Author: Björn Paulsen / Eleas / fenix_burns <fenix_burns[at]>

Rating: Should probably not be read by anyone with rigor mortis. Other people that are allowed near a computer screen by their guardians are henceforth considered fair game.

Disclaimer: This is fanfiction, and I thus aim to take all the credit for these characters that I deserve. That is to say, none at all.

WhatIsThisThen: Well, it's a crossover, between Buffy and a well-known franchise. Read on to find out which, for life should never be dull.


Your pain is the breaking of the shell
that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.


His eyes opened, and for a moment, there was nothing there. Just the darkness, and the sense of being wrapped up tightly. Every feeling was unfamiliar - was it painfully hot or numbingly cold? Was there pain or peaceful rest? He did not know. But for the snatches of dreams twining about his thoughts, nothing intruded. He was alone.

Had time passed? He didn't know, nor did he want to remember. Spots flickered in the darkness, snippets of images flashed and were gone, hints of the memories he did not want. There was something dark nestled inside them, deeper than that in front of his eyes.

Eyes. The image shattered his calm utterly, his chest clenching with icy horror. Nausea burst through him, a wave of terror made physical. And, seeing the echo of hands reaching toward him, going for the eyes, he screamed. It was the first sound he heard since he woke. He felt he could scream forever.

Hands held him then, pushed his thrashing body down. Vampires? Had he been captured again? Why couldn't he see? They were screaming, shouting words he couldn't understand. Slowly, he stopped fighting. The voices weren't angry, or gloating. Nobody was chanting. They just sounded... worried.

The hospital. That thought took shape grudgingly, summing up what he already had guessed. But now, he was certain. Now that he no longer struggled, the voices had dropped in intensity. Straining, he caught the barely-audible sound of conversation, but the words were muffled, unable to make out.

Either I'm doped up to the gills, or they made me into a mummy. Course, what with my dating history, that'd actually make some sense...

Wait. That didn't make sense at all, really. Or maybe it did. That was right. That was him. Xander. Xander Harris, demon-magnet, Scooby gang member, feared scourge of all Twinkies. The Xander LaVelle Harris whose love life consisted of equal parts vengeance demon and Cordelia, with sprinklings of inca mummy girls and giant praying mantises. Xander, who had Willow and Buffy for friends, Dawn to protect, Giles to annoy, Spike just to... well, he couldn't for the life of him recall where Spike fit in, except possibly inside an urn on the mantlepiece.

But that was him. He shouldn't be lying here. Where was here? Obviously Sunnydale Hospital. He could smell the antiseptic they used. Was it normal to have been at a certain hospital so often you could recognize it by smell?

The voices drifted off to one direction, and now, he could hear something, something else. The rustle of fabric was soft to his ears, and whatever his body lay on moved. There was a feeling of a prescence, close nearby. This is a bed. I'm bed-ridden. Ridden by bed. Wait, that sounded so wrong. He felt his face stretch in a frown. The experience was weird, as if his flesh had been turned into hard rubber.

"Can you hear me, Alexander?" The words were almost breathed against his ear. He tried to answer, but the words were indistinct, his tongue refusing to cooperate. Fighting, he managed to enounciate clearer.

" Xand..."

"Sander?" His attempt at nodding must have worked, because the woman went on speaking. "Well, Sander, do you know where you are? You are at the Sunnydale Hospital. Can you remember what happened?"


"Your friends found you after you fell down in the orchard. They brought you here." Her voice was calm, soothing. "They were worried about you, but you're going to be fine now. We had to operate on you. You've spent the last four hours in surgery."

"...throat... hurt..."

"Yes, sorry about that. We had to put a tube down your windpipe so you could breathe while you were unconscious. Don't worry, the soreness will go away, and your the bandages will come off soon." The voice was encouraging, full of sympathy. Artificial, he knew. It was better than the silence.

"...where..." He paused, tried again. "...'m I blind...?"

"No, Sander. You're not blind." The voice was still friendly, but guarded. He could hear it easily. Funny, how quickly you could focus on such things once the world of sight had been lost to you.

"...then what...?" He put as much assertiveness in his voice as he could. It must have worked, because whoever it was answered him with the truth.

"Your eye." No longer was the sympathy in the voice feigned, and he knew it to be true. "We had to remove your left eye, Sander."

The numbness was back. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it once more. His head turned to the side, facing away from the woman.

"'s... Xander..."

And he slept.


And could you keep your heart in wonder
at the daily miracles of your life, your pain
would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your
heart, even as you have always accepted
the seasons that pass over your fields.



The voice sounded close to him, its friendly tone belying the murderous intent behind the words. "You're the one who sees..."

Pain like you would not believe. Impotent rage, almost eclipsing it. A flash of terror, as Caleb spoke again.

"...but can you see me?"

Wait, this wasn't what happened, he didn't remember the preacher saying that. And the voice, too... it was different, no longer that same slick southern drawl. Instead, it seemed to whisper to him from afar, rushing as if it was the wind given voice.

"Open your eyes."

And he did, somehow. Light stung them, and he blinked away tears, to find himself within a chamber of rough stone. The walls were visible but dimly, lit as they were by a sourceless aetheric glow, faintly blue in color. Rocky protrusions stretched from the ceiling and up from the cavern floor like shark's teeth, and in the distance and darkness, he could hear a single drop of water strike a bell-like sound upon hidden surfaces. The vision was vivid, held more color than any dream he had known, and yet he didn't question the fact that it was a dream. He just... knew.

Then the voice returned, now coming from all around him. It was quiet and calm, and seemed to carry a great weight of age or knowledge.

"Can you see the path you must take?"

A stalactite broke, striking the floor with a ping.

"Can you wall yourself off from its call much longer?"

The light fluttered, the cavern all but vanishing into darkness. The voice returned.

"What thing still remains to hold you back?"

Blackness rested around him, absolute, now, the voice sounding much closer. It paused, and Xander felt himself beginning to rouse. A sleepy part of him wondered about the weirdness of it all, and how come he didn't have flying dreams? Because those were cool.

He opened his eyes, or tried to. Something covered them, and he couldn't see at all. But he could still hear. The whisper of the voice came as if borne upon the wind, and the words were barely intelligible. But he understood them perfectly.

"I will be waiting for you."


And you would watch with serenity
through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.


The world flashed past the car window, but Xander did not look. His gaze - his eye - remained firmly locked on the road before them. His face was blank, no emotion whatsoever marring its surface. His mind had almost completely succeeded at ignoring its surroundings. The thrum of the motor felt soothing, the motion of the car and the traffic had expanded, become his entire world. It almost felt as if he was asleep, as if he could just ignore everything, rest away from Sunnydale, somewhere where he could hide, be protected. Be safe.

Had he cared, he could have turned his head to look upon Willow. Perhaps, in the world he had known, he would have done so. But this was not the world where he rose to his feet after being beaten, ever getting back up, absorbing his punishment like so much water. This was a world of maiming and death, a world where the one sitting beside him at the wheel, his Willow, had helped take the impending slaughter to its ultimate blood-streaked conclusion, where he himself had eagerly lined up for the slaughter. This was the world where his friends, the ones that mattered to him above all else, had helped bring about his ruin. Not because they had desired to hurt him, not at all - but through sheer and simple happenstance, because no matter what their reservations were, in the end they would conform, and follow, and suffer for it in the service of other friends. Friends who had led, who accepted the state of affairs. Because there was nothing else to do.

They had marched into the orchard, and some of them were there still. And because of that, even had the cold shell that now enveloped him been gone, he would not have dared raise his eyes to look upon her. Because he was afraid that, whatever expression her face would hold, he would be a stranger looking at a memory of their youth.

And there was something that, deep inside where the cold had not yet taken hold, he did not want to face. He had, after all, followed them. He had not spoken up. He had stood by his friends, and they had stood by him, and he could not hate them for it.

But how could he forgive them for this? How could he forgive himself, or anyone? He had been changed, and there was nothing more to say, no "sorry" good enough to wipe away the fact that he would no longer be even capable of fighting. Would he even be able to resume his work again? And could his injury in any way compare to the fate of Eliza, and Molly?

"You've gotta trust her. She's earned it."

Those words had led them to their deaths. His words.

There was no one and everyone to blame, and too much anger and blackness inside him to be meted out. And so Xander did what he had always been spectacularly good at. There was one person he could blame who would not disagree, who would instead accept every accusation as his just due. And so, as the car sped down the road, Xander sat unmoving, numbly raging at himself and his stupidity.


It is the bitter potion by which the
physician within you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink
his remedy in silence and tranquillity:


Taking her eyes from the road for a moment, Willow glanced over toward the passenger side. Her eyes held deep worry, and her lower lip bled from having been bitten through earlier.

Xander was sleeping, at least if his soft breathing was an indication. Willow hoped it was a good sign. She knew him, better than anyone else did - certainly better than his family ever would - even though they had grown a bit apart recently. It had been plain to her how painfully tense he was, how rigid his breathing. Willow's gaze flicked back to the traffic as she drew a shaky breath. As well as she knew him, she couldn't understand his reactions now, and that admission terrified her.

They had all heard the news soon after, they had all faced the loss. Of course, it was worse for Xander, she knew - not only had he lost his eye while fighting, he had failed to protect Molly and Eliza. And Willow knew just how much that had to have hurt Xander.

Blinking, she tried not to think about another situation, not long ago, when she too had faced personal loss. Her fingers tightened around the wheel. She had tried to destroy the world. Yes, she had loved Tara, far beyond anything she was sure Xander had felt toward the Potentials. But she only felt a small flicker of shame at admitting to herself that she was glad Xander had no real power. Because after all, not having to wonder about Xander going black-eyed and veiny was definitely of the good.

Spotting the exit road, she began a gentle turn, sighing to herself as familiar sights came into view. Somehow they had been thrown from nightly slayage into an honest-to-god war. And no matter how hurt he was, she was glad that Xander wasn't dead. His fighting abilities hadn't been enough even when he was uninjured. She hoped he'd see reason now and stay out of the thick of things. For his own good, he would have to.

They were getting closer now. Willow tried to picture how Dawn would react to seeing Xander. Or Anya, or Giles, or even Faith. But all she got was a blurry impression of horrified silence, and she somehow figured they would take it better than that.

And Xander? She couldn't imagine something like that without hearing him voice some inane joke or silly, tension-breaking yet caring observation. Would he do that this time?

The car ground to a halt, gravel crunching beneath the wheels. She reached over to shake her friend awake.

If he blinked she couldn't see it, because that part of his face was obscured by the bandage. He limply raised his head and turned uncertainly. His hand groped, found hers.


That was all he said, and the first word he had spoken since they had first stepped into the car. She did not know if it meant what it once had, and she did not fully understand it as she had before, but the part she understood was enough, for now. And she led him out, and to the door, and walked inside, with neither of them saying anything else.


For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided
by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips,
has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter
has moistened with His own sacred tears.
--Kahlil Gibran

Chapter 1

To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?


Funny how life could change so rapidly, Xander reflected. Funnier still how the situations could be so alike, events repeat themselves over and over again. The things that happened around him were a mass of old memories - the same scramble to defeat an adversary, the same banter, soul-searching, moments of doubt mingling with triumphs.

But this time, they had lost their way. They still carried on, but all the anguish and terror had made its mark upon them, and they were merely going through the motions. They were images in a distorted mirror, along with everything else.

It was an observation few would think Xander capable of, but one he had given a lot of thought. Because it made some weird kind of sense to him, gave him the certainty he needed to face each day and not fall apart. He enjoyed its idea, the thought that things just didn't happen randomly. As a carpenter, he had lived by finding patterns in everything. Perhaps it was a vestige of his Halloween possession or just something he had developed a knack for.

You're the one who sees everything, aren't you? Well, let's see what we can do about that.

Xander closed his eyes, easing up on the gas pedal, even though there was no other traffic in sight and the road was straight as far as the eye could see. There was little feeling left inside him, but what he had left, he felt as he remembered those words.

Sorry, Padre. I don't need eyes to see the important things.

His friends wouldn't understand, wouldn't laugh at that joke, he knew. Because this joke wasn't like his usual ones. They were for them, tension-breakers, quips. His own humor was of a rarer, stranger breed. They made him laugh, pushed the shadows away.

Jokes. They were his last refuge. When he was away from Anya, they were all he had to reassure himself that he was in any way normal. Because if he wasn't normal, he had to be something else. And his friends had made painfully sure that he couldn't be anything but Xander Harris, ordinary man.

He blinked, fighting the impulse to scratch at the edge of the eyepatch. The silence, too, reminded him of that time, when Willow drove him home from the hospital. Of course, now he was the one in the driver's seat. The numbing pain of the week following his injury, that had strained his remaining eye so badly he couldn't focus for more than a minute without tearing up, had now subsided. In its place was a dull ache. He didn't know if it was mental or physical in nature, and cared even less. He could drive now, that was all.

Different pain now, too. He had, after all, just had a stun gun shoved into his throat at full blast, courtesy of the girl in the side seat. The girl who now was looking out the window, maintaining a conspicuous silence. She was, like him, one who saw. But she saw different things.

And right now, she was doing everything she could to vividly ignore him. She did, Xander reflected, have her reasons. She was probably still feeling queasy from the effects of the chloroform, and was probably even angrier at knowing her sister considered her a liability. Which was a very likely interpretation of what Buffy had actually said, if you ignored the sugar coating.

The thought woke a vague hint of shame, and he considered it even as he began to prepare for leaving the road. Wasn't Dawn right to be angry, to feel frustrated? Hadn't he himself felt that way when the rest had tried to shut him out of the group, protect him, make his choices for him, treat him like he was useless to them?


Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.


Of course she was. Just like he had. So why had he accepted Buffy's plan, then? He didn't know; it was hard to think about it, to question and to doubt. Doubt was something he couldn't afford. To doubt was to dig at the foundations, to weaken the structure. It wasn't an option at all.

There was just too much for him to fix, too many people to protect. He had to trust the ones he protected, follow some norms, accept certain conventions. Without a foundation, his works would crumble.

But that was wrong. Thinking like that wasn't right. It had led him to commit a mistake he, of all people, should have known better than to do.

"I'm sorry, Dawn."

He kept his eye on the road. With his reduced field of vision, anything else would be stupid. But he could sense her shifting position rather than hearing the creak of upholstery or seeing her gaze.

"You should be." Dawn still sounded angry, and betrayed. "Really, really sorry."

"I know. I am." He hesitated. "Would it help if we stopped by K-Mart to grab some head-clearing drinks?"

"Why did you do it?" The hurt had faded slightly, but the accusation remained in her words. "I know you, Xander. I know you better than the others. But that really came from nowhere."

The question surprised him only slightly. It was the same one he was thinking about himself. The road signs swept past as he pondered the answer.

"...I don't know," he finally said. "Or maybe, yeah. Maybe I gave up."


Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life's dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God.


"Gave up?"

"Gave up on some battles, to win the rest." He took a breath, sensing her confusion. "Look, I don't know. And I think part of it had to do with protecting you, too, if you want to know."

"I don't. Cause that reason? So coming from the wrong person."

He had nothing to say against that, and it was quiet again for some minutes. Then it was Dawn's turn to break the silence.

"I'm sorry." She sounded subdued. "A bit cause of what I said, and some cause of the zap. It was sort of a reflex. I mean, both of them."

"It's alright, Dawn." Strangely, he could not at first recognize what he felt at the words. But then it snapped into focus. He was vaguely alarmed at the fact that he had forgotten what relief felt like, and tried to adopt the joking tone he used so often. "Good friends try to kill each other with electricity and chemicals all the time. It's the new cool thing." And with words, too, he didn't add.

"Xander." He knew that tone of voice. Dawn could be as stubborn as Buffy. And she saw deeper, and more.


"What was that about you giving up?" Don't give me any avoidance, her tone warned.

Xander felt himself sigh. "I don't... I'll try to answer, but bear with me, cause I don't quite get it myself." A pause as he tried to marshal his thoughts. "I guess I'm beginning to slip, to lose my hold. Too many things have to be done. And I only have two hands to hold them together." His mouth twitched in a smirk. "And only one eye to see what I'm supposed to hold. And I'm failing."

"Really? Not from where I stand, Xander. Besides, that can't be all of it," Dawn said quietly, firmly. In some part of him, Xander was once again aware of the strength that the Slayer's sister possessed, made all the greater by the fact that she lacked that which set the rest so apart, the powers they all had, in their different forms.

"They're... fighting. They live in the Slayer-world. Patrolling, slaying, destiny, you know - they're in it up to the neck. You remember what Giles told Buffy last month, reading that Vanity book?"

"Vahin'eith," Dawn corrected him absently, the sibilants floating from her lips making her voice almost alien for an instant, "and yeah, wasn't it something like 'the Scourge of the Old Breed will fall before the greatest of the Slayers'?"

"Uh, yeah. I meant the part after that. 'She shall be kin and savior of Men'."


"That's what I'm talking about. It's hard work, you know, being the Zeppo. Did I tell you why I do it? Cause hey, my best bud since five just happens to be a witch with enough power to turn the world into a bowl of smoking popcorn." He smiled humorlessly. "She got a vampire his soul back. Don't you think she could have given me, I don't know, some kind of protection or something?"

"You're saying you don't want to be strong?" Dawn sounded sceptical.

"Xander, my sister can be a bit... Buffy... at times... and just now she was a bit more Buffy than that, if that's even possible, which I could try to understand if I didn't want to kill her right now... but like she said, one more good fighter isn't bad to have around."

"That's where she's wrong, Dawn."


"They don't need another fighter. We have enough fighters. What they need is someone to remind them of what they're fighting for." He squinted into the night. "They want me to be normal. They want someone to do normal stuff, to help them connect and be real and think about something else. They need it, Dawn. They're like houses in an earthquake. If I don't repair them, they'll fall over." He glanced out the window, saw the moon gazing down upon the sleeping city, where some things that should sleep didn't. "That's my job."

"Hey, I'm here!" Dawn sounded indignant, then grew suddenly quiet. After a while, she answered her own statement in a much lower voice.

"But I'm not normal either... am I?"

"You're normal, Dawn," Xander reassured her. "You're part of the Summers family, though. That means they make you an honorary demon hunter just like them." He chuckled.

"That's not funny."

"I know."

They sat in silence. But, for all the worry they both felt, for their friends and for each other, it was a companionable quiet. It wasn't long before they began to approach Sunnydale once more.

"Hey, wanna stop for some twinkies? I was thinking of doing it anyway. People needing to eat, and all that."

"They can starve a bit more, Xan. Just wanted to tell you I'm sorry for tasering you... and how sorry you're gonna be if you ever do something like that to me again."

"Uh, yeah. Sorry. I won't."

"Good. Next time something like this comes up, we talk. No kidnap. Got it, mister?"

Xander grinned, amused despite himself. "I got it, Dawn."


Is that time dead? lo! with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance—
And must I lose a soul's inheritance?
--Hélas, by Oscar Wilde


The door swung open, the darkness outside silhouetting the form of Buffy. She entered, stopping short at the sight of Dawn standing in the hallway. Her eyes widened in surprise. Dawn chose that moment to kick her, none too gently, in the shin.


"Dumbass." Dawn glowered at her, with less real anger than Buffy had expected. In fact, her expectations had involved Dawn being... well, not there at all. She glanced past Dawn. Xander, Anya, Giles, Willow sat there in the dining room, not even pretending to do anything other than watching. Her gaze fell on Xander, faintly questioning. Xander shrugged. "Don't look at me. This is a Summers thing. It's all very violent."

Turning back to her sister, she drew a breath to tell Dawn that there was no way she was going to stay, that she had to prepare the line of retreat or something equally bogus. One look at the determined expression on her sister's face, however, made her swallow the words. Because she knew there would be an argument that would take hours at least, and she wasn't even sure if that would sway Dawn, in the end.

And, truth to be told, if all else failed, she did want to be with Dawn as long as possible.

"If you get killed, I'm telling."

It could have been a harsh thing to say. Dawn's smile said she knew better. Like everything and everybody at the moment, even the jokes had turned grim. She hoped it wouldn't last.

Willow was the first to speak once Buffy had entered the room. "Did you find anything out about the scythe?"

Buffy nodded happily. "It slices, dices, and makes julienne preacher."

"Caleb?" Giles sounded somewhere between worried and hopeful.

"I cut him in half."

"Allright!" Willow's smile was that of a kid let loose inside a candy store.

"He had that coming," Anya said, with bleaker, more vicious satisfaction.

"Hey, party in my eye socket and everyone's invited," Xander quipped. Then he stifled a curse. He had slipped up, dropped the mask for a moment. Quickly recovering, he threw Anya and the rest an embarrassed grin. "Sometimes I shouldn't say words..."

"I-it's okay, Xander," Willow said in her earnest way, while Anya squeezed his hand comfortingly. "You totally had a right to the whole eye for an eye thingy."

"Thanks, Will," Xander said, mask back in place. "Except the Buffster kinda sliced him, and diced him, and probably did a little dance on his head... which admittedly sounds cool when I think about it. But it does kinda put a lid on the biblical. You couldn't at least have poked him in the eye for me, Buff?"

"Sorry, Xander," Buffy said, and Xander could tell her bright smile came with an effort. That didn't matter. It was a smile. It was what he did.

Xander leaned back into the chair. As slip-ups went, that hadn't been too bad. Once again, he was the joker, their handyman. He was the way they wanted him to be.

It was, after all, necessary.


And the thing had been done, and the storm had passed. And Sunnydale was dead.

Smoke still rose from the wound in the earth, now exposed, cleansed at last. The crater stretched before him as far as the eye could see. Into its shadowed depths had vanished houses, streets, and an inordinately large amount of cemetary.

Xander felt his cheek crease in what could have been a smile. He ran the words through his mind once more. "As far as the eye could see."

How fitting.

He stood on the precipice, the others some distance behind his back, talking animatedly among themselves or just sitting by themselves, happy, adrift now, surprised that they were alive. Giles had said something about Cleveland, that there was a Hellmouth there. They would probably be heading that way soon.

Dust continued to rise from the pit. It formed curtains to the sunbeams, but some of the light surely had to reach the bottom. If any of the Turok-Han had survived, Xander hoped they would find the resulting situation... uncomfortable.

The dust spiraled skyward, a lazy circle of rock that rose and then sifted down again. Somewhere down there they had fought. They had won.

And all for such a small price, too. Just a girl who should have died hundreds of years ago. Someone who had maimed and killed and slaughtered her way across the pages of history. Someone who had had feared bunnies, loved sex, enjoyed Gin/Tonic with, of all things, a spoonful of honey.

Xander blinked slowly. The pillar of dust had widened, slowly settling at last, and some of it had gotten in his eye. He had hurt her, he knew. Had tried to do his best, but still, he had hurt her. Out of fear, of doubt. Had she known that, before the end? He hoped so.

Why did she have to save, of all people, Andrew?

It was a callous thought, but one that wouldn't go away. And he was just so tired. If spite wanted to keep him company, he wouldn't try to chase it away.

His eyes returned to the rubble. She was somewhere down there, surely. Her body had died even before being shattered, broken, buried under uncountable amounts of rock. But her soul - surely it had to be somewhere else. Somewhere better. She had been human once, and again at the end. That had to count. Both eyes, even the missing one, were itching now.

Did I love her?, Xander wondered. He stood still, as if the sheer drop before him wasn't there. A shuddering breath escaped him. Was that love, real love? Yeah, maybe. Maybe it could have been. Maybe we would have gotten that far. 'Maybe'... it's so easy to say it.

A small grey, bird rose on the thermals high above, silhouetted against the sun. As Xander watched, the world began to swim and blur, and the brightness flowed in a glittering halo, and it was beautiful.

Why am I crying?, he wondered.

After a moment, the hollow place inside him had an answer.

Because you have nothing left, Harris.

Chapter 2

Nothing could be bring me closer
Nothing could be bring me near
Where is the road I follow?
believe, leave


And once more, the night found him in on the road. Racing ahead, a lone swimmer in a sea of darkness. The headlights of his car played tricks with the surroundings, called forth capering shadows from roadside litter, only to moments later banish them again.

There were shadows behind him, as well, receding, left behind. Through the apathy and the weariness, he could feel... not really peace or satisfaction, but more like a lessening of tension. He was running away, abandoning the fight, just like Buffy had, so long ago. And by rights, this should have been anathema to one Xander Harris. Or at least, in a different time, he would have thought so.

They still needed him, Xander knew. And part of him burned with with shame, that he would place his own wishes over their needs. But that reaction was instinctual, and at best an exaggeration. Because Sunnydale was dead. There was a new order to things now, and new rules. The danger, the death and fear and pain... all that was past for the moment. There were even some of the new Slayers who were thinking of getting jobs, education, maybe even going back to a normal life completely.

All in all, for the first time in an eternity, the Scooby Gang had been given a respite, a chance to rest and to heal. Most spent time doing just that - unwinding, partying, shopping. Some of the younger Slayers had even adopted Faith's more exuberant displays at the local clubs, while in contrast Faith, of all people, seemed more relaxed, her demeanor lacking its earlier touch of mania.

Perhaps she had passed through a phase that the newer Slayers were just now entering. The way they acted was a reaction to the long-term emotional stress of battle, Xander knew, but in some of the girls it had shown extreme and sometimes unsettling responses. Their youth and the brutal nature of the past times could have been part of the reason, but somehow he didn't think that was the whole cause.

And the real cause, he feared, might well be something darker, and in time, more dangerous to them.

Hopelessness held him, however, and he had not been able to summon up a plan of action, a way of helping. How did you help people repair themselves, when you were irreparably cracked yourself? He had lived as a shadow, closed off in his own room in the swankier parts of town. He had told his friends he had gotten a job, and then wandered off, not bothering to look to see if anyone had noticed anything out of the ordinary.

It was a good opportunity for thinking, and Xander hadn't much else to do. And so he would sit in his room, curtains drawn, only to emerge in the evenings, to wander the school district, watching the world go about its business, moving without him.

Of course, it had been Dawn who finally tracked him down.


It's under, under, under my feet
The scene spread out there before me
Better I go where the land touches the sea
There is my trust in what I believe


He slammed the car door behind him, and a flock of birds took to the air at the sudden sound. The night enveloped him, the wind playing with his coat, damp and slightly chill. He had expected it to be.

Daybreak was hours away, not even a dim glow at the horizon, but that mattered very little. Silhouetted against skeletal branches overhead, the sky was aglow with moonlight and stars, and the mist smudged the illumination and gave it a dimmer, gentler cast.

It was beautiful. It was also useful. The sourceless light was everywhere, robbing the shadows of any real depth. Barring invisible creatures, he should be fairly safe from any nasties sneaking up on him. Of course, his caution was probably unnecessary. But Xander Harris had found that it was better to let some habits stay alive. If they did, chances were that you would, too.

He pocketed his keys, looking around once more, feeling the comfortingweight of a stake and the bottle of holy water as he turned. This was the worst part about being one-eyed, he thought, not for the first time. His field of view really sucked.

Oh well. He'd probably learn to compensate for it. After all, why kid himself? It wasn't as if there was any reason left for him to fight anything more threatening than a mugger anymore.

Xander raised his head too look down the road. There was a parking lot next to the small motel whose contours blended with the trees, and warm lights glimmered through the frosted windows. Beneath his soles, the gravel crunched with each step. Otherwise, it was very quiet. A night made for thinking.

He had been a Scooby since the beginning, and he liked to think he had done some good. He had kept at it through better (there had been a few of those times) and worse (there had been a lot of those). Ever since he had, purely by accident, managed to stake what had once been his best friend, he had been the one who had stuck with the fight. When not even the rest of the gang had wanted his help, he had stayed.

But he had lost too much, now. Hadn't all he had lost meant something? They had closed the Hellmouth, for good this time. Sure, there were others. And sure, he wasn't one to desert the war. But the question was, was him fighting it the smartest move? Or was it nothing more than the ego of a soldier past his prime?

Xander cast his thoughts back to the time when, years ago, his friends had first begun to shut him out. They had stopped doing that some point later, but that was immaterial. What mattered was that he wondered if they had been on to something. Xander frowned. Back then, he decided, they had been wrong - he had still been able to help. But was he now? They had Slayers now, who could casually do things a normal man could never even dream about.

And look at him now. He wasn't even that.

Annoyed at himself, Xander snorted quietly into the night. Self-pity solved nothing. It was simply a question, and one that needed answering before he decided on what to do with his life. He still had a lot of life left, after all. And look, there was music coming from the motel.

He quirked an eyebrow, curious despite himself, as the guitar chords fell silent and the applause began. Maybe there would be things to do here besides just going to bed in a rented room.


That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me down,
To leave it, believe it,
Leave it all behind


He'd been lucky. The motel was actually mislabeled as such - not only was there a diner, dimly lit as it was, but it also featured a bar and grill. Xander found his stomach growling anticipatorily as the smell of frying meat reached him through the veils of cigarette smoke.

Not only that, but there was a stage as well. One would have expected a place like this to be a bit empty at... he checked the big, tacky plastic clock over the check-in... half past one. But the numerous patrons that crowded each other gave lie to that.

They were here for the music, he realized. Walking up to the bar, he watched the player surreptitiously, and the first thought that came to him was, Not bad. Not bad at all. He studied her swell of blond hair, shining like gold threads in the strong light, and the way her trimmed nails flew over the strings. Maybe it's her looks... nah, it's not that, or not just that. It's... she really loves what she's doing.

As he sat at the bar, listening to the basic, almost virtuoso strains of music that was not quite country, he again felt the same sensation he had when, hours ago, he had been on the road; the feeling of softening, becoming lighter. The relaxation of muscles that had been tense for so long they had hardened his soul as well as his body.

Poetic, huh. Might want to look into that. I could move from woodworking to wordworking. Settle down. Write some books.

He smirked. Yeah. Hell, it probably is that easy.

The woman pulled her instrument closer to her. In her arms, in her hands, it came alive, among the mists and the light and the gloom. And Xander's fingers found the glass he had just ordered - just Coke, which had seemed to amuse the bartender - and felt ice cubes swirl as he raised it to his lips. Thinking came easier to him now. The numb repetition of his thoughts had finally settled. He had Dawn to thank for that, he knew, and it wasn't a small thing. For the first time, it came to him just how much he had come to depend on her support, her friendship. He already missed her, as he did the others. More than that, even. And that, he conceded, was probably why he had done as she asked and left.

The song ended, and was followed by vigorous applause as the crowd paid its tribute. Strangely, being surrounded by all these people felt good, relaxing. If he had imagined this situation a mere hour before before, he would have considered that many people to be noisy, irritating and vaguely threatening. But they were all part of what he and the others had tried to save for so long, and Xander took another sip, for the moment content to watch the bar; how the people around it talked and drank and smoked; how the light illuminated smoke and flowed, many-colored, through the innumerable bottles behind the counter; how bodies further out moved to the strings of the music. It was a touching piece, one he recognized from the radio somewhere; not quite the same as he had remembered it, but then he supposed all artists needed to add a piece of themselves to their work.


Shifting the dream
Nothing could bring me further from my old friend time
Shifting the dream
It's charging the scene
I know where I marked the signs

I suffer the dreams of a world gone mad
I like it like that and I know it
I know it well, ugly and sweet
That temper madness with an even extreme


Maybe he should sleep, he thought drowsily. He realized he was leaning, almost half-slumped, against the bar, the glass cold and moist against his brow. The music flowed around him, the crowd no longer dissonant, but a counterpoint, a soothing backdrop.

"'scuse me, man." The voice came from across the counter, and its rumbling bass was pitched just low enough to be impossible to ignore. "You falling asleep there, you better get yourself a room or something."

Drawing himself up, Xander blinked slowly. "...sorry. Just dreaming of Happy Hour," he said, feeling himself grin goofily. The bartender just favored him with a level look, and then moved off to pour drinks for an older couple of indeterminable gender. Maybe he should have, but for once Xander found it difficult to care. He had helped save this place, and most things around it. If some bartender didn't like him, well, that was his loss.

He was tired, that was true. His back ached, and music had given way to the indistinct babble common to bars everywhere. Catching sight of himself reflected in a mirror by the cashier stand, he blinked slowly. The man that peered back at him looked unshaven, bone-weary, and not a little drunk. In short, Xander decided, he looked like he was badly due for a coma.

Well, that decided things for him. Or would have if not, for unfathomable reasons, fate had stepped in, and made the decision its own. And as Xander rose and turned, fate did step.

Contrary to popular belief, losing depth perception is not a debilitating prospect. Neither is an impaired field of vision, though that can be a good deal more difficult to deal with. In Xander's case, it was a combination of both that made him react too late, as he suddenly found himself about to collide with a body heading in the opposite direction.

Tired as he was, Xander's reactions were the kind only rarely seen outside of war zones or fighter pilot academies. Anything less would have landed him in an early grave. Instead they now landed him back on his bar stool, which teetered precariously for a second, then folded. Flailing out with his hand, Xander fought to steady himself, succeeding only in clipping his glass and sending it to the floor.

"OhmygodI'msorry!", a female voice called as Xander went the way of his drink.

Xander sat up, feeling brief vertigo and a sensation he could not quite put his finger on. Getting to his feet with as much dignity as was left to him, he absently ran his hand through his hair. Satisfied that his eyepatch was still secured in place, he took his first good look at the woman who had bumped into him.

Oh, he thought dumbly, it's her. And indeed, it was the girl he had seen earlier, the one with the guitar and the tawny hair. This close, he could make out a few details he hadn't seen before. Like how her eyes were a light blue, and her boots long-legged and made out of leather. She wore jeans and a blouse and a slightly embarrassed expression. She looked back, her eyes lingering momentarily on his face. He was growing used to that.

"'msorry, I really am," she blurted when he didn't speak. "Uh... buy you a drink?"

"Ah, no," Xander said, willing himself to stop staring like an idiot. "I mean, you don't need to. My fault." Well well, his mental voice congratulated him, that was smooth.

She lifted one eyebrow, maneuvered herself over to the stool beside him. "I don't?" Her guitar leaned against the bar and combined with her arch expression to make her look, for the moment, incongruosly urbane. "You're refusing to let me buy you a drink?"

Tired as he was, Xander still found himself reacting with a slight grin. "Lemme check. Beautiful woman offers man drink. Man refuses out of nobility." He appeared to consider for a moment. "Nope, that's not the reality I like to call my own."

Snorting in resigned amusement, the woman favored him with a sidelong glance, which Xander found himself returning. She had to be younger than what he had first thought, he realized, there among the smoke and the people. He had thought her around twenty-five, but up close, she was definitely younger.

"Give you another glass of what you were drinking? By the way, what was it?"

"Well, just Coke really." He glanced down and his eyebrows rose. Strange. "Speaking of that..."

Stooping down, he came up with the glass in one hand, completely undamaged and at least half-full. Xander took a sip from it, and nodded appreciatively. It was still cold.

She looked strangely at his glass. "Is that yours? Didn't it just fall over?"

"Must have landed just right, or something. I think it just wanted to be with me," Xander smirked, shaking his head to show that he had no clue. "I'm Xander, by the way."

"Irene," she replied. "And it's nice to meet you."

"Likewise." Xander sipped at his drink, trying to ignore the slight headache that he felt building. "Are you from here, or passing through?"

"Little bit of both. What're you doing here?"

"Just decided on a quick stop for a few hours. I'm driving up north." He nodded in that direction for emphasis.

"Cool." The girl... Irene... turned to wave the bartender over, then looked back at him. Xander met her eyes. They were bluer than he had thought, and he noticed she had freckles. "To where?"

He considered the question, buying himself a moment more by taking a long swallow from his glass, while Irene ordered for them both. The few remnants of ice made brittle, tinkling sounds that could barely be heard over the surrounding noise. Finally, he shook his head.

"I think... I think I'll know when I'm there." He took another long pull, emptying the glass. "Maybe. Or maybe I'll just keep going."


That's what keeps me
that's what keeps me
that's what keeps me down
I say that I'm a bantam lightweight
I say that I'm a phantom airplane
that never left the ground.


"Really..." For a moment she regarded him, quietly - not staring, just a measured look that gave nothing away. It was almost as if she was trying to look through him for a deeper meaning, and Xander wondered if he was entitled to feel uncomfortable. Nah, he finally decided. She's curious, that's all. Relax those hellmouthy instincts for a moment, will you? You're just a new face in town. A scarred, one-eyed face, at that. He settled on just meeting her gaze as levelly as he could. After a moment, she lowered her eyes, blushing faintly.

"Sorry," she apologized. "Didn't mean to, you know, stare."

"No, it's okay, Irene, don't worry. The Xan-man's getting used to it."

"Xan-man?" She quirked an eyebrow at him. He only smirked in response. "I suppose," she said, "there's a story behind that name?"

"Yeah." The cold that he had almost made himself forget touched him again, like dark mud swirling up from the depths. Jesse. "Yeah, there's a story."

The conversation lapsed into silence once more. Irene did not comment on it, merely picking up the beer glasses and passing one over to him. Xander took it, sighing internally. And yet again, Depression-Boy comes to the rescue, he thought sardonically. None can withstand his awesome powers of conversational awkwardness. Xander hefted the glass, feeling its weight and its surface, cool against his hand, and said nothing.

"I'm thinking you're in need of something." Irene's voice came so suddenly that Xander found himself startled. He looked up at her, a bit bewildered, not sure of what to say as she went on. "And I'd like to know what that is."

Xander frowned at her in honest puzzlement. "Well, uh, I guess... or maybe not, I dunno." He paused. "Don't take this the wrong way, but why the interest?" A few years ago, he would have punctuated the question with an embarrassed grin and a shuffle of his feet. But those years had passed, and the question came out calmly and without hesitation.

Irene didn't reply at first. He could see her mulling over the answer in her head. Good, he found himself thinking with some surprise. She's actually giving me a real answer, not just telling me what I want to hear.


Lift my hands, my eyes are still,
I'll walk into the sea
shoot myself in a different place
and leave it

I've longed for this to take me,
I've longed for my release
I've waited for the callin'
to leave, leave.


"Because," she finally said, "you interest me." A tiny smirk tugged at her lips. "You're different from the rest here - you don't blend. By the looks of it you've had it rough... and I see in your eyes there're some stories just waiting."

Forcing a chuckle, Xander turned slightly toward the bar. "Or I'm a bum looking for a free drink."

"I know bums. You're not one."

"Did the patch give it away?" Somehow, the question came out less harsh than he had expected, as if it was just a product of idle curiosity. Cheerfully, she shook her head.

"Bums love to talk about their lives. You don't seem to do that at all."

He sighed, capitulating. Damn, but she was stubborn. "All right. What story did you want to hear?"

The sounds seemed to hush and recede, and glass clinked in the distance, and her smile was a light in the gloom.

"Tell me the tale of the Xand-man."


That's what keeps me,
that's what keeps me,
that's what keeps me down,
to leave it, believe it,
leave it all behind.
--Michael Stipe & Radiohead, "Leave"


USA, 1909 AD

"My Dear Mr. Jackson,

Word has been brought to me of the terrible events of the Fourth. To my shame I have found little opportunity to speak to You until now, yet I would be neglectful not to offer my condoleances when I can, particularly to one I consider a good friend. I cannot fully imagine Your loss, having known Your wife for so brief a period of time. Two weeks have passed since the tragedy, and yet its impact has not lessened. It is deeply saddening that death would come to so young a woman, and that the love shared between the two of You has been marred thus by grief and sorrow.

My memories of her were of a delicate woman, as sweet of disposition as she was beautiful, who took great delight in the life. That she should pass away is a cause for great regret, and I know it must surely be difficult to reconcile these events with the existence of a loving God. A loss such as Yours is never easy to bear, but we must recognize the purpose behind it. Though the Lord sometimes moves in mysterious ways, it is my sincere belief that He has taken Your Martha to His side in Heaven.

We last spoke, as I recall, during the theatrical production of Shakespeare's Hamlet; surely the last event that both of our families attended. It was a grand event, scarcely rivaled by the finest operas in the state, and I shall never forget what a striking couple You both made. I vividly recall her joy upon hearing the Grave Diggers' witticisms, and my Edna Mae's comment on how splendid she looked. My hope is that You, in these times that have befallen you, look back upon the brighter times that You both shared. For as certain I am that You were happy with her, I know that she lived happily in her union with You.

It is my sincere hope that Your works for the good of this Town continue, and that the cruel fate does not deter Your course. My current tenure is nearing its end, and I should be obliged if You were to consider continuing Your election campaign as new Mayor of Sunnydale, a position that would surely do Your remaining family proud. Should You wish to do so, I stand ever at Your command.

Your friend,
Mayor Richard Wilkins
1909, Sunnydale, California"

Putting down his pen, Mayor Wilkins sighed internally. Writing letters of this sort was just downright depressing. Especially when you had to write so many. But there was just no way around it. Expectations, and all that.

Besides, he thought with a small chuckle, it was the decent thing to do. He had been at this job long enough to know there was no easy way getting around paperwork, and sometimes he found himself idly wondering if it was worth it all. Yes, becoming a true demon was an accomplishment of some note, and yes, it certainly did help things that he had done away with that pesky matter of having to grow older. But when you got right down to it, having to deal with all sorts of trivial, petty matters that a mayor was supposed to take care of really weren't his preferred way of spending existence. Mayor Wilkins leaned back into his chair until it creaked satisfyingly. Hopefully, he would learn to get used to it. He should have settled quite nicely into his new position in, oh, a few decades at the very most. Sometimes, being an immortal could be pretty useful.

A knock at the door dispersed those thoughts, and caused the Mayor to sit up straighter. "Come in."

The man who entered the room was of average height. He wore the slight, well-trimmed beard and nervous expression of an underling with healthy fear for his life. He took a moment to compose himself as he reached the great desk, then spoke.

"Sir, there's been a," and he hesitated anew, searching for a suitable word. "Complication," he finished.

"Matthew, Matthew," the Mayor chided, "you should know by know that there are always complications to any job. That's why the job includes handling them, to make eggs out of omelets, if you will."

Matthew nodded nervously. He fixed his gaze upon an ornate letter-opener that lay upon the desk, just where the sunlight streamed in from the window. "Yes Sir," he said, "but begging your pardon, there is someone here to see you, Sir."

"Oh?" Raising his eyebrows, the Mayor waited expectantly. "It's a woman, Sir, and her choice of clothing is... unusual."

"Well," said the Mayor, "is she scheduled for an appointment? There's a procedure for this sort of thing, you know."

"Uh, yes Sir, and she wasn't, or her companion either."

"Well, Matthew, if they didn't have an appointment, she's just going to have to wait in line. Everything has to be properly done." Mayor Wilkin's expression was genial, his smile just one touch too wide. "That's why the rules are there in the first place, you know."

Matthew swallowed, shifting his weight from one foot to another. "Yes Sir, but when I first saw them they were already waiting for you." He turned slightly to the door. "In the foyer, Sir."

That fact put a new face on things. One did not just casually walk into City Hall that way, a fact both men were keenly aware of. Unobtrusive though security might be, it was rigorous, all the more so by virtue of the many enemies Wilkins had accquired, supernatural or mundane.

The smile sliding from his face, Mayor Wilkins shook his head peevishly. "Now this is just the kind of trouble you get when you work with shifty elements. Vampires, now, at least they show a little respect for private property." Wilkins rose from his chair, and said, "I suppose there's no harm done in talking, is there? Send them in, Matthew."

"Yes, Sir."

"Oh, and Matthew?" Wilkins called in a gentle voice.


"That's a new tie you're wearing, isn't it?"

"Ah, that's right, Sir."

"See, I thought so! It really looks dashing, you know. You should wear it more often." The Mayor smiled his sunny smile again. "Now, off you go."

He watched Matthew turn and exit, noting with approval the undisguised relief that flickered across his adjutant's face. It was good to work with people that held a little respect for you; it kept them productive and free of all sorts of unhealthy fancies. He still couldn't understand why they all got so worked up by a few friendly tips, but then again, man was a strange breed. Prone to mischief, too. He'd have to cull it properly, first thing after the Ascension, but that should pose no problem. After all, he should probably have changed his definition of the word "food" around then.

The Ascension. Mayor Wilkins frowned. Patience was a virtue, and Rome wasn't built in a day, as his dear wife used to say. It would take long, hard work to prepare himself properly, and he had made allowances for opposition from any direction he could conceive. In fact, he had done it so well that it sometimes threatened to grow boring.

Then he heard the click of the door opening, and as he saw the woman traverse the doorway, the fabric of her dark cloak rustling, such thoughts left him. In some way he could not put a name to, the visitor meant something – an influence upon his plans, for good or ill. It was evident in the way she held herself, in the very air around her.

The Mayor flattered himself a good judge of people, and he instantly noted the confidence in her stride, unusual in such a short woman. With the hood down, her face was clearly visible, a round face with delicate features that, at the moment, gave nothing away. A black ribbon kept her hair away from her face. Her eyes were darker still, and they met his without hesitation.

"Good day. You must be Mayor Richard Wilkins."

"That's right," the Mayor agreed. "Now, how can I help you? Oh, and please, have a seat."

She crossed over to stand by the chair, but did not sit, and her stare did not waver.

"You may call me Blight." She motioned out the open doorway. "My associate is Mister Thorn." The words were almost whispered. "We come at the behest of our master, who wishes to discuss certain... potentially conflicting areas of interest between our two organizations. It is felt that such conflicts should be resolved at as early a time as possible, for mutual benefit."

"Well, I surely appreciate you coming to me with it before it goes that far," Mr Wilkins, his smile quickly turning into a frown. "Shouldn't your, uh, partner be here? Boy, I certainly hope Matthew invited him, too, or he'd be pretty darned disappointed. I know I would be."

"Mister Thorn is not socially inclined. His talents lie elsewhere."

"He's a man who knows his trade. I respect that." The Mayor nodded understandingly. Seating himself in his chair, he leaned back, and spread his hands. "Well. I'm all ears, young lady."

"My master's suggestions are as follows." The woman's demeanor remained eerily composed, with no sign of irritation at his mode of adress. "Firstly, the creation of a means of communication between our organizations. Secondly, that the dimensional fissure," and the Mayor's eyebrows rose perceptibly as the woman's calm voice went on, "popularly referred to as the 'Mouth of Hell' remain uncontained and untapped of the majority of its power. Thirdly, a state of noninterference between our organization and yours. This would limit our presence in this place to a bare minimum. It would also mean the near-complete absence of any operations initiated within the area."

The Mayor digested this for a moment.

"Well!" he said suddenly. "That's quite a laundry list you've got there, young lady. And I can tell someone has been attentive enough." He chuckled. "On the one hand, I can't say that I'm not intigued, and I'm never one to look a gift horse in the mouth." Another chuckle. "Tell you the truth, I prefer not to look animals in the mouth. Matter of fact, some of the little rascals are really unsanitary. But, on the other hand, I think I need to know a little something about your own organization before I can make up my mind. I'd really prefer talking about this with your leader, whoever he is."

"Our master values privacy."

"Well, I'm sure you understand that I can't just go into partnership with someone who won't even show himself. That's just not how we do things in Sunnydale." The Mayor shook his head as if in regret. "If I did, there'd be no end to the trouble we'd be getting into. No, Ms Blight, I'm just gonna have to decline your offer." Mayor Wilkins paused. "Aw, shucks, where are my manners?" He held out a plate laden with pastries. "Can I offer you a cookie?"

"My master," Blight stated, ignoring the interjection, "foresaw your response. I am instructed to respond with a strong recommendation that the offer be accepted as it is. To refuse the offer will incur our enmity, and swift action."

"Now, threats just aren't very polite, young lady. Is this what the new century is coming to? I swear, children nowadays...-"

The Mayor paused in his little speech, and blinked. The room seemed suddenly colder to him, and the eyes of the woman before him seemed darker, too; the absolute, formless black of a starless night. She rose soundlessly before him, and the motion appeared somehow unnatural, as if it had not been born in muscle and sinew. Her voice was still low. But now, it contained something within that had not been present before – a cold, keen thing, precise and passionless and lethal.

"My master does not entreat you. Nor does your prescence present any particular obstacle to our plans. It was felt that the expected longivity of the organization you represent would do away with the need for future renegotiations." There was a distant rumble in the air, as if from thunder. "And so, the offer remains. All that needs to be considered is whether to be of use to us, a position that will offer opportunities of its own in the future." Her expression shifted for the first time, as the thinnest of smiles touched her lips. "The alternative is the complete abscence of a future, as well as the utter eradication of this town. "It is my hope that I have clarified matters to your satisfaction, Mr. Mayor."

No stranger to the supernatural, Mayor Wilkins knew he was no pushover when it came to contests of the magical kind. On the other hand, he mused, the young lady seemed to know a lot about his doings. That could just be enough to make him vulnerable, and the power she seemed to exude didn't follow any pattern that he was aware of – if she was as human as she looked, that is. On the other hand, the question of public perception remained. The Mayor knew that, especially with some of his partners, apperance was paramount, and appearing weak would simply not do. But there were ways around that.

And so, he made his decision.

"Well, now, that puts a different spin on things." He chuckled. "You're quite the spitfire, aren't you? I've got to tell you, I hope one day my Edna Mae and I will raise a child as strong and confident as you." He paused. The power he had felt in the air, whatever it was, seemed to have dispersed, and Blight was listening as impassively as before. Bluntness, he decided, it was time for bluntness. "I'll agree to your proposal. There's something I would like in return, however, as a sign of good faith."


"I was wondering if you could do a little something for me. See, I'm having this problem with a vampire up north. Been making an awful ruckus, that one. Doesn't respond well to authority."

Blight nodded, her face shadowed. "You wish the vampire slain."

"I want you to do a heck more than that if you can, but I'll settle for 'slain'," said the Mayor with an impish grin. "An achiever like yourself shouldn't have much trouble with a vampire, don't you think?"

"The creature leads many more." She slowly nodded. "But that is of no concern. Your proposal is acceptable."

"Great!" The Mayor beamed at her happily. "Gosh, I just love it when things run smoothly. Don't you?" Blight did not respond. "Hey, come on, cheer up! This will lead to a world of good, young lady, you can bet your boots on that."

Blight said, "I have delivered my message, and will now depart. Do you require anything else of me?"

"No, no, please do," said the Mayor, settling back into his chair. "I'm sure you have lots of places to be. You young people always do."


The word seemed to hang in the air as Blight drifted out the door, closing it gently behind her. Somehow, it was as if the room grew brighter as she did so, the shadows almost seeming to depart with her. Behind his desk, the Mayor remained seated, considering what had happened, what he had been told.

Interesting, he decided at last. Very interesting.


Blight strode through the corridor, Thorn at her side. His hood was still raised, his bulk appearing all the vaster beside her small form. Guards were watching them warily, many more in evidence now than earlier, but that was to be expected, and the two ignored them as unimportant. There had been some potential for complication earlier on, for Thorn had been restless, but he in the end deferred to her whispered suggestion. It was, after all, she who carried this assignment, no matter how much it might rankle him. The killing would wait.

"He agreed, then."

"As the master foresaw. There was little choice."

"Might have refused." Thorn's voice was the growl of a glacier cracking, a forest fire, the sound of boundless destruction kept barely at bay.

"Not this one. The man has both caution and brilliance, and is not fool enough to ignore a possible threat he cannot quantify." Now devoid of diplomacy, Blight's tone retained its earlier composure. "The master sensed this would come to pass. My visions were in agreement. You would do well to trust them."

"Future is a maelstrom." Beneath the hood, Thorn's eyes appeared to glow a dull red. "Rapids and gusting swirls. There is no fixed destiny, no certain end."

"Believe what you wish." Bane managed to convey the impression of a shrug without moving. "Your arrogance may serve to comfort you in the days ahead."

They fell silent once more, and passed the entrance unchallenged. Out on the street, the afternoon had begun to give way to evening. There were a few people about, and, though a man and a woman in archaic-seeming cloaks and hoods might be expected to draw stares, they did not. In fact, the pair passed through the commuters as if they were not even there.

Thorn turned slightly. "One follows," he snarled.

"The man is bold enough to risk sending a spy. No less could be expected of that one."

"None must follow our steps."

Blight walked on, considering, then finally bowed her head.

"You are correct."

"Mine." And Blight's voice was thicker now, a hungry thing, the rage within him burning hotter still. Blight nodded anew. She did not need to look back in order to see the pursuer, nor to sense his caution and proud faith in his ability to remain unspotted. Even though their orders had been to pursue the matter in a diplomatic manner, diplomacy was superseded by the need for secrecy. Also, the Mayor surely had to know that his actions invited far worse than merely the loss of a spy.

Thorn's eyes kindled beneath the hood. He had already sensed the direction her thoughts had taken her, and knew her decision.

"He is yours to slay then, Lord Thorn. Go now, but quickly. We can not stay forever."

The two separated, their cloaks stirring like pools of shadow drinking the light. One slipped into an alleyway, the other wandering on along the emptying street. The sun had waned beneath the horizon, and the gas lamps were coming to flickering life.

Blight walked on, and in houses nearby, sleeping children whimpered and turned in their beds, their dreams touched by a darkness without stars.