything we can throw at her, and probably gives her additional abilities we haven't seen yet."

"Well, since you're standing up there with a smile on your face, Miss Rosenberg, and not running away trying to find some type of shelter in which to hide, I would hazard a guess that you believe there is a way to deny Glory access to this energy she needs," Marchinko offered his assumptions, while she paused for a moment to take a sip of water.

"That's exactly right, General," Willow nodded her appreciation of his deductive reasoning. "We haven't actually built anything yet, but the basic concepts encompassing such a device seem to be very straight forward. The Initiative's engineering section is already working on developing several small-scale pieces of equipment that should allow us to determine more definite parameters regarding the forms and characteristics of the energies Glory is accessing."

"Once we've determined those parameters with a reliable degree of certainty, we should then be able to build a device that will prevent anyone within its area of effect from accessing those forms of energy.

"And after that, General," the redhead smiled, "that bitch's ass is *ours*!"

Marchinko was not at all surprised to see the look of anticipation and incipient bloodlust on the redhead's face that accompanied her final sentence, nor the fact that it was mirrored on faces of the Harris and Summers women, and, to a lesser degree, on Ripper's face as well.

It was one he would had seen far too often in a mirror in his younger days, had he had either an opportunity to look or the inclination to do so, an expression that loudly proclaimed that payback was a bitch, and she's on her way over.

Although, in this particular case, there was a whole *pack* headed Glory's way.

For a brief moment, Marchinko almost felt sorry for the exiled goddess.



An Initiative briefing room
Twelve weeks after 'the portal thing'

"Let me get this straight. You're saying you can keep in contact with *everyone* on all three of the reaction teams simultaneously, even when we're underground in the cave systems, without any problem at all?" Riley Finn asked, trying to keep the incredulity out of his voice as he considered the offer the redhead seated across the table from him had just made.

Glancing over at the other two team leaders sitting in on the conference with him to check their reactions, he turned to the gorgeous brunette sitting on one side of the self-admitted witch, while the blonde Faith had identified as another Slayer sat on the redhead's other side next to Giles, and looked beseechingly to her for help.

"You guys know how good B and I are at hand-to-hand, right?" Faith asked the tall blond-haired team leader, grinning as she thought of the money they had won betting on the petite blonde the day she had demonstrated her close combat skills to the assembled reaction team members a few weeks before.

Despite Faith's assertion that her newly arrived friend was a Slayer too, the majority of the Initiative ground troops seemed to find almost inconceivable the idea that the fragile-appearing blonde beauty could be anywhere near as deadly as the dark-haired Slayer they knew. The three Scooby women, with a surprisingly amenable Forrest choosing to back them up, had each pocketed nearly two hundred and fifty dollars in sucker bets after Buffy had defeated all of the Initiative troops in individual close combat, all without breaking a sweat.

"Well, Cornfed," everyone present, including Riley, grinned at her nickname for him as the brunette Slayer continued speaking, "all I can really say is that Red here is as good at her magic as B and I are at kicking ass."

The redhead blushed slightly when she heard the brunette's praise, then spoke up to spell out the extent of her capabilities to the now- attentive agents, as the three agents frowned and tried to envision what advantages the assistance of the witch could now provide them.

"Well, mass telepathic communication isn't as easy as levitating pencils or minor repair spells," Willow stated, "but, yeah, I can keep in contact with everyone on each of the teams, just like we were using radios, but without having to worry about interference. You guys couldn't talk and forth to each other, though, you'd have to relay messages through me," she noted, wanting to ensure there would be no confusion regarding exactly what everyone would be able to do.

"And, uh, I'm really pretty good with locator and detection spells. And I can also move stuff telekinetically. Oh! Oh! And I can shoot fireballs, like in the movies!" she told them excitedly. "Except they're not real big. Like about the size of a softball, that's all," she added, a little glumly.

"Uhm, that would be - fine, Willow," Riley replied, as he, Forrest and Graham all exchanged perturbed glances again, much to Faith and Buffy's amusement. "Fireballs of any size would, uh, be good. Any time at all. Against hostiles, that is."

"Another big plus Red would give us would be in Search and Rescue missions, Riley," Faith noted, her long association with Xander and his Soldier aspect having given her an idea of the possible peripheral benefits having a witch around a military unit could accrue.

"If every team member is issued an enchanted item, like a shoulder patch, for example, it'd allow her to locate anyone missing after an operation. You'd be able to find lost or injured personnel a lot faster than you can now, since Red would be able to lead you straight to them. For any unknown areas you'd be searching, like, say, a disaster area after an earthquake or something like that, she'd be able to scan the area and tell you whether there were any survivors inside a collapsed building," she suggested.

"And those are just the first things that come to mind, Riley," Giles stated from his position near the end of the table. "I am quite certain that additional advantages and uses for Willow's abilities will come to light after we spend some time working together."

"You know," Forrest commented with a grin as he surveyed the room, "when I was a kid, I watched a lot of 'G.I. Joe' cartoons, and that made me want to join the military. I think I should have been watching a lot more 'Dungeons and Dragons,' though. It would have prepared me a lot better for all of this," he laughed, as he waved his hand around to encompass the entire installation.


A cave on the outskirts of Sunnydale
Fourteen weeks after 'the portal thing'

"Dammit, Faith, wake up! Do you hear me?! Wake up!"

Buffy's voice sounded more frantic than Willow could remember hearing in a long time, as she hurried through the twisting passageways to one of the secondary chambers of the cave system they had been assaulting tonight. The witch's telepathic contact with every member of the field teams had enabled the simultaneous triple assaults to go off flawlessly, and the complete unexpectedness of the attacks had allowed them to take out all of the Vindali guard posts without any alarms being raised, facilitating their quiet infiltration of the labyrinth.

With a Slayer leading each of two teams and Willow and Giles' magic backing up the third to offset the lack of sheer physical power, they had steamrollered their way through the maze of tunnels to the central chamber where the planned summoning ceremony was taking place. Although one of the summoned demons had already materialized, the relatively short fight between the Slayers' teams and the demons attempting to prevent any interference had permitted Willow to begin her own counter-summoning ritual and shut down the gateway already opened. With her concentration focused on the requisite phrases and gestures, Willow had been unable to pay any attention to whatever else was occurring on any of the battle's other fronts.

Bursting into the cave which Buffy's distress call had directed her to, Willow found the blonde kneeling next to Faith's unmoving body, cradling her in her arms, while one of the team medics attempted to wrap the still freely-bleeding gash on the older Slayer's arm. Noting with a barely realized sigh of relief that the brunette's chest was moving easily, indicating that she could still breathe on her own, the witch dropped to her knees on the other side of Faith, automatically cataloguing the rest of the cave's contents while she demanded a status report from the concerned-looking medic.

"What happened?" she barked as she personally checked her unconscious friend's body for any signs of injury.

"I'm not sure, ma'am," the soldier responded as he finished up the field dressing on Buffy's arm. "We were engaged in a fight with the hostile on the ground there," he indicated the headless body lying off to the side, "and it had just backhanded Agent Summers here across the room and into the wall, when Agent Harris burst in and immediately began attacking the hostile before it could attack any of us. The hostile then turned to fight Agent Harris and I noticed that its hand had begun glowing, but before I could say anything, it hit her with some kind of energy burst from its hand, and she flew across the room, hit the wall and just dropped to the ground. It was starting to turn back towards us, presumably to attack us again, when Agent Summers decapitated it. I immediately checked Agent Harris' vitals and found no obvious injuries, but we can't get her to wake up."

"Buffy, did you see anything else?" Willow questioned the anxious blonde.

"No, Will," the senior Slayer shook her head worriedly. "It went just like he said it did. That whatever it is had just bounced me off the wall when Faith jumped in. It zapped her with some kind of beam from its hand, then I chopped its head off, and now she won't wake up." The blonde's apprehension was almost palpable in its intensity, and Willow's own worries were beginning to mount also at their inability to wake their friend.

Seeing Giles rushing into the chamber alleviated some of Willow's dread, and both women reflexively turned to him as a source of hope and answers. Outlining the situation in as few words as possible, they waited as Giles took a moment to examine the dead body that was the source of their current worries.

Seeing their father figure's face immediately pale upon his recognition of the fiend that was still leaking ochre colored blood on the floor of the cave, they each realized the seriousness of the circumstances facing them, as they heard a low-voiced "God in Heaven!" issue from his lips.

"What's wrong, Giles?" Buffy demanded, as she continued to cradle the still form in her arms.

"What happened here?" Giles asked, ignoring his Slayer's question for the moment. "Tell me again, exactly what happened!" The note of command in his voice overrode the blonde's fear and anger at the situation and she quickly repeated their report of the battle to her Watcher.

The brief synopsis of what had occurred only caused the former librarian to look even more worried and anguished than he had upon first seeing the demon's body.

"Giles! What's going on! What's wrong with Faith?" Buffy demanded again, her voice rising along with her worry.

"That is, or rather, was a Pythagoric demon," he replied, indicating the body as he too dropped to his knees next to the apparently comatose Slayer. "Or, as they are more commonly referred to among the demon community, 'Soul-Eaters,' due to their ability to kill their victims by devastating their souls with a bolt of energy they generate and expel from their hands."

"So, how do we fix the damage he did to Faith?" Buffy asked, trying to deny the awful feeling she was getting from seeing the expression on her heart-father's face.

"We can't," was the simple answer she received. "There is no remedy known that can offset or repair the damage such an attack inflicts."

"NO!!!" Both Buffy and Willow screamed their protests at Giles' reply.

"There must be something we can do!" Buffy argued. "She's a Slayer, Giles! She can recover from this! We heal fast!" she insisted, as a stray tear ran down her face.

"Isn't there *any* spell we could use, Giles?" Willow demanded, refusing to acknowledge there wasn't something they could do to help.

"Believe me, I wish there was," he told them, his face a mask of grief and sorrow. "If there is any form of antidote or treatment available, it is a closely kept secret. That is but one of many things the Council has attempted to discover in the course of the past twelve centuries, to no avail."

"No!!! She's not going to die!" Willow stated flatly. "I'm not gonna let her! Giles, Buffy, you take care of things here, okay?"

"Just what is it you are considering doing, Willow?" Giles asked, already knowing the futility of arguing with his young charge.

"I'm not sure," the witch admitted, staring at him steadily, "but I'm not going to stand by and do nothing. I'm gonna try and link to her and see what I can do to help her. Joy's not going to lose either of her parents while I can do anything about it."

"Take me with you, Will," Buffy said, laying her hand on the redhead's arm. Before anyone could protest, she added, "Faith and I are both Slayers, so we're already linked on some level. We talked to each other in our dreams before Graduation, remember? Link with me now, and we'll both go in, together. Like you just said, 'Joy's not going to lose either of her parents while I can do anything about it'. So I'm in. End of discussion."

Nodding her agreement, Willow had Buffy set Faith's body back on the stone floor, then the two women sat down on either side of her and linked their free hands as they each took hold of one of the unconscious brunette's hands.


Staring down at her comatose friend, Buffy could faintly hear Willow's voice, as if from a great distance, and then, it seemed as if she must have blinked because she was suddenly standing inside a deserted, decrepit warehouse, alone, and with no real idea where she was. She could hear someone screaming, somewhere off in another section of the building, so she quickly headed towards the sounds.

As she drew closer, the screams became more intelligible, and she redoubled her speed as she recognized Faith's voice as the one doing the screaming. After a moment, she found a partially-ajar door and carefully looked through it before charging forward. What she saw inside the adjourning chamber brought tears to her eyes, and focused the nebulous, nascent anger that had been building up inside her since she had seen Faith's unconscious body into a cold, hard rage.

Secured to the far wall of the large, cavernous room was a much younger, less hardened Faith, the teenager's arms pulled to full extension above her head by heavy chains strong enough to withstand the stress put on them by the frantic, semi-hysterical Slayer. A closer look revealed that the girl's color was a dull grey, more resembling a long-term care patient than the vibrant woman she knew. Hanging before the brunette, suspended from the ceiling by her own chains, was a strong-featured woman, her face bruised and bleeding from the beating inflicted on her by the grotesque, towering vampire standing and smiling at the two of them from his position between the two women.

Buffy immediately recognized the woman as Faith's original Watcher, Nicole Wilson, from the descriptions Faith had shared with them over the course of the past few months, and realized that the brunette was re-living the night that Nicole died at the hands of the master vampire, Kakistos.

It was when she heard the woman hanging from the chains cursing and swearing at the trapped Slayer that she realized that her friend's memories were being twisted and warped into a monstrous nightmare intended to destroy the brunette's heart and soul.

"You let me die, you ungrateful bitch!" Nicole's doppelganger snarled at the horrified girl chained to the wall opposite her. "You could have broken free whenever you wanted, but you waited until I die before doing it! You know it's true! You were too cowardly to even try to rescue me, you worthless tramp! I wish I had followed your mother's example the moment I saw you! If I had, I'd still be alive, not strung up here like a side of meat! It's all your fault, Faith! It's all your fault I died!"

The look of anguish on the brunette's face as she listened to the bile and invective directed at her made Buffy's stomach twist in sympathetic pain and galvanized her into motion. As she ran forward towards the imprisoned Slayer, the blonde Slayer's right hand pulled her sword from its scabbard on her back as her left slipped her favorite stake, Mr. Pointy, from its sheath at her hip.

Turning to face the oncoming Slayer, the faux-Kakistos merely smiled at her as he motioned with the cloven hoof that had replaced his left hand, and a dozen vampire minions rushed towards her, blocking her path to her sister/friend/comrade/loved one.

The blonde didn't even break stride as she waded into the midst of the horde of demons obstructing her progress, her sword and stake a blur as she swiftly transformed her enemies into slowly settling handfuls of dust that drifted to the floor in her wake.

"Faith!" Buffy shouted as she moved. "None of this is real!! It's all an illusion caused by that blast the demon hit you with! You have to fight it!"

"Buffy?" Faith asked, her expression a mixture of surprise, confusion and disbelief. "What are you doing here? Where'd you come from? You weren't here when this happened."

"It's a nightmare caused by an energy blast from that demon the Vindali demons were summoning! Remember the cave, and us and the Initiative troops fighting to stop the summoning ritual?" the senior Slayer yelled as she faced the Kakistos double that turned to attack her.

"Remember Xander and Joy? Remember being a family?" she jogged the brunette's memories. "This isn't real! It's a nightmare! All of it!"

The incarnate nightmare facing her was nearly two feet taller than she was, and outweighed her by at least three hundred pounds. As he rushed her, swinging his hoof-hand at her, Buffy spun to the side to avoid him, her sword sweeping down as she pivoted to slice into his forearm and sever nearly half of his limb, drawing a wild scream of pain and rage from the monster. Continuing her spin, Buffy followed through to drive Mr. Pointy into the phantasm's back, eliciting a brief scream of pain and frustration from her opponent before he transformed into a cloud of dust.

She had just begun turning to face the imprisoned Slayer when something hard and heavy smashed against the back of her head and sent her headfirst to the floor, to lie there fighting to hold onto consciousness as her eyes barely registered the vampiric form of Nicole Wilson stalking her.

"I don't know who you are, little girl, but I do know what you are," the monster snarled as it smiled down at her. "My next meal."

"Nooooo! Leave her alone!" The words were accompanied by a blurred glimpse of Faith body-slamming the hideous parody of her former Watcher away from Buffy and driving her to the floor of the warehouse.

"Little fool!" The vampire sneered down at the brunette as they finished rolling across the floor of the building, ending up with the vampire on top, her hands locked around the Slayer's neck, while Faith feebly beat against the monster's hands and arms.

Faith watched as the leering face took on a look of astonishment, before it suddenly turned to a cloud of dust, revealing Willow's somber expression looking down at her as she leaned down to help her up.

"None of this is real, Faith," the witch said, as she pulled the brunette to her feet. "Your soul's being weakened and drained by the demon's blast while it's making you relive all of the bad things you can remember. If you can't defeat these nightmares, you're going to die."

As the two women turned and helped Buffy to her feet, the surrounding area swirled and reformed around them, and Buffy immediately recognized the location.

It was obviously quite late, and Buffy could see Faith and herself fighting an apparently never-ending string of vampires, their punches and kicks slowing down their opponents' attacks, giving them a opportunity to drive their stakes through the vamps' hearts and turn them into large handfuls of dust.

As Buffy watched, she saw herself grab someone in a suit and throw him against a stack of boxes and watched Faith's stake begin rocketing towards her opponent's heart. Moving faster than she believed possible, Buffy managed to grab hold of Faith's wrist and prevent her from completing her attack.

"He's not a vamp, he's human," she told the brunette as she Faith's face shifted into a horrified expression at what she had almost done.

"Neither of us knew," she told her sibling Slayer. "It's not our fault he made a stupid mistake. Neither of us did anything wrong, Faith. It was just bad luck, that's all it was."

Before anyone could say another word, their surroundings swirled again, and they found themselves standing off to one side of the Sunnydale High School graduation. As they all looked in horror, the Mayor's body began its transformation into its larger demon form.

Within two minutes, the Mayor had completed his transition and now attacked the panicking crowds, swallowing that little troll Snyder whole as its first hors-d'oeuvre.

Spying Faith and her companions standing motionless amid the fleeing crowds, the Mayor-demon turned and headed towards them.

"Well, hey there, little miss," the giant snake said as it approached. Both the Mayor-demon's voice and cheerful tone had remained unchanged despite his transformation, making the scene they inhabited appear yet even more surreal than it already was.

"You know, it's really disappointing to see you betraying me after all I've done for you, Faith," the monster spoke. "After all, I'm the one who took you in and cared for you after all of your so-called friends there wanted nothing to do with you. I gave you that nice apartment you're living in, food in the pantry, clothes, a brand new Playstation and some games to go with it, not to mention my love, and what do you do with it?

"You throw it all in my face, or you would if I actually had one, anymore," he commented, "and you turn yourself back into that worthless little tramp you were before you were ever Called as a Slayer. The little piece of garbage that nobody ever loved, because there was nothing there to love."

"Faith, don't listen to him," Willow spoke up loudly, trying to get Faith to look away from the grotesque monster before them. "Remember, it's all just an hallucination caused by the demon in the cave."

"You know, young lady, it's very impolite to interrupt someone when they're ranting about something," the Mayor-demon said, turning to address Willow. "Actually, it's down right rude, and I just hate rude people. Now you have to be punished!" it stated, just before it snapped forward to swallow the redhead whole.

Seeing what happened, both Slayers instantly screamed a protest and attacked the creature, their fists and stakes seeming completely ineffectual against its nigh-impregnable hide.

"There now, let that be a lesson to you," the Mayor-demon said, with a little chuckle. "I don't think you'll be doing that again, now will you?"

As the monster reared up above them, preparatory to another strike, it suddenly exploded, a huge hole appearing in its abdomen through which Willow calmly exited, without some much as a scratch marring her appearance.

"Well now, would you look at that?" the snake-monster commented, pausing to look down at its now ruptured abdomen, before collapsing to the ground and fading away to nothingness.

Around them, the air shimmered once more, and the warehouse scene coalesced around them again.

"The demon's magic is trying to kill you, Faith, it's making you repeat all the bad things that have ever happened to you in your life," Willow explained as she reached out to take her friend's hand in hers. Buffy stood on the brunette's other side and tightly gripped Faith's other hand.

"Remember, Faith, none of this is real. It's all just a dream, and we need you to wake up," Buffy told her, as she and Willow hugged the distraught brunette to them.

"Joy needs her mother, Faith. She needs you to come back to her. And we still have to rescue Xander," Willow reminded her.

Faith looked even worse than she had only a moment ago, her complexion even more grayish than it had been while reliving the scene of her Watcher's death.

"I'm so tired," Buffy heard the brunette whisper. "I don't know if I can do it anymore."

"If you're tired, then take some of my energy," the blonde told her best male friend's wife. "However much you need."

"Mine, too," Willow invited her. "Take as much as you need and come back with us. Your family needs you, Faith. All of us need you to come home."

The three of them stood quietly, ignoring the threatening actions of the creatures surrounding them, and they each began to glow, softly at first, but growing brighter with each passing second. As the brightness increased, the three began to merge, fusing together into a single overwhelming light that slowly faded away, leaving nothing behind.


Giles and Riley watched the unmoving bodies of the three women with more than a little trepidation. Several members of the strike teams have set up a perimeter guard outside the entrance to the cave system, with others establishing an inner guard at both known entrances to the cavern which the women currently occupied, while the remainder of the teams transported the wounded back to the base's hospital for final evaluation and treatment of their injuries.

It had been over an hour since Willow and Buffy had linked hands and Willow had cast the spell that would hopefully allow them to link up with Faith, and none of the women had moved a muscle since then.

Drawing on a patience and self-control hard-earned during his wild and rambunctious youth, Giles sat quietly near Faith's head, a position that allowed him an unrestricted view of all three of his 'daughters.' He would be there when they returned, and nothing less than an immediate threat to Joy's safety would be able to move him from that spot. The thought that they might not return was one he simply refused to consider, let alone accept.

As he sat there, patiently waiting impatiently, he noticed a small twitch of Faith's right hand and focused all of his attention on his brunette child, silently hoping and praying that this was the precursor to the return of all three of his children.

After a moment passed, Faith let out a small groan and her eyes fluttered open, then glanced over to see him seated near her and her two...friends? Companions? Family members. That was it. Members of her family.

"Hey, Rupe," she smiled weakly at him. "How's things?" she managed to whisper.

Seeing her smiling at him, no matter how weak it might be, lifted part of the burden from Giles' heart, with the rest of it evaporating when he heard Buffy and Willow's own groans as they shifted protesting limbs that had temporarily locked up as a result of their lack of movement.

"Things are good, Faith," he smiled back. "Things are fine, now."


Initiative HQ
Beneath the UC Sunnydale campus
Fourteen weeks and three days after 'the portal thing'

"Excuse me, sir, but I think you need to see this report. Immediately, sir."

'Suggestions' offered with that tone of voice *rarely* presaged good news. That was one of the inviolate laws of nature Marchinko had learned the hard way after nearly three decades of service in the military.

"All right, Riley. Give me the report and take a seat," he said, with a sigh.

Taking the folder Finn was holding out to him, Hardcase sat back in his chair, opened the folder up and started reading the lab analysis report. When he had finished the report, he examined the attached test results printout, then re-read the report and the printout again.

"There's no doubt, at all, about this?" he asked as he looked over at his office couch, where the agent had been sitting patiently.

"No, sir, none at all," Riley shook his head negatively. "I had the tests re-done twice, each at a different lab. Everything matches, sir."

"Well then, I think we better go talk to the lady, Riley. It'll be interesting to see her reaction to our news," he half-smiled, as he got out from behind his desk.

< And a bigger understatement than that, I have yet to hear, > Riley thought to himself as he preceded the general down the hallway.


< No! Prey is escaping! Chase it! Catch it! Kill it! > The Hyena aspect of Xander's mind howled with rage and frustration as the creature that had attacked them pulled away and fled into the limitless spaces surrounding the two of them.

< A wounded enemy free to move about is extremely dangerous, > the Soldier aspect immediately agreed. < Something as ruthless as this creature is will try to slip away and attack later, after it's recovered from its injuries and at the most convenient time for it to strike. It'll go after our loved ones, either to use as hostages for bargaining purposes or to injure or kill them, in order to distract us and split our concentration. We have to end its menace now, or we'll be looking over our shoulder for the rest of our life. >

After a brief self-examination to determine the extent of his own injuries and how they would impact on his combat effectiveness, Xander spun around in a circle, 'sniffing' the area for the 'scent' of his enemy. Once he had identified which way Glory had gone, he headed off after her, to put an end to this threat to his family, once and for all.

Chapter 5

Harris residence

Fourteen weeks and three days after 'the portal thing' Forty minutes after Marchinko and Riley's discussion

"N-n-n-no! That's impossible! There's no way that could be true! It-it-it's physically impossible! It can't be! I'd know if that were true!"

Willow's reaction to the disclosure of the test results had been to transform herself into a gibbering wreck, leaving Buffy, Faith and Giles with their jaws hanging open in stunned disbelief.

"One of our lab boys noted a discrepancy in your test results between what we have on file, and the results from your last examination, Willow," Riley elaborated on their initial disclosure. "If you'll recall, based in part on Giles' recommendations, it's standard procedure now, to test everyone involved in any assaults on hostile bases, so that we can catch any problems as early as possible, before they can develop into big ones."

"The techie brought the discrepancies to my attention, and we had the tests redone, with the same results. We ran the tests a total of three times, at separate labs, Miss Rosenberg. All of the results agreed. There is absolutely no doubt about it," Marchinko told her, leaning forward and speaking in what he hope would be taken as a reassuring tone of voice.

"At present, we have absolutely no idea how this could come about, or who or what might be responsible, but you are now, most definitely, a Slayer," he said, reiterating his initial announcement upon arriving at the Harris household.


"If everything you girls have told me is correct, and we have no reason to doubt that it is not, then the only explanation that I could possibly offer is that your and Buffy's merging your spirits', or souls', if you would prefer to use that terminology, energies, - with Faith in order to provide her with the energy she needed to continue on, somehow allowed them to share the Slayer Essence that the Buffy and Faith already possessed with you, Willow," Giles suggested a while later, after a lengthy discussion of how Willow might have been empowered as a Slayer without the current Slayer having died.

"Indeed, one of the few things that we are quite certain of is that at no time whatsoever did you die, for even a few seconds, Faith," he continued on, his brow furrowed in concentration as he pondered the enigma confronting him. "The team's field medic was by your side from the instant you collapsed from the demon's attack until you once again regained consciousness, and was constantly monitoring your condition, so the traditional method of Calling a new Slayer most certainly did not occur.

"Therefore, you must have received the Slayer Essence through some non-traditional agency, and the most likely method that we can suggest at this time would be your and Buffy's linking your spirits during your efforts to save Faith from the Pythagoric demon," he concluded his hypothesis.

"Tell me, Buffy, Faith, do either of you feel weaker than you would normally expect to feel, given the circumstances of the past few days?" he queried the two girls.

"Doesn't feel like it, G-Man," Faith shook her head, as she sprawled out on the recliner, "but you've had all of us just lying around resting since then, so I couldn't really say yes or no."

"What she said," Buffy grinned as she nodded her head towards Faith, from her position stretched out across the love seat. It seemed as though the blonde had been smiling constantly since Marchinko had revealed the news regarding their friend's newly discovered status.

"Well, I, I guess that would explain the dreams I've been having the past couple nights," Willow offered tentatively, seeing all eyes turning towards her at her statement.

"I, uhm, just thought it was some residual memories or something that I picked up from Buffy or Faith during the link-up," she explained. "But I'm guessing now that they were actually the Slayer dreams you guys mentioned that you got when you were first Called. Not a lot of fun, at all."

"Yeah, those were definitely not of the good," Buffy commented, giving an involuntary shiver as she thought back to the nightmares that had haunted her for several weeks immediately after she was first Called.

"Ya got that right," Faith nodded in agreement. The dreams had actually been worse than some of the things she had experienced after she had run away, and that was saying a lot.

"If you're feeling up for it, Willow, I would like to begin some testing first thing tomorrow morning, to determine just exactly what your capabilities are," Giles enthusiastically proposed. "This is an unprecedented opportunity to break new ground in observing exactly what changes your system will be making as your Slayer abilities develop over the course of the next few days!"

"Well, I guess that'll be okay, Giles," the redhead nodded her agreement, a bit reflectively. "But none of that throwing knives at my head to check for Slayer reflexes stuff, you hear me? I don't want any testing of things like that," she warned him, giving him a preemptive 'evil eye' hopefully before he could even consider such things.

Faith's sudden laughter could be heard issuing from her position over on the recliner, and everyone looked to see what might be cause of her merriment.

"Just thinking about the reaction of the Council, if and when they ever hear about Red's joining the club here," she explained with a wide grin.

"They were always getting upset because we didn't do things in the 'traditional manner' before things started getting strange," she noted cheerfully. "Now, it's not enough that we're working for the American government instead of them, *and* getting paid for fighting demons, we're not even being cooperative enough to die before we start Calling new Slayers.

"If you thought they were pissed at us before, just think about how they're gonna be feeling now!" she chortled with glee.


Harris residence
Fifteen weeks after 'the portal thing'

"Giles, you got a minute? Something really weird's going on, and I need to talk to all you guys about it," Buffy said, as she poked her head into the rec room, where the ex-librarian was reading his granddaughter the Sunnydale version of 'Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Prio Motu Demon.' (The girls were determined that Joy wouldn't have to sort through all sorts of conflicting realms of information regarding who were the good guys and bad guys as she grew older, and they all agreed, that particular fairy tale must have been written by someone with a grudge against lycanthropes. After all, they could testify from personal experience that werewolves could be quite helpful and were *extremely* loyal to those they viewed as their pack.)

The local adaptation that all of the Scooby Gang read to the youngest Harris differed from the standard fairy tale on several major points, not the least of which were the stakes and short sword that 'Little Red' carried with her in the basket she was taking to Grandma's house.

"Why, certainly, Buffy. I'll just be a minute or so," he agreed, as he checked and noted that his audience was now fast asleep in his arms.

"I'll be along as soon as I put Joy to bed," he promised, smiling down at the dark-haired toddler curled up in his embrace.


"All right then, Buffy," the team leader of Sunnydale's now federally authorized demon hunting squad said, as he joined his family around the kitchen table, "what seems to be the problem?"

He gave Willow a grateful nod and smile as she slid a steaming mug of Earl Gray tea across the kitchen table to him as he sat down across from Buffy and Faith.

"Well, while I was on patrol earlier with Lori and Shawn," the senior Slayer began reporting her night, "we ran across what I think were a bunch of Glokken demons - six of them, to be exact. You know -the ones that are about so high, and sorta look like giant gerbils, except for the four inch fangs and the barbed tail and the spikes on their back?" the blonde described the creatures, indicating a height of about four feet with a gesture of her hand.

"Anyway, we decided to go all stealthy, 'cause we were hoping they'd lead us back to their nest, but then they ran across a couple of kids, who couldn't have been more than thirteen, if that, who said they were just out for a walk, which I can't believe their parents let them do, if they've lived in Sunnydale for more than a couple months," Buffy commented parenthetically as she began veering off the subject for a moment, but then recovered her train of thought, "so the three of us had to jump in, to save them.

"We got four of them, but the last two rabbited and managed to get away and took off across the ball fields behind McManus Park. I had Lori and Shawn stay with the kids, because they were a little cut up, nothing life-threatening, but serious enough to call for an ambulance, and then I took off after the Glokkens," Buffy recounted.

"I managed to trail them to one of the caves over near the old quarry, and saw them going into one of the caves, but when I tried calling for back-up, I couldn't get through. I think there's a problem with a lack of coverage in the area over there," she observed. "In any case, I couldn't take the time to find somewhere my phone would work, or the demons would get away, so I followed them into the caves.

"About a hundred feet in, my flashlight went dead, and there I was, stuck in the dark, and I wasn't completely sure about the way out. Then, after about a minute, I started hearing things, like claws on stone, and I figured maybe the Glokkens were coming back. I was still fiddling around with my flashlight, and I remember wishing that I could just make a light spell, like you do, Will," the blonde noted, with a nod of acknowledgement to her fellow Slayer, " and, all of a sudden, my flashlight lit up! And I could see four Glokken that had been trying to sneak up on me."

"Fortunately, the light coming on blinded them for a couple seconds, and it gave me enough time that I could get them first," she told her gathered family members. "Two minutes later, it was Slayer four, Glokkens nothing, and I was headed on home here."

"While it is gratifying to hear that you were not injured during patrol, Buffy," Giles stated, as Buffy paused in her recitation to take a sip of her hot chocolate, "I fail to see exactly what you felt was 'weird', to use your own terminology, about anything that happened."

"My flashlight's working fine, now, Giles," Buffy informed him, as she held up her still lit flashlight. "Actually, it's even brighter than it normally was. The weird thing is, though, that it won't turn off.

"Even when I take out the batteries," she added, turning it so that he could see the empty interior space that the batteries would normally occupy.


"All right, now, hold on just a minute, here, Rupe. Are you trying to tell us that B and I are both witches, now?" Faith asked skeptically, as she looked across the room at the redhead.

"Well, uhm, not...precisely, Faith," Giles replied. "Actually, uh, all that I said was that, it, uhm, now appears that both your and Buffy's, uhm, potential to manipulate arcane energies has inexplicably increased by several magnitudes, as compared to, to the potential you had displayed when tested by the Initiative earlier in the year. As far as exactly what is responsible for this sudden augmentation of your potential, the only explanation that I can conceive of is that your merger with Willow last week enhanced your potential, in much the same way it transformed Willow into a Slayer."

"Uh, Will, can you do us a favor and translate exactly what it was Giles just explained to us into English?" Buffy asked, giving her Watcher a small grin as she settled herself into one of the overstuffed chairs in the rec room. She and Faith had only just completed a short series of tests and examinations the witch and the Watcher had quickly put together after hearing Buffy's account of her evening.

"Ohhhh-kay," Willow's face mirrored the blonde's smiling expression, and had an added dash of excitement and eagerness along with it, as she enthusiastically sorted through the papers haphazardly scattered across the kitchen table.

"Basically, guys, what the tests we just had you run through indicate is that both of you now have a much higher potential, or ability, to manipulate magic energy as compared to what you had tested for when we all took those tests three months ago," the redhead clarified Giles' earlier explanation.

"You remember, the ones we took so that we could try and establish some baselines for the lab guys to work from?" she reminded her 'sisters' of the exams they all undergone earlier in the summer.

"You mean the ones with trying to light the candles and move the papers and that other stuff?" Faith asked, her eyebrows narrowed as she recalled the seemingly endless, fruitless tests she and Buffy had undergone.

"Oh, you're talking about the ones that showed Graham could be a witch!" Buffy exclaimed with another grin. "I remember them."

"Well, actually, Buffy," Giles interjected, "they indicated that Graham had an above average potential towards elemental magics, as, say, compared to general witchcraft or sorcery. And, well, more specifically, an affinity towards fire magic," he noted. "His training, so far, has not advanced as quickly as we had hoped it might, most probably because of his somewhat negative attitude towards the supernatural, which was apparently inculcated during his early childhood and adolescence."

"Yeah, from what I can gather from the little bit he's said about growing up," Willow chimed in, "his dad was some kind of engineer, and he kind of instilled a pretty hardnosed, skeptical attitude about magic and anything like that in him. He's still got a real 'if you always do this, you always get that' expectation of doing things. I've explained to him at least a dozen times how attitude and emotions can have a major effect on the outcome of your spellcasting, but he's still working on revising his mental outlook.

"He has made some major advances, though," she smiled as she thought about their friend's accomplishments.

"Well, yes, that's certainly true," Giles agreed. "And now that you've mentioned it, Willow I believe that attitude is a significant part of the reason for Buffy's accomplishments earlier this evening," he added.

As the women all looked to him inquiringly, he elaborated on his previous statement.

"You had said that while you were attempting to get your flashlight to work, you heard what you believed were some of the Glokkens approaching you, and that you were fervently wishing that your flashlight was working properly again, did you not?" the former librarian asked the blonde Slayer. At her nod of confirmation, he continued his line of thought.

"Well then, as Willow just noted, emotions and attitude can have a significant effect on the success or failure of a spell. Your most likely ardent desire to be able to see exactly what was approaching you in the darkness, coupled with your knowledge that a light spell was both possible and, to your somewhat limited knowledge of magic, quite simple," he said, "combined to produce the result that you wished, your flashlight now providing you with sufficient illumination to be able to see any possible foes that might be approaching, and, voila! Your flashlight is working again!"

"That's pretty cool, B!" Faith wore a wide grin as she praised her sibling's inadvertent accomplishment. "Do you think you could do me a favor and wish really hard for some self-cleaning diapers for Joy?" she requested, drawing a quick smile from the remaining members of her family.

"Actually, Faith, that's not a real good idea," Willow chimed in, her face now wearing a look of concern. "One of the first things that Jenny taught me, when she took me on as an apprentice, was that using magic to do typical, everyday things just because you didn't feel like being bothered with them was abusing magic.

"Humans aren't made to use magic the same way some of the creatures we come up against are," she explained. "Magic is a part of their basic make-up, but it isn't a part of our basic make-up, or at least, not yet it isn't. So we have to be careful to not use it too casually, like for everyday things we don't really need to use to for, or we could become addicted to using it, and that could lead to some *really* bad things."

"Tha is an excellent point you've made here, Willow. Now that we've discovered that both of you have an enhanced aptitude for magic, we need to begin training you in the proper way in which to best utilize that potential," Giles told them. "I believe that we need to start such instruction as soon as possible. After you all are finished with your classes tomorrow, I think we need to begin your initial classes in magic.

"Is there anything that any of you have scheduled for tomorrow afternoon that would preclude your attending an instructional session?" he asked, only to answered by a chorus of groans.


An Initiative laboratory
Outskirts of Sunnydale
Twenty-three weeks after 'the portal thing'

"All right, then, we're ready to proceed whenever you give the okay, General."

The speaker was the engineer heading up the team building the equipment that would manipulate the extra-dimensional energy Glory accessed. As he addressed the General, the other people who had accompanied him from Washington, D.C. to witness the current demonstration were currently milling around the room, all staring at the bank of television monitors that formed the far wall of the conference room.

The scene displayed on the screens showed a large windowless warehouse containing numerous devices incomprehensible to the layman, as well as one tape-marked area that held cages holding a variety of birds, fish, small mammals and reptiles, all of which were set approximately twenty feet back from the devices on one side of the room. Two other areas marked off by yellow tape on the floor each held what appeared to be U.S. Army tanks and several armored personnel carriers.

"Would you be good enough, Mr. Allison, to explain to our guests here what, exactly, we can expect to see, once this shielding device your people have developed is turned on?" Marchinko asked, wanting his people to present a bit more detail than had been provided when his 'tour group' first arrived at the compound.

"Well basically, General, this test is being used to illustrate the major focus of the program we've been investigating. The bright yellow assembly that the camera is centered on at the moment is located in the large warehouse marked "Restricted Access" just outside this lab that you may have noticed when you first arrived here," the engineer explained, "and is one of the bunker-busters the Air Force uses to demolish underground compounds. It has an explosive yield of approximately ten tons," he continued as the people around him listened attentively.

"We've determined from our research here that the energy we're tapping into can be used to create a shield that can block virtually the entire electromagnetic spectrum, as well as resist any physical forces that might be directed against it. The amount of force blocked seems to be a direct function to the amount of power furnished to the shield, up to a certain point. Curiously enough," he added parenthetically, "once that point is reached, no additional protection is furnished, regardless of the amount of power supplied.

"In any event, the demonstration will entail the shields being used to protect the contents of each of the separate areas from the detonation of the device identified earlier. The primary shield, which is identical to all of the others being used, will envelop the entire interior of the warehouse, while additional shields will also be generated around each of the other areas marked off inside the test area, including the area containing the live test subjects, with the exception of one of the two areas containing some of our heavy weapon systems.

"If you'll check both of the marked off areas, ladies and gentlemen, you'll see they each contain an Abrams M1 main battle tank, as well as several armored personnel carriers. For those of you not familiar with modern mobile weapons systems, the Abrams tank is approximately 2.4 meters high, 3.7 meters wide and 10 meters long, and weighs nearly 70 tons. I'm mentioning this so that you'll have some grasp of the physical parameters of the tank and the amount of damage it can sustain."

He paused for a moment to check that everyone in his audience was following his explanation, then proceeded with a clarification of the test's purpose.

"General, if you would be so kind, please have someone from your group select one of the two areas containing the tanks and APCs, and then decide whether you would like to see it enclosed by the shield or left unprotected."

After the fate of the selected area had been determined by the ranking senator present, and several of the group members had noted the identification numbers of the various pieces of equipment contained in each of the designated areas, the head man then gave the 'go-ahead' signal to one of the technicians manning the control console and the demonstration began.

As the audience watched, shimmering silver domes sprang up enclosing the areas holding the test animals and the equipment selected to be protected, followed seconds later by a larger hemisphere that enclosed nearly all of the interior of the warehouse.

A minor tremor, barely noticeable, then shook the ground beneath their feet, and the banks of monitors promptly showed the silver domes dissipating, to reveal the test animals in their cages, unharmed but chittering with concern as they surveyed their surroundings, and the designated 'safe' area of equipment not showing even the slightest scratch on their paint. The equipment area selected for destruction, however, now held only a mélange of broken and twisted pieces of metal unrecognizable as anything aside from scrap metal.

"Well, ladies and gentlemen," Marchinko asked a short while later, after the delegation had walked across the road to the warehouse, and been given sufficient time to examine the now useless junk filling the taped-off area, "does anyone have any additional questions regarding the efficacy of the project we're working on here?"

Standing at the rear of the group, Giles bestowed a wide smile of pride on Willow, an expression mirrored on the faces of the two Slayers accompanying them, as they watched the delegation look at one another, wide-eyed with astonishment, surprise and disbelief at what they had just witnessed, before beginning to pepper Marchinko with excited questions.


The Harris residence
Twenty-five weeks after 'the portal thing'

"Red, I've got a question about this whole Key thing that's been bugging me the past couple days," Faith stated as the three women settled down in the rec room for their traditional post-patrol cups of hot chocolate.

"What is it that's bothering you, Old Married Lady?" the hacker/witch/Slayer grinned across the room at her friend before taking a sip of her beverage. Buffy gave a small snort of laughter from her position stretched out over the love seat on another side of the room, but otherwise remained silent.

"Well, you've told us that Glory needs to access some extra dimensions us normal humans aren't aware of when she wants to use her power, right? Dimensions we can't access because we don't have the right genetic structure to even be aware of them?" the brunette asked, ignoring the title Willow had bestowed on her several weeks previously, after hearing Faith decline an offer to join her and Buffy on an excursion to the Bronze.

At Willow's nod acknowledging the accuracy of her statement, the Dark Slayer continued.

"If the monks hid the Key energy inside Joy, how did they tie it to her?" she asked, both curious and concerned. "From what you've said before, normal humans can't access that kind of energy because there's no way we can even be aware of it, let alone affect it, because we don't exist in any of those extra dimensions. So, how can Joy hold that kind of energy together in one place?"

The look on the redhead's face was one of complete and total bewilderment when the brunette completed her queries, as the Scooby's resident genius realized that she had not given a single moment's consideration to the question Faith had just posed.

Seeing the blank look on her friend's face, Faith looked over at her sister Slayer.

"Was there something wrong with what I just said?" she asked, only to be met with an equally puzzled look on Buffy's face, who shrugged her own bafflement at the witch's behavior.

"Beats me," the blonde replied. "Seemed like a reasonable question to me," she added, as the two of them looked at the redhead with incipient concern.

The redhead's lips were moving silently as her eyes appeared to be focused on something occupying an empty spot on the far wall. She remained motionless for so long that when she finally did move a few moments later, exploding up off of the couch in a sudden burst of activity, that she took both Slayers by surprise, causing each of them to drop back into a defensive stance.

"I'm an idiot!" Willow exclaimed as she shot to her feet. "I can't believe I didn't realize it months ago! I'm an idiot! I should be given a job cleaning bathrooms or counting beads!" she practically shouted as she grabbed hold of Faith's arms and shook her emphatically as she spoke. "You! You're a genius! Joy's the key here! She's the key to everything!"

"Uh, Will? Calm down a bit, okay?" Buffy suggested as she put a calming hand on her friend's shoulder

"Uh, yeah, Red. Calm down, okay? You're starting to give me the wiggins here, the way you're acting," Faith agreed, as she, too, tried to calm down the apparently manic redhead.

"Joy's the key to everything," Willow repeated herself. "I should have realized that months ago!"

"Willow!" Faith said loudly, as she grabbed the other girl's arms and held her still. "We already knew Joy was the Key! The monks told us that months ago! Chill, okay?"

"No, I don't mean Joy's the Key-key," Willow told the two Slayers. "What I mean is, she's the key to the whole solution of how we can control the energy! She's the explanation! The answer! That's what I mean!" she said, emphatically.

Seeing the complete lack of comprehension in both of her friends' eyes, Willow took a deep breath to calm herself, thought for a moment, then began her explanation.

"Okay, guys, listen up, I'll try to explain it a little differently," she began. "Like you pointed out, Faith, normal humans can't sense or access the dimensional energies Glory can, or the Key energy the monks merged with Joy. Therefore, since Joy *is* somehow tied to the energy, she cannot be a normal human.

"Which is something we already knew anyway, what with you being a Slayer, Faith, and Xander being, you know, Xander, by which I mean, the guy who was possessed by a Primal Spirit and then a Halloween Soldier Spirit, and who then merged himself with the templates of the two Spirits when he thought we were dead and there was no one left to guard the Hellmouth, and I'm starting to babble now and kinda getting off the subject," Willow announced as the two Slayers glanced at each other as the redhead's words seemed to flow unchecked from her lips without any seeming connection to their immediately prior discussion.

"But what I should have realized months ago," the redhead went on, "was that there must be something in Joy's genetic make-up that will allow her to not only access the Key energy, but control it as well, because if she can't control it, then it doesn't make any sense to bind it to a human being. The monks could just as easily have bound it to an inanimate object and then hidden that some place where Glory would never be able to find it.

"If we can isolate whatever that factor is and duplicate it, we'll be able to neutralize all of Glory's abilities by having someone, or maybe multiple someones, who'll have the same capabilities she does!"

Faith and Buffy looked at each other for a moment, as if to verify with each other what they thought they had just heard their friend say.

"You mean, if what you're thinking is right, then someone will be able to go one on one with that skank on an equal footing?" Buffy asked cautiously.

"That's exactly what I mean," Willow smiled at her, then turned to see her glee reflected in Faith's eyes as the full possibilities of what she had just said began to manifest in her mind.

"Then why are we wasting time standing here talking?" the Dark Slayer asked. "Let's get moving, guys!"


A quiet bar on the outskirts of Sunnydale
Twenty-nine weeks after 'the portal thing'

The two men nodded to each other as they met in the parking lot outside of the building. Neither spoke as they walked in the side door and headed for one of the booths lining the back of the room, the taller man, who wore wire-rimmed glasses, pausing at the bar only long enough to order two pitchers of lager.

Th silence remained unbroken until the waitress had brought over the pitchers and two mugs, together with a bowl of pretzels, after which the slightly shorter but more solidly-built man pulled a small device out of his jacket pocket and thumbed a switch on the side, before setting it down in the center of the table. The taller bespectacled man then pulled a small crystal from his pocket, muttered a few words under his breath that elicited a momentary glow from the stone and set it down next to the black device.

"I think, between the two of us, we're relatively secure, at least for the moment," the Englishman stated quietly. "It's good to see you outside of the office, so to speak, my friend."

"Yes, it is, Rip," the General grinned. "We don't get the chance to just kick back and relax too often, so it's best to grab the opportunity when it shows," he observed as he filled both mugs and handed one to the man across from him.

"Well, as flattered as I am by the concept that time spent talking to me is something to be appreciated," Giles smiled, "I have the feeling that there's an additional reason you requested that we meet here, aside from the prospect of partaking in the illustrious brew they serve here."

"Hey, don't knock the beer," Marchinko protested amiably. "It's brewed locally, cold and almost as good as Guinness. A lot better than that bilge you used to order back in London."

Taking a long sip from his mug, Giles shrugged his indifferent agreement, and waited patiently for the man in charge of the Glory research project to speak.

"You know, those young ladies of yours are almost too good to believe," Marchinko began conversationally, as Giles simply smiled and waited.

"Riley showed me the tapes of the team's raid on that Deevak nest the night before last, and if I didn't know better, I'd say that was some of the best movie special effects work I'd ever seen. Buffy, Faith and Willow took down three of those bastards apiece, while the rest of the team accounted for another eight. Rip, having just one Slayer capable of casting effective combat spells during the battle would be enough to have some people offering you their first-born male child; having three of them working with synchronized support teams almost makes me think I've died and gone to heaven! We had a total of seven injuries on this last raid, and one of those is because a rock ledge crumbled when one of our people stepped on it and sprained his ankle," he chuckled.

"I've checked the mission profiles, and our casualty rate has declined by sixty-eight percent since your ladies have started working with our field teams, and our fatality rate is less than four percent. That's compared to the previous fatality rate of thirty- seven percent, when dear sweet Maggie was running things.

"The best thing that bitch ever did for us was to get herself killed by her own Frankenstein monster," he commented idly.

"Did you really invite me here to discuss your fascination with numbers in your declining years, Hardcase?" Giles smiled as he sipped more of his lager.

"Not really, old friend," the soldier shook his head. "Guess I just wanted to rehash the good old days, that's all."

He took a long drink from his mug, emptying it and gave a low "Ahh!" of enjoyment as he finished, then refilled both of their mugs from the closest pitcher.

"A good commander takes care of his people, Rip," Marchinko said quietly, apparently changing the subject of their discussion. "And that includes taking care of their families, too. From *anything* that might endanger them."

Pausing to take another sip of his lager, he gave a small sigh before continuing with what needed to be said.

"Willow has been keeping the lab boys extremely busy the past few weeks with those tissue samples she's been working on, " the soldier said, apparently making an idle observation.

"So busy, in fact, that she's been sending some samples out to private labs for evaluation, and charging it to her own private account. Don't worry," he cautioned his friend upon seeing the carefully hidden look of alarm in his eyes, "I'm not saying that I think there's any sinister motive behind what she's doing.

"As it happens, the head of the lab recognized her name on the paperwork that accompanied the sample as one of our people and he contacted me to let me know that she wasn't using the accounts we had set up for the group's use last year. He also noticed that they were supposed to send the results of the tests to the Harris residence, instead of using one of the secure addresses we've set up over the past few years, which he thought was another security blunder on her part, but he sent the results there anyway, once I okayed it.

"He also sent a copy of the results to me," he added.

Giles remained silent and merely waited for his friend to continue.

"They were fairly interesting results," Marchinko went on, when Giles didn't react to his comments. "Very similar to the results from Glory's tissue sample, but most definitely belonging to another woman. Or at least another female."

Here again, he paused to drink from his mug, while Giles merely watched and sipped from his own glass.

"I'm not asking you to betray any confidences here, Rip," he stated quietly. "I'll admit, I'm more than a little curious about these new tissue sample results, and I do have my own suspicions about who the samples belong to, but I'm willing to wait a little while before I decide that I need to officially know what else is going on here.

"For now, I just need you to tell me that there's nothing at all going on that I should be concerned about," he concluded as he sat back against the booth's cushioned seat back and looked at Giles.

"I give you my word that there is nothing taking place at present that you need to be concerned about, Harry," the former librarian said, looking the other man straight in the eye as he used his rarely mentioned proper name. "All that is presently occurring is that Willow is checking out some aspects of a possible corollary situation that has recently attracted our attention. If results turn out as we anticipate they will, you can be assured that you will be notified immediately. More than that I cannot say at the moment."

"Good enough, Rip," Marchinko nodded. "That's all I needed, or wanted, to hear. So, what exactly is going on with you and that new brunette in the lab? According to the lab scuttlebutt..."


Glory's 'scent' led off into the darkly illuminated void stretching out endlessly around them, and Xander moved as quickly as he could after her. The complete blankness and emptiness of his environment precluded any chance of a possible ambush, allowing him to chase after her at the top 'speed' he could manage here.

Actually, he noticed as he moved through the immediate 'landscape , he didn't really seem to running since he didn't really seem to have an actual physical body. He was aware of his surroundings, but they didn't seem to be quite physical, either. Although the lack of any form of illumination prevented him from actually seeing his 'body,' he did seem to know, somehow, that he was different here; that the melding of the Primal and Soldier Spirits with his own that had changed him back in his native plane of existence now manifested themselves more visibly in the 'body' he possessed here. Grinning to himself, he imagined that he now probably more closely resembled Lon Chaney in his 'Wolfman' makeup than Tom Cruise. Oh well, he'd never really considered a career as a male model, anyway.

He turned his attention back to his current situation. His 'body' might still be screaming with the pain of the wounds the self- proclaimed 'goddess' had inflicted before they had fallen through the portal, but wherever it was they had ended up, that didn't seem to affect his ability to move, or attack either, to judge by Glory's earlier reaction when he fought back against her mental assault.

Back home in the 'real world,' he knew his wounds would have required prompt medical attention. He realized he had taken some serious damage from the hell-goddess' attack; Glory had broken a number of his ribs and he was fairly certain that his left lung had been punctured, probably along with his upper intestine, his stomach and his liver. Here though, it seemed that whatever quasi-physical or energy state he was in responded more in accordance with his will and desire, as opposed to his actual physical capability. Shrugging aside the possible philosophical or metaphysical concerns of exactly where or what he was, Xander noted decided that, since he knew he could 'touch' Glory, anything else could be left for later analysis, preferably by someone like Giles or Wills.

He noticed movement, or whatever the hell the proper term might be here, in the distance and increased his speed relative to his quarry. It took only a few moments, at least as time seemed to pass here, before he was dogging that bitch's heels. He knew immediately when Glory realized he was behind her, since she seems to redouble her speed, and began to slowly draw away from him.

There was absolutely no way that bitch was going to get away from him, now, though; he had resolved that when he had first set out after her. Even if it meant breaking his promises to Faith and the others, this bitch was going down for the count. That skank was *never* going to get another opportunity to threaten his child. Even if he died and was sent to hell, he'd claw his way out with his bare hands, if necessary, and drag her back down there with him before she'd *ever* get near Joy again. He'd bet his soul on that.

Leaping forward, he tackled the fleeing goddess and dragged her down to the 'ground' below them and began what was probably going to be his final attack on the creature that had made her final, fatal mistake by threatening his daughter.

Xander's/the Hyena's fangs buried themselves in the Hell-goddess's metaphysical shoulder, just missing her throat as she twisted to try and avoid his attack, and his claws shredded her stomach as he attempted to grab her and rip her apart. Metaphysical they might be, but Glory's fists frantically hammered at his own metaphysical body and head as she desperately tried to free herself from his lethal embrace and flee again. Xander could feel his insides smashing under her blows, the flesh pulping under the force of her attacks, the blood hemorrhaging inside him.

Ignoring the pain lancing through his 'body,' Xander just pulled the blonde tighter against him and tried to chew his way through to whatever might correspond to the goddess's carotid artery.

Chapter 6

Harris residence
Thirty-seven weeks after 'the portal thing'

"...and I am telling you it's out of the question! There is no need for you to put yourself at risk any more than is necessary, Buffy! You're already exposing yourself to danger when you go out on patrol each night. To expose yourself to any additional potential harm makes no sense whatsoever," Giles told his blonde daughter emphatically, almost glaring at her from his position across the room from the couch on which she was sitting.

"I agree with Rupe, B," Faith chime in. "There's no need for you to do this. You've done enough for me and Joy already."

"I *do* need to do this, guys," the blonde replied. "The way I see it, I'm the best choice out of all of us here to do this."

Before Giles could launch another protest, Buffy waved him quiet and continued her explanation.

"If it's not going to be me, then who's it going to be? Certainly not you, Faith," she noted, glancing over at her somber-faced heart- sister, who was sitting in the rocking chair, her arms enclosing a slumbering Joy. "You are most definitely *not* under consideration, because there is absolutely no way we're risking Joy losing her mother!

"Will is out of consideration, too, 'cause we need her to be up and available to figure out a solution, if any kind of problem develops," the senior Slayer pointed out, looking over at the redhead who was silently watching the discussion from her position on the love seat cattycorner to the couch.

The Scoobies' resident science expert was wearing an unhappy look on her face, but she merely continued to observe and remained quiet, content to let the other members of her family try to dissuade Buffy from her proposed course of action. She had already spent the afternoon trying to get her friend to reconsider, and had been unable to make any headway whatsoever.

< Maybe Faith and Giles will have better luck, > she thought to herself, although not very confidently.

"And as far as letting you or anyone from the field teams volunteer," Buffy turned her head back to look over at Giles, "none of you guys have anywhere near the toughness or the healing factor that I do, and that could be a major factor in accepting the transfer.

"And," she added, "from the way Will explained things, my Slayer essence probably makes me the best candidate for this job, 'cause, since I'm already a supernatural creature because of the Slayer essence, the graft should take much more easily because my body has already been altered a bit, from back when I was initially Called."

The argument continued for a while longer before the others reluctantly conceded the blonde's points and agreed that she was currently the best candidate available for the recombinant DNA procedure the lab people had developed.

They needed a guinea pig and Buffy was volunteering; the best they could do now was to make certain the process was as foolproof as (super-)humanly possible.


An Initiative laboratory
Forty-one weeks after 'the portal thing'

"All right, Buffy, we're ready to begin anytime you are."

The metallic-sounding voice reverberated through the virtually empty building, the tinny echoes quickly fading away while the people filling the densely packed control room

Standing in the center of the test chamber, Buffy, wearing a white tank top and nondescript grey sweat pants, and festooned with a variety of sensor transponders intended to monitor a plethora of her vital signs, glanced around and took a last look at her family and friends anxiously watching through the armorplex glass window of the control room located off to one side of the rather cavernous test chamber, smiled reassuringly at them, took a deep breath and spoke into her throat microphone.

"Okay, guys. Give me a ten count and then start," she quietly told her unseen listeners.

Closing her eyes for a moment , she concentrated on the exercises she, Faith and Willow had developed to aid in her control over the course of the last month and let the power she could feel lapping on the edges of her consciousness begin to flow into her.

The audience gathered to witness the test saw the petite blonde close her eyes momentarily before she began glowing faintly. Initially seeming to be little more than a reflection of the bright ambient lighting, the glow soon took on more the appearance of a faint blue- white aura surrounding the girl's body, illuminating her slightly and providing an ethereal quality to her ostensibly frail form.

Opening her eyes again, Buffy smiled as she felt the power permeating her body, and turned slightly to squarely face the Paladin 155 mm self-propelled howitzer that was taking up most of the space at the far end of the chamber. She spent two seconds concentrating on establishing a secure grip on the metal flooring through her sneakers (setting up a reliable interface that wouldn't shred materials with a tensile strength less than that of steel had taken a while for her to learn, but it was pretty much second nature, now), then waited as the whine of the turret's motors announced its computer-control was locked in on her and making its final adjustments prior to firing.

"Commencing resilience testing protocol. Firing sequence initiated," the loudspeakers throughout the facility announced. "Firing in five seconds. Four... three... two... one... Fire!"

The howitzer's initial discharge was quickly followed by two more, the rapid firing sounding much like a rolling peal of thunder echoing through the confines of the chamber, with each shot followed almost simultaneously by the impact and detonation of the shell. The test chamber was rapidly filled with sight-obscuring clouds of smoke and dust, as the group witnessing the test tried to peer through the fog to personally view the results.

As the air filtration system kicked in and quickly began drawing the smoke and haze away, the anxious audience was relieved to see the petite blonde still standing in the same spot she was occupied at the beginning of the test, a wide smile on her delicate features and not even a scratch marring her skin.

"How are you feeling, Buffy?" a voice she recognized as that of Thomas Wells, the head of the genome transfer team, asked her, a mixture of excitement and concern evident as he spoke. "Are you experiencing any pain or discomfort? Is everything okay? Did you feel any pain when the rounds hit?"

"I feel great, Dr. Wells," the blonde replied. "And it felt sorta like someone was hitting me with a really big two by four padded by a pillow each time I got hit, but nothing to worry about. I've gotten hit a lot worse on a normal patrol."

"Excellent!" Wells exulted. "If you're up to it, we'll move onto the next stage of testing, the strength enhancement tests."

"Okay, Doc. I'm up for it."

Moving to the designated site, the Blonde Slayer quickly positioned herself within the specially modified overhead press test fixture and took a secure grip on the reinforced bar located above her head and waited for the test to begin. An LED display located off to one side of the fixture would give an ongoing, real-time display of the force the press was generating in an attempt to measure the Slayer's enhancement.

"Ready when you are, guys," Buffy announced once she had positioned herself comfortably within the test assembly.

"Initiating strength enhancement testing protocol," the computer- generated voice echoed through the testing chamber again. "Testing will begin in five seconds... four... three... two... one... Commencing test."

As the press machinery quietly hummed into action, the readout on the display lit up:

'500 pounds' was the initial reading, as Buffy easily pushed back against the piston trying to force its way downward.

'1,000 pounds'

'1,500 pounds'

'2,000 pounds'

'3,000 pounds'

'4,000 pounds'

'5,000 pounds'

The numbers continued to rise at the same unchanging rate.

'8,000 pounds'

'10,000 pounds'

'12,000 pounds'

'14,000 pounds'

'16,000 pounds'

The force exerted by the piston assembly above her continued to increase, and still the slim blonde remained unfazed, her arms extended above her head, holding the bar she was gripping immovably in place.

'18,000 pounds'

'20,000 pounds'

'22,000 pounds'

'24,000 pounds'

'As the figures passed '25,000 pounds', the rate of increase began to slow.

'26,000 pounds'

'27,000 pounds'

'28,000 pounds'

'29,000 pounds'

Finally, as the display lit up with the numbers '30,000' pounds, the gradual change in the readings stopped.

After several moments, while the readout remained steady and unchanging, Buffy called out from her position within the framework.

"Everything okay out there, guys?" she inquired.

"How are you doing, Buffy?" she heard Wells asking, his concern for her evident as he spoke. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Dr. Wells," she responded. "Why are you pausing the test? Is there a problem? Because I feel like I've got still a ways to go before I need to say 'Stop'," she noted.

"Well, actually, Buffy, it appears that the press has maxed out on its loading capacity," she heard the team leader admit, in what she would swear sounded almost like embarrassment. "No one thought we would even approach anywhere near the press' maximum capacity, so we're going to have to reschedule this part of the testing sequence, until we can either get a larger capacity press moved in here, or make arrangements to use another facility's equipment. We're going to be shutting down the test, now. Just hold on a moment, and then we'll start backing off on the loading. Then, we'll proceed with the next stage of testing. Okay?"

"Sure, Dr. Wells," the blonde nodded agreeably. "No problem."

True to the team leader's word, after a few seconds, the piston assembly positioned above Buffy's head began to reverse its motion and retract up into the nest of steel and cabling that formed part of the overhead framework.

Buffy released her grip on the test bar and stepped out of the testing fixture, then headed over to a set-up that bore more than a passing resemblance to one of the shooting ranges in which the agents refined their marksmanship. A significant exception to that resemblance, however, was the fact that the targets posted were fastened to steel plates ranging in thickness from one quarter to one inch in thickness, and were fashioned in silhouettes matching a variety of demons the Scoobies and the Initiative had encountered in the course of their 'work.'

"All right, Buffy," she heard Wells telling her. "This part of the program is intended to determine how much the enhancement has affected your ability to cast offensive spells. We have all of the targets wired with stress gages and impact sensors now so we can compare the forces you generate now with the values we already have on record for you. What we'd like you to do is cast one of your 'Magic Bullet' spells at targets one through four, and then follow up with a lightning bolt at targets five and six. Do you have any questions?"

"Nope. When should I begin?"

"Whenever you'd like, Buffy. Go as fast or as slowly as you're comfortable doing. We're all set up and ready for you, here," came the reply.

Taking up a position at the end of the range, Buffy took note of the varying positions and locations of the targets, along with the differing degrees of exposure the targets had, corresponding to situations in which the 'targets' were hiding behind cover, including, in several instances, silhouettes matching those of human 'hostages.'

Deciding to see exactly how fast she could 'take out the opposition,' Buffy focused on the sequence in which she would attack, as she let the components of the two spells drift to the surface of her consciousness.

< All right, let's do it! > she told herself, as the syllables of the 'Magic Bullet' spell flowed from her lips and she gestured with towards her targets, her index fingers designating the points of impact on each target for each pulse of power from the spell, before directly sliding without any interruption into her lightning bolt spell and throwing both hands forward at the two remaining targets.

A brilliant flare of light accompanied the final two flares of power, causing the blonde to blink her eyes in surprise, since something like that had never previously accompanied her spell, before finally looking back to inspect her work and determine just how much the increase in power had supercharged her spells.

"Holy. Shit."

Buffy wasn't certain whether she, Dr. Wells, or possibly someone else within the control room had spoken those words aloud, but they quite definitely summed up her feelings when she looked over the results of her work.

Her first four targets, which should, at best, have had a small dimple in them from her 'Magic Bullet,' each had a hole ranging from approximately one-quarter inch to just over an inch in diameter, depending upon the thickness of the steel plate backing them, while the two targets of her lightning bolts were little more than slagged, half-melted remnants of steel plates from which small wisps of smoke and steam were still rising and drifting through the test chamber, tossed by the ambient air currents.

"Well, I don't know about you guys, but I think I'd say the test went pretty well," the Blonde Slayer observed cheerfully, as the access doors from the control room to the test chamber swung open and Faith and Willow came charging through to embrace her. The two Slayers were followed at a slightly more sedate pace by Giles, Riley, Forrest, Graham and several other members of the field teams who had managed to squeeze into the control room, all of whom were impatiently waiting their turn to embrace and congratulate her on her new status as demigoddess incarnate and potential focus for all of the Initiative's rage, frustration and desire for vengeance against 'that bitch,' as Glory had commonly come to be referred to inside the demon hunters' organization.

The majority of the engineers and technicians had immediately flocked to the still smoldering steel plates that had comprised the targets of the 'shooting gallery, their half-heard comments composed of equal parts unnerved disbelief and exultant anticipation, while the remainder accompanied Wells and the other members of the transfer team, who were now looking at her as though they had just learned she had just presented them with the winning ticket to a billion dollar lottery.

All in all, everyone involved was inclined to say that the transfer project looked like it was going to be judged a resounding success.


The Harris residence
One year after 'the portal thing'

Faith, Buffy, Willow and Giles had gathered for a quiet dinner together to commemorate the one year anniversary of Xander's sacrifice. Seeing that Faith was becoming more upset as the evening progressed, Giles (after a quick, whispered conference with Buffy and Willow) had volunteered to care for Joy once dinner had been finished, and had taken his grandchild upstairs to her room, leaving the three women alone.

It had only been a few moments after Giles' departure when Faith had quietly broken down, her composure collapsing as tears began cascading down her face.

"Everything's gonna be fine, Faith," Buffy murmured as she and Willow embraced the tearful, sobbing brunette slumped on the couch between them. "There's absolutely nothing to worry about. We're gonna get Xand back safe and sound, and we're gonna put that bitch into the ground, once and for all, so we'll never have to worry about her again," she promised.

"Yeah, Faith," the redheaded Slayer chimed in, as she ran her hand reassuringly up and down the brunette's back. "I promise you, Xander's gonna be just fine when he shows up, and we're all of us gonna be there to take care of Glory, and you and Xand and Joy will never have to even think about her again, if you don't want to."

"I - I - I just miss him so much," the tearful brunette confessed as she wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "And I think about all the things he's missed about seeing Joy growing up - her learning how to walk, and her talking, and everything like that. He never got to see a lot of things Joy did for the first time," she noted sadly.

"Uh, actually, Faith," Buffy interjected, "Will and I were talking about things the other night and we figured that we can all use our telepathy spells and he *will* be able to see anything we want to show him about Joy growing up. It's not quite the same as if he had actually been there, but he won't have missed seeing everything she did."

"Thanks, B," Faith's mood immediately brightened up a bit upon hearing the blonde's suggestion. "That's a great idea. Xan'll love getting a chance to see everything that happened while he was away."

"You know, you may have a point there about Xan being upset about some of the stuff he missed, Faith," Willow smiled wickedly at her friend, the expression looking seemingly out of place on the redhead's face. "I'm pretty sure he's gonna be heartbroken that he didn't get to see you practically dislocate that guy's shoulder when he tried to put his arm around you at the snack bar the first time we took Joy for her swim lessons," she snickered.

"Hey, that putz was lucky I didn't want to make a scene. I've never liked having some asshole I've never seen before trying to grab my ass when I was wearing a bathing suit, and I *especially* didn't like someone trying it with my daughter around!" Faith snapped, but her expression did lighten up a bit more as she recalled the incident the redhead had mentioned.

"Well, I have to say, I can sort of understand his mistake. Most mothers with a baby Joy's age don't wear bikinis like the one you had on, Faith," Buffy grinned at the brunette.

"Oh, like you have a lot of room to talk about appropriate clothing, B," Faith shot back. "When you said you were gonna wear a string bikini, I didn't think you actually meant you were gonna wear a piece of string for a bikini!"

"Did you just say you didn't want to make a scene?" Willow laughed out loud as she heard Faith say that. "Do you remember the look on that guy's face when I walked up and put my arm around you, and you kissed me? I thought he was gonna have a heart attack and drop dead right there!"

"It would've served the scum-sucking maggot right if he had," Faith asserted with a wide smile. "Actually, after he saw you come walking up and hug the two of us, B, and the three of us walked off arm in arm, I'm thinking he and his buddies probably had bleeding ulcers, as well as terminal hard-ons!"

The three women spent the remainder of the evening talking and gossiping about anything and everything that came to mind, with Buffy and Willow taking care that any mention of Xander that was made was only in the most humorous or positive lights.

As they finally made their way to bed later that evening, Faith paused to look at her sisters.

"I know what you guys were doing tonight," she informed them with a small smile, as she moved to take each girl into a tight hug, "and I just want to say, 'Thanks.' I appreciate everything you guys have been doing for Joy and me this past year, and I don't know what I would have done without you guys here. I love you both," she murmured, before turning and quickly heading to her room.


"Oh... oh... oohh, yes...oohh, yes-s-s-s," she moaned, one last shiver of pleasure wringing its way down her spine before she collapsed, to lie panting and sweating next to her partner.

"I love you," she whispered, as she snuggled up against the sleek, sweaty body alongside her.

"I love you, too, Will," Buffy whispered back, basking in the warmth and affection she could feel emanating from the larger woman.

As they lay quietly resting, hovering at the edge of slumber, the petite blonde quietly asked her lover, "You love them both, too, don't you?"

"Yes," came the equally quiet answer. "And, yes, I mean in more than just a friendship kind of way. The same way you do."

"Once Xander gets back, and things quiet down a little, we need to talk to them about how we feel," Buffy told the redhead. "I think we both want more than that, don't we?"

"Yes, we do. But for now, I'll take what we have with Faith. She's hurting enough now, worrying about Xand, and I don't want to put any more pressure on her," Willow replied, as she pulled her lover closer to her. "You'll see. Everything will work out," she predicted confidently, before breaking out into a huge yawn.

"Sleepy now. Talk later," she noted, bestowing a light kiss on the blonde's forehead as she snuggled against her. "Love you."

"Love you, too," Buffy smiled back at her as she pillowed her head on Willow's shoulder. "Pleasant dreams."


Initiative headquarters
Sixty-five week after 'the portal thing'

"Hey, Riley," Faith greeted the field team commander as she hurried into the briefing room. "So, what's going on that's so important that you need to beep me to come in on my night off and makes you sent a squad over to baby-sit Joy while I'm gone?"

"I'm sorry to bother you, Faith, especially since it's your night off," the tall blond apologized, not looking up as his fingers danced across the keyboard before him, "but with Buffy handling that situation in Omaha, and Giles and Willow working out the mutual assistance treaty with the Brakken demon council, you're on emergency call, and one of our patrols was screaming for help."

As he spoke, the monitor screen on the wall above them began replaying the team's recordings of the encounter.

"Graham's team ran across some of guys robbing an armored car and when they stepped in to stop it, they got trashed. Reports say that one of the guys summoned a pack of unidentified demons to attack the patrol while the leader of the group ripped the back doors off the truck entirely and threw them at the jeep. The crash hurt two people and the demons injured another four, two seriously," the Iowan reported, as the personnel present in the room watched a heavyset, masked apparently human male toss a steel truck door at the patrol vehicle as though it were a Frisbee, while another, smaller masked figure seemed to play a flute and a group of small, scaly six-legged lizards with oversized jaws and teeth materialized between the team and the thieves.

"Graham called up a stone elemental and set it on the leader, and the tango tore it apart with his bare hands, then went after Graham," Riley told her, his face grim. "Reports say that bullets bounced off him, and he seemed to just shrug off the blasters. He bounced Graham around a bit before finally throwing him against a brick wall, then he and his confederate took off. Two of the guys said they heard the leader laughing as they were running off."

"Son of a bitch!," the Dark Slayer muttered under her breath. "How're Graham and the others?"

"The medics on the response team managed to stabilize him long enough to get him to the hospital, and as for the rest of the team, Ray and Bill were admitted because of the bites and claw wounds, but the docs say they're in good condition and should be fine and might possibly be released for light duty by the end of the week. Graham's in surgery right now, and the doctors working on him aren't saying anything one way or another, but they're not acting very optimistic. We're flying his folks in from Nashville right now, so they can be available, just in case..." the team leader's voice trailed off for a moment.

"Other than that, I don't know what to tell you."

"I'm heading out as soon as I get changed," Faith said as she headed for the locker room, the look on her face promising dire retribution for the injuries her friends had incurred. "Have the team meet me at the incident site."

"Faith, Forrest is Agent-In-Charge on this op. He'll be heading over to the site with you and the forensics squad. You're there for backup, in case the perps come back. Right now, we've got nothing except some general descriptions to go on. I've got to stay here and coordinate things," Riley told her. "Meet the team at the motor pool."

As she reached the hall door, Riley called out to her. "Faith."

The brunette turned to look questioningly over her shoulder at the field team leader.

"Ideally, we'd like to take these people, or whatever they are, alive, if at all possible," he told her, his face serious. "But if push comes to shove, I want Joy to see her mother alive and unhurt, when she wakes up in the morning. You understand me? Your family has paid enough as it is."

A small smile made its way across Faith's face as she listened to the tall blond. "I heard you, Cornfed. Thanks."


"Damn!" Faith muttered as the spell she had cast sparkled uselessly. "Whoever these jokers are, they were smart enough to cast some kind of 'Obscurement' spell to cover their tracks. It's screwing up all of the usual tracking and location spells we use. I can't do squat here to find them. When we finally do find these bastards, I'm gonna beat their asses for causing me this much trouble!"

"So you can't track them, then?" Forrest asked her from his position outside the yellow tapes ringing the crime scene, his disappointment not evident in his voice

"Well, not by magic, at least," she admitted. Taking a step back, she looked around the area again, searching her mind for an alternate method to find the people or creatures responsible for her friends' and teammates' injuries .

"Do we have *anything* that might give us a clue about who or what did this?" she asked, her frustration mounting as her feeling of impotence grew.

"One of the apprentice mages on the forensics team found a scrap of cloth in the woods over that way that we think might have come from one of the perps," the black AIC noted, "but we can't be sure of it."

"Let me see it, please," Faith asked, as a small thrill of excitement shot through her.

As she held the small scrap of denim, a patch barely a half-inch by an inch in size, Faith quickly muttered an identification spell, and smiled as a three dimensional image of a heavyset brunet with an arrogant smirk slowly took shape before her.

"Forrest, use your phone to get a picture of this clown back to base, and see if Files can come up with anything," she instructed him. "This scrap is still pretty stiff, like it would be if the pants it came from were new and not washed yet. It rained last night, so we can be fairly sure that it wasn't here before the storm, so I'm betting it's from someone who's involved in this armored car robbery deal. If it's not the leader, then maybe it's the clown with the flute, who summoned the pack demons.

"Either way, their ass is gonna be hanging from the flagpole once I get my hands on them," the brunette swore.

Fifteen minutes later, Faith, Forrest and three containment teams were pulling up in front of the last known address of one Warren Meers, a graduate student in UC Sunnydale's Advanced Physics program. As per standard procedures, one squad took up positions at regularly spaced intervals facing *outward*, keeping alert for any hostiles that might attempt to sneak up on them while they were occupied with the house.

"Whoa! This weasel, if he is involved with the armored car thing, is definitely trying to move up in the world," Forrest whistled, as he skimmed over the information the Files section had sent to his PDA/phone unit. "He's currently the prime suspect in the burglaries of four different electronics firms and warehouses that involve several hundred thousand dollars worth of missing equipment, and he's been seen hanging around in the company of some very nasty people the Intelligence section believes are trading in drugs and exotic weapons with some of the demon gangs we know have been working the Los Angeles to San Francisco corridor."

"How do you want to handle this, boss man?" the Dark Slayer asked him, as their van parked outside the nondescript white stucco house. "It's your operation, so you get to tell me what you want me to do."

Flashing him a wicked smile, she added, "Who knows? I may even pay attention and do it."

"Standard procedure requires we give the suspects a chance to surrender," Forrest said, a bit reluctantly. "With any luck, they'll refuse and then we can -"

"Excuse me, sir," one of the techs manning the monitoring equipment in the back of the van broke in, "but I'm getting some extremely powerful readings on my scanners from inside the house. The readings are similar to those of Agent Harris, here, sir, but at a somewhat lower level," she added. "Whoever, or whatever, is in there is *definitely* accessing a multi-dimensional power tap, sir."

"Well, guess that answers the question, doesn't it?" Faith grinned, as she slipped off her jacket and began pulling her hair back into a ponytail. "Looks like I'm gonna see some action tonight, after all.

"Have the guys set up the field jammers to enclose the shielded area around the house out to the property lines," she instructed him. "I'd like to avoid damaging any of the neighbors' property, if we can help it."

Stepping out of the van and joining the group of Initiative personnel and the handful of Sunnydale police who had responded to their request for assistance, Faith watched as her people began evacuating the houses in the immediate area. Making a mental note of exactly who among the local police force had shown up to help, despite knowing the truth about their town's 'situation,' the brunette checked out the Meers' residence.

Two stories high, with an innocuous white stucco finish, the house certainly didn't look as though it were holding an incredibly powerful being capable of ripping apart an armored car with their bare hands.

< Of course, our place doesn't look like it holds an inter- dimensional Key or three women who can toe-to-toe with Glory, either, > she reflected quietly to herself.

"Hello, the house!" the Initiative lead negotiator announced, using one of their cars' loudspeakers once all of the neighboring homes had been emptied. "This is an authorized Joint Federal Task Force. You are required to surrender yourselves to face charges of armed robbery, aggravated assault, assault with intent to kill and interference with interstate commerce. Throw out any weapons you may have inside the house and come out with your hands above your heads.

"You have thirty seconds to comply and surrender yourselves or we will be compelled to use force."

As if in answer to the orders, the front door immediately swung partially open and a horde of small, six-legged lizards, fitting the description of the creatures that attacked Graham's squad earlier in the evening, rushed out across the front porch and arrowed towards the personnel clustered behind the various vehicles parked in front of the house.

"Lethal force is approved against the approaching hostiles!" Forrest quietly announced over the team's transceivers, and his words were immediately followed by the staccato chatter of MP5s and the booming roar of shotguns chopping the attacking demons into bloody chunks that were scattered across the front lawn.

An ominous silence reigned for the next few moments, until the front door opened fully to allow a heavyset figure, a dark hood masking its face, to step out onto the porch.

Tapping into her now enhanced mystical senses, Faith 'looked' at the being standing on the porch, and saw a man-shaped figure that pulsed with extra-dimensional energy similar to that which now enhanced her own form, although not at nearly the same degree of energy density.

A brighter glow, centered approximately waist-high on the figure, attracted her attention and she focused all of her senses on it. As she concentrated on the glow, she gradually began to make out a finer structure of detail underlining the illuminated form before her. The glow was centered primarily in a pair of objects being carried at waist level, and the power that permeated the form was then distributed throughout the rest of the figure from those two foci.

"Forrest, I'm sensing some kind of magical item on this clown, at about belt level, inside his clothing," Faith quietly announced. "It might be some kind of modulator or amplifier for the energy tap he's using. Have the tech guys focus some of their toys on it and get all the readings on it they can. Let me know if there's any change in it, okay?"

"I'm giving you pussies ten seconds to run, and then I'm gonna start tearing things up," the being announced, standing defiantly in full sight of the besieging forces. "If you don't want to end up like your friends earlier tonight, you better get moving."

"That's it, asshole. You just said the magic words," Faith growled, as her hands reflexively closed into fists. "I don't know about you, Forrest, but that's enough verification for me that he's the scumbag that trashed Graham's team."

"You've got my blessing, Faith," the agent agreed, as his eyes burnt holes in the figure on the porch.

"Just one thing, though," he added, as the brunette opened her door and began getting out of the van. "Keep in mind what Riley told you earlier. You watch yourself. Joy needs to have her mother there when she wakes up in the morning."

"I hear you, Denzil," the Dark Slayer smiled at him, using the nickname she had chosen for him after their first meeting. "Don't worry. The only blood you'll be seeing is gonna be his," she said, inclining her head towards the masked form on the porch.

"Okay, asshole," the brunette announced loudly as she rounded the jeep and headed towards the house. "We can do this either of two ways: easy or hard. It's all up to you."

"Oh look," the masked figure sneered, as he moved down the porch steps towards her, "it's a Slayer! I'm so scared! Get down on your knees, bitch, and if you're as good with your mouth as you're supposed to be at fighting, I'll only mess you up a little."

"I was hoping you were stupid enough to make the right choice," Faith thanked him as she watched her opponent approach. The smile on her face had nothing light or humorous about it at all. It was the look of a hungry predator about to be released into a game preserve, and it promised nothing but injury and pain for the target of her ire. "You hurt some of my friends earlier tonight, scumbag, so I'm gonna return the favor. In spades."

Meers, or whoever this might be, didn't move as if they had any combat or fight training at all, Faith had noticed as he moved across the lawn towards her. He just sort of lumbered along, with absolutely no grace or fluidity in his movements at all. It certainly appeared, therefore, that any enhancement this doofus might have received were most likely centered on increasing his strength and durability.

As she moved, Faith reflexively tapped into the power she had stored, and concentrated on amping up her own strength and resilience, figuring that her normally enhanced Slayer reflexes would give her the edge over Meers, or whoever this clown might be.

"Last chance to avoid a beat-down, candy-ass," she taunted the masked figure, silently praying to any deity that might be listening that the malicious bastard in front of her would refuse to listen and back down. "Surrender now, and I won't bitch-slap you all around town before I throw your fat ass into a cell."

"Not a chance, bitch," was the reply she had been hoping for, and she stopped a few feet away from her about-to-be-victim, the smug, condescending expression on her face the same one that had initiated the vast majority of fights she had been in, even before she had been Called.

"Okay, cupcake," she smiled, spreading her arms wide apart. "Start the party."

The clumsy punch her opponent threw was so obvious that it might as well have been announced on the morning news, and she tilted her head a bare inch to the side to avoid it, before responding and driving her own fist deep into her enemy's stomach, doubling him over with the unexpected power behind it.

Following up with an quick knee to the face that straightened him up, Faith quickly snapped two short jabs into the astonished face before her and followed them with a sharp hook that spun her opponent around and knocked him to the ground. Rushing in and reaching out, Faith tore the hood from her dazed adversary, revealing the disbelieving face of Warren Meers staring up at her.

"Wha - ? You - you can't do that," he gasped, his expression one of utter astonishment as he began scrambling to his feet. "That's impossible! Slayers don't access enough power to do that! I figured it out! I know it!"

Faith waited until he had regained his feet before hitting him again, kicking him in the stomach and following it up with a left hook to the side of his head that knocked him off his feet again.

"Guess you better refigure your numbers, candy-ass," she sneered. "Figure out just how badly I'm gonna trash your flabby ass."

As she leaned over and grabbed hold of his shirt collar to pull him up, Warren lunged upwards, butting his head into her face and knocking her backwards. He swung an awkward punch at the brunette, catching her on the side of her face and knocking her back another step, but missed with the second punch he threw, as Faith ducked beneath it.

"Sonuvabitch!" Faith snarled at both his attack and her own overconfidence, then drove forward at the mystically enhanced grad student, throwing a left backfist at his face, followed by a right cross and a roundhouse to his stomach. As he doubled over again, Faith spun into an axe kick that slammed the heel of her left foot into the base of his neck and drove him face-first into the lawn.

Restraining an impulse to continue beating him until he had been reduced to a bloody paste, she quickly dropped to the ground next to him. Before he could begin to react, Faith locked her right hand around his neck, holding his face down against the grass that was now matted with the blood and assorted chunks of the lizards that had tried to attack her teammates a few moments before, as she slid her left hand around his waist and down inside his belt and pants, groping around a moment before grasping the leather bag she found and pulling it out and away from her defeated foe.

"No!" the heavyset brunet screamed, his voice muffled by the grass in his face, as he flailed helplessly as he finally realized what she was doing. "Give them back! They're mine!"

Looking back over her shoulder, Faith saw Forrest heading towards her, so she tossed the leather bag towards him, feeling the mystic connection it held with Warren suddenly snap as the distance between it and him became too great to maintain.

"Here you go, Denzil," she grinned at her teammate. "How's about a souvenir to take back and show the rest of the gang?

"Warren Meers," the Dark Slayer loudly announced as she straightened up and easily picked him up and held him off the ground with one hand, "you are under arrest for resisting arrest, armed robbery, aggravated assault, assault with intent to kill, attempted murder of federal agents and interference with interstate commerce.

"You hurt several friends of mine earlier tonight and you may have even killed one of them," she confided quietly, staring him in the eye as she spoke, "and there is nothing I want more at this moment than an excuse to literally rip you apart into a bloody mess of kibbles and bits. If you so much as open your mouth and say a single word to me, I *will* do that. Do you understand me? Just nod your head 'yes' if you do."

The look in Faith's eyes made it very clear that she was speaking truthfully to him, and Warren began nodding his head as vigorously as he could as Faith casually held him above the ground with one hand.

"I think we've pulled this snake's fangs. At least for the moment," she noted, as several members of the containment teams hurried up and locked a nullification harness around her prisoner's abdomen, as others fastened shackles around his arms and legs. "All of his power was locked in whatever's in that bag there, boss man," she noted, as she took a last look at Warren through her enhanced senses and found no residual energy left in him, at all.

"Treat this guy as a Level Three threat, at least until we can give him a complete scan back at the base," Forrest directed the team leading the now docile would-be Big Bad away.

"Now we just have to clear the house," he noted as he turned to look at the stucco-ed domicile behind them. "Teams One through Four, prepare for entry and expect a hostile reception," he ordered over his throat mike.

"Hold on a minute, Denzil," Faith suggested quietly, putting a hand on his shoulder to pause him. "Let me try some thing first."

Walking forward a half dozen steps, she let a scowl sweep over her face as she faced the front door of the home and yelled, "Okay, listen up in there! You've got one minute to come out peacefully with your hands above your head, or I'm gonna come in there looking for you! And if I have to do that, then I'm gonna break every bone in your legs when I do find you!

"The clock starts ticking, NOW!" she finished up, as she ostentatiously made a point of lifting her wrist to check the time.

For a few seconds, absolute silence ruled the area. Then a quavering voice loudly called out from within, "I surrender! Please don't shoot! I'm coming out now!"

Virtually every muzzle in the area was lined up on the front of the house as the front door slowly swung open, while the remainder were pointed outwards towards the perimeter, guarding against the possibility of a sneak attack while the main body of troops were distracted by the apparently 'surrendering' hostiles. Lessons learned the hard way are the ones that are learned best.

Very slowly, two hands came into view through the door's opening, followed by the rest of the body of a young, nervous-looking blond- haired man, whose look of apprehension increased almost exponentially once he caught sight of all the weaponry pointed in his direction.

"I didn't want to do it, but he made me. He said he was going to tear me apart if I didn't do what he said," the blond was practically sniveling as several other containment team members carefully approached him.

"Medium-level Beta rating for arcane energy manipulation," one of the tech announced after pointing his detector in the youth's direction. "Standard restraints should be adequate."

After giving the house and its surroundings a slow, thorough sweep with her enhanced senses, Faith reported that she couldn't detect any additional sources of multi-D energy anywhere within, an evaluation the forensics team readily agreed with.

"Okay, guys, we've got those two jerkoffs wrapped up, now" the brunette Slayer noted, as she looked around the neighborhood. "So, unless you think you really need me to hang around, I'm gonna catch a ride back with the detention team, so I can get started on my paperwork. That okay with you?"

"Not a problem, Faith," Forrest smiled at her. "Go head back, and have the guys drop you off at home. You can take of the paperwork tomorrow. Go home, hug and kiss your daughter, and get some rest. See you tomorrow."

"Well, if you insist, big guy," Faith smiled back, as she turned and headed for one of the transport jeeps. "See ya around."


The struggles of the creature beneath him were becoming weaker and weaker as their battle progressed, Xander noted a bit abstractedly as his claws dug into the tough, reluctantly-yielding flesh of his opponent. He was getting weaker, too, he realized with concern as he struggled to keep hold of his hated opponent. He needed to finish this up as quickly as he could, before the return portal shimmered into existence again and offered this monster a second chance at harming his daughter.

Accordingly, he focused his concentration on opening the gash he had inflicted on Glory's stomach wider, so that he could reach in and rip out her heart, preferably while she watched him do it. Goddess or not, he was certain that even something like her needed to keep all of their vital organs functioning properly if they didn't want to keel over and die.

Ignoring the pain and the blows she was still raining upon him, Xander fastened his hands on opposite sides of the gash he had managed to inflict, digging his claws into her flesh and then pulled his hands apart as strongly as he could. As Glory gave a ear- shattering scream of agony and shock from the unbelievable pain that exploded through her as her tissues were torn apart from his assault, Xander forced his hand into her chest cavity and raked his claws over and into anything he could feel.

After what seemed like an eternity had passed, Glory finally stopped struggling and slumped bonelessly to the 'ground' beneath the two of them, her eyes glazed and sightless as they stared up at him. Curling his fingers around the grapefruit-sized mass of tissue he had been relentlessly clawing, Xander gave a final yank and was rewarded by the sight of what looked to be a slightly larger than normal human heart lying in the palm of his hand.

"Well, all the descriptions called her a heartless bitch," he murmured to himself as he stared at the no-longer-functioning organ.

"Guess they were right, after all," he grinned, a moment before blackness over took him.


Chapter 7

Meers Residence
Sixty-five weeks and one day after 'the portal thing' Late morning, the day after the Initiative raid and Warren and Andrew's arrests

A dark green Mercedes sedan pulled to the curb across the street and down three houses from the Meers home and parked, letting the car's occupants sit and regard the now quiet edifice.

"Hmmm. Looks like Warren went ahead with the armored car operation, after all," the driver said after a moment's survey of the house. The loosely flapping end of one of the bright yellow "Crime Scene - Do Not Enter" tapes fluttered idly in the erratic breeze blowing across the yards. The speaker was a compactly-built brunet of slightly below average height, but he carried himself with the confidence and self-assurance of an NFL linebacker.

"Certainly seems like it," the svelte auburn-haired woman seated in the passenger seat agreed, casually surveying the remainder of the neighborhood while her companion continued to examine the Meers home.

"He's always been stubborn, but lately, it seems as though he's been going out of his way to do things the way he wants them done," she commented. "It appears we may have to take steps to safeguard operations sooner than we originally anticipated."

"We can make that decision after we've determined exactly what happened," the driver stated as he restarted the engine and carefully pulled away from the curb, taking care to use the proper turn signals as he did so. "Then we need to ascertain whether Warren and Andrew are both in custody, and if so, where they are being held."

"I've finished downloading all of the compressed format security camera files for the last forty-eight hours," she said as she turned to look at the driver, a pleased smile on her face as she regarded him. "I'll have them decompressed by the time we reach our fall-back base, so we can review them, and then decide what our next step should be."

"Works for me," the driver smiled back at her. "Want to stop and pick up some barbecued ribs on the way over? Rickey's isn't too far out of the way, and she makes the best sauce I've ever tasted."

"Sounds good to me, sweetie," she beamed as she leaned over to kiss him lightly on the cheek. "You know, you treat me so well, that sometimes I think I'm dreaming."

"You're my dream come true, babe," the brunet responded with another smile that seemed to cover his entire face. "Don't ever doubt that."


Initiative headquarters
The day after the Initiative raid and Warren and Andrew's arrests

From the secured medical log, Sunnydale Suburban Hospital, re: patient Staff Sergeant Graham Miller, U.S. Army, on detached duty to Project Initiative:

"...Sgt. Miller was pronounced dead at 3:47 AM this morning, as a result of injuries received while responding to a request for assistance from the Sunnydale Police Department.

"Autopsy results determined that death resulted from extreme shock and blood loss resulting from multiple punctures of both lungs and the pericardial cavity, caused by fragmented shards of multiple broken ribs suffered when his vehicle was attacked by a currently unidentified assailant..."


The Harris household
Sixty-six weeks after 'the portal thing'

"Hey, Will, I've got a question for you," Buffy called out, as she walked into the rec room to find the redhead stretched out bonelessly on the couch with Joy lying atop her watching TV, the two of them laughing hysterically as Daffy Duck's bill spun around his head like an airplane propeller after being shot in the face yet again by Elmer's shotgun.

"Oops, didn't mean to infringe on Joy-to-the-world's instruction in the classics," she grinned as she reached over the back of the couch to tickle her niece's belly and received a high-pitched giggle in response.

"'S'okay, Buff," the semi-retired hacker smiled up at her lover, "we've already seen this one a couple times before. Right, Munchkin?" she asked the miniature brunette currently perched on her stomach.

"Yeah!" the dark-haired moppet eagerly nodded her agreement, her expressive brown eyes bright with enthusiasm. "Elma keeps shooting Daffy in the face, An-Buffy," she informed the blonde with a bright smile. "He's silly!"

"Got that right, Joy-to-the-world!" Buffy grinned back down at the diminutive brunette. "He's almost as silly as the coyote that chases the roadrunner, isn't he?"

"Yep," Joy nodded vigorously, then rolled off Willow's stomach and dropped to the carpet, as graceful as a cat. "I want some choc'late chip cookies an milk," she declared as she headed towards the kitchen, where Giles was busy preparing dinner, a habit he had recently been developing.

"So, what's your question, Buff?" the senior witch asked, as a plaintive "P-l-e-e-a-a-s-s-e, Gran'pa?" could be heard echoing in from the kitchen. "Five bucks says he caves in less than thirty seconds," the redhead added parenthetically, with a smile.

"I don't take sucker bets, Will," the blonde smiled back, as she rounded the couch and dropped onto the cushions by Willow's feet, "and I'd say less than twenty seconds. She's gonna use the old 'puppy-dog eyes,' and he'll be eating out of her hand any second, now," she predicted as she looked down at her watch.

"Oh, very well, then," they could hear the Englishman sigh an instant later, "but only two, and you have to promise to finish all of your dinner, or there won't be any dessert for you at all, young lady."

"Okay, Gran'pa," they heard the little one agree. "Tank you."

"Yes! A new personal best for Joy 'The Munchkin' Harris,' " Buffy punched her fist into the air and crowed victoriously as the two women burst into laughter. "Only eighteen point five seconds to take down Rupert 'The Ripper' Giles, and twist him around her little finger like putty!"

"I heard that!" Giles called into the rec room. "And before you go comparing anyone to putty in Joy's hands, let's remember who it was who took Joy to the mall for ice cream last week and returned two and a half hours later with three bags filled with a Sponge Bob Squarepants doll and two Barbies, with a complete wardrobe, Barbie Dream House, pink car and horse for each of them?"

"That's completely different, Giles!" Buffy immediately protested, a slight blush coloring her face while Willow listened to the exchange with a huge grin on her face.

"It's extremely important that a girl know how to accessorize properly, and the sooner Joy learns, the better," the blonde insisted. "The Barbies are just props. You know, for demonstration purposes, for when I start teaching Joy the importance of properly mixing and matching her outfits," she justified herself, the few remaining vestiges of the Hemery High cheerleader apparently trying to make their presence felt.

"Well, that's all right, then, just so long as we're sure it's for a good cause," Giles noted snarkily as he stepped into the rec room and bestowed a somewhat sarcastic look on the blonde Slayer. "Because, as we all know, it's of significant importance that we ensure that our uniforms and accessories match properly when we are attempting to save the world."

"Wow, way to go, Giles! Sounds like you're channeling your inner Cordelia," Willow observed with a smirk. "What brought that up?"

"Thank you, Willow," he replied graciously with a small nod and a pleased expression on his face. "Just trying to keep my hand in. Don't want to let the muscles atrophy, so to speak," he explained.

"Well, the muscles are fine, Giles," Buffy said, looking up from her position snuggled into the corner of the couch. "You've got nothing to worry about."

"Thank you, Buffy," the girls' father-surrogate smiled as he headed back into the kitchen. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be finishing preparations for tonight's dinner. I'm making barbequed chicken, spinach and bean salad, and Joy's favorites, macaroni and cheese and chunky applesauce."

"Yeah!" Joy chimed in, nodding her head enthusiastically as she re-entered the rec room, a small dribble of milk running down her chin as she held a Cookie Monster milk mug in one hand and a half-eaten cookie in the other.

"An-Buffy said my Mal'bu Barbie looks just like her Barbie when she was little," she confided to the world at large, returning to the subject that sparked the previous snark-fest, "so we got her lots of pretty dresses! And she said we can get her some leather pants the next time we shop," she added brightly.

"Wanna play with my Barbies now, An-Buffy?' the tiny brunette chirped, looking up at her aunt with her large, soulful eyes. "I'll go get 'em!" she announced, an instant before darting away to her room.

"I see Joy believes in the same principles the military does, regarding volunteers," Willow observed merrily. " 'I need three volunteers; you, you and you!', " she repeated Riley's old stand-by joke.

"Well, before I get drafted for Barbie duty, I wanted to talk to you about that modified portal spell you and Giles developed that I've been studying, Will," Buffy informed her lover. "Based on what I've read, the spell basically encapsulates the objects entering the portal with sufficient energy to project it through the portal dimension, right? And that energy is dissipated as the objects travel through that dimension, until all of the energy is expended, at which point the object then drops out of the portal dimension and is returned back here, to our dimension. Sort of like the way a thrown baseball arcs through the air and eventually hits the ground once its kinetic energy is exhausted, wouldn't you say?" she questioned the redhead, the expression on her face indicating the intensity of her focus on the redhead's answer.

"Well, yeah, I guess that's one way of looking at it, Buff," Willow agreed thoughtfully. "What brought up that question?" she asked, as she made a mental note to herself of the difference in the way Buffy had just been speaking, as compared to her more typical speech patterns.

"Well, it's almost nine months before Xander and That Bitch are due to arrive," the blond explained, "and none of the books that I've checked are very clear on how to figure what the time differential would be for someone traveling through the portal. The more I think about it, the more concerned I get about Xander being stuck in there with Glory.

"Faith's knife was the only thing we had that even scratched her, and he dropped that in the library when they went through the portal so that you could analyze the blood and tissue on it," she noted, the anxiety on her face reinforced by the waves of concern that Willow could practically feel radiating from the ostensibly delicate woman next to her. "That means that Xander doesn't have anything with him that can hurt that skank, but she can still hurt him, even with him charged up like he is now.

"I've been trying to figure out a way to get them to return early, and I had an idea pop up last night that I wanted to talk over with you before I mentioned it to Faith and the rest of the guys," Buffy revealed. "The way I see it, the main problem we need to solve is finding a way to get rid of most of the energy still encapsulating them, so that they basically fall back into our dimension earlier than originally intended.

"So, I was thinking that maybe we could figure out a way project a field through a modified portal that would allow us to set up a barrier of some kind that would suck off some of the energy surrounding them, which should then make the two of them drop out sooner than we originally planned," she suggested. "Does that make any sense to you?"

"Actually, that makes a lot of sense," Willow replied, her voice a bit vague, as her mind was obviously racing, analyzing Buffy's suggestion and evaluating the possibilities it raised.

"Okay, An-Buffy, we can play now," Joy announced as she re-entered the room carrying two Barbie dolls and an armload of clothes, cars and one of the Barbie Dream Houses Giles had mentioned earlier.

"We'll talk about this some more later, okay, Will?" Buffy said, as she turned to take some of the load of toys from her niece. "All right, Munchkin, let's go set everything up on the back porch, so we don't clog up the floor in here, okay?"

"Okay, An-Buffy," Joy enthusiastically agreed. "You wanna come, too, An-Willow?" she asked, turning to look at the redhead who was still sprawled the length of the couch.

"Maybe later, sweetie, okay?" Willow answered her, a bit distracted as she tried to consider what implementing Buffy's suggestion would entail in the way of equipment. "I've got to think about some stuff for work, right now. We'll play later, I promise."

"Okay, An-Willow," the child replied. "Let's go, An-Buffy," she then commanded as she led the way to the porch door.

"I want the red and yellow dress for my Barbie, 'cause she's gonna ride her horse to the movies," she could be heard informing Buffy as they left the rec room. "And Pony can sit next to her..."

Behind them, Willow was deep in thought as she tried to consider all of the ramifications of Buffy's idea; she wanted to have all of the major points evaluated and a general outline of what equipment would be needed and what other resources should be involved before she presented their plan for Marchinko's approval.

< It really shouldn't take much in the way of resources, > she mused to herself as she began considering what equipment would actually be needed to implement the operation. < We'd use the standard field generators to block her access to her standard multi-d power sources... >


Initiative headquarters
Sixty-six weeks and three days after 'the portal thing'

"So, B, Red says you're the one who came up with this idea to grab Xand and the Bitch ahead of schedule," Faith remarked as the two of them sat outside of the room in which Willow was briefing Marchinko and the project's administrative heads on their proposal to intercept their missing teammate and their nemesis nearly nine months ahead of the target date.

"Uh-huh," Buffy acknowledged as she glanced over at her friend/sibling/loved one. "I was sitting there studying the revised portal spell Will and Giles had developed and it occurred to me that all we were really waiting for was for the spell energy to run out. And then I thought, that if we could drain off some of the energy, we could make them show up sooner than we had originally intended.

"It was Will and the other brainiacs who figured out how to actually do it, though," she noted, shrugging off any significance of her part in the development of the idea.

"Looks like this is another one that Joy and I are gonna owe you guys," the brunette said as she reached over to grab Buffy's hand and squeeze it tightly.

"You don't owe us anything, Faith" the blonde immediately answered. "Remember what you told us, right after we fell out of the portal last year? We're all family here, and that's what family does for each other. We love all you guys, and we want Xand back, probably almost as much as you do, so that's why we're doing this - to get our family back together again," she said, the brilliant smile she was wearing reflected on the brunette's face, much like the myriad emotions she thought/hoped she saw in the chocolate brown eyes currently fixed on her.

Unsure whether what she thought she saw in Faith's eyes was real or her imagined hopes, Buffy broke their stare to glance at the meeting room across the hall from where they sat.

"So, what do you think Xan's gonna do when he finds out that we're all pretty much Supergirl clones now, and that Giles, Riley and four full troops of Initiative agents are almost as buffed up as he is after their augmentations?" she asked

"If he's smart, he'll be very appreciative of everything we've done while he's been gone," Faith grinned at the blonde. "Once we're done beating that skank into the ground and we make sure he's okay, I'm planning on taking a couple weeks of vacay, so that the three of us can get in some quality family time to make up for all the time he's been gone," she confided, before adding with a lascivious grin, "Plus, we've got over a year's worth of lovin' we have to catch up on, too!"

"TMI! TMI!" Buffy laughed, holding up her hands in mock protest at Faith's final revelation. "I *so* did not need to hear that," she objected, "although, if you don't put up a soundproofing spell beforehand, I suppose we'll *all* probably be hearing it, anyway."

"You better believe it," the brunette beamed. "Boytoy's rocked my world like you wouldn't believe, B!" she confided, with an expression that would definitely be rated XXX if it were ever aired on commercial television. "He not only gets points for technique, he's a marathon man, too."

Despite her protests to the contrary, Buffy was listening intently to everything Faith was saying, and she blushed faintly as a sudden image of Xander and the three of them flashed unbidden through her mind.

Noticing that Faith was currently staring intently at her, Buffy pulled her attention back from her momentary fantasy and attempted to divert their conversation to a safer subject matter.

"So, uh, what did Giles and Riley say when you brought up the subject of new uniforms yesterday?" she asked.

"Pretty much what we expected," the brunette Slayer smirked as she recalled her meeting with their field team's ostensible leader and the head of the Initiative's field operations. "They didn't really see a need for new uniforms but they'd be glad to look over any suggestions we might have as to what we might replace them with."

"Let me guess, you modeled the black pseudo-leather one for them?" Buffy grinned as she envisioned the reactions that particular outfit would engender.

"Bingo!" Faith agreed, with more than a bit of laughter in her voice. "Riley went pretty much non-verbal, and Giles mumbled some comment about the new uniform being much more form-fitting than the current ones, before he actually pulled a pair of his old glasses out of his pocket and began polishing them, just like he did back in high school!" she crowed. "I'll swear he carries them for just that reason, 'cause he definitely doesn't need them anymore after the augment!"

"Well, if that reaction's typical, then we'll definitely be getting the first shot in with no problem, if the bad guys are even a little bit male," Buffy predicted with an evil grin.

"Yeah, it'll be fun to see, in any case," Faith agreed. "Hey, looks like the briefing's over. Let's see what the decision is," she said as she noticed the door to the briefing room opening and the personnel inside filtering out.

"So, when's 'Zero Hour,' Will?" Buffy asked as she and Faith got up and flanked the redhead as she appeared carrying her laptop.

"We initiate operations at thirteen-thirty hours this afternoon in the former Sunnydale high school library, guys," the hacker/witch/Slayer advised her companions with a wide smile. "And if everything goes as we expect it will, we should see Xander and Glory appearing between thirty seconds and seventeen minutes later.

"Why the wide interval, Red?" Faith questioned their field teams' technophile as they headed along the corridor towards their own offices.

"Well, we aren't exactly sure how much energy Giles and I used when we did the spell," the redhead explained. "We know the minimum amount of energy needed to activate the portal, and we're pretty certain about the maximum amount of energy we had available to out into it, hence the expected time frame parameters."

A thrill of mixed anticipation and excitement surged through all three of the women as they realized that their final confrontation with the insane Hell-goddess was at hand. In just a few hours time, they would have the opportunity to prove that the sacrifice Xander had made to give them time to prepare for his and Glory's return had not been wasted.

Looking into her fellow Slayers' eyes, Faith could see the same emotions surging within them that were currently making her insides feel as though she were riding a rollercoaster.

"Why don't we all head on down to the locker room and get changed, so we can welcome Xander and The Bitch home properly?" she suggested, the expression on her face a mixture of joy and happiness at her husband's imminent return, fear and concern about the near-certainty that Glory had injured him, and a deadly cold fury alloyed with eager anticipation at the upcoming opportunity to finally put an end to the creature that had threatened her child.

One way or another, the conflict ended here, tonight.


Sunnydale High School ruins
Inside the burned out library
Sixty-six weeks and three days after 'the portal thing'

All of the debris had been removed from the interior of the library earlier in the week, leaving a completely empty expanse between the burned and scorched walls that was now filled with various esoteric pieces of incomprehensible electronic equipment forming a large circle, all of which were connected via innumerable lengths of cables that sprawled across the blackened wooden floorboards like bloated pythons.

Inside the circle, technicians checked connections and made last-minute adjustments as they consulted the readouts on the faces of the assemblies, then double-checked with the figures provided by their handheld diagnostic units.

Watching from their present positions off to one side of the circle, the current Scooby Gang, together with Riley and Forrest, went over the battle plan one final time before launching the operation.

"Okay now, as soon as the shield generators are running, Giles will begin casting the modified portal spell that the two of you came up with," Riley began reiterating each individual's part of the operation. "Once the portal stabilizes, Willow will then cast her energy sponge spell, after which we then settle back and wait for Xander and Glory's arrival.

"Remember, everyone, we can't be certain that Glory will be disoriented upon her arrival the way Buffy and Willow were, upon coming out of the portal, so Faith and Buffy are going to tag team her as soon as she shows up, because they have the most experience and expertise fighting supernatural Big Bads. And I still can't believe that we're actually using that as an official designation for the opposition," he added parenthetically, with a quick grin that was matched by his companions.

"Keep in mind, too, that while the shield will completely block out the energy levels Glory accesses, it'll also block about eighty percent of the energy sources you guys use, so you'll be back to only slightly better than your previous Slayer power level, and we have no idea how much energy she might have stored, ladies," the blond commando leader indicated the blonde and brunette Slayers.

"Hopefully, the abrupt severing of her power access will distract her, and let the two of you get in the first shots," he continued, "leaving you, Willow, to take advantage of that distraction to get Xander out of the hot zone as quickly as possible using your Slayer speed. The medical unit is already set up outside and just waiting for you to deliver him to them. Does anyone have any question, so far?" he asked, pausing to check that everyone was familiar with the sequence planned. Better to resolve any possible questions now than in the middle of a battle.

"All right, then," he continued, once he was sure there were no questions. "Once Xander is out of the area, Faith and Buffy will then maneuver Glory over into the designated 'kill zone' over by the far wall, there," he indicated the area of the library closest to the remaining school ruins which was marked off with bright yellow tape on the floor, "at which point in time they will then vacate the area as quickly as possible to allow assault teams Alpha and Bravo to open up on The Bitch with their weapons. They'll be using .50 caliber depleted uranium slugs, guys, so you don't want to be anywhere around once they start shooting, understand?" he stated, pointing to the two heavily armed assault groups that had set up a crossfire bracketing the 'kill zone' Riley had indicated.

"Some of the eggheads in Washington are still lobbying to try to capture Glory alive, but the General has authorized this as a 'Termination' operation, and that's what we're going to do. Now, does anyone have any questions about any phase of this job?" the field operations head concluded.

"Just one, boss. Do you think the General will let us mount her head over the fireplace in Lowry House?" Forrest asked, the black humor drawing reluctant chuckles from the rest of the group as they broke apart and moved to their designated positions.

As they had taken their places, Willow recited the telepathy spell that would link her with Faith and Buffy and allow them to coordinate their actions more closely and efficiently.

< Just a little while longer, Faith, and we'll have Xander back and That Bitch will be nothing more that a bad memory, > the redheaded Slayer noted voicelessly as they watched Giles open up a portal somewhat smaller than the one through which Xander had carried Glory sixteen and a half months earlier.

< Yeah, Faith, just think about it, > Buffy chimed in with a mental grin obvious to the other two Slayers over their link, < tomorrow, if anyone asks what you're gonna do, you can tell them, 'We've just rescued my husband from an interdimensional void, and stomped a Hell-goddess's ass into the ground, so we're all going to Disneyworld!' >

< You are a very disturbed individual, Buffy, > Faith told her as the brunette tried to conceal her snort of laughter behind a cough. < You do know that, right? >

Willow also burst into a fit of coughing that drew a look of concern from Giles, before she waved off his semi-anxiety with a quick smile.

< It's all part of my charm, > the blonde answered absently, as the two then watched Willow cast her 'energy sponge' spell. An ethereally luminescent web seemed to flow from the redhead's fingertips across the intervening space to the portal and slip into the shimmering disc, to vanish without any apparent disturbance.

As the portal then began to fade away, the entire assault force focused their attention on the now-empty space in the center of the designated battle zone and waited with varying degrees of patience for whatever would happen next.


Undisclosed location

The tall brunette lay motionless atop the silken sheets, her glassy stare focused on the stars she was unable to actually see through the many layers of building materials that hid the skies above her from her sight.

As she continued to stare blankly at the unseen havens, she whispered in a low voice to the figure she selfishly pulled to her silk and linen-covered breast.

"Oh, my darling kitten's become the tiger-wolf now, he has. All growl-y and fearsome now, he's become, to fight the nasty Queen of Hearts," she murmured quietly. "Off with their heads, she used to say. But not anymore, she doesn't! Oh no, not since she found my tiger-wolf, she hasn't! All that done to protect his own little kitty-cat. The tiger-wolf and the one who is three will guard their precious treasure, and the three who are one will glare and frown awfully at anyone who looks at their little bitty-kitty! Oh no, we won't look, not us. Not at all, we promise!

"The bad things are coming. They're coming soon, and they'll hurt us, and bleed into us, and they'll make us do things we don't want to do," the brunette whispered. "We need to tell our tiger-wolf and the shamrock all about the nasty black water, and the one who is not Daddy, and not Not-Daddy, either," she mumbled. "Then they'll come and rescue us and we'll all drink peppermint mint and eat scones and the nasty black water will go away and leave us all alone, it will. And we'll all live happily ever after like the princes and princesses in the fairy stories and we'll teach the little bitty-kitty-cat about the doorway that's not there, so she can find all of us when she needs us.

"And we'll all live happily ever after and ride in pumpkin coaches until we can't ride any more, we will," she concluded her hushed monologue and cuddled her doll to her as scarlet tears made their way down her porcelain cheeks.


Sunnydale High School ruins
Inside the burned out library

The gathered forces quietly waited, like the calm before the storm, and were soon rewarded with the faintest indications of energy beginning to swirl around the blasted confines of the library. Barely audible crackling and popping sounds were the next indications that something was happening, as the miasma of multi-colored energy tendrils started to dance erratically about the center of the room.

The leaping stands of multicolored light cavorted wildly, coalescing into a small lustrous dot that unhurriedly expanded into a shimmering disc of softly glowing blue-white light illuminating the surrounding area with a soft radiance. Shadowy forms barely visible inside the discs looked as though they were gaining solidity as everyone present watched attentively, seeming to the vigilant onlookers as though they were slowly approaching the surface of the disc from some great distance deep inside.

After several moments, the apparently struggling figures looked as if they were close enough to touch, should anyone be foolish enough to actually reach out and feel the shimmering disc. Then, with a sudden, unexpected, silent flash, the disc seemed to explode outwards, and the shadowy figures contained within fell to the charred floorboards below.

Faith, Buffy and Willow could all feel each other's mixed astonishment, incredulity and outright disbelief echoing back and forth in their minds as they saw a hulking, black-furred figure, its thickly-muscled limbs intertwined with those of a grimy and disheveled blonde-haired woman who appeared to have been attacked by wild animals, fall out of the portal and slackly drop to the scorched and charred floor of the library.

The staccato Clack! of multiple automatic weapons being swiftly turned, aimed and readied for use against the newcomers were the only sounds that broke the silence enshrouding the area as the onlookers gazed in mute bewilderment at the subjects Willow's spell had apparently delivered to them in lieu of their anticipated prizes.

The apparent lycanthrope rolled away from the woman and flopped limply over onto its back, revealing the Hell-goddess's mouth opened in a final, futile scream of protest and terror and her lifeless eyes staring blankly at the library's ceiling, her throat quite literally torn out and her torso slashed open and ravaged by what looked to be the claw marks of some feral beast which had ripped apart and shredded her viscera in a frenzy of devastation.

The thickly-furred humanoid was dressed in what looked to be tattered jeans, black tactical boots and torn black tee-shirt, a black military web belt holding a large caliber handgun and an empty knife sheath and twin shoulder holsters carrying 9mm Walther P-99 semiautomatic pistols. His furred but human-shaped face, along with his taloned hands, was liberally smeared with blood that had quite obviously belonged to Glory, when it had still flowed through her veins.

The features under the velvety-fleece were tantalizingly familiar, but the incongruous juxtaposition of jet-black fur over the human-seeming face caused most of the observers' minds to simply seize up momentarily while they attempted to comprehend the situation.

The thoughts wildly ricocheting among the three Slayers/witches' minds caromed so rapidly they were unable to accurately keep track of exactly who was thinking what.

< Where the hell is Xander? >

< What the Hell's going on here? >

< What happened to The Bitch? >

< Where the hell is Xander?! >

< Who is this guy/creature/wolfman? >

< Don't want to mess with him, if he was the one who tore out Glory's throat. >

< Where the hell is Xander?!! >

< Those clothes look like the ones Xander was wearing that night. >

< He looks like that Beast character Xan showed me in that old X-men comic of his. >



All of the above had spanned the course of barely three seconds, and the Scoobies and Initiative forces were still attempting to decide exactly what was happening when the apparent wolfman lying on the heavily scarred wooden floor gave an weary moan and slowly opened his eyes to look around at the heavily armed forces arrayed around him and the Hellgoddess's corpse lying next to him.

His eyes quickly fastened on the two Slayers poised to attack off to one side of him and he smiled up at the thunderstruck brunette staring at him, revealing a set of inch long, bloodstained fangs.

"Hi, honey. I'm home," he grinned weakly at her. "Sorry I'm late, but I got a little delayed."

As he finished speaking, his eyes rolled up into his head and he passed out, the injuries he had sustained both before entering the portal and while in transit within it finally talking their toll on him.

The three mind-linked women spoke virtually simultaneously.


Chapter 8

Initiative headquarters Intensive Care Unit, Medical wing
Sixty-six weeks and three days after 'the portal thing'
Forty-five minutes after Giles' modified portal opened

"Well, I'll be the first to say to say that I've seen some truly strange things since I first become involved with this place," Dr. Wells stated as he, along with Buffy, Willow, Giles and Riley, looked through the magically reinforced armored glass window of the observation/hospital room in which an unconscious and now fully human-appearing Xander Harris currently resided, connected by an assortment of wires and cables to a variety of machines, with a restless and worried Faith seated by his side apprehensively clutching his hand, "but you people seem to be going out of your way to outdo yourselves, lately."

Seeing his halfhearted attempt at humor garnered only warning frowns from the two distaff members of this activity's primary field team present and a reproachful look from both the team's leader and the field teams commander, the chief medical officer quickly moved on to address the, frankly, barely credible medical reports that had been brought to his attention by an equally disbelieving and concerned staff.

"The initial reports from the triage team on-site at the high school state that the creature - that is, the individual - " Wells quickly revised the description on the medical report to which he was referring, upon seeing the narrow-eyed glares the aforementioned team members gave him, "they were called on to treat originally appeared to be a lycanthrope or possibly a member of an unknown non-human species, who was believed to be suffering extensive internal injuries due to severe, ongoing bleeding from both his nose and mouth and from numerous external wounds of varying depth and severity, and who was also suffering from what was estimated to be at least a dozen fractured ribs, a fractured radius and ulna in his right arm, a fractured humerus in his left arm, and a fractured femur, tibia and fibula in his left leg, as well as massive bruising over his entire body and suspected head injuries, all of which were apparently the result of extensive blunt force trauma."

"Well, of course they were, you bloody -" Giles barely managed to restrain himself as he snapped irritably at Wells' observation. "Faith, Willow, Buffy and I all witnessed how badly Xander had been beaten by that bloody damned psychotic bint even before he carried her through the portal! We have no idea what additional damage she might have inflicted on him while they were traversing that gods-forsaken void, but I thank Heaven that he made it through alive!"

"If you would let me finish, please, Rupert," Wells threw the Englishman a reproving look, then went on with his monologue. "After providing initial treatment at the scene to stabilize the patient, the EMTs began transporting him to this facility. While en route, they began reporting the occurrence of numerous non-standard phenomena involving the patient," he noted, before looking up at the four obviously worried people standing around him.

"Almost immediately upon leaving the retrieval operation site, both the corpsmen attending the patient and Agent Harris reported that his injuries appeared to be visibly diminishing, as though they were healing at an accelerated rate, a fact which was verified by the live feed from the ambulance's video cameras," Wells stated, a fact with which Buffy and Willow unconsciously nodded their agreement, having remained in mental contact with Faith as she rode with Xander and the EMTs in the ambulance while they, Giles and Riley followed in Giles' fully restored classic cherry red 1968 Ford Mustang. Faith's mixed shock/concern/elation when Xander's injuries seemingly began healing spontaneously was felt just as strongly by both women as if they had been present in the emergency vehicle seeing it themselves.

"During the course of the eleven minute ride from the high school to these facilities," the chief of medical operations continued, "virtually all of the injuries initially observed by the triage team healed, leaving absolutely no scar, cicatrix or any other indication that there had ever been any injury at the wound sites, whatsoever.

"In addition, once all of the injuries had healed, the patient's physical form then began visibly morphing, shifting away from the thickly furred form of his original manifestation to the completely human-appearing form you see now," he indicated the slumbering form visible on the far side of the window.

"Speaking from a strictly medical point of view, my friends, I have to say that I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what is going on with him. Your young friend in there is in literally perfect health, without any sign that he's ever suffered even a hangnail, let alone any of the potentially life-threatening injuries we *know* that he had less than forty-five minutes ago," Wells informed them with what sounded like a frustrated sigh. "Not even Slayers heal anywhere near as fast as that, and I've seen you ladies come back from things that would have killed or crippled normal human beings. I've got our labs examining his blood work and checking out some tissue samples right now. I don't know what the hell is responsible for his recovery like that, but I'm sure as hell gonna do my best to figure it out.

"Well, if he's healed all of the injuries the way you say he did, then why is he still lying in bed in there, unconscious?" Buffy demanded, indicating the room where Faith sat waiting next to a sleeping Xander.

"I really don't know, Buffy," the doctor quietly told her, "but, if I had to guess, I'd say maybe his mind needs some time to adjust to whatever it was that happened to him during the battle with Glory."

"Uhm, yeah, I guess that makes sense," the blonde reluctantly agreed.

"Oh, and one more item of news to top things off," Wells added, with a wry grin. "Our diagnostic scanners are also indicating that our young friend in there is accessing a combination of multi-dimensional energy sources; he apparently is tapping the same energy flows that the Slayers and our augmented personnel use, as well as those that our currently deceased former Hell-goddess used to access, before she came down with a severe case of evisceration.

"Which means, people, that if he metabolizes and channels power the same way you guys do, he could most likely destroy this entire facility without even breaking a sweat."


Initiative headquarters
Intensive Care Unit, Medical wing
Five minutes after the previous conversation

< Please, God or Goddess, whatever you are, let him wake up and be okay, > Faith was pleading and praying silently as she sat next to her (hopefully merely) sleeping husband, her fingers securely clutching his in a grip no power on earth could break.

< I'll do anything you want, just let him wake up and remember us and be okay, > she offered the apparently uninterested deity, before her attention was distracted by the slightest stirring of the man on the bed, as his eyelids fluttered and he slowly opened his eyes.

"Hey, beautiful lady," Xander smiled at Faith as he turned his head to look at her, his voice sounding the slightest bit raspy to his own ears. "I just -"

His sentence was interrupted as the tearful brunette threw herself atop him, smothering his words under a storm of kisses as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed herself against him as though to reassure herself of his actual presence, all the while babbling how much she loved him and had missed him during his absence.

"You're awake!"

Looking up to find the source of the joy-filled exclamation, Xander found himself buried under two more misty-eyed female forms who, along with his wife, spent the next several minutes exchanging hugs and kisses and declarations of how much they loved and missed him before then joining with Faith in issuing threats of extreme bodily violence if he ever again even considered doing something so foolish.

He also managed to catch glimpses, through the unceasing hugs and kisses from all three women, of a beaming Giles and a smiling Riley patiently waiting near the foot of his bed, the expression on their faces revealing their satisfaction and happiness at his return.

"Giles! Riley! It's good to see you guys again," he said, when he finally managed to greet his heart-father and his best male friend, sticking his hand out towards them, once the three women smothering him finished rearranging themselves around him.

Faith was stretched out alongside her husband on his hospital bed, snuggled up under his right arm and pressing herself closely enough against him that Willow had grinned and murmured to her in a low voice that she needed to wait until they had at least left the room before starting anything, while Buffy and Willow were both perched next to each other on his opposite side, their hips and thighs firmly pressed against him as though they, too, desired as much body contact with him as they could manage.

"And it's wonderful to see you again, too, my boy," the Englishman smiled as he greeted him. Xander was a bit surprised, but not the least bit displeased, when Giles ignored the extended hand completely and leaned forward to grasp him in a bear hug that lasted for more than the perfunctory two seconds. The brunet was also prepared to swear that the ex-Watcher's eyes even seemed the least bit misty as he spoke.

"Hey, Rye," the brunet then greeted the tall blond. "You look like you're doing pretty good. How're things with the rest of the guys?" he asked.

"Doing pretty well, all things considered, Xand," the Iowan assured him with a small smile. "Lots of new developments, which I'm sure the ladies here will be telling you all about, eventually. Damn, man, it's good to see you again! Especially after hearing what happened up at the school, after I left that day!

"Also gotta tell you, the whole team sends their regards and thanks, buddy," he added. "You took that Bitch down once and for all, and everyone in the group wants you to know how much they appreciate your doing that."

Seeing the glares the women were giving him for bringing up 'business,' he grinned and took his leave.

"Look, I'll talk to you tomorrow, okay, man? I'm pretty sure the ladies here don't want me wasting time talking business, and there's nothing that can't wait to be heard until you get out of here, so I'm gonna run, now. I'm sure the boys will be stopping by, once the doctors clear you for visitors, so if I were you, I'd take advantage of the situation and enjoy the company you have now! See you around, man," he said, as he shook hands again and headed out.

"So, how's our princess doing, babe?" the former carpenter turned and asked his wife as she snuggled closer to him. "Getting big, I bet, right? Did you bring any pictures of her with you?"

"Got something even better, Boytoy," Faith smiled up at him from her position under his arm. "There's been some wicked cool changes happening while you were away," she informed him, "and it's a lot easier to just show you than spend time trying to explain. Just hold still for a minute, okay?"

Reaching up, she placed her right hand against his left temple and murmured the words for a telepathy spell. A look of shock and amazement crossed Xander's face as Faith shared with him a condensed summary of her memories of the last fifteen and a half months, letting him experience the highlights of virtually everything the new and improved Scooby Gang had lived through over the course of the months he was 'away.'

The brunet's expression of awe remained even after Faith pulled her hand away, and he simply sat quietly on the bed as he sat there and marveled, trying to comprehend the magnitude of all of the changes that had occurred while he had been traveling through the portal.

"My god," he finally managed to murmur after several moments of contemplation of Faith's gift.

"You guys are just - incredible!" he stated simply, as he turned to look at each of the other Scooby Gang members. "Everything you've done - it's almost unbelievable!"

"We're just following the example you set for us all, Xan," Buffy declared, the smile on her face as she looked at him making him feel both warm and appreciated. To tell the truth, it was also making him feel the least bit uncomfortable, much like the one Willow was also giving him.

It wasn't that he didn't like having beautiful women looking at him as if they were seriously considering tearing his clothes off him; hell, if Faith been wearing an expression like that, he would be expecting her to be ripping the clothes off of both of them the instant that they were alone together. It was just that he knew that both of his friends considered him just that, a friend, or maybe a big brother, and not a potential lover/partner. Hell, Buffy had pretty much spelled that in detail for him four years ago, and he and Willow had decided that the Fluke was just that - a fluke. So why was he even thinking that they might be thinking otherwise?

Besides, he was married to Faith. She was everything he wanted and needed, along with Joy, so why were these thoughts even passing through his head, at all?

Shrugging mentally, he put the thoughts out of his mind, missing the devilish grins Buffy and Willow exchanged with each other, as well as the momentary smirk that appeared on Faith's face as she quietly took in the other three's reactions to each other, before she closed her eyes and simply enjoyed cuddling up on her husband's shoulder, listening to the steady beat of his heart.


The Magic Box
Three days after Xander's return

"Hey, G-Man," Xander greeted the Englishman as he walked into the shop, Joy riding on his shoulders and a box of pastries in his free hand.

'Hi, Gran'pa!" the miniature brunette chimed in brightly, practically bursting with good news. "We got donuts!"

"Good morning to you, Joy. You are looking as radiantly beautiful as you always do," the former librarian greeted his granddaughter and his son and was rewarded with Joy's giggles at his greeting, as he normally was. "And good morning to you, also, Xander. How are you doing today?"

"Pretty good, actually, Giles," the former carpenter answered with a smile of his own as he lifted his daughter down and carefully set her on one of the chairs surrounding the large wooden research table that generally served as the focal point for the Scooby Gang's research efforts. "I spent most of yesterday morning getting a tour of the new labs and an explanation of all of the new procedures you guys set up the past year, and then most of the afternoon getting tested and poked at by pretty much every scientist and engineer in the Base, all under the direct supervision of Dr. Wells.

"He seems to be just the least bit maniacally obsessed with trying to figure out exactly what happened that turned me into a gigantic Care Bear while I was in the portal dimension," the brunet continued as he opened the small fridge in Giles' office to get Joy some milk to have with her jelly doughnut. Once his daughter was ensconced next to the small portable TV, which was normally kept on one of the office shelves, and the Cartoon Network tuned in and Sponge Bob Squarepants playing, Xander turned to speak further with the man who had first become his mentor some six and a half years before.

"Ah, yes," Giles had grinned at Xander's description as he poured some bottled water into the kettle and set it out to boil. "Tom can get a bit - intense - at times, I'll admit. But he's a truly excellent scientist as well as a good man. Just give him a little bit of time, and you'll see what I mean, my boy. He and his people have been laboring practically non-stop, once Willow succeeded in determining where Glory obtained her power. He is not only a more than capable administrator, he is also an excellent doctor, theoretician and researcher," he informed the younger man.

"When we were first attempting to determine the best way to imbue someone with abilities commensurate with Glory's, he spent virtually every spare moment he had in the labs, helping develop the genome-embedment procedures and ensuring that they would be as safe as humanly possible for the procedure's recipients. If there is anyone who will be able to determine how you gained your - new abilities - it will be him," he concluded.

"You know that expression, beside yourself with emotion?" Xander looked over and asked Giles, with a grin. "Well, I thought he was going to almost literally explode and that we'd end up with a couple thousand miniature versions of him running around, screaming hysterically in combined joy and terror, when I shifted back into my Wolfman form in the lab," the former carpenter noted.

"Oh?" A raised eyebrow was Giles' only outward reaction to Xander's announcement.

"He'd asked me how I had managed to change the first time, in the portal dimension, and when I started explaining how I was feeling just a tad pissed about how Glory was trying to kill my - that person she was looking for," Xander immediately corrected his description of who it was the mad Hell-goddess had sought, quickly glancing over at Joy to check whether she had caught his slip.

Fortunately, she was absorbed in watching a commercial advertising the latest wave of Transformers (r), and was oblivious to anything being said by either of the two adults present.

"Anyway, as I said, I was a little upset and I started changing, and you would have thought he'd just heard his sixth lottery number being called. His people already had tagged me with all of these sensors, so they were getting all of the readings they could possibly want as I was changing," he related his lab experiences of the previous day.

"And, once I was finished, they wanted me to change back right away, and then they had me change back and forth another three times before I could finally manage to escape," he complained theatrically. "Those people seriously need to get a life, Giles! They make you look like a party animal!" he teased the older man.

Ignoring the good-natured gibe, Giles inquired further about his son's re-integration into normal life.

"So, aside from having to spend time as a test subject, have you encountered any other problems or difficulties with your readjustment back into the Sunnydale environment?" he asked, a look of general parental concern on his face.

To judge by the younger man's body language, there was some area of disquiet regarding his return that was causing him no small degree of anxiety, and it was apparently an area that he didn't feel comfortable discussing with Faith, Buffy or Willow.

"Well, I wouldn't exactly say it's a problem, Giles," Xander replied slowly, while searching for the best way to describe precisely why he was currently feeling so awkward when in the presence of his two best friends.

"It's just that, right now, I'm feeling kind of uncomfortable whenever Wills or Buffy are around me," he confessed, reluctant to look at his surrogate father as he spoke, busily himself fixing a cup of coffee. "Especially if we're alone together in the room.

"It's not that finding out that Buffy and Willow are - together - now that's bothering me," he was quick to explain. "It was a little bit of a surprise finding that out, I'll admit, but considering how they've always been very close, it really isn't that startling.

"What's been kinda bothering me, though, is that - I don't want to seem like I'm being conceited or arrogant or anything, and, hey! I'm probably hallucinating all of this, but whenever I look at them, I get the feeling that they're interested in me. Both of them. And not in a "Hey, Xander's my really good buddy' way, but more like in a 'Hey, Xander could be a potential horizontal playmate' type of way."

His son's embarrassment and disquiet with having to discuss this matter with him was quite evident, and Giles had to grin in spite of himself. The chance to finally get a little payback for all of the times the brunet adolescent had put the metaphorical screws to him back in the high school library was simply too good an opportunity to pass up, the Ripper side of his personality told his Giles side, who agreed without any argument at all.

"It's not like they're throwing themselves at me or making suggestions or anything like that," the former carpenter/current millionaire and government agent added quickly. "It's just that if I happen to look over at them, I usually find that they're already looking over at me, like they've been just - well, watching me, I guess you'd say, with this little smile on their faces. Like they've been watching me, and, uhm, imagining things," he noted, obviously uncomfortable with the path their conversation was taking.

"Imagining what kind of things?" the Englishman asked, while just barely managing to keep the smirk that was threatening to break free off his face.

"Well, uhm, the kinds of things that a married guy like me shouldn't be imagining that women other than his wife would be imagining about him," the brunet replied, looking over at the man he truly considered his father.

"And I also think you're enjoying this conversation way too much," he noted with a wry grin. "Payback for all the grief I gave you back in high school, huh?"

"Well, yes, one might think that," the Englishman agreed with his own cheeky grin.

"So, Giles, what do you think I should do?"

Thinking back to the numerous instances of what had appeared to be uncharacteristic behavior he had observed in all three of his daughters over the course of the past year, Giles shrugged and offered what little advice and direction he could, as he removed the whistling kettle from the hot plate and poured water into his "Kiss the Librarian!" mug Faith had given him the previous year.

"The best advice I can offer you, my boy, is to suggest that you sit down and discuss the situation as you see it with Faith, Buffy and Willow, and get their feedback as to how they may be viewing the same situation," he advised his protégé.

"While it is, indeed, quite possible that you are simply misinterpreting the fact that Buffy and Willow are simply both overjoyed to see that you survived the time you spent away from us while exiled with Glory and have returned to us safe and sound, it is also possible that your interpretation of their reactions is not completely erroneous," he noted.

"I am sure that Faith informed you of the incident involving the Pythagoric demon, the 'Soul-eater,' which occurred approximately a year ago, did she not?" the former librarian asked, after a moment's pause to consider a thought that had popped into his head.

"Yeah, she did," Xander replied, "and I gotta say, my heart almost stopped when I realized just how close to not coming back she was when Buffy and Willow found her. That's something else I need to thank them for," he noted to himself parenthetically.

"It is my personal belief that that incident was the initiation point for a number of quite significant events that have occurred over the course of the past year, as well as several behavioral anomalies I have noted in all three girls," Giles affirmed, as he selected a jelly donut from the open box the table and took a small bite.

"As you now know, Willow was Called as a Slayer as a result of that incident, and both Faith and Buffy showed a greatly enhanced potential for magic immediately afterward," he elaborated, reflexively dropping into lecture-mode after finishing off the pastry. "We eventually came to the conclusion that all of those events had come about as a result of the girls having merged their soul's energies in their efforts to enable all three of them to escape the dream state Faith had been cast into by the Soul-eater.

"Since that time, as I said, I have also noted numerous minor aberrations in the behavior of all three girls. And by that, I mean alterations in their typical manner of speaking, dressing or reacting to a particular situation," he noted.

"Willow almost immediately began making minor, but significant, modifications to her hair, make-up and clothing styles that were much more in line with what Buffy or Faith would have selected for her, had she permitted them to do so, and has become much more self-confident and outspoken since then;

"Faith was the first person to raise the question concerning how Joy could contain and control the Key energy, which eventually lead to the recombinant genetic transfer techniques the Initiative now employs and which all of us have undergone; and

"It was Buffy who first conceived of the method which we used to induce your and Glory's return to our dimensional plane nearly nine months prior to your anticipated arrival," Giles completed his enumeration of discrepant events that he had been compiling over the course of the past twelve months.

"While I mean no disrespect to either Buffy or Faith," the Scooby Gang's father made a point of stating, "prior to the incident I mentioned, neither of the girls would have given much thought to any aspects of how Joy could conceivably contain, let alone control, the Key's energy or what methods could best be employed to expedite your return home from the portal dimension through which you and Glory were traveling, seeing as how they are more indicative of the physical sciences, something neither of them has ever displayed a strong interest in."

As he leaned back against the counter, sipping his coffee, Xander contemplated the information Giles had provided, and sifted it against the information contained in the memories Faith had given him immediately after he regained consciousness in the Initiative's medical center.

"So, you think that when they merged their souls' energies, they also shared or co-mingled their individual memories and powers, too, huh, Giles?" he asked after a few moments' reflection.

"As Tom would no doubt say, the data we currently possess would certainly seem to support that hypothesis," the Englishman agreed quietly, sipping at his tea.

"And if they each shared the knowledge and skills they possessed, they probably also shared the emotional connections each of them carried, also," the brunet murmured to himself, continuing the thread of reasoning offered by his mentor.

"Great," the brunet said sourly after a moment's further consideration, "my two best friends now might be thinking they're in love with me because they shared emotions and memories with my wife when they were saving her life from a soul-sucking demon. Now, how am I gonna convince them they're mistaken, and that they really don't feel that way about me?

"Could my life get any more dif- No!!! I am *not* jinxing myself like that!! Not this time!" he exclaimed loudly, drawing a small grin from Giles and a "Whassamatta, Daddy?" from Joy, as she looked up from the TV screen to see what the problem might be.

"Nothing, Princess. Everything's fine," Xander quickly reassured her, flashing her a quick smile.

Once Joy had returned her attention to her cartoons, Xander buried his face in his hands.

"I am *so* screwed!" he muttered under his breath, not seeing the quickly concealed grin on Giles' face, as he listened and considered the unwitting double-entendre the younger man had just made.


The Harris residence
The same day
8:50 pm

< Okay now, > Xander thought to himself, as he stared out through the twin French doors leading out to the deck he had built just after they had moved in. < You asked for this meeting, and here it is. Now what are you going to say? >

Joy was upstairs in her bed, snuggled up with half a dozen of her stuffed toys in her bed and sleeping the sleep of the innocent and the exhausted, the dinner dishes were all washed and put away, and there was absolutely nothing else he could think of to delay this discussion any longer.

"Okay, Xand, what was it you wanted to talk to us about?" Buffy asked from her position on the couch, snuggled up next to Willow. She, the redhead and Faith, who was curled up on the love seat opposite them, were all observing the ex-carpenter with interest as he restlessly paced the open area of the rec room.

All of the women grinned widely, when he turned and paled slightly upon finding all three staring at him intently.

"Well, uhm, you see, guys," he began nervously, giving a quick glance to Faith, who smiled at him reassuringly, "I've noticed that, uhm, since I've been back, you guys have, uh, been watching me. A lot. And I was kinda wondering why you were doing that. "

He felt quite uncomfortable saying even that, but there really didn't seem to be any other polite way of putting it. He really didn't want to say "Hey, guys, I feel like you're thinking that you want to jump my bones anytime I see you looking at me."

After all, that's not exactly something you say to your two best friends who are now superpowered government agents/witches, who can kick ass and throw around lightning bolts and other stuff like characters out of 'Dragonball Z,' and whom you haven't seem for over a year by their calendar, and that's definitely not something you want to say in front of your wife, who is also a government agent/superpowered witch like your two friends.

Actually, he decided after a moment's reflection, that's not something you ever want to say to your friends in front of your wife, regardless of the circumstances.

He had spoken to Faith about the whole situation earlier that day, and she had taken everything very well, he thought, when he explained about his conversation with Giles earlier that morning. She had pretty much grinned at his and Giles' hypothesis regarding why the girls might be feeling that way towards him, then shrugged and said she'd wait to see what the girls had to say about it.

Which was exactly what he was waiting to hear from them now.

Buffy and Willow looked at each for a moment as though they were talking to each other (which was quite possible, considering that virtually all of the Initiative's magic-using agents knew telepathy spells), and then Willow nodded, looked over at her childhood friend and said simply, "Because you've got a really great ass, Xand."

As Xander simply stared at her, dumbfounded and completely speechless for once in his life, Faith erupted into a paroxysm of laughter, while both Buffy and Willow continued looking at him with expressions of total innocence on their faces.

After watching him staring speechlessly at them for almost a minute, the two girls couldn't control themselves any longer, and they joined Faith as peals of laughter erupted from them both.

"S-s-sorry, Xand," Buffy gasped, once all of the girls had finally managed to stop laughing, "but we just couldn't resist! You have to admit, an opportunity like that - to render you completely speechless - doesn't happen very often, so we just had to take advantage of it when it did."

"So, you've been doing that, watching me like that, just to set up that joke?" he asked, uncertain if he should be offended or not. He had in the past sometimes gone to great lengths to set up a prank, so he was fairly sure that getting annoyed that the girls had outmaneuvered him doing this would be considered somewhat childish.

He had decided that he was going to have to think of something truly spectacular to get them back for this setup when Buffy's answer finally managed to make its way through to his conscious mind.

"Oh no, Xand. We've been watching you because we're both interested in seeing if we can mange to work things out with you and Faith. We're hoping that we can all be more than just friends. A lot more," the Blonde Slayer said, sitting up straight and looking first him, and then Faith, in the eye as she continued. "Will and I have been thinking about this for a while now, guys, but we decided to wait until you were back before we said anything, Xander. Faith was under enough pressure and strain as it was. We didn't want to add to it."

"We love you guys," Willow picked up in her usual earnest manner as Buffy finished speaking. "Both of you. And we definitely mean that in a more-than-just-friends kind of way.

"After we fell out of the portal, when we didn't have anybody or anything else in the world except maybe Giles and Xander, because everyone we ever knew all believed we were dead, you came over and you hugged us and accepted us, Faith," the redhead reminded the brunette as she stared at her, her eyes glistening as she reminded her companions of the events of sixteen months before.

"Even after everything we had done, the way we had treated you when you showed up her looking for help with a Master vampire chasing you and then basically ignored you afterwards, not inviting you over to our homes and letting you live alone in the awful motel by yourself, you still hugged us and told us we were all family, Faith," Willow smiled at her friend.

"We can't tell you just how much that meant to us, especially at that moment, after we had just found out that everything we had had in our lives was gone," Buffy continued their explanation as she looked into the brunette's eyes. "Even with Xander's carrying Glory into the portal and leaving you alone to take care of Joy, you still took the time to accept us and let us into your and Joy's lives, Faith. You're a wonderful person, Faith, and we love you and we want to make a life with you and Xander. Besides, you look really hot in that bikini," she added with a sly smile.

"And don't you dare think that we don't care just as much about you, too, Alexander Lavelle Harris," the blonde smiled as she turned to look at the original Scooby Gang member. "I'm just speaking for myself here, but you have always been there for me whenever I needed any kind of help, whether I admitted it or not. I wouldn't let myself get involved romantically with you because I couldn't bear the thought that you might not be there for me if things didn't work out for us that way and we broke up. I figured I could find a lover pretty much anywhere, but I didn't think I could ever find a friend like you, again.

"I realize just how foolish that thought is, now," Buffy told him with a rueful smile, "but back then I couldn't even think of what my life would be without you in it, and that was the only solution I could think of to make sure you wouldn't leave me. I know better, now, and I want you in my life, along with Willow and Faith and Joy and Giles. I want to be a part of a family with all of you.

"I love you, Xander," she smiled at him, and went on before he could say anything. "And before you say anything about me or Will feeling that way because the three of us shared our souls' energies during that Pythagoras demon incident, I want to tell you that all that did was to open my eyes up to just what a great guy I had for a friend, and make me realize what it could be like if we were more than friends," the diminutive blonde informed him.

Seeing the surprise in his eyes at her statement about the Pythagoras demon, Buffy smile and revealed, "I heard Giles and Riley discussing the possibility several weeks ago, Xand.

"Just because we shared memories and feelings doesn't mean that we now all feel the same way about everything. I still can't stand to even look at that mess Wills makes when she mixes her peanut butter and grape jelly together until it's that awful pale purple color and then puts it on matzo bread," she shivered with distaste as she spoke of one of the redhead's favorite snacks. "God, it reminds me of Keogh demon mucus! Ugh!"

"You just don't recognize good snack food when you see it," Willow grinned at her lover as she got to her feet. "But I love you anyway.

"And as for you, Xander," she said, walking over to him and gently pulling his face down to look her in the eye, "I have loved you since as far back as I can remember, so you can't tell me that Faith's memories have colored mine."

Taking his hand, Willow led Xander over to the loveseat on which Faith was seated, and indicated he should sit down next to her.

"I love you, too, Faith," Willow stated firmly as she turned to face the brunette who had been quietly watching everything happening in the room. "You cared about me and saved me from killing myself with guilt after Xander went through the portal and I was blaming myself for not being able to do more to stop her.

"Buffy and I want to make a life with the two of you and Joy in it even more than you are now," the redhead said. "We want to spend the rest of our lives with you guys, and we're hoping you feel the same way about us," she elaborated, as Buffy got up and moved to stand next to her.

"Faith and Alexander Harris," Buffy said, as she and Willow both dropped to one knee in front of the two and each reached out to take a hand of their friends/teammates, "will the two of you marry us?"

Looking over at Faith, Xander found her looking back at him with an equally surprised and uncertain expression on her face.

"We may not be able to marry you legally, but we wanted to make sure that you understand exactly how we feel about you guys," Buffy told the two sitting Scoobies. "If you don't think you can feel the same way about us, then just tell us that. If you're not sure how you feel, take as much time as you need to think things over. Even if you don't think you can or want to marry us, we're not going to be going anywhere, guys. You're part of our family and you always will be, regardless of what you decide to do," she assured them with a smile.

"We know that this is a lot to take in all at once, so we're gonna give you guys time to think about everything we've said and decide how you feel about it, yourselves," Willow said quietly in the silence that followed the girls' statements. "We're going to wait upstairs in our room. You can find us there, once you decide what your answer is."

Xander was watching the two girls - women - walking out of the room when he suddenly heard Faith's voice in his head.

:: How do you feel about all this, babe? :: she asked him and he realized that she must have used a telepathy spell to silently talk to him, so that he didn't have to be concerned about Buffy or Willow hearing anything they said.

:: I - I don't know, :: he replied truthfully. :: Honestly? I love both of them. They've been my friends for years, and we've been through hell together, sometimes almost literally. I know I love both of them, as much as I love you, but in a different kinda way. I don't know if I really love them like that right now, and I definitely don't want you thinking that that means that I could love you any less, just because I said that, understand? I think I could very easily love them like that, but I couldn't even consider it if I thought it might cause any kind of problems for us. You and Joy are my first concerns. How do *you* feel about it? :: he asked as he turned to look at his wife.

:: I love both of them, too, :: she immediately answered, looking at him straight in the eye. :: I love them because of who they are and what they've done. They stood with us against Glory, Xand, when she came after Joy. They hadn't even known Joy existed before they fell out of the portal, but they stayed to help us, anyway. They were bruised and bloody and exhausted, and as far as they were concerned, it was less than two hours after they had fought the Mayor at Graduation, and they refused to leave, even though they really didn't have any reasons to fight her, besides the fact that we were involved. They stayed because they're not just good people, they're great people. ::

:: After you were gone, they stayed and helped me out with Joy, when they could have left and made new lives for themselves, :: she reminded him. :: Willow ran herself ragged into the ground trying to figure out what That Bitch was and what we could do about it, and she didn't stop until she succeeded, and that's the reason you're here with us, now. ::

:: The night that bastard zapped me, they came after me, Xand, even though Giles had told them flat out, there wasn't any cure for what it did to me. They didn't care about that, but they cared about me. I never had *anyone* care about me before I met Lynda, and you and Giles and them, Xand. They risked their own souls coming after me because they cared about me, Xand and they shared themselves, their souls, with me to give me enough energy to come back. The instant they did that, when we merged, I knew them as well as I know myself. I don't remember very much of it now, and neither do B or Red, but at that moment, we all knew *everything* about each other, everything each of us had ever done, and none of it mattered. We knew each other, and we loved each other. And I still love them, :: the small brunette declared.

:: We all knew it then, and we still know it now. Ever since that night, we've all been kind of aware of each other on some level of consciousness. It's not reading minds or anything like this spell, babe, :: she explained. :: It's more like, when I concentrate, I can get an idea of how they're feeling or what they're thinking about and a general sense of where they are in relation to me, that's all. ::

:: I'll love them if you decide you want us to try this, and I'll still love them if you decide you don't want to risk what you already have with them and don't want to try this, :: Faith told him.

:: You think about it, babe. Either way, I'll support whatever you decide you want us to do, darling, :: the brunette told him, as they both heard Joy's sudden crying echoing from her room. :: I'm going see what's bothering Joy. ::

As Faith hurried upstairs to see what had caused Joy to awaken, crying, Xander sat down on the couch and thought about the decision that had been left in his hands.

< Great, > he told himself. < Everyone's leaving the decision completely up to me. Gee, no pressure there at all, huh. Nope. Five lives are going to be directly affected by whatever I choose to do. I screw up and it's not just my life I ruin, it's the lives of pretty much everyone I care about. Nope. No pressure at all. >


The Harris residence
The same day
Buffy and Willow's room
10:25 pm

Willow and Buffy looked at each other as they lay quietly on the bed when the knock sounded on their door.

They were certain they knew who was knocking, and were fairly confident of the answer they would be receiving, but that tiny bit of doubt that still existed about the outcome of their proposal made both of them hesitate for a moment.

Then, flashing each other reassuring smiles that were both only partially successful, they got up and moved to the door.

Standing patiently in the hallway were Faith and Xander, with a sleepy-eyed Joy held in his arms, her head on her father's shoulder.

"Hi, guys," Faith smiled at her fellow Slayers. "We were hoping you were still awake, 'cause we had some things we wanted to talk to you about."

"Yeah," Xander added with his trademarked grin. "We invited Joy to come along, too, 'cause we figured the flower girl might want to sit in while we're discussing the rings we want, and when we want to set the date for the ceremony. If that's okay with you guys, that is?"

The exact response was completely intelligible, given the understandable confusion as everyone tried to hug everyone else at the same time, but it was generally accepted that it was 'Yes.'


Abandoned warehouse
San Francisco, CA

The dark-haired woman leveled the night-vision glasses she had persuaded her current boyfriend to requisition from his division's equipment inventory and followed the progress of the target of her surveillance as he made his way down the now deserted street, noting how he avoided as much as possible the pools of light shed by those still working streetlights that lined his side of the block.

As he paused momentarily before a padlocked door, he turned and looked over his shoulders as though to check for any casual passers-by, and she mouthed a barely audible "Damn!" as she noted what appeared to be a deformed forehead and several prominent canine teeth protruding from his mouth.

After verifying the subject's entrance into the seemingly abandoned, but padlocked, building, the woman carefully moved backward, away from her surveillance position, making sure that she didn't silhouette herself against any lights or the skyline, then made her way don from the flat roof of the building and hurried to her car.

It was only after she pulled away from the area and was safely hidden among the very early morning traffic filling the freeway, having watched for any signs of pursuit or a tail and seen none, that she finally relaxed slightly.

Keeping one eye on the traffic surrounding her, she fumbled in her waist beltpak for a moment before withdrawing a cellphone.

Keying in a number she had committed to memory years before, one she had vowed only to use under the worst possible circumstances, she waited impatiently as the receiver at the other end of the call rang repeatedly, before being picked up by an answering machine.

"I'm sorry I am currently unavailable to take your call, but if you leave a number where you can be reached, I will attempt to get back to you as quickly as I can," the machine announced in a distinguished English accent.

"Giles, this is Cordelia, and we've got major trouble here! I think Angelus is back, and he's getting tricky! Please, I need you to call me back as soon as possible!"