The Road To Hell 2

The Road Back

Author: MPrattky <Xxmagex[at]>

Disclaimer: The Angel/Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Sandollar, Kuzui, WB and UPN; no copyright infringement is intended, and not one red cent is being earned from this story.

Rating: R

Warnings: Some violence and language are present, as well as mention of the events of September 11. Plus there are spoilers present for seasons 1_7 of BtVS and 1_4 of Angel.

Main characters: Ensemble

Setting: Takes place initially during season 4 of BtVS/ season 1 of Angel, in an alternate universe established in the story "The Road To Hell", and progresses from there

Pairings: We'll see. Have a preference? Let me know. Classification: Angel_Buffy Crossover, Action_Adventure, Angst, Alternate Universe

Author's Thanks: First Off I want to thank Starway man for letting me take up the story started in the Road to Hell. I really appreciate it. I am also thankful for his acting as my betareader for this series. In fact with all the input he has made to the story, he has been more of a co-author than a betareader.

Thank you very much for all the help.

Author's Comments: Feel free to leave feedback if you want. In fact I encourage it. Let me know what you think. Got a plot bunny you want to suggest, drop me a line. I have a broad outline of how the story will proceed, but I welcome any ideas for along the way.

Also be forewarned, this fic will deal with events from the real world. Also from time to time, characters in this fic will say things off color, mean spirited and non PC. Just letting you know all ahead of time.

Author's Notes: This fanfic is a sequel and continuation of the story "The Road to Hell", by Starway Man. You can find it archived at either the XanderZone website or The Darkness Within fanfiction site I strongly suggest, for the most enjoyable experience of reading this fic, that you go read that excellent story before reading this one. Don't worry, I won't start without you. Promise. I'll wait right here.

You're still around? Well, for those of you who want to go ahead and plunge straight in, here's a short summary of the prequel.

At the end of Season 7, the First Evil is defeated by the Scoobies. But at the last moment before its destruction, it sends out a psychic message through the space_time continuum, calling for the deaths of the two people it blames for its defeat _ Willow Rosenberg and Xander Harris.

The message careens throughout human history, not being realized for what it is until May 1998, when it is received by Drusilla _ at the moment Buffy and Angelus are starting their final showdown with Acathla. Drusilla then attacks her sire, and renders him unconscious. Spike just shrugs, grabs Dru and they leave Sunnydale. Buffy eventually secures Angelus after dusting his minions, until the soul_ restoration spell is complete.

It almost immediately comes out that Xander lied to Buffy, about the message Willow sent him to deliver. Cordelia breaks up with Xander at once, while Buffy and Willow get absolutely pissed with him; and nothing he says can make up for it.

The next night outside the Bronze, Xander is attacked by a vampire. Buffy stakes that vamp, absently checks to make sure that Xander is alive and then leaves. Cordelia and Willow quickly follow her.

Unfortunately, Buffy didn't also check to see if there were any other vampires in the area. The bloodsucker that she missed comes out and attacks Xander, tearing a good chunk out of his neck and shoulders. Right before he passes out though, Xander sees Angel stake that undead creature.

He comes to in Angel's mansion, and learns that the ensouled vamp has attended to his wounds. They talk; and Xander comes to the conclusion that Buffy and the others left him there to die, although Angel isn't so sure about that and tries to convince him otherwise.

In the morning, after some soul_searching the young man leaves Sunnydale to spend the summer with his Uncle Rory, saying goodbye only to Giles. Willow, concerned that she hasn't been able to get in touch with Xander, asks the G_man if he has seen her oldest friend. Giles mentions in passing that he saw him briefly, before he left town. Willow, along with Buffy and Cordelia, are a little distraught over the surprise.

A still_bitter Xander returns after the summer, having refused to communicate with any of the Scoobies in the meantime, and promptly quits being a Slayerette. His stated reason is that he doesn't feel the need to risk his life for Buffy's anymore.

This confuses Giles, who calls the Scoobies together to try and figure out what could have caused Xander to commit such an act. Upon learning what happened that night near the Bronze, the Watcher angrily requests that the girls to clear things up with the former Scooby.

The ensuing conversation does not go well, to put it mildly. Disliking both their attitudes and them forcing their company onto him Xander makes perfectly clear his feelings, or near_hatred, for the Slayer and the Slayerettes. He tells the three women in no uncertain terms that he wants nothing more to do with them, and for the trio to stay the hell away with him.

By November 1998 Xander is living his own life, despite the pleas from Giles and Oz to rejoin the Scoobies. After Faith arrived, she was persuaded to try to talk Xander into start helping out with the Slayage again. The brunette was unsuccessful, but she and Xander started 'dating' (and it is not hard to imagine what THAT really means, with Faith)

The Scooby women did not take this news well, as they realized just how alienated from them Xander has truly become. And at this point, both Spike and Drusilla show up back in town.

Drusilla now has a new purpose in un_life. She's taken the First's desires to heart, and she is back in Sunnydale to pre_emptively strike against Willow Rosenberg and Xander Harris. Spike, not realizing the true goal of his sire to help the First destroy the world, aids her by kidnaping the duo.

Drusilla hypnotizes Willow and has her open a portal to the hell dimension where demons are still using human slave labor, as seen in the BtVS season 3 episode "Anne". Spike then throws the unconscious Xander through the portal, and starts to advance on the hypnotized Willow to kill her.

At that moment, the Powers That Be intervene. They send the demon Skip to prevent the world from being destroyed, a few years down the line. The mercenary slams Spike and Dru out of the way, wakes up Willow from her trance and then disappears.

The redhead, realizing what she did under Drusilla's control, goes all Dark Willow on the two vampires, swearing revenge on them. Somewhat injured Spike manages to hit her with a rock, before he and Drusilla flee the old factory. Willow then passes out, almost as soon as the two vamps get away.

While Willow is unconscious _ in Los Angeles, a group of humans manage to escape from the hell dimension, where they were being held as slaves. They're led by a former soldier, who kills the head demon called "Ken" on the way out. The 22yearold guy, who has forgotten he used to be Xander Harris before he endured four and a half years in a dimension where time moves much quicker, leads the slaves out into the city, where they scatter to the four winds.

A half_hour later back in Sunnydale, Willow is found by the Scoobies. When she is revived, she immediately does a spell to try and bring Xander back from the dimension he was sent to. She tries it a total of four times.

It fails, all four times. Willow doesn't realize that this is because Xander is no longer in the demon dimension, but instead in the City of Angels. She mistakenly comes to the conclusion that Xander is dead, and there is nothing to bring back from the hell dimension.

This devastates the Scoobies; particularly Faith, in light of her romantic relationship with the guy.

But Xander is technically alive, and wandering throughout Los Angeles. The thing is that in order to survive in the hell dimension, he had to adapt mentally. The soldier persona from the Halloween possession eventually took complete control; and believing he is someone who does not actually exist, Xander tries to report back to duty at the nearest U.S. army base.

They send him packing, since the information he provided as to his ID matched a PFC who had been killed in South Vietnam back in the 1970s. Thus Xander wanders through Los Angeles, eventually setting up camp in the basement of a building that in about a year's time would be the site of the office for Angel Investigations.

During the February of 1999, the Powers That Be intervene again. This time, they send the half_Brachen demon called Doyle to find Xander. In essence they send a vision for Doyle to tell Xander to go to Sunnydale and help out, when the Sisterhood of Jhe tries to open the Hellmouth.

The meeting barely accomplishes its purpose, as the demonhating ex slave almost kills the messenger. But Xander goes home, and effectively deals with the zombies who were trying to blow up the high school the next night.

The amnesiac is then about to leave Sunnydale, when he catches a glimpse of Buffy and Faith. With his pre_hell dimension memories completely repressed, Xander doesn't recognize them. However, seeing them intrigues him enough that he doesn't leave town, and he starts following the Chosen Two at nights.

This pays off, when Xander is able to prevent Faith from killing the Deputy Mayor Alan Finch in an alleyway two weeks later. This is done, with neither Faith nor Buffy able to identify who accomplished said act.

Finch later cuts a deal in the library that he will tell the Scoobies all he knows about the Mayor's plans, in exchange for cash and protection. Unfortunately for him, the vampire Mr. Trick finds out, interrogates and then kills the guy.

The next day, Xander finds Finch's body and decides he needs to tell the Slayers about it. He proceeds to the library, where the appearance of a man whom they all thought long dead throws the Scoobies into chaos.

It is quickly determined that the Soldier Guy in Xander's body has no prior memories at all of the Scoobies. Thus Willow performs a memory retrieval spell on Xander. However, she badly miscalculates by not taking into account that he had spent over four years in that hell dimension. Xander winds up with the memories of both the original history, through to the big finale in 2003 _ and the history he had experienced that had been changed, thanks to the machinations of the First Evil and Drusilla.

This naturally causes Xander great distress. Which is made worse by the close proximity of those friends of his, of which he has horribly conflicting memories. This results in incredible headaches, that almost render Xander insane. Only Wesley is able to be near the guy, since he has only limited, non_conflicting memories of the British man.

They talk, and Xander explains the situation. Wesley later explains it in turn to the gang, and suggests that Xander be sent to England for 'further study'. This suggestion is not well received by the Scoobies, especially Faith. Angel also learns of Xander's situation, and being one of the few who won't give the man an aneurysm, starts to aid him however he can.

Xander starts taking action against those who would endanger the world between 1999 and 2003. He is unable to prevent the Mayor from carrying out his plans, as Wilkins is already invulnerable by this time. However Maggie Walsh, Warren Mears and Ben the medical intern all get killed by Xander, preventing the existence of the Initiative and Adam, the killing of Tara and the appearance of Glory.

Xander avoids the Scoobies this whole time, mostly due the fact that their presence still gives him incredible headaches. Only Angel aided, or even knew of, Xander's strikes against the future Big Bads. Xander later figures he can do nothing about the First Evil right then. So he leaves a time_delayed letter to Giles, detailing the various events as he remembers them.

Graduation day arrives, and the Mayor tries to ascend. The plan to fight him proceeds as per the original history, but at the last moment Buffy is distracted by a vampire; Faith is there, fighting for the good guys. At that moment Xander jumps in, and provokes the Mayor/giant snake into chasing him into the school building.

At this point Angel yells at Giles to blow the school, who quickly does so. The Scoobies are devastated, as they had seen Xander go into the ruins right before the place blew up. Faith is now dead; killed during the fight, but taking out Mr. Trick before she died. Thus they all believe that Xander is dead, too.

A short while later Angel leaves Buffy, just as in the original history; and then Sunnydale. However, in a change from that reality, he now has a traveling companion. Xander. The guy had faked his death, as he no longer wanted to risk being snatched by a Watcher retrieval team, to be taken back to England to be 'studied'. The two of them start heading south towards Los Angeles. Once there, Xander plans on setting up a new identity and traveling north to San Francisco, and then perhaps onto Canada.

Angel and Xander, quoting from the movie "Casablanca", head off towards their new destinies. And this is where "The Road Back" begins...

Buffy : Sarah Michelle Gellar;
Willow : Alyson Hannigan;
Xander : Nicholas Brendon;
Angel : David Boreanaz;
Cordelia Chase : Charisma Carpenter;
Wesley- Alexis Denisof
Esther Marcum : Anna Deavere Smith;
Joshua Cleburne : Tom Sizemore
Irving Hollins : Haley Joel Osmont;

Latest addition

The Road Back
Season Two

Part Eleven

Outside the Caritas Karaoke bar, Los Angeles, California. Late August, 2000

"Wes, just what exactly is this place outside the box that you're taking us to? 'Cause I'm getting a little wigged out here, with you doing the big dark secret thing. That's Angel's gig!" Cordelia waved her hand at the ensouled vampire, who was walking alongside her and Wesley.

The former Watcher chuckled. "Ah, well. You'll see - but I rather imagine you'll like it, Cordelia. I've been here a couple of times in meets with various informants, and given what I've heard of your sophomore year talent show...every time I've said to myself, that one day I just had to bring you along."

"Forget that," Angel said at once. Unlike Wes, he'd *been* there - and would prefer to take a bath in holy water, rather than hear Cordy sing again. "What I want to know is if your snitch is actually going to be here."

Wes placated Angel, "Yes, yes, he said he would be here. Merl's a parasite demon, and the money's made him most reliable thus far."

"Well, I sure hope so. Because I want to know exactly what's going on with this Prio Motu demon Cordy had a vision about..." The three of them then reached the bottom of the stairs.

Wes opened the door for his two companions. "Welcome to Caritas."

The two of them looked in. Cordelia then smiled and clapped her hands like a schoolgirl, "Cool, a Karaoke bar!"


Inside the bar. Ten minutes later

The entire staff of Angel Investigations was seated around the table near the stage. The waitress, a green-skinned demon had taken their orders and then hurried off. As the three of them chatted, the lounge demon/owner of Caritas approached.

"Wes, you British studmuffin! Great to see you again. However, just so you know, after what happened last time - I'm not letting you sing opera again," the anagogic demon said with a wink.

Wesley looked around at his friends in embarrassment. "Come now, it-it wasn't that bad..."

Lorne shook his head. "Oh, no, you're a decent singer. More so than many of the musical wannabes that fill my bar! It's just that some of the clientele...just don't like opera. They leave, fewer drinks are ordered and the tips go down. And I'm a businessman, after all..."

The Host then looked at Wesley's companions at the table. "All right, so who are these two new delightful customers?"

Wes pointed at his boss. "First off, let me introduce Angel. He's the head of Angel Investigations, and he needs some information."

Lorne sent him a huge smile. "Well! Hey there, Angel-cakes, welcome to Caritas! Okay, information we got. 'Course, you know what you have to do."

The former Angelus looked puzzled. "This is your snitch?" he asked Wesley.

The British man shook his head, with a big grin on his face. "No, no, Lorne is not who we came to meet..." Wesley looked around. "Merl doesn't appear to have gotten here yet, I knew we shouldn't have come so early despite your insistence! Well, in the meantime, I suppose Lorne can always read your destiny-"

"Read my destiny?"

"Oh yeah, Tall Dark and Gelled Hair. You dish, then I tell you what you need to know. A certain place you need to be? A certain honey you need to see? I give you the name or address. And everyone has fun, when I do it."

Angel self-consciously rubbed his hair. It had been quite a while, since anyone apart from Cordelia had commented about his 'do. As a matter of fact, not since Sunnydale and his time with Xander Harris had his hair been the subject of jokes like that. "Okay, Lorne. What do I do?"

"Basically, sweetikins, just get up on that stage and sing a tune," Lorne pointed towards the spotlight, where a demon that resembled Angel's acquaintance Tom Cribb was about to start singing 'I'm So Excited' by The Pointer Sisters.

"What!?!" Angel exclaimed in surprise.

Wesley laughed. "Angel, it *is* a Karaoke bar. And Lorne's psychic. He's connected to the mystic realms, as it were. When you sing, you bare your soul. He sees into it."

"I don't sing," Angel declared resolutely, folding his arms.

The vampire Champion who was anticipating becoming human one day was adamant on that point for the next five minutes, as both Wesley and Lorne tried hard to convince him to grace them with a musical number. Cordy joined in every once in a while laughingly, goading Angel a lot; but she never succeeded in making him budge either.

Finally, Lorne just sighed in exasperation. "I tell you, Wes honey, it's been about a month since I've had someone this ornery about singing for me! And I swear, if that Alexander Hall fella hadn't had a bunch of his friends trying to force him to get up on stage, I don't think he ever would have-"

Angel's eyes narrowed at once, as he heard the name 'Alexander Hall'. He knew that was the alias Xander had decided to use, when he had left the City of Angels; and he hadn't heard anything from the former Scooby, since Gunn had returned from Georgia. So if it was Xander, he had recently been in Los Angeles - and hadn't contacted him?

Cordelia perked up at the mention of the name too. "Hey Angel, I remember him! Isn't that the guy that you were waiting for an email from, for like ages? Is he a singer or something? He could be right here in...hey!" Cordy shouted in indignant surprise, as Angel stood up suddenly and led Lorne to out of earshot of her and Wes.

Once he was sure they were out of listening range of the humans, the Irish-born vamp turned to his companion. "Alexander Hall. Tall guy, about 6 feet or so with black hair, early twenties with a big vampire bite scar on his neck?"

Lorne nodded. "That's him all right, bucko. His friends had to almost put a gun to his head to make him sing. And believe you me, from the reading I did...I really wish he'd said no!" Lorne absent-mindedly rubbed his temple, as the headache from that experience had stayed with him for a couple of days afterwards.

Angel looked at Lorne. "I need to know about his reading. Everything you told him."

Lorne frowned at the ensouled vampire. "No can do, honeybunch. I have my business ethics; I don't give up the details of a reading to anyone, except the person read. How'd *you* like it if I blabbed your destiny to every Tom, Dick and Demon? Or worse for you, every Wolfram & Hart?"

Angel leaned in towards Lorne, ready to vamp out. "Look, this is *very* important. I know the guy, he's an old...friend. Alexander Hall may need my help. So I need to know what you told him to do, so I can find him and give it to the guy if need be!"

Angel had hesitated a second, before calling Xander a friend. He knew that at one point in his life Xander had well and truly despised his vampiric self; but Angel felt that during the time after Xander had returned from that hell dimension, they had put the past behind them and become friends.

Lorne just stared back and said, "Hmmm, let me think. Oh,! Because only way I tell someone else the details of a reading, is if the person read personally gives me the big thumbs-up. No exceptions!"

"Alexander Hall would say it's all right. Believe me on that."

Lorne shook his head. "No dice, big boy. Only if I hear his lips say it with my own two ears do I spill. Otherwise, the tablecloth remains spotless."

Angel went into game face out of exasperation and lunged for the Host, but was blasted back by an explosion of blue light. The vampire was flabbergasted, < What the fu- >

"Sanctuary spell that's cast on the place first thing every month, sweetie. No demon violence is possible in here." Lorne then smiled intensely, "Oh yeah, I think you get my drift now, Mr. Hunka-Hunka Burning Love. So - how about a performance, huh? I want to help all my clients, but I can't read you unless you sing!"

Angel ignored that and took him back to Wes and Cordy, for them to try to convince the Host to talk. Wesley pointed to the new occupant of the table, "Angel, this is Merl-"

The snitch was instantly uncomfortable. "Keep the bloodsucker away from me, Pryce. I know his rep, okay? He eats his own kind. Beating on demons wherever he finds 'em-"

Lorne ignored that. "Well, hello! And by the way, I didn't get the name of your lovely companion sitting here before. So who's the hot-a-rama sitting at Table 8?"

Cordy grinned, "I'm Cordelia Chase, Mr. Green Mojo Guy..." Then she, Wes and Merl were distracted by the hooting and catcalls, when the demon known as Mordar the Bentback got up on stage to sing.

But Angel wasn't, and he watched as Lorne backed off with his face becoming expressionless, unable to help himself. The vamp instantly led the Host away for a private conversation, ignoring his two human friends; who looked around and were startled to see their boss and the lounge demon both gone.

When Angel got Lorne off to the side, he asked the question that had suddenly become paramount in his mind. "What was that all about? What do you know about Cordy?"

Lorne hedged a bit, "Look, Angel-cakes-"

"Talk!" A pause. "Please..."

The Host sighed, his instincts telling him the guy could be trusted. "Fine. Thing is, I did a reading of your buddy Alexander Hall - and by the way, I really kinda doubt that's his real name - back in July. And sorry, but I saw the gravestone with her name on it, already."

Angel almost freaked out at hearing that, as he was now *very* protective of his secretary/seer. "How does it happen? When? Where?"

The Host shrugged, "I don't know. Honestly, I truly don't. I got the feeling it's not immediate, maybe a few years down the road, although mind you that's just a feeling. But you want to save her? Sing for me. It's the only way I can help."

"There are three things I don't do: tan, date - and sing in public!"

Lorne shrugged again. "Lotta pride you got there, pilgrim. Isn't that the thing that comes before a fall, though?"

Desperate, the Champion decided to go with a line from 'Mandy' by Barry Manilow; "Oh, Mandy. Well you came and you gave without taking, but I sent you away, oh Mandy. Well, you kissed me and stopped me from shaking-"

"That's enough," Lorne interrupted, writing an address. "Go here, Mr. Broody Dark Avenger. Tell the Transuding Furies I sent you, and that'll get you in through the door. The rest is up to you."

The vamp stared at him, and then started to depart. Wesley saw him and called out, "Angel! Where are you going? Merl's ready to tell us about the Prio-"

But ignoring him completely, Angel nearly ran out of the club in his haste to get to his destination.


The penthouse suite of the Transuding Furies, Los Angeles, California. Half an hour later

Angel knocked on the door, after breaking every conceivable traffic law in the country in his rush to get here. The door then somehow opened by itself; and testing the doorway, Angel found no invitation barrier was present. He went in and met the sisters, "Ah, hi. I'm Angel-"

"Mmmmmm, Angel," the Furies chorused.

The guy would have blushed, if he'd been human. "Lorne sent me here, but I guess you already knew that, right? Okay, I, uh, I'm trying to save a friend of mine-"

The Furies said in turn, "We already know why you are here, and what you want."

"We have the knowledge you seek, and more."

"But there is a price to be paid for it."

Angel was confused, "Price?"

"Mmmmmm, Angel," the sisters said in unison.

The vamp quickly got the idea. "Ah, ladies, not that I'm not flattered, but see - I don't think I'm the kind of guy you'd be interested in, 'cause a moment of perfect happiness-"

The sisters simply stared at him, and the Champion suddenly got a feeling of dread running down his spine. He realized then, that these girls weren't exactly human. The trio just said in turn, "We know all about your curse, and will do nothing to break it."

"But debts incurred must be paid."

"That is part of why we are permitted only to share our favors with the Champions for the Powers, such as yourself and Alexander."

Now the vamp was somewhat confused. "Who are you-" Then he got an epiphany, "Xander?!"

The Furies purred, "Mmmmm, Alexander."

Angel looked ill at the implications as the first Fury said, "You and Alexander Harris are brothers in spirit, if not blood. The messenger called Doyle served you both, as will one of his successors. Now, do you agree to our terms?"

The vamp started to try to haggle, but quickly got the feeling that there was no other choice when they simply shook their heads every time he opened his mouth. So Angel eventually nodded, "Fine."

The second Fury went to a desk and got out a letter, marked 'Angel' and gave it to him. The ensouled vampire tore open the envelope and started to read...

Dear Angel,

Hey there Deadboy, how've you been doing? Okay, I hope...

First of all, I'm fine, don't worry. I probably got you pretty concerned for a while there being all incommunicado, but as you've no doubt guessed long before now - our little plan of me hiding in Canada till 2003 was a bust, even before I thought of it.

Because apparently, there were a lot of people who knew Xander Harris was still alive, and I got captured by one of said groups back in 1999. Still, I got lucky; they acted relatively decent towards me. And funny thing; somehow, I'm still not sure exactly how it happened, they eventually convinced me to join up with them of my own free will.

I know, I know; he's gone insane, you're thinking to yourself, they're just interested in his knowledge of the future. But thing is, I met an 11-year-old super-genius named Irving Hollins, that I think can be trusted to make the right choices here; because he's...well, think an exotic combination of Willow and Giles, without the ick factor.

Plus everything I tell him, I consider *real* carefully before sharing with the Wizard. So far, it's all worked out okay; and to be perfectly honest, I'd rather be trying to do some good in this sorry world like you, than spending the next three years asleep in some government lab somewhere!

Since you see, DB, there's something really bad headed our way. Bad, as in a lot of people dying at the same time. It's not something that either the Scooby gang or Angel's Avengers can handle; no demons or vamps are involved. Just good old-fashioned evil humans.

The group I hooked up can handle them without breaking a sweat, well - maybe a light sweat. It's the kind of thing they're supposed to do. There's this one guy, who when he's in a bad mood...well, let's just say not even Angelus would like to meet up with him in a dark alley somewhere.

They're also protecting me from everyone else who wants to rip my mind open, and see all the future goodies coming our way. The Watchers Council, Wolfram & Hart, French intelligence and a whole bunch of others have tried to snag me; so, basically, their protection comes in handy...

By the way, thanks for sending Gunn and his people to save my ass not so long ago, buddy boy. The people I'm with still aren't used to dealing with the magic mojo, so the Watchers managed to slip one through. If it wasn't for you, right now that asshole Travers would probably be roasting my balls in his fireplace, like a pair of marshmallows! So I owe you, big-time. And in the spirit of this sharing moment, there's some stuff I gotta tell you.

Namely? Angel, the odds are that Cordelia's gonna be dead by 2004, if she continues on with the path she's travelling right now.

Well, despite personal feelings I figure she's important to you and you wanna save her; and oh hell, all right, I'll admit deep down I don't actually want her, Willow or Buffy to die either...

Look, what happened exactly is that I met this demon named Lorne in this place called Caritas; and believe it or not, I already knew who he was, as he's gonna be a good buddy to you and your little Fang Gang in the future. He read my destiny, and the green guy saw me in that other world with that goddamn eyepatch, paying my respects at her grave in LA around then. I'm guessing she's gonna have a vital role to play, to have been in the vision; so just in case I can't do anything about it, you do what you gotta do to save her in the future, okay?

Speaking of the future...listen, I wasn't gonna mention it because of the possible dangers, but as I said; I owe your undead self big-time. And there's also the fact I've been convinced that this new world we're all making is virgin territory, and you DESERVE to know about this, as it affects you so deeply.

So, here it is: you're gonna be a father. Over a year from now you're gonna have a human son, named Connor. And no, I'm not nuts; I remember it all clearly...

Okay, maybe I don't know everything; because hey, we had our own apocalypse concerning the First Evil to worry about, during 2002 and 2003. And there's this really odd thing that I knew about your son, then I didn't remember about him around the time of the final battle against the First. But whatever, I *do* know that Connor is the miracle child, born to two vampires.

You...and Darla.

Oh yeah, that's right; you and her are destined to do the nasty, when she comes back somehow. Not saying I'm pleased about that, of course; she killed my best friend Jesse back when all this crap started, after all. But I figure since you got a son out of it and didn't become Angelus then, well, what the hell. Knock yourself out with her, but please be careful not to get *too* happy.

Unfortunately though, Dad, I got some bad news to balance out the good.

See, Connor was born towards the end of 2001, if I remember right; but when Wills visited you guys at that hotel to re-ensoul your ass during March 2003, he was physically 18 years old and to quote my former friend, your "handsome, yet androgynous son". How that happened, I don't know; and as I'm writing this, the only thing I can figure out to answer that question...isn't something that sits well with me.

Yep, you've probably already guessed it yourself; Connor's destined to follow in good ol' Uncle Xander's footsteps, and grow up in a hell dimension. I hope to God I'm wrong, but I got me the funny feeling that I'm not. And Darla wasn't there anymore, either; so to quote Chris Carter - TRUST NO ONE, pal. On account of growing up in a hell world is a fate I wouldn't wish on anybody, let alone the helpless child of a friend. And I know whereof I speak.

Well, uh, guess that's it for now. You take care of yourself, Deadboy, as well as your crew and Connor; hopefully we'll meet again just like we planned, in the summer of 2003. Till then, vaya con dios...

Your friend,

Xander Harris

Angel was stunned, and collapsed onto the edge of the couch. < This isn't happening, is it? I-I-I gotta be dreaming. Cordelia dead, within the next four years? Darla...and Connor...and I'm destined to lose them both, as well as lose my soul again by 2003? >

The three Furies, getting annoyed at his lack of cooperation to seal the deal, dragged him into the bedroom and started to remove his clothes...and what happened in the room after that, was no one's business except their own.


U.S. military aircraft, 30,000 feet above Detroit, Michigan. The same time

Oz stared at a sight he'd never thought he would see. To be honest, it had stunned him so much that he had almost let the amazement show. Luckily though, Oz's self-control was strong enough that his stoic nature was all that the others saw.

And that sight was? Xander Harris studying.

When the guy called Cleburne had shown up at the door of the apartment that Oz was sharing with his old friend, he had said that they might be gone for a while - and the Wizard wanted to be sure that the kid took his books with him.

After some grumbling and a suggestion from Cleburne that the books could otherwise become surgically attached to his ass, Xander had gone into the study/den he had set up and brought out a satchel full of books.

Oz knew that Xander had gotten serious about his studies, the first part of the senior year of high school. He had assumed though that all that had fallen by the wayside, when Xander had returned from that hell dimension. The werewolf watched silently as he saw proof of his error in thinking.

To Oz's amazement, Xander had diligently studied on the flight to Detroit from Virginia. The others on the plane had started playing cards, but Xander had gotten into a corner by himself and started hitting the books. The others had also allowed Xander to study in peace, by keeping it down as much as possible.

Oz looked out of the plane's windows, and saw the night skyline of Detroit. < Lot of changes been happening lately in my life. Gonna take me a while to used to them all. >

"Hey, Wolfie."

Oz looked around, and saw that Cleburne had walked up behind him. "Hey. Mother Hen." One of the first things that Xander had told Oz about the Siberians was Cleburne's nickname, and the two of them had gone to town on using it since.

Cleburne glared at the werewolf. He had been doing that quite a bit the past few days. "Question for you, newbie..." The agent had not yet decided on a nickname for Oz yet.

Oz nodded. "Go ahead."

"This wolf inside you, the kid tells me that you went to a monk who taught you how to control it?" the secret agent nodded over at the studying former Scooby.

"Yeah. Somewhat. I can control when the transformation takes place and what people, well enemies, I go after."

"Yet you wolfed out, is that the term?" Oz nodded in response to Cleburne's question. "You wolfed out back in Prague. You weren't in control then. Why exactly was that?"

"Well, that time in the alley, I didn't really lose control. Sure I hadn't planned on changing, but when I realized that it was Xander in trouble, the wolf just sorta came out. Still, I never really lost control then; during the fight, it was me in control of the beast inside, not the other way around."

Cleburne nodded. "Okay, I can buy into that since the wolf didn't treat anyone in the alleyway as a doggie snack; well, except for the vampire that is. However, what happened at the airfield? You definitely did not look to be in control then."

Oz looked out the window at the night sky. "Well, I'll admit I lost control there."

"I gathered that, but why *exactly* - and more importantly, will it happen again?"

"As to why? You were there. You heard what was said."

Cleburne listened to Oz's response, but wasn't satisfied. He didn't know the whole story of all that had gone on back in Sunnydale. He knew bits and pieces, but Xander had been very tightlipped on a lot of his personal history. The male agent made a mental note that the newest addition to the Siberians could possibly be someone who could fill in the gaps for him, and to one day work that angle...

Oz continued, "Will it happen again? I don't know. That's twice something like that has ever happened. Sometimes, when emotions run really high and I'm taken off-balance by something, my control slips."

Cleburne nodded. "So, when emotions are running high and something knocks you off-kilter, you lose control. Well, I hate to mention this, but I think that describes just about every combat situation I've ever been in."

Oz actually suppressed a smirk at that comment. "Well, I suppose that's true."

"Damn straight it is. Look, the kid over there vouches for you, and that counts for a lot. He trusts you with his life. He's known you a lot longer than any of us has, so he cuts you quite a bit of slack..."

Oz waited, already halfway knowing where this conversation was going. < Subtle, this guy is not. >

"Now, I trust the kid. He's yet to steer me wrong. However, I don't know you well enough to risk the lives of everyone else on the team. So when the shooting starts, you need to hang back. After all, you're an advisor - not a field agent."

Oz looked nonplussed at that. "I can handle myself in a scrape."

"Sure you can, however I don't want to see what happens if your control slips. 'Cause as much as the kid likes you, if it comes down to the safety of my people...well, you can guess what I would have to do. I wouldn't like doing it and would probably get really drunk afterwards, but I would still do it. Ask anyone."

Oz looked at the senior Siberian. "So I just sit on the sidelines? Shouting advice from the bench?"

"At first. I assume you have exercises to increase your self-control?"

The human with the inner werewolf nodded. "Yeah, Shantou taught me several. He said over time, that my control should increase."

"Good, keep doing them. I'll also schedule you training time for you to learn the secret of combat."

Oz raised an eyebrow. "I always thought that was not to get killed."

"No, the key thing in combat is not to get excited. Excitement makes you slip up, and causes mistakes. That gets you killed. Beserkers are the easiest foes to handle in a battle, 'cause they're so addle-brained they can't think straight."

Oz then looked over at Xander. "I've got to admit, I'm surprised to see him hitting the books," he said calmly, changing the subject.

"Well, the Wizard is quite demanding of his students. I know that if I let him slack off on studying, I would very quickly regret it."

"When do I meet this Wizard?"

"Soon, Wolfie, soon."

Just then, the intercom clicked on. "Thought you all might want to know, we're on final approach. So settle up your card debts, and fasten your seat belts."


141 Embury Street, Los Angeles, California. The next evening

That evening, Angel showed up at Cordy's place after taking a long walk upon sunset. He'd visited many places he'd known from the past, including the Hyperion Hotel, swimming in the memories and trying to come to grips with all that Xander had warned him was coming.

But in the end Angel just walked through the front door, looking thoughtful. Focused. Silent.

Cordelia started to berate him at once, demanding to know where he'd been. "What the hell is your problem, mister? We had an emergency to deal with, and you bailed on us! Totally flaked out! You're damn lucky that pregnant woman wasn't killed!"

Angel just raised his eyebrows. Wesley then said, "Angel, she's quite right - that was totally unacceptable, you not even phoning us like that! And you're very fortunate nothing untoward happened last night. You see, we were mistaken about the Prio Motu demon, and he was actually a good guy that successfully defended his charge in the Cahair Binse..."

He noticed the vampire was no longer paying attention. "...and by the way Angel, have you noticed that your pants on fire?"

The Champion said nothing, still lost in his own world, and Cordelia whacked Angel just above the ear. "Hello? We're talking here! Our lips are moving and-" she broke off at his expression. "What is it?"

Angel just said to Wesley, "I've learned some...disturbing stuff. So I want you to do two things. First, research any and all prophecies you can find on a so-called human 'miracle child', destined to be born to two vampires."

Wes frowned, "But vampires can't have-"

"I know. That's why 'miracle' is the operative word here. But it's gonna happen, according to a source I trust without question. So, I want us to be prepared."

Wes shrugged and nodded, forgetting about the anger as the Research Boy was unable to help contemplating which avenues to explore first, making a note to query Angel later as to who this source was. "As you wish. And, uh, the second thing?" he asked, after pulling himself together.

Angel said softly, staring at Cordy, "Find out how we can transfer Cordelia's visions to someone else."


Private hangar, Detroit International Airport. The next morning

"Hey kid, I'm sorry. But how was I supposed to know that that pipe was the sewer line for the entire building?"

Xander just glared at Cleburne. "Sure. That's why I can understand the first shot, but the second one?"

"That vampire was still moving. These new bullets we were trying out clearly need some work on them."

"Yeah, I'll be sure to write a memo to Marcum on that point!" Xander responded with a degree of sarcasm.

"That's not a bad idea," Cleburne said, pretending not to catch Xander's sarcasm. "However, you can also tell the Wizard about it when you meet with him tomorrow."

Xander raised an eyebrow. "Back to meeting with the Wizard now?"

Cleburne nodded, as he checked his bags. "Yeah, there are several questions he's stockpiled to ask you. He also wants to eyeball Wolfie here." Cleburne pointed at Oz.

"Don't call me that," Oz said simply, in a remarkable imitation of Rupert Giles. Xander hid a smile, remembering Giles' reaction to always being called 'G-man'.

Cleburne looked over at Oz. "Whatever. Wizard still wants to talk to you. He was saying something about wanting to see if your test scores were really that high. Or if they were just a statistical fluke."

Oz raised an eyebrow to that. He all of sudden noticed Xander blushing at the word 'fluke'. "What?" he asked simply.

Xander shook his head. "Fluke, uh - the term, it-it just meant something entirely different to me, once upon a time. I-I'll explain it to you later." Oz nodded at that, and added another thing to ask his friend about when they had the 'talk'.

Cleburne glanced out of the hangar's door, and saw that their plane was ready. "Come on people, unless - kid, you want to spend another hour in the shower? I'll have you know I was betting on you spending three hours in there. I lost money when you puppied out at a hour and a half."

Xander looked over at Cleburne. "No, I think I got it all out. Besides, Gunny needs the money, for all the stress pills I'm causing him to buy..."

Cleburne shrugged his shoulders, and led the team to the plane. < Who says Gunny is the only one? >


Rochefort Institute of Strategic Planning, Urbana, Illinois. The next day

Xander led the way into Hollins' office. Behind him came Oz and Cleburne, who was carrying a shopping bag. At the other end of the office sat the Wizard, at his workstation.

"Hey, Whiz! Miss me!?" Xander called out to the child genius.

Hollins scooted away from his workstation, and swiveled his chair to face the newcomers. "Mr. Harris. I'm glad to hear that your time in Europe and the Holy Land did you some good. You got a little sun, I see..."

He then looked at Oz for a few seconds. "I see you've also acquired a new traveling companion." The child stood up, and headed over to the new arrivals.

"Hey, Mr. Wizard. Brought you something back from Germany," Cleburne said, as Hollins approached.

"And that would be?" Hollins asked.

In response, Cleburne handed over the shopping bag. Hollins looked in and smiled, "Ah, thank you Joshua. I look forward to adding it to the layout in the basement."

"You're welcome," Cleburne said simply, as Hollins placed the bag on his desk.

Hollins then turned his attention back to Oz. "Mr. Osbourne, I am in fact very pleased to meet you. I am Dr. Irving Hollins, at your service. I suspect that Joshua here probably described me to you as the Wizard." He held his hand up to Oz for a handshake.

"Yeah, they mentioned something about you. You're younger than I expected," Oz commented.

"Well, I get that a lot. I also must admit that you're not what I expected, either. Considering all the computer companies that are currently looking for you, I estimated you would be more like Bill Gates than a musician. Foolish of me, to be sure."

Cleburne raised an eyebrow at Hollins' comments. "Computer companies?"

"Yes, all of the big ones are looking for him to offer gainful employment. Microsoft has even gone so far as to employ a private investigation firm, to try and find the man. And the less said about Dante Industries, the better."

"Why's that?" Xander asked.

"Dante Industries was the corporation that hired that mercenary, to try and kidnap you. We tangled with them a while back, and they came out holding the short end of the stick," Cleburne commented.

Xander remembered the reference back in Germany to the nine people who had died over the secret of his existence as Cleburne continued, "It's not public knowledge, of course, but its board of directors is made up of either demons - or humans who've made a deal with demons. We're still unclear on that point."

"Oh, this keeps getting better and better," Xander commented. "Hey, what about Bill Gates?"

Hollins shook his head. "Oddly enough, despite the beliefs of computer hackers all over the world, Microsoft was not given any help from demon sources. All the glitches in the Windows platform are strictly manmade."

"That's kinda reassuring and depressing, all at the same time," Oz commented with more than a trace of irony - to those who could detect it.

"Yes, the human condition can be both comforting and terrifying at the same time," the Wizard responded. "However, before we completely divert our topic of discussion to one of philosophy, Mr. Harris - let us please discuss your recent trip away from home."

For the next two hours, Xander described his time overseas. The discussion went beyond just a general discussion of the trip. Specific events were dissected and reviewed. The effectiveness of particular weapons and tactics were debated. Oz chipped into the conversation when the hellhounds were mentioned, telling the others about the experience of Prom night.

The redheaded werewolf also described his activities since he had left Sunnydale. And Oz had certainly been busy! Hollins chose not to dig in too deeply into the events of when he had been in the town that was the location of the current Hellmouth. < That's more something for a time when Mr. Harris is not present and vulnerable, > flashed through his mind.

Xander also described how the trip to the monastery of the Order of Dagon had gone. Oz had actually shown a glimpse of amazement, when the tale of Dawn and her true nature was revealed. It turned out that Oz had definitely been affected by the spell, as he had memories of the younger Summers daughter, who had always been there. A quick query of Cleburne showed now that he also remembered the Slayer having a younger sister, from the debriefing sessions back in '99.

"You know, it *really* creeps me out to know that that spell by those monks has messed around so much with the stuff in my head," the secret agent commented.

"Granted though, not all that much to mess around with up there," Xander joked, which earned him another glare from the senior Siberian. < Jeez, lighten up man, you keep that up and your forehead is going to be wrinkled for life! >

The situation with the Watchers in Germany was also discussed. "I must admit that Mr. Travers is quite persistent. And he seems to have taken all this personally, a situation that does not bode well for the future," Hollins commented.

"Well, I've got a few ideas that might take care of that. They'll require a lot of planning and some time to put together, though. In the meantime, Cummings and MI-6 can keep acting as an early warning system for us," was Cleburne's response.

"Good, that will suffice for the near future. Mr. Osbourne?"

"Yes?" Oz responded to Hollins' question.

"I have heard and read good things about your abilities. I'm also sure that you will be an excellent addition to our operations in the field. However right now, I want to *pick your brains*, so to speak. Are you agreeable to that?" Hollins said

Oz glanced over at Xander, who nodded his head in approval of Hollins' request. "Sure, I'm game," the werewolf then said simply.

The child genius smiled. "Good. Tell me then, please, all about lycanthropes."


Sunnydale, California. September, 2000

He turned the pages of the tome in front of him. He had been researching ceaselessly for almost two years now...ever since he had learned of the death.

When he had first heard of it from the others, his entire world had been shaken to the core. Because he hadn't ever expected anything like that to happen; as the entity in question had been eternal. Something that been around long before the human race had been born, and even before the sun had burned hot in the sky...

She had been supposed to fulfill her destiny, not die at the hands of petty filth.

He noticed the fire was dying down, so he walked over and threw another log on it. He then stirred the embers to keep the fire going. He pulled his bathrobe tight around him. Even in Southern California, the nights could get chilly.

He walked back over to the desk to resume his reading. The demon known as Doc then cogitated for a second, < Don't worry, Glorificus. I'll find a way to fix this, or die trying... >

Part Twelve

Rochefort Institute of Strategic Planning, Urbana, Illinois. September, 2000


To: Dr. Irving Hollins, University of Chicago
From: Colonel Joshua Cleburne, USMC
Date: 09-04-2000

Re: Use of firearms in response to vampire presence

Dear Mr. Wizard,

As you know, I've been reviewing the post-op action reports of the various field teams lately. As such I am greatly concerned at the spotty, at best, effectiveness of the various firearms STW deploys against the hostiles.

I know that Lemke's favorable reports on the use of wooden bullets in April of this year, reflected his great success in using that source of munitions. However, we must remember that before he came to us, Lemke was a sniper attached to Delta Force.

He was also using the ordnance under controlled conditions, from various sniper posts. We have been unable to duplicate his success rates under non-controlled combat situations. Wooden bullets clearly only work if they hit the exact spot desired; hit a vampire anywhere else, and it's no more effective than an insect's sting.

In addition, I'm sure that Mr. Harris has related to you our recent experience in Detroit. The ordnance with tips of holy water is clearly painful to the targets, however the staying power leaves a lot to be desired. The second bullet, despite what Mr. Harris says, was necessary to put the target down.

The only ordnance that has been consistently effective, are the dragonbreath rounds for the 12-gauge shotguns. These rounds have the effect of turning any shotgun loaded with them into a one-shot flame-thrower. However, their range is limited to approximately two yards, and the rate of fire is extremely inefficient.

Also, shotguns are not at all ideal for use in a situation requiring concealed weapons.

This situation has not gotten critical yet, as the operatives we are using are of a caliber that hand-to-hand combat with vampires is not grounds for concern. However, pursuant to our recent discussions, circumstances could very well arise shortly where the forces facing the supernatural threats could be of a quality where close combat would not be desirable.

I plan on discussing this matter with various field operatives in the near future. Any input you might have would be greatly appreciated.



UC Sunnydale campus, Sunnydale, California. September 10, 2000

Willow pulled the covers up on the bed. Tara was studying at the library, and the redhead had finished her studying. She didn't need to be at work till tomorrow, so the Wiccan basically had some spare time.

She had originally wanted to look up things in a spellbook, but at the last moment the young woman had decided to forego magic for the night. She'd then remembered the book that Lemke had given her; and Willow was still curious as to who the men with her boss in the picture were. Lemke had said they were mentioned in the book, so it was time to investigate.

Willow leaned over the bed, and felt underneath it. Her hands found what she was looking for. Then she pulled the book up, and put the covers back where they had been. Ms. Rosenberg looked at the book's title: Blackhawk Down.

"Well," she said out loud to herself. "Let's see what there is to learn about these Gordon and Shughart guys..." Thus Willow then started reading.


Thirty minutes later

"Sweetie?" Tara said, as she entered their dorm room.

In this new world they were all making, Tara and Willow had become roommates when Buffy had moved back into her old house. The Buffster had definitely not been happy about leaving her dorm residence...

However, Joyce had been insistent and oddly enough, so had been Giles.

Willow looked up from her book. "Tara, you're back!"

"Yes, I-I think I've looked at my economics textbook as much as I can tonight. I personally don't understand how Anya honestly reads that stuff for fun," Tara put her book bag on her desk.

Willow shook her head. "Anya is...well, strange, that's the best word for it. I think she needs a boyfriend or something. Otherwise, she might wind up channeling Donald Trump or someone like that..." A panicky look showed on Willow's face. "You don't think she will, do you? Or that she *is*? That might explain a lot..."

Tara laughed, and slid under the blanket that covered Willow. She hugged her girlfriend, "I don't think we have to worry. Besides, even if we do, we should hold off on doing anything until we get a great apartment out of it." She glanced at the book Willow was holding. "What'cha reading?"

"The book Josef loaned me."

"Oh, the one where those guys in the photograph are mentioned?"

Willow nodded. "That's the one. The book's about those Special Forces guys in Africa, back in '93. I'm thinking that if Lemke was involved with them, he's been involved in something more than 'a little bit of this, a little bit of that and nothing exciting'! These guys are the ones they make movies about."

Tara nuzzled up next to her girlfriend. "Hmmmm, your boss is a man of mystery?"

Willow put a bookmark between the pages, and put the book on the nightstand. "Well, I'll save that mystery for another day..." she smiled at her girlfriend, as the two then began to fool around.


Pine Bluff, Arkansas. September 11, 2000

< One year, > Xander thought to himself. < Or to put it another way - 365 days to go, until 9/11. > The latest session he'd had with the Wizard had covered the events of that day in detail.

Harris had been alone with Oz, Cleburne and Hollins in Urbana a few days previously, and after finally managing to get rid of an inquisitive Rachael they had finished up talking business. "Are you absolutely sure the north tower gets hit first and then the south one, and not the other way around?" Cleburne had asked.

"I'm sure," Xander had growled out, and the older male agent had taken the not-so-subtle hint to shut up about that.

Oz had just shaken his head in private amazement, while the child genius brought the meeting to a close. "Well, I think that's quite enough for today. Gentlemen, I won't keep you any longer from your pressing appointments elsewhere..."

And as the visitors had turned to go, Hollins had called out, "By the way, Mr. Harris...happy birthday."

The trio had instantly frozen, and then turned around. "Xander's birthday is in April," Oz had said neutrally, while the other two looked puzzled.

Irving had simply shaken his head. "I'm sorry if I haven't made myself clear, I know exactly when the man's birthday is. However, I was referring to his physical age, not the date of his birth..."

Seeing the puzzled looks, Hollins had briefly explained, "Mr. Harris, you were born in the April of 1981, so therefore you were 7 months past your 17th birthday - when you disappeared into that hell dimension. Subjectively, according to your own estimates you were there for 55 months; and yet, you arrived back in this world only a few hours later in the November of 1998. That would make a sum total objective existence of 22 years and 2 months, then. And according to the calendar, therefore, that would make you 24 years old today. So, again...happy birthday."

Cleburne had looked amused, staring at the former slave - who'd had a stunned look on his face. But then Xander had just seemed to shrug after thanking the Wizard, and turning around he'd walked off - forgetting the whole thing, as Joshua followed. But Oz had just stood there, watching their departure with an inscrutable expression.

< Xander Harris...24 years old. But he's supposed to be what, 19 1/2 now? It's like I'm really seeing him for the first time, ever happened. The teenager I knew, who was a year younger than me - he isn't around anymore. Instead, there's only a friend with the scars from going through nine levels of hell, to quote Wesley way back then... >

Oz had then quit his musings and caught up with his companions as the Siberians, even though they still had a year to go, were busily getting ready for the big day. There were building plans to check, airports to monitor, people to find...

Focusing back on the present, Xander knew that the intelligence-gathering apparatus of the American intelligence services had been concentrating on al-Qaeda with a frightening clarity. Every week or so, Cleburne would show up with a list of names and ask if he recognized any of them.

It had taken a few times for the former Scooby to realize that the names were of those that STW thought might be the hijackers. The secret agency was tracking every single suspected terrorist it could find, casting its net far and wide. Xander felt a little uneasy at times over this, as it smacked just a bit too much like '1984' for his comfort. But then the young man quieted his discomfort, by remembering what was coming in a year's time...

Which was not to say that his hosts weren't ignoring the threat from the supernatural. Which had led to Xander sitting in the passenger seat of a Crown Victoria right now, outside a service station in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

"Let me see if I got this straight again..." That was the middle-aged balding FBI agent, who was sitting in the driver's seat. "Vampires are real?"

"Yep." That was Gunny, who was sitting in the back seat with Oz.


"More of them than you would think," Gunny spoke again.


"Yep, and some of them are quite nice people to know," Oz answered.

Xander suppressed a smile and glanced back at the werewolf. "What he said."

"And all this is interfering with my investigation, why?"

"Well, Agent Fletcher, that methamphetamine ring you've been investigating - it's somehow connected to a vampire gang we've been tracking."

"The Poynter boys hooked up with vampires. It would explain why their competition has been showing up missing." The sarcasm was unmistakable.

"It would indeed," Gunny remarked dryly. In fact, it had been the rumors of vampires involved in the drug trade in Arkansas that had brought the agents to Pine Bluff.

A car with tinted windows drove by the service station. "There they are," Fletcher remarked, as he pulled the Crown Vic to follow their prey.

They followed the car for over twenty minutes, Fletcher keeping well back, but not far enough back to lose their target. Finally, the pursued turned into a parking lot, with the night lit up by the streetlights. Three grungy-looking characters then got out of the car...

< Oh yeah, they really blend in down in the Deep South. No wonder they have to wait till after sunset to come out! > Xander watched, as they walked away from the vehicle.

Fletcher parked his car a good distance away. They all got out, and looked at the vampires in the distance. "What now?" asked the FBI agent.

"We follow them," Gunny replied. He started walking after unsuspecting undead across the large parking lot. "You know, one day I'm going to have to ask Mother Hen why everyone around here shops at this place..."

Xander looked up, for the first time really seeing the store they were heading into. It was a Super Wal-mart. "You have *got* to be kidding me. In there!?"

Gunny shrugged his shoulders. "Guess vampires need to shop like everyone else..."


Twenty minutes later

Xander hurried down the aisles, seeing if he could spot the last vampire. Somehow, ten minutes ago, the undead Americans they had been trailing had caught onto the fact that they were being followed. So they had decided to try and attack those who were shadowing them.

The plan would have worked fine, if it had been regular police following their asses. However, since it was someone who knew they were dealing with vampires...the lead bloodsucker had met a stake to his heart for his trouble, after sneaking up on Oz.

Because sneaking up on someone with the olfactory senses of a werewolf was not something anyone who was undead, not to mention brain-dead, should ever try.

The other two vamps had fled when they'd realized that the ones following them knew what they were, and how to handle them. Gunny had dispatched the second vampire in sporting goods a few minutes ago.

But that still left the one that Xander was now stalking. He methodically checked each aisle for a sign of the vampire. While doing so, he caught glimpses of Oz at the front of the store and Fletcher at the back, cutting off the avenues of escape for the target.

He tried not to seem too rushed as, even though it was after two in the morning, there were still several customers in the store. A group of young Hispanic men walked by Xander, jabbering away in Spanish. < Kinda funny; all the time I spent living on the Hellmouth in southern California, I didn't see all that many Hispanics. It's almost as if they avoided Sunnydale, like the plague! Then again, maybe they all knew more than they let on... >

Xander noticed that Gunny was coming up to him. "Any luck?" he asked the Siberian.

"No. However, wherever he is, he has to be on this side of the store. We've got the exits sealed, so we just have to flush him out."

"Okay, so how do you want to do this?"

"Well, I guess we do it from the back of the store to the front. Osbourne will do a better job of dealing with a vamp, than good ol' Agent Fletcher. We'll just scare him into Osbourne's waiting stake."

He and Xander started working each aisle in the grocery section of the store. They were halfway up the store, when they encountered an older woman with a hair style that for all the world looked like a white beehive had been put on top of her head. She was pushing a cart full of groceries along.

As they walked past her, Gunny turned to the senior citizen. "Ma'am, I'm wondering if you could help us. We're looking for a young man, wearing black, kind of grungy-looking? His face may have been deformed, somewhat. Did you happen to see him?"

The old woman looked at Gunny. "You mean the vampire, right? He ran down this aisle and turned left, towards the back of the store."

"Thank you!" Gunny said as he hurried in the direction indicated, Xander following after him.

"Hey, wait a minute, how did she know he was a vamp?" Xander asked Gunny, as they got to the end of the aisle.

"PHD," Gunny commented, as he looked around. "There!" he then shouted out, as he caught a glimpse of their quarry. The vampire was trying to hurry to the back of the store, without appearing to be running.

Gunny ran after him, not caring anymore if he was spotted running or not. Xander ran after him. "PHD?" the former Scooby managed to say, as he ran along.

"Pentecostal Hair Dew. That beehive hairdo of hers and the fact we're in Arkansas tells me that she's probably a fundamentalist-"

Up ahead of them, the undead guy headed towards a pair of swinging doors that led to the stock rooms. Suddenly Agent Fletcher came through those doors, both he and the vampire being completely surprised by the other's appearance.

The vamp recovered first and swung with his right fist at the FBI agent, its left hand clutched closely to his body holding a blue bag. His fist connected before Fletcher could react, unfortunately; and the human fell back through the doors.

The vampire ran through them, only to somehow trip over Fletcher as he fell. The bag he was holding quickly skittered off to the side. The vamp tried to get to his feet, but it was too late; before he could do so, Gunny and Xander had arrived at the entrance of the stock rooms.

Xander instantly hit the bloodsucker in the face, with a sweeping kick Cleburne had personally taught him. His undead opponent staggered back, again falling over Fletcher who was now trying to get up. The two of them were tangled up. After a few seconds of wrestling, the vampire managed to get loose and he started to get up after shoving the human aside.

Only to meet the stake that Xander's arm was sending downward towards the soulless demon's heart. The vampire's eyes grew wide, as he quickly exploded into dust after a vile curse involving the f-word.

Xander looked up at Gunny. "Okay, now why would her being a fundamentalist make a difference?"

Fletcher scrambled to his feet, suppressing his own curse. "What the-?!" he started brushing the dust off his coat as he stood up. < Shit. These guys aren't crazy, or just spinning a yarn! They told me...the truth? So all these years...when I was on Bureau surveillance detail at nights...I could have gotten attacked or killed by a goddamn vampire?! >

Gunny ignored Fletcher and his shattered world-view. "Oddly enough, holy rollers seem able to accept the existence of demons and vampires. They just have trouble accepting that some demons might be not of the evil variety. If they ever knew about that place in Los Angeles we went to, I think their heads would explode! Ask Cleburne to explain it sometime, he speaks their language."

Xander shook his head. True enough, sometimes he too had trouble remembering that all demons weren't evil. His experiences as a slave in the hell dimension sometimes came close to overshadowing his future memories of Anya and Clem.

Gunny walked over to the side, where the bag the vampire had been holding had come to rest. He bent down, picking it up. A look of confusion then came across his face, as Mr. Rose looked into the thing. "Uh, do vampires get colds?"

Xander glanced over, and saw why Gunny was confused. The bag was full of cold medicine. "Not that I know of. Other than being dead, they always seemed to be in great physical condition." As he finished saying that, Oz walked up.

Fletcher looked over, having regained his composure. "Uh, I can explain that. The cold medicine gets broken down to recover the ingredients needed to make methamphetamine. These...vampires of yours must have been stealing or buying it, for the Poynter boys to cook up meth with."

"Well, what do you know. Still - I suspect, Agent Fletcher, that you'll have a much easier time dealing with that gang, now that their vamp allies are dust bunnies," Xander commented. < Man, drug-dealing vampires? This new history just keeps getting stranger and stranger... >


Los Angeles, California. September 15, 2000

Angel maintained a state of full awareness, as he walked down the alley. For he had been on edge, ever since he had gotten Xander's message last month. He knew that the other shoe was about to drop, just not exactly when.

The Champion for the Powers had privately examined the young man's letter many times in great detail, to try and figure out more information - after that first shocking session in the apartment of the Furies. But he had finally given up, when he'd realized that Xander just didn't have the knowledge that the ensouled vampire was looking for. Angel had then also realized he could only do what he would have done, if he hadn't gotten the letter; just wait for events to unfold.

Angel really wished though that in that past history of Xander's, the former Scooby had come with him to the City of Angels - instead of staying there on the damn Hellmouth. That way, he would have known more details of what was to come. Could have also known what to tell him, on how to deal with Wes and Cordy...

The former Angelus had definitely upset the female seer that night in her apartment, and Cordelia had stridently and repeatedly demanded to know why the hell he wanted to strip her of her vision powers. Angel had fobbed her off with a story that his source had simply told him she needed to get rid of them; and when Cordy had demanded to know just *who* this source was...

"Cordelia, I can't tell you that."

"Can't or *won't*?"

"Fine, won't. Because believe me, it's safer this way. That person is being hunted 24/7; and whatever you two don't know, can't be tortured out of you later - if the bad guys ever find out you know of his existence. And these people do *not* fool around, from what I've heard. There is no such thing as being overly-paranoid here..."

Both Wes and Cordy had paled at hearing that, and no longer pushed the issue. But on the question of paranoia, both humans had heard a lot more than they wanted to on that subject, when the trio had confronted a Thesulac demon in the Hyperion Hotel - which was now the new headquarters of Angel Investigations.

Fortunately, the damned thing had been destroyed and the hotel reclaimed by the ensouled vampire, as he'd stayed there during 1952; but Angel, Wes and Cordy had all heard things from the demon they'd wished had remained private. Cordelia on her inferiority complex; Wesley on his parental issues, and Angel on his fear that everything Xander had told him would come true...

For all of it *had* started, Angel was pretty sure about that. He had been having dreams for the past few weeks. And not just any dreams, but vivid dreams of Darla - and other things, that he thought about almost every moment he was awake. Not since the dreams that the First had caused him to have, had Angel been so unsettled by the past.

The souled vampire had no way of knowing that Wolfram & Hart had been so concerned over the events centering around Xander Harris, that they had accelerated their plans when it came to the only ensouled vampire in the world. Darla had been invading Angel's dreams now, for quite some time...

The law firm's brute force approach hadn't worked back in May, so now it was going to try subtle means and begin by fomenting dissent within its enemies. Not a bad approach, to be sure; as the worst enemies are never the giant demons with slavering jaws, but rather the monsters of the mind - that weaken and fight you, from within.

Even now, Darla was watching Angel from above. And she also knew it was finally time to confront the vamp that had staked her with a soul in his heart, three years ago.

Reborn as a human after the ritual of the Raising, the blonde woman had been almost catatonic - and certainly incoherent - for weeks afterwards. But slowly, it had all come back; Virginia. The life of a whore. The Master. True freedom at last, and becoming his favorite for 150 years...

Liam. The alleyway in Ireland. Welcoming Angelus into her world. Presenting him to the Master. Over 140 years of bliss...

Then Romania, and the curse. Those damned gypsies. Him finding her in China, with Dru and Spike...

Forcing the issue and driving Angelus away - oh, what an idiot she'd been back then! If only she'd kept her dear boy at her side...the former prostitute knew now she would have soon given him that moment of happiness he'd needed, to get rid of that filthy soul. Darla was sure of it.

Because over the last two weeks where she had been lying naked in bed with him and hitting the Champion with that Calynthia powder, he was becoming more and more hers. Darla could feel it; and just last night, Angel had enjoyed their dream dancing so much he'd rolled over on top of her in the bed - and made Darla a *very* happy woman, all throughout the midnight hour.

Angel turned the corner of the alley, and surveyed the street. Several teenage runaways were scattered up and down it. < I might want to let Lily know about the runaways gathering here. A visit by her will probably help them- >

"Hello, lover..." a sultry feminine voice said softly behind him.

< Hey, how did someone sneak up on me?! > Angel thought, as he turned to face the newcomer. The response he had started to form died on his lips though, when he saw who it was.

His sire, Darla.

Luckily for him, Xander's warning about her upcoming return into his life had softened the blow of seeing her again. Angel was able to respond to her within a few seconds, before he took a big sniff...

"Darla, been a while. Nice to see you're not all dusty anymore," he said in a matter-of-fact voice. Then Angel frowned a little, before staring into her eyes, "You're human now, though. Wasn't expecting that-"

Darla couldn't believe how calm Angel was. Then she smelled it..."No! You still have that damn soul? But - that's not possible!"

The blonde was definitely unable to believe she'd failed to make him happy. "And why the hell are you being so utterly calm, about seeing me again?!? You staked me for that bitch of a Slayer, *remember*?"

Angel was getting a little suspicious now. "Sure I remember. And why am I being calm? I've got my reasons. And sorry to disappoint, but you've definitely got me mixed up with that monster who happens to wear my face-"

Darla calmed down a little. "Oh no, dear 'Angel'. We've had this conversation before. I can recognize him within you, I always could. My love's still in there, and I *will* find a way to bring him out..."

Angel was nonplussed. < She wants Angelus back? Oh, come on! > Still, he remembered Xander's warning about losing his soul with her, and adjusted his stance somewhat. "Look Darla, I'm not really into the nostalgia thing right now. I've got things to do, people to help, villains to slay. So unless you've had a personality makeover, guess I'll catch up with you later on."

Darla was almost floored by Angel's reaction to her. < The miserable cur! Lindsey was right about you, *Angel*, no matter how jealous he got today over the fact that you got lucky last night - and obviously don't even know it. Of all the - we were together for nearly 150 years, damn it! You'd think there would be more of a reaction than, 'guess I'll catch up with you later on'! > "So, tell me Angelus. Is that whole brooding thing still going strong for you?"

Angel looked at his sire and former lover, now in human form. "Sunnydale was a long time ago, sweetheart. Tell you what, Darla..." He pulled out his wallet.

< What's this? Since when does he carry a wallet? > Darla thought, as she watched her former childe. < He's changed, definitely. And I don't like that. It makes my little revenge scenario a lot more complicated... >

Angel handed the AI business card to her. "Here's my card, already. So call me, when you're ready to talk about something other than the horrors we committed over a hundred years ago."

"You bastard!"

But Angel simply walked off, as Darla stared at him in open-mouthed shock. < Oh, Lindsey and the others are not going to be happy about this... >


Washington, D.C. September 19, 2000


To: Dr. Irving Hollins, University of Chicago
From: Esther Marcum, Office of the National Security Adviser
Date: 09-19-2000

Re: Request for Project Barsoom records

Dear Dr. Hollins,

Your request for the results of the Project Barsoom studies has been received. My apologies for the delay; at first, I was unaware of any such project. However, once I read your letter through in its entirety, I was able to determine which were the appropriate agencies to refer your query to. And once the requests arrived at the Air Force and NASA, the manner in which they reacted led to this memo and my concerns.

Would you be kind enough to let us all know why you need a psychological study from the late 1960s, concerning mass hysteria and cultural phenomena?



St. Louis, Missouri. September 20, 2000

"Let me get this straight. You think you can bring out my soldier memories through hypnosis?"

"Yep," Cleburne answered Xander's question. "Face it, kid. They've been fading more and more lately, just like what happened to you...well, y'know, before. The eggheads seem to think it'll work, and maybe also bring out some of your traits from when you were possessed by that Hyena spirit."

"You know about that?" Xander asked, as he took a sip from his cup of coffee.

The two were sitting in a restaurant for the Holiday Inn they had spent the previous night in. The remains of their breakfast was on the table in front of them. Graham Miller, sitting opposite them and reading his morning paper, seemingly ignored the conversation that Cleburne and Xander were having.

"Oh, yeah. Remember, we've been reading Mr. Giles' Watcher diaries. He wrote all about your possession - privately, he thought it was a bit of a hoot! You know, his journals are interesting reading. You ought to read them sometime yourself..." Cleburne took a bite of the sausage pattie on his plate.

Xander inwardly cringed. "Just what exactly is in them?"

"Everything you can imagine; all the vampires, demons and doomsday scenarios you'd expect from the Hellmouth, and how your friend Buffy Summers dealt with them all. Fascinating stuff! There was this one thing I enjoyed reading about, on how she came up with this idea of using a rocket launcher against some demon called the Judge-"

Cleburne then noticed Xander's scowl. "What?"

"Question for you, Cleburne. Did your people get the original copy of what G-man wrote, or the *official* Watcher diaries? 'Cause I'm guessing it was the latter."

Joshua started to get uneasy. "There's a reason why you think there's a difference, between the two?"

"No comment. Just outta interest though, is there anything else in there on me?" Xander asked, trying to be nonchalant.

Cleburne glanced at the kid, understanding. "Well, nothing personal, if that's what you're worried about. I mean, he wrote a little about you dating those Cordelia Chase and Faith Daniels girls. No, actually, it doesn't really say that - the guy just sorta hints at it. The reader has to know the background, to put all the pieces together. Bottom line, it doesn't really give anything away about your personal life."

"Good. Don't want you knowing too much about me," Xander said with a clipped, dismissive tone.

The secret agent glanced at the former Scooby. < You bet your ass I want to know more about you, beyond Mr. Giles wrote! On account of it would explain a lot about your personality. Damn it, what's it going to take to get you to trust anyone besides the Wolfie? Well, maybe the Wizard can pry some information out of Osbourne... > "So, about the hypnosis thing?"

Xander scowled again. "Hmmmmm, let me see. You want me to let a super-secret government agency put me under hypnosis. Let someone I don't even know have access to my mind...? No frickin' way! Come on, tell me your bosses wouldn't try to take advantage of the situation!"

Cleburne shrugged. "Well, I wouldn't, but I can't speak for the eggheads and the suits."

Xander stared at him. "Okay, when you *can* speak for them? Talk to me about it then. Because trust is a very tricky thing, in this business."

"Come on, kid. Aren't you being just a bit paranoid, even for you?"

Harris just stared at his companion. "For the record, if you or anyone else gets any funny ideas? You may as well put me to sleep alongside that mind-reader kid you once told me about, for the next three years. Because you will not get another single thing outta me! Even worse, I will spread disinformation in every direction, at every possible opportunity. Do you understand me?"

Graham Miller lowered his paper in shock, while Cleburne just maintained a poker face. But he privately thought, < Damn. And to think I thought we were past this sorta crap! I wonder what brought all this up again? >

Just then, part of the reason why joined the three men at the breakfast table. "Good morning, all..." Rachael Weitz fluttered her eyelashes at Xander, in her habitual expression of teasing charm.

But that was the last straw for this morning, and something inside the former Scooby's mind simply went 'snap'.

Getting up, Xander grabbed Rachael by the arm and ignoring her protests, dragged her away.

Cleburne about got up to intervene, till he saw where Xander was taking her. He then leaned back in the chair, and took out his cell phone. Miller looked at him, "Aren't you going to do anything about that?"

"Nah, they can both handle themselves. Besides, I think the kid needs to work some issues out. I'll give them a few minutes." He dialed a number on the phone, and waited as it rang. "In the meantime...Esther? It's Joshua here, I need that thief of yours to do a job for me...nope, it shouldn't be too hard to pull off, I just need some books from a guy's apartment."

Meanwhile, Xander dragged Rachael into the men's restroom - along with a chair that the propped up against the door, to give them some privacy.

"Just what do you think you're doing?" Rachael demanded, losing the charm as Xander faced her.

"We need to talk, Weitz. And it's long past time."

The Israeli woman hesitated, now suddenly unsure what was going to happen. "What do you-"

Xander interrupted, "You gotta stop with the act."

"What act?"

"No more games, Rachael. You know who I really am. You've known from the moment we met. And I'm betting you also know about the dead girl that I loved, who you so happen to resemble. You want to get me into bed, and relay the pillow talk back home? Stop trying to work that angle. Because I'm telling you right now, ain't never gonna happen."

The Mossad agent was stunned; she hadn't expected Xander to be so blunt about this. But then life and people often have a way of surprising the hell out of you; so she went with the flow and quickly said, "Look, Xander Harris-"

"Don't use that name again. Bad habit to get into."

She rolled her eyes, "Fine, *Alexander*. What do you want me to say? That I have a secret agenda? Okay, I do, but then in this game everybody does - including you! You want me to say that I don't find you attractive, that you're just an assignment to me? Sorry, but that would be a lie..."

Xander started pacing, as just like when he'd talked to the guy called Doyle so long ago...he knew she wasn't lying to him. "Rachael..." Then the former slave stopped and faced her. "We come from two different worlds. Even if I was interested-"

"Oh, come on!" Weitz interrupted. "Israel and America aren't *that* different-!" Then she noticed Xander was *smiling* at her. "What?"

"You just proved my point, sweetheart. Because I wasn't talking about that! See, you weren't born and raised on a Hellmouth; and you still live in a world where, deep down, you can't help believing that somehow humans are definitely at the top of the food chain. Me?"

Harris turned away slightly. "I lost that particular mind-set, a *long* time ago. I was 15 years old, when I first found out about the things that go bump in the night. Killed my first vampire then, who used to be my best friend. I grew up with the knowledge that there are things out there, which consider me nothing but ripe, juicy, tender meat..."

Xander walked to Rachael, who fought not to shrink away from his burning gaze. "So, here's how it's gonna be from now on. The sexual predator act is history. Just be yourself, unless you want me to kick up such a fuss that your government will instantly haul you home to try something else, with someone new. Otherwise, you may as well pack your bags right now. Are we on the same page already?"

For the first time *ever*, Agent Weitz scowled and swore. "You bastard!"

But Xander just laughed, and to her surprise briefly hugged the dark-haired woman. "Now that's more like it!" Then he unblocked the door and left, leaving Rachael staring after him in open-mouthed astonishment.


Sunnydale, California. September 21, 2000

Willow Rosenberg stirred. < Funny, this doesn't feel like my bed. Why is it so cold? > She reached down to try and find the covers, to pull them up. Only problem was, she couldn't find any covers.

Muzzily, Willow tried to remember what had happened. Then it all came rushing back...

Two nights ago, she and Buffy had finally found out about Tara and Jonathan's magic activities, after deciding it was no fun watching a Chinese kung fu movie by themselves. And however bad her own reaction had been, it had been *nothing* compared to Buffy's little tantrum!

But Tara had stood firm, which was yet another reason why Willow truly loved her soul mate. The older woman had stated that she was sorry Buffy was upset, but this was the way it had to be; for the blonde Wiccan lived by the rede which stated "An it harm none, do what ye will". And it was her responsibility to bring Levinson into the fold as whether the Chosen One liked it or not, he was part of the magical community now and Jonathan's powers were definitely growing under her supervision and tutelage.

Well, in the Slayer's defense it was true that Buffy hadn't had it all that easy lately. No boyfriend, arguing with Dawn a lot, and her mother all quiet and introspective; heck, even Giles had been pretty distant lately. And there was that thing over inadvertently taking her little sister to a murder scene...

Even though there had been no crazy people on the streets this time, the owner of the local magic store had still been killed by a pack of vampires - who oddly enough, were just bored with their unlives. And Harmony Kendall had been in Mexico City, failing miserably to become the Big Bad...

Well, as a member of the Scooby gang had once said, the owners of that place had a shelf life shorter than that of a Spinal Tap drummer. But Giles was determined to change all that, after getting a look at the books. Plus after becoming enamored of the store Anya had started hounding him to buy, in partnership with her, what was now known as the Magic Box - as she intended to declare it as a school project and thus make a handsome profit, yet still get a tax write-off on it all.

Focusing back on the present, the redhead opened her eyes, and looked around. She was still in the junkyard that she, Buffy, Tara and Giles had gone to the night before. Willow suddenly remembered the appearance of a large demon, one fitting the description of the creature called Toth that had attacked Giles the previous day in the Box, and him pointing a staff in Buffy's direction...

She subsequently remembered jumping in Buffy's direction, and then waking up here. Willow now looked around in a panic, to make sure that the rest of the Scoobies weren't here with her. < Okay, no sign of the others. That's either a good sign or a bad sign, I'm not sure which one it is just yet. >

The former crush of Xander Harris pulled herself to her feet, her body aching from the night spent on the hard ground. < Better check on the others, after I go home and take a shower, > she thought as the redheaded witch headed to the dorm room she shared with Tara.

And when she finally got there, Willow Rosenberg got quite possibly the shock of her life.


Apartment B, 523 Oak Park Street, Sunnydale. Later that night

Gwen Raiden crouched low, outside the apartment complex. < You know, these new employers of mine are definitely crazy. Still, they pay well and I avoid time in a Federal prison, so guess I can't complain too much. > Thus the so-called Electra Girl figured that for now at least, she'd stick with the deal and keep taking the money and jobs from STW.

That was why Gwen now found herself skulking around in this lovely little town. < Thank you very much Esther Marcum, for telling me vampires really do exist! And there are *way* too many of them around here for my taste. Why can't I get assignments to the French Riviera or something? Well, it could be always worse; and as bosses go, these new guys are decently hands-off, at least. >

Her previous employers, apart from the one known as Mr. Ashet, had been quite unsympathetic to her work ethic. They had wanted to tell her what jobs she could take, when they should be done and a cut of the profits as well. She took all the risks, and they wanted their fair share? Gimme a break!

At least these government boys, and Gwen knew they were connected to the U.S. government somehow, didn't want any of her profits. She could continue doing jobs on the side, but of course part of the deal was they had veto authority over what jobs she accepted. As they really didn't want something incomprehensibly powerful and apocalyptic falling into the wrong hands...

All she had to do was the odd job for them, about once or twice a month. Most of the time, they just wanted books and the like. Every once in a while, a charm or some other mystical item instead. Nothing too serious, so far. Gwen got the feeling that they were still testing her, seeing if she could be trusted.

This job was a bit strange, though, a little different than the others. < Fifty thousand dollars to break into some stuffed shirt's apartment, grab some books, copy them and then return them. And by the way, he can't know that the books were ever *borrowed*... >

It hadn't looked like the job would be all that difficult, at first. But then she'd discovered...

< If only the Brit and his damn groupies would just leave! > It seemed that one or more of them were always in there inside the condo, reading one of the books that seemed to completely dominate the apartment. < Don't these people have lives? If something doesn't happen soon, I'll have to break in while he's asleep. And that's always tricky, what happens if he wants to get a midnight snack? >

Suddenly, there was a commotion in the apartment as the occupants of it came rushing out, and started running towards where the parking lot was. The hidden Gwen waited a short while to make sure they were leaving, and then moved towards the residence to take advantage of the sudden opportunity. < As they say, never look a gift horse in the mouth. As well as - ask, and ye shall receive! >


UC Sunnydale campus, Sunnydale, California. Fifteen minutes later

Buffy blasted open the door to Tara and Willow's dorm room, hoping she wasn't too late. They should have figured out what was going on sooner. "Tara, don't do anything stupid! 'Cause they're both her. Willow, I mean-"

The three individuals in the room looked at Buffy. Tara looked confused, which was quite understandable; for on each side of her was Willow. To her left was a Willow dressed (as Cordelia used to say in high school) by *the softer side of Sears*. To Tara's right was another Willow, dressed all in black; and even her hair and eyes were black in color. She just stared at Buffy with a look of smug superiority.

Buffy caught her breath and continued, "Neither one of 'em is a demon, we were wrong; that lameass demon from last night used some kind of doohickey to split her into two parts!"

Giles, Anya and Jonathan then came through the door, being slower since they didn't have Slayer speed. "That's right, the-the demon Toth, he wanted to split Buffy in two so it would be easier to kill her. Kill the weaker half, y'see, and the other also dies-" the former Watcher spluttered.

The Willow in black spoke up, the other one seeming to retreat away from all the commotion, "So, kill the weak one and the strong one perishes? Hmmm, I'll have to do something to fix that." She looked around, "Speaking of the lameass demon, where is it right now?"

As if in response to her question, the window to the dorm room shattered as Toth jumped into the domicile. He looked around, and spotted Buffy. The last of the clan then raised the rod he had used to split Willow, and pointed it at the blonde Champion. "I will not miss again, Slayer!"

The Willow in black looked bored. "Incindere!" she said with an air of indifference, as a bolt of fire flew from her arms and hit the demon full-on.

Toth turned in surprise, barely having time to raise his arms as he went up in flames; screaming, he disappeared in a column of fire that then disappeared and left an ugly scorch mark on the floor. Dark Willow subsequently waved her hands and the sprinklers, which had started to come to life, went back to their dormant state.

"I didn't want to get wet," she explained simply, barely deigning to notice her audience.

Giles looked at Dark Willow with undisguised amazement. "The rod must have split all of your magic abilities into this persona. I-I-I never knew you had such untapped power-"

"Well, now you do," was the arrogant response.

Buffy looked at her best friend, well one of the versions of her best friend. "Don't worry Will, uh, Wills. We'll, we'll get you back to normal soon-"

Dark Willow turned, and looked at Buffy with disdain. "Excuse me? Just for the record, I don't *want* to go back to normal. And you know what the funniest part is? There is no power known to man, that you can use to make me."

Part Thirteen

Sunnydale, California. September 22, 2000

Josef Lemke walked down the street towards his bookstore, idly reading the newspaper he was carrying. He had a full day at work planned; a new shipment was supposed to come in today, including a new batch of the Harry Potter books. Granted they weren't Josef's first choice of reading materials for children, but then he had to admit that they got the young ones reading, which was half the battle here.

He turned the corner, and his attention was instantly drawn to a young woman dressed all in black. Josef almost paid her no mind, till he got a closer look...

"Willow?" Lemke then asked, with some hesitation. He had never expected her to try out the Goth look!

Dark Willow turned and looked at the Pole, but said nothing. She had strolled out of the dorm the previous evening, casually ignoring everyone's attempts to stop her like brushing aside a bothersome insect, and was basically feeling invulnerable - after blasting to pieces various demons and vampires throughout the night, and getting a handle on her new powers.

"Are you all right? You weren't out all last night partying, were you? I can tell you from experience, that you pay for it the next day," Lemke tactfully didn't mention that the experience came from large groups of drunken soldiers and secret agents.

Dark Willow regarded Josef with a superior look. "I've never felt better, Josef. Because there's so much power within me, now. Coursing through my veins, it's's a real rush. Ya know what? I finally get Buffy now..."

Lemke now was really worried. < Don't tell me that Willow went and did drugs? > The undercover STW agent again moved forward towards the black-clad witch.

She then looked at him, and Josef got a good look at her black eyes. He saw the complete lack of any human compassion and instantly stopped as Willow started to speak again, "No concern of mine. I'm beyond you."

With that, she turned around and walked away, leaving Lemke in shock. After a few seconds, Buffy came running out of one of the nearby alleys. She saw Lemke, knowing him from the times she had stopped by his bookstore. She ran up to him, "Josef? Mr. Lemke? Have you, uh, seen Willow?"

Josef nodded in the direction that the super-witch had walked off in. "She went thataway. Um, is she all right? She looked - strange..."

Buffy hurriedly thought for a second. "No, uh, some goofball in the dorm thought it would be a great joke to feed her some...special brownies, if you get my drift. Now I have to find her to make sure she doesn't hurt herself!" With that, Buffy ran off in the direction that Willow had gone.

< Special brownies? Oh, please, come on, that was no marijuana effect! > Lemke cynically thought to himself, as he started walking towards his store at a quick pace. < That is most definitely Hellmouth-related. I better make a phone call... >


The Magic Box, Sunnydale, California. The same time

Giles hurriedly unlocked the door to his new business. He held it open and allowed Tara, Nerdy Willow, Jonathan and Anya to enter. He then closed the door behind him, after the Brit himself entered.

"I'm sure the spell we're looking for is in one of the books I brought over yesterday. Look in the boxes marked 'personal books'!" Giles motioned at a collection of boxes in the middle of the showroom. The Scoobies hurriedly started pulling out books, and looking through them.

"I hate to ask this-" Jonathan started to say.

"So then don't! Like we don't have anything better to do, than listen to an unsatisfied virgin like yourself?" Anya snapped.

Jonathan continued on, as he had learned that it was best sometimes to just ignore Anya. "Uh, what exactly do we do when Buffy gets Willow back here? You saw what she did, her power is beyond all of ours..."

"W-w-we'll do what we have to. I can't believe that there's nothing of Willow in there that we can't reach," Tara replied.

"But, if she doesn't want to be-" Jonathan started.

"Mr. Levinson!" Giles snapped. "We'll worry about that, once we have the re-integration spell ready. So keep looking for it. The sooner we find it, the better!"

Jonathan nodded sheepishly at Giles' reproach, and went back to flipping through the various books he pulled out of the boxes.


20,000 feet above the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia. Ten minutes later

Xander wrote down the final notes from the recent assignment sent to him by the Wizard. Unfortunately for Harris, the child genius was fully conversant in pure and applied mathematics and expected the same of his students.

Irving had also prevailed upon several other professors at the University of Chicago to join in on remote-teaching Xander and the other Siberians, who were furthering their education. Therefore, the man currently with STW was getting assignments in a myriad of academic disciplines.

Xander had noted from the number of subjects he was doing, that he might actually be eligible for a college diploma under his new alias by early 2003. < Huh. Not too bad, for someone whose parents told him that his greatest accomplishment in life would be working as a burger jockey at the local Double-Meat Palace! >

Across the aisle from his, Cleburne was sleeping in one of the seats, while Graham Miller and Rachael Weitz were resting in the cabin chairs behind them.

Cleburne's sleep was suddenly disturbed, by the buzzing of the phone on the console off to the side. The secret agent reached up and grabbed the phone. "What?" he almost growled into it.

After listening a few seconds, Joshua straightened up. "Yeah, he's here with me, why do you ask?" He listened for about 30 seconds...

Cleburne then covered the receiver with his hand, and leaned over to Xander. "Hey, kid. Your friend, Willow Rosenberg? She's dressed all in black, dyed her hair completely black and her eyes are glowing black. Just wanted to ask, do we need to be worried?"


Greenbear Office Complex, Sunnydale, California. Thirty minutes later

Gwen Raiden sighed to herself. The downside to her stealing the books was that she had to copy them. And copying them meant that she had to obtain a fair amount of privacy, for a long period of time. She didn't think that she could spend hours at Kinko's copying Rupert's diaries, without attracting any attention! And it would be just her luck that the British guy, or one of his teenage helpers, would wander through and spot the reading material.

So, she had gotten creative. Gwen had used one of STW's shell companies to rent an office suite here in town, and had had furniture and supplies delivered there. If anyone had had asked questions, which *really* wasn't likely in this town, they would have been told that an import/export business was getting ready to open up shop in the suite.

As it was, she had not been bothered all morning ever since she'd arrived back with the books. And now, the thief was about three-fourths of the way through her task.

< You know, if this guy didn't spend so much time writing down every single thing that's happened around here, I would've been done long before now! You don't see *me* writing down everything that happens to me during the day. Which is a good thing, as that way I don't leave any evidence behind for a Federal prosecutor to use! >

Gwen had become exasperated early on, at the sheer volume of work. So, her solution to the problem was to take a digital photograph of each page of the diaries. She had even brought along a spare digital camera, in case something went wrong with the original machine. Luckily though, the camera was powering along just fine and would have the job done soon.

Ms. Raiden glanced out of the window in sheer boredom, and looked at the park across the street. She saw a girl dressed all in black stride into it. Gwen didn't think anything of the matter though, and continued on photographing the invaluable Watcher diaries.


Weatherly Park, Sunnydale, California. Fifteen minutes later

Buffy ran down the trail. She had been tracking the badass version of Willow Rosenberg that seemed to have gone all über-witch in a bad way, for some time now.

< This is bad, really bad! > the Slayer thought to herself. < A Willow with superpowers and a-a-a mega-superiority complex. What else could go wrong? > Buffy then winced, as she realized that she may have just jinxed herself.

The blonde suddenly spotted another sign that Dark Willow had been this way; a ring of scorched earth. Buffy grimaced at that. Willow was definitely gaining in strength. The Chosen One slowed down for a second, to catch her breath.

"It has to be hard to be so human, don't you think?"

Buffy turned around towards the source of the comment, and saw Dark Willow staring at her with that look of smug superiority she had more-or-less worn nonstop ever since the separation of her two halves, via the ferula-gemina. < Okay, here goes nothing! >

"Will, you need help-" Buffy started to say to her oldest female friend.

"Help? Why would I need help? Buffy, I understand the magic now, all of it. I can do things I could only ever dream about before..." The pure Wiccan started walking around Buffy in a circle. "I only have to imagine it. Then I can use the power I have, to just make it happen. There's no limit to what I can do now - except maybe raise the dead? That's kinda tricky. But trust me, what I know I'm capable's quite intoxicating!"

"This isn't you, Willow..." Buffy said with an almost pleading tone to her voice.

"Oh, is the big bad Slayer upset because I'm upstaging her power trip? She's no longer the center of attention. The world doesn't revolve around her anymore..." Willow stopped, folded her arms and stared at the Slayer. "Well, boo-hoo. I have to admit, it's a nice change for once not to be the sidekick of the story."

"You're not a...look, we can help you Willow. Just-" Buffy almost whispered.

"Again with the helping thing? Oh my Goddess - it's like, in the past your personal crises always seem to involve us, the Slayerettes I mean, and somehow seem to lead to a possible end-of-the-world deal. Friends come up for sacrifice..."

For a second Buffy thought she saw some emotion in the witch's face, but then Dark Willow continued on, "We always run around consoling you, soothing your feelings. Reminding you that you'll win in the end because you're special, because you're the Slayer. But the funny part is, the sun that is Buffy just can't seem to worry too much about others. Xander on that sidewalk, being a case in point."


"Although, I get it now. Really, Buffy, I do. With all that power, we must have seemed like nothing more than annoyances. Pets, at best. You just couldn't be bothered to really notice us. But, now? Well, the shoe is on the other foot. We both know that I'm so far beyond you at the moment - I could end your life, with just a thought - that it has to be pretty damn upsetting for you."

Buffy instinctively took a step towards Willow, but stopped when the black-haired girl glared at her. "Willow, that demon...he did something that affected you. Made you like...this. I can't ever see you being this way, without some kind of dark magic mojo going on-"

"You mean - I could never be someone that really mattered to you, as a person? I'm supposed to always be Doormat Girl, a supporting cast member of the Slayer story?"

"No! Look, Willow, you're in danger. Don't forget that demon wanted to split me in half, so as to kill the normal human version of me. Remember? Kill one half, and the other half dies too? You're...the other Willow is out there, basically unprotected..."

Dark Willow cocked her head to one side. "Right, I forgot. Yeah, the weak one - that nerd gets killed, and I die too. Can't have that now, can I? Thanks for reminding me, Buff; I'll have to do something about that, pronto."

With that smoke began to curl up around Willow's body, as red fire flashed in her eyes. And just like in a world where Tara Maclay had been murdered by Warren Mears, lightning appeared as her whole body dissipated into smoke. After a few seconds, Dark Willow vanished from sight - airborne, and on her way to her other self.

"Oh, *crap*!" Buffy muttered to herself, as she started running out of the park. < That did *not* go according to plan! >


U.S. Air Force transport aircraft, 30,000 feet over Missouri. The same time


When Cleburne had asked Xander the question about black-eyed Willow, the former Scooby had almost instantly commandeered the plane to head for southern California, and to hell with the coma-inducing headaches. Only Cleburne making it abundantly clear that their plane did not have sufficient fuel to make the trip nonstop, had convinced Harris to go along with landing, refueling and getting back in the air - in record time.

Now that the plane was en route for Sunnydale, Cleburne's concerns over Xander going back to his hometown were overridden by the former Slayerette's veiled hints that this version of Willow was really bad news.

And Xander, trying to figure out what had caused Dark Willow to emerge, had been so wrapped up in thought that he hadn't noticed Cleburne sitting down next to him. "Yeah?" Harris answered to the comment, without looking away from the window.

"Just wanted to say, I know there are some things you don't want to let us in on, and I can understand that. However, based on your reactions just now, I think we've come to a point where I need to see some more behind the curtain. I have my suspicions, but I need them confirmed if we're going into a hot LZ."

Xander turned to face the secret agent and nodded. "I guess so. A little peek may be in order."

Joshua nodded too. "Well, I gather Willow Rosenberg is the witch who tried to destroy the world in the future. Me and Marcum kinda figured that out, back in San Francisco. You told us then, that the trigger for all that was the guy called Warren Mears. Now, we both know that he's dead. And yet, here we have Little Miss Über-witch on the prowl! Any idea on how this happened?"

"Best guess is, something must have happened to Tara."

Cleburne thought for a second. "Tara Maclay, right - Lemke's mentioned her as coming into his bookstore a few times. That's what set Ms. Rosenberg off the first time?"

"Yeah. Warren stormed into Buffy's backyard, blasting away with a gun-" Xander then noticed Cleburne had a disapproving look, at the use of the word 'gun'. Xander remembered from some of their sessions on the firing range that the USMC colonel had referred to them as weapons or pistols, but never guns. < It's probably a Marine thing. Eh, whatever, > he quickly thought, as the guy then continued to gather his thoughts.

"Well, Tara was killed by a stray bullet. Willow went all revenge-y, and got a bunch of dark power to hunt Warren down. She killed the asshole after she flayed him alive, but that wasn't enough. The power had...corrupted her, is the best way to put it, and Will eventually figured she would end everyone's problems by ending the world."

Cleburne nodded and looked around; they had the front of the cabin to themselves. Rachael, Graham and Gunny (who had joined them at the airport) were all in the back of the plane, giving Xander a wide berth. "So, what stopped her from doing so? Or is she the big evil we should be expecting, in 2003?"

"What? NO! And as for how we stopped her..." Xander paused, not wanting to give everything away about what had happened on Kingman's Bluff that morning. "We didn't, she stopped herself. I almost got killed that day talking her down, granted-"

"What if you can't do that again, without collapsing in pain along with the screaming-in-agony thing? I remember you saying that being close to people you have duplicate memories of, before the date you last saw them, leads to problems for you. So if worst comes to worst, what do you suggest we do?"

Xander turned away, to Cleburne's great consternation, and looked out the window again. What he was about to say, would have appalled and disgusted his former teenage self - but then, that Xander had died off a long time ago, both from the whips of the demons and with the passing of the years.

So the former slave and determined survivor said simply, "Get Marcum to call the President, and be ready to drop a nuke on the Hellmouth."


The Magic Box, Sunnydale, California. A few minutes later

Buffy flung the door open to the shop, without slowing down. "Giles, everyone! Willow's on her way here to-"

"We know!" Giles shouted out, interrupting the Chosen One. "We know, Buffy." And the sight that greeted the Slayer did not fill her with confidence.

Dark Willow was on one side of the store, pacing slowly. On the opposite side from her was the Nerdy Willow, trying to stay as far away from her counterpart as possible.

In the middle of the room, stood Giles and Anya. They had drawn a large circle, and placed candles around it. Giles had a book in his hand, and was flipping through the pages furiously. "I-I-I would go and lose my place, at a time like this!"

Dark Willow took some more steps around the room. "Come on, you can't really be planning to defend her, can you? Look at her! She's such a burden on everybody. Just let me take care of this, I promise it'll be best for everyone concerned!"

But suddenly, standing in front of the normal-looking Willow was Tara and Jonathan. And both of them looked determined to defend their charge to the bitter end. "L-l-leave her alone. This isn't right," Tara stammered.

Dark Willow looked at Tara. "But sweetie, once she's taken care of - it'll be all you and me. Just imagine what I can do for you! With you. *To* you!" Tara gulped at the feral tone in Willow's voice.

"You leave her alone. You're not doing anything to anybody!" Jonathan stated, with a degree of firmness that surprised the Scoobies in the room.

Dark Willow regarded him for a second. "Little man, you picked a hell of a time to grow a spine! Just outta interest, what do you intend to do to stop me?"

"Whatever it takes. You're not harming Tara and Willow."

"But I *am* Willow. Don't you recognize me, Jonathan?" the über-witch said with a smirk.

"You're not the *real* Willow, Darth Rosenberg. You're a part of Willow, yeah, but not the real deal. And I know that, because I've known her nearly all my life - certainly much longer than anyone else in this room. You're just her inner demons, come out to play. You know what you basically are? A false face, with all the magic ability - that's all."

Dark Willow couldn't help it; she burst out laughing. "Oh, this is too rich. The nerd is actually trying to stand up to me? What's next? You think you can take Buffy in a fight?"

Jonathan glared at her, with a nerve born from Tara's friendship and tutelage. "If she ever lost it the way you have, Witchipoo, you better believe I'd try..."

Dark Willow leaned her head back and laughed again, in genuine amusement. Buffy used the distraction to launch an attack at the witch. < Well, talking hasn't worked so far, maybe I can restrain her long enough for Giles to do his thing... >

Her attack caught Dark Willow off-guard, and knocked her through a bookcase. < Just stay down! >

But Buffy's desire was not granted, as a figure in black climbed up from behind the broken bookcase. "Oh, so now the Slayer wants to learn what real power is? I think I can squeeze in some time for tutoring." The witch advanced so quickly that Buffy barely had time block her punch, that nonetheless sent her flying to the front of the store - knocking over a display case.

"Hey! Careful with the merchandise!" Anya yelped indignantly.

Dark Willow ignored her, as she advanced on the blonde Champion. "You know what, Buffy? I bet that has *got* to hurt. How long has it been since you faced someone able to give you a run for your money, anyway? The Mayor? Angelus? Been a few years, hasn't it?"

The black-haired woman then easily blocked the punch that Buffy sent her way. However, as strong as Dark Willow was, she was not as skilled as the Slayer at unarmed combat. Therefore, she didn't expect the roundhouse kick that Buffy sent almost right after the punch; the kick connected hard, and its intended target was knocked backwards.

Buffy ran forward and pressed her advantage. As much as she hated to do it, she held nothing back; because this version of Willow was too strong to try and play games with. And this point was proven to her, when a bolt of electricity hit Buffy full-on and flung her back to the ground.

Dark Willow turned her attention back to her mundane counterpart. "Right, now as for you..."

Yet before she could do anything, Tara and Jonathan chanted a phrase in unison and a green shimmer appeared in front of them. "A mystic shield. I'm impressed! Tara, your lessons with Jon boy have definitely been more productive than I thought," Dark Willow smirked.

"I won't let you harm her!" Tara said nervously.

"Harm her? Uh, what made ya think that was my plan? Because hey, honey, I know better than that! Believe me, she'll be perfectly safe when I'm done. No one will be able to get to her, *literally*, when I put her out of phase with the time stream - permanently. 'Course, she might end up completely nuts from being alone for the rest of her life; but hey, who cares if she goes all fruit-loopy after a few years?" Dark Willow smirked *again*.

"Willow," Giles had finally found his place in the magic book. "You mustn't do this. We, we need to re-integrate you again, as soon as possible. You-you-you can't survive in the long term, as two separate halves-"

"Geez, Giles! Give it up already. You want to diminish me, make me what I was before. Well, screw that! To quote Jerry Seinfeld, I can't go back. I *won't*!"

As she finished her statement, Dark Willow sent a bolt of power into the shield that Tara and Jonathan had erected. It flared for a second, but held up - barely.

Before a second bolt could be sent towards its target, Buffy popped up next to the super-witch. "Willow, we just want to help you!" And with that, the young woman sent a vicious punch into her friend's face that sent her staggering back.

The punch actually drew a little blood, as Dark Willow looked surprised. "You know, Buffy, you have a funny way of helping people - Slayer-style! I bet you'd make one heckuva high school counselor..."

"Willow, stop. Listen to what we're saying! Giles knows what he's talking about, you have to go back-" Buffy almost pleaded.

"WHY!?!" Dark Willow seemed to be losing her temper. "Give me one good reason why I should go back to *that*?" She pointed at the mundane Willow. "Just look at her. She's weak, pathetic. Pushed around all the time, and afraid to stand up for herself!" the black-clad Willow glared at her counterpart.

The witch ranted at the hacker, "All those years of taking abuse from Cordelia and her sheep, I wanted so much to hurt them for it - but you wouldn't *let* me! And then sophomore year and beyond, what do you do? You become nothing more than Buffy's sheep! Following her lead. Doing anything to get into her good graces. Even the unthinkable..."

Dark Willow actually seemed to darken a little bit more, if that was possible. "You - no, *we* - were in love with Xander Harris for all those years, right from the first day in kindergarten. The yellow crayon boy, huh? You were mooning after him, even before you realized you were doing it; but me, *I* knew what I wanted straightaway. Still, you held me back on that as well; you never, *ever* had the courage to let me tell him how we felt. You just locked yourself away in your room, and planned your marriage to him from when we were six years old..."

"You, you leave Xander out of this," Nerdy Willow said abruptly. And they were the first words she had spoken, ever since Buffy had gotten to the Magic Box.

"Leave him? Oh yeah, let's talk about *that* subject now, shall we?! Because you certainly did that, didn't you? And don't try to deny it; we left him there lying in the gutter, that horrible night. *I* wanted to take Xander home, but *you* turned your back on your oldest friend, who'd saved both our lives countless times and always been there for us - ever since we were in footy pyjamas. And *why* did you do it? Just because Buffy was mad at him!"

"I went back!" Normal Willow protested.

"You went back, because *Buffy* went back! You needed her approval to go and help your best friend?! How pathetic is that?" Dark Willow seemed to be towering in rage, while the Slayer looked aside at hearing the exchange between the two Willows. "Like I said before, screw this whole thing. Because you're everything about myself that I despise, Rosenberg. And it'll be a cold day in Hell, before I ever join forces with *you*!!!"

With that, Dark Willow flung her arms out and sent a lightning bolt of power screaming towards her doppelganger. Both Tara and Jonathan threw their arms up in a futile attempt to block the bolt; but the mystic shield could be heard to shatter, as the two of them were blasted aside. Jonathan hit the stairs going up to the mezzanine level, and Tara was thrown over the counter where the cash register was.

Buffy quickly lunged at Dark Willow. The black-clad witch just shifted her position slightly, and easily backhanded Buffy away. The force was such that the Slayer staggered on her feet for a second, as her opponent followed up with an energy bolt that sent her over to the stairs - where Jonathan was just struggling to his feet. The two of them fell back down, hopelessly entangled as the duo tried to get back up.

Anya seemed torn for a second, as she waged an internal battle with herself. She alone had faced off against Willow, when the redhead had gone all blacked-eyed like this before; and it was not a pleasant memory, besides that whole thing with losing her powers.

The former Anyanka remembered that even as a vengeance demon, it had been a painful experience taking on a witch of this level. And now as a human, she was more than a little afraid of what might happen to her, if the brunette got in the middle of what was unfolding in front of her.

Anya glanced over at Giles, who was waiting for the right opportunity to break Toth's spell. Of course, they needed to get the Willows in the right position to do that. So Anya screwed up her courage, and leapt at the magical version of Ms. Rosenberg.

Dark Willow had turned back to face her nerdy counterpart; Anya's attack took her off-guard, and the two of them fell over. "Hurry up, Giles, get her in place!" Anya called out.

Rupert started to head over to where the computer hacker version of Willow was, when suddenly Anya flew past his head towards the front of the store. Giles turned quickly, and came face to face with the black-haired Willow. < Oh, dear... >

"Well, Daddy, it appears that now it's just you and me - and me," the über-witch said, with a small laugh. "Whatever am I going to do with you?" She then started to advance towards the former Watcher.


Giles and Dark Willow turned at once to the source of the command, and saw that Nerdy Willow had decide to intervene decisively in the events as they unfolded. For she had picked up something, that now riveted the attention of the combatants.

A knife.

It didn't look like anything beyond a glorified letter-opener; it certainly didn't look to be magical, or overly-decorated. No one would have given it a second glance, except for one fact.

Normal Willow had it firmly in her hands, and was holding it against her own throat.

Dark Willow frowned. "What the hell is this?" She started to step towards her counterpart.

"Hold it! Stay right where you are, you-you meanie! You so much as twitch, and I-I-I'll make something happen to you - by doing it to myself!"

"Willow-" Giles half-whispered, not liking where this was going.

"Not now, Giles!" Willow cried out, never taking her eyes off her dark mirror version. "Look, this whole thing is crazy! The fact is that if one of us gets killed, the other one also dies. So let's cut to the chase; no matter what you do, I'll still find a way to kill myself!"

"Willow!!!" That was Buffy, who had finally managed to get clear of Jonathan.

Hacker Willow just ignored her. "No matter where you send me, I'll find *some* way to do it. Slash my wrists, hang myself - wh-whatever. Even if I was outside the time stream, I'd find a way to do it. And when I did, you would die. And that's the last thing you want, right?"

"Who do you think you're trying to bluff, you moron? You won't do it. Not only do you not have the guts, it's a mortal sin to commit suicide! You're so afraid of your parents, you won't do anything to offend their religion. Remember how afraid you were, of hanging a cross in your bedroom during sophomore year? That would have driven your Jewish father crazy, if he'd ever found out! So just put down-"

"No. You're right, I don't want to die, anymore than you do - but, but better a mortal sin like that, than let *you* loose on the world!"

The black-haired Willow frowned in disbelief. "You'd actually prefer to go to Hell that way? You'd never see Xander again, in the afterlife-"

The redhead only pressed the knife closer into her throat. "At least, w-we'd go there together. And as for Xander - you, you really think he ever wants to see us again? Plus, he gave his life to save the world. I think following his example would be something I could live with...or not live with, i-if you know what I mean-"

Dark Willow scowled at her counterpart. "All right, what do you want?"

Normal Willow slowly stepped into the right spot, never taking her eyes off the seething witch. "Just stand still and don't move. Giles, do it now!"

Giles stepped forward and spoke, "Let the spell be ended."

Willow looked at Giles, after she blinked. "Okay, what's next?"

Buffy spoke up, "Willow, look around. There's only one of you left in here now."

Ms. Rosenberg hurriedly looked around the room, and confirmed the fact the room contained only one version of herself. "Oh." She let the knife drop from her throat. "Oh! I, I need to sit down..." and with that, the redhead promptly fainted.


Outside the Magic Box, Sunnydale, California. Thirty minutes later

Josef Lemke pulled the door of the Box shut behind him, as he exited the store. He sighed to himself in relief. < Well, that's one emergency that seems to have handled itself, thank God. >

Willow was no longer sporting the Goth look. She was now looking very much the subdued Wiccan student he had come to know, during his time in Sunnydale. Green eyes and red hair was what he'd seen this time, instead of way-creepy black hair and eyes.

Lemke had been surprised, when Cleburne himself had returned the call that he had placed to his former employers. About an hour earlier, his cell phone had been the instrument of the conversation between the two of them.

Cleburne and Xander were en route to Sunnydale, and would be there in a couple of hours. Until they got there, Lemke was to find and delay the bookstore clerk he had grown fond of during the past year or so.

Lemke had trouble believing it at first, when Cleburne had told him the potential existed for Willow Rosenberg to literally end the world. Still, the husband of Joyce's CPA knew his former boss well enough to know that there were some things Mother Hen did not joke about, doomsday being one of them.

He had also been told that if Willow headed for or got to Kingman's Bluff, not to waste time waiting for reinforcements. He was to terminate Ms. Rosenberg with extreme prejudice, using whatever means available to do so.

Lemke had gone to his store, and retrieved the sniper rifle he had hidden there. He hated the thought of having to kill Willow, but he knew that if it came down to choosing between her and the world, his wife and his unborn child, well - it wasn't really a choice for him at all.

Lemke had spent the next little bit, after setting up a sniper's nest within a grassy knoll close to Kingman's Bluff, looking for his employee. Checking at the Magic Box, which he knew her friend Rupert Giles had just bought, he had encountered the whole group of her friends. They had been clustered around her as she sat at a table, looking freaked and drinking a cup of tea.

He'd played the part of the worried friend/employer. Well, actually, he really didn't need to pretend at that role too much, as Lemke really considered himself a friend of Willow, albeit one that knew a lot more that anyone realized.

Willow and her friends had stuck to the story of the college girl being given some drug-laced brownies by some dormmates. Willow had cracked a joke about her feeling beside herself, from all the attention being showered on her. Her friends had just shared the in-joke amongst themselves.

Lemke had made sympathetic noises about legal action being taken against the offenders, and that Willow should go home. He'd then told his Wiccan employee that he could make do without her, albeit with a lot of effort, at the store for a little while. She should just come back when she felt up to it.

Lemke briskly made the short walk from the Magic Box to his store. And as he unlocked his place of business, a black-haired young woman approached him.

"Mr. Lemke?"

"That's me, can I help you?" Lemke turned and looked at her.

"Mother Hen sent me," Gwen Raiden said, repeating what Esther Marcum had told her to say the bookstore owner. Lemke nodded, and motioned the woman into the store.

Cleburne hadn't been the only Siberian who had sprung into action, after Xander's reaction to Willow's condition. Esther Marcum had definitely not been idle, after the warning that the apocalypse might be at hand.

The first call she had made was to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After a tense ten minutes of explanations, the arrangements had been made for the ultimate fallback position to be in place, if things went *completely* south in Sunnydale.

Esther had then called the asset she had on-site, Gwen Raiden. Mrs. Marcum had figured that as good as Lemke was, extra help of the paranormal kind would definitely come in handy in an end-of-the-world situation. As in addition to being a very good thief, Gwen had that whole 'lightning bolts from her hands' thing going for her.

Esther had also been worried with Dark Willow making an appearance that others might stir up trouble, so she had put out an all-hands-to-battlestations alert for STW. After all, they knew that the First's Bringers had been spotted in Sunnydale a few months earlier; and for all anyone knew, there could be a chartered plane headed there right now, to take advantage of the situation.

So, Gwen's photographing of the Watcher journals had been interrupted by the ringing of her cell phone. Ms. Raiden had been given instructions on who to look for, where to find him and what to say. She had quickly locked the office suite, leaving the few books left to photograph off to the side, and headed to the bookstore.

Which led her to the current meeting she was having with Lemke, who towered over her. "How is Mother Hen? He wasn't too rough when he sent you here, was he?" Lemke asked.

"He?" Gwen shook her head. "Uh, I spoke to a woman. She just said to say that Mother Hen sent me. And I never really pictured her as a mother hen type," She followed him over to the counter.

< Must have been Esther Marcum she talked to. Cleburne must be moving so quick to get here, that Esther is minding the HQ. > "Well, okay. Thing is, the one we call Mother Hen - let me tell you, he seems even less of the mother hen type until you get to know him, really well that is," Lemke responded.

Gwen looked around nervously. "Not to rush you, but the woman I talked to seemed to think the world might be destroyed any second, if we don't put the kibosh on some big nasty. So what's the situation?"

Lemke smiled. "We can all relax, looks like the home team has taken care of the red alert for us. Just came from checking on them, and everything looks normal." He paused for a second "Well, as normal as you can get in *this* town."

"You sure? No chance someone is pulling the wool over your eyes?" Gwen wanted to make certain, since she didn't have a ticket to get off the earth in a hurry.

"Eyes are wool-free," The bookstore owner reached under the counter, and pulled out a telephone. "Suppose I should let the others know as well, before we have a convention arrive in town."

"Convention?" Gwen asked with raised eyebrows.

"Yeah, only they would be nothing like the shriners," Lemke joked, as he dialed a number that he had committed to memory. It rang a few times, before the owner of the phone answered.


Lemke wryly noted that the other party's phone manner hadn't really improved that much, ever since he had retired. "Lemke here, Colonel. Code Green. Situation is under control."

Cleburne paused for a second. "Any fatalities?" The senior Siberian knew enough about Xander Harris to know that he would not take the death of Willow Rosenberg well at all, despite everything.

"No deaths, as far as I can tell."

"What happened? How did the situation get taken care of?"

"Not sure. Looks like the local talent pulled it off, somehow. I was just at there at home base, and the subject in question was completely normal, other than trying to find a reasonable explanation to give me as to what had happened earlier." Lemke didn't want to get too specific, as he didn't know who might be listening in on their conversation.

"Good, we're on our way there. Is the young lady the home office sent there with you?"

Lemke looked over at Gwen, and suddenly realized he didn't even know her name. "Yes, she's standing here with me right now."

"Ask her if the materials she's getting for us will be ready in a couple of hours."

Lemke turned to Gwen. "Whatever you're doing here in town, can you get it done within two hours or so?"

Raiden thought for a second. "Yeah, I'm close to being finished now. I can have it ready by then. Actually, it might take more time putting the originals back afterwards."

Lemke nodded, and turned back to the receiver in his hand. "She says she can have the package ready by then."

"Good, we'll be landing at the airport in two hours max. Tell the woman with you, she can check at whatever local bank there she uses to confirm payment. See you in two." With that, Lemke heard Cleburne hang up.

"He said to say they're going to be at the airport in two hours, to pick up whatever it is you've got for them. You can check on your payment at the local branch of whatever bank you use. By the way, I'm Josef."

"Gwen. Tell me, you any good with a digital camera?" If he was able to help, she could wrap it all up that much quicker and have more time to put the diaries back in place at the Englishman's apartment.

"As good as the next guy," was his response.

"Good. Come on then, you can help me."


Apartment B, 523 Oak Park Street, Sunnydale. Ninety minutes later

Gwen silently made her way back to the window that she had entered through. With the help of the man from the bookstore, they had been able to finish photographing the Watcher diaries in just under 45 minutes.

The thief was glad of that, as the task of returning the books to the apartment had taken longer than she'd expected. A phone crew had been in the area, and she didn't want to be spotted by them. But they had finally gone away, and the job had gotten done.

Gwen had slipped into the apartment and returned the volumes, exactly where they had been before. On the way out, she noted some photographs - next to the occupant's record collection.

< Hmmm, never pictured him as fan of that kind of music. The things I learn when doing the burglary thing. Now to my favorite part of any job, getting paid! > she thought to herself, as Gwen Raiden slipped out of the window.


Sunnydale Airport, Sunnydale, California. Thirty minutes later

The plane that had carried the Siberians to the Hellmouth was sitting on the tarmac, well away from the terminal and in a location guaranteed to avoid prying eyes. Still, Xander understood Cleburne's orders for him to not leave the plane under any circumstances.

One thing about Sunnydale that Mr. Harris had learned over the years, was that no matter how well you prepared against it, you should always assume the worst would happen. So he went along with the orders, without complaint.

Of course, he wasn't happy about it one bit. < I'm home, yet not. This feels no different to being in Wiesbaden, or Prague... >

As Xander pondered his unhappiness, Lemke and Gwen came on board. Cleburne greeted his former comrade-in-arms at once, "Hey, you big Polack, you!" he said with a big grin on his face.

"And you're still the same dumb redneck you always were, I'm glad to see!" Lemke replied, as the two of them hugged in the manner that men who had often faced death together in combat did.

Lemke turned to Charles Rose. "Gunny! You still keeping an eye on this guy?" he said as the two of them hugged.

"Trying to - but you know how officers are, ol' buddy. I'm hoping someday, he might make a good lance corporal."

"Oh, ha-ha, very funny Gunny," Cleburne commented. "Just wait until you see my Christmas present for you this year... "

Lemke grinned. "Oh, you should talk. It's been forever since I heard from you, and when I do? It's something about the end of the world! I swear, my pension should come with hazardous duty pay!"

Cleburne chuckled. "Hey, you do get the alumni discount at the company store..." He turned to Gwen. "Do you have the package?"

The raven-haired thief nodded. "Here you go." She handed over an envelope to Cleburne, as Lemke said hello to Xander without using his real name; and the young man said hi back.

Joshua looked in the envelope. < Feels kinda light for all the volumes that Watcher guy was supposed to have written. > The man then looked up at Raiden. "Computer discs?"

"Yeah, figured it would be easier to take a digital picture of every page. Easier to carry that way, anyhow."

Cleburne nodded at that, it made sense. "Good, everything in order on the financial side?"

"Haven't checked yet. I'll do it once we're done here." Gwen shrugged. "I assume the government won't try to stiff me, if they want to keep me on retainer."

He nodded again. Then Cleburne, Gunny and Lemke went to the back of the cabin, for privacy in order to go over events in Sunnydale in more detail. Graham Miller got off the plane to stretch his legs. And after a few minutes, Rachael excused herself and wandered to the galley, saying something about trying to find something to eat, although Xander thought she looked a little green...

Plane food; it always gets you, every time. It would probably be a bad idea for her to eat something right then. That left Xander and Gwen Raiden alone, sitting in the cabin.

After a few minutes of strained silence, Xander spoke up. "So, come here often?"

Gwen looked at the young man who had asked her that question. "Oh yeah, I come to the Hellmouth a *lot* for rest and relaxation. It's really the happening place, let me tell you."

Xander laughed at her acerbic sense of humor, which felt similar to her own. "You should try the night life."

Gwen shook her head. "No thank you. I like my blood on the inside of me, not being sucked out of my neck!"

Xander laughed again. "You know quite a bit about Sunnyhell, sounds like."

"Well, I *am* a professional. I like to know the lay of the land, before I ever set foot on the ground. So, who are you anyway? Got a fancy codename like the others?" < And Mother Hen? You would think the spies would have something cooler, than calling themselves a barnyard animal! >

"Sorry, that's top secret."

Gwen smirked at that response. "Well, like this isn't?" She then took off one of her gloves, and sent a bolt of lightning into the chair behind them.

Xander stared for a second. < Whoa, neat trick! > he thought, as his brain automatically started trying to remember if he had ever heard of a lightning bolt-throwing hottie before.

Suddenly, Harris remembered Willow saying something in that future history. < What was it, now? Oh right, Angel had fought this hugeass rock-like demon before he temporarily lost his soul, and about the same time a woman who could hurl lightning bolts had been hanging around the Hyperion Hotel. What was her name...oh, yeah, the same as that Thunder God guy in the 'Mortal Kombat' flick, wasn't it...? >

"Raiden?" Xander said tentatively, still lost in the memories.

"What? Hey, wait, how did you know my name-?"

Xander held up his hands, to stem the questions coming from the thief towards him. "I've heard of you before, vaguely that is. Took me a few minutes to place you. Gwen, right?"

She nodded at that. < Who *is* this guy? > Then Gwen looked more closely at him. < Whoa, hold the phone - wasn't he in that picture I saw not long ago, in the Brit's apartment? >

"Look Gwen, one day you're going to meet someone called Angel, and get into a fight with a really badass demon. Well, at least you were *supposed* to - things may have changed now..."

Gwen stared at her companion in open-mouthed astonishment, as Xander continued on. "Anyhow, if it pans out that way you can trust Deadboy, uh - that's the nickname I have for him. You can trust him with your life even, but that's all I know..."

Gwen shut her mouth and looked at him with suspicion, and Xander just shrugged in response. " I know it sounds insane, but I'm serious."

"I don't see any crystal balls around here, pal. Who are you, anyway?"

Xander hesitated for a second. "Call me Alexander Hall. And I don't need a crystal ball."

Raiden narrowed her eyes. "That's not your real name, is it?"

Harris shook his head. "No, but what can I say? It's the name I use nowadays, anyway." He then grinned and winked, using the good old-fashioned Xander charm that in ancient times had melted the hearts of two Slayers, a witch and a cheerleader. "Hey, trust me. Besides, us freaks gotta stick together, you know what I mean?"

Gwen just stared at her companion. "Look, tell the others I went to stretch my legs - got them all cramped sitting here, and I'll be outside if they need me..." With that, she turned around and quickly exited the plane.

Xander sighed. < Well, either I drive them away, or they seek me out due to my *gift*. Now I know how Buffy felt, about not having a normal life... >


Fifteen minutes later

Cleburne and the others returned to the cabin. The Siberian's eyes fell to the chair he had been sitting in for most of the flight, and the new burn marks on it. "Hey! What the hell happened to my chair!? I had it adjusted just the way I like it!"


Room 214, Stevenson Hall, UC Sunnydale. September 23, 2000

That afternoon, Willow Rosenberg turned the page of the book she had been reading for the last few hours. And ever since the events of the day before, she had been resting in her dorm room.

Tara had insisted, and to be honest Willow hadn't put up too much of a fight. After all, she had gotten a glimpse of her dark inner self, and that had been enough to throw *anybody* for a loop.

The thing was that Willow hadn't missed the weird expressions afterwards, when everyone had looked at her after Josef Lemke had left the Magic Box. There had been sympathy for her ordeal, yes, but there had also been...fear.

Fear of her.

< How the *hell* did I ever end up like this? Back in high school, the meanest thing I could ever think of doing was putting a 'kick me' on someone else's back! Now there's a part of me that wouldn't hesitate to kill Buffy, Giles, Anya or Jonathan if they got in my way? >

It had been an impossible question for the college girl to answer, in her current state of mind. And the only thing that the redhead *was* sure about, as she'd tossed and turned in bed the previous night, was that she was damned glad Xander had never lived to see what Willow Rosenberg had become.

Although thinking about it, back when he had first shown up after everyone had thought he was dead and his memory had been returned to him, the former Soldier Guy had said something to Wesley about Willow having tried to kill him. At the time, she had refused to believe it; but now, having seen the depths she could go when under the influence of magic, the redhead wasn't so sure. Maybe *this* was what he had been talking about...

Memories of her childhood crush had briefly dominated the witchy woman's thoughts. < Goddess, it's been nearly 18 months since we buried him. And January, 1998 - that was the last time the old Scooby gang was all united and happy, wasn't it? I was with Oz, Xander was with Cordy, Buffy was with Angel - heck, even Giles and Ms. Calendar were almost back together. Then it all fell apart - that thing with Spike and Drusilla seems like so long ago now... >

Willow had decided the next morning that she definitely needed some time to get her bearings, and come to grips with what had been revealed to everyone. She had missed all her classes for the day, and Lemke had told her to take off as much time as she needed; and the Jewish girl was grateful for it, to be honest.

However she had been stuck in her dorm room all day, with nothing to do. Tara had told her not to study, even going so far as to hide her textbooks. And with the memories of Dark Willow's abuse of magic, Ms. Rosenberg had definitely *not* been in the mood to look at the spellbooks the two Wiccans had.

She had wandered up and down the dorm hallway and lounge, to see if there was any good reading material lying around. But all she'd found was a few month-old People magazines, that she had already read.

Willow had then recalled the book loaned to her by her employer, that was still in the nightstand drawer. So she had pulled it out, gotten under the covers of her bed and started to read Blackhawk Down.


Later that night

Tara Maclay opened the door to her dorm room, balancing her book bag in one hand while she held her key in the other. A darkened room greeted her. She placed her keys in her pocket, and reached to turn on the lights. But then she stopped, when she heard sobbing.

"Willow? Honey?" the blonde Wiccan asked softly.

"Tara," was the whispered reply. "Oh Goddess, I understand, I understand now..."

Tara quickly closed the door behind her, placed her bag on the floor and made her way over to the bed where Willow was laying. She sat down on the bed, then reached over and turned on the lamp sitting on the nightstand.

Tara suppressed a gasp, when she saw Willow. It was clear she had been through a crying jag-fest. There were several Kleenexes on the nightstand, as well as the empty box.

"What happened, Willow? Did, did someone get hurt?" Tara asked worriedly.

Willow shook her head while dabbing at her eyes with a Kleenex. "Yes. No. Not tonight, but someone did get hurt in the past..."

Tara was now very confused. She hugged her girlfriend, "Sweetie, i-is this about what happened yesterday?"

Willow shook her head again. "No, it's about something much earlier than that."

"Well, why don't you tell me what happened tonight to get you so upset?"

Willow collected herself for a second, then started talking. "You know the book Josef loaned me to read?" Tara nodded as Willow continued, "Well, I was reading it this afternoon, and I got to the part about Gary Gordon and Randall Shughart."

Tara thought for a second, trying to place the names, then it hit her. "That picture that Josef has on his wall, they're the guys in the one that he's put in that special place of honor. You found out why it's special?"

"Yeah, and the two of them were like awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for what they did..."

Tara, even with her meager knowledge of the culture of the U.S. military, knew that the Medal of Honor was given out only for the most extreme acts of courage. The type of heroism which one very rarely survived. "They must have been very brave."

Willow nodded. "You remember Somalia back in '93, when those Army guys got into a fight that a lot of them died in?"

Tara nodded. " I was only 13 years old or thereabouts, but I-I-I remember my Dad talking about it. He, well everyone in the family for that matter, wasn't happy with how things turned out. I, I saw some of the pictures of the mobs afterwards-"

"Then you may have seen Gordon and Shughart, although they weren't alive anymore by then."

"What do you mean?"

"A helicopter was shot down. They were in a helicopter above the crash scene. They were snipers shooting at the angry mob that was trying to get to the survivors of the crash. The two of them kept radioing headquarters, wanting to rappel down to where the crash site was. The first two times, the general in charge wouldn't let them do it. The third time, they got permission though..."

Willow took a deep breath. "They got to the crash site, just the two of them against almost a whole city. They, they had been told that rescue was a long way away. They saved the pilot, and they kept fighting for as long as they had ammunition. Then they were both killed, it was their bodies that the mobs dragged through the streets."

Tara hugged her girlfriend. "Sweetie, I know it was a tragedy, but I don't see how-"

Willow interrupted Tara. "Tara, they both knew they were gonna die. That's why the general wouldn't let them do it, the first two times. Everyone knew that once they got off their helicopter to where the mob could get to them, they were signing their own death warrants..."

Willow sobbed a little bit more, as Tara comforted her. She dabbed at her eyes with the tissue paper, before resuming talking again. "And I realized something, when I read their story. They were faced with the same choice I had outside the Bronze over two years ago, only they knew what was going to happen. They could see the mob shooting at them. They had no illusions about making it back. No one woulda thought any less of them, if they'd stayed up in the air..."

The redhead finished up, "But they refused to abandon the crew of the other helicopter. They refused to turn their backs and walk away. They went headlong into danger, despite everyone trying to talk them out of it."

"They were heroes, sweetie..." Tara said, as she brushed Willow's hair back. Still, after remembering the screams and diatribes of Dark Willow the previous day, the blonde had already figured out where the redhead was going with this.

Willow leaned back, and looked at her lover. "I know, but when I was faced with the exact same choice - only with no mob firing at me, and as far as I knew no vampires about to pop out at me - I turned my back, and walked away from Xander. It didn't matter if I thought he wasn't in any danger. And it didn't matter if I thought he was a jealous asshole, for lying to Buffy. He was still my oldest friend, and one of us. All I had to do was turn around, and take a few steps. That's all. A few seconds, that's all it would have taken..."

Willow took another deep breath. "But I turned away, I just left him there. I..." her voice faltered for a second. "...I abandoned him, there's no other way to describe it. It didn't matter about whether or not I knew a soulless demon was waiting in the bushes. Even if we had been in the middle of the desert at high noon, I still should have helped him. I'm, I'm a horrible person..." With that, she broke down completely and started crying as she hugged Tara fiercely.

Willow whispered, "What do I do, Tara? How can I possibly make up for my sins? You heard what the nerd version of me said yesterday, the odds are Xander won't ever even tolerate my presence one day, when my time comes..."

Before Tara could answer, there was a knock on the door. Willow pulled back and straightened up. "Who is it?" Tara called out.

"A friend of Willow's. I kinda need her help, is she in?" called out a voice that Willow had not expected to hear.

The redhead nodded at Tara, and the other witch went up and opened the door. And there in the hallway was the ensouled vampire called Angel. "Hi, Willow - it's good to see you again. And don't worry, it's me Angel - not Angelus. Can I come in?"

Willow nodded, looking into his eyes and sensing his sincerity. She then managed to say, "I invite you in, Angel." And with the finish of that sentence, the male vamp stepped into the dorm room.

Willow quickly introduced Tara and Angel to each other; the blonde witch had heard about the vampire, but this was her first time ever meeting him. And the former Irishman was very surprised, when Willow hugged him tightly. "Thank you," she said.

"What for?" Angel asked in confusion.

"That night outside the Bronze. Saving Xander after I abandoned him," Willow said tearfully.

< Okay, what the heck have I wandered into the middle of? > Angel thought to himself, looking at Tara in bewilderment.

Ms. Maclay noticed his stare, and then caught Willow's eye. "I, I'll leave you two alone to catch up," she said simply, before slipping out the door.

"Ican'tbelieveIdiditandhewouldhavebeenkilledexceptthatyouwerethere-" Willow started to babble as she started to break down and cry again. She fiercely hugged the vampire again.

"Willow, please stop," Angel said softly.

Willow sniffled a little bit, and pulled back from Angel. "Right, right, you need some help. What's wrong?"

"It can wait," Angel said shortly. Something had gotten Willow all riled up about Xander, and Angel wanted to get to the bottom of it. "Now what's gotten you so upset?" he asked, as the Irish-born undead moved her back to the bed. He pulled a chair up next to the bed, and sat down himself.

Willow then explained to him the events of the past few days. Angel was amazed, as he heard the story. Two Willows, and one an evil super-witch - who could and would have killed anyone who got in her way?

< Xander should have warned us about that. Then again, maybe he did... > Angel recalled that night with the body bag when his friend had said something cryptic about Warren Mears killing someone, that had sent Willow off the deep end. He hadn't gone into detail about what that meant, though. < Well, I guess now I know. >

Angel got the vague feeling that this particular happening, at this particular time, would have caught Xander by surprise also. And not for the first time, the Champion found himself wishing he had a two-way channel of communication with the former Scooby.

Willow then told him about the realization she had come to, based on what the two Willows had said to each other and the book she had been reading. This started her off crying again. So Angel leaned over and hugged the redhead awkwardly, unsure what to say.

"How do you do it?" Willow asked and she then continued, when the woman saw the puzzled look on Angel's face. "Live with the past, and the choices you made. All the mistakes, all the evil - is there any way for me to atone?"

Inwardly, Angel was pleased at the question; he knew that when the time came, at least one of his former friends would do everything in her power to make things right with Xander. He had hopes for the others also, but they weren't hugging him right then and crying over their lost friend. < One mountain at a time, > the ensouled vampire thought to himself.

"Willow, I don't know. There's - there's no simple answer to that question. There's no checklist to follow, to atone for the sins of the past. You just do it, one day at a time; and if you do it just to get out of trouble, well - that's as bad as not seeking redemption at all. You just live the best that you can, and do the best that you can."

Willow sniffled, dabbed at her eyes with the Kleenex and nodded. "Thanks, Angel. I guess that's a start, but there has to be more; I just gotta figure it out for myself. Now, you came for help; so what is it you need?"

Angel steeled himself, this next part wasn't going to be easy. "Willow. Do you remember Darla?"

The redhead frowned, then her memory finally kicked in. "Oh! Yeah, I was there when Buffy staked her in sophomore year, while that vamp was blasting away at you guys in the Bronze-"

"Well, uh, the staking wasn't as permanent as we thought, at the time."

"What!? What do you mean? How can a staking not be permanent?"

Angel held up his hands to calm Willow down. "The bottom line is, she's back. But don't worry; Darla's not a vampire, at least - not at the moment. As for how she came back - well, some months ago an evil law firm called Wolfram & Hart-"

Willow looked startled. "I've heard of them! They were representing Xander's parents, when they were trying to sue the school board over his death last year. They're evil?"

Angel frowned, noting this away for further investigation. "Yeah. Well, anyway. They brought her back as a human."

"You sure?"

"One hundred percent, she paid me a visit."

"Oh no! She, she's gone all Big Bad on us?"

Angel shook his head. "I don't think so. From what I could tell, she's up to something, but I don't think she's out to destroy the world or anything like that."

Willow swallowed. "Is Darla coming back here? For revenge? Do we need to get Buffy to be ready to slay her?" In the back of her mind, she also processed the information that there was a method to bring a person back from the dead - Xander now never being far from her thoughts.

Angel shook his head. "No, there's no need to get Buffy in on this, this is a situation where she doesn't need to know yet - 'cause no vampires are involved. Well, not for the moment anyway."

Willow nodded hesitantly. "Okay, so, no Slaying party just yet. But uh, what do you need me to do?"

"Remember back when I - that is, Angelus - decided he didn't like the world all that much, and wanted to end it?"

"Vividly," Willow replied, the nightmare fresh in her mind after the last few days.

"You did a spell to give me my soul back." Willow nodded silently as Angel continued, "Well, *if* and when the time comes - I need you to be ready to cast that spell again."

Willow's eyes grew wide. "What!?! You're not going to lose your soul again, are you?"

"No, I'm not planning on losing my soul anytime soon. It's Darla. Look, I can't tell you how exactly I know all this, but I believe - no, I'm almost *certain* - that Darla will be turned into a vampire again, before the year's over."

"How do you know that?"

"Like I said, I can't tell you that, there are some things I *have* to keep secret. Trust me on this."

Willow stared at the vampire for a second, trying to gauge Angel's words. "Okay, I'll trust you for now, but if I'm wrong in doing so - I'll turn you into a toad!" Willow joked.

Angel chuckled, "Okay, just promise me you'll find a nice lily pad for me afterwards." < And I *hope* she's just joking, as once she finds out the truth about Xander - she might be mad enough to actually do it. >

"When do you need the spell by?" Willow asked. "'Cause after the last two days, I'm not exactly feeling like a world-class Sabrina at the moment..."

"I'm not sure yet, but I don't need it right away. I just need for you to be ready here with the soul curse. I'll get in touch with you, when the time comes."

She nodded. "Okay, I'll call you when I have all the ingredients ready. I need to find another Orb, for one thing..."

Angel got up. "Good, well, I'll get going then. And I would appreciate it, if you kept this little meeting a secret from everybody else."

"But Angel, Tara saw you, the others will know you were here. They'll ask questions, don't ya think?"

Angel hadn't thought of that. < That's true enough, damn it. > "Hmmm, good point. We'll have to tell them something. Maybe researching a spell for me?"

Willow shook her head. "After what happened yesterday, the others will be looking real hard at anything I do that's magic-related. They'll want details..."

She thought for a second, when inspiration struck. "I know, your investigation agency! I'll tell them you need some computer programs for it. A bookkeeping program, or maybe a web site for advertising - that would work! And I can tell them you came instead of calling, were on a case, checking out a lead in the area?"

Angel smiled at Willow. "You're obviously still as brilliant as I remember..." Willow blushed, very pleased with the praise. "Yeah, that should do. Let me know when you're ready, or if you need anything. I'll be in touch." He quickly hugged Willow goodbye, and walked out the door.


UC Sunnydale, Sunnydale, California. Two minutes later

Angel walked outside to his car, the Plymouth parked not far away from the building. < Well, I guess that went as well as it could have... >

Willow was going to do the spell, and it looked like she would be receptive when Xander could rejoin the land of the living Scoobies. Now he would just have to prepare Buffy and Cordelia as well, although from a conversation she and Wesley had had and the former Watcher had told him about - that probably wouldn't be too hard, with the former cheerleader.

< And don't forget, I also have to convince Xander to reconcile with them. *That* might take a little bit more doing. 'Course, I also have to find him first, if he doesn't show up when and where we planned... > He reached out, and grabbed the handle to the car door.


The former Angelus froze; that was the one voice he had wanted to avoid on this trip. He turned around and was faced with Buffy Summers, the vampire Slayer. "Buffy."

"You're here. And you weren't even going to come see me, were you?" She sounded hurt.

"Buffy...after everything that happened last time in Los Angeles, I thought I shouldn't just pop up on your doorstep again. We both agreed it was all for the best, how we ended it."

Buffy ignored Angel's words, and walked over to his car. She leaned up against the vehicle and said, "I've been thinking lately, you know. About - everything. You, me, the last four years. It's just - things haven't really been good for me ever since my junior year, before you...changed. God, I would give almost *anything* to have things back the way they were, just before my 17th birthday..."

"Buffy, you can't change the past." Angel ignored the sneering inner voice that reminded him how *he* had, with the help of the Oracles.

"I know, I just wish..."

"Buffy!!!" Angel interrupted her. "Never use the w-word. There are demons around, that would use it to twist your meaning beyond recognition!"

A look of comprehension swept Buffy's face. "Damn, you're right. You'd think I'd know better than to do that, what with Anya hanging around and telling us stories about her past vengeance exploits..." The Chosen One sighed to herself. "Gak. Even when I'm trying to explain things, I wind up making them worse!"

She looked so dejected that Angel, against his better judgment, reached over and hugged her. She returned the hug, "Oh God, Angel, why can't I have a normal life? I can't even keep a boyfriend! Did you know, the last one I had wound up having Dracula forcing him to eat bugs?"

"Dracula was here?" Angel asked in consternation. Angelus and Dracula had once run together in the bad old days, before old Vlad had hit the road to avoid repaying Spike eleven pounds - mostly on general principles.

"Yeah, came here looking for me, called me Buffy the murderer. Did a real number on us, before he went all dusty when I introduced him to Mr. Pointy."

Angel was surprised at that. He could recall how many Slayers had gone gunning for Dracula in the past, and failed! And here was Buffy, having accomplished the incredible feat...and her only memory of it was her boyfriend being under the vampire's thrall?


"No biggie, but Jeff then went and left me. Mom got all weird and made me move back home, Giles has gone all squirrelly on me, Dawn's a headache like always, Willow went all black-eyed badass and everything is just nuts around here! I just want something or someone to hold onto, to be an anchor in my life. To be my rock," the Slayer said miserably, not realizing that in the history that had been changed...that role had been filled by Xander, who was gone now from the group in this world that they all knew.

Buffy held herself tight to Angel's chest. And then she felt his arms tighten around her. < Yes... >

And before he knew it, Angel's tongue *was* halfway down her throat, as he held the only woman he'd ever loved in his arms. Buffy started moaning and panting, barely restraining the urge to jump up and wrap her legs around his waist...

Angel's mind suddenly started yammering, < Soul, soul, soul! Remember how you lost it, the last time?! This is exactly how it all started before, and don't forget what Xander wrote in that letter... > He then broke off the kiss, almost shoving her away.

The blonde Slayer stepped back and looked at him, "Angel, what-?"

"Buffy, this is wrong. We can't - I can't - back in Los Angeles, we ended it like that to avoid things just like this! We can't risk it. I'm sorry, I thought I was strong enough to resist temptation, but obviously I'm not. So I'm leaving. I'm sorry. Goodbye..."

With that, he got into his car and instantly drove off, in a haze of burning rubber. Leaving behind a Buffy with tears streaming down her cheeks, helplessly staring at the retreating automobile.


Unknown place, unknown time

She waved at some of the children, as they left. She really enjoyed working here at the youth center. Because considering her troubled childhood, she felt she needed to give something back to the community, after all the things she'd pulled at that age.

She glanced at her watch. < He should be getting off from work at the construction site, right about now. I'll try to catch him before he leaves, and have him bring home some Chinese food. >

She leaned over, and picked up the phone on the counter in front of her. She then dialed the number, and patiently waited for an answer.

"Jackie, it's me. Has he left yet?" The brunette waited for a few seconds, for the other party to respond. "Missed him by just five minutes? Damn. I hope he's getting some food for dinner. Thai? Well, I was hoping for Chinese, but I suppose I can stand some Thai for tonight. Thanks, Jackie, g'bye."

Faith Daniels-Harris hung up the phone, and grabbed her keys. She really wanted to beat Xander home - as the woman had some big news for him, from her visit to the doctor earlier today. All their patience and trying had at last paid off; baby Harris was finally on the way!

She walked out the front door of the youth center, locking it gleefully behind her.

Part Fourteen

Port of Aden, Yemen. October 12, 2000

The warship made its way into the harbor at a slow pace. The harbor was full of naval traffic, but the other vessels there gave the warship a wide berth.

Except one; a small zodiac boat, with two men on it, made its way towards the warship. After a few seconds, the blast of a horn could be heard from the warship. But the boat continued on, and actually began to pick up speed.

A second blast followed a few seconds later, that was also ignored. The warship started to turn away from the boat.

The smaller vessel just sped towards its target, only to be greeted by a stream of bullets coming from the bow of the warship. A second stream of gunfire came from about amidships.

The boat started to try and dodge the bullets, only to fail as it went up in a huge explosion. The warship then calmly continued on its way, as the zodiac boat and its crew burned.


Georgetown, Washington DC. October 12, 2000. Two hours later

Esther Marcum concluded the phone call she had just received. She cradled the receiver in her hand, as she dialed another number she had committed to memory a long time ago. The black woman then waited a few seconds for an answer.

"Mr. Wizard? We just got confirmation from the Navy. There was a failed terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor. It looks like they took the heads-up we sent them seriously enough, to make sure the captain and crew were on their toes-"

She listened for a few seconds. "Yes, I'll make sure that Cleburne passes the news onto Mr. Hall," Esther said, utilising the alias Xander was still using. "Now, we just have to hope the main event goes as well."


The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles. October 12, 2000

Lilah continued reading the report that had just been emailed to her. Being a rising young attorney in the law firm that represented so many different versions of evil, was in fact demanding work. She had to be diligent and put in the long hours, to attract the favorable attention of the Senior Partners.

Of course, success on their special projects would be helpful also. Hence her desire to resolve the Xander Harris situation in a favorable way - to her, that is.

So far, that had been a fruitless endeavour. The governmental agency that was protecting the target had casually deflected every attempt she'd made to find him. They had also started poking their noses into the affairs of the firm's clients, the ones that were involved in...nefarious activities. She hoped the more frequent appearances by them would be the factor that convinced the Senior Partners to approve her plan.

As if in response to her hopes, the phone on the desk rang. She picked it up, "Lilah Morgan here."

The beautiful brunette listened for a few seconds. "Yes, Holland. Why, thank you. Yes, don't worry, I won't disappoint you..." She listened for a few more seconds. "I understand what happens if I disappoint you, Holland, thank you but I'm sure there's no need to go into details right now..."

She hung up the phone, and buzzed for her assistant. He quickly came into the room and Lilah looked at him, "My plan's been approved. Start getting the monks here."


U.S. Air Force Base, Northern Utah. October 13, 2000

Xander fidgeted in his chair. The room was full of soldiers in BDUs, only needing body armor and weapons to be completely ready for combat. They were just as impatient as the former Zeppo was, and the room was filled with the hum and racket of their conversations.

Xander recognized quite a few of the soldiers present. Gunny was nearby of course, as was Graham. Rachael was standing in the back of the room; and for the record she had adapted fairly well, after the conversation Xander had had with her in St. Louis. But God help him, every once in a while Xander actually found himself thinking of her in romantic terms...

"Any idea why we're here?" Oz asked as he leaned over to Xander, trying to be heard over the noise.

Xander shook his head. "No idea, buddy, just got a message to hop a plane out here as soon as possible. I gotta tell you though, I don't like being here."

"Why's that?"

Xander nodded over at a group of civilians in dark clothes. "I recognize a few of them. Mormons. Some of them were the missionaries who kept showing up on my doorstep. They're probably just waiting for the opportunity to try to convert me..."

Oz stared at the former Scooby, and then looked at the group Xander had pointed out. His friend had told him why the Mormon prank from Cleburne was one of the reasons Xander often enjoyed a joke at Mother Hen's expense.

But Oz didn't get the chance to respond, as the door to the room opened up and the agent in question, also dressed in BDUs, walked in. The room quietened down, as he walked to the podium at the front.

"Evening, ladies. Welcome to the party, sorry about the last-minute invites but we're moving on really fresh information." He nodded to Gunny, who turned out the lights. On the screen behind Cleburne, an aerial shot of a town was shown.

"This is satellite imagery of Rapid Creek, Idaho, that was taken two hours ago. It's a small town, population about 300, just north of the Utah/Idaho border. The populace of the town is almost exclusively Mormon. Which is kind of the reason we're here..."

Cleburne gazed at his audience. "The Danites got an emergency call earlier today, from one of the town elders. He said a group of demons had rolled into town on motorcycles, blown the bridge connecting the place with the outside world and announced they were settling in for the winter, as the owners of the new demon Shangri-La!"

The picture changed to an aerial view of a building on fire "The townsfolk fought back, it got ugly and the demons won. That's the remains of the city hall you're looking at right now."

The USMC colonel went on, "The elder said the demons were rounding up the survivors, and he didn't know how long he could avoid them. He said he would try to call later, but they needed help quick. He hasn't called back yet."

Cleburne pointed at the Mormons that Xander and Oz had been talking about a few seconds before. "The Danites don't have enough manpower in place to handle the situation, so they gave us a ring-a-ding. And since this is the kind of thing we've decided to deal with, we're going in."

Xander suddenly got a bad feeling about all this. And within his head came forth memories of that future world, on the night of Buffy's resurrection...

"Based on information we've gathered in the last year or so, the demons are a motorcycle gang who calls themselves the Hellions. They find a town that can't protect itself, move in and take over."

Harris froze, almost panicking. Oz instantly noticed his old comrade's expression, but nonetheless maintained a poker face.

Cleburne continued, "Based on what the town elder reported and the satellite surveillance, we believe the Hellion strength to be approximately 75 to 100 hostiles. Odds are a number of smaller gangs got together into a large gang, for this little outing of theirs. Armaments are limited; like most demons, they apparently can't or won't handle firearms. I also suspect that the discipline structure they use is nothing more than the strongest one rules. That'll give us an advantage; I'm sure we all remember Hanson's rule on VMI cadets and Hell's Angels..."

Xander was confused by that remark, but most of the soldiers seemed to get it. Harris then made a mental note to ask Cleburne about it later, along with the Danites reference. He turned his attention back to Joshua, as the briefing continued.

"We'll split up into three separate attack groups, about 28 grunts in each team. There'll be a reserve force that'll remain airborne, along with the medics, nearby to help out and evacuate the civilians once we find them. A mechanized infantry battalion from the Utah National Guard, one that's in the know, is handling perimeter security. Air support is available from units of the Utah Air National Guard. The Danites will have two or three members attached to each group, to assist and coordinate. Some of them are familiar with the local terrain..."

Cleburne nodded, and the view changed from the picture to a map of the town. "Insertion will be by helicopter assault on these three locations." There were three red marks, that formed a triangle around the town. "Each team will work its way inwards to the center of town, and the town hall. We think the civilians are being held in the town's fire station, but we could be mistaken about that."

The picture on the screen changed again to a grassy field. "Extraction site for the civilians, assuming they're in the fire station, will be here in the community park behind it. I sincerely doubt that the enemy will have AA missiles, but let's be on our toes just to be safe. The medics will also set up here, once it's secured, using the shelter house as the aid station."

Mother Hen looked around sternly. "One final thing. Armoury boys have been playing around with the weapons, and we're hoping they've got the problem with big game hunting ammo licked. Instead of 9mms, everyone gets a sidearm that's a .45. We're hoping that's strong enough to put these demons down, if need be. But either way, primary weapon is to be either Colt M4A1 assault carbines, or Heckler&Koch submachine guns. Those of you with the HKs, remember the opposition may have longer-range weapons than you - so always have someone with an M4A1 nearby. Questions?" He looked around the room.

Red spoke up, "They know we're coming?"

The senior STW agent shook his head. "Best guess is negative. There's no indication that they've started fortifying their position to receive a commando raid. The only real work they've done is set up what looks to be a listening post to watch the blown bridge. Even if they have some inkling, it looks like they're set up for an overland attack through the road into town. A helo assault should take them by surprise."

"Rules of engagement?"

"If it's demon, kill it. Human, save it. Try to minimize collateral damage as much as possible. Also when firing at the demons, aim for the head. I've never really encountered anything that reacts well to a bullet to the head!" Light laughter from the soldiers in the room was the response to that statement.


"If they offer to surrender, accept it. Otherwise, don't go out of your way to try and take any..."

Cleburne held up his hand to emphasize the point he was making. "However, if it looks like civilians might be endangered otherwise, offer the demons the chance to surrender first. Remember, the main objective of this operation is to save the people in trouble, killing the bad guys is secondary. Any other questions?" he looked out over the room.

Xander put his hand up. "Any information on the demon enemy leader?"

Cleburne looked surprised for a moment. "No. You know anything you'd care to share with us, Hall?"

Xander looked grim. "If it's the guy I think it is, his name's Razor. And as I recall, him and his boys like to rape women..."

Most of the men assembled looked instantly angry and more motivated than ever after hearing that, while Rachael and Oz looked at Xander speculatively. < Where does he know these demons from? > they both thought in unison.

Cleburne nodded slowly. < I need to have a talk with the kid about this, after the meeting's over. > "Right. Well, any other questions?"

No response came from the assembled group.

"Okay, a list of which fire teams goes in what group is posted in back. There are also maps and photographs for you to review, on the way to the target. An armoury's been set up next door; in ten minutes, report there to draw weapons. And go easy on the grenades, guys! We saddle up in the helos in thirty, and should be hitting the LZ in a little under two hours. And remember, most important of all, don't get killed!"


Outside the briefing room, ten minutes later


Xander turned to the source of the shout, and saw Cleburne half-walking and half-jogging towards him. "Yeah, Mother Hen?" the former slave replied, as he was handed a carbine by the enlisted man overseeing the allocation of weapons.

By this time, Cleburne had learned to simply ignore Xander's use of the forbidden nickname. "Question. Care to tell me how you came to think that this Razor guy is present where we're headed?"

Xander shook his head. "Not particularly," he said simply, as he checked the weapon like the professional he was.

Cleburne folded his arms, and his version of a Resolve Face showed up. "Look kid, hot LZ. You understand what I'm sayin'?"

Xander sighed; he knew if it came down to something that might affect an operation, Cleburne just would not let it go. "Okay, here's the deal. In October 2001, that particular head hog demon and his pals showed up in Sunnydale, to have themselves a big ol' party and settle down for a while. The Slayer and friends convinced them to move on."

Cleburne looked sceptical. "What else?"

Another sigh. "During that visit, I wound up having an up close and personal with Razor, as did other friends of mine..." Xander's voice visibly hesitated a moment, as he remembered Anya and all those others then. "Before he ended up with an axe in his back, the asshole was quite open about the plans he had for the women he bumped into. It was enough to turn my stomach."

Cleburne raised an eyebrow. "You know what this means, right?"

Xander frowned. "Oh, come on..."

"Don't even start, kid. If you're going into a firefight with the rest of the unit depending on you to keep it together, we can't afford for you to collapse from the headaches. You and Gunny, and the Wolfie while we're at it, stay in the rear guard for this one. Clear?"

"Fine," Xander said, fuming. He understood the logic, but that didn't mean he had to like it. "But what are the odds I'll actually come across that one particular bastard, during the op?"

"Knowing the trouble you attract like a magnet? Too high for my liking! Anyway, getting back to what happened in Sunnydale then - I thought these demons only went after towns that couldn't defend themselves? So why the hell would they go to the Hellmouth, while the Slayer was there guarding it?"

Xander grimaced. "Well, Buffy wasn't exactly...there at the time."

"They must have known she was coming back, though?"

Harris shook his head. "Trust me; it was a big surprise to everyone in the know, when she...came back. Even *Buffy* was surprised as all get out. See, she was someplace no one ever wants to come back from..."

Cleburne knew ambiguous half-truths and double-entendre when he heard them, and not for the first time wished *someone* could persuade Xander to talk freely for once. "You know, kid, one day you and I are going have to sit down and have ourselves a long talk. Things from your past - future - whatever - constantly seem to keep popping up around you. It would be nice to get a program, so I can tell all the players what happens when."

Xander laughed. "Tell you what - you tell me everything about what *really* went on with the grey aliens at Roswell, and I'll tell you some more about my past that's yet to come."

Cleburne frowned. "Kid, how many times do I have to say it? That was just a weather balloon back then, that's all! It even said so in the newspapers!"

Xander chuckled, "Yeah, right. And Irving just works as a 12-year-old professor at the University of Chicago, you're just a colonel in the Marines, and I'm just some guy who grew up in a sleepy southern California town - where according to the papers in LA, nothing ever happens..."

Harris, still smirking, headed off towards the helicopters. He stopped and turned back to Cleburne. "By the way, what are the Danites?"

"Back when the Mormon church first came to Utah? They were the special agents, so to speak, that defended the Church against whatever threats were out there. Over time, they evolved into the branch of the Mormon church that dealt with the supernatural. They do a good job; that's why Utah has almost no vampire or demon activity."

"Some of them look familiar, you know. They wouldn't happen to be the ones who kept trying to convert me, would they?" Xander asked.

Cleburne just grinned at him and walked away, chuckling as he did so.


U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter, the Utah/Idaho border. Ninety minutes later

Xander looked out the helicopter window. He really couldn't see anything in the dark night sky, except the shapes of mountains. Every once in a while he could also see the shape of the other helicopters in the attack force, as they powered along in military formation.

Around the helicopter, several soldiers sat studying the maps of the town they had been provided. Sitting across from Xander was Rachael, who was once again checking her M4A1 carbine. It turned out she had served in the Israeli army before joining up with the Mossad, so she was basically familiar with military operations and that particular weapon.

It showed with the way the brunette woman had been carrying herself, during the last hour or so. Next to her was Oz. Gunny was busy on last-minute instructions on the use of his firearm, as the werewolf was still a little unsure of himself with guns.

"This switches the weapon from semi-automatic to full automatic. So now that you know what it does, don't touch it!!!" Gunny said forcefully.

Oz cocked an eyebrow at Gunny. "Then why tell me what it is?"

"So you don't go flipping it on, out of ignorance. If you start blasting away on full auto mode, you'll burn through your ammo in no time flat. Until you're more comfortable with firearms, it's strictly semi-automatic for you!" Gunny shouted over the noise from the helicopter's motor.

Xander then idly wondered why the Scoobies hadn't really thought of ever finding a way to use firearms against the undead. Granted, Giles was too steeped in tradition and Buffy didn't like guns, but still - *he* should have come up with something, over the years. Watching the Siberians in action had convinced him of the usefulness of guns and ammo, in those situations that he seemed to find himself in on a nightly basis.

Best of all, the undead seemed to constantly underestimate the effect a pistol would have on them. Xander always got a warm feeling deep inside, when he saw the look on a vampire's face that had just received a bullet in the chest. The slug might not kill the damn thing, but it definitely ended up in pain...

Rachael had noticed Gunny's efforts to instill fire control discipline in Oz. She smiled and leaned over to him, "Don't worry Gunny, I'll keep an eye on Mr. Osbourne to make sure he doesn't waste a single round. Same for Mr. Hall over there," she nodded at Xander.

"Oh, him I'm not worried about - the lieutenant seems to have *some* fire discipline!" Gunny commented acidly.

"Hey, I don't want either one of them in a position where they have to worry about making every shot count!" Cleburne leaned over from where he was sitting. "That's what the rest of us are for."

He then turned to face Xander and Oz. "Listen up you two, we're hitting the ground in a few minutes. This is your first time doing the air assault thing, so there are few things to know."

Xander felt some of his soldier memories sharpen in his brain. < Let's see if things have changed much... >

Cleburne continued on, "The helicopter isn't actually going to land, it's going to hover about five feet off the ground-"

"We're not landing?" Oz asked at once.

"No, the less time the helos spend on the ground, the better for all concerned. You'll jump out, and when you do-" Cleburne said.

"Don't stop or fall to the ground. Keep moving to the edge of the LZ. Whatever you do, don't stop until you get out of range. There are other helicopters and soldiers coming in behind you. You clog up the LZ, it gets messy. Kind of like a cork in a bottle," Xander recited calmly, as Cleburne stared at him.


"Hey, PFC Donald Grant. Remember him? He did this kind of thing all the time, during Vietnam."

"You remember that?"

"Yeah, looks like my soldier memories aren't as gone as you all thought they were," Xander said with a smirk. "Can't I have an off day once in a while, without you guys wanting to hypnotize me?"

Cleburne leaned back. "Kid, you never cease to surprise me. Anything else I need to know?"

Xander never stopped smirking. "Yeah, but I'm not going to tell you..."


Rapid Creek, Idaho. Thirty-five minutes later

The landing had gone smoothly enough. Oz and Xander had followed the rule of not stopping, till they were well away from the landing zone. Gunny and Rachael had then followed the two of them. Cleburne was overseeing the other troops of the attack force, as they deployed.

After a few seconds, the sound of the choppers faded into the distance. The helicopters would remain in orbit far enough away from the town to escape detection by the demons, and await the signal that the civilians were ready to be evacuated. Fortunately, they were far enough from the town that the sound of landing hadn't reached the ears of the demon gang.

The night was silent, except for the normal nocturnal sounds and an occasional murmur from the Siberians. Xander tensed up though and thought to himself, < Here we go... >

Cleburne looked around, and then made a signal with his hands. This started the Siberians advancing towards the town. Xander and his group followed the advancing troops, after a minute or so. In particular, they all listened to the short comments between the soldiers in their earpieces.

The advance into the town was intense. Every once in a while, the sound of roaring motorcycle engines could be heard off in the distance. Other than that though, there was no hint of the demon presence.

Till they got to the first house, that is. The front door was kicked in, and all the windows were smashed, with the glass lying everywhere within the house. The next two houses were the same way.

At the third house, Xander's earpiece squawked to life. "Team Charlie, we've got hostile contact. Three demons dead, one got away-"

Xander could see Cleburne at the front of the third house. "All teams, head to the fire station. Take out all the hostiles on your way!" He started trotting down the road, towards the center of town.

Xander made to follow him, but then Gunny signaled him to wait a second. Harris then made a face that didn't move Gunny one bit, as the career soldier said, "You know the rules, Hall, we hang back. No brain freezes for you in the middle of a firefight!"

Off in the distance, they suddenly heard the rattle of gunfire.

"Mongoose, this is Saucer," Xander's earpiece squawked again. Xander remembered that Saucer was the designation for the aircraft that was circling the town, to provide command and control for the commandos.

Saucer continued in a clipped tone, "Confirming the hostiles do have heat signatures, so we're able to track them."

"Copy that. Can you track the civilians?" Cleburne asked over the radio.

"There's a large number of heat signatures at the fire station. Stationary at the present time."

"Which force is closest to the target?" Xander listened to the conversation as he trotted down the street with his teammates, keeping an eye on the surroundings.

"Team Baker is closest. Charlie has the main group of hostiles between it and the civilians."

"This is Mongoose. Team Baker, secure the fire station with all dispatch. Charlie, hold position. Able will attack the hostiles and try to force them into Team Charlie's position."

Xander heard confirmation of Cleburne's orders from the various team leaders. He then heard Cleburne telling Gunny to stay to the rear of Team Able. < Man, these guys really need to get cooler code names for themselves! Hmmm, maybe Nighthawk could make a comeback, > the young man thought to himself with a bit of nostalgia, as he followed Gunny and the others. Then Xander frowned.

Cordelia Chase had liked that name *way* too much at Buffy's welcome-home party, that in this world...had never. Even. Happened.

A short distance ahead, Cleburne crouched next to a wall. Down the street from where he was, the local police station stood. And Joshua could see several of the red heads of the demons through the window. Every once in a while a shot rang out from the stationhouse, which caused the commandos to duck.

The Siberian known as Red crouched down next to Cleburne. "Uh, for demons who don't like using firearms? They seem to have adapted quite well," he remarked.

"Well, they're demons - not morons," Cleburne replied, scanning the surrounding area. "By the way, sorry about having to pull you away from your leave in LA."

"Hey, I knew things were going too well, I was kinda halfway expecting something to come up!" Red fired off two rounds from his weapon at the police station.

"Speaking of things going well, you seem to be spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, for a blue blood from Boston. Do I need to ask, or be worried?"

"Hey, just enjoying the sights of one of America's greatest cities!" Red said. "Ah, shit - seven of the demons just headed out the back door."

Cleburne nodded. "I saw it, they might try to get us in a pincer movement. And you've been seeing that waitress again, haven't you?"

Red shoved a new magazine in the Colt carbine he was using. "We need to outflank 'em, right? And so what if I'm seeing Ametila? I'm an adult, and you generally don't meddle in the personal lives of the agents. Well, okay, you did introduce Lemke to his wife..." Red thought for a second. "Come to think of it? There are several active and former operatives who met their spouses through you. I never realized before now, how much of a matchmaker you are at times - sir..."

Cleburne simply shrugged, after firing several rounds in response to the latest fusillade of gunfire from the police station. "Negative. And it's just a hobby. But I'm surprised that you *finally* seem to have a steady girlfriend..."

The sound of motorcycles starting up could now suddenly be heard. "Oh come on, don't tell me they're going to try and slip behind us on those things?" Cleburne put a new magazine into the carbine he was carrying.

Joshua then ignored Red's annoyed face as he reminisced, "Anyway, I can remember when you first came on board into the outfit, it seemed like you had a girl in every port, street and corner. To have a special girlfriend monopolizing your time is...kinda unnerving."

His companion replied, "If I remember correctly, the road behind the police station loops around and comes right through here. They're probably trying to catch Charlie by surprise, not realizing they'll have to go by us. And just for the record, Ametila is special! I even think it could be something long-term..."

The sound of the motorcycles grew stronger from down the street. Cleburne, with Red following, walked to the middle of the street, being careful to make sure that the demons from the police station couldn't get a clean shot at them. "Eyes out, weapons hot. So, how you going to explain her to your parents? I mean, for pity's sake, the one time I met your mother? She thought I was the hired help! No offence, but we both know she doesn't relate well to people from other classes, let alone other species..."

"Ready when you are. And I guess I'll just have to figure out something..."

At the end of the street, several motorcycles finally appeared. They sped up when they saw the two agents standing there. "We're all going to have figure something out, with the way things are going. I'll take the left, you take the right," Cleburne told Red.

"Roger that, Colonel."

The two of them then started firing off gunshots, aiming methodically at their targets.

After their volley of shots, the demon in the lead of the group approaching the two Siberians stopped his motorcycle and grinned, laying a shotgun across the handlebars. "Hey, softskins. What do you think you're doing? You're pretty lousy shots!" He laughed at the two humans in front of him.

Cleburne observed the demon with no expression, one way or the other. "Look behind you, horn head." Red idly wondered what it would take to get the senior Siberian to show anger in a combat situation.

"Listen to him, boys, all brave aren't they?" the demon laughed. There was no response to his snide comment. "Boys?"

He glanced behind him, and the laughter died at once. As there behind the creature in a ragged line on the ground, were the bodies of his fellow demons.

They lay intertwined with the motorbikes, many of which still had their wheels spinning. The demon then turned back to the humans, with a look of unease. Because both of Cleburne's and Red's weapons were now zeroed in purely on himself.

"So, horn head, a few questions," Cleburne said. The demon nodded dumbly. "The townsfolk, where are they?"

"Fire station," was the raspy answer. "Most of them. A few of them are still on the loose, we're hunting them down..." The demon instantly noted that his mentioning hunting humans had not gone over well, with the two men about to determine his fate

"That police station you just came from. Any civilians in there?" The demon biker just shook his head. "Okay then, what do we do with you?"

The demon shrugged his shoulders. "Any chance you'll just let bygones be bygones, and I simply go?"

Cleburne shook his head. "Don't think so."

The demon nodded, then jerked up the shotgun - hoping to get off a quick shot.

He failed miserably, his head bursting apart like a festive piñata as Cleburne and Red lowered their smoking guns.

A few minutes later, Xander listened to Cleburne from the command post he had just set up in the police station, telling the Siberians that there were still some townspeople on the loose. So Joshua cautioned the commandos to be sure of their targets, before shooting.

There were various confirmations from the ranks of the soldiers. Xander and his group continued making their way hesitantly towards the center of town.

"Oracle, this is Saucer," Oracle was the codename attached to Xander's little group.

"Go ahead, Saucer," Gunny replied at once.

"There are five heat signatures near your position. Sixty yards from you, due west. They're in a structure of some kind."

Gunny looked in the direction indicated, and saw a convenience store. "Understood. Can you tell if they're hostiles or civilians?"

"Negative. Can't confirm enemy presence, at this time."

"Roger that, we'll check it out." Gunny turned to the others. "Okay, lieutenant - you, Osbourne and Weitz hang tight. Keep your eyes peeled, I'll do a quick recon..." Gunny then slipped away after the others confirmed his orders, and made his way towards the building.

After about a minute and a half, gunshots rang out from within the building. The front doors slid up, and two demons then came running out. Xander could hear Gunny's voice calling out in a high-pitched manner, "Thank you, come again!" in a dead-on imitation of Apu from 'The Simpsons'.

So Xander and his two companions opened fire with their own weapons, Oz staying with the semi-automatic setting for his gun while Rachael and Xander blasted away on full automatic. The demons quickly flopped to the ground, and were of no further concern to anyone in this world.

Gunny exited the store, supporting a very scared teenage girl in a clerk's uniform. It was clear that she had been treated roughly. Xander felt himself getting angry as he started across the street to help out, losing his focus on the surroundings. < This is getting to be just like Sunnydale, back then... >

"Xander!" Oz called out to his friend.

"Alex!" Rachael called out at the same time.

Harris twisted to see what they were yelling about, and vaguely saw a red blur as a demon slammed into him - and both of them crashed to the ground. The demon which had darted out of its cover to try and escape during the confusion, had not seen Xander as the two of them had intersected in the street.

Xander rolled over, and then got a good look at the demon that had fallen with him. "You!" he shouted and then groaned, grabbing at his head - as the former Scooby felt the intense headache hit him, right between the eyes.

Razor, for that was who it was, just glared at Xander and raised a Bowie knife to stab him with. < Nothing's gone right, ever since we came to this shithole town. So I'm pissed, and I'm gonna take it on your ass, soldier boy! >

Two gunshots then rang out, as Rachael and Oz tried to kill the demon biker from their unfavourable position. Black blood splattered upon Xander and Razor, as one bullet missed and another just tore through the demon's shoulder.

The enemy leader cursed, and inadvertently dropped the weapon. He then kicked Xander away, and lunged for the knife at once. < Freaking human assholes, you're dead - whoever you are! >

In the throes of his intense headache, which normally would render him unconscious, Xander somehow was still able to bring up the HK submachine gun that the Siberian quartermaster had given him. < Gotta make this count- >

Mainly by pure instinct, he jammed the gun into Razor's side and pulled the trigger. The roar of the weapon on full auto mode was muted somewhat, by the effect of the demon's body being directly over the weapon.

But the effect of the submachine gun was not lessened in the slightest, by its location. Xander felt himself getting drenched with the demon's blood, as the bullets tore unmercifully through Razor's body and the vital fluid exploded outwards.

The leader of the Hellions was nothing but dead meat, even before Harris had fully emptied the magazine into the target. < Well, it's not as neat as when Tara did it - but thank God, he's just as dead, > Xander thought to himself, breathing hard as the pain mercifully started to abate and he wiped the blood from his eyes.


Local community park, Rapid Creek, Idaho. Forty-five minutes later

The medics moved around the aid station they had set up in the shelter house, located in the community park. One of them was examining Xander - as Gunny, Oz and Rachael hovered nearby, nervously. Scattered throughout the shelter house were mostly newly-liberated residents of Rapid Creek, with some soldiers mixed in with them.

Off in the nearby clearing, a Blackhawk helicopter landed, guided in by a strobe light. Once it hit the ground, several more medics jumped out and headed over to the shelter house.

Red, puffing away on a cigar, walked up to where Xander was being treated. "How is he?" he asked the medic.

"Lieutenant Hall's gonna be fine. Nasty bruise from the fall, but other than that he'll be 100 % soon. I did make him take some painkillers, just to be safe." The medic then headed off to help with the civilians.

Mike Byrne joined his comrades. "Hall, I'm sure you can already imagine what Cleburne is going to say to you about all this - can't you?"

"Look, Red, gimme a break - I didn't see him coming. He just took me by surprise, is all."

"Exactly," Red took the cigar out of his mouth and pointed with it. "In combat, you need to always keep your head and be aware of everything around you-"

"I was aware!" Xander snapped back. "I just slipped up for a second."

"And that's all the time that was needed for you to get knocked to the ground, by that demon! If your hand had slipped holding the HK, well - no, let's not even talk about that," Rachael said, with a genuine look of concern on her face.

"Look, when my number's up, my number's up. I learned that the hard way in my life, sometime all the training in the world can't stop what's meant to be," Xander declared, while rubbing his forehead.

"Sure, pal, but you can minimize the odds of Fate as much as possible. The worst thing you can do in combat is get angry, or allow your emotions to take over. Every recruit into our little group has that drummed into his...or her..." Red added quickly when Rachael glared at him. "...head from day one, by Cleburne."

"Speaking of tall and grumpy, where is he? I've not seen him in a while," Oz asked.

"Oh, he's just taking care of some wrapping up right now," Red shrugged.


The outskirts of the town. The same time

The group of demons riding motorcycles was considerably smaller, than when they had ridden into town a day earlier. The couple of dozen remaining survivors constituted a pretty ragged group, in fact, with several wounded among them. They were making good time down the mountain road, though.

Once it was clear that things were falling apart in the town and Razor couldn't be found - command and control, what little there was of it in the demon motorcycle gang, had completely disintegrated. It had been every demon for itself, in a mad rush towards the demolished bridge.

The fact that it had been blown away in places had only slowed them down a little bit, as they had literally flown their bikes over the holes of the roadway. They had then started tearing down the road, in a mad attempt to escape. They hadn't thought to question why their attackers hadn't pursued them, something a more organized and well-trained group would have done.

Of course, they also didn't know that two miles down the road was a Utah National Guard mechanized infantry battalion, set up to handle just such a situation. However, the National Guardsmen would be denied the opportunity to explain to the demons the folly of attacking fellow Mormons.

Because high above the bikers, a conversation was taking place.

"This is Damocles One, I have target in sight. There's a straight stretch of road about 300 yards ahead that'll be suitable for a kill zone."

There were two confirmations, as the unaware demons continued on. Three hundred yards down, they did indeed come to a straight part of the mountain road and picked up speed. Unfortunately for them, their motorcycles couldn't outrun what was coming for them.

About halfway down the scenic route, the demons heard a roaring coming their way. They all looked back, screamed and either tried to swerve off the road or speed up to avoid what was coming.

Neither choice was viable as three A-10 warthogs flew in a low-level strafing run at them, firing their 30mm cannons as they approached their targets. The planes were spread out in such a way that their guns completely covered the area the demons were riding in or could get to, using their night vision imaging systems to maintain a perfect formation in the night sky.

The exploding shells, all the size of old-fashioned milk bottles and designed to penetrate the armor of Russian tanks, tore up the road behind the demons - then quickly moved through them, and approximately 20 yards in front of them. Explosions blasted the road apart the whole distance, as a huge dirt cloud was thrown up.

After a few seconds, a riderless motorcycle emerged at the front edge of the dust cloud, and continued on for 15 yards before falling over.

As the smoke and dust cleared the scene of bodies, some barely moving and others not at all, and mangled motorcycles revealed itself to any observers.

One of which was standing at the top of a rise just on the outskirts of town, watching the scene with binoculars. Cleburne nodded in satisfaction with the job done by the air National Guard. He then keyed the body mike to his radio, "Saucer? This is Mongoose. Damocles has done a number on the enemy. Tell the Utah NG guys to go in and mop up."

The senior Siberian then turned, and headed back to the town park. He was going to have a talk with the kid, having heard enough over the radio to get annoyed at what had happened. < I swear, Harris has *got* to learn to keep his head in the game or else I'll wind up having to writing a letter to... >

Cleburne paused for a second. < Hold on a sec, just who *would* I write the letter to? His parents? I don't think so. The Brit, or those kids in Sunnydale? Now that would be a damn strange letter to write! Might have to do an in-person visit for that... >

Joshua then swore to himself to do everything possible to avoid ever having such a task befall him. Meanwhile, unnoticed by anyone, another figure on a distant hilltop looked down on the scene of carnage.

"Well, but these guys just keep popping up like ants at a picnic. They'll spoil my fun if something isn't done about them," said the First Evil, in the guise of Glory, before it vanished in a burst of light.


U.S. Air Force Base, Northern Utah. October 14, 2000

Xander walked out of the briefing room, having finished up the debriefing of the assault a few minutes ago. As expected, Cleburne had not been happy with him at all, and had made his displeasure with Xander's conduct evident.

However, there was a key difference from when he had gotten hurt in Sunnydale - that fray-adjacent lecture from Buffy, never buried all that deeply in his psyche. Here, there was no cautioning to hang back or be more careful; no, the thrust of the ass-chewing was that there was a lot more combat training coming his way.

And Xander couldn't help but notice the looks of sympathy he had gotten from his fellow Siberians, when they heard Cleburne was taking control of Xander's training schedule.

He remembered Buffy complaining about Giles and her training sessions, and that was without G-man being equal in ability to the Slayer. But in this situation, Harris knew beyond a doubt that Cleburne would not have any problems not holding back, when it came to kicking his ass.

Of course, from what he knew of Siberian lore, the fact that the senior agent was verbalizing his anger meant that deep down he was happy Xander was all right, despite his blustering about not wanting the Wizard or Esther getting mad at him.

But the USMC colonel whaling on him was a problem for the future. Right now, he had a more pressing concern.

"Mr. Hall, I'm pleased to see that you're largely unharmed," a clipped voice said that Xander instantly remembered, from his first days with STW.

The young man turned around, and saw one of the Mormon Danites standing there. He recognized him as one of the missionaries that used to visit him. "Been a while since I've seen you. You were literally the knock on the door I came halfway to dread," Xander said with a small grin.

The Danite looked chagrined. "I can assure you, we never meant you any harm. We just wanted to talk to you, and explain the tenets of our church. A man in a situation such as yours needs something higher in his life, than just trying to survive from day to day."

Xander looked the Danite up and down. "Look, pal, I know you mean well - but I spent nearly five years in a place where surviving day to day, was the only choice I had!" He said with a little bit of an edge to it, as he started to walk off.

The Danite ignored Xander's tone, and started walking alongside him. "I understand it was horrible, there's no lessening of the atrocities committed there implied. Still, you found something greater in life there than simple survival, such as getting yourself and your fellow prisoners out - correct?"

The Danite held his hands up to calm Xander down, as he saw a look of anger flash across the former Scooby's face. "Again I apologize if I have offended you, for truly I meant no offense. I'm Darien Chalmers. If you'd like to talk to us about the church, I would be delighted to answer any questions. If not, I understand, but still my fellow Danites and I would like to talk to you about hunting demons and your experiences with them. We're thinking of expanding our operations, and would appreciate any pointers you could give us."

Xander thought for a second. He noticed several Danites standing off to the side, looking expectant. "Does Cleburne know about this?" he finally asked.

Chalmers nodded. "Of course, and he said it was completely up to you."

Xander pondered the issue. < Well, it isn't actually a breach of the agreement we reached back at Caritas. Besides, maybe they'll have some more honey. I really liked that stuff! > So the man nodded his head. "Okay, guess there's no harm in talking..." The Danite looked very pleased that Xander had consented. "Let me just shower and get a cup of coffee first, though."

He started walking away, and as he did Harris heard Chalmers talking to the other Danites. "Now, I know you're all anxious, but I really think we should wait a while before everyone starts bringing out the pamphlets..."

Xander sighed as he walked off, hearing Cleburne's laughter in the background. < I should have known...does nothing I do escape your notice, Mother Hen? >

As he walked along, Rachael somehow appeared alongside him. "Hey Mr. Hall, if you're looking for a new religion? I got a suggestion, you should consider joining up with the Chosen people!" She then added with a chuckle, "Because, we get to drink alcohol and smoke..."

The former slave sighed again and just kept on walking, much like he had when Cordelia had given up popularity and the Cordettes for him so long ago - attempting to block out all the annoyances. He then recalled that in earlier times, Willow had tried to teach him about Judaism. < Hmmm, wonder what the old gang in Sunnydale is up to right now? >


The Magic Box, Sunnydale, California. October 16, 2000

"See, this is what happens when she's with those who can't control her," Mr. Maclay said while glaring at the Scoobies, who were tending to their wounds and standing around the magic shop.

"I'm so sorry," was all that Tara had been able to whimper to Willow, after the events of the last few minutes.

Tara's 20th birthday had arrived, and Willow had made arrangements for a surprise party for her girlfriend. Everything had been going according to plan, too, until Tara's family had shown up yesterday.

And they were nothing like Willow had expected. If anything, she had thought they would be peace-loving Wiccans and the like, after all that Tara had demonstrated being.

But they were definitely not like that at all. The men in particular had rubbed everyone the wrong way, right from the start - most especially Jonathan Levinson, for some reason. And Willow had definitely not liked the way that Tara had started acting once they had shown up, all meek and submissive.

Then the problem in the Magic Box had taken place. An invisible enemy had attacked Buffy and the others; a Lei-Ach demon of all things, even though in this world it was not acting under Glory's orders. Tara had then shown up, and seemed surprised by the fact that Willow and the others could see her...

It turned out that the femme had cast a spell on the Scooby gang, for them to be unable to detect demons - i.e., her. And as fate would have it, the evil creature had chosen that moment to attack the magic shop. It had been touch and go for a few minutes, but in the end the Scoobies had prevailed.

Then the Maclay family had shown up to take Tara home, against her will if need be. For the blonde college girl had been told that she would turn into a demon when her 20th birthday rolled around, which was today.

Tara had been afraid as to how the Scoobies, and Willow in particular, would react. So she had done a demon invisibility spell, with the results that her father was now using as justification to take her back to wherever the hell they'd come from.

"She's turning into a demon. She has to be taken home where she can be handled and cared for, and so she doesn't hurt others. She'll also be able to pay us back for the burden of taking care of her, all these years..."

That definitely got Willow's attention. "Hey, what do you mean? You can't just abduct her away like that! Not if she doesn't want to go!" Willow declared, her Resolve Face surfacing. For Willow wasn't about to lose Tara, in almost the same way she'd lost Xander.

"W-w-willow, it's for the best. I should just do what they say..." Tara said, indicating her family. "I'm turning into a demon-"

Anya raised her hand. "Excuse me..." The others in the room looked at her. "But just out of professional curiosity, what kind of demon?"

"What?" Tara's father had a puzzled look on his face.

"Well, what kind of demon is she going to turn into? After all, there are many different kinds of demons, some of them deadly and vicious - but others quite harmless, and even useful members of society. This whole attitude that all demons are pure evil is just species-ist racism, you know..."

Everyone in the room continued staring at Anya, as she continued talking. "Oh, I get it, you really don't know what kind of demon - do you? Well, let's go down the list then, tell me - first off, what sort of powers is she going to get?"

Tara's father just looked dumbfounded, as the former Anyanka started reeling off a list of powers. "Super-strength, flight, invulnerability, mind-reading? What?"

Mr. Maclay just shook his head to all of Anya's suggestions. < Who is this fool woman? Why, I oughta- >

"Anya-" Giles tried to interrupt her, unsuccessfully.

"Oh, I know, invisibility! I knew a demon years ago, who had the shtick of turning invisible and starting riots. Halfrek and I used to rave on about it all the time, over coffee-"

"No, nothing like that! No so-called powers!" Tara's dad snapped.

Anya placed her hands on her hips. "Well, this whole thing sounds pretty lame then! I mean, no powers? What kind of demon would that make? Sounds like the only thing they get is the duty of serving you..."

An epiphany came to Anya's brain. "Oh! That's it, isn't it?! Right before I became human, this colleague of mine named Lloyd? He was telling me about this racket some humans had going - of fooling other humans into thinking they were turning into demons, unless they did everything they were told. We both laughed our asses off, at the time - but that was *you*, wasn't it?"

Mr. Maclay was now angry, as was his son and Tara's cousin. It was the son, Donnie, who answered, "Hey, that's just plain ridiculous! Now let's get going, we're the only ones who can handle that bitch when she goes all demonlike-"

"Well, there's only one way to know for sure," Jonathan stepped forward and said simply, "Animus reveale!" as he pointed at Tara with his outstretched arm.

Tara's outline flared white for a second, as everyone looked confused. "W-what did you do?" the blonde asked her student.

"A modified spell to see a person's soul or aura, that I've been working on as a way to spot vampires and demons from a distance. It's been pretty successful so far, Teach. And if you were a demon, you woulda glowed black for a few seconds," Jonathan replied with a shrug.

"Which, which means that this whole thing is just a-a-a myth told by your family, t-to keep the women such as yourself obediently toeing the line," Giles said, glaring at the Maclay clan.

Donnie spoke up again, "Hey, this entire conversation is getting old! Tara, get in the car - or so help me God, I will strike you down!"

"I think you should be more worried about *us* hurting *you*," Jonathan said, somehow seeming to grow taller. And as Donnie and his cousin Beth watched, his eyes seemed to darken almost to a shade of black, as the nerd got ready to defend the only person in the world who gave a damn about him.

"Yeah right, like you could..." Donnie's voice trailed off, as he suddenly found himself facing the unified phalanx of the Scooby gang members. He had just seen them clean the clocks of something his family couldn't even see, and so Tara's brother was now definitely wondering what they were about to do to him...

"I think you should all leave," Tara said firmly, with no hesitation - or stammer.

"Of all the ungrateful-" Beth said venomously.

" don't..." her father started to say.

"LEAVE NOW!" the Wiccan said forcefully, closing the door on that chapter of her life. And after another parting insult from her cousin, Tara's family was out the door.

Willow and Tara instantly hugged each other firmly. "Thank you," the older witch said, and then turned to the others. "Thank you all..."

Jonathan looked bashful. "Uh, you're welcome."

Buffy smiled, "Yeah, and Tara? You're one of us now. It's not like we were going to let anything happen to you..." The Slayer looked away for a second. "I learned my lesson about that sort of thing, a *long* time ago."

Next door to the Magic Box, Lemke stood in the window of his bookstore, watching the Maclay family leave with their tails between their legs, as he drank a cup of tea. <Just from watching them argue with each other, I can see why Xander didn't like them.> He thought to himself. <I'm glad he gave me a heads up today to be on the lookout for them and to make sure that Tara didn't leave with them. Oh well, another day on the hellmoth.>

Part Fifteen

Great Russell Street, London, England. Late October, 2000

Quentin Travers stalked into the library vaults of the Watcher Council's headquarters. He was not happy; having spent over an hour to just travel down to the sub-basement, due to all the security safeguards, had not done anything to brighten his normally surly mood.

"What's going on that I had to be dragged down here? All of you are supposed to be competent enough that you don't need supervision, the way kindergarten students do!" he semi-snarled at the several Watchers, who snapped to quasi-attention when he entered the room.

"Sir, I thought I saw something when I was down here doing inventory," stammered out one of the men. He was holding a flashlight. And that was when Travers noticed that the lights were flickering in some places.

"What the devil's wrong with the lights? And you probably just saw your own shadow, and got scared. People who are unsure of their abilities, rightly so, sometimes jump to conclusions they shouldn't," Travers said with a hostile tone.

The Watchers in the vault cringed. It was a well-known fact on the grapevine, that these days Quentin Travers was almost always unforgiving and in a bad mood. Where at one time being the assistant of the most powerful man within the Council had been a highly sought-after position, now almost all of the Watchers avoided that 'honor' like the plague.

"No sir, it's more than just the lights. I clearly saw a figure. Something or someone climbed up a rope into the ceiling."

Travers sighed in frustration. "This is ridiculous. The security systems would have detected an intruder!"

The young Watcher, named Riley Thompson, shook his head. "Other than some power surges, sir, it shows nothing."

"Well, there you go. And be assured that I will see to it the proper response is made to your wild goose chase!"

Normally Travers' response would have reduced the target to silent fear, but not this time. "Sir, something from the inventory is missing from where I saw the figure..."

Travers turned around at that announcement. "What, exactly?" he said with a catch to his throat.

Thompson handed an inventory sheet to Travers. "It's Section J, Lot 45, Item 37..."

Travers' eyes ran down the list to the indicated item. When he reached it, the color left his face. "Spread out, search everywhere," he barked out. "Seal the building. Nothing gets in or out till we find it!"


Outside the Watchers Council Headquarters. The same time

Gwen Raiden made her way quickly to the car she had parked nearby, as a getaway vehicle. This job had gone even better than she had expected.

The U.S. government people had been most nervous about this item. They had quadrupled her normal fee, and offered quite a bit of logistical support - of the mystical and mundane variety. They had also told her not to let herself get caught under any circumstances, even going so far as to tell her that she was authorized to use lethal force if she found herself in trouble.

Gwen snorted at the thought. She was too good a thief to need to kill someone, to ever get the job done. Still, her employers had told her to not expect much mercy - make that none - if the targets *did* catch her.

But her skills had come through. So she got into the car and headed to the rendezvous point, where the young thief would be taken to a USAF base for a quick flight back across the pond. As she did, Gwen glanced down at the book and noticed the title. < I wonder what all the big fuss is about? >

The front of the book read 'De Vermis Mysteriis' with the author "Ludwig Prinn" underneath. Gwen suddenly wished she had paid more attention to her Latin classes, in that Wisconsin school her parents had shipped off to...


Office of Dr. Adams, Stedman Medical Building, Sunnydale. October 25, 2000

Giles looked up from the magazine he had been reading, while Joyce was in the doctor's office. He had been driving her to her appointments ever since she had started going, and the Englishman had given whatever support he could to the woman...

But today, the look on Joyce Summers' face told him that the prophesised nightmare had finally come to pass. That his support would be needed now, more than ever before.

Giles quickly embraced his former lover as Joyce almost lost it and stammered, "Rupert, they found a...a shadow. Oh God, it's really happening, I...dear Lord, it's time to tell the girls..."


Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. The same time

Charles Gunn walked across the lobby of the old hotel. He was now almost a member of Angel Investigations, having gotten involved with the Fang Gang a few times lately.

It had all started with that thing involving the demon called Deevak. Him and his people had gotten into trouble; and Gunn's forces had been taken down a peg or two when the evil creature had murdered his old buddy Bobby. And what was worse, Alonna had been killed in a stupid accident, when Gunn had called Angel for help that night...

It had sent Charles into a huge depression. But eventually he had been dragged out of it, when the girl called Bethany Chaulk had come into his life - and Angel's Avengers had saved him from her mistakenly decapitating his handsome self, when her father had shown up.

Not to mention when just the previous day, he had participated in taking out the thrall demon Turfog - a creature that was making its human disciples kill each other, in an underground tank that used to be St. Bridget's convent. So Gunn figured he should finally go see where exactly the office of his so-called professional colleagues was. "Hello?" he called out.

"Hello?" came the high-pitched female voice response.

"Yeah, this Angel Investigations?"

Cordelia Chase came out of back office, with a smile on her face. "Yes it is, Angel Investigations, we help the helpless..." the young woman said, before she got a good look at who had called out for her. "Oh, Gunn, it's you! Well, welcome. So, how do you like our new digs?"

Gunn looked around the lobby. "Pretty big. Guess it shows promise."

"Yeah, well, before too long it'll be humming along as the hub of a thriving business..." Gunn shot Cordy a look. "Okay, fine, so we got it real cheap and don't have to pay rent!" she said cynically in response.

Gunn smiled at this woman, who a few weeks before had gotten it into her head to be his protector. "Well, guess you can't beat that." He looked around. "Angel in? After all, it's daylight outside, so I don't think Deadboy's out takin' a stroll..."

The former cheerleader looked shocked, reminded of the past - when someone she'd known and loved had called Angel that. "WHAT DID YOU CALL HIM??"

Gunn cursed mentally, having used Xander's old nickname without realizing it; back in Georgia when he had heard the Soldier Guy say the term, it had seemed funny and the Lost Boys had all adopted it since then, whenever referring to Angel.

Charles wished now he hadn't done so, as he remembered Xander telling him to keep the secret of his living status a secret - unless Angel personally told him it was all right to do otherwise. He thought for a second of trying to convince Cordy that she had misheard him, then he decided to just brazen it out. "Hey, sorry - guess that the term 'Deadboy' ain't exactly politically correct around here, huh?"

Cordelia shook her head. < It was just a coincidence, so get over it. Xander's been dead for nearly 18 months now... > "No, and please don't say it again. Well, Angel's out doing the dark brooding thing. There's tunnels leading to the sewers," she said in response to the puzzled look on Gunn's face.

"Is it just me, or does the guy seem even more broody than normal lately?" the black man then asked with a frown.

"Oh, hey, Angel's been brooding the whole time you've known him. I don't think you've ever seen him doing anything *but* brood," Cordy remarked with a brief shrug.

Gunn hesitated for a second. The job he had done for the undead Champion involving Xander Harris was still a secret. "It's just...he seems to be gettin' darker over time..." Which was true. Despite his foreknowledge of Darla' return, her activities were still taking a toll on the ensouled vampire.

Cordelia sighed. "I know, *something's* bothering him and he won't tell us what. I mean, both Wes and I have tried to find out what's wrong, but with like no success!" < And that's no lie! Plus, we've tried to find out about vampires having children and the need to transfer my visions to someone else, but with no success so far on that front either. And those are two questions I *really* want to know the answer to! >

"Well, hopefully things will look up. After all, he managed to help that girl with the mind voodoo thing," Gunn observed, with a shudder over how close Bethany had come to killing him.

"Sure, but it put him in an even worse mood than ever before!"

"His mood don't appear to be affecting his game none, and that's what counts," the leader of the Lost Boys remarked - not knowing that would change, before too long.


'The Farm' CIA training facility, Virginia. The same day

Xander looked around the cavernous room he had been taken to by Cleburne. There was a series of wooden walls at about waist height, that formed a path down the room. There was also a balcony halfway up the wall that followed the length of the room.

Cleburne walked behind Xander, squeezing a foam ball in his left hand. "Kid, we're going to have to work on your focus."

"Does that mean you're going to throw me around the room some more?" Xander asked with a grimace. Harris, after their first hand-to-hand training session, had been sore for days afterwards. He was also worried about the fact that Cleburne had told him that that was only the preliminaries, until the real close combat training began.

"Nope," Cleburne shook his head. "Today, we work on your focus involving ranged weapons." He handed over to Xander a pistol, with a small box on the bottom of the barrel. "That box is a laser, which we'll use to see where you hit the targets. If you hit in the right place, the target is disabled. Miss, and it's not disabled."

"So what, a piece of paper doesn't get disabled?"

"Oh no, not pieces of paper," Cleburne pulled a remote from his pocket with his right hand, and pushed a button on it. Several feet down the room, a man-sized yellow object popped up. After a second, its arm came up and started shooting tennis balls out of it. "These targets shoot back!"

After five balls had shot out of the arm, Cleburne pushed the button again and the target sank back to the ground.

"Hey, those can sting!" Xander said, referring to the tennis balls.

"Well, real bullets do more than sting," Cleburne observed. He continued on, ignoring Xander's dirty look, "Now, the objective is to get to the end of the room having disabled every target, and not get knocked around too bad by McEnroe's revenge."

Xander shrugged. "Shouldn't be too hard to...HEY!" That last little bit had been in response to Cleburne beaning him on the head, with the foam ball he had been carrying.

"Did I also mention, that the whole time I'll be trying to distract you? Doing everything I can to make you goof up?"

Xander looked at Cleburne with a look of astonishment. "You hit me on the head with that ball. That ball hit me on the head, because of you. My head was hit by that ball, that was in your hand!"

Cleburne just looked at him. "Are there any other ways you can think of saying it?" Then he added with an evil look on his face, "Thing is, my doctor was worried about my stress level. He said playing with stress balls would relieve some of the stress. He was right, I felt the stress just slide away when I beaned you like that!"

Xander suddenly had a worried look on his face. "Balls? As in plural?"

The evil grin on Cleburne's face remained, as he leaned over one of the wooden walls and brought up two steel pails, both full of the foam stress balls. "I have a lot of stress to work through, kid."


1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California. Later that evening

"Mom, I'm home!" Buffy called out, as she got back from college classes. One of the few advantages of living at home again were the home-cooked meals by her mother, and the Slayer was quite hungry right now.

"Buffy, you're home." That was Dawn, who was sitting at the bottom of the staircase.

"Yeah, that's what I just yelled out. I didn't phone from the Bronze saying I was home, did I?" Buffy then noticed the look on Dawn's face, as her little sister failed to rise to the verbal challenge. "Dawnie? What's wrong?"

Dawn glanced down, then her eyes headed for the doorway to the kitchen. "I don't know. About an hour ago, Mom came home with Giles. And she looked like she'd been crying! They've been in the kitchen, ever since."

Buffy suddenly felt worried. "Any idea why?" She suddenly paled, "Willow?"

Dawn shook her head. "No. When I got home and they kicked me out of the kitchen, I called Willow to make sure her and the others are all right. Everyone's fine."


"Like we would even notice," Dawn said with a snarky tone.


The younger Summers girl almost jumped up from shock, when Joyce came through the door and said her name, with just a little tone of reproach. "Can you come with me? You too, Buffy, I need to talk to you both." Giles was not with her, staying in the kitchen at her request - as this was a family matter.

Joyce then led her daughters into the living room, and sat both of them down on the couch. She pulled up a chair opposite them. < Oh, this is *not* going to be easy. For them or me. >

"What's wrong, Mom?" Buffy asked in a scared, tiny voice.

The sound of that hurt Joyce so much, that she scooted her chair closer and leaned over - as she gripped Buffy's hand in her right hand, and Dawn's in her left. "Girls, I have to tell you something."

At that, Buffy drew a quick breath in. < What's going on? This is getting majorly creepy! >

Joyce continued, "These past few months, I've been feeling a little uneasy. I imagine my mood hasn't been the best to get along with..."

"It's all right, Mom, we understand," Dawn said as she squeezed her mother's hand.

Joyce shook her head, misty-eyed, and said, "No you don't, sweetheart, but thanks for saying it. I honestly don't know what I would do without daughters like you. Well, anyway, ever since July - I've been going to the doctor."

That brought a sharp intake of breath from both of the Summers girls.

"You see, for the longest time, they couldn't figure out why I felt so uneasy that there was something wrong. Well, today, they found out why..." She took a deep breath. "They found a shadow," Joyce almost whispered out.

Buffy looked confused. "Shadow? But, but everyone has a shadow. I don't understand!" Her brain wasn't fully comprehending what it was being told.

"Where?" Dawn whispered, a bit more focused.

"In my brain," Joyce answered sadly.

"Mommy?" Buffy whispered, even softer than Dawn.

"It's a tumor, Buffy," Joyce said as gently as possible. "The shadow's the first indication that I'm suffering from a growth up there."

"Are, are you going to die?" Buffy asked, after sniffling for a few seconds. Dawn also looked like she was about to break down in shock.

Joyce thought for a second, then decided on being forthright, if not completely honest. < There's no need to tell them of Xander's role in all this, they've had enough hit them today already. > "I don't know. The doctors tell me that if it hadn't been caught *this* early, my chances of survival would be that much smaller." < Make that nonexistent, according to that letter, but let's not tell them that. > "As it stands now, they're hoping to treat it aggressively."

"Which means?" Dawn asked. In some ways, she was quicker in dealing with this situation than Buffy was. After all, there was no demon to slay here.

Joyce thought back to her meeting with Dr. Adams. "Well, many options were suggested to me. We're not just going to accept this and do nothing."

"But what are you going to do? That doctor must have had *some* suggestion as to what to do here," Dawn pressed her mother.

"Well, he did give me his recommendation."

"Which was?" That was from Buffy.

Joyce swallowed before she replied, and both Buffy and Dawn steeled themselves for what was to come. "He thinks they can remove the tumor through surgery."

Buffy's eyes grew wide. "Surgery!? But, but it's in the brain, they would have to do brain surgery!"

In spite of the situation, Joyce smiled at Buffy's remark. "Yes, sweetie. They have to go where the tumor is, there's no point going anywhere else," she gently joked.

Dawn leaned over and tightly hugged her mother; Buffy did so too, a second later. So Joyce quickly coughed. "Buffy? Slayer strength," she wheezed.

Buffy let go and leaned back in a hurry. "Oh my God! I'm sorry, I didn't hurt you - did I? Do we need to call a doctor or something?"

Joyce smiled and brushed some of Buffy's hair back from in front of her eyes. "No, dear, I'm fine. You just don't know your strength sometimes."

Dawn suddenly leaned back, with a funny expression on her face. As if she was...trying to remember something. "Mom? How long have you known about all this again?"

Joyce faced Dawn. < She would ask that, wouldn't she? I don't want to lie, but I can't tell her the truth either. The last thing I need is another fight between her and Buffy over Xander! > "I definitively found out about the tumor's presence today, even if I've been feeling...odd, for months now. So I decided to check in regularly with the doctor, till they figured out why I was feeling that way."

This was all technically true, even if of course what had gotten her feeling 'odd' was a letter from one supposedly dead young man. < Please, Lord, don't let either of them inquire too closely about it either- >


"What, Buffy?" Joyce asked, pulling herself together.

"When's the surgery gonna take place?" Buffy asked, with the stricken look still on her face.

"The doctor wants to set it up sometime within the next month or so. The sooner the better."

"Who else knows?" Dawn then asked.

"Rupert's been driving me to my appointments, and I confided in him this afternoon. But I didn't want to alarm you and your sister, till the doctors knew something for certain."

"So what now?" Buffy asked in that scared, tiny voice from before.

"We get through this, as best we can," Joyce said with conviction.


Lafayette Park, Washington DC. November 1, 2000

"Good afternoon, my daughter. Is this bench taken?"

Esther Marcum looked up at her questioner. He was an older gentleman, dressed conservatively and appropriately for the mid-afternoon weather. "Not at all, please have a seat."

The man smiled in acknowledgement, and sat down next to Esther. She looked around to make sure no one was within earshot. Satisfied that was the case, she turned to her bench companion. "So, Monsignor, I hope the cloak and dagger stuff wasn't too onerous for you?"

Monsignor Randall Bentallo smiled at that. "No, but I must admit that I was surprised to receive the invitation. After all, I am just a humble servant of the Holy See here in your nation's capitol. I'm astonished that someone from your organization would want to talk to me..."

The Catholic Church had been in existence long enough to realize that intelligence was power, and therefore the church kept track of events in the secular world. That was one of the unspoken, well most of the time, duties of the various diplomatic missions that the Vatican had throughout the world.

Esther glanced at her companion, with a grin on her face. "You certainly are a servant of the church. A humble one? Perhaps, but not an unimportant one. Anyone connected to the Special Office of the Vatican *can't* be unimportant."

A raised eyebrow was the response from the Catholic official. "I hear your organization has been quite active, exploring new fields. Areas outside what you used to deal with."

Esther nodded. "Things change, the only real constant in the world is that everything changes. I think that's an old Chinese proverb..." She laughed at that. "Well, most everything that sounds wise is at one time or another called an ancient Chinese saying."

The black woman regarded her visitor again. "I'm surprised you've heard such things about us, though; after all, we've not been moving in the circles your organization frequents."

"We still hear things from circles we don't normally...associate with. Even though many times we hunt the dark things of the world, we still interact with them."

"You've been doing so for quite a while too, if we understand correctly. You have a mighty big anniversary coming up next year..." She was alluding to the history of the organization that the good Monsignor represented, which had provided fodder for conspiracy theorists for centuries.

"Surely you didn't ask for this meeting just to arrange to send an anniversary gift? Really, the thought is all that counts," Bentallo joked.

"My eldest son keeps telling me that. Around the time of birthdays, and the like. He kind of has a problem remembering his parents and siblings would like material proof of the regard he holds them in," Esther joked back. "However, getting back on topic, what could we give the Catholic Church? You already have so much. Still, I think we can reach an...agreement that would satisfy you and yours."

The Monsignor nodded sagely. "We have heard of such agreements you now have with various parties. Along with one very nasty rivalry with an organization of antiquity, even older than our own."

Esther took in what her companion said. Within STW it was known that some of the other organizations in the world dealing with the paranormal might be leery of the new kid on the block. After all, the Watchers Council had been one of the first amongst equals since the beginning.

And no one liked an upstart knocking over the apple cart.

"Well, in our defense, they came to us first - looking for trouble. Snatching an American citizen from American soil is something we...frown upon." Esther noticed four or five children run by, followed almost immediately by two camera-toting adults. So she and the holy man instinctively turned away.

"But one could argue that they would have been the best suited to handle the...situation that had developed. After all, they've dealt with such things since time immemorial," Bentallo seemed to be enjoying playing Devil's Advocate.

"And they've done such a great job of it, to be sure! They've become insular, obsessed with themselves..." She paused for a second. "Do you really believe that Travers and his band of lackeys did anything out of the goodness of their hearts, back in March? They were doing it for the power Mr. Harris could have granted them." Esther noticed that silence greeted her comment, for a few seconds.

Of course, the silence didn't last. "The charge is not unjustified. However, I sincerely doubt that your government is doing what it is doing entirely out of any charitable impulses, either."

Esther shrugged. "Of *course* we have selfish reasons for doing the things we're doing. It's only natural, and I won't insult you by pretending otherwise." She nodded at the White House across the street from them. "Very rarely does selfless motivation rule matters over there, either."

The woman paused for a second, before continuing. "Still, you know we've been cooperating with others. Helping them set up programs to deal with the bumpy things in the night. That's more than the Watchers Council ever did! We don't pop in, tell the locals to go home and then kill an 18-year-old girl who doesn't meet our standards on her birthday..."

The Monsignor reflected on that. "True enough. You don't have the hubris and arrogance of the Watchers Council...yet. So you may have more credible argument for an understanding than other organizations may have. Still, your ignorance of the occult is worrisome."

"Well, we're not as ignorant anymore as people think. After all, Mr. Harris has been *most* informative on some things; and remember that even before he came along, American soil has not been a stranger to weird events. After all, both Innsmouth and Jerusalem's Lot were in Massachusetts."

"Again, true enough, you do have some knowledge of things that the man on the street is better off not knowing about. Which is why I'm worried about a rumor coming out of England. Need I remind you about how the madness started in Jerusalem's Lot?" Bentallo actually seemed a little apprehensive at raising this point.

Esther sighed. "Agreed, we're not unaware of the dangers we face. That's one of the reasons we want your help. Outside the Watchers, the Church has the most experience in dealing with such matters."

"What would you be able to offer?" < This is reassuring, they're not too proud to seek help when they know they're out of their depth. Humility is a good thing, in this case. > The Monsignor felt there was ground for further discussions here.

"Well, superior resources for one thing. Remember Stalin's question about how many divisions the Pope had?"

Bentallo winced. "But as his successors have learned, we have great influence without armed forces."

"There are other special resources you could get access to; which you would no doubt desire," Esther referred to Xander Harris' knowledge of the future.

"Yes, the rumor mill has been quite busy about the special resource you speak of. The demon world, among others, has gotten into quite a frenzy over him. And Mr. Harris is now quite the globetrotter, from what I gather?"

Esther just smiled serenely at Bentallo. < You have no idea. >


Tokyo International Airport, Tokyo, Japan. Later that day

Xander looked out over the crowded airport terminal. For some reason, Cleburne hadn't been too torn up about him, Xander and Oz flying into a civilian airport on this trip. On a chartered flight of course, as commercial air travel for Mr. Alexander Lavelle Harris was still a big no-no.

He suspected that the older man felt quite comfortable here, within the Land of the Rising Sun; then suddenly, Xander remembered the story of the agents Joshua had met in San Francisco back in 1999, and the possibility that someone here knew who he was...

"What's the name of this demon again?" the former Scooby suddenly asked, clearing his mind.

Xander then looked around, and realized he and Oz had lost sight of Cleburne. They waited a second, as the senior Siberian turned the corner nearest them, pocketing the documents he had used to get them diplomatic treatment. "What's the name of this demon again?" Harris repeated for Cleburne.

"Yama Uba," the man in question replied. "The Koan Choa Cho thinks some recent disappearances may kinda be up our alley, so they asked for our help. Ah, here they are now..." Cleburne nodded at a trio of bureaucratic-looking men down the hallway outside from them.

Xander look puzzled. "Conan Choe Chow?" he asked, mispronouncing Cleburne's phrase.

"Koan Choa Cho," Joshua corrected him. "Public Security Investigation Agency. It's their version of the FBI and CIA, combined. And kid, it's probably best if you let me do the talking."

With that, Cleburne led the two former Sunnydale residents into the hallway where the three individuals greeted him. Introductions were quickly made. They were from a special duty squad, whose exact duties was a pretty murky subject for both them and Cleburne. Nonetheless, they seemed genuinely pleased to meet Xander and Oz.


Mount Hiei, Japan. Two days later

At the moment, Xander wasn't too happy with having come to this country. Being chased through the home of an incredibly ugly demon, had had the effect of souring him on the charms of the Land of the Rising Sun.

He had never before really thought of Japan being a mountainous place, oddly enough. After reading 'Shogun' last year, Xander was a little surprised to think of Japan as even *having* mountains. But then after all, most of his views about the country had come from watching such samurai and war movies, while growing up.

Neither of which had prepared him to deal with being chased by hideous hag of a female demon, who enjoyed feasting on human flesh. < Come on, why me all the time? Can't I catch a break, just once!? > he thought to himself, as Harris hurried up the ladder to the demon's attic.

< You know, for a hut, this place is a heckuva lot bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside... > As Xander got to the attic, pulling the ladder up behind him as he did so, and hid himself. He heard the demon rampaging through the house, shouting in Japanese.

Xander was momentarily thankful that he had gotten split up from Oz and Cleburne. Because the senior Siberian spoke Japanese, and Xander suspected he would have felt worse if he knew what the demon was saying.

Hikers had been disappearing from this mountain for a while now. Of course, it was normal once or twice a year for a hiker to vanish from...well, natural causes. In the past few months though, the number of the vanished had risen such that unnatural causes could be the only possible reason for them.

Then the personal effects of the vanished had shown up being fenced by the Ganguro, who were the Japanese version of teenage Goths in the United States. They were also known by the term 'Yamamba Girls', after the demon they dressed like. The demon Yama Uba. That told certain elements of the national police in the know what, or more properly who, they were facing.

Legend was that Yama Uba had once been human, an elderly woman forced out of an ancient village when she was no longer useful to the villagers. In her rage and abandonment, she had turned into a demon upon her death. At least, that was the legend.

Since then, travelers in the mountainous parts of Japan would sometimes encounter the demon. Sometimes, she would immediately attack and devour them. Other times she would trick them through various means, and *then* devour them.

And rarely, oh-so-rarely, on occasion she would let the traveler go unharmed...for a price. That was how the Japanese authorities knew where to look for her.

They had called in the demon experts from the United States. Because here was a chance to see the new cooperation in paranormal matters, that was the latest thing on the international grapevine that they had heard about.

It had worked well at first; the three Westerners had made their way to the region where the demon was, and started hiking. And it had taken only a few hours to find their quarry.

Or be found by her...

The three of them had come across a young beautiful girl, who said she was looking for her grandmother's shack. Cleburne had offered to help her look, then he'd translated the exchange for Xander and Oz.

Xander had made the comment that he thought they were looking for a demon. The senior Siberian had just replied that it sounded like Xander hadn't done his homework.

They had shortly thereafter come across a neat, well-kept small hut. The young girl had invited them in; Cleburne had accepted, again in Japanese. In English he had warned his companions to be ready for trouble, as soon as they got inside.

A warning that was wisely heeded by both of them. For as soon as they were inside - the image of a beautiful young lost girl faded away, to be replaced by what was quite possibly was the ugliest-looking woman Xander had ever seen.

And having seen Buffy with her bad hair day after being electrocuted, and the geeky chess club Cordelia with the nightmare hairdo from Hell, that was really saying something.

Her mouth had grown from ear to ear, and all of her teeth were rotting. She also had crooked features with long, white stringy hair. Xander thought he saw another mouth in the hair, but he hadn't gotten close enough to tell for sure, and had no intention of doing so either. Dust also seemed to rise up off her - in a way that reminded Xander of the character Pigpen, from those old 'Charlie Brown' cartoons.

A stench was coming off that had had made Xander gag at first, before his desire for self-preservation had kicked in and drove him to run from the demon. < That's how most of those poor bastards probably get eaten by her. The smell knocks 'em off their feet! >

The demon's hair had actually reached out and attacked them, so all the Siberians promptly undertook a quick retreat. In the rush, Xander had found himself separated from the other two. Spying the ladder to the attic, he'd figured taking the high ground would be a good idea.

"Kid?" He heard the sound of Cleburne's whispered voice. Xander looked around, thinking maybe the others had made it up to the attic also. But Xander's looking around the room did not reveal any signs of his companions.

"Kid!" This time Xander glanced down, and saw that his earpiece had fallen out and was hanging near his shoulder. He quickly reached down, and replaced it back into his ear.

"I'm here," Harris whispered into the throat mike he retrieved. At moments like this, he was glad that Cleburne insisted that everyone wear their communications gear anytime it even remotely looked like they would be dealing with big nasty things.

"And where is here, exactly?" Cleburne responded in an exasperated tone.

"Oops, sorry about that - I'm in the attic," Xander said into the mike.

"Alone, I hope."

"Yeah, I scurried up here when Quasimodo's uglier sister started that whole *me see, me eat* routine!" Xander listened for a second, to make sure the local demon wasn't bearing down on his position. "Is Oz with you?"

"I'm with grumpy," Oz's voice came over the radio.

"Where are you guys, anyway?" Xander kept his eyes focused to the hatchway that opened up down into the hallway below.

"Looks like we're in her laboratory, or whatever. Lots of potions around here. She seems to be quite the gifted chemist."

"That aside, any idea where she is?" Xander asked as he shifted his position.

"Not sure; it's not close by, but we can hear her shouting..." Cleburne paused for a second. "Okay, looks like she's closer to you than us. I hear her yelling the name Harris and needing for you to come out."

"Ahhh, she used the name Harris?" Now Xander was really worried.

"Yeah, kid, I know what you're thinking and I agree - looks like she set a trap for you."

"Well, what's she saying?" Xander was dependent on Cleburne for a translation of the demon's rantings, and didn't like that one bit. < I gotta learn more languages, given how much I travel these days. Better talk to the Wizard about that soon... >

"Kid, you don't want to know."

"Mother Hen!!!" Xander snapped. "I'm asking, so I wanna know. Just tell me what's coming my way, already!"

Xander could actually hear Cleburne pausing, before an answer was forthcoming. "Well, kid, let's just say that she's talking to you in the same way Colonel Sanders used to talk to his chickens - before they got themselves deep-fried."

"Oh." Xander said, not missing a beat. "Gotcha. Well, here's the bad news - in the scuffle, I lost my sidearm. I've still got my knife, but I don't how much good that will do against that freaky hair of hers."

There was silence for a few seconds. "Okay kid, I got a way to get you out and maybe take care of the big ugly. You'll have to trust me, though."

"And I have a choice about that?"

"Actually, no, but what I'm going to ask you to do will sound...strange. Still, don't worry, it's worked before."

"How would you know?"

"Well, I spent a year based on Okinawa before I moved on to the show." Cleburne sometimes referred to his service with Siberian Trip Wire as the *show*. "While there, I got kinda *friendly* with a university student, who was studying the myths and legends of rural Japan. One of the tales she used to tell me about was Yama Uba."

"Then why am I the so-called expert? Seems to me you should have been the one the Japanese spooks asked for, and the one being hunted by the hunchback's rejects!"

A snort. "Like it or not, Harris, you've got the marquee name in the demon hunting business. Do you even know how many underground chat rooms there are about you now? The conspiracy theorists haven't had it this good, ever since the Princess Diana thing! Basically, you're the one with the movie star rep, in both the demon-hunting and demon circles..."

Xander sighed to himself. He remembered Buffy complaining when Dracula had come to Sunnydale in the first history, because of her reputation. Now *he* was in that position. Harris momentarily wondered if Dracula had been staked by now like in that other world, or if he would pop up in his future - not knowing that the world's most famous vampire had become the world's most famous pile of dust, a few months earlier.

"I'm famous like a movie star, huh? But I don't have any fans sending me stuff, or groupies offering themselves to me," Xander joked.

"They're overrated anyway - and in the rock and roll business? The roadies keep getting to them first," Oz dryly commented. Xander suppressed a laugh, just picturing the look Cleburne had to be giving the werewolf right then.

After a few seconds, Cleburne's voice came back over the radio. "Oooookay, here's the plan. Wolfie and I are going to work our way to your position slowly. While we do that, I want you to move around the attic, make some noise, let her know you're there, and most important of all...squeak loudly."

"What?" Xander said, louder than he had planned to.

"Trust me on this one, kid, you squeak like a rodent and move around. Yama will actually run from where you are. See you in a few minutes."

Xander mentally shrugged and started walking around the attic, not masking his movements anymore. After a few seconds he shouted out, "Squeak!!! Squeak!!!! Squeakk!!!!"

< This is insane, > Xander thought to himself. Then he heard Yama Uba yelling out. He stopped for a second. The former slave didn't know what she was yelling, but he recognized the tone.

Fear, pure fear.

For whatever reason, she was terrified of the noise Xander was making. He could hear her voice growing faint, as he started making the noise again.

After a few minutes, the radio brought the voice of Cleburne to him. "We're below you, lower the ladder."

Xander, having spent so much time in a hell dimension, was by now cognizant of potential tricks from demons. "How do I know it's you?"

"West Point had two graduates become President - Grant and Eisenhower. While Annapolis has had only the one."

Xander recalled the conversation he had with Cleburne and Marcum, back in 1999 San Francisco. "And what did you call him, last time we had this sort of chat?"

"Peanut farmer," came back the reply.

Xander was satisfied, and lowered down the ladder. Beneath him, he could see Oz and Cleburne motioning for him to come down. So he hurried down the ladder.

"Okay, give, what freaked out the demon?" Xander asked when he got to the hallway.

"Found this," Oz said as he handed a pistol to Xander.

Cleburne piped up as Xander took the weapon, "Believe it or not, she thinks you're a mouse - and that gives us the advantage. So come on, we have to move quick!" Xander and Oz followed Cleburne towards the front of the shack.

As they came to the room full of potions and brewing pots, Cleburne paused and looked around. "Go on, give me about thirty seconds." Xander and Oz made their way to the door, but didn't exit. They stood there waiting for Cleburne.

After about thirty seconds, he came trotting up. "I thought I told you to go on," he said in annoyance, as the USMC colonel went out the door. Pausing for a second, Cleburne slammed it shut and jammed up a board against it to make sure it wouldn't open.

"No one gets left behind," Xander stated simply, as he followed the senior Siberian. And Cleburne actually seemed pleased by Xander's statement.

As they exited the hut, a horrible scream came up from behind. "Keep going till we're clear!" Joshua commanded. They trotted about thirty yards from the entrance, before they turned around.

Xander could see smoke billowing from the shack. He glanced over at Cleburne, who shrugged his shoulders. "Didn't want to get close to her, for her hair to introduce me to her teeth. I figure setting fire to her magic items and potions would stop her from using magic to escape. At the same time, we'll keep her bottled up from a distance for the fire to do its job."

Which is exactly what happened. The few times Yama Uba tried to get out through the door, the gunfire from the Siberians and the board jamming it shut, drove her back in. After a while, she tried to find other ways out. She didn't find any.

While they were waiting, Xander turned to Cleburne with an innocent look. "So, I have chat rooms talking about me? Do I have a fan club? Have people set up web pages about me, or anything?"

"Don't let it go to your head, kid. My opinion, over half the people in those rooms are operatives trying to get intel, so they can snatch you. The other half, well - they talk about you, the Force, Babylon 5, Captain Kirk, Sailor Moon and Animaniacs. No one takes them seriously," was the reply from the American secret agent.

"But still - I have fans," Xander declared with a goofy half-grin on his face, as Oz noted the brief reappearance of what had once been called the Zeppo.

Cleburne rolled his eyeballs to the sky. "Where's a bucket of stress balls when I need them?"

After about an hour, the three of them walked away from the smoldering remains of the hut. Cleburne looked back at Xander and Oz. "Gentlemen, I'll have you know there are some great bars for us to visit in Tokyo tonight. Really great places, you'll like them."

He glanced back at Xander with a sharp focus. "Now listen, kid - no handing out of literature about the Mormon church. I should have known you were up to something, when you asked Chalmers for all those pamphlets...."


Unknown place, the same time

Faith waved at the children, as their parents picked them up. She really enjoyed working here at the youth center. Giving something back to the community was important to her. And she pulled enough scams when she was that age, that the kids couldn't put much over on her.

She glanced at her watch. < Xander should be getting off from work at the construction site, right about now. I'll try to catch him before he leaves, and have him bring home some Mexican food. >

She leaned over, and picked up the phone on the counter in front of her. The young woman then dialed the number, and patiently waited for an answer.

"Hey J, it's Faith. Has my Xander-shaped stud left yet?" The brunette waited for a few seconds, for the other party to respond. "Twenty minutes ago. Well, I hope he's getting some food for dinner. Pizza? I was hoping for Mexican, but I suppose I can stand some pizza for tonight."

She listened for a few seconds. "Hey, just because I've got something cooking in the oven doesn't mean I can't enjoy good food! Oh, Xander told you about the ice cream and salsa, did he? Funny, he wasn't complaining that much last night..." Faith laughed. "Thanks, Jackie. I'll talk to you later on."

Faith Daniels-Harris hung up the phone, and grabbed her keys. She was looking forward to getting home, they were going to choose the wallpaper for the nursery tonight...

She walked out the front door of the youth center, quickly locking it behind her. As she walked across the parking lot, all of a sudden - a bright light seemed to come out of nowhere. Faith shielded her eyes for a second from the brightness, before it consumed her entirely.


Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles, California. The same time

Lilah Morgan stared at the orb on her conference room table. Previously dark and empty, it was now filled with a bright white misty light. All around her, the room was full of dead Shur-hod demon monks - who were sprawled out on the floor, their lives forfeit from the activity they had undertaken.

The last surviving monk, who was the leader, gasped at Lilah - his life force quickly draining away, like his evil brethren. "It's done, the soul has been delivered-" Then he keeled over, and joined his brothers in Hell.

Lilah nodded with a feral smile on her face, not caring about the dead things in the conference room. They were just replaceable hardware, anyway. In fact, if anything she felt glad that they were all dead meat - at least now she didn't have to listen to their excuses anymore, about how hard it was to summon a truly blessed soul from one of the higher realms.

Holding up the orb, she laughed to herself, "Good, excellent. Phase one's complete - now we just have to get word somehow to Mr. Harris, and he *will* come to us..."

Part Sixteen

Charlottesville, Virginia. November 8, 2000

In his temporary quarters Xander was dreaming of Faith the vampire Slayer, early that morning.

He dreamt of the last night of bittersweet half-innocence he'd ever had; as the next day, Harris had been kidnapped by Spike and Dru, and sent to that hell dimension. However, to put it bluntly, in all other ways that night had been *incredible*; the sex with the brunette Chosen One the best he'd ever had, and said act almost scrambling Xander's brains completely.

As they lay together naked in that motel room, basking in the afterglow, Faith raised her head to look at her bed partner. "Hate to use a cliché, stud, but was it good for you too?"

Xander laughed, and engaged in a tickling contest with the woman; which naturally he won. "What do you think?"

Faith pushed him away. "Yeah, I'm thinking someone's excited about tomorrow."

Xander shrugged. "What's happening tomorrow?"

The Slayer looked at him, and then slapped Xander on the head. "You get the results of your SATs, remember?"

Harris groaned, "Ouch! Slayer strength, sweetheart!" Then instantly he added, "And yeah, I remember-"

"Well, I should hope so!" Faith exclaimed. "After all, you gotta think about your future, boy toy. Apart from B, *all* of you guys need to do that; you, Dog Boy, Red, and even the snob-"

Xander scowled, uncomfortably reminded of his former friends. "I don't wanna talk about them - well, apart from maybe Oz..."

Faith just grinned, seizing the chance to tease her lover a little. "I know, but they still wanna talk to you. Especially that Cordelia chick - hey, ya know what? A box of Twinkies says she still has lustful thoughts about you. Should I be worried?"

The former Zeppo turned to look at her in amazement, but then saw the mirth in her eyes; something that in another world, would never have been present by this point in her life. And once Xander realized that they were still five-by-five, Faith grabbed hold of him and...

But then, the ringing of the phone roused Xander Harris from his slumber.

He mentally cursed, as a decent night's sleep was hard enough for the former slave to get these days. And having a phone call rouse him from a *very* pleasant memory did not help things, either. Xander then reached from where he was laying on the bed, and picked the receiver off the hook.

"What-?" Harris managed to mumble.

"AAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!" was the primal scream he got in return. It did have the effect of fully waking up the former Scooby, though.

"Hello? What's wrong?" he asked, sitting up in his bed.

"You knew!!!" was the growled response. Xander now recognized the voice as that of Cleburne's. "That head of yours has all that weird stuff locked up in your brain cells, and you didn't think maybe we would like to know that the Presidential election would be a goddamn tie!?"

Xander smiled, and then silently gave thanks that Cleburne hadn't been mad enough to make his displeasure known in person. Then, the first notice Xander would have had of the man's ire would have been a stress ball being bounced off of his sleeping head.

The stress balls were playing quite a big role in Xander's training, these days. Every time the senior Siberian was able to bounce one off of Xander's head, a form of negative reinforcement would head his way.

And Cleburne was very creative in coming up with different forms of negative reinforcement.

Xander took a second to focus his thoughts. "Hey, I told you all up front, I wasn't telling you more than you spooks needed to know. Besides, what would you have gone and done if I *had* told you about the election? As we both know you would have done *something*..."

"Come on, kid! Tell me nothing hinky is going on. We actually had a Daley from Chicago talking on nationwide TV, about the need to count all the votes fairly! There has *got* to be demon involvement with that!!"

Xander smirked. "Nope, that's just the irony of American politics. And it's also something you would have messed around in, if you had known about it ahead of time-"

"Of course I would have, Las Vegas!!! Can you imagine the odds of this happening? The bookies out there will take bets on anything. Can you imagine the moolah I could've made from something like this?" Cleburne exclaimed.

In spite of himself, Xander laughed out loud. He halfway suspected that Cleburne would have done exactly that. He had a streak of devil-may-care roguishness within him; something Xander never would have imagined, a year ago. < Huh, has it really been that long since San Francisco? Wait a minute, Harris, focus!!! > "So what are you saying, you wanted me to contribute to you making money illegally?"

"Betting is not illegal in Las Vegas!" Cleburne shot back.

"Unethical, then!" Xander snorted. "Insider information. That's like betting on the Super Bowl knowing the starting quarterback has pulled a tendon, and is going to have to sit out the game."

"Speaking of which, the Super Bowl's in January..." Cleburne joked.

"Go back to sleep, Mother Hen. Don't worry about the election. I know who's gonna win anyway, if there's some kinda constitutional crisis or anything," Xander said as he hung up the phone and tried to go back to sleep himself.


Stedman Medical Building, Sunnydale, California. November 9, 2000

"Mrs. Summers, I see you certainly have a large entourage out there," Dr. Adams said, as he showed the middle-aged woman into his office.

"Well, you know that Mr. Giles has been bringing me to my appointments. But after I told them my daughters insisted on coming along, as did their friends Willow, Tara and Jonathan. As for Anya and her boyfriend, well, I suspect they just came along for the company. Sorry about that, those two can be...disconcerting at times..."

Dr. Adams nodded at that. "Yes, that young man did annoy the registration nurse quite a bit..."

He then cleared his throat for a second, and shifted back to the subject that had brought them together. "Well, Mrs. Summers, I've reviewed the MRI and X-rays that were taken of your tumor. Looking at them now, I have every confidence that the malignancy can be successfully removed. I've talked to Dr. Isaacs, and he concurs that surgery is the best option." He held up an X-ray and pointed to it. "As you can plainly see, the growth is here-"

Joyce held up her hands to stop the doctor's explanation. "Please, doctor. No need to go into detailed explanations. I must admit to being a little squeamish about learning details about the inside of my head," she smiled meekly.

Dr. Adams nodded in response. "Of course, please forgive me. I forget sometimes with how well you've held up, that I need to keep in mind that this is something you did not expect. I must say though, you're handling it remarkably well."

"Thank you, doctor. I've been fortunate to have strong support." < Not to mention a friend who was able to warn me ahead of time, what was coming. Oh Xander, I wish you were here right now - I *hate* it that you're gone from us! >

"Well, it's good that you have support of that nature. After all, you've managed to fill my waiting room this morning. So that means lots of people can help you, during your recovery."

"How long will that be?"

"Well, I'll want to keep you in hospital for observation for a couple of weeks. After that you should stay home for at least a month, preferably longer. You will need to take it easy, for quite a while."

"What about the gallery?" Joyce asked.

Adams shook his head. "I must ask that you stay away from full-time work, for at least a couple of months. Others will have to cover your job there for you."

Joyce contemplated what the doctor had said for a second. < Well, I hope Buffy's learned enough from working there to keep the gallery going. And she'll have Regina to help... > Regina was Joyce's assistant at the gallery.

"When will the surgery be?"

"Dr. Isaacs tells me he can have it set up for a week from Friday, on the seventeenth. We would want you to check yourself into the hospital on the fifteenth, however."

"Good, I'll call Joan to line everything up before next Wednesday then."


West Palm Beach, Florida. November 10, 2000

"Don't worry about the election," Cleburne said in a sing-song imitation of Xander's voice a few nights earlier. "Go back to sleep. Nothing to worry about."

Cleburne, Xander, Rachael and Graham walked into the government center of Palm Beach by way of a back entrance. They were careful to avoid the prying eyes of the national media outside, for the government building had become the center of the world's attention.

Because things like that happen to the center of the recount of votes in a U.S. Presidential election.

"I'm telling you, demons were not involved in the election that I remember. The weirdness came strictly from human beings," Xander shrugged.

"Well, *something's* going on! The psychics you helped us recruit all feel that something unnatural is about to happen here. That's also the scuttlebutt in the demon community. Someone, or something, is about to make the situation worse."

"Well, it's all news to me. In the first go-around, nothing like this happened," Xander commented.

"That you know of," Rachael observed.

Xander inwardly shuddered at that. It was true that none of the Scoobies had ever heard of anything demon-y about the year 2000 national election. But that didn't mean that nothing *had* happened. And now Xander was definitely uncomfortable with the thought of the American political scene being affected by demons.

"Well, I'm not sure what I can do to help. It's not like I'm a demon detector, or anything like that. I don't go beep-beep whenever I'm around them, and demons don't scream out when they see me..." < Well, apart from one ex-demon who shouted out my name on many occasions, of course. > Xander was momentarily saddened at the thought of Anya, who as far as he knew was still a demon punishing cheating men and exacting horrible vengeance upon them.

Cleburne glanced back at Xander. "Well, kid, you do seem to attract the strange things that go bump in the night. You have the talent for it. I can't leave you alone for more than ten minutes at time, without you mixing it up with some demon or another."

Xander crossed his arms. "Hey, that's not true! There was that time in Philadelphia when..." Xander paused for a second. "Okay, bad example. However, remember that time in Seattle?"

Xander paused for a second, as Joshua glared at him. "What?"

"Vampire brothel," Cleburne said succinctly. < And I can't believe those guys were sick enough to pay for the undead hookers to boink their brains out! >

"You visited a vampire brothel?" Rachael asked with an upraised eyebrow, and maybe the slightest hint of jealousy.

Harris turned to the Israeli woman. "It was in the line of duty, and I didn't even know it was that kind of place when I went in. And *why* am I explaining myself to you, again?" He turned to Cleburne. "How about Miami?"

"Demon ring of jewel thieves," Graham said.


"Lubber demons dealing cocaine. I swear, I don't know *how* you managed to just stumble onto a drug operation in the space of an hour, that had eluded the DEA for years..." Cleburne said, shaking his head.


"Home of the other Slayer, who you *just* managed to avoid as she killed those Sathari demons. Hold on, before you mention any other place, I got a list here somewhere..." Cleburne said, as he rifled through his pockets.

"Oh, all right, all right!" Xander said in exasperation. "Forget I said anything, but I do have a question. Other than the bad guy showing up and announcing to the world he's a demon, how am I supposed to recognize the enemy? Somehow, I don't think that the baddie in this situation will just stroll up and tell us all about himself!"

"Hmmmm, good point. Still, kid, I have every confidence in your ability to attract trouble. We'll just have you hanging around, and no doubt *something* will come our way."


Quantico Marine Base, Quantico, Virginia. Later that same day

The room was filled with sitting soldiers conversing among themselves. They viewed the front of the room with some concern, where a steel cage was set up off to the side.

Then the side door opened up and in walked Oz, Gunny and a tall stocky blonde man in fatigues. Gunny shouted out, "Ten-hut!" And all the soldiers jumped to attention.

The blonde man stepped up to the front of the room, where a microphone was set up. "As you were." The soldiers sat back down. "Good afternoon, and welcome to Siberia."

The soldiers laughed amongst themselves for a few moments at hearing that. For they had already been brought into the loop, as to what Siberian Trip Wire's name used to stand for.

The blonde continued, "I'm Captain Riley Finn, United States Army Rangers. I'll be handling your orientation today. The colonel was called away unexpectedly, and let me just say - this was very lucky for you. Because Mother Hen isn't as nice I am."

That brought another chuckle from the group. Even though they were newbies, they had all heard the stories about their leader.

"I'm sure you've all heard the rumors, or been told what we're up against. Still, we thought a demonstration might be in order, and Mr. Osbourne has graciously agreed to help."

Riley gestured at Oz, who walked over to the cage and locked himself in. "Now, this is the best way to emphasize the situation to you. Don't be alarmed, and don't react to what you're about to see..."

And with that, Oz changed into a werewolf.

The soldiers sat there in shock at what they saw, as a snarling monster took the place of an ordinary guy in less than ten seconds. But after a few seconds more Oz morphed back into human form, and put on the second set of clothes that had been placed in the cell for him. As he did so, the former Scooby felt slightly embarrassed. < You'd think I'd be used to this, after all the times I've gone through it. 'Course, it's different turning human again and being naked in front of Willow, as compared to a room full of army soldiers. >

Riley turned back to the grunts. "Yeah, freaky I know - but trust me, this is only a peek at what is *really* out there. Vampires, witches, werewolves, demons - they're all real, and neither Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney will be making a guest appearance today. So those of you who have doubts about what were you told, this should dispel them."

As Finn talked, Gunny let Oz out. "Thanks Osbourne, appreciate your help, so does the colonel..." Oz nodded at Gunny's words of thanks.

Riley ignored them and continued on, "One of the more usual targets are vampires, and you'll be receiving a full briefing on what's real and what Hollywood screenwriters make up as they sip their pinacoladas later. But first, I want to talk a little bit about ammo. As you can imagine, the weaponry we use for this assignment is somewhat different from your everyday average firearms..." Riley nodded to Gunny, who flipped off the lights in the room as a screen behind him lit up.

A picture of a bullet was shown up on the screen. "This looks like a regular bullet, however it's not. Lead poisoning isn't lethal on these things, so we've substituted some special filling in it. Namely, potassium in the tip. Now, those of you who remember your high school chemistry, will no doubt recall that potassium burns when it come into contact with water..."

The picture changed to a scene of a vampire. "Even though vampires are dead, they still have water in their bodies. You hit them with enough of these bullets, the potassium interacts with the water and you get smoldering undead. A smoldering vampire leads to a vampire on fire, which in turn leads to dust. Which means a dead vampire, which is a happy ending for all of us."

One of the soldiers raised a hand. "Sir?"

"Yes?" Riley pointed at the questioning soldier.

"What about the things other than vampires? I'm assuming some of 'em might be bulletproof." The soldier stole a glance at Oz.

"Good point. That's one of the reasons the caliber of bullets will be larger than you're used to. The old 9mm slug is a thing of the past, as far as we're concerned; .45 caliber is the baseline for this outfit. We're hoping the larger caliber will handle the demons you encounter. We also have a few other modifications to throw at the Big Bads..." Riley nodded, and the picture changed to that of a silver bullet.

"Silver, I'm sure you all know it takes out werewolves. We also believe that it will have the same effect on some other demons. Now, every bullet you carry won't be silver, but there will be enough out there so you won't be caught short. Also, you'll be issued silver knives for hand-to-hand combat situations."

Riley paused for a second, before continuing. "And this brings up a point I want to greatly emphasize. Not every demon you encounter will be hostile to us. Oz here, is living proof of that!" Finn pointed over towards the lycanthrope.

He went on, "We can't just go in and kill every demon we encounter, no more than you can go in and kill every human you see in a normal combat situation. Many types of demons are just like average people - good, bad, or somewhere in between. Believe it or not, there's even a vampire with a soul living in Los Angeles, who's fighting the good fight on our side! That's why you have to pay *very* close attention to the rules of engagement given to you, at the start of each operation. It's your very own scorecard to tell the players from each other."

Riley looked out over the room. "If there are no further questions? Good, we'll start going over the schedule for the next few weeks. Since most of you are Special Forces-trained, we can skip the necessity of making sure you're in shape. Those of you who aren't from the military, I know went through a process to make sure you were ready for this training."

In the audience, FBI Agent Fletcher nodded at that. Ever since he had learned the truth that night in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, he knew he couldn't just sit on the sidelines anymore while others fought the evil things in the night.

The thing was, once you enter the real world there's no going back. Fletcher had looked at everything so very differently after that night; and even though he'd desperately wanted to warn his colleagues about what was really out there, he knew he couldn't - not without some office boy eventually stamping 'tooty-fruity' on his record, and thus destroying his Bureau career.

But how can you serve and protect, when you're hamstrung from effectively doing so? Thus, when the Siberians had approached him, he hadn't hesitated.

Riley continued on, "The rest of the day will be taken up with orientation lectures, on all the different types of demons and vampires we're familiar with. Tomorrow we'll cover methods of dealing with them, and after that..."


The apartment of Rupert Giles, Sunnydale, California. November 13, 2000

The Englishman stumbled to the door, to answer the pounding on it. Unfortunately, he tripped on the rug and crashed to the floor - but cursing, Giles then quickly regained his footing. The British guy then pulled open the door, and there on the other side stood Buffy with Anya.

The Slayer stormed into the apartment, followed closely by the ex-demon. "Giles, have you ever heard of this 'tirer la couture' spell? Anya was just telling me about it-"

Giles closed the door, and turned to follow the two women. "Why don't you come in?" he said with more than a trace of sarcasm. Then the G-man frowned, "Tirer la couture,, lift the veil. Yes, I-I've heard of it. A wizard in medieval France came up with it, Cloutier I think his name was. Ah, how is this linked to you waking me up at..." he glanced at his watch, and his eyes grew wide. "Four-thirty in the morning!?"

Buffy waved her hands in the air. "I know it's late. Or early, or whatever! But I couldn't sleep, so I went out and patrolled." Buffy left unmentioned the fact that the reason she couldn't sleep was that she had been crying alone on the back porch, over her worries about her mother's condition. Buffy being Buffy, she had halfway convinced herself that only supernatural reasons could be behind her mother's illness...

So she had gone out to 'patrol', and beat the truth out of the supernatural denizens of the Hellmouth. Unexpectedly though, they hadn't had any information on Joyce's condition. So the Slayer had then headed over to her mentor's magic store for research purposes...

Buffy continued her narrative, "I swung by the Magic Box, and saw the lights on. Then I went in and found Anya-"

Giles held up his hands to interrupt Buffy. "Anya, please tell me you were alone in there...?" The ex-Watcher still shuddered at the image of him interrupting the former demon and her boyfriend that time, in the basement.

Anya crossed her arms, and glared at Giles. "I'll have you know I was doing inventory, *alone*!" she emphasized.

Buffy looked a little put off by the interruption. "Yeah, she was alone, you can believe me on that. Because I kinda doubt she woulda been doing the dance of capitalist superiority like that, if anyone else was around-"

Giles paled a little bit. "The, the dance of capitalist superiority?"

"She was dancing with the money," Buffy said with a shrug. "Who cares? Anyway, we got to talking - about how to figure out who had put the hoodoo on Mom. Anya said it didn't sound like a curse or a vengeance Wish or anything like that; a tumor is too mundane for that sorta thing. Then she mentioned that wizard and how all the demons hated him back then, 'cause of that spell of his. How it showed whatever they were secretly up to. So it hit me, let's do that spell and see what magical influences there are over my mother!"

Giles hesitated for a second. < Hmmm. On the one hand, surely Xander would have told me in that letter if Joyce's condition was supernatural in nature, in any way. Then again, the boy possibly never had the advantage of an ex-vengeance demon's information on the supernatural. Or maybe he did, but knew there were no supernatural problems with Joyce? >

The ex-Watcher continued to frown. < Damn it, but who can know what that world was *really* like? I can't even be sure if Anya was around, in that reality! If Xander had been here for Willow to unburden herself, the odds are she'd have never gotten so upset as to inadvertently summon a demon, and make that Wish. Or perhaps he'd been here with us, when Anya appeared anyway to grant Willow's desires in the original history...? >

Buffy and Anya looked expectantly at Giles, and he finally spoke after a few moments. "Buffy, I-I-I understand your desire to attribute some dark and sinister forces to your mother's condition. However, all the doctors have assured us that her condition is a tumor that's arisen from natural causes. They completely understand what's going on. There's, there's no indication of anything supernatural in connection to what's happened-"

Buffy stood her ground. "Come on Giles, we're talking about the mother of the Slayer! Don't tell me that the baddies out there wouldn't love to get at me through her! They're just trying to use a different route this time. This way, there would be nothing to even tip us off that the bad guys were up to something. It's like the perfect crime!"

"That may indeed be so, Buffy, but then again there may not be anything to tip us off - because almost certainly there are no demons involved," Giles reproached his charge.

"Giles, look, I want to try this spell. Anya tells me that it's safe enough for me to do, and you can watch over me to make sure nothing goes wrong. If we hurry, we can even do it before everyone wakes up! What do you say?"

Giles thought for a second. < I suppose we can humor her on this, what's the harm in Buffy confirming that Joyce's condition is natural? And if perchance she's right, we need to know that too... > "Very well - but Buffy, I doubt we'll be able to gather together all the components of the spell before sunrise. So go home, get some sleep and we'll gather everything to do it this evening, after Joyce goes to bed."

Buffy smiled at her father figure, hugging him intensely. "Thank you, Giles. And I know once I do this spell, we'll know what the demons are really doing to my mom!"


West Palm Beach, Florida. November 13, 2000

Xander rubbed his eyes, trying to stay awake. The past few days had been very tiring for him. Actually, it had been tiring for all of them. Waiting around all set for something and then having nothing happen, was draining on all of the secret agents.

For the past three days, they had been staying in Palm Beach trying to find a lead on the rumored demon activity around the recount. The Siberians had patrolled and beat the streets for information. They had even gone to the local demon bar, to shake down the owner and his bartender snitches...

But it had all added up to a grand total sum of nothing.

As a last resort, several of the STW personnel had kept an eye on the actual recounting process. Every day they had come into the government center, and watched the counters. They'd also double-checked the security on the center in the off-hours.

But despite all their efforts, nothing had come to their attention. Still, they kept looking. Kept on their toes.

Right now, it was Xander and Rachael's turn watching the process. "I swear, this is like spectator Bingo - only without the excitement," Xander muttered.

"Yeah, well, you Americans - even though you're the most powerful nation on the planet, you have the most boring elections. Even when they fall apart, they're boring. Back home, our elections? Never a dull moment! Here it's hard to even stay awake," Rachael observed.

"I know, I know. Compared to what we've dealt with in the past, this is like watching paint dry," the guy responded with a shrug.

"You'd think that with everything at stake, there would be a lot more chaos around here," Rachael nodded, as Harris suddenly tensed up. "You know, once our watch is over, we ought to do something to wake ourselves up. I've got a few ideas, there's bound to be some good places to unwind-" Rachael's voice trailed off, as she noticed Xander's face.

He was looking thoughtful and troubled at the same time. "Chaos? No, it couldn't be, he's in a military prison...oh shit, wait, that was the Initiative's doing. And there's no Initiative here! So he would never have been taken into custody..." Harris turned to Rachael. "Gimme your cell phone, right now!"


Georgetown, Washington D.C. Twenty minutes later

"Marcum," Esther Marcum answered the phone on her desk.

She listened for a few seconds to the party on the end. "Good afternoon to you too, Cleburne. How's Florida? I see. Well, how about those vouchers? Remember, we need those before we cut your expense checks."

The woman listened a little bit more. "No, we can't just take your word for it. The bean counters need to know what you're spending our money on. They're still a little freaked out from your suggestion that all the ammo clips for field ops be silver bullets! Yes, they're almost convinced you spend money like a drunken sailor...or Marine, in your case. For all we know, you might take Mr. Harris and the others over to Orlando and Disney World, as it *has* been a while since you've all had a vacation..."

She listened some more to Cleburne. "No, I don't think that would be a good idea for a commercial, and I'm not contacting the Disney people about it. And, somehow, I don't think that Ms. Weitz's idea of fun would ever meet the Disney seal of approval! Anyway Cleburne, what can I do for you?"

Marcum then listened for several more minutes. "Yes, we can check that name. Should be easy enough to run him down. Anything else to look under? Janice? Like the character from Friends? No? Spell it for me, then. J...A...N...U...S..." Esther wrote it down as Cleburne spelled it for her. "Not those people in Oak Ridge, I hope? Oh, demon and mythology related. Okay, I'll see what we can find for you."


1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California. Later that night

Giles organized the components for the spell into a neat pile. He then looked across at Buffy and Anya, "You're sure you want to do this?"

Buffy nodded her head emphatically. "Yeah, we gotta find out what's happening to my mother! Is everything ready?"

"Yes, quite. Has everyone else gone to bed?" The three of them had decided to keep it a secret what they were up to, so they had waited until Joyce and Dawn had retired for the evening.

"Mom and Dawn are sound asleep. I checked on them, right before you came over."

Giles took a breath. "All right then. Now Buffy, you'll be in a trance. You'll still be aware of what's going on around you, but you'll see things...that human beings normally can't see."


Anya stepped in to translate from Watcher-ese into Buffy-ese. "You'll see things we can't see. For example, if something's magically choking your mother, we wouldn't see anything. However, you'll see a hand choking your mother's throat. The veil of magic is lifted for your eyes to see. You'll see what you would normally see, and more."

Buffy nodded in understanding. "Gotcha, so I gotta be on the lookout for anything that looks out of place?"

Giles rolled his eyes. "I thought I said that. All right, let us proceed."

Anya piped up, "That means let's get started."

Buffy frowned. "I knew that."

Giles rolled his eyes again. < Being the only real adult in this group will be the death of me yet! > "All right Buffy." He handed over to the Chosen One a book opened to the proper place, and pointed. "After the ritual with the herbs, chant these words and wait a few seconds. There will be some disorientation. Just concentrate though, and you should do fine."

Buffy did as Giles told her. And once she was under the spell, she started upstairs towards her mother's room.


Ten minutes later

Dawn stared at her sister; she had woken up and walked out of her room into the hallway, to find a dazed Buffy staring at her. "Buffy? What's wrong?" she asked.

The blonde Chosen One just stared at the Key in response.

Dawn was getting worried. "What, are you sleepwalking or something? Talk to me!"

Still there was no verbal response from the Slayer, she just walked past Dawn - right into her sister's room.

"Hey!" Dawn almost shouted, and then dropped the volume of her voice as she remembered her sleeping mother. "What-?" The Key then followed her sister to the door.

Buffy was standing just inside the doorway, just looking around when Dawn got into her bedroom. "What are you doing, Buffy? You just can't barge into my room, anytime you feel like it!" Dawn hissed, annoyed that her big sister wouldn't even look at her.

Buffy just stood there for a few seconds more then walked out of the bedroom, leaving behind a very confused Dawn Summers.


The back porch. Ten minutes later

Buffy, Giles and Anya all stood around facing each other. They had moved out there, to avoid any chance that Dawn might overhear them.

"Buffy, what's wrong? What did you see around your mother?" Anya whispered worriedly.

The vampire Slayer shook her head. "No, there was nothing weird about Mom. I saw something else, or rather - *didn't* see..."

Giles looked at Buffy, a little surprised. "Something's wrong? Demons are present on the premises?"

Buffy looked confused. "No. Yes. I don't know! I went into Mom's room, and didn't see anything unusual. There was nothing around her, no indication of magic at all; so you were right and I was wrong, the tumor *is* just her body betraying her. Then right before I left, I glanced over at her dresser and saw the family picture of Mom, Dawn and me. You know, the one from that day before graduation?"

Giles nodded, as he had actually been the one who took it. Buffy continued on, "Well, it just *changed* every few seconds. At first all, all three of us were in it. Then it was just my mother and me! Afterwards I went out into the hallway, and Dawn was there-"

Anya looked at Buffy. "And? I'm told that siblings can be difficult. I wouldn't know that for sure, never having had one. Still, I don't see how that would spook you this way-"

"Anya," Giles said, hoping to head off another commentary from Anya on the vagaries of human life. "Go on, Buffy, please."

"Well it's that she was there, then she wasn't there. She kept kinda blinking in and out of my sight. And it wasn't her hiding or ducking behind a corner, I mean she was standing right there and then without moving - she, she just vanished for a few seconds! Oh, and then I walked into Dawn's room. And it *really* got freaky then! One second it was her part of the house, with everything you'd expect in a 14-year-old's bedroom. Then it was-"

"What, Buffy?" Giles asked, feeling worried now.

"It, it was like we were storing stuff in that room. Boxes were stacked all over the place. Prints, paintings and sculptures were in there. Oh, there was this one mask that really should have been at the gallery. I think it would sell quickly, what with the craze over West African art right now..."

Buffy looked at Giles and Anya, who were staring at her. "What? All that time working at Mom's gallery, *some* things have sunk into my head!"

She cleared her thoughts, and then continued on. "Anyway, it was like the room wasn't being used for anything. None of Dawn's stuff was in it. It just didn't make any sense to me."

Buffy looked confused. "What can it mean? I don't get it, here I was worried about Mom and now Dawn pops up what? I don't even know what to make of all this!"

Giles crossed his arms for a second, he then took off his glasses and polished them for a few seconds. "I don't know, Buffy, what you describe is-is something I've never heard of before. Maybe a disguising spell - but no, then only Dawn herself would be affected, not her room and things..." He turned to the younger-looking lady who had a larger knowledge of demons than he did. "Anya, have you ever heard of anything like this?"

She shook her head. "No - in all my years, I've never come across anything like that! Hmm, it definitely sounds magical in nature though. And yeah, something's up with her annoying sibling!"

Buffy looked shaken at the uncertainty of the situation she found herself in, and didn't react to the insult. "So, what do we do?"

Giles gently placed his hand on Buffy's shoulder. "For now, you need to focus on getting ready for Joyce's surgery. Remember, she goes into the hospital the day after tomorrow. That should be your main priority for now. Keep an eye on Dawn for anything, well, out of the ordinary. In the meantime I'll do some research on this, a-and with Anya's help try and find out what your vision of Dawn means."


Georgetown, Washington D.C. November 14, 2000

Esther Marcum absentmindedly dialed her phone. She waited a few seconds, as it rang and was answered.

"Joshua? Esther here. I've got the results of the searches you asked for. You ready?" She waited a few seconds, as she heard Cleburne hunting around for a pen and a piece of paper.

"Okay, Ethan Rayne, British national. Quite an active fellow, I have to say. Passport control shows that he's entered and exited the country quite often, during the last few years. Most of the time, he seems to have done so through Los Angeles. And get this, in the records of the Sunnydale Police Department that our people managed to squirrel away, he's mentioned more than once! It looks like he's some kind of chaos mage. He should be mentioned in the personal diaries of that Rupert Giles fellow, when you get around to reading them. Pay particular attention, to the period of time around the Halloween of 1997. Apparently, he likes causing problems..." She listened for a few seconds.

"Yes, the recount would be like a huge honeypot for someone like this Mr. Rayne. Customs records show that he entered the country about a week ago, through Atlanta. A connecting flight to West Palm Beach is recorded. So, he should be in the area..."

Esther turned her attention to a second piece of paper on her desk. "As for Janus? Quite a few references to that, all over the place. Most of them are a bust for our purposes. Did you know it's listed as an insurance company in Florida?"

Esther listened for a few seconds to the grumbling on the other end. She chuckled a few times, "Cleburne, you need to listen more carefully to me in the future. I said *most* of them, not all. Apparently, there's a snack food company by the name of 'Janus' down there - and get this, it was incorporated the last week of October. And guess what they're doing solely out of civic virtue?"


Janus Snack Food company, Palm Beach, Florida. Two hours later

The chimes rang, as the door swung open. The two men who had entered looked around the front of the office suite, in which no one was to be seen. "Hello?" the older of the two men called out.

After a few seconds a rustling could be heard in the back of the office. Presently a man that looked roughly the same age as Rupert Giles came into the reception area, "Hello, may I help you?"

The older man presented some credentials. < Let's see, what are we today? Oh yeah, FBI agents, that's right! > "Good afternoon, I'm Agent Cleburne from the FBI. This is my partner, Agent Miller." Cleburne nodded towards Graham. "We're doing some security checks on the local government center. Talking to the caterers, and the like. Thought we should come talk to you, since your company is donating snacks to the vote counters over there."

Ethan Rayne immediately felt uncomfortable. However, he kept himself under tight control. < They're looking for poison, and the like. They have no way of knowing what's really wrong with the snacks, and how to find out. Just play it calm... > "Of course, I'll be glad to help Agent Cleburne. I have all the necessary papers of incorporation in the back. If you'll just wait here-"

Ethan turned and walked back to his office. With a start, he realized that the two FBI agents had followed him deeper into the office.

Cleburne peered into the back of the office, where the storerooms were. "All of your product goes through here? Seems like a bit much, for such a small operation."

Ethan looked at his guests. < Can't you bloody Yanks understand what 'wait here' means? > "Well, we're just getting started. I like keeping control over all aspects of the operation, you see. Once we get bigger, that will have to change - obviously."

Cleburne continued looking around. "So, how many employees you have working for you?"

Ethan started to hem and haw. "Well for now, it's just me, everyone else like the drivers are independent contractors." He watched as Graham wandered towards the door that Ethan had come from. "You know how it is, with start-up businesses-"

Cleburne nodded at that. "Yeah, sure do. They tell me that 50% of all new businesses fail, within the first six months. But then again, you probably know that, what with your costume shop."

Ethan nodded, not really paying attention to the words. "Yes, in the past I've - *what* did you say?!"

Cleburne glanced around some more, ignoring Rayne's question. "Still, I applaud your determination in trying again. Free enterprise - it's what makes our country so great!"

The Englishman was definitely worried now. "I say, what was that about a costume shop?"

Graham tried the door of the office where Ethan had been, when the Siberians had arrived in the office. "What's in there?"

"Now look here!" Ethan suddenly blustered. "I want you to leave, right now! Without a search warrant you have no right to be in here without my permission, and you most certainly do not have my permission. So unless you have your court order, GET OUT!" Ethan pointed at the exit as he exclaimed.

Cleburne looked at Graham. "You know, that *would* be a problem for us if we were real FBI agents. Lucky for us, we're not."

Ethan looked at the two agents. He knew in his gut that whatever was going on, it was most certainly not good for him. Cleburne continued talking, "I imagine for someone who worships chaos, the election recount was a golden opportunity. So, what did you do? Put a hex of some kind on the food, and then donated it to the vote counters! What was the hex supposed to accomplish? Render the vote counters blind? Cloud their perceptions?"

On instinct, Ethan bolted down the hallway from the two agents. He'd heard enough to know that he needed to be elsewhere right now.

Graham started to follow him, but stopped when Cleburne waved his hand at him. "You letting him go?" the younger agent asked.

"Nah, I just know he already has a welcoming committee out the back..." Cleburne fiddled with the lock on the door Ethan had been worried about. The door swung open. "Besides, I think *this* is what we're after..." He entered the room and found a two-faced statue in the middle of the floor, with a symbolic pattern drawn around it. "Bingo!"

Ethan hustled through the storeroom, not looking to see if he was being pursued. He went through the loading docks to the back alley, whereupon he spotted his car and headed towards it.

"Hey there, Ethan, leaving so soon?"

Rayne turned to face the source of the question. He saw a twenty-something young man wearing black leather and with a nasty scar on his neck, walking towards him - accompanied by a beautiful brunette woman, of approximately the same age.

"I mean c'mon, after all, that seems to be a pattern with you - running off, and not helping clean up the mess you make!" the young man added.

Ethan peered at the stranger. "Do I know you?"

The Yank laughed, but with an ugly tone. "Well, it's not nice for the old ego to hear that - but then, I gotta admit, I may not have made that big of an impression at the time. Since you were more interested in selling a noblewoman costume, to a friend of mine...Halloween, 1997? Remember that fun occasion? How many people died that night because of you, I wonder?"

Rachael noticed that Xander's voice caught a little bit, when it mentioned the word 'friend'. < What's up with that? >

Ignoring the barb, Ethan thought back to the costume shop he'd had then. He remembered the noblewoman costume, and who had bought it; he had sold it to that blonde Slayer of Ripper's, who had been there with her groupies. He then frowned, trying to remember what had her friends been called - but found that he couldn't, it was too long ago.

"Sorry I don't recall your name, old boy, but I remember your face now. Yes, you were there that night; bought a toy gun, as I recall! How'd that work out for you? And that nasty business later with my old chum Eyghon, you were there for that too - weren't you?" Ethan continued edging towards his car.

Xander's eyes glittered. < I suppose technically I should be grateful to the guy, as without those soldier memories - right now I'd be dead of old age, and Ken would be laughing his ass off on how easy it is to get slaves from this dimension! And Eyghon?! Ms. Calendar coulda been killed that night, you bastard! >

"That was several lifetimes ago, British man. And unfortunately, you seem to be up to your old tricks again..." Harris snarled, as he approached the chaos mage. Ethan didn't say anything in reply, he just started running.

He didn't get far, as Harris easily caught up to him. He grabbed the fleeing chaos worshipper by the back of his neck, and slammed him hard into the hood of his car. Ethan staggered for a second; and Xander quickly followed up with a strike to the back of the head, that instantly rendered his foe unconscious.

Rachael walked up to the comatose body of the chaos mage. "Remind me to stay on your good side from now on," she commented to her companion.

"Oh, don't worry. This guy *really* had to work at it, to get on my bad side!"

At that moment, Cleburne's head popped out of the back of the office suite. He quickly surveyed the scene, "Hey kid, what do I do to KO the spell?"

Xander looked up. "If it's the same setup as three years ago? Break the Janus statue." He noticed the confused look on Cleburne's face, "The statue with two faces?"

Cleburne nodded. "Thanks, kid!" And he disappeared back into the office. A few seconds later, both Xander and Rachael clearly heard the sound of something heavy being smashed to pieces.


Marriott Hotel Lounge, Palm Beach, Florida. Later that night

Xander drank his beer, amidst the crush of humanity in the hotel bar. At first, he had been worried about being there; but Cleburne, who was sitting further down the bar, had explained the situation to him.

"Look kid, these people in here are at the top of the food chain in the national media circles. They not only think they're God's gift or whatever, they think the whole *world* revolves around them! Which in turn means, they wouldn't know a real news story unless it got up and bit them on the ass! So - I'm pretty sure that as long as you don't stand up on top of the bar, announce at the top of your lungs you're from the future and then tell them what's gonna happen in the next few days, they'll never have a clue who or what you are."

Surprisingly, the secret agent had been right. The reporters who were in the bar were clearly so self-absorbed that they didn't question in the least Xander's, or the other Siberians' presence there. If anything, they had only seemed somewhat annoyed that the STW operatives hadn't really been all that deferential to them, the way others in the bar had been.

"So, what's a guy like you doing in a nice place like this?"

Xander turned around, and noticed that Rachael had come up next to him at the bar. Several of the male reporters cast appreciative glances her way, looks that the woman completely ignored. < Let 'em dream on. There's only one man in here that I'm interested in! >

"*This* is a nice place?" Harris asked sarcastically, as Rachael sat down on the barstool next to him.

"Hey - a bar, loud music to dance to, dim lights, charming company and the chance to relax after a successful mission. That's my definition of a nice place," Rachael said with a shrug. She motioned to the bartender, and when he came up to her the Israeli agent ordered something very toxic to her liver.

"Well, I'm not sure we're completely out of the woods yet," Xander commented, staring off into the distance with a brooding expression that would have made Angel proud.

Rachael's drink arrived, and she took a sip. "Cleburne called the Gulag earlier. Apparently, all the early warning systems are now saying 'all clear'. Looks like that Rayne guy was what got them all riled up in the first place."

"So it's back to training with Mother Hen then," Xander sighed. "He told me before coming here that I was ready to learn something called Jeet Kune Do and Pentjak Silat. I don't even know what it means. Do you know? I asked Gunny and Graham before coming down here, and all they did was grimace."

Rachael grimaced at Xander's words. "Sorry."

"There you go. What's the big deal about this new training from Mother Hen? Everyone seems to think I'm a condemned man or something."

Rachael took a sip from her Bloody Mary. "It means that Cleburne thinks you're ready for advanced hand-to-hand training."

Xander looked a little offended. "Advanced? I think I'm pretty good at it now."

Rachael shrugged. "Cleburne's been doing this for 20 years. He's got quite a few tricks up his sleeve. He could probably teach the Slayer quite a few things..."

Xander raised an eyebrow at that. Thoughts of Cleburne dealing with Buffy popped in Xander's mind, and in spite of himself he grinned. Rachael saw the smile, "There you go. Look at it this way - no matter what, you're going to have a better Thanksgiving than Ethan Rayne."

Xander nodded. "Then I guess everything works out all right, in the end. Kinda funny that with all the changes from the first go-around, he ended up in the exact same place where he did before..." Earlier the evening, Rayne had been shipped off to a U.S. military installation for imprisonment, just like in the original history. "Well, what now?"

Rachael grinned, as she ordered another Bloody Mary. "A little time to relax, Alexander. A night for us to party, and have some fun. You *do* know how to do that, right? If not, I'll be happy to help you learn how..." She then stared at Xander with a look that most of the men in the bar, and several of the women, wished had been sent their way. "I figured we could use the time to...get to know each other better."

Xander briefly glanced at Rachael. "You just never give up, do you?"

Rachel grinned some more. "Of course not. It's part of my charm." Xander snorted. "Come on, all kidding aside, I can tell something's bothering you. If you want to talk about it - off the record - I'm here."

Harris glanced at her again. "*Nothing* is ever off the record in this business, Rachael."

The brunette just placed her hand over his. "Just for tonight. I promise."

Xander stared at their hands, before gazing off into the distance again. Then he started talking, "It's just - seeing Ethan again today, it's brought back so many memories. Things that I prefer not thinking about."

Weitz hesitated. "You mean, your high school years?"

He nodded. "Do you know how much it hurts for me to even *think* about my senior year? Trying to keep separate the conflicting memories of Buffy, Willow, Giles, Faith, Cordelia, Oz, Angel - everyone and everything - I swear, it's a goddamn nightmare. One of these days, for sure, I'm gonna end up with an aneurysm from it-"

"Don't say that," Rachael interrupted him at once, the concern on her face evident. The she attempted to lighten up the situation, "After all, if you die - what reason will there be for me to remain in the land of the brave, and the home of the free?"

Xander finally turned around to stare at her - but said nothing at all. But both of their hands stayed on top of each other. At the other end of the bar, Cleburne observed Xander and the Israeli agent - a half-smile flashing on his face for a second, gone as soon as it had appeared.


Sunnydale Memorial Hospital, Sunnydale, California. November 15, 2000

"Do you have everything you need, Mom?" Dawn asked, with a touch of sadness in her voice.

Joyce smiled at her youngest, as she and her two daughters walked into the hospital to check in for Joyce's surgery. "Yes dear, you and your sister did a very good job of packing back at the house. I've got everything I need from the doctor's list. Everything else we could think of is in there..." She pointed at the large suitcase that Buffy was carrying, sometimes having a Slayer as her offspring was a handy thing. "I've also got my two daughters. What else could I need?" Joyce hugged her children.

The blonde woman then looked at her eldest. "You've been quiet the last little bit, is everything all right?"

Buffy nodded her head. "I'm fine. Just a little shook up with everything." She deliberately avoided looking at Dawn.

"I know, dear. Don't worry though, everything will be all right," Joyce comforted Buffy.

Of course, 'everything' for Buffy included some items Joyce was unaware of. The Slayer had been keeping an eye on Dawn; ever since the night of the 'lift the veil' spell, she had been observing her sister to see if anything...strange happened. As yet, nothing out of the ordinary (well, for a 14-year-old female hormone bomb) had taken place.

And in addition, Giles hadn't been able to learn anything from his research, even with the help of the Scoobies.

"Now Buffy, I want you to take care of everything back at the house while I'm here. Also, I'm counting on you to keep an eye on things at the gallery while...oh, there's Dr. Adams." She pointed at her doctor who was standing in the lobby with two other doctors, one of whom was wearing a Navy uniform.

"Joyce. It's good to see you looking well. You already know Dr. Isaacs?" her physician asked.

Joyce nodded. "Of course, doctor, and these are my daughters - Buffy and Dawn."

Dr. Isaacs smiled and nodded at the Summers girls. "Don't worry, your mother will be given the best care possible while she's with us."

Dr. Adams turned to the man in uniform. "Ah, this is Commander Bert Chalmers. He's a U.S. Navy surgeon, who's visiting the hospital this week."

The military officer smiled at Joyce. "Mrs. Summers, I heard about your case. With your permission, of course, I'd like to assist in the surgery? Because I've had more than twenty years experience regarding this type of operation, with people in the Navy."

"In the Navy?" Joyce looked questioningly at the military doctor.

"Not everyone in the Navy is 20 years old, ma'am. We also have dependents of servicemen that we treat, as a matter of course. I assure you, Mrs. Summers, this is not my first time at the dance with this particular operation."

Joyce smiled at Chalmers' statement. "I hope you're a good dancer."

"Excellent, actually - my wife tells me that's why she married me."

"If your wife says so, then you must be. Of course you have my permission, doctor. The more of you in there to help, the better I'll feel," Joyce said.

"Yeah, the more the merrier. You *are* a good doctor, aren't you?" Dawn asked, looking at Isaacs and Chalmers.

Dr. Adams answered her, "I can personally vouch for both of them. Now, let's get your mom checked in..." He beckoned to a nearby nurse, who brought over a wheelchair.


The apartment of Rupert Giles, Sunnydale, California. Later that day

The former Watcher ran his hands through his hair in frustration. He had been researching ceaselessly, ever since Buffy had done the spell that had raised questions about Dawn.

Unfortunately, the sum total result of his research could be summed up in the phrase 'big fat zero'.

Even with the help of Anya and the rest of the Scoobies, nothing had been uncovered. Giles really wanted to find out something to try and reassure Buffy; his Slayer had so much going on right now, that the British man really wanted to help her out in some way.

Of course, he also wanted to know if there was something demon-y going on in the Summers household. Part of being a Watcher - by any other name - was knowing what was going on around your Slayer.

Giles stood up, and walked into the kitchen to pour himself a cup of tea. < Maybe a break for a few minutes would help. > He walked to the door of the apartment to get the mail, and then walked back into the apartment, idly flipping through the collection of letters and junk.

He suddenly stopped.

Because there was an envelope in there, that had the date stamp of May 21, 1999 on it.

Giles had let it slip his mind, during the last week or so. Xander's next letter had been due sometime this month. And today of all days, was the time it had decided to arrive.

Giles was *very* thankful that none of the Scoobies were at his apartment at the moment. He willed himself to be strong for what was to come. < Last time, Xander dropped the bomb of Joyce having a brain tumor. Who knows what's coming up now? > The Englishman sat down at his dining table, and hurriedly opened the envelope. He then started to read.

Dear Giles,

Hey there, British man. It's me, Xander Harris. Again. Been a while since you've thought of me, huh? Well, that's okay. Hopefully you've been getting on with your life, ever since you got my last letter. And if you're reading this in England or something and *didn't* get my last letter back in July, get your ass back to Sunnydale on the double! Check out the dead letter office in town, and read what I wrote to you about Joyce - before you do anything else.

Well, I assume you're all caught up now. So, onto business! Thing is, Giles, if you've never heard of anyone called Dawn Summers, then don't bother reading any further - just skip to the end of the letter. If you *have* heard of her, well, I need to tell you some things about the girl in question.

First of all, she's a real person; a living, breathing, 'blood flowing through her veins' human being.

However, as much as you and everybody else might think otherwise, Joyce did not actually give birth to her. And I don't mean that she's adopted, either; damn, but there's no easy way to say this, so I'll just say it straight out.

Dawn was created by magic.

Yeah, you read that right. Some monks in Europe, from the Order of Dagon as I recall, created her in this world - the same as they did, in the one I remember. They did this because they wanted to hide something called the Key. And before you ask, this Key has the ability to open the gates between all the different dimensions out there. The downside being that when the gates open up, all the other dimensions come flowing through, bleeding into and mixing with our own.

To paraphrase the future you, "Hell would literally come to Earth."

Look, what happened originally was that the monks wanted to hide the Key from a hellgod named Glorificus, or Glory. And about that damn bitch - problem was she wanted to use the Key to go back home, and take over her hell world. Which means end-of-the-world scenario. Those monks figured that they should put the Key into the shape of something the Slayer would die to protect, in order to best safeguard it.

A baby sister.


Okay, calm down G-man. Breathe. That's it. Now bottom line - someone, for some reason, has convinced the monks to make her human, instead of letting Dawnie spend the rest of eternity as a great big ball of glowing energy. And odds are that just like before, those guys created memories of her in the rest of you. See, I remember her being around ever since Buffy and Joyce came to town in 1997; still, if things are like I expect, she's only existed amongst you guys since some time during August this year. But she's a Summers woman, I promise you - because the monks took some of Buffy's essence to create Dawn.

The only people who can see Dawn any different are those with some form of mental illness, or gift of second sight, or whatever. They see her as some sorta glowing green light, or at least that's what I understand. So, just a thought, it would definitely be a *bad* idea to take her on any field trips to the mental ward at Sunnydale Memorial!

Now, if Glory somehow shows up, be careful. She was one mean tough bitca, and the cost of putting her down was a high one - *too* high, if you ask me. However, you shouldn't have to be concerned about her. I've done something before I wrote this letter, which should mean guys don't ever have to worry about her.

But knowing the Scooby gang's luck, it pays to expect the worst. So, a quick description; she's short, blonde, dresses like a fashion model, and is incredibly vain (by which I mean *really* obnoxious). Hell, Buffy once described her as being like a blonde Cordelia! You ever come across her, get the whole gang together and get the hell out of town till after May, 2001; there's a specific time Glory has to use the Key in order to go home, and you eventually learn exactly when.

I'll fill you in more on the details of that in the next letter. Above all else, keep Dawn away from her and her little toadies. If they get her and start the ritual, the only way to save the world is for one of the Summers sisters to die. Remember, the Monks used Buffy's essence to create Dawn. I had to bury one of them and don't want that to happen again.

By the way, you might want to keep an eye on Willow's research into magic. I'll explain more in the next letter- it'll make more sense then.

Getting back on-topic, Giles, Dawn doesn't know she's any different from you or me, if the monks did what they did the last time. So, don't let her know the truth; with any luck, she'll be able to live out a normal human lifetime, and never have to know about any of this. Because when Dawnie found out the truth during the first go-around on Buffy's 20th birthday, she took it *really* badly - and that little fun episode involved razor blades, and cutting herself to see if she was real.

Not of the good to remember. So I leave it up to you, as to whom to tell.

And no matter who you tell? Remember this.

Dawn is a human being now, she has human feelings and is for all intents and purposes Joyce's daughter and Buffy's sister. She just got created a little bit differently, to the rest of us. So, don't you treat her any differently than you did before you read this letter, understand?

Well, that's it for this little glimpse of the future. If all goes as planned, you should get another letter around March or April or so. Again, if you do find it necessary to tell the others about Dawn, please don't tell them how you found out about all this; there's no reason to freak them out even more than they would be, just with the news about the Key.

Live safe and take care of the family,


Giles leaned back in shock, having finished reading the letter. He dazedly ran his fingers through his hair, < Bloody hell, I swear - that boy, even when he's dead, manages to stir things up even worse than any demon I've ever encountered! Now *how* am I going to explain any of this, to Joyce and Buffy? >


Warehouse 23, unknown location. November 16, 2000

"Let me out! I said let me out!"

Ethan Rayne stalked around the cell he had been put in. One side of it was open to the corridor with a glass wall, and cameras were in present in each corner of the cell.

Ethan was frustrated, with some holes in his memory. Those fake FBI agents had been the last people he had interacted with. He had been running from them, when everything had gone black. Next thing he had known, he had awoken in this cell. And that had been two days ago.

Since then, he had not seen anyone. His meals had appeared through a food slot in the back of the cell. He was actually unsure how long he had been there, as the lights in the cell never dimmed. Ethan had eventually tried pounding on the glass wall; and that must have attracted someone's attention.

After ten minutes of pounding, the chaos mage had received an electric shock from the wall. He hadn't tried to repeat that trick since.

"I am a British citizen, you know. I demand that you contact the British embassy!" he shouted.

"Somehow, I kinda doubt that Her Majesty's government will lose much sleep over the fact that you're in *our* custody."

Ethan turned to the source of the statement. Joshua Cleburne was standing in the corridor, looking in at Rayne. "You there! Agent Cleburne, isn't it? Let me out this minute, damn you. Where am I? And what do you want with me?"

Cleburne just looked at Ethan. "Hmmm, let's take those questions one at a time. First, you're in Warehouse 23." He held his hand to head off Rayne's question. "Don't ask, it's one of those places which doesn't exist, and where we keep things and people that don't exist."

Ethan paled a little bit at that comment.

"And as to what I want? Let's just say I'm here to make you an offer that you *can't* refuse."


Georgetown, Washington D.C. Later that night

"Are we even sure about this? At most - right now, we know only rumors and hints. We can't go running off half-cocked, based on what our current knowledge level is," a middle-aged, balding man said.

Esther Marcum looked across the conference table at him. "I believe the information is reliable. Besides, two of our psychics have confirmed that something has happened."

"Something, but not what exactly," the balding man interjected.

"Come now, we all know it's something directed at Mr. Harris! Wolfram & Hart has been trying every trick they can possibly come up with, to get to him. This is just more of the same," Esther replied.

The balding man folded his arms in front of himself. "That's just your opinion. Besides, I'm not even sure if such a thing is possible. It seems...wrong, somehow."

Esther's brow furrowed. "Value judgments don't enter into this. And clearly, the Watchers Council thinks differently. They sent a team to Sunnydale to do almost the exact same thing a year ago, remember? We have to relay this information-"

At the head of the table, a distinguished elderly gentleman leaned back in his chair and tapped his pipe on the table. "Just a moment. I grant you Mr. Harris is an invaluable asset to this organization, Esther. However, he's also unpredictable and unreliable at times. He is *not* a team player, so to speak. We don't know how he might react to these allegations..."

The man lit the pipe and puffed on it for a second, as Esther, the balding man and the others at the table waited for him to continue. "After all, we are all aware of his relationship with Ms. Daniels. This opportunity, if presented to him, could very well be too much for him to resist. And Mr. Harris has not shown himself to be the most...levelheaded individual around."

Esther looked at her superior. "But we can't deliberately withhold this information! It's against our policies to hide things from a field op this way-"

The pipe-smoking man interrupted, "He's not a field operative, he's just a consultant. Besides, I'm fully aware of the philosophy of total sharing of information that Colonel Cleburne has presented to this body before. I find it lacking in its appreciation of the big picture. For now, we keep this information to ourselves while trying to learn more."

Part Seventeen

Sunnydale Memorial Hospital, Sunnydale, California. November 17, 2000

"Uno," Dawn put down her card, and announced that she had only one card left.

Joyce smiled at her youngest daughter. < On any other day, I'd think it's way too early in the morning for this! > Buffy, Willow and Tara just quickly looked through their hands, to see if they had a card to counter Dawn's latest play.

"Dawn honey, are you sure you don't play this game professionally? You're too good to be playing it just for fun," Joyce asked, leaning forward in the hospital bed to brush Dawn's hair from in front of her eyes.

"I had a very good teacher, Mom. Remember, when I beat you years ago? I got Twinkies. And I love Twinkies! So that was great motivation for a ten-year-old," Dawn replied with a big grin.

Buffy just observed the exchange between Dawn and Joyce silently. She knew something was off about Dawn, but she just couldn't believe that the girl she thought to be her baby sister could possibly be harboring malicious intentions towards their mother.

< I really wish that Giles would just hurry up, and find something to explain what I saw regarding Dawn the other night. That would at least be one less thing to worry about! Well, hopefully, by this time tomorrow I'll be back to just having the normal stuff to be concerned over. Like demons, vampires and end-of-the-world scenarios! >

Willow frowned, as she drew a card from the deck. "Yeah, Mrs. Summers, you've created a card shark if you ask me-"

But Dr. Chalmers sticking his head in through the door of the room headed off further comment from Willow. He was in surgical scrubs and said, "Ah good, you're awake. I wanted to check in on you."

Joyce straightened up. "I'm fine, doctor, and I'm hoping you and the others can make me all better."

Chalmers advanced into the room, and examined the chart at the foot of Joyce's bed. "Don't worry, you're in good hands. Hopefully, we can have your surgery completed by lunchtime..." He glanced up at the Summers women. "So, can you and your charming daughters give me any suggestions as to where to eat lunch?"

Dawn smiled. "Oh, there are a lot of good places to eat lunch! That pizza joint, Fazio's, down the street is a great place to grab a slice or two. And if you don't like pizza, there's a great Mexican restaurant that I-"

Joyce smiled and placed her arm on Dawn's shoulder. "Honey, let's not overload the good doctor with too much information right now, I want him concentrating on something other than the lunch special at Casa Grande for the moment."

Chalmers chuckled at that. "Don't worry, Mrs. Summers. I can handle two things in my head at once." He turned to Dawn and Buffy. "Tell you what, how about you two think about it and tell me when the surgery is done?"

Dawn brightened at that, and even Buffy felt like smiling a little bit. Two orderlies then came into the room.

"Ah, okay, time to go," Chalmers observed.


A few minutes later

The door to the operating suite was at the end of the hallway, as the orderlies wheeled Joyce Summers towards it. To her left walked Buffy the Slayer, holding on tightly to Joyce's hand. On the right side, Dawn did likewise.

Following a few feet behind were Willow, Tara and Jonathan. The sort-of male Scooby had arrived a few minutes after the orderlies started preparing Joyce for the surgery.

The sound of hurrying footsteps then drew Buffy's attention down the corridor, from where they had just come. Giles hurried to catch up with them all, "Sorry I'm late!" he apologized.

Joyce smiled wanly. "Don't worry, Rupert. The main attraction is still here."

"Mom," Buffy reproached her mother. "Don't worry."

Joyce pulled up Buffy's hand and kissed it. "Buffy, why should I worry? I've got you and Dawn on my side."

Buffy and Dawn both smiled at that. They arrived at the door to the suite, and one of the orderlies spoke up, "I'm sorry, but you can't come any further beyond this point..."

And with that, Buffy and the others were left behind. The Scoobies just stood there and watched, as Joyce was wheeled in through the doors.

While everyone else's attention was focused on that, Giles leaned over and whispered into Buffy's ear. "Buffy? I have an explanation about the, the Dawn situation. It's strange, but nothing to worry about - I-I-I'll explain in a moment..."


One hour later

"All right Giles, spill!" Buffy demanded of her Watcher, as they approached the vending machines. She had been unable to talk to Giles about his news, until now.

Because Dawn had attached herself to her sister like a Siamese twin, as soon as Joyce had been wheeled into the operating suite. Understandable of course, in light of what was going on, but frustrating as hell for Buffy. Giles had the answer to her questions but couldn't tell her, since the subject of their discussion was laying her head in Buffy's lap.

Finally, after an hour the blonde Champion had volunteered to go get some snacks. Dawn had wanted to come along too at first, but Buffy had convinced her to stay behind in case there was any news of their mom. She had then 'volunteered' Giles to come help her.

Rupert took his glasses off, and polished them for a second. < Bloody hell, let's hope this works. > "Well, I've done a stupendous amount of checking, and-and talked to a lot of different sources. There is, uh, reference to a prophecy-"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Oh wow, big surprise. Why is there *always* a prophecy involved?"

"Buffy, please!" Giles gently reproached his charge, at which the blonde fell silent. Giles continued, "Anyway, there is this group of monks called, um, the Order of Dagon. They were tasked with the responsibility of guarding a key - one composed of living energy."

"A key? A key to what, exactly?" Buffy asked, as she put a five-dollar note into the change machine. The Scoobies were hungry, and she would need a lot of change.

"A portal between dimensions. There is a-a-a hellgoddess named Glorificus, you see, that was banished here long ago - and apparently she would use the Key to, to go back home, and take over the hell world of her origin. However, there's a problem with that scenario-"

"Yeah, 'cause there always is," Buffy commented, as she scooped up the change from the dollar changer. "Hey, do you see any Twinkies in there? Dawn specifically asked for Twinkies."

Giles shook his head. "No. And the problem is that once the Key is used, all the barriers between all the numberless dimensions out there - come down. All the various realities then run together, bleeding and mixing with ours."

"Which is of the bad?"

"Very bad. Hell on Earth, end-of-the-world type bad, I'm afraid."

Buffy thought for a second. "Okay, but how does all this relate to Dawn?"

Giles hesitated. "Well, those monks were fated to decide to alter the energy, put the Key into the form of Something that its guardian would die to protect."

"So who's this guardian then?" Buffy asked impatiently, as she put quarters into the vending machine.

"You are, according to my source in question."

Buffy slowed down putting the quarters for a second. "Me? But - but what would I die to protect? Dawn's stuff can be replaced, so I don't see why..." Her voice trailed off.

Buffy, although at times having played at appearing slow-witted, was in fact quite intelligent. After all, she had been accepted into Northwestern, which was not exactly a college known for its low academic standards. Her brain quickly made the connection.

"DAWN?!?" the Slayer demanded, her voice's volume rising as she did so.

"Shush!" Giles hurried to keep her quiet. "Yes, Dawn. She is the Key, given human form."

Buffy looked stunned. "Oh my God. But - how - wait, does she know about any of this?"

Giles fiercely shook his head. "No. She has no idea, according to my source. However, understand this - she is very much human now. She's your sister. The only difference between her and us is that she was created by magic, using your essence. In every other way - she is a living, breathing human being."

"My essence?"

Rupert took the opportunity to get some food himself. "Yes, the monks have supposedly used a part of you to create her - God only knows how. So she *is* your sister. Never doubt that. She means no harm to anyone - well, apart from maybe Anya, given that time at the Magic Box..."

Buffy gathered up the crackers and candy bars that she had bought. "So, what's the other shoe? You mentioned something about a hellgoddess, right?"

Giles nodded. "Yes, well, here's where things get strange-"

Buffy looked at her Watcher. "Giles, you just told me that my sister is actually some sorta key, composed of mystical energy or something. I think we're well past *strange*!"

Giles swallowed nervously and continued, "Quite true. Well, uh, apparently this Glorificus or Glory, as she is also called, needs Dawn for that ritual to open the portal. However, my source told me that something has happened to Glory...that she is, um, no longer a threat. He described her to me just in case she ever shows up, but he seemed quite certain she had been removed from the playing field, as it were."

Buffy frowned. "This source on the up and up? And who is he, anyway?"

Giles brought out his version of what Willow called the 'Resolve Face'. "I would trust my life on his information. And I'm sorry, but I can't tell you who he is - he asked me not to reveal that information."

The Slayer looked determined herself. "I want to talk to him!"

The Englishman shook his head. "No, Buffy, that's not possible. I have no way of contacting that individual; he sends me the information, whenever he chooses to get in touch with me. Ah, he did tell me that he would get back in contact around March or April..."

Giles motioned to head off the objection from Buffy to the dates mentioned. "Apparently, Glory can only do her ritual at a certain time during May. Before then the Key, or rather Dawn, is in no real danger."

"Then how did you get to ask him about Dawn?"

< Blast, she would ask that. She's brighter than she looks! > "Luck, of all things. You see, he contacted me just last night."

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "You sure he isn't on a set schedule or anything?"

Again, Giles shook his head. "No, about the only notice I have is the approximate month he'll contact me."

"Did you know he would contact you this month?" Buffy finished gathering up the snacks for the Scoobies.

"Yes, he checked in with me last July. He told me then, he would contact me again sometime in November. But what with everything that's happened lately, it had quite slipped my mind..."

Buffy started to lead Giles back to the waiting Scoobies. "This still sounds a bit too good to be true, my opinion. Just *how* did he know what information you needed?"

Giles shrugged. "All I can say is, he tells me what he thinks I need to know. He's quite gifted at knowing what might come in handy."

Buffy looked annoyed. "Giles, this is *Dawn* we're talking about! I can't just-"

Giles interrupted the Slayer. "Buffy, you're simply going to have to trust me on this. If it makes you feel any better, I *can* promise you that my informant would never knowingly give us false information. I would stake my life *and* my soul on that."

Buffy thought for a second. "All right, Watcher mine, *you* I trust. So if you vouch for him, I'll go along with it - for now. 'Course, I also think we need to keep all this strictly to ourselves - so we need to spin some sorta yarn to feed to Anya, about what I saw the other night..."


Three hours later

Buffy stretched out as best she could, careful not to disturb the sleeping Dawn - who was leaning up against her. She glanced up at the clock on the wall, and the clock face showed it was a quarter past eleven. Joyce Summers had been in surgery for almost three hours now.

That worried Buffy greatly. She felt the tension building up in her, like it had been for the last three hours.


She turned in response to the whisper, and saw that Jonathan had moved to the seat next to her. "Not now, Jonathan!" the Slayer hissed.

By this point in her life, Buffy had gotten to the stage where she could tolerate the presence of the long-time acquaintance of Willow Rosenberg - despite the Super-Jonathan stunt he'd pulled ages ago. Of course, with all that was going on this morning, she really didn't want to test the limits of this newfound tolerance...

"I just thought you might want to know, I did an Internet search."

"Again, Jonathan, not really in the mood!"

"Yeah, but I checked out the surgeons operating on your mother."

Now *that* got Buffy's attention. She shifted to lean closer to the male Scooby, "Spill it," she demanded.

"Right, uh, Dr. Isaacs seems to be all right. Some bumps in his record, but nothing out of the ordinary."

Buffy paled a little bit at that. "Bumps in his record?"

Jonathon quickly reassured the Chosen One, "Nothing to worry about, it's just the fact that he practices in Sunnydale and *still* doesn't seem to have caught onto the night life around here..."

Buffy sighed. "Okay, then. I suppose I should have expected that, what with Mom having the surgery here instead of in Los Angeles or somewhere else."

Jonathon leaned over and patted Buffy on the shoulder. "Dr. Chalmers is a more interesting read, though."

Buffy felt her concern go back up. "What do you mean?"

"He's in the U.S. Navy - and he's on the staff at the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Highly respected. Your mother is really very lucky to have him here."

Buffy looked at Jonathan with a questioning look. "Like I said before, what do you mean?"

"Buffy, he's one of the top surgeons in the Navy!" Jonathan paused for a second. "Do you know what one of the duties of the Bethesda Navy Hospital is? They're the doctors for the U.S. President. Chalmers is one of their top surgeons; he's literally one of the people they call when the President gets ill. *That's* who is helping operate on your mother!"

Buffy felt a sense of immense relief and joy. < If he's someone the White House trusts with the President, Mom is getting the best there is! > Some of the worry that had built up in her disappeared. "Wow. Well, thanks for the 411, Jonathan."

He nodded. "Don't mention it, just doing what I can to help out..."

It was a sad fact that ever since Willow had gotten more and more into magic and Wicca, she had been letting her hacking and Internet skills decline - just as she had in that other world. Jonathan, on the other hand, even though he also was studying magic was still trying to keep his computer skills up to par.

He was hoping to major in Computer Science at UC Sunnydale, after all; because the former nerd wanted something to fall back on, if anything went wrong with the magic thing currently going on in his life.

Right about then, the doors to the operating suite swung open and in walked the two surgeons just being talked about. All of the Scoobies roused themselves and faced the doctors, as they walked up. Buffy and Dawn moved to the front of the group.

Dr. Isaacs spoke first. "I'm happy to tell you that we got the tumor out successfully. Everything went even better than expected, and it looks like your mother is going to be fine."

All of the Scoobies released the breath they had been holding, as Buffy and Dawn hugged each other. Buffy didn't care about what she had just learned about her sister; all she knew was that their mother was going to be all right, and it was like a huge burden had fallen from her shoulders.

"Can we see her?" Buffy asked in a quiet voice.

Chalmers answered her, "Not at the moment. She's still sedated right now, and we're moving her to recovery. Give it a few minutes; let us get her settled, then we'll see about letting some of you in there."

After a few more pleasantries, the two surgeons excused themselves. Buffy spoke up as Chalmers turned to leave, Dr. Isaacs was already halfway down the hall to get ready for the next surgery. "Dr. Chalmers?"

He turned to the elder Summers daughter. "Yes, Ms. Summers?"

"Thank you."

He smiled at her. "You're welcome, but it's what I do. So don't mention it." The neurosurgeon then started after Dr. Isaacs.

< Hmm, I can't help wondering just who she is, though - and why is her family so important? Because a *lot* of favors were called in, for me to come all the way across the country - just for this one humdrum operation! >

Shrugging, the doctor's thoughts then turned to lunch. Maybe that Casa Grande place mentioned by the Summers girls would do just fine.


Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. Later that afternoon

Charles Gunn walked into the headquarters of Angel Investigations; sad to say, but it was a Friday and he had nothing else to do. "Yo, white folks, anybody home?"

Cordelia Chase came out of the inner office of the abandoned hotel lobby. "Gunn, anybody ever tell you how non-PC that sounds when you say it?" she demanded with an annoyed expression.

Gunn shrugged. "I dunno. Where's English and the broody King of Pain?"

Cordy's annoyed look didn't change in the slightest. "*Wesley* is out on a date with Virginia Bryce..."

Gunn grinned at that; recently he had taken part in rescuing that wizard's daughter from a ritual sacrifice. And he had later laughed his ass off, at all the references to Angel being a eunuch - when he had told the tale to the rest of the Lost Boys, who'd had a huge giggle about it as well.

"And Angel's out on the town, of course, doing his big hero act. I swear, Mr. I-Was-Alive-For-200-Years-And-Never-Developed-An-Investment-Portfolio had better find some paying customers soon - or this detective agency is gonna go completely belly-up on our asses!"

The gang leader shrugged. "He's still completely focused on you-know-who?"

Cordy sighed. "You better believe it. I don't understand, didn't he learn his lesson with Buffy about this sort of thing? He can't afford to get involved with Darla - or any other woman, for that matter!"

Gunn looked at her in amazement. "You really don't know much about guys, do ya? Like my old buddy Bobby used to say, 'Que verdad es que dos tetas tiran más que dos carretas'..."

Cordelia instantly slapped him on the face. "I have a half-sister who's part-Spanish - you think I don't know some of the language!? Wait - what *exactly* does that mean, anyway?"

Charles had the decency to look somewhat ashamed; he hadn't expected the former princess to get any of that. "Uh, loosely translated, 'how true it is that two tits pull harder than two horses'. Y'know, it's a guy thing..."

The front doors opened up, and a woman walked into the lobby. Cordelia, having had heard the jingle from the doorway, just glared one last time at Gunn and turned to give her full attention to the new arrival.

"Welcome to Angel Investigations, we help-" Cordy's chipper voice faded, as she saw who it was. "Oh, it's you. What do you want?"

Darla hesitantly folded her arms across her chest. She looked all around her, "Is Angelus here? I need to talk to him," she asked in a tiny voice.

Even after their harsh words tonight after he'd stopped her from getting a *truly* moronic vampire to sire her in the abandonded bank, the woman dying of syphilis needed to talk to *someone* - given how Wolfram & Hart were no longer supporting her.

Cordy placed her arms on her hips, and adopted an icy attitude towards Angel's sire. "Angelus? There is no Angelus here, thank God. If you came for looking Angelus, lady, you can just turn right around right now and march back to your Wolfram & Hart puppetmasters!"

Darla actually seemed to shrink into herself at Cordelia's words. "Please...I need to see him."

Gunn positioned himself between Cordelia and Darla. "Why, haven't you done enough already?"

Darla looked around, looking more pathetic than the Master vampire she had used to be. "I...I need to talk to him. He's the only one who can understand. He's been through what I'm going through. He can, he'll know. I need - I need..."

Cordy wasn't letting up on the attitude towards the new arrival. "Come on, after all the tricks you've played on him? Visiting him in his bedroom night after night, trying to make him lose his soul, trying to seduce him again after you finally showed your skanky ass in public? This is just another ploy!"

Gunn raised an eyebrow, at Cordy's use of the word 'ploy'. Wesley obviously had been rubbing off on her. The seer continued, "I don't know about you, but I've never seen *Angel* trash his own apartment and break all the mirrors..."

"That's 'cause I don't have to look at my own reflection."

The three in the lobby turned to see Angel had come up from the tunnels in the basement. The ensouled vampire looked haggard and tired. Clearly, Darla was not the only one going through an emotional wringer at the moment.

"Guys, could you give us a few moments?" the Champion then asked Cordy and Gunn.

"That isn't a good idea, Angel, after all-" Cordy started to say, before being interrupted by a Look from her employer - who did that classic trick with his forehead.

Gunn moved over and took her by the arm. "We'll be in the office if you need us," he said, over the protests of the Fang Gang's resident seer.

Angel watched them exit, and turned to look at his female companion. "Darla," he said simply. "Before we get into anything else - however you wanna paint it, that *was* pretty stupid what you tried to do earlier, with the vamp back at the bank. After what it took to get you away from Wolfram & Hart...they were about to kill you! Do you really have a death wish like that?"

"Angelus," she whispered. "How do you do it?"

He looked at her with puzzlement. "Do what?"

Darla walked over and sat down on the couch in the lobby before continuing, "*This*! Living with it. Your *soul*," she said with a special emphasis. "How can you exist with that *thing* inside you?"

< First Willow, now Darla. When did I become a women's therapist? > the Irish-born vamp thought to himself in despair. "It's hard-"

Darla continued on, interrupting him. "Hard? It's like a..." She struggled for the words. And Angel was shocked to hear the next words out of her mouth, "...tumor, eating away at me. I can feel it. I can feel this body decaying. Every moment, I can feel it dying just a little bit more."

Angel took a step towards Darla. "Dying? But you're alive-"

Darla spat out her next words, "Alive? Alive? We both know what life brings you. Pain, suffering, disease, DEATH!!!" she almost shouted out the last word. "Living only leads up to the inevitable end. What comes after that? I can't remember. *Why* can't I remember? Is there no Hell?"

Angel shook his head. "There's a Hell, several in fact. A friend of mine spent years in one of them..."

Darla wasn't reassured. "I can't go on like this. Only you can help me."

Angel leaned over, and sat down next to the woman. "Last time, when I had to go through what you're going through, I didn't have anyone there for me."

Darla looked at him. "China was a long time ago, and we've both changed since then. Angelus - Angel - you're the only one who can do what needs to be done." She leaned forward, towards her former lover. "You'll do it too, I don't doubt it."

Angel leaned forward also, touching her shoulders and trying to be comforting. "Don't worry, you'll get through this-"

"Make it quick."

Angel was confused by Darla's statement. "What?"

The former whore brushed back her hair, showing her neck to Angel. She then leaned her head to one side and whispered, "Make me what I was before. Return me to what I'm supposed to be!"

Angel was suddenly gripped by indecision, not having seen this coming - even though he damn well should have, knowing Darla as intimately as he did.

From Xander's message, the Champion for the Powers knew that the blonde woman would become a vampire again at some point, but still - he didn't know exactly how that had happened, or even who had sired her. < Damn it, Xander, couldn't you have given me *some* sort of hint in that letter you left with the Furies? >

Darla got tired of waiting, and pressed her neck to his lips. She whispered in his ear, "Come on, my love. Hurry up - please!"

Angel was horribly, grievously torn. He could smell the hot, tempting blood just beneath the surface of her skin, and could hear the beating of her heart as it started racing in anticipation. He then fought to keep his human face intact, as the inner demon tugged at its chains and Angel tried to decide what to do.

The first thought in his mind was, < What is it with blondes tempting me like this? First Buffy, and now Darla. Cordelia was right, I *do* have a thing for them! God help me if *she* ever dyes her hair blonde... > That thought quickly disappeared though, as more morose concerns arose.

< If I do this - can I live with the consequences? I've never sired anyone with my soul intact - well, apart from that guy Sam Lawson back in 1943, of course. Special case, anyway, it's not like I had any real choice over that. But this is *Darla* we're talking about! If I do this, everything Xander warned me about will happen... >

Which included the birth of Connor, their son, and him losing Darla before the March of 2003.

Angel pushed her away, making his decision. "I can't."

The silence lasted for several seconds. Darla leaned back and looked Angel in the face in disbelief, "What?"

"I won't turn you into a soulless monster," he said simply. And Angel did his best to just ignore the sneering inner voice in his head, that said Willow had the ensouling spell in reserve. < That's the easy way out. I can't kill her just so I can turn her, and hope that Willow's spell works! >

"But how can you leave me like this?! You know what I'm going through. You're suffering it yourself. How can you force me to go through all that *pain*?!" Darla looked with pleading eyes at her childe.

Angel told her, "You're human, and you have your soul. Do you have any idea what I would give, to have what you have?"

She gripped the male vamp by the collars of his jacket. "Why? Why lower yourself to that level? We're..." A look of sadness flittered across her face. "We *were* better than that. We were beyond human concerns. We were masters of our fate. The humans were beneath us. Nothing more than cattle!"

"Darla, we were wrong to think like that," Angel said passionately, making no effort to get away. "True, we were nothing more than soulless monsters then. Preying on those weaker than us-"

"We were almost gods, you fool!" Darla snapped.

"No we weren't. We were no better than vultures, skulking in the shadows, afraid of the daylight and scurrying out to feed on bits and pieces off the street. You could argue that we were free, but that's only as far as any vampire can be - dependent on the exploitability of others, and you can't tell me otherwise..."

Darla wasn't convinced. "The humans were there for our pleasure, *and* consumption. Survival of the fittest, remember?"

Angel looked at the blonde sadly. "In that case, why did we hide from them? Why didn't vampires take over the world openly, long ago?" he asked in a low tone.

Darla had no answer for that one, leaning back in her chair as her former lover continued. "We talked a good game, Darla, but when all was said and done, what did we ever do? We fed and we slept and we fornicated, at every available opportunity. That was it, for 150 years. The Master at least had all those grand plans to bring about the end of the world, but us? We were no better than animals." He looked Darla straight in the eye. "Do you really want to go back to that?"

"There's no other choice. I'm dying," she whispered.

"Of course you are. Everything eventually does." Darla looked skeptically at Angel. "Sweetheart, nothing lasts forever. Do you really think even a vampire can exist for that long, unchanged? We've both heard of vampires changing, the older they get. Remember the name Kakistos? He was a legend with cloven hooves that Spike and Dru met once, and I had the dubious pleasure of watching two Slayers dust him in Sunnydale-"

"You don't understand!" She jumped up. "I'm dying right now!! The syphilis I had back in 1609 Virginia, it's killing me. The doctors...they've all said I'm too far gone to help. I'll be dead soon, if I don't do something about it!" She started towards the door.

Angel grabbed her. "Wait, we can do something-"

The blonde turned on Angel. "NO! Leave me alone. You decided not to help me the way I needed, fine. Don't look for me, I'll just...I'll go somewhere else for what I need!" She flung the doors open, letting the sunlight in, and started out.

"No, damn it Darla-!" Angel saw someone he knew would most likely become the mother of his child about to go out, and do something stupid. And he wasn't going to allow that. So the Champion stepped forward, and grabbed her arm again at the door.

Then the vampire with a soul felt the burning heat and saw the sunlight sizzling on his arm, as he pulled upon his maker. Cursing, he held onto Darla with vamp strength; but she struggled, screaming to be let go.

The noise brought both Cordy and Gunn out of the office. "Angel!!!" Cordelia shouted, as she could see the smoke rising from Angel's arm. They rushed up to where he was, as the former Scourge of Europe roughly pulled Darla away from the doorway.

Darla's eyes grew wide, as she saw Angel's arm. "Angelus, what have you done?" she asked softly in amazement.

"I'm *not* letting you throw away the gift you've been given like that. We'll find a way to fix this." < Damn right we will! Xander changed the future back in Sunnydale, before we both left the Hellmouth. If he can do it, I can too! There's gotta be a way to save her life, without Darla having to become a vampire... >


A hour later

Angel walked down the stairs, back towards the lobby. Cordy stood at the foot of the stairs, with her hands on her hips and an angry look on her face. Before she could start in on Angel - Wesley, who had come back from his date when called in by the gang, stepped forward.

"How is she?" the Englishman asked diplomatically.

Angel got to the bottom of the stairs. "Sleeping, for now. I set her up in one of the rooms near mine. I imagine she'll sleep through the night; Darla was exhausted, she's been through the wringer what with everything she's learned-"

Cordy stepped around Wesley, to come face-to-face with Angel. "All right, Broody Boy, time to face the music. Just what the *hell* were you thinking? Because sunlight and you, pal, don't mix. A sunburn on you equals vampire dust! You could have been nothing but ashes right now, if she'd pulled a bit harder!"

Angel shook his head. "I know, but I wasn't going to let her go back out there alone. God knows what would have happened..."

"What would have happened? We would have gone after her, dummy! Remember, Gunn and I were right there in the next room? You had no business putting yourself in harm's way like that!"

"I'm afraid Cordelia's right, Angel. You endangered yourself unnecessarily," Wesley added with an uncomfortable look on his face.

"You don't understand, she's my responsibility. I just can't let her throw away her chance to-"

"Oh my God, Angel..." Cordy started to say, with a patented 'Queen C' glare on her features.

Angel turned back to face the group's seer. "Look Cordy, I know you don't like her. But she has no one else, literally, who can comprehend what she's going through. And I am *not* going to just abandon her, at the time when she needs me the most. End of discussion. Deal with it..." He then turned away, as Wesley started to get his orders about what reading materials were urgently needed.

But his previous words had gotten Cordy to shut up, as memories of past events swirled around in her brain; a black-haired boy that had been her first true love lying on the nighttime street, appearing in her mind's eye.


Georgetown, Washington D.C. November 19, 2000

"Mom! Phone!"

Esther glanced up from the book she was reading, at the shout of her teenage daughter from downstairs. She mentally sighed.

< She couldn't walk up here to tell me, she had to shout it out from the bottom of the stairwell? Oh well, I suppose I should be thankful it wasn't Mark who answered the phone. He wouldn't even have bothered coming to the foot of the stairs! > she thought to herself grumpily, Mark being her eldest - who had started college at Howard University this autumn.

Esther put down her book, and stood up from the easy chair she had spent most of this Sunday afternoon relaxing. Work had been more stressful than normal, ever since the Committee had made their decision concerning what was coming out of Wolfram & Hart.

< Oh well, I need to remember these are the same people who came up with the idea of the Initiative. From what we've been able to figure out from the hints Xander Harris gave us, that would've have turned out to be an incredibly bad idea if it hadn't been short-circuited by him. >

She picked up phone. "Esther Marcum."

"Mrs. Marcum, this is Monsignor Bentallo. I hope I have not disturbed you too much."

"Not at all. I was just doing some light reading," Esther replied. "And I hope you don't mind me asking, but how did you get my home phone number?"

A soft chuckle was the response. "As you said earlier, the Church has always been able to get information that others could not. The mission here in Washington long ago assembled methods of contacting certain individuals in your government, on short notice."

That worried Esther. "You needed to get in contact with me on short notice?"

Bentallo quickly moved to reassure her, "Nothing immediately threatening. But I've just returned from Rome, and there is some information that I need to discuss with you as soon as possible. It concerns your young...guest."

"How soon can you meet with me?"


U.S. Naval Academy Training Gym, Annapolis, Maryland. November 20, 2000

Two men were almost dancing around the gymnasium floor.

Joshua Cleburne and Xander Harris were engaged in a martial arts training session. The Jeet Kune Do techniques were being used, as Xander snapped a kick towards Cleburne's head - that on almost any other man would have connected, and knocked his teeth out.

"Watch your right shoulder - you're telegraphing your moves when you lean back like that, kid! Every time you do that, I get an opening to do something like this..." Cleburne's fist shot by Xander's left ear, in an incredibly rushed blur.

Xander idly wondered for a second, whether or not Cleburne had missed on purpose.

However, that thought didn't interfere with Xander dropping down and trying a sweep kick against his trainer. At the last moment Cleburne rolled to his right, just ahead of Xander's right leg. "Getting better kid, getting better. Maybe before too long, you'll be able to mug a little old lady successfully."

"That would be tougher than fighting you," Xander taunted his opponent.

Cleburne just smiled and threw a punch, one that Xander easily blocked. However, Cleburne used the opportunity to launch a kick that almost hit Xander on the stomach...almost. Xander leaned back and blocked Cleburne's leg. Then the former Zeppo quickly pushed Cleburne off-balance, and the senior agent tumbled backwards.

Xander quickly moved forward to press his advantage, however Cleburne wasn't that easily bested. He continued rolling backward, until he was out of the immediate reach of his opponent. He then jumped up to his feet, as Xander attacked him with a leaping kick that landed on the agent's chest.

The Siberian fell backwards, and rolled on the mat. "Damn, kid, you eat your wheaties this morning or what?"

"Language please, Joshua."

Both Cleburne and Xander looked at the source of the reproach given to the Siberian. At the doorway into the gym stood Esther Marcum, Irving Hollins and Monsignor Bentallo. Xander noted that behind them were the normal bodyguards that accompanied the child genius on his jaunts into the real world.

He also noticed that several of them were hiding grins. < They've probably been through the Mother Hen training method. They must like seeing someone knock *him* on his ass, for a change. >

Cleburne was clearly thinking the same thing, as he started scowling as he got back to his feet. His scowl quickly vanished though, as he faced the black woman he'd worked with for years. "Esther, surprised to see you here. Didn't think you would drop in on us today! You know, I can probably get all of you tickets to the Army-Navy game if you want. That's coming up in a couple of weeks..."

Esther shook her head. "No, I'm more of an NFL fan than college football. Besides, I've never understood the fervor of the rivalry between the Army and Navy academies."

Cleburne looked at Esther. "Come on, Army versus Navy? It's the rivalry to end all rivalries! War Admiral-Seabiscuit, Duke-Kentucky, Red Sox-Yankees? Those rivalries are *nothing*, compared to the cadets and midshipmen going at it!"

He led Xander over to where the towels and water had been set aside. Mother Hen picked up a bottle of water and tossed it to Xander, who caught it effortlessly as Cleburne turned to face the new arrivals. "Anyway, I doubt you brought your two companions here to talk football. The Wizard there is a fan of more cerebral pursuits, and I suspect the good Father is a fan of Notre Dame."

"Monsignor," Bentallo corrected Cleburne.

Esther raised her hand. "Let's hold off on the introductions for a second. I'm sorry for the interruption-"

"Don't be," Xander interrupted her. "Mother Hen here was determined to turn me into Jackie Chan."

"Bruce Lee."

"What?" Xander looked at Cleburne.

"Jeet Kune Do was developed by Bruce Lee, so you should be trying to become like him."

"Anyway," Esther said sharply. "We need to talk in private, about something that Monsignor Bentallo has discovered."


Ten minutes later

The Siberians and their guest had found an unused classroom, and gathered within it. Monsignor Bentallo had been introduced all around and was talking, "When we agreed to assist your organization, one of the things we received was transcripts of your debriefings, Mr. Harris. I've been reading them, and trying to learn what I can."

Xander looked at Cleburne. "Copies of my debriefings. Why not live performances?"

"You probably would have run off with his lovely assistant. Would have had a bitch of a time dragging you back," Cleburne smirked.

"Focus, please," Esther said, her annoyance surfacing. "And when did you two become characters in a buddy-cop movie?"

Both Cleburne and Xander looked properly chastised as Bentallo continued, "Mr. Harris, something in your transcripts stuck out to me. You made reference to trying to learn everything you could related to apocalypses, during your time in high school..."

Xander nodded. "Yeah, that was back when I was in love with Bu-" Xander managed to catch himself, before he said Buffy's name. She was still a sore subject, as far as his psyche was concerned.

The guy continued on though, "And, uh, I was also kinda unsure of my role in" He wondered now if that had been time truly wasted, considering how things had turned out.

"You mentioned going so far as reading the Bible, and various chapters of the Book of Revelations - especially the one about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?"

"Right. And?"

"Mr. Harris - just how many chapters of the Book of Revelations did you read, in total?" the holy man asked.

Xander shrugged. "All 22 of them, actually." Then he noticed his three companions staring at each other. "What?"

"My son, in the Bible today - there are *23* chapters in the Book of Revelations," Bentallo said simply.

"What?" Xander said in amazement.

Hollins spoke up this time. "It appears that for whatever reason, one of the changes from the history you that there is now an extra chapter, in that part of the New Testament. There have been rumors that the Revelations of St. John was written by a seer...anyway, we obviously never caught it last year, because I basically assumed that there had always been 23 chapters in both worlds. My apologies for the oversight."

Xander swallowed. "I'm taking it that this is not a good thing?"

Bentallo looked concerned, as he continued. "I reviewed the oldest copies we have of the Book of Revelations in the Vatican library. I even obtained the copies in the original Aramaic because, you see, I'm able to read that language. I read one particular chapter very carefully, in light of the new conditions caused by your presence. And I came to the conclusion that..."

Xander felt his heart rate increase. "What, what did you conclude?"

Bentallo looked straight at Xander. "I believe that much of that chapter refers directly to you."

The Monsignor took out his notes and began to read from them, as Harris gaped liked a fish. "Revelations, 14:1. And then, a great portent appeared upon the face of the earth. A..." he paused. "Well, the original Aramaic roughly translates to a 'poisoner of wells'. But personally, I suspect that's a little misleading - another word for it could be-"

"Witch," Hollins interjected, his 12-year-old voice brimming with certainty. "If memory serves, during the 7th decade AD when the Bible was written...that is what the Jews belonging to the then-new Christian sect were labeled as, as a matter of fact."

The holy man nodded. "Anyway, to continue. "A...witch with three heads stood before the graven image of the beast, as she paid homage before it. One of her heads had hair black like a raven's wing, and her eyes were the color of night, and an expression of great rage was upon her face. The second head contained hair liken unto a flame of fire, with eyes the color of jade, and a great sadness was etched upon her features. The third head had hair that was as white as snow, white as wool, with eyes like ebony, and an expression of rapture..."

The Monsignor paused to catch his breath. "I have to say, it's quite descriptive."

Esther frowned. "Monsignor, this *is* the most accurate translation of the text, right?"

He shrugged. "Well, it's the best our experts and I could come up with. Now, where was I...ah, yes, here we are. "And I watched as the witch performed impressive miracles; the black-haired head facing me, great power sprang forth as she raised her arms and began to feed the statue with the life of the earth. And then another great portent appeared; a man, robed as a warrior of the Host with his left eye missing, came forth commanding the witch to cease her blasphemies against God and His angels. And after he did so, the head with red hair did replace the previous one facing me, as the witch repented of her evil ways; and then the earth and sea, and all those who dwelled upon them rejoiced, having been granted another season. Thus I fell down as if to worship him, but the warrior said unto me, "You must not do that! For I am merely a fellow servant of yours, although I travel with the..."

There was another pause, as the Monsignor frowned. "This next word is the one that originally raised the alarm bells for me, Mr. Harris. It's tricky to understand; literally translated, it means 'divine executioner', but it could also mean-"

"Slayer," Xander said in a flat, emotionless voice, as everyone stared at him again. "That's what it was *supposed* to mean, anyway - when whoever wrote this stuff way back when, was putting pen to paper. Or whatever they actually did, in those days. This is all hitting way too close to home, for it to be anything else..."

"I see. So, you understand all this - it's all familiar to you, then?" the special agent of the Vatican looked at Xander with undisguised fascination. Cleburne, Marcum and Hollins stared at him too.

Xander nodded his head, troubled by both the memories that day on Kingman's Bluff - and the fact that someone had foreseen it all, so long ago. "You could say that. What else is there?"

The Monsignor then read through the rest of the chapter. It was written in the same vague, graphically descriptive style as before - but to someone like Harris, who alone of those present had the background knowledge to understand the context, the meaning was chillingly clear enough.

The appearance of Caleb, who the author described as the "savage prophet of the ancient enemy", was described in due course. Then the destruction of the Council, and the slaughter of nearly all the potential Slayers in the world. Then the discovery of the mystical scythe created by the Guardians, and Buffy's grand plan to create a Slayer army.

Bentallo then came to the end. "Ah yes, this part I found most interesting. "And I watched as the city built by the old serpent, which was liken unto Sodom and Gomorrah, was pulled underneath the earth into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the beast and the savage prophet also were. But then, I beheld one last miraculous portent; a holy chariot, carrying the few remaining righteous of the city, emerged from the hole in the earth. And the man robed as the servant warrior of Heaven stood before me, as his left eye miraculously reappeared and he said, "Write what you have seen, what has been and is now and may occur hereafter. For that ancient enemy which is and was and always will be comes to you in a great fury, knowing that it hath but a short season remaining to slay me - and my oldest companion."

Bentallo sighed. "And then the next chapter of the Book of Revelations goes off in a completely new direction, I'm afraid..."

Cleburne shrugged, not making the connection to Dark Willow - although he should have. "Well, not to be blunt, but this doesn't sounds like anything I haven't already heard before at Sunday school, when I was growing up. Kid, any of this *really* mean anything to you?"

Xander said nothing, ignoring him. < Oldest companion? That's gotta mean Willow. The First wanted us both dead, before it got scrunched that day in the future? Most likely... >


But still, Xander Harris - someone who in this world, people had been unknowingly reading about for nearly 2000 years - said nothing, lost in his own turbulent thoughts as he tried to understand what those last few words of warning *really* meant.

"Harris?" Cleburne said with mounting urgency. That got Xander's attention.

"Yeah," he started slowly. "It means quite a bit. The bad guy is still out gunning for me, and..." Xander turned and looked at Cleburne. "Lemke is going to need help."

Hollins spoke up, as he was not a super-genius for nothing - even if he didn't have Xander's foreknowledge. "The witch with three heads refers to Willow Rosenberg, I take it? The raven-haired avatar matches the description Lemke gave us of the woman in question, when she was...well, whatever she was, back in September. Remember when you recommended a NBC response, to the situation in Sunnydale? And the second head matches her general description now. The third one is, however, unfamiliar to me." The child genius looked at Xander.

"That hasn't happened yet," Harris said simply.

"Care to share?" Cleburne asked.

Xander shook his head. "Not yet, well - not the details. But basically, this description in the Bible matches the events of 2002 and 2003, leading up to the destruction of Sunnydale. The entire town was swallowed up in the final battle during an earthquake, you see."

Cleburne looked concerned. "We have to contact Lemke. His wife is there. And she did *not* sign up, for her and her child to be sucked into the ground like that! And the rest of the civilians-"

Xander held up his hand. "Don't worry. The town had more-or-less spontaneously evacuated itself, right before the end." That calmed the secret agent down. "The last few lines are what disturb me. "For that ancient enemy which is and was and always will be comes to you in a great fury, knowing that it hath but a short season remaining to slay me - and my oldest companion," he quoted with a brooding expression.

"The guy in the robes, well me, is sayin' that the enemy, which has to be the First Evil, is trying to slay him, well - me again." Xander reached up and rubbed his forehead. < This is giving me a headache, and it didn't need even need any conflicting memories to do it? >

Hollins nodded. "I agree; we already know the First has made certain moves against you. There was its appearance in Georgia for example, when the Watchers kidnapped you. So it views you as a threat, and will move against you..."

"My oldest companion," Esther said. "What does that part mean?"

"Willow," Xander whispered. < The First wants her dead. Oh, man... >

Hollins was deep in thought. "Ms. Rosenberg. The First will be targeting her. Why?"

The former slave then snorted. "Oh, she played a *big* role in the final battle. The First must blame her for its defeat. Kill her this time around before then, and it wins by default..."

Bentallo looked at Xander. "You also, it looks to me that the First blames you for its defeat as well?"

Xander shook his head. "Don't know why. I didn't really do anything..."

"The heart." The group looked at Cleburne as he continued, "Every team, squad or pack has a center to it, a heart if you like. Someone who holds everybody together, by just being there. Prevents the team from losing it, when things start falling apart. I remember Colonel Hotchkins telling me the story of his squad in Vietnam going to pieces, after this 22-year-old kid he had under his wing bought it. He'd acted as the soul of the unit - and without him, they couldn't really function. You must have played that role, in the old history."

Xander pondered it for a second. < Well, I *was* the heart in that enjoining spell we did during that first year of college...and Buffy did say that night I was the only reason she'd made it that far. > "Yeah, could be, but there's no way I'm playing that role *now* - is there?"

Esther spoke up this time. "True enough, but the First would still consider you enough of a potential threat that it'll keep trying to take you out."

"And the same for Willow, we need to get her more protection," Xander stated, not thinking about the past - for now.

"We can do that. I've been thinking the Sunnydale PD needs some new people in it, anyway," Joshua nodded to himself.

Hollins turned to Bentallo. "We'll have to examine *all* the prophecies out there that we can access, to see if there is anything else about Mr. Harris and his compatriots-"

Cleburne groaned, as he glanced at Esther and Hollins. "Yeah, I know what *that* means, you're going to want me to talk to the fundamentalists out there. Mind you, Reverend Crumley up in Montana is nice to talk to, but after 15 minutes the conversation gets really weird..."

Bentallo got their attention. "Actually, we're already in the process of doing just that. I've even gone so far as to make a request to His Holiness to review the Third Fatima Prophecy. And we've already found one prophecy, that seems to apply to Mr. Harris here."

Xander rolled his eyes. "Oh joy, what else does destiny have to throw my way?"

Bentallo hurried to explain. "Well, it's from a monk who was a seer in tenth century France. He writes of a hidden cup being found by a warrior who is, ah, trapped or displaced or lost out of time. He even placed a time frame for it all to happen; the last few months of the second millennium."

"A cup?" Cleburne asked.

"From the context of the writings and the doctrine of the time...this cup almost certainly refers to the vessel used by Christ, during the Last Supper. The Holy Grail."

Xander looked up, some of the old Zeppo personality poking through. "Hey, does that mean I get to go on a Monty Python quest? And I saw the other movie too, ya know. My opinion, Harrison Ford shoulda retired after the first 'Raiders' flick, and Sean Connery should've stuck to saying, 'Remember, Highlander, there can be only one!'"

Cleburne groaned at Xander's commentary. "You know what *really* disturbs me about all this? I'm kicking the ass of someone actually mentioned in the Bible. That's just freaky!"

Xander glanced at Cleburne. "What training session were you at? I knocked you flat on your ass, just a few minutes ago!"

Cleburne rolled his eyes. "Kid, the session isn't over yet by a long shot, we're just on a break right now."


Sunnydale Memorial Hospital, Sunnydale, California. Later that day

Buffy walked down the hallway from her mother's room, happy that her mother seemed to be doing well. The doctors and nurses made comments about how well her recovery seemed to be going.

Buffy was certainly hoping that everything would turn out okay, but in any case the gallery seemed to be going along all right in Joyce's absence. She was now looking for Dr. Isaacs or Dr. Chalmers, to see if they had any idea as to when Joyce could go home.

Buffy spotted them up ahead in the corridor, talking to some a middle-aged man in a suit. Her sensitive Slayer hearing instantly kicked in and she could hear what they were saying to one another, long before a normal person should have been able to.

"I'm telling you, in my professional opinion, that it is a bad idea to send Mrs. Summers home so soon after surgery!" That was Dr Chalmers.

Buffy quickly ducked around a corner so that they couldn't see her, but she could still hear them.

"Well, doctor, I think you're being a little too conservative in your diagnosis." This was a voice that Buffy didn't recognize, and she correctly guessed it belonged to the man in the suit. A man who had, in fact, been installed into his position here during the time when Mayor Wilkins had been in office. "After all, all the tests and post-op examinations show no complications-"

"Spare me the sanctimonious speech, you quack! Admit it - you just want to open that bed up for other patients, don't you? Personally, I think it's disgraceful to let medical decisions be determined by insurance company policies. Mrs. Summers did just have brain surgery, after all!" That was Chalmers again.

"Dr. Chalmers," said the hospital bureaucrat in an officious voice. "May I remind you that you are *not* a member of the staff, at *my* hospital? We do not run things here in Sunnydale the way you do back east; we have neither the budget, nor the personnel. We appreciate your help, but we are quite capable of handling things ourselves from this point on. Dr. Isaacs, start making the arrangements to discharge Mrs. Summers tomorrow."

Buffy then heard them walking away. She started out from around the corner, when the blonde realized too late that Dr. Chalmers was still standing in the hallway.

She ducked back into her hiding place as the Navy commander took out a cell phone, and started punching buttons. Buffy mentally sighed in relief, it appeared that Dr Chalmers had not seen her. After a few seconds, he started talking.

"Hey, roomie. It's me, Bert. Yeah, I'm good. Oh, I swear - it's too warm here for November! How are you doing?"

There was silence for a few seconds.

"Ouch, that bad? And how old was this kid? Twenty-four?! Josh, I hate to tell you this, but we're obviously not as young anymore as we used to be, back at the Academy. Listen, I've hit a complication on the Summers surgery case out here..." He listened for a few seconds.

"No, nothing like that; HMOs, and all that mess. The hospital here is getting buffaloed by the insurance company to discharge my patient too early. Officially it's because her recovery is coming along better than expected, but the real reason is that the insurance company doesn't want to pay for an extended recovery period."

Silence again for a few seconds, as Buffy steamed. Maybe she should go and talk to that hospital administrator. Explain the situation to him, "angry Slayer to whimpering bureaucrat" style. But then Chalmers started talking again...

"Well, I'd say another week or two - at least. After all, this is brain surgery we're talking about - not setting a broken wrist! I'd feel a lot more comfortable keeping her under observation for at least that long, before discharging the woman. Is there anything you can do? Great! Tell you what, I'll go get the information for you to take care of it. In the meantime, you go get some ice to recover from your little training session. I'll call you as soon as I have the info. Bye for now..."

And with that, Chalmers hung up and walked down the hallway, in the direction of the administrative offices.

Buffy came from around the corner, and watched him go. < Well, that was...strange. Maybe I'll have a word with Jonathan or Willow, to see what else they can find out about this guy. And I'll talk to Mom about changing insurance companies, as soon as possible... >

Part Eightteen

Georgetown, Washington D.C. November 20, 2000

"What do you mean, you don't know where she is?! You're her case officer. I thought we were paying her a boatload of money to work for us!"

Esther sighed at Cleburne's question as she cradled the phone on her shoulder, typing with her hands on her computer while she did so. It was way too late in the day for this. "Joshua. I understand your frustration..."

"Damn right I'm frustrated! I'm about to take the kid Lord knows where on this planet looking for THE Holy Grail, which I might add has been pretty well hidden for the last 2000 years, and we can't find our resident thief. Somehow, I think her skills might come in handy - don't you? After all, we *might* wind up having to steal that thing!"

"I know, I know! Cleburne, you're not telling me anything that I don't already know myself. But apparently, she's taking care of something we've heard some rumblings about. All I know is that it involves some kind of 'job' out west; something mystical is about to be stolen. Ms. Raiden picked up word of it, and so is looking into it for us."

That brought some grumbling from the other end of the phone line. "Joshua, didn't your doctor warn you about stress?" the black woman asked innocently.

"Come on Esther, stress is just part of the package in this line of work. After all, this isn't a low-risk job!"

Esther Marcum smiled at that. < True enough, stress is actually pretty low down on the list of things for him to worry about these days. > "Tell you what, old friend. You and your entourage don't leave for another couple of days; I should be able to run her down before that. After all, she can't have fallen off the face of the earth - Gwen has to be around somewhere..."


Los Angeles, California. November 21, 2000

Gwen Raiden mentally cursed to herself in the darkness, a few hours after midnight. < Stupid amateurs, what are they thinking? >

She had picked up word through the grapevine of a job going down, involving something mystical in the City of Angels. She didn't know what was the mark or the prize, but as a so-called member of the good guys she'd learned enough that Gwen figured maybe she should look into it.

And when she'd gotten to LA, the brunette woman hadn't been filled with confidence over what she'd found out from her snitch. Some vampire named Jay-don, a 1970s throwback, was doing a major job involving something called the Shroud of Rahmon. Gwen didn't know what that was or what it did, but she knew someone seemed to be willing to shell out a lot of dead presidents in order to get it.

Still, from what she'd heard, the demons trying to carry out the job were *way* out of their depth on this one.

The female thief had found the demons in question, along with two humans and a vampire that she assumed was Jay-don. These people clearly had not worked together before, and bickered incessantly most of the time. Gwen actually considered calling the police and turning them in, just to avoid the embarrassment of witnessing such a sloppy crew go to work...

But instead she followed them to the target, which they had just slipped into. So Gwen silently made her way in after them. < Lord save me from ever having to work with incompetent idiots like them! I better make sure they don't disgrace the name of thieves everywhere, > the young woman thought in disgust, as she followed them into the Southern California Museum of Natural History.


Thirty minutes later

Kate Lockley drove up to the museum in question. She was in a foul mood, after her run-in with Angel earlier that night. She had gone to the vampire's place looking for Darla; and the encounter had not gone well.

Darla was currently wanted by the LAPD for questioning; her activities while with Wolfram & Hart had been of the nature such that the police had taken a very dim view of them. The orders were quite clear; take her into custody - no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Kate knew that Angel was also looking for the blonde former vampiress. So she'd figured his hotel would be a good place to start looking for the woman.

Angel had disagreed with that scenario immediately.

He had been evasive as to his knowledge of Darla's location, and the LAPD detective had quickly come to the conclusion that the vampire with a soul knew far more than he was letting on. And when she had pressed him on it, the response had been direct with Angel saying, "Go home, Kate. You get stuck between me and Darla, it'll be the last thing you ever do."

Later, two officers at the stationhouse had shown her the photographs of the suspect they felt was the inside man for a job at the museum she was now approaching. Then they had shown her the photo of Angel and some guy meeting at a bus depot, who was famous for robbing museums. And that had been enough for her.

So the female detective had grabbed her combination cross/stake and headed over here. But as she got out of her car and entered the scene of the crime, she had no way of knowing that in addition to those she was expecting - Wesley, Cordelia and the thief named Gwen Raiden were also within the Museum of Natural History.

And not far away, Cordelia Chase was finally feeling good after all the events of the day.

First, there had been the thing with her hair; how no one had noticed until now what she'd done with it, ten days ago. Then there had been the public humiliation from Wesley spilling shrimp sauce all over her dress, right in front of Chow Yun Fat at that gala soiree they'd gone to. And to top that off, that Darla bitch had smirked nonstop at her embarrassing appearance, after they'd left early and arrived back at Angel Investigations.

But all of that had meant little, compared to the sight of Angel giving Darla a goodbye kiss on the cheek - before setting out to impersonate Jay-don, and save Gunn's cousin Lester.

The former ruler of the high school elite had not reached her position back then, merely by her incredibly good looks alone. Cordelia knew people; and that was how she understood that Darla was slowly worming her way into Angel's heart, making a permanent place for herself here within the group.

And *that* meant the re-appearance of Angelus, sooner or later...

But now, all that seemed insignificant. Because right at the moment, she was feeling *great*! Cordy admired her reflection in a glass case, having recently stolen some Native American jewelry from a nearby dummy. The beauty queen said to herself dreamily, "This *so* goes with my complexion! I truly am - pleasant."

When suddenly a very familiar voice responded, as the jewelry started to glow almost undetectably. "Speaking from experience, that's debatable."

Cordy started; lifting her eyes up from her chest, she saw the reflection of Xander Harris in the glass case. "XANDER?! What - how-?"

She made as if to whirl around and face him, but he who looked like the dark-haired young man she'd known and secretly loved shook his head at once. "No, don't turn around. Please, trust me on that..." Then he pointed at the Native American artifact. "It looks good on you."

Cordy smiled. "Well, duh!" Then she sobered up at once. "But this is impossible, you're dead. What am I, talking to my own subconscious now?"

The young man didn't answer; he just appeared to come closer, leaning his head down over her right shoulder. The former cheerleader desperately ached to turn around and tightly grab hold of him, but somehow she held herself in check as the image of Xander said solemnly, "We need to talk."

"About what?" Ms. Chase asked at once.

"Bottom line? You have to let go, Cordy."

Those five words only made the former princess angry, though. "Hey, if that means what I think it does? I have! I did! I put you behind me, two and a half years ago. I've gone out on tons of dates, ever since we broke up-"

"All of which have gone precisely nowhere. And you know why..."

Cordy seemed to deflate, just a little. But then she snapped out, "Hey, is it *my* fault if before we got halfway to the dessert, I ended up comparing all those guys to you - and not one of them *ever* measured up? And if you even mention Wilson Christopher, I swear I'll knock your teeth out! Xander, the only man who even came close to you was Doyle, and look what happened to him! Those damn Nazi demon bastards killed him..."

The tears started to fall freely, and that which looked like her childhood sparring partner said comfortingly, "He was a hero, Cordy, no one's denying that. But Doyle did what he did, so that you'd still have your whole life ahead of you - I know you've thought about marriage and children, a few years down the line. The problem is though, you're starting to obsess over me - how many times this week have you thought about 'us', every time you saw Angel and Darla alone together?"

Cordelia scowled, wiping away the tears. "If I didn't know any better, I'd swear you really *were* the loser dork I lost my heart to during junior year!"

The phantom Xander laughed gently in her ear, and suddenly Cordy couldn't stand this anymore. "Look, go away - all right? Because it hurts too much to see and hear you acting like this. On account of if he really was here right now, the *real* Xander would be calling me a bitch, or a whore, or a-"

"You know that it isn't true," her companion whispered comfortingly. "Heck, even Wesley knows that..."

Cordy was suddenly reminded of the pep talk that the former Watcher had given her, back in July. "I wish I could believe you, I really do! But deep down - I can't, not unless I hear it from the source direct. And what the odds of that happening, huh?"

"About the same as you ever tracking down that guy Alexander Hall," Xander smiled, before Cordy blinked and he vanished.

"What? Alexander Hall? Hey! Where did you go?" Cordelia finally turned around, but no one was there.

And in another world, she would have simply left with the jewelry, to later meet up with Wes back at the hotel. But here and now, Fate intervened - in the form of Gwen Raiden.

The professional thief had noticed the crazy black-haired woman talking to herself like that, after having to temporarily abandon the surveillance on Angel, Gunn and the rest of the thieves. Normally, she would have just dismissed her as irrelevant to the job at hand - but as she turned to leave, Gwen heard the words 'Alexander Hall' shouted out from the nut case.

< Huh? Did she mean - that guy from the plane, when I visited that Hellmouth place? She knows him? > Then the trained professional remembered Xander's words that day...

Against her better judgment, Gwen decided to come closer to Cordy and ask a few questions - before returning to see how Angel and the Keystone Kriminals were doing, trying to break into the vault containing the Shroud.

That was a mistake Ms. Raiden would bitterly regret, for the rest of her life.

As soon as Cordy saw her, the seer did the worst thing she could have possibly done; she stopped looking around for Xander, and opened her mouth to scream as loudly as possible.

Unsurprisingly, Gwen slapped a gloved hand over her lips at once. And then the Native American artifact started to glow like a supernova, as blue light flowed from Cordy's mouth all over the thief's body...

Just like what had happened almost exactly a year ago, when Doyle had kissed Cordelia goodbye and become the first of Angel's friends to die for the cause.

Both women instantly collapsed unconscious, twitching slightly as the wheels of destiny suddenly veered off in a new direction.


Unknown heavenly dimension. The same time

The creature that would one day be known as "Jasmine" instantly became aware that something had gone wrong.

The...entity in question had known for a while now, that things were not progressing as she and the rest of the Powers That Be had once foreseen. Even before she and the others had sent Skip to prevent the death of Willow Rosenberg, in fact. But Jasmine had felt that the First's desire for vengeance wouldn't interfere with her plans, to take physical form again on the mortal plane one day...

Until now.

Studying the situation though, Jasmine quickly understood that the damage was not irreparable. At worst, it might mean that Gwen would have to substitute for Cordelia in becoming her mother, two or three years down the road...

But then, that was something that the Power in question could easily live with. As long as she could find a way for Gwen to have sex with the miracle child when the appropriate time came, of course...


Southern California Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles, California. Twenty minutes later

Gwen Raiden moaned, as she put her hand to her forehead. < What the hell happened? I'm the one who's supposed to send out electrical shocks, not receive them! > She glanced around, and saw that the woman she had been approaching to ask questions was laying a few feet from her. Nothing appeared to have changed, since Gwen had made the mistake of heading towards her.

The thief sat up. "Damn," the brunette muttered to herself, as whatever had really happened to her - she had gotten zapped but good. She then glanced at her watch, a special one she wore that was designed to withstand the electrical energy her body contained.

"Damn it!" she said, louder than last time. Almost half an hour had passed since Gwen had stepped out of the shadows. She got to her feet, < Who knows how much trouble those amateurs have gotten themselves into... >

She glanced down at Cordelia. Cordy suddenly groaned, so Gwen knew that she was still alive. Ms. Raiden thought for a second, < She should be all right. And I've lost so much time already, I really can't waste any more here on this. Still... >

Gwen dragged Cordy out of the middle of the floor, and quickly hid her behind a display case. < There, she should be safe in case anybody with a badge comes by. > She looked around to make sure that no one had snuck up on her; and when satisfied, the expert thief then hurried from the room to find her quarry.

A few minutes later, Cordy awoke. She then sat up, holding her forehead as it throbbed in pain. "Ouch, ouch, ouch. I have *got* to stop having things like this happen to me!" She glanced around. "Hey!" < Where did that woman with the serious leather fetish go? >

The former cheerleader quickly pulled herself to her feet. She looked around in confusion, < No Leather Girl, and no Xander. Well, I must've just imagined the whole thing before passing out. Weird as, what my imagination comes up with nowadays! > She turned and left the room, looking for Wesley or Angel.

At that time, Gwen was safely hidden and watching Wesley lean over the body of Kate Lockley. < Damn it! People are not supposed to die, if a job is done properly... > Before she could step forward to check on the two of them though, two police officers with drawn weapons entered the room.

They took in the scene before them, and understandably were not pleased. They instantly dragged the former Watcher away, placing him under arrest. Gwen just cursed under her breath; Pryce was on his own, because she needed to find the ones who had actually done the stealing.


Los Angeles, California. A few minutes later

Angel ran into the alleyway, carrying the Shroud of Rahmon. He could hear the shouts of the demons he had been working with, earlier in the evening. And Gunn appeared to be trusting Angel again, like the ensouled vampire had asked him to.

So he quickly took out a lighter, and set the shroud on fire. The Champion quickly threw it to the ground, as the flames consumed the cursed thing. Then the former Angelus felt the inner battle he had been waging internally begin to dissipate; and while it did so, his senses were momentarily dulled.

Above him Gwen watched without being detected, as the Shroud was reduced to nothing but ashes. < Time to get gone. Whatever happened here, I get me the feeling I want to be elsewhere when they sort it all out. Besides, I'm still a little buzzed from what happened back at the museum. I probably need to lay down and rest for a while. >

Gwen quickly made her way back to her apartment in town, not knowing that there were already numerous phone messages awaiting her there.


Vatican City, Rome, Italy. November 25, 2000

"NO WAY, no how!! This is an extraordinarily bad idea. The worst idea in the entire history of bad ideas, in fact. It is breathtaking in its scope for the wrongheaded nature of it all!" That was Cleburne venting.

How Joshua Cleburne had gotten into such a state, was quite a story in and of itself.

Gwen Raiden had finally made her appearance in Washington, after Esther had scoured the country for her. The only explanation the woman gave for her short disappearance was that a bunch of amateurs were giving her trade a bad name, and she'd felt compelled to do something about it.

Neither Cleburne nor Marcum had been able to get anything more. So after the final preparations were completed the merry little band of Xander, Oz, Gwen, Rachael, Cleburne, Graham, and Gunny had left for Italy, with Monsignor Bentallo as their official guide.

Once in Rome, they had immediately gone to the ancestral home of the Popes - to the headquarters of the Special Office of the Vatican, to be more accurate. Xander could not help being impressed; only the Watchers Council Headquarters in London could rival the occult resources available to this secret branch of the Catholic Church.

The number of prophecies that the staff had been able to dig up, in the short period of time since they'd realized they had a living subject of said prophecies around, was amazing. There had even been some mumblings about the cryptic writings of Nostradamus! Everything the researchers had found was being reviewed, with the *guarded* input from Xander.

Because Harris had been uncomfortable the whole time he had been here in Rome, so far. The research staff he had encountered regarded him with a combination of awe and apprehension. After all - how often when you research millennia-old prophecies, do you actually meet someone literally mentioned in them?

Xander saw their glances out of the corner of his eyes, and heard how their conversations died down whenever he approached. The former Scooby then understood he hadn't really appreciated the treatment he had received from Cleburne's people, till he saw how other non-bad guys reacted to him being who and what he was.

The Siberians annoyed him and needled him a lot, but they treated everyone that way.

And there was something to be said for that, in Xander's humble opinion.

In any case, Bentallo had eventually read to them the prophecy concerning the discovery of the Holy Grail. It had actually been quite detailed. It mentioned how the warrior displaced in time would find the Grail in the company of his touched friend, during the waning months of the second millennium.

And that part had started off a whole new conversation as to when the millennium really ended, as Rachael thought January 1, 2000 was the start of the new millennium. Xander had just shaken his head, remembering all the old fears about the Y2K bug when Bentallo had explained that no, the actual start of the new millennium was January 1, 2001. This meant that they were in the waning months of the millennium *right now*.

Cleburne had popped up and asked if the prophecy was so detailed, why hadn't the Catholic Church already gone and gotten the Grail before now? Because he was sure *someone* would have done so, with or without official sanction.

"Because we don't know its location. There's a riddle about a well..." He started to read, "The Well not seen, but seen when necessary, will lead to the path to be taken by the Displaced One."

Seeing the looks of his audience, Bentallo continued on, "So we know there's a well involved somewhere, but not where. The next part of prophecy seems to hint at where it is, though. "The way to the Well will be illuminated by the lie of the Chosen One who is not, yet should be. The lie will be as to where the one who watches her had gone, yet had not gone."

The confused looks from those listening, had not been matched by Xander; he had figured it out instantly. Staring at Oz, who got it only a second later, "The...Cotswolds? When Faith first showed up way back when, she said her Watcher had gone on that retreat, right? Turns out it wasn't true - her Watcher was dead, Faith was running from the vamp that had killed her. Giles said the retreat was taking place at the Cotswold Hills..."

Burying his astonishment and suppressed chagrin at having the riddle solved by Xander in an instant, where so many of his predecessors had failed to crack it over the last ten centuries, Bentallo just nodded. "The Well not seen, but seen when necessary...of course! The Deeper Well. And yes, the Watchers do have a retreat there in those hills. Many of them drive out from London once a year, to relax and meditate..."

And thus Cleburne - realizing they were talking about taking Xander to England, the home turf of the Watchers - had immediately made his displeasure known through the statement as to the whole thing being a *very* bad idea.

He went on at great length from his earlier statement. "Not only do you want to go to the land of Watcher Central, you wanna go to their little spa resort in the countryside? I mean, come on! Is there any way we could make it easier for the Council to learn what's going on? Maybe we could send them a telegram that we're coming!"

"Mr. Cleburne, I feel you're over-exaggerating the situation somewhat. The Watchers in the past have been rational, if a little callous at times. But they are not given to irrational actions-"

Cleburne glared at the Monsignor. "That was then, this is now. And we're talking about the same group of people that Quentin Travers is associated with. They didn't strike me as the most level-headed group of people out there, when they kidnapped Mr. Hall earlier this year!" And Xander mentally concurred in that assessment.

A chuckle arose from the back of the room. Cleburne's glare shifted targets, "What's so funny, Weitz?"

The Israeli secret agent struggled to not smile. "Look who's talking? Because you've been known to settle disagreements, by calling in air strikes and cruise missiles..."

"Which was entirely rational, in light of each situation," Cleburne responded. Another chuckle rang out, and the USMC colonel turned towards Gunny. "Now don't you start!"

The senior agent turned back to the Monsignor. "And just what is this Deeper Well, anyway?"

The holy man sighed, as the information requested would not help with the case to allow Xander to go to England. "Well, according to myth and legend, it's the place where the deceased Old Ones, the pure demons from millions of years ago, are kept in storage. It's a demon prison, so to speak. It's overseen by someone named Drogyn the Battlebrand, who we also know very little about besides unsubstantiated rumor, and his demon guards..."

Cleburne's face darkened at this piece of knowledge. "Wait a minute. You're actually proposing going to a demon prison, run by demons? Because if we get past the Tweed brigade, we'll have to deal with demon screws. I mean, these are demons mean enough to keep other demons in line!"

"I know it sounds bad..." Gunny started.

"Bad? Bad?!" Cleburne interrupted his shadow of many years. "This is beyond bad. Trading arms for hostages, *that* was a bad idea!"

Gunny winced at that, as he knew that whenever Cleburne mentioned the Iran-Contra mess from the 1980s - he truly was worked up. Joshua finished his rant, "This is a bad idea on the level of trying to put a man to the moon, using a hot air balloon!"

Cleburne paced for a few seconds. He then stopped, crossed his arms in front of him and turned to face the others. "Look, we'll just send someone else besides the kid - no one's got a gun to his head, forcing him to go! I mean, after all, we've got a professional thief here..." He nodded at Gwen Raiden. "She's been to England before, and we know she can deal with the Watchers."

Xander's eyebrows rose at hearing that. < Interesting. Hmm, I wonder what she stole from them? > He made a mental note to try and learn more about Ms. Raiden's past, in the future.

Monsignor Bentallo shook his head. "I'm sorry, but the prophecy is clear. Only the Displaced One will find the Grail. And your friend here is quite clearly the displaced one referenced..."

"Well, maybe he finds it by remote and someone else actually goes and gets. Hey, doesn't it mention a touched friend? There you go, the touched friend can go get it." He looked at the room. "Who here is touched?"

The Siberians almost all rolled their eyes as one. Gwen spoke up, "Well, from what I've seen so far, you're the prime candidate..."

Cleburne needed a second to get the insult. "Heyyyy! That's not what I meant, and you know it. Look, besides the kid being too valuable to risk this way, I really don't want to risk his getting hurt or worse. I know he can handle himself, on account of my ribs are still sore from our last workout, but the Watchers don't seem to be playing by the rules anymore and the demons are an unknown quantity..."

Xander was actually touched, when he realized that Cleburne seemed to mostly be worried about his well-being. "Your ribs are still sore?"

Cleburne glanced at Xander. "Not now, kid, I'm trying to stop you from doing something incredibly stupid!"

Another chuckle from Gunny emerged. "You're one to talk," Charles said to Cleburne, with the familiarity of someone who had been in combat with him for years.

Cleburne ignored Gunny's comment. "Even with the theoretical protection under the Visiting Forces agreement, I still say he should not go to England. It's the Tweed boys' home turf. In my professional opinion, it's too risky!"

Bentallo spoke up in reassuring terms. "I know you're concerned, that you feel responsible for Mr. Har-"

"Don't use that name. And damn right I do!"

Bentallo continued on, ignoring Cleburne's interruption. "However, in *my* professional opinion, I think it is worth the risk. After all, I will be accompanying him. The Church is good at being discreet, and given our resources I doubt the Watchers will ever know he was even there. And even if they do learn of our presence, he will be under my personal protection. I doubt that that the Council would want to endanger their reputation to the point of creating an international incident with the Vatican. To do so would also endanger the cooperation which has taken place between the two groups."

"You're risking a lot here-" Cleburne started, only to stop when Gunny spoke up. "Robert E. Lee."

Everyone looked at the Marine sergeant major in puzzlement. After a second, Cleburne responded with a scowl, "You know - it may in fact have been a bad idea, to teach you so much military history..."

"For those of us who aren't part of the Marine fraternity, allow me to say - what?" Rachael said.

"In order to be a good general, the general must love his men. But in order to be a good general, he must also be willing to march his men off to their deaths. Lee supposedly said that, at the Battle of Gettysburg," Cleburne explained.

"Awwww. You love me, Mother Hen?" Xander asked with a half-smirk on his face.

"Hey, I'm quoting the Grey Fox. Don't crack wise with me, kid!" Cleburne turned back to face Bentallo again. "Look, even though this is the *real* Holy Grail we're talking about, I don't want to send Hall somewhere he might get snatched, or get his brain sucked out. I just can't..."

"I want to go."

Everyone in the room turned to face Xander, who had spoken up. He shrugged, "Look, it's my tail on the line and I know I might regret this, but I think...I get me the feeling this needs to be done. After all, it's important enough that someone wrote a prophecy about it, a thousand years ago! And nobody's written that I'm inevitably going to die here, like that suck-fest at the end of sophomore year..."

Oz sharply turned his head around, when he heard his friend say that. He hadn't been part of the Scooby gang back then, but after he had gotten together with Willow - the werewolf had heard all about *that* little adventure, from his redheaded love. His face a stoic mask as always, the lycanthrope just stared as Xander finished up, "So I should go."

Cleburne looked at Xander for a few seconds, before speaking again. "Well, before we leave Rome, I have to talk to the Wizard and Esther. No way we're taking this kind of risk, just on a whim! Plus before we go, and notice that I said *we*, every possible preparation is going to be taken. And if I feel hinky about *anything* along the way, I'm instantly calling it off without prior notice!"

Xander just smiled to himself at the senior Siberian's bluster. < Well, guess I'm going to England, land of the bangers and mash - as well as the Tweed brigade. God, I really hope I don't regret this... >


Bus station, Kansas City, Missouri. November 26, 2000

Bethany Chaulk used her fork to carve a piece of the meatloaf she was eating. She was eating sparingly; this meal would have to last her a while, because she was rationing the funds the ensouled vampire called Angel had given her until she reached Milwaukee. She had distant relatives there that she hoped to find shelter with.

Till then, it was the grand tour of the USA on the Greyhound bus system. Angel had figured that there was less chance of Wolfram & Hart finding her using buses, as Lilah Morgan and her lackeys probably would be checking airports terminals and the like, assuming she was flying.

"Is this seat taken?"

Bethany looked up, and saw a small boy standing in front of her. "No, but I'm warning you kid, I won't be very good company."

"I understand completely. But I'll join you nonetheless." The boy sat down and pulled out a juice box, sticking a straw in it. He pulled out a second one, and slid it across the table to Chaulk. "Here. It appears you're trying to stretch your dollars as much as possible, so I thought you might want this."

She looked suspiciously at the juice box. The child simply shrugged, "I assure you, Ms. Chaulk, there's nothing for you to worry about."

Bethany immediately tensed up. < He knows my name? Shit. > "All right. I'm warning you only once, kid, you *don't* want to mess with me..."

The boy held his hands up in surrender. "Ms. Chaulk, I assure you that I mean you no harm. In fact, it's quite the opposite - as you and I share something similar."

She kept glaring at the little boy sitting at her table. "And that is?"

"Our brains cause us to from that of other people. And we both want to use our gifts to help others. I know of a way that you can do so. Oh, I almost forgot, allow me to introduce myself - I'm Dr. Irving Hollins. And I'd like to talk to you about finding a safe place to rest up, for as long as you'd like."


Memorandum E-12 11-27-2000
Classification: Top Secret ULTRA MAXIMUM SECURE
From: Esther Marcum
To: Joshua Cleburne
Re: Requests and trip

Dear Joshua,

Your situation has been discussed at the highest levels of STW, and as much I hate to tell you this - the Committee concurs with Monsignor Bentallo's assessment of the situation. It is felt that the possible benefits outweigh the potential risks of the mission, and despite personal feelings - you have a Go.

Okay, first off, quit yelling at the computer screen. I've said it before; yelling at an email won't help things in any way. Second, as your request, which I'll address in a second shows, Mr. Harris is quite capable of handling himself. Third, he will not be going alone, he will have the protection of the Catholic Church. Also, considering what you have in mind, he will have ample backup from our resources.

We would ask however that you consider scaling back some of your ideas. For example, I'm pretty sure that the 101st Airborne Division holding a training exercise in the Cotswolds would raise some unwelcome eyebrows. Remember, we *are* supposed to be a covert organization.

As an aside, I'm sorry that you're upset over the Wizard helping out on the recruitment of Ms. Chaulk. But considering her emotional state, all of us felt that your normal approach to recruiting personnel would have been counterproductive in that circumstance. Far more likely than not, we would have had to scrape you off the wall after she had sent you flying away at 50 miles per hour, due to your charming personality. Hollins was able to connect with her in a way that neither you or myself would have been able to, and thus positive results were obtained - which is all that matters, in the end.

As we are now only ten months away from al-Qaeda's attack, we need to start thinking soon as to specifics with regards to dealing with the threat. Sometime around the first of the year, we'll need to set aside time for a meeting of all necessary principals to discuss suggested methods of response. We'll have to wait until after the political situation is settled; most likely we'll know by then which Presidential candidate is our new Commander-in-Chief.

Finally, I have reviewed your request for further training materials. All I can say is I want to discuss them with you, particularly some of the personnel you've requested, before I make a decision concerning them.

Contact me when you are done in England. And keep yourself and the others safe, old friend.



The Cotswold Hills, England. November 28, 2000

"Please tell me this well we're looking for is somewhere nearby? We've been tramping all over the place for hours now! And this is not what I signed up for when I became a thief," Gwen Raiden complained.

Bentallo answered her, quoting the passage. "The Well not seen, but seen when necessary, will lead to the path to be taken by the Displaced One. The well is most likely hidden by magical means. I imagine once we get near where it is with Mr. Hall, it will appear..."

The Siberians had slipped into England on a military flight, straight into a United States Air Force base, around midnight the night before. Cleburne had used the time in Rome before they'd left to make various preparations, only some of which Xander and his companions were aware of. With forged papers, they had then slipped out of the base and headed towards the Cotswolds.

It was now early afternoon; and the gang had been walking for ages, passing themselves off as a group of hikers since early morning - but with no success.

"I don't mean to be picky or anything, but how will we know when we've found the Well? Somehow, I kinda doubt there's gonna be a sign saying *this way to the demon prison*, or anything like that!" Cleburne commented.

Bentallo answered him in the only way he could. "Well, I imagine when the time comes...the Well will show itself somehow."

Xander could hear Cleburne muttering under his breath. Something about a grasshopper, the Old West and snatching a stone from his hand. And for once Xander knew how Giles had felt back in Sunnydale, when cultural references he didn't understand had often been thrown around by the Scoobies.

"How about this?" Rachael spoke up. "Let's try that path over there - and after about half an hour, if there's nothing we'll take a rest break." She waved towards a path that went off into the woods.

Gunny squinted his eyes at the path the Israeli secret agent had indicated. "Colonel? That path wasn't there a few minutes ago. I'd stake my pension on it."

Cleburne looked at Xander and Bentallo. "Not one word, you two! Come on, the sooner we do this, the sooner we're back home..."


Fifteen minutes later

"Maybe I'm overly paranoid, but I'd say this just screams out *mistake*," Graham said thoughtfully.

He was referring to where they had just arrived. The group had followed the path, and come to where it had suddenly become a wooded copse. The area looked distinctly dark and foreboding, even in the middle of the afternoon; somehow, the sunlight didn't penetrate through the trees, and the landscape seemed to be locked in darkness.

"I'm thinking we're well past mistake. We're at the point where the detectives investigating the deaths ask later, *what the hell were they thinking?*" Gunny joked. This just earned him a glare from Cleburne.

Oz was looking around at the woods surrounding the travelers. "Ah, guys? Company..." he said.

This got the rest of them looking there also. Several of the soldiers cursed under their breath, and started going for the weapons they had hidden under their clothes.

For coming out of the woods were demons, and lots of them. Tall, grey-ish, with small horns and fierce looks on their faces, it was clear they did not have friendly plans for the group.

"Kid? You, Bentallo, Rachael and Gwen get behind us. We'll delay them long enough for you to get back to the main path," Cleburne said, as the Siberians and Oz assumed combat positions. Oz prepared himself to shift into werewolf form, at the moment of greatest tactical advantage.

"No way, I don't let others fight while I hide. Not anymore, I had enough of that during high school! And I don't intend to start again now!" Xander quickly made his way to the front of the group, and prepared himself to take on the demons also.

As he did so, Harris became clearly visible to the approaching demons. The demons instantly slowed their charge, and then completely stopped. Lowering their weapons, several of them looked at each other in apparent confusion and started babbling to one another.

Cleburne looked worried. He called out, "Father, you speak the lingo? If so, what's going on?"

Bentallo answered, ignoring the Marine's mistake as to his title, "I'm sorry, my son, but I don't understand what they're saying-" "I do, a little anyway. They're confused, they seem to think..." Xander's voice trailed off as he listened to the demons, putting to good use some of the language skills he had unwillingly picked up during nearly five years in a hell dimension.

"What, kid?" Cleburne prompted him, as one of the demons hurried behind one of the trees.

"They're sending for someone higher up, an officer or something. They're saying they have to be sure."

"Sure of what?" Rachael stepped forward, as she was annoyed that Cleburne had automatically assigned her to the group needing protection. Because she could take care of herself very well, thank you very much, as several terrorists over the years had learned to their everlasting regret.

"I don't know," Xander answered back with a frown.

After a few minutes, during which the Siberians and demons stared at each other somewhat uneasily, what looked like a man came out of the tree in question.

He was tall, but not unnaturally so. His hair was long and uncut, and he wore what appeared to be leather armor and a cloak. If anything, he looked like Viggo Mortensen without the beard! And he was clearly the leader here, as the demons all instantly deferred to his authority.

The man stared at Xander for a full ten seconds. "You," Drogyn the Battlebrand almost growled. "Cover up your left eye. I need to be sure that you are who I think you are."

Xander turned and looked at the others. For some reason, his look came to rest upon Rachael, who was staring at him in surprise. Xander then shrugged his shoulders, turned back towards the Keeper of the Well and put his left hand over his left eye for several seconds.

Drogyn nodded, clearly satisfied. "Yes, it *is* you. So, finally you've arrived! I was beginning to think that the prophecy was a false one. I am Drogyn, and you may enter the Deeper Well." The Keeper observed the others with Xander with a critical eye; he then pointed at Oz. "The wolf man may accompany you. No one else."

"Why?" Cleburne demanded harshly. He did not like this one bit.

Drogyn coldly observed the source of the inquiry. "Do not ask me questions. I could kill you in less time than it would take for you to blink!" was the snarled response.

Bentallo hurried to explain. "Colonel, if the rumors are true - he could, and he would. Drogyn is the Battlebrand. He was cursed with eternal youth over a thousand years ago; he's also a truthsayer as well as a demon bane, and thus he cannot lie. Oh, for heaven's sake, will you please stop blinking?"

Gunny noticed that his commanding officer was indeed blinking, clearly testing Drogyn's comment. < I swear, all this time the Colonel has spent watching over Mr. Hall here has started to go to his head. He wouldn't have done that two years ago! >

Xander spoke up. "And I'm guessing there's a reason, why only me and Oz are allowed in..."

Drogyn turned and stared at Xander. "The Deeper Well is a place of madness. No human apart from its Keeper has ever entered it, and emerged intact."

A look of confusion crossed the former Scooby's face. "Just makin' a statement here, but I'm 100% human."

The Keeper shook his head in response. "The stench of the Hyena is still strong within you. Thus, you technically qualify otherwise. You can enter and not be driven insane. Come with me or not, as you please." The demon bane then turned around, and walked back towards the tree - which was the entrance to a literal hole in the world.

Xander and Oz looked at each other for a second. Then they wordlessly turned and followed Drogyn, heading for the underground cave system that contained the Deeper Well. Xander called back over his shoulder, "Hold on Mother Hen, we'll be back in a while. Hold down the fort, or whatever..."

Cleburne made as if to follow them anyway, unwilling to let Xander out of his sight and to hell with all the warnings; but the demon guards instantly raised their weapons again. Joshua swore silently, reaching for his firearm, < Damn it... >

Gunny grabbed his C.O. by the arm and said softly, "Like I said back then in the Czech Republic, how about you calm down and just trust in the lieutenant's instincts, Colonel?"

Reluctantly, Cleburne stood down as the guards slowly followed the Keeper back inside the tree. "I got me a really bad feeling about all this..."

Xander and Oz just followed Drogyn, going deep underground, as the Keeper led them to their destination. Along the way, he talked a little bit.

"Besides keeping the deceased Old Ones under guard, I also have several other duties. One of them was waiting for this prophecy to be fulfilled. Like I said before, after all this time - I was beginning to wonder if you would ever show up." He kept walking, not even looking back as he did.

Xander looked at Oz. "Nice to feel wanted. And I gotta tell ya, all this brings back memories of the speech Giles made years ago, when I first found out about demons and vamps. The 'this world is older than you know' one..."

The werewolf stared back, not quite sure what he was talking about. "Before my time."

"Right, right. But thing is, he mentioned the Old Ones back then; huh, haven't given that part of the Slayage manual much thought ever since. Hey, Drogyn? Anything you wanna tell us about them..."

The demon bane slowed down, looked at Xander over his shoulder for a second, then turned back around and continued on. "That part need not concern you. All you need know is I became Keeper here decades ago, in part due to a prophecy. Because the prophecy was clear that I was to meet you, here and now. And it spoke of you looking...different from how you would present yourself to my guards. They summoned me, so we could be sure." Drogyn abruptly stopped, and motioned at the wall where something was hanging.

Xander got closer and looked at it. And it would not be wrong to say he was completely shocked, when he got a good look at it.

There hanging on the wall was a parchment that looked to be very, very old. Normally, its great age would be the first thing to be noticed about it; however, Xander and Oz were more concerned with what was actually drawn on the paper.

Which was the face of the one and only Alexander Lavelle Harris.

With his left eye covered by a black eyepatch.

Oz actually made an expression. "Xander, that's you?"

Harris nodded slowly, facing down memories of a future that he had often hoped would now never come to pass. < One day, Caleb, one day... > "What I eventually looked like in that other world, yeah."

Oz said nothing more, but he couldn't help instantly noticing the subtle differences in the picture when compared to his old friend beside him. That other Xander had such a drawn, worn-out, pessimistic expression on his face that it almost made him look like a complete stranger to the lycanthrope - the missing eye a testament to too many battles, fought for too little reward.

< The guy looks like he's been on the front lines during a war - for way too long, > the werewolf thought to himself, slowly and analytically. < What the hell happened to Xander, then and there? One day, I'm gonna hafta find out... >

Drogyn turned and looked at the two former Scoobies. "Joseph of Arimathaea drew that image here nearly 2000 years ago, when he arrived with the cup to assume his duties as Keeper of the Deeper Well. Ever since then, both it and the Grail have remained here undisturbed. Until now." He stared at Xander. "Ask me your question."

Xander shrugged. "Okay, so what's next? What does your prophecy say happens?"

"My role in the prophecy is to take you to the Grail, nothing more. What you do next is up to you." He turned again and started walking further down into the earth, with Oz and Xander hurrying after him.

After walking again for what seemed like hours, they entered a chamber. Drogyn again turned to his companions, "The Grail is here, and my part in all this is over for now. Both of you are on your own."

Oz stared at him. "We can just take it and leave?"

Drogyn scowled, but answered the question anyway. "No. The Grail is now part of the power system here, keeping the Old Ones imprisoned in their sarcophagi; I'm sure you noticed all my charges, on the way to this place. The cup must not be taken beyond the boundaries of the Well, or else..." And with that, he turned and exited the chamber.

Daniel Osbourne shrugged. "Guess I won't be going on the front page of the National Enquirer, after all."

Xander smirked, glad that Oz was somehow keeping his cool about all this. < Then again, it's Oz. What else should I have expected? > Looking around, both men then saw a small cup at the other end of the chamber.

And it certainly didn't look like what Xander had personally anticipated seeing, after years of conditioning from watching 'Monty Python And The Holy Grail'.

"Somehow, I thought it would be more...glittery," the former Zeppo commented, as they approached the prize.

"It's not," Oz said simply.

Indeed, there was no golden vessel studded with sparkling diamonds and rubies; just a plain wooden container. Something that might indeed have been used by a poor Jewish carpenter during the Passover festival, back in the 4th decade AD.

"What now?" Xander picked up the Grail and examined it, the first man to do so in nearly two millennia. "What now. Do we take a drink out of it, or what?" He gave it to Oz, who examined it as well in awe. "What do we do?"

"Well, we can't take it out of the Well. So we can probably move it around anywhere within this place, just not out of it. And I'm thinking that drinking is the best choice right now," Oz replied.

Suddenly, the platform that the Grail had been on completely sank into the ground. Xander and Oz looked at each other, and the werewolf quickly gave the Grail back to his friend. < The prophecy was about him, not me. This is Xander's big day... >

"Well, putting it back where we found it seems not to be an option anymore," Harris commented in annoyance, looking around. "Still, funny thing - but I'm not a big fan of the whole 'drinking from the Holy Grail' plan. I mean, look what happened to the bad guy in that Indiana Jones movie! I *really* don't want to get all wrinkly-boney, and then dead."

Oz looked at Xander. "That was because he was bad. You're not a bad guy."

Xander sighed, thinking of 1999 Sunnydale. "Don't say that without knowing everything, Oz. Because I've killed people in cold blood, before this..."

Ignoring the look the other man sent him, Harris went on, "And even putting that aside for the moment, there's also that whole 'who-wants-to-live-forever?' thing. Because I *don't* want to live forever, dude. I know myself well enough that it would get completely boring after a while - best case scenario, I'd become someone like...Angel. And worst case? Look at that Drogyn guy! He's over a thousand years old, and seems to be having a real blast..." Xander commented with the sarcasm evident in his voice.

Oz suddenly noticed a basin in another corner of the room. "At least fill it up with water. You may just have to do that. After all, the prophecy didn't tell us exactly what you were supposed to do after you found the Grail."

Xander shrugged and walked over to the basin. He filled the cup about halfway, and then glanced at Oz. "So what now?"

"I don't know. Maybe that Drogyn guy does, so I'm thinkin' let's go find him..."

Xander and Oz walked out of the chamber to look for the Keeper. As they walked down the corridors, suddenly the older man spoke up, "I'm sorry, Oz."

This completely confused the werewolf. "Sorry? For what?"

"Well, it's kinda hard to explain. I know that it never happened in this world, in this version of history that you and everyone else remembers - but I've got the memory of it in my head, it's as if *did* happen for me, so I gotta tell you something you're not gonna want to hear..."

Xander then proceeded to explain to Oz about the clothes fluke, wincing in terrible pain as he did so. How he and Willow had somehow become attracted to one another, in the senior year that had never happened. How the fluke had progressed, until they'd been caught red-handed by Cordy and Oz in that old factory; and the Chase girl had been impaled by that rebar, as a consequence.

Oz was more silent than normal at that point. Then he spoke up, "Xander - all I gotta say is this. I understand that there are all these weird memories in your head, but bottom line - all that never took place. I mean, that stuff is just could-have-been or would-have-been material; the point is, it never happened. So you don't need to apologize for any of that, not to me or anyone else."

Xander stopped and stared at Oz. "Whoa, does the wolf-man package come with the whole philosopher thing?"

"It's an optional extra. It was either that, or a cup holder."

That got a laugh from Xander. Suddenly, the tunnel opened up into a bridge. Xander and Oz didn't recognize it, but in the future history that would have been, Angel would have recognized it instantly.

They were at the heart of the Deeper Well. The hole in the world, that went all the way down through the earth's core. Both men looked around in new awe, stepping onto the bridge and seeing all the imprisoned Old Ones around them.

Oz spoke up, "Uh, something occurring. When whoever it was wrote that prophecy way back when, they wanted you to find the Grail. *You*, not someone else."

"Looks like it," Xander shrugged, wondering what his point was.

"Well, that means they wanted you to do something with it. And how many things can you do with a cup? Beyond taking a drink out of it, I'm can't think of many..."

Xander kept silent, knowing now where Oz was going with this. The werewolf went on, "I know that those Powers That Be - or whatever they're called - can seem pretty out there at times, but having you run a pointless errand like this just doesn't seem like their thing. They wouldn't send you all this way and have you take all these risks, just to find the Grail and then do nothing with it - right?"

Xander sighed, briefly thinking of the half-demon called Doyle that had found him in LA nearly two years ago. "Probably not..." < Yeah, almost definitely not. Come on, don't be a pussy - you *know* Oz is right. There's no point trying to put this off any longer, so just get it over with. If this thing kills you - well, so be it. >

With that, the young man put the cup to his mouth and took a long drink. And as soon as he stopped drinking, an earthquake started - as the bridge began to pitch and yaw wildly. Xander instantly lost his balance, and dropped the Grail; it rolled to the edge of the bridge, and teetered there. Xander started to reach for it, when he heard Oz shout out.

The earthquake had knocked Oz off-balance as well, but his luck wasn't as good as Xander's - and he fell off the bridge. Xander immediately jumped forward and down, reaching out desperately with his left hand; luckily, his reflexes had become somewhat quicker from dealing with all those stress balls Cleburne had been throwing at him, and he just managed to grab his friend.

Oz inadvertently looked beneath him for a second, down into the abyss below - and his eyes went wide. Above him, straining to maintain his grip, Xander glanced at the Grail - it was out of his reach, in order to get to the cup he would have to let go of Oz...

But to his credit, the former slave didn't even have to think about it. Forgetting all about the trinket, Xander instantly shifted over and grabbed Oz with his other arm. "Gimme your other hand!"

He then quickly pulled his buddy up to safety, as the Grail fell off of the bridge into the very depths of the Well. Xander leaned back in frustration as Oz caught his breath, and silently groaned. < Well, that's great! I just lost the Holy Grail? Drogyn's probably gonna kill me for this! >

"Thanks Indy," the musician then said with his trademark calmness, despite how close he'd come to death.

His companion groaned at that. "Oh man, tell me we didn't just act out the big finale of that Indiana Jones movie?"

Oz nodded. "Seems like it to me."

Harris shook his head. "Well, it coulda been worse. If it had been Rachael here instead of you - oh hell, it woulda just made things even more complicated between us!"

The werewolf raised an eyebrow. "I can tell you're starting to like her, y'know."

Xander smiled, leaned over and slapped Oz on his back. "Yeah, but don't let her hear that - or she'll make my life impossible! And just for the record man, you're my friend. I don't have too many of them, so no way I'm ever letting you get killed!"

The two of them pulled each other up, and walked back in the direction they had come. After a minute or so, they encountered Drogyn.

"There was an earthquake. What happened?" he demanded. Oz and Xander quickly explained what had happened, and how the Grail had fallen off the bridge.

Oddly enough, the Keeper of the Well didn't seem too upset about it. "Do not worry, I'll find the Grail again soon enough. After all, I have all the time in the world in which to do it! You have done what was prophesised that you would do. The time has come for you to leave."

With nothing else to say, he quickly led the two of them back up out of the cave system. As they came back to where they left their companions, Xander immediately noticed that there were a lot more people there than before...

Of course, that was because of the large number of armed Watchers that were now present.

Oddly enough Cleburne didn't seem too worried about it, despite staring down the gun barrels of several of the Council operatives. Clearly, the Siberians and the Watchers had reached some kind of standoff. "Kid, are you done yet? I'm getting kinda bored here," the USMC colonel drawled lazily.

Xander didn't get a chance to respond as a familiar voice spoke out, "Mr. Harris, I must say - I am quite amazed at this turn of events. I never expected that you and yours would underestimate our surveillance capabilities! And at first, I simply couldn't believe that you were in England, after all - why would you just deliver yourself to us like this? Then to come to Cotswold Hills? However, I am never one to question good fortune..." Quentin Travers smirked, and was positively glowing with smug satisfaction.

"Questioning things is good for you, Quentin, it makes you a better person. And by the way, my name is Alexander Hall," Xander replied stiffly. < What a mess. How are we frickin' well gonna get out of this one? >

Travers smirked again. "What will make me a better person is knowing that the appropriate experts are *debriefing* you, back at our headquarters in London - whatever name you want to call yourself, child. And spare me the customary heroics; you and your colleagues are hopelessly outnumbered. Now surrender yourself to us, or we will kill them all."

That brought an exclamation of surprise from Bentallo. "I am a representative of the Special Office of the holy Catholic Church, and I object to your outrageous behaviour! I want to-"

But whatever the Monsignor was about to say was cut off by the senior Watcher. "I do not care who you are, or what you want! The child will be taken into custody by us, or you all will die here."

"Hey, you limey ass, you *really* don't want to tick us off. Purple Peanut Butter blanket."

Travers looked in confusion at Cleburne, based on the last few words the secret agent said. "You are hardly in any position to threaten anyone, Mr. Cleburne. And considering your treatment of my operatives last time we met, I would be more worried about you *ticking us off*, as you put it. Some of the agents you have mistreated are nearby, and I'm sure they would very much like the opportunity to deal with you..." the Englishman said to the senior Siberian, receiving only a grin in reply.

Cleburne spoke up, "Did it ever enter your little head that we might be wired for sound, asswipe? And that a seemingly-meaningless code phrase might be the signal for some *off-course* Air Force fighter jets to start some maneuvers that might wind up in the *accidental bombing* of your HQ on Great Russell Street? Now, I'm sure that if we walk out of here without being bothered by anyone with a serious tweed fetish, something might be done to get those jets back on course."

Travers looked like he'd lost all sense of judgement. "You're bluffing, and if you're not, to be honest? As far as I'm concerned, that's an acceptable loss if it gets us our objective..." He nodded towards Xander. And that statement seemed not to go over well with several of the Watchers, who started lowering their weapons.

Cleburne rolled his eyes. "Oh great, he's crazy! Man, I hate dealing with crazy people. They always do stupid things-"

Suddenly Drogyn spoke up, addressing Xander and Oz. "Prophesised one, wolf man - I bid you both farewell. I don't know if I'll ever see either one of you again; but know that if you ever need help, I will gladly be of whatever assistance I can..." He then shouted something out in the demon tongue that had been heard earlier in the forest.

To his shock and disbelief Travers saw that the forest was suddenly full of demons, attacking his men. And in all the confusion, he quickly lost sight of Xander and his companions, who began to hit the road; as dodging the bullets - or in some cases, not - the demon guards started to tear into the Watchers, who found themselves *way* too busy to continue with the Mexican standoff.

As Travers hastily retreated, being sure to keep the other Council forces between himself and the demons of course, he heard Xander Harris' voice call out mockingly, "Give it up already, Blofeld. Because you'll never take me alive!" Travers looked around trying to catch sight of his prey. He growled in frustration as he realized that Xander had escaped him again.

Part Nineteen

The Vatican, Rome, Italy. December 6, 2000

"How about this. Does it look more like the real thing now?"

Xander looked up at the technician, in response to her question. She was young, and had an eager look in her eyes. Xander noticed the cross on the necklace that she was wearing, and then looked at the computer screen that she was referring to.

The graphic image showed a good likeness of the Holy Grail, that he and Oz had recently held in their own two hands whilst in England.

Xander pondered it for a second before answering, "It's better, but the picture's still too..." The young man thought about it for a second to get the right word. "...fancy. Remember, it was an ordinary cup from 2000 years ago. Nothing special; just a plain old wooden cup."

The woman looked at Xander. "Plain in what way, exactly?"

Xander sighed. He had expected to be debriefed on his departure from England. The Siberians were very thorough in learning as much as they could from each mission, and basically Xander had gotten used to their debriefings...

But what he hadn't expected was that that Catholic Church would want to debrief him about seeing the most holy relic of their religion.

Basically, Bentallo and his superiors had learned that both he and Oz had actually held the Holy Grail, as well as what its real purpose was nowadays. And, well - the reception they had gotten reminded Xander of back when he had first realized just how sought-after he was, in the summer of 1999.

And their reaction after they had learned that Xander had actually drunk from the Holy Grail...was beyond description. He was treated like a combination rock star, prophet and experimental animal.

First off, the man had undergone a battery of medical tests to see if he had been...changed, from the experience. But as far as the doctors could tell, Xander was no different to what he'd been before he had gone to look for the cup of Christ. Harris also had a sinking suspicion that when he got back to the United States, the doctors for the Siberians would be repeating many of the same tests he had just undergone all over again...

Then had started the interviews. Priests, scholars and important figures within the Church had all interviewed Xander about his adventure in the Deeper Well. They had hung on every word out of his mouth, and they had asked him to repeat the story ad nauseam, giving the guy monster headaches.

As an aside, Harris knew Oz had been going through similar interviews, but Xander suspected the werewolf was having a much better time of it than himself - due to his incredible equanimity, and the fact that Oz's typically short, noncommittal replies had to be driving the interviewers insane.

In between the interviews, Xander had also been asked to talk to an artist - who had been given the task of drawing as realistic a picture of the Holy Grail as possible, with the assistance of the most advanced graphics program available to the Catholic Church.

And that was where this technician came in. She had been talking to Xander for close to two hours now. Over that period of time, they had gone from a blank computer screen to having a fairly detailed rendering of the Holy Grail. Which brought them to where they were now.

Xander leaned over, and pointed along the side of the image. "It's too thick. The sides were at least half as thick as you have them here, I'd say. We should get Oz in here as well, you know, have him give you his opinion..."

The technician thought about Xander's comments about the drawing being too fancy, and the thickness of the sides. She leaned over and made some corrections, using a combination of the keyboard and computer mouse to do so. "How about this?"

Xander nodded. "Better, much better. Now, uh, the color's off somewhat. Yeah, it's way too bright! It didn't gleam or anything; it was just kinda a dull brown in appearance..."


Lisbon, Portugal. December 8, 2000

"Okay, why are we here again?" Xander asked no one in particular, as the Siberians waited in an isolated hangar located at the Lisbon International Airport.

"We're here to meet someone," Cleburne answered. "And as to who it is exactly, you'll have to ask the good Monsignor..."

Their time in Rome had finally gotten the Marine into the habit of saying the correct rank for the official from the Catholic Church. Cleburne turned around, "By the way, why *are* we meeting this person?"

Monsignor smiled. "I cannot tell you. I can only tell you that this meeting is at the express request of the Holy Father."

Cleburne just sighed, and went back to working his crossword puzzle. He quite didn't know how to respond to that. After all, even his smartass attitude had its limits.

The same was true for the others. So, they waited for another few minutes. Their wait was finally rewarded by a side door to the hangar opening up. Two nuns came in, escorting another much older nun that moved slowly. She painfully made her way to where Monsignor Bentallo was waiting, and he greeted her warmly in Latin.

Xander was able to follow their conversation somewhat, and his lessons in Latin that the Wizard had insisted on actually seemed to be paying off. < Ah well, he's the Wizard after all; ought to have figured by now, that he's right over 99% of the time. >

Bentallo was clearly deferential to the holy woman; whoever she was, she was obviously someone highly respected. Bentallo gestured over at Xander, and the old nun turned and made her way over to where the former Scooby was standing.

Xander was vaguely uncomfortable, as she approached and examined him. The former Sunnydalian could tell her eyesight was failing as the nun squinted at him, even though she was wearing glasses. < Why's she lookin' at me like that? >

She stared at Xander for almost a minute. She then turned to her fellow nuns, and said something in Portuguese. Whatever it was, it got them apprehensive and excited. One of them actually crossed herself.

The older nun reached up, as she was almost a foot shorter than Xander, and placed her hand against his left cheek. She then said something in Latin. The woman then took several steps back, said something in Latin to Monsignor Bentallo and then left, followed by her two sisters.

Rachael moved next to Xander. "What was all that about, Alexander?"

"I don't know," the former slave replied with a frown. He pondered the two phrases in Latin that the elderly nun had spoken...

Because to Bentallo she'd said, "It's him" - and to Xander she had simply said, "Have faith".


Rochefort Institute of Strategic Planning, Urbana, Illinois. December 11, 2000

"Has anyone figured out yet just what that whole thing in Lisbon was about?" Gunny asked, as he stood by the door of the examining room.

"No," the Wizard replied at once. Hollins then added, "Monsignor Bentallo would only say it was something the Pope personally requested. Something about which the Pope had to be sure. I have the suspicion that there may be another prophecy out there involving you, Mr. Hall..."

Xander was sitting on top of an examining table, buttoning his shirt. "You know, it's times like this I kind of miss being nothing but the class clown..." He hopped off of the table. "So what's the word, Irving?"

Hollins looked over a file he was holding. "Well, basically, there's nothing out of the ordinary within you that we can detect, at least not anymore than the Church could. These results match up with the results from the tests done in Rome, and your last STW physical before you left. I'm happy to say you're not dying or anything..."

Xander laughed at that. "It's good that you're happy. Still, I *would* like to know what the whole point of that prophecy was. I mean, all that trouble for apparently nothing - just for me to take a drink - seems a little pointless..." Xander hopped off the table, and stood up.

"I do have one question, if you don't mind," Hollins said as they exited the exam room and walked down the hallway, followed by Gunny.

"Go ahead. It's been my experience that when you want to know something, it's a good idea if you find out as soon as possible," Xander replied.

"How did it feel?"

Xander looked down at the child genius. "How did what feel?"

"Drinking from the Holy Grail? How did it feel? Did you feel...different, during or afterwards?" Hollins asked.

Xander stopped and stood still for a second. Surprisingly, no one had phrased the question precisely that way before. Both Hollins and Rose looked at him, while the former Scooby frowned in thought.

"You know, I really didn't have a chance to reflect on it at the time, what with the earthquake starting and Oz going over the side of the bridge. Then we had the whole getting away form the crazed Watcher thing..."

"Yes, Joshua was most vocal in his desires on how to deal with the Council in the future. I suppose we should be thankful no one has yet developed a hand-held flame thrower that is easily concealed," the Wizard sighed.

Xander stared at the child for a moment, as a weird mental image briefly passed through his brain. But then he shook his head to get the image cleared away, "Anyway, pleasant thoughts of tweed in flames aside, the sensation I got from taking that drink was...well, a soothing one. I felt calm and relaxed."

Hollins nodded and started walking again, as his two companions followed along. "Interesting. And how long did this feeling last?"

"Well, actually, I still feel like that a little bit. Normally I would be a lot more anxious and impatient with all those medical exams I've gone through, but I've been much more accepting of them than I think I otherwise would have been."

"I wonder if we could get the Colonel to take a drink from that thing, then?" Gunny said from behind Xander and Hollins. They both stopped and looked back at him. < Man, Gunny really can give Oz a run for his money sometimes! > Xander thought.

"Yes, sergeant-major, that would be helpful in all likelihood. However, as the Grail is still in the Deeper Well, I am doubtful that we will be able to procure it anytime soon. Maybe some other methods of anger management for Joshua would suffice," Hollins said in a deadpan voice.

"Yoga, I read somewhere that yoga is good for the nerves..." Xander said. The three of them thought about it for a second, then burst out laughing at the same time.

They made their way to one of the conference rooms in the Institute. Cleburne, Gwen, Esther and Oz were already there. "Reports from Major Ellis and Captain Finn are that the situation in Belize should be in hand, before the end of the week..." Cleburne said before he looked at the new arrivals, "So what's the good word? The kid here going to sprout wings or something?"

Hollins shook his head. "Mr. Hall has a clean bill of health. We can find nothing about him different from a normal human being."

"Well, let's not go that far," Gwen joked.

"If we can focus? There are several matters we need to discuss," Esther said sharply, as the new arrivals took seats around the table. "Dr. Hollins, you wanted us to get some memoirs for you?"

"Yes, there was a Judge Keith Pursuivant and John Thunstone living in New York around the 1940s and '50s. They had encounters with vampires, demons and cults. Their notes and papers would be of great assistance to us," Hollins explained.

"Do we know where they are?" Esther asked.

"Yes; when both of them passed away, they had their personal papers given to a private club in New York City. The Heaviside Club. As far as I can tell, the papers are still there."

"So, we just ask them nicely for those papers?" Xander said. He noticed that Cleburne, Esther, the Wizard and Gunny were all now staring at Gwen.

"Oh, well, I guess from the way you're looking at me, that we're not talking about asking them," Gwen wisecracked.

"Yes, Ms. Raiden, this does seem something you would be quite adept at handling. What do you need?" Esther asked the thief.

"Well, a floor plan would be nice and - AGHHHHHHHHH!!" Gwen suddenly screamed out, clutching her forehead in pain.

"What the hell!?" Cleburne exclaimed, as he and Gunny moved to help their acquaintance.

"Don't touch her!!!" Hollins yelled out. Cleburne and Gunny stopped at the warning, suddenly remembering what the young woman was.

After a few seconds, Gwen straightened up and looked around, still clutching her head. "What the hell was that?" she managed to croak out.

"We were about to ask you the same thing, Ms. Raiden. Has anything like that happened to you before?" Hollins said at once.

"No, nothing like this! I had a blinding headache, and I mean blinding 'cause I couldn't see you guys. I...I saw something else..."

"What did you see?" Esther asked, as Xander suddenly got a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. < Oh, no. If this is what I think it is... >

"Well, there was this hotel lobby, and there was this girl clutching her forehead in pain. I recognized her, actually, from when I was last in Los Angeles. Then I saw this vampire I'd also seen then in LA, fighting a really big demon. I get the impression he was trying to save some blonde woman through some kind of trial," Gwen explained, her forehead creasing in confusion.

Cleburne looked closely at Gwen. "You haven't been taking some mind-altering drugs, have you?"

"No, I'd really bet she hasn't." The group turned, and looked at Xander as he spoke up. "I'm sorry, Ms. Raiden - Gwen. But I think I can explain what's going on..."


The next day

"I know I've been saying this a lot recently, but this is a bad idea!" Cleburne commented. They were back in the same half-circle conference room they had been in yesterday.

"You're right, you *have* been saying that a lot recently," Xander agreed. "But look, Mother Hen, I really think that Gwen needs to go to Los Angeles. She's been drafted by the Powers to be Angel's new seer, and that's not something you can just simply ignore..."

Xander had quickly realized that Gwen had received a vision yesterday. He'd recognized the description, from what he had heard Cordy went through on a regular basis. < Never realized that they were so painful for her. Wonder if that's why she ended up dead by 2004? >

Gwen had then filled in the group on her trip to Los Angeles. She'd told them what had happened, including when she had touched Cordy with her gloved hand. "So, what's all this mean - bottom line?" she asked now.

"Somehow, you've managed to have had transferred to you from Ms. Chase the ability to receive visions from the Powers That Be. But why exactly would you be having visions related to the vampire in Los Angeles?" Hollins wondered out loud.

"The guys upstairs musta decided she's going to help Angel fight the good fight, given that reading Lorne did when he heard me sing - with Cordy dead in the future," Xander commented pragmatically. < Huh, guess this solves one of my problems - without any effort on my part, for once! Hopefully, my ex won't end up six feet under in a few years now. Oh well, whatever... >

Then he turned to Gwen. "Look, when you get there - if Angel has any doubts that you're bona fide, tell him this code phrase; 'May, 1997. I told you to eat before we left!'"

Ms. Raiden looked at Harris skeptically. "And *that's* gonna convince him?"

Xander smiled, remembering that night Buffy had died and been resurrected. And how he'd been *sure* that Angel had been checking out his neck, during their journey to find her. And how vehemently the ensouled vampire had denied it. "Well, I'm thinking yeah..."

Cleburne piped up, "Forget the vampire's doubts, *I* have doubts - and my doubts about all this come first!" This had led to a long, free-ranging discussion as to whether or not it was a good idea for Gwen to set up shop with Angel Investigations.

"The problem is, she knows too much. She knows who we are. She knows about the kid. And the Wizard!! She's been here, and knows where one of our most important bases is. We can't just let her hang out with a bunch of people - and non-people - who might or might not be a threat to us!" Cleburne was firing off objections at the pace of a machine gun.

"It's not like this arrangement is unheard of, need I remind you of where Josef Lemke is right now?" Esther responded.

"That's different!"

"How so, Joshua?" Hollins responded to Cleburne's comment.

Cleburne actually seemed unsure how to proceed for a second, then his face got a determined look and he started talking. "All right, not to be offensive..."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Gunny commented

Cleburne continued on, ignoring the comment by his right-hand man. "...but I don't know her as well as I do Lemke. After all, serving for five years alongside someone builds up a level of trust that just isn't present between myself and Ms. Raiden here. I know very little about her, and besides which - she's a mercenary."

"Hey, soldier boy, I don't notice *you* turning down your paycheck!" Gwen snapped back.

"You know what I mean. Money is not why I'm doing this; whatever paycheck Uncle Sam signs is fine by me. You, on the other hand, well - money is what drives you. It has to be asked, do you have a higher loyalty beyond your bank account?"

Gwen glared at the Marine. "I've done nothing to earn your distrust, Mr. Cleburne. The fact is, I've done everything you and your spooks have asked of me-"

Cleburne snorted. "How about earning my trust? That's more important than earning my distrust. 'Cause I'm not a trusting guy, by nature."

"I trust her." That came from Esther, who had become Gwen's case officer. "And I think you would agree that my instincts are usually pretty good in this area, Joshua."

Cleburne shifted gears immediately, as yes indeed he trusted Esther's instincts. "Okay, she's all right then as far as that goes. But there's still the problem of her having to hide the secrets she knows, from the people she's gonna work with every day-"

"Piece of cake," Gwen smirked. "I've been hiding things about myself practically my entire life, so your secrets won't be a problem at all."

"Ah, what about your work for us? Even with the visions, you *are* still a gifted thief. I would hope that STW would not have to give up your services," the Wizard commented.

Gwen turned to Xander. "This seer thing, can I phone it in?"

Xander looked confused. "Don't think it works like that, you would have to go to Los Angeles-"

Gwen waved Xander off. "No, no! I understand that part, but is there anything that says I have to stay there 24/7, 365 days a year? Can I slip off every once in a while to take care of business? Even when I was working for you guys, I still did jobs on the side. Now you people would be the jobs on the side. And I just *know* there's a lot of things to steal in LA..."

Xander shrugged. "Guess that's something you'll have to figure out, once you make contact with Angel and his Fang Gang-"

Cleburne groaned. "Fang gang? And please, tell me I'm not going to have to bail her out with the LAPD all the time?"

Xander chuckled. "Hey, you and Detective Lockley seemed to be getting along pretty well last time you were in LA. What would be the problem?"

Esther spoke up, ignoring Xander's comment. "Cleburne brings up a good point, Ms. Raiden, we can't risk you drawing law enforcement attention to either ourselves or your new companions. I know how you truly enjoy your line of work, but you'll most likely have to cut back on your activities..."

Gwen did not like that one bit. However, Esther sweetened the pot a little, "Not to worry, though, we wouldn't want to deprive you of your means of making a living. It depends on what exactly the vampire says and does, of course, but I'd imagine you'll maintain the cover of being a thief while you're there. Undertake certain jobs, but like now they would have to be approved or sponsored by us."

"I still think her telling that undead guy the complete truth is a bad idea. After all, if his dark side pops up, we don't want this Angelus character to come hunting either the Wizard or the kid," Cleburne declared.

Hollins agreed. "Joshua has a valid point. At this time, there is no reason to endanger the operational security of the organization; which is a legitimate concern here. It would be best if your connection to our group remained a secret, for the time being."

Gwen didn't like that either. "So I lie to my new associates, straight off the bat. Not to point out the obvious, but that won't work forever - and later, that will *really* help in gaining their trust, y'know?"

"Yes. It's regrettable, however necessary. But the situation is still uncertain. For the time being, they will have to be kept in the dark."

Gwen stared at Hollins, and then at Xander. She then looked around at everyone else, "I need to talk to Mr. Hall here, in private."

"Why?" Cleburne asked at once.

"There are things we need to discuss - that are none of your business," Gwen stared at him without expression.

Joshua easily read the frostiness in her tone, which he attributed to his slurs on her trustworthiness just now. So he simply nodded, and led Hollins and Esther out of the room. When they were gone, Xander turned towards her. "What did you want to talk about?"

Gwen didn't answer him; she just took out several components of equipment from various pockets within her clothes. Screwing the items together, the thief set up what looked to be an old-fashioned transistor radio - but most definitely was not.

"My version of a white noise generator. Just in case we're being spied upon in here," Ms. Raiden gestured towards the walls. Xander nodded at her precautions, one could never be too sure about that sort of thing in this business.

"Look, Hall - no, first things first, what's your real name?"

Xander cocked his head slightly. "That's supposed to be a big secret, right up along there with the original recipe for Coca-Cola, and the exact method Colonel Sanders used to deep-fry his chickens-"

Gwen looked exasperated. "Will you please cut the crap here, wise guy? My life has just gotten completely turned upside down within the last 24 hours, don't you get that?! I never asked for any of this! I don't *want* any of this! In fact-"

"Believe it or not, I *do* know how you feel," Xander interrupted, his mind flashing back to the day Willow Rosenberg had inadvertently cursed him with all his memories of the future. "I never exactly asked to become what I am today, either."

Ms. Raiden calmed down a little. "The first day we met - you told me that, and I quote, "us freaks gotta stick together". So, was that just a load of hot air? Well, as far as I'm concerned it's time to put up or shut up, pal. What exactly do you know about all this? How did you *really* know what had happened to me?"

Xander glanced around. He thought about it, and came to a decision that he knew Cleburne would have a complete screaming fit about - if he ever learned of it. "Alexander Lavelle Harris at your service, ma'am." He then gallantly picked up Gwen's gloved hand, and kissed it like a 19th century gentleman.

The expert thief grinned, charmed by the old-fashioned gesture. But then the brunette got serious again, "Harris, huh? So that old guy in England was right all along, when he called you that name in the woods that day..."

Xander shrugged. "Travers and I go way back. He knew me - or at least *of* me - before I became all special..." Then he frowned. "No, actually, he didn't. Not in this world, anyway..."

"What? Never mind - look, how do you know what you know? How did you know I'd be meeting this Angel guy, all those months ago? What's the real deal here?"

The former slave looked at the thief and nascent seer, and spoke briefly about his past - his instincts saying she could be trusted with the truth. Gwen's eyes went wide as she heard parts of the story, and Xander finished up, "So you see, you weren't meant to meet Angel yet - not for over a year, I think. But as Cleburne likes to say, this entire world is virgin territory here - we're creating a brand-new future, all of us. Everything's changing, and you're gonna be part of that..."

Gwen's thoughts were chaotic. < Jesus. How the hell does this guy maintain his sanity? In his shoes, I'd have gone nuts long ago... > "Okay. Now, anything you can tell me about the people I'll be meeting with? I don't want to go in blind, here-"

Xander thought about it. "Angel's the one you'll have the most contact with, I'd guess. My advice is just be straight with him; and tell him right from the start there are secrets you can't reveal, that I told you to tell him you can't reveal. That ought to be enough to satisfy him."

"And his friends?"

Harris thought briefly, trying to remember who he'd heard about from Willow in that future history. "Well, there's Wes of course. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce; he used to be a Watcher like that guy Rupert Giles - whose diaries you, ah, copied? Apparently he's changed a lot from when I knew him personally, so I won't cloud your preconceptions - just be prepared for a lot of questions from him, in that annoying limey accent!"

He went on, "There's also Charles Gunn - he's the black guy who knows almost as much as Angel does, about my current situation. I knew him when I was living in LA; and once he's on your side, you can trust him with your life - Charlie has this whole big honor thing going. Especially when it comes to his little sister, Alonna..."

Xander frowned. "There was also a brunette woman called Fred...Winifred Burkle? Their resident genius, kinda like Willow. I'm not sure if she'll be there yet, though, I don't know when exactly she joined Angel's Avengers - so if you don't see her around, don't mention anything about her. And finally, there's..."

He sighed. "Cordelia Chase. The Vision Girl you're replacing. Be careful of her; odds are Queen C won't like you, right from the word go."

Gwen finally got to ask a question. "Why?"

The young man smirked. "How would *you* like it if another thief completely took over your operation, making you feel...useless? And just my opinion, but don't tell her she was destined to die in a few years - if Angel hasn't already mentioned it to her."

The Electra Girl nodded, that was understandable. Then she looked at Xander, "Anything else I should know?"

Harris shrugged. "I don't think so, why?"

"Back there," She nodded towards the room where Cleburne was still waiting. "Jarhead referred to Angelus, but you mention Angel. What's up with that?"

Xander sighed. This was going to be difficult. "Technically, they're the same person. In a way."

"How's that possible? Angelus sounded like someone really bad," Gwen commented.

"He is," Xander said at once. "Make no mistake about it, he's one of the worst monsters that have ever lived. If Angelus shows up, and tries to kill you - don't hesitate to fry him with a lightning bolt."

"Right. But, uh, Angel seems to be someone you trust implicitly, so what's the deal? A Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing going on?"

"Kind of. This is gonna take a let me explain it all fully without interruption." Xander took a deep breath and told Gwen the story of Angel, Angelus and the soul curse. Without going into details, he also filled her in on the means by which Angel could lose his soul.

After Xander finished speaking, Gwen absent-mindedly scratched her forehead. "So if he has a moment of pure happiness, Angel loses his soul and Angelus comes out to play?" Xander nodded at Gwen's question. "Mental note to self, make sure that this Angel fella stays unhappy at all times..."

Gwen hesitated, before changing subjects. "There's something else I wanted to mention. That night when I encountered Ms. Chase at the museum...she knows you, doesn't she? Alexander Harris, I mean. And she doesn't know you're Alexander Hall now? She thinks you're dead?"

Xander tensed up. "That's all true, yeah. What of it?"

Ms. Raiden looked uncomfortable. "From what I heard when she was talking to someone I couldn't see, you two were...together, at some point. Well, that night I got the definite impression that she still thinks about you - that the woman hasn't, uh, resolved all her issues concerning you..."

There was a pause, as Harris stared at his companion in shock. < Cordy still feels *that* way about me?! And someone Gwen couldn't see? Wait up - are we talking about the First here? After all, it threatened to kill her back then in Georgia... >

"How do I handle it if - no, *when* - she finds out that I know you? That you were the one who sent me to LA?" Gwen asked.

Xander closed his eyes. The ugly truth was that the situation with Cordy was a lot more complicated, than that with Buffy or Willow; those two he could dismiss from his mind, at least for now, since he physically couldn't be near them for a few more years. But Cordelia was...different.

If he'd wanted to, the STW operative knew he could have had it out with the former cheerleader during the fall of 1999; and there would have been no aneurysm-causing headaches to prevent it. But Xander had left town before she'd arrived in LA, mainly because he'd wanted to escape to Canada, but also because he'd wanted to avoid his ex-girlfriend - for a variety of reasons.

Back then, even though the betrayal she had perpetrated by leaving him to die on the sidewalk that night was never far from his thoughts, Xander was also simultaneously aware of the betrayal *he* had committed - by cheating on her with Willow, in the senior year that had never taken place.

Which had led to Cordy being needlessly injured at Spike and Dru's old factory lair that night, just because he couldn't control his damn hormones. And despite Oz's assurances that Xander didn't need to apologize for that to anyone here and now since it hadn't actually happened, the memory of his actions still weighed heavily on the White Knight's conscience.

"Tell her..." Xander started to say, then stopped. "Tell her that as far as I'm concerned, this thing with you was nothing personal, just business. And as for the rest of it, say that I...that I'm...oh hell, don't tell her anything. She'll never believe whatever you'd have to say at that point, anyway!"

Gwen contemplated that, and shrugged; the odds were that that was true enough. "All right. So I guess as soon as I get those papers from New York, I'm done here?"

Xander nodded. "I guess so..." As the thief turned around to leave, he called out "Gwen?"

She stopped and looked back at him, expectantly. The man then said softly, "Be careful. Taking over Cordy's destiny like this, whatever happened that caused her to die by 2004 - it could happen to *you*, now. So don't trust anyone, except Angel and Charlie. Your life could depend on it."

Gwen Raiden said nothing, she just nodded once and left the room. And Xander was left all alone, briefly wondering if he would ever see her again.


UC Sunnydale, Sunnydale, California. December 17, 2000

Jonathan maneuvered his left arm, so that it rested on the desk in front of him. He was still getting used to the cast, as he sat in his dorm room located within Porter Hall.

A few days ago, Willow had been experimenting at the Magic Box; her intentions had been to create an instant sunlight spell, as part of the twelve-step program to restart practicing the craft after the Dark Willow incident.

Anya had been there berating her for stealing, as Giles had gone to Cleveland and left her in charge of the place, and Willow had been distracted for a second. Unfortunately, that careless second was all that was needed to release Olaf the troll-god from a crystal that had recently arrived at the shop.

Olaf was new to the 20th century. Also, he knew Anya as his ex-wife Aud, who as a human was the one who had turned him into a troll during 880 AD - after giving him boils on his penis - because he'd cheated on her while drunk.

Needless to say, Olaf was not in a good mood; wanting mead to drink, and babies to eat. The rampage that resulted had strained the Scoobies' resources, practically destroying the Bronze. And by the time Olaf had been tracked down back to the Magic Box, things had gotten worse.

Because Olaf had cornered Tara and Anya there. He knew Tara was a witch, and hated her on general principles; because it was a group of witches that had imprisoned him, over a thousand years ago. And he knew Anya was the one who had turned him into a troll...

So he was in the mood to make sure he wasn't jailed in that crystal again, and extract a little payback from Anya. The only one standing in his way was Jonathan, as Buffy and Willow were still en route to the place and Anya's boyfriend was knocked out cold.

Sensing that magic was useless, the tiny Mr. Levinson had physically tried to stand up to the giant creature, and quickly gotten his left arm broken for his trouble. Olaf had been impressed enough by his efforts though, that he had offered the male Scooby a choice. He would spare one of the girls, and kill the other. Which one would live and which one would die, was totally up to the wizard-in-training.

Jonathan had refused to make such a choice though, just as Xander would have in that other world. Grinning, Olaf had simply responded by slamming Jonathan around some more.

However, the guy managed to delay the mystical creature's plans long enough for Buffy and Willow to arrive. The Slayer and the troll-god had then fought ferociously enough that Willow, with her now-enhanced magic abilities, had been forced to banish him to a troll dimension - and thus save the day.

Of course, Jonathan still had a broken arm. So the women had taken him to the hospital to be treated for it, with a veritable bevy of female Scoobies hovering around the whole time to be *sure* he would be okay. The interns hadn't been able to believe it, wondering if he worked at the Playboy mansion or something...

< Man. How ironic is it that I've now been fully accepted into the Scooby gang, and all it took was a homicidal maniac and a broken arm? > Jonathan thought wistfully, as he powered up his computer.

In any case, he had finally been able to get some quiet time now, without any of his fellow Scoobies swooping in to insist that he not exert himself in any way.

Tara's student quickly hit the Internet connection on his computer. Even though he was getting to be fairly competent at the spellcasting gig, Jonathan still wanted to have something else to fall back on in contributing to the Scooby gang's efforts. So one area he was doing so in was research and intelligence.

Giles' books were good, but in some cases they were not the most recent source of information on strange things going on around the world. And the problem was, the G-man seemed inherently incapable of handling the Internet. That incident with Gingerbread monster and the Frisky Watchers Chat Room back in senior year, being a prime example...

Jonathan had learned that there was quite a bit of information on websites that pointed out things that most people refused to believe in. So he would surf those websites on a regular basis, to see if anything was developing that the Scoobies needed to be aware of. The man had also discovered several websites and chat rooms, concerning old friends of the Slayer and her buds.

Giles had even given him the web address for the Watchers Council. It was password protected of course, and Giles had long since lost his password privileges, but the young man had finally become able to gain access to several parts of the Watchers' database.

Jonathan eagerly perused whatever information he could find out. Something had happened in England a few weeks ago that had upset quite a few Watchers, but the details were way too encrypted for him to figure out what it was. < Oh well. Maybe something else, then... >

After the Watchers' website, he browsed through several sites run by independent demon hunters and the like. He made some notes for future reference; Jonathan hoped to become able to spot patterns to head off future troubles, after doing this often enough.

He then brought up the pages dealing with Angel. The would-have-been member of the Trio always seemed to get a kick outta visiting the chat rooms he had found, concerning the ensouled vampire. Jonathan hadn't mentioned them to Buffy and the others yet; he was unsure of the reaction that would receive, considering the history the Scoobies had with their former comrade. So he just kept track of things, for anything that would require intervention from Buffy and her friends.

Once he had finished with that series of web pages, Jonathan opened up the browser again to the latest thing he had found on the 'Net;

He had come across it a few weeks back. And what it talked about seemed to border on complete science fiction, so Jonathan viewed everything there with an extremely skeptical eye. Well, to be honest, the former high school nerd viewed it more as lively entertainment than a legitimate information source...

Because the webmasters claimed that the United States government had captured a time-traveller from the future, and was using him to gain geopolitical advantage in current world events. It also claimed he was now traveling around the world, helping in the fight against evil. Jonathan had snorted when he first read the claim, < Don't these guys know that quantum physics clearly says time travel is impossible? >

He clicked on the 'What's new' icon, to see what their latest fantastic claim was. < Betcha it's gonna be something really unbelievable... >

And Jonathan wasn't disappointed, as he quickly read the info on the screen.


The Timetripper was recently in Rome to meet with high-level officials of the Catholic Church. And why, you may ask, was he in the Eternal City? Because he did something no one else has done, in almost 2000 years.

He took a long, cool drink from the actual Holy Grail.

That's right, boys and girls. The cup from the Last Supper was uncovered by our hero. He took a drink from it, and according to witnesses the earth shook when he did so. Our information is unclear as to where exactly in Europe the Grail was, but we do know that once he was done the Timetripper hurried to Rome - where he met with the men wearing the red hats and black suits, to describe it to them and be debriefed. He even went so far as to meet with a top artist, and help him draw up a sketch of the cup.

Now we can't tell you how we did it, but we got our hands on a copy of the sketch. Here it is:

Below that was a picture of a plain wooden cup. Jonathan chuckled to himself, < I swear, this is even better than reading the National Enquirer! >

He quickly printed out a hard copy of the page, to add to the folder he had of this sort of stuff. Mr. Levinson then set it aside to flip through, whenever he wanted to relax or really needed a good laugh - to forget about life on the Hellmouth for a while.


The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles. December 20, 2000

Lilah sighed, and leaned back in frustration. It had been over a month now since her firm had set the trap for Xander Harris, and yet - he hadn't shown up. Lilah had been sure that once word had gotten out what had befallen Faith's soul, the young man would immediately head to Los Angeles to try and free it.

However, there had not been even the slightest sniff at the trap that the evil lawyers had set up. And now Lilah's patience from all the time she had spent trying to deal with Angel and the other do-gooders out there, had worn very thin indeed.

Holland Manners had made a point of asking her about the Harris project and its status, at the last staff meeting. Of course, he knew perfectly well there hadn't been any progress, he just wanted to let Lilah know that time was running out for her. < Office politics... >

The brunette woman was just grateful that Lindsey MacDonald was having so much trouble dealing with Angel. And she suspected her male counterpart would do something drastic soon, given how everyone knew that Darla had gone 'rogue', so to speak, in that she seemed to refuse to play the role that Wolfram & Hart had resurrected her for; that is, driving Angel over the edge.

For it was the firm's official policy not to want the Champion dead, but rather...dark.

This setback seemed to take up more of the middle management's time than Lilah's project did. Still, she knew it was only a matter of time before the Senior Partners would want an accounting for the resources used to entrap Harris. The bean counters would see to that, if no one else.

< I still can't believe that the guy now has a website devoted to him. Timetripper? What moron came up with *that*? > Lilah thought acidly. She'd had almost had a coronary when she had heard the nickname for the first time.

The door of her office then opened up, and her assistant walked in hesitantly. "Ms. Morgan, the Washington branch office has contacted us."

"Why, the SEC or IRS take out another client?" the female lawyer snarled.

Ever since the first attempt at obtaining Xander Harris, Wolfram & Hart's Washington D.C. branch had received the brunt of the U.S. government's ire. And the clients had paid the price for that; Lilah had heard rumors that the Senior Partners were considering closing down that branch of the firm, unless something turned around soon.

"No ma'am, they picked up a piece of information that may relate to the Harris project," the newcomer replied nervously

She immediately gave the assistant her full attention. "And that information is..."

"Well, they're working a divorce case involving a middle-level CIA official..." That surprised Lilah, she figured that the government would make sure no one of importance in their ranks had to deal with the firm.

The assistant hastened on, when he saw her glare. "We're representing the husband, who is divorcing her. He tells us that the official has been complaining at home for the last few months, about a decision made by her superiors - to hide information from an agent."

"That's not exactly uncommon in the intelligence field!" Lilah snapped.

"Yes, but it is when the official, after having drunk a few too many screwdrivers, says it involves the agent's lover returning from the dead."

Suddenly, it all became clear to Lilah. < Of *course* Harris hasn't taken the bait - on account of he doesn't even know it's there! They're hiding this from him, because they're afraid to lose him. The upper echelons don't trust him enough, obviously. Well, I can use this. > She leaned back in her chair.

"So, all we need to do is get word to him personally. Hmmm, let's see - how we would go about doing that? Right, we'll need someone...out of the ordinary to let Mr. Harris in on the secret..."


Rural South Carolina. December 24, 2000

The SUV made its way down the country road on Christmas Eve. Xander shifted his weight, trying to get comfortable - he was still a little unsure of what was going on, he just knew this wasn't a mission.

Earlier in the week, Cleburne had called the apartment that Xander and Oz had been staying in for the past few days in Cincinnati, Ohio. The senior Siberian had told them to pack today for a trip lasting about three days. They were to also include some clothes appropriate for a formal setting, but he hadn't explained why.

Cleburne had then showed up about two hours previously to pick the guys up. The trio had then driven across the Ohio River to Cincinnati Airport, which oddly enough was in Kentucky instead of Ohio...

There they had boarded a military version of a Lear jet, upon which the Wizard and an auburn-haired teenage girl were already passengers. Cleburne had introduced Xander and Oz to Bethany Chaulk, the teenage girl in question.

Xander surmised that she was another paranormal person working with Siberian Trip Wire, despite the usual lack of information. Both Hollins and Cleburne had not gone into details as to her background or abilities - however, Cleburne had told both Oz and Xander beforehand not to do anything to upset her, if they wanted to keep all their body parts intact.

The plane then flew to Spartanburg, South Carolina, a city that Xander hadn't even known existed prior to his time with STW. A SUV had been waiting there for them. And after they had loaded up their luggage, the group had started driving to their unknown destination.

The first part of the trip, of all things, had been an argument about what music to listen to. Cleburne had wanted to put in some Johnny Cash CDs. The Wizard had objected to that, wanting to listen to NPR. Oz had piped up, suggesting maybe something in the genre of the Bay City Rollers.

And *that* had not been well received by either of the Siberians. Bethany had asked about listening to something from the Indigo Girls; and Cleburne had instantly joked about the chances of finding *them* on a radio station in upstate South Carolina.

The four of them had heatedly debated the point, with Xander staying well out of the discussion, until an agreement had been reached of listening to Christmas carols on the car radio.

They had driven a while, listening to the music of the season the whole time, along the Interstate in the night, then turned onto a series of two lane roads. Xander had slept somewhat, during the trip, and he roused himself when he felt the SUV turn onto a gravel road.

He peered out into the night sky. At the end of the gravel driveway, the young man could make out the lights of a large farmhouse with several cars and trucks parked in front of it. Cleburne soon pulled up to the front of the house, as several adults came out onto the porch.

The group got out of the SUV, as an older woman and man came down the steps. The old man spoke up first. "Joshua. You're a little late," he observed dryly.

"Sorry, there was a delay at the Cincinnati airport with the air traffic," Joshua answered him, as father and son quickly hugged. "Mother, I missed you," he hugged the older woman as well.

Xander could not help staring in shock, at the spectacle of the in-your-face soldier acting like the 'prodigal son'. Cleburne's mom said simply, "Should have called, sweetheart, I could have had something warm ready for you and your friends to eat." She then looked at the others. "Irving, welcome back. Oh, give me a hug, boy!"

"Mrs. Cleburne," the Wizard said with a smile, as he hurried up and hugged her. "It's really good to be back here."

The old woman looked at the others. "Josh, you going to introduce us to your friends?"

Joshua nodded. "Yes, Irving you both know already. Ah, this is Bethany Chaulk, she's a new student at the academy with Irving. This is Alexander Hall and Daniel Osbourne, although they go by Xander and Oz; they're civilian contractors who are currently working with me. Bethany, Xander, Oz - this is my mother Elaine, and my father Daniel Cleburne."

Everyone exchanged greetings. "We're glad to have you all here, don't worry - we have plenty of room for you all. When Joshua said that you couldn't go home for Christmas and were wondering if you could spend it with us, well, gosh - there was just no way we could turn you away!" Elaine declared.

Daniel spoke up, "You all had better hurry up and take your bags inside. You have about a hour to get everything in, and then get changed for the late Christmas Eve service at the church."

"Right, Dad," Joshua nodded. "Come on, you two, front and center - help me unload!" He said to Xander and Oz.

"You didn't tell us we were spending Christmas with your family," Xander whispered to Cleburne behind the SUV as they unloaded the luggage. "And hey, we didn't bring anything for them. They'll think we're cheapskates!"

Cleburne handed a duffel bag to Xander. "Don't worry, both of you got them something real nice. Now hurry up, Dad always wants to be at the church for the service at least 15 minutes early - so he can grab the rear pew."

"Don't you mean the front pew?" Oz asked, as he picked up the bag he had packed.

Cleburne laughed at that. "Clearly, you've never been to a Presbyterian church service before!" The voices of the others could be heard from the front porch, which wrapped around the house. Xander could clearly tell that Hollins had been here before.

"What about this academy you mentioned?" the so-called Timetripper asked.

"My family thinks the Wizard and Ms. Chaulk are students at a private boarding school, one that the Marines have an ROTC program with. Hollins has been spending the holiday with us for the past five years, you see - and I had to tell them something! They think he's an orphan, and that part is actually true. We'll them that Bethany is in the same situation, if it crops up."

"Hurry up, son!" Daniel called from the front porch. "After the service, you'll probably want to hit the hay early. After all, Josh, you're going to have to get up with the sunrise..."

Cleburne, lugging several bags, led Xander and Oz up to the front porch. "Why am I getting up early tomorrow?"

Daniel chuckled. "*Someone* has to play Santa Claus for the Jaycees when they go and deliver their gift baskets to the needy." He saw the Marine's face, "Oh, by the way, did I forget to mention I volunteered you to play Santa for the Jaycees this year?"


The Cleburne family farm, South Carolina. December 25, 2000.

Xander leaned back in the chair on the front porch in the late afternoon, and just relaxed. < Now *this* is the life. Just for a short while, I can pretend that I'm not being hunted by everybody in this world, from the Council - to those evil LA lawyers! >

The service the night before had been relatively short, and he had been able to get to bed well before midnight. < Good thing too. Never knew how damn noisy a farm can be, even if it's still completely dark outside! >

When Xander had gotten up, Cleburne, his father and his brothers had already left to do the Jaycees charity thing. And thinking about it, Xander was actually kinda sad he had missed out on seeing the senior Siberian in a Santa Claus costume.

Harris had found upon waking up that Elaine Cleburne had cooked a huge breakfast for the extended Cleburne family, several of whose members came to the house from nearby houses over the course of the morning. Xander and Oz had discovered that the man they knew as a very nasty fighter in a combat situation, had several nieces and nephews eagerly begging for the opening of the presents that were all under the tree in the living room.

All of the children seemed to know Hollins. Xander watched as several of them picked Hollins' brain, for ideas about school projects. Irving, in turn, actually played with them - and for once, acted like the child he physically appeared to be. Several of the older nephews subtly flirted with Bethany Chaulk; but Xander suspected that the word was in the family to behave themselves around her.

A little bit before lunch, the older male Cleburnes had returned and Xander had been treated to the sight he had been hoping to see; Mother Hen wearing a Santa Claus costume. < Oh, man. I was utterly nuts not to bring a camera! >

Xander had chuckled out loud, which had earned him an instant glare from Joshua and an unspoken warning to never speak of it again. < Oh, please! He thinks that's gonna work on me? I grew up with the glares from Giles, like all the time! Cleburne ought to sit down and learn at the feet of the master, if he ever wants me to take him seriously... >

Lunch had been a quick affair. Xander had marveled at the number of Cleburne family members that had shown up for it. Afterwards, the nieces and nephews got their wish as the packages were torn open by them with great abandon. Cleburne had been right, Xander and Oz had gotten several nice things for the elder Cleburnes and the other members of the Cleburne family.

They had both been surprised to have received gifts themselves, both from the Siberians and the Cleburnes, as had Bethany Chaulk.

Xander leaned back, Mrs. Cleburne had promised a huge dinner later on. Xander had to admit he was looking forward to it, with great enthusiasm. She was a gifted cook. Daniel Cleburne had taken Joshua and two other sons with him to take care of the farm's business before dinner. Xander suppressed the chuckle that both he and Oz had let escape earlier, when they'd pictured Colonel Cleburne milking cows.

This was the kind of Christmas he had never personally experienced before. The closest he had ever come to this sort of thing, was when Willow and he would watch 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' on TV. And that was only one part of Christmas Day in Sunnydale for him, every year - here, the entire day of Christmas was made up of such moments.

Then Xander paused in his mental musings, suddenly realizing what today was.

It was the last decent Christmas Day he had ever had, before Joyce had died and Buffy had leapt to her death and Spike had...

Harris instantly cut off that line of thought, suddenly remembering the grin on the platinum-blond vamp's face that night - when he'd gotten clobbered, kidnapped, and sent to Hell. Still, Xander could not help wondering, < What's going on in Sunnydale this Christmas? >

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