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;

The Road Back
Season Two

Part Twenty

1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California. December 25, 2000

"Rupert, can you check on the green beans?" Joyce called out to the other adult in the Summers kitchen, as she dodged Dawn early that evening.

"Sorry, Mom!" the brunette teen yelled as she headed out the door to the living room, carrying a can of soft drink as she did. "Willow and I have a bunch of videos we're going through, before dinner!"

Joyce balanced the dish in her hand, as she placed it down onto the kitchen table. "I swear, I am going to *have* to cut back on that girl's sugar intake. I shudder to think what she would be like, if she drank coffee!"

Giles looked up from the oven. "Green beans seem to be coming along fine, Joyce. And if you want, I can get some sugar-free cola for Dawn?"

Joyce smiled at the Englishman's joke. "Now that's an idea! If you have some, we'll slip it to her at dinner..."

During her recovery from the surgery, the blonde woman had come to rely upon the former Watcher quite a bit. He had been at the Summers house every day doing errands, chores or helping out as best he could; leaving the Magic Box in Anya's more-than-capable hands, who had decided to defer her college studies for a year and become a full-time businesswoman.

And all this had definitely unnerved the guest that had arrived, almost immediately after Joyce's surgery...

Mr. Hank Summers.

Hank had gotten word of Joyce's condition, and once he'd had the chance he had traveled to Sunnydale. He had settled into his ex-wife's household, wanting to help Joyce and his kids as best as he could; as he had received an anonymous message saying that he better not screw up, or else certain...indiscretions might be made public.

But the guy had quickly come to feel like a fifth wheel, with his own relatives. Dawn had stepped up, and taken over a lot of chores in the house. She also saw to all Joyce's needs; the middle-aged woman actually could have stayed in bed the whole time, from all the attention the brunette girl had been showering on her.

And anything Dawn couldn't handle, Giles was there for. All the heavy chores around the house he had taken care of, including the yard work. Buffy had been shocked one day, when she had come home and discovered Giles mowing the lawn. She hadn't even realized that Giles *owned* a pair of Bermuda shorts...

Hank had then thought he could assist at Joyce's place of business. But when he had gone there, the man had been surprised to discover that Buffy actually seemed to have the place running along quite smoothly. Between Buffy and Regina, Joyce's assistant, the gallery hadn't had any major problems that he could solve.

And when Hank had gone to examine the Summers monetary situation, thinking that he could use his stock market knowledge to help out *there* at least, he had discovered that his daughter's friend Anya had completely overhauled the finances of the family. She was even doing a fairly decent job of investing a small bit of it. Hank Summers had made a note to keep an eye on Anya; you never knew where the next great investment banker might come from.

Even his fatherly role seemed to have been co-opted by the former school librarian of his eldest daughter. Hank wasn't blind, he could see the way Buffy acted around the Brit; and he was saddened to think of when *he* had been the one the girls looked to for guidance and support like that.

So when it was obvious Joyce's recovery was clearly taking hold, during the second week of December, he had finally given up. Hank had gone back home to Los Angeles, promising to keep in touch. And so far he was doing so quite admirably, to the pleasant surprise of the Summers women.

Anyway, today Joyce had decided - against the protests of Giles and her daughters - to cook Christmas dinner for the whole Scooby gang. They and their respective boyfriend in one case had been invited, and were now all present and accounted for.

Joyce Summers had a house full of hungry demon hunters celebrating the holidays - and so, she was almost running herself ragged in the kitchen.

"Mrs. Summers, hi - I brought some coleslaw. Uh, where should I put it?" Jonathan entered the kitchen through the back door, balancing a bowl with plastic wrap on top of it in his right hand.

Joyce made a beeline for him. "Jonathan, give that to me right now! You didn't need to bring anything, I have everything covered..." She took the bowl from the male Scooby, and placed it on the table. "Go out and visit with the others."

Jonathan glanced at the door to the living room with some apprehension. "Is he here?" the guy asked.

Giles nodded. "Yes, Ms. Jenkins did bring him with her. Still, since it is the Christmas season, no doubt we can forgive his...eccentricities," Giles said, referring to Anya's boyfriend.

Levinson swallowed and steeled himself. "Easy for you to say, he doesn't expect *you* to have every comic book in the world memorized..." With that, Jonathan trudged into the living room to meet the other Scoobies. "Hello guys," he called out.

"Jonathan!" "Hey there," "John-boy..." That last greeting was from Dawn. The younger Summers girl definitely had a sense of humor, that was eerily reminiscent of a certain class clown...

Buffy and Tara were in the dining room, setting the table. Willow and Dawn were on the couch, watching holiday specials on the TV, and Anya was helping the others in the dining room. Jonathan mentally sighed to himself, as he saw Anya's boyfriend making a beeline for him.

Sometimes, it kind of offended the guy that Anya, the first time they had ever met, had said that he wasn't what she was looking for in terms of a mate - only for her to turn around, and date the one and only...Andrew Wells.

"Jonathan! Great to see you, fellow padawan. How's the arm doing?" He pointed at the cast on Jonathan's left arm.

"Doing well, I guess. It itches a lot, but I've learned to deal with it." The short guy then looked around, to see if any of the girls was in need of someone to talk to.

"So, did you get the latest issue of Wonder Woman yet? 'Cause I gotta tell you, Sparky, that comic is just gettin' better and better. Deanna Troi, eat your heart out! They really need to make a new movie about her, maybe get some hot young rising actress - ooh! Like Cordelia Chase from that toothpaste commercial! - to play Wonder Woman..."

Jonathan looked at Andrew with a tiny bit of amazement. He was personally a little surprised that Andrew had said 'hot young rising actress'; as he and the Scoobies had some doubts about Andrew's true sexual orientation.

The so-called geek also decided to not mention that he had known Cordy in high school, as there was no reason to invite further commentary on that subject from Mr. Wells. He then spied something out of the corner of his eye...

"Willow, you brought Amy!" the male Scooby declared, thankful for the excuse to head off Andrew's talk of superheroines.

Because Jonathan knew that at some point, the other guy would want to talk about superheroes and which one had the best costume - and in this world, he no longer had the fascination with Master Yoda, Captain Picard and Wolverine that he once did.

Willow looked up. "Yeah, it just didn't seem right leaving her all alone in the dorm room during the holidays. Even though she is human-shape challenged now, she still has feelings!" Amy, in rat form, just ran on the wheel in her cage as it sat on the living room table.

At that moment, Joyce entered the dining room carrying a turkey. "Come on, everyone! Dinner's ready..."


One hour later

Dinner had been great, and all the Scoobies were now in the living room relaxing as the TV channels played several holiday specials. Images of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang flickered across the screen, reminding Willow of childhood innocence - and the little boy she had shared it with.

All of a sudden - the screen changed to a timeless image of the dog called Snoopy, that was dancing. Both Willow and Dawn squealed in delight at the same time, "Snoopy dance!!"

Everyone else in the room was amazed, as the two of them jumped up and started doing an impromptu dance in the middle of the living room. Both girls did a very good imitation of the dance they remembered Xander doing all those years ago, every Christmas.

Buffy looked on in wide-eyed wonder. She knew exactly what they were doing, having seen the original twice before. Jonathan, although never having witnessed it, knew enough to hazard a guess. The others though had no idea of the significance of what they were witnessing.

"Girls? What are you doing?" Joyce asked, while trying to suppress a grin. Others amongst the Scoobies weren't as strong as her, and were smiling from ear to ear.

"Snoopy dance, Mom! You gotta try it!" Dawn called out.

Joyce still looked a little confused. Dawn hurried to explain, "Every Christmas, Willow and Xander would watch 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' together. And I remember how Xander would entertain Willow, by doing the Snoopy dance..." Dawn was so busy dancing, that she didn't notice the pained look that briefly crossed Buffy's face at the mention of her old friend.

"Yeah, Mrs. Summers. He'd do it every year, and I couldn't help myself - I always laughed, he did it so funny..." Willow, while replying to Joyce, had unintentionally moved to close to Dawn. They then bumped into each other, and both of them fell down in a tangled heap.

Willow and Dawn looked at each other in surprise for a few seconds, and then burst out into laughter that most of the others joined in on. Tara moved to help her lover up, and Dawn scrambled up by herself.

"You know, I-I miss him..."

Everyone in the room turned to Buffy, in response to her statement. She looked back at them and said, "Xander. What, you think I forgot about him? No, I remember him and miss him. I wish I had been able to make things right with him, before he died..."

Dawn instantly got a catty look on her face, one that would not have been out of place on Cordelia's - make that *Queen C's* - face. "Gee Buffy, you could have fooled me. After all, you really had the whole 'Xander is evil' thing going for a while there!" she snapped.

"Hey - I was upset, it's understandable. After all, he lied to me about that whole soul deal with Willow!" Buffy snapped back.

"Oh, come on Buffy..." Dawn started to say.

"Dawn? That's enough, " Joyce said, hoping to head off the upcoming shitstorm.

But the brunette teenager kept right on going, ignoring her mother. "You were upset because he lied about that? Why? Angel didn't go to Hell or anything, although he *should* have - after all the people he killed, when he was evil! That night Angelus came into your room and drew your picture, what if he'd killed me or Mom as a hello present?"

Buffy and Joyce stared at her in shock. < Oh my God... > they both thought, as the duo realized the baby of the family was now anything but that - if such things were able to occur to her.

"Anyway, back then Angel didn't get killed, or even hurt. Unlike some people he's still going strong, kicking up a fuss in Los Angeles. Remember that, how he left town right after Xander got blown up? So much for the love of his life, huh. I heard he simply walked away that day, just before Mom and I arrived back in town. But then you'd know all about that part of it, wouldn't you Buffy?" Dawn was clearly getting worked up.

"Look Dawn, there were other things going on then. You just don't understand-" was the reply from her big sister, who was getting uncomfortable on account of all the stares from the studio audience.

But Dawn wasn't going to let her off that easily. "I'm 14, nearly15, that whole 'you're too young to understand' excuse doesn't cut it anymore! And Xander dying that way..." her voice trailed off for a second, it had taken a while - but nowadays she had come to accept Xander's death.

"The whole time ever since the end of your junior year, Xander believed that you hated him - and he had good reason for that, didn't he? Did you even *once* really try to apologize to him, before he disappeared? I mean, after all - you three left him as vampire chow outside the Bronze, that night!"

Giles drew a quick breath, he knew this was about to get really bad. He glanced at Willow, who had gone deathly pale. But Rupert could also see Buffy's face starting to redden...

The former Watcher then saw Joyce about to break it up, but she stopped when he slowly shook his head at her. Joyce then cogitated, < He's right, they've got to move past this one day. And I guess there's no time like the present, even if it *is* Christmas... >

Her eldest daughter said heatedly, "Look Dawn, I'll admit that things got *way* out of control during those few insane-o days. But I never intended for Xander to get hurt, let alone killed like he did at Graduation! I was angry that night during 1998, and I think I had the right to be pissed over the whole Angel deal - 'cause Xander betrayed our trust, any way you want to paint it. Still, I shouldn't have done what I did. I should have least made sure he got back to his house that night. It's something I would have done for my worst enemy, like Harmony for example..."

Buffy drew in a deep breath before continuing, "I regret what I did that night, and I'm sure Willow and Cordy do too. I'm uncomfortable about my actions..."

Dawn snorted at the word 'uncomfortable', but Buffy just ignored her. "It's one of the greatest regrets of my life. It makes me question if I really deserve any happiness, or if I'm as good a person as I want to believe I am-"

Dawn glared at her sibling, furious at what she'd heard and standing with her hands on her hips. "Damn it, Buffy! Listen to yourself. You've gone and made Xander's suffering and death all about *you*!? How it affected you. How it made you feel. That's all you care about? That's just so like you! You really must believe that the world revolves around your bottle-blonde head!"

Andrew, sitting next to Anya, whispered to his girlfriend just a little too loudly, "I knew it!" That earned him glares from Anya, Buffy, Dawn and Willow, and so the guy quickly slunk deep into the seat he was sitting in, his face turning red.

Buffy turned back to Dawn. "Look, Dawn, that's out of line. Granted you're not a little kid anymore, but you still don't understand how things were that night-"

"And that gives you the right to turn your back on a friend whenever you feel like it, whenever they do something you disapprove of? Oh, Lord help me if I forget to get you a birthday present next month!"

Dawn suddenly got a *look* on your face. "Come to think of it, did you ever get Xander a birthday gift? Or even know when his birthday was?"

A momentary look of shame flashed across Buffy's face. Dawn's face reddened some more, "Oh come on!" she shouted out. "You mean after all the attention he showered on you from day one? The gifts, the...he was always following you around like a little puppy, one that would have died for you. I know you kept that bracelet he gave you at the start of sophomore year, it's in your nightstand - and you still wear it sometimes."

"Hey, how do you know where that is? Have you been going through my stuff again?" Buffy demanded.

Dawn didn't respond to the question from her sister. "Well, obviously, that's a big no on the 'gifts from you' thing. But how about knowing when his birthday was? Come on, he was one of your two closest friends for two years, and Xander brought you back from the dead that one time. You have to know his birthday, right?"

Buffy concentrated for a few seconds. < How did I get myself into this mess? I was just saying I missed the guy! > The ensuing silence was uncomfortable for all those in the living room.

"Okay, tell you what Buffy, I'll make it easy for you. What *month* was his birthday? Come on, sis, one in twelve chance of getting it right - even if you just guess," Dawn glared at Buffy as she said the last little bit.

"April!!" Buffy shouted back. She was definitely getting angry now, as no one likes being criticized this way. "I know his birthday was in April-"

Dawn continued glaring at her sister, though. "Tell me you didn't know that because it's engraved on his tombstone..."

Buffy paled a little bit at that. That was exactly the reason why she knew. And Dawn could tell that from Buffy's face. "When he was here, even before you abandoned him, you never bothered to find out - did you? The great Slayer couldn't stoop so low, as to actually find out the birthday of one of the two real friends she had. Boy, I'm feelin' the love here..."

"That's not true, Dawn! You know I love you..." < Even though apparently, you're this great big magical ball of energy underneath that human skin- > Buffy thought hurriedly. "I love Mom, I love all of you. I loved Xander-"

"You got a real funny way of showing it. Leaving him for dead that way. Oh, remember this? 'We can never talk of Xander again'," She mimicked Buffy's voice in a high-pitched tone almost perfectly.

"I never said that!!!" Buffy shouted at Dawn.

"Uh, Buffy, I'm sorry - but you sorta did. You made it real clear about your feelings regarding Xander, at the time. You were furious with him," Willow suddenly spoke up. "Whenever Cordy or I mentioned his name, you got all huffy and changed the subject. He was like a huge elephant in the room, and not just any elephant, but a huge pink one. Wait! Maybe fuscia with purple polka dots, or something..."

Willow's voice trailed off, as she realized that the others were staring at her. "Well, um, it's just that I-I never felt I could really talk about Xander, and what happened that night - because you absolutely didn't want anyone to talk about him. Buffy, do you remember how you reacted when Tara wanted to talk about Xander, back in July?"

Buffy felt threatened and insecure, now that Willow had spoken up. And she was the Slayer, so she did what she normally did when she felt threatened and insecure - she attacked.

"Hey, I never once said there was any kind of rule of not talking about him!" Buffy hesitated for a second. "Well, okay, there was that short time for a few weeks after I found out about the soul curse...but you'll recall that when senior year started, I went with you and Cordy to talk to him. Xander wasn't any sort of taboo subject then! We tried to talk to him-"

"Lot of good that did," Dawn muttered. She remembered hearing all about it that night, after Xander had told the three girls to go to hell that lunchtime.

Buffy continued on, "That senior year up until Spike and Dru did their kidnapping thing, we talked about him, about how to ask him to come back into the group. I certainly wasn't stifling any free speech then, was I? And when he came back from that hell dimension, we also talked about him. Remember, long freewheeling discussions about what to do? Remember those, Willow?"

"Yeah, Buffy, but all those conversations - they all revolved around getting him involved again with the Scooby gang. Uh...we never once talked about what happened on the street that night..."

"Hey!" Buffy snapped out. "Don't make me out as the big villain here! And if we're gonna be going down memory lane like this, remember what you and Cordy said when we saw him staring at us in the Bronze, that particular night?"

Willow looked away ashamed as Buffy finished up, "You called him a "jealous asshole", and Cordelia called him a "lying bastard"! And later, I wasn't the only one who found Xander outside the Bronze -"

"Yeah, there was that vampire you missed," Dawn snapped.

"Shut up, Dawn!" Buffy snarled at her sister, she turned back to Willow. "The point is, that night you and Cordelia didn't seem all that guilt-ridden by what you did. So don't lay this all out on me..."

Willow looked pained at Buffy's comments. "You're right. Both Cordy and I did something horrible that night. Still..."

Buffy wasn't going to let up own her counter-offensive that easily. "You thought it was horrible, did you? Well, you certainly didn't act like it that evening. You turned your back and walked away too. And let's not forget some of the things you said that night afterwards! 'Maybe he'll do some thinking down there in the gutter!' Remember that, Willow?" Buffy almost shouted.

"Buffy, that's uncalled for!" Tara came to her lover's defense. She started forward, only to be stopped by Willow's hand on her arm.

"No, Tara, she's right. I said and did horrible things that night. I admit that. And I admit that not because doing them made me a bad person, I don't regret them because they made me feel bad afterwards, I say that because they were the wrong thing to do! It took me a while to realize that, I mean - the next day I was all torn up, because I couldn't get Xander on the phone or find him. I was actually thinking he would still be around, waiting to apologize to us. God, how thickheaded was I back then..."

Willow looked down at the floor. "You know - the whole summer before our senior year, I wrote him and tried calling him. When he didn't reply, I actually thought he was just too ashamed to call us at first. And I thought if I could reassure him, he would come back into the fold and apologize for everything and beg for - ask for - our forgiveness-"

Buffy was still in her attack mode. "He never even tried to defend his actions. He should have taken the first step!" she declared.

"Uh, you wouldn't let him," Jonathan suddenly spoke up. The Scoobies turned to face him. "It's none of my business, I know, but the fact is that he *tried* to talk to you guys before the vampire attack outside the Bronze. Why do you think he was watching you all then? He was hopin' to try and explain himself to you."

Buffy folded her arms across her chest, and glared at Jonathan. "And how do *you* know all that?" she demanded.

"He told me. I mean, I've mentioned it before now that before he vanished - we talked a bit. He wasn't the Xander of old, yeah, but he wasn't the dark and solitary 'Magneto' clone he was when he came back from that hell dimension either. He told me quite a lot about what goes on around Sunnydale..."

Jonathan paused for a second, and took a deep breath before continuing. "At first, I thought he was crazy, but then I saw...things - and figured out that he wasn't." He looked at Buffy, half in fear and half in sorrow.

"The rest of the student body knew as well. Not the full details, of course, but they knew there were nasty things roaming about in the night. They just weren't ready to call them vampires. They also knew about Xander, and that night at the Bronze."

Buffy was glaring so hard at Jonathan, that it surprised Giles how the male Scooby didn't just burst into flames. "What do you mean?"

Jonathan gulped. He still had a little fear of Buffy's temper. "Well - at senior Prom, a few of the students talked about giving you something for being Class Protector, an award of some sort - something kitschy."

The Slayer looked confused. "What are you talking about? I wasn't given anything at the Prom that night!"

The short guy nodded. "I know. Because once the suggestion was made, several of the other students on the committee shot down the idea. They said..." Jonathan stopped.

"Go on!" Buffy now half-pleaded and half-growled.

Jonathan actually took a step back, before continuing. "They said a *real* class protector wouldn't have left Xander to be attacked by a crazed gang member, who was high on PCP, like that."

Buffy's face went white. "What? But, but - they can't have known what I was going through then, they had no right to say something like that..."

"Xander did," Dawn declared loudly.

Buffy stared at Dawn, and then looked at the others in the room. She wasn't getting the support she expected. Buffy felt self-doubt growing in her, but she refused to admit it out loud. "I can't believe this. Attacking me personally for something I didn't do alone, and by the way guys - thanks for ruining Christmas!" With that, she turned around and stormed out of the living room.


Twenty minutes later

Buffy leaned back in the chair, staring up at the stars. She had been sitting out here on the porch, ever since the argument in the living room. < Could they possibly have a point? > the Slayer thought forlornly, for what seemed like the 30th time ever since she had gone outside. < Am I *really* that self-centered? >

Buffy's thoughts were cut short though, when she heard the back door open. She turned and saw her mother coming out. Buffy stood up to face Joyce, "Mom, before you start with the lecture, I know you think I was out of line in there but you have to understand-"

Joyce silenced her by holding up her hand. "Buffy, please. It's Christmas, and this isn't the time for that. I just want to tell you, before you say anything else, read this." She handed over a folded piece of paper to Buffy. The blonde college girl took it, and looked at her mother with a questioning look.

"I know that you believe you never made it right with him, honey. But at the end of the day, when all was said and done...while Xander was certainly angry with you - and rightly so - I don't think that deep down, he really hated or despised you. Read that, and then come back inside when you're ready." Joyce hugged her daughter, and then went back inside her house.

Buffy watched her leave in puzzlement. She then unfolded the paper, and started to read.

Started to read the first letter Xander had sent to her Watcher.

"Dear Giles..." Buffy quickly read through the first three paragraphs. < This is a letter to Giles. From Xander!? Written before he died, but mailed afterwards. So why does Mom have it? >

Then Buffy read the next part.

"And what is that, you ask? Simple. Joyce Summers was born in 1958, and she died on February 21st, 2001..."

Buffy stopped breathing for a second, almost fainting from the shock. < Mom dies, in like two months!? NO! No. NO!!! > Buffy, already emotional from the scene earlier in the house, started to feel her sanity shredding apart.

But after about 30 seconds, the Chosen One had recovered enough that she willed herself to start reading again. The blonde Slayer read about the tumor being discovered, and the surgery to treat it. The seeming recovery, followed by...

< Me finding Mom dead on the couch?! The very same couch we were sitting on, earlier tonight? Oh, Jesus... >

Buffy had to stop again, and fight down the sick feeling she had. She actually felt like throwing up! The Slaymaster-General quickly sat down on the steps, and placed her head between her knees in an attempt to resume control of herself.

< I don't believe this! Look at me, I fight demons and vampires every night, have done ever since I was 15 years old - but this one letter gets me completely unhinged. Wait, why am I even surprised? Xander always could get to me, when he needed to... > Buffy just sat there for what seemed like hours to her; objectively she knew it was only minutes, but it sure felt different to the young woman.

She then steeled herself, and continued reading. "What happened after that is not pleasant for me to remember, Giles..."

< It gets worse? How the *hell* can it get worse? > Buffy wondered shell-shocked, all sort of horrible ideas coming to mind. So she continued reading on...

Her breath caught in deep-rooted fear, when Buffy got to the part where Xander referred to questionable decisions made by her. She then started to tear up again, when she got to the part of Xander asking Giles not to let Joyce die a meaningless death.

"One last thing, G-man. Don't show this letter to Buffy or any of the others, except her mom. It would just stir up too many unpleasant memories, and besides - they need to get on with their lives..."

"Get on with our lives?" Buffy whispered, as she finished the letter.

It was at that point the young woman realized that...she had done exactly that.

She had never really looked back, since that night outside the Bronze. Buffy had rationalized and justified to herself what had happened, and how things had turned out. The few times someone had wanted to talk to her about it in a way that she didn't approve of, the Slayer had instantly shut down the conversation - in no uncertain terms.

Ms. Summers suddenly found herself wondering what things would be like in this world today, if she had just *listened* to what Xander had wanted to say 2 1/2 years ago...

< Even after all that happened, he still made a point of trying to help us, trying to save my mother. What does it say about me that when *I* was mad at *him*, I shunned the guy and just walked away? Xander, even after he got himself blown up, is still helping, still thinking of others... >

It was too much, too soon. Her entire world had been turned upside down, yet again.

Buffy sat there on the porch steps, and *cried*. With deep, hot, scalding tears, she cried over lost chances, new fears, and for the first time EVER...she openly mourned the loss of her high school classmate, her rock, her best male friend.

Her White Knight.

The blonde found herself truly regretting she had never made things right with him. < I never even tried that hard. After all Xander had done for me, I could have least *tried*! >

Buffy eventually wiped the tears from her eyes, mentally wishing that she had brought some Kleenex out with her. How had she gotten to this point? Where she was so self-absorbed with herself, that it took her almost three years to see the reality before her face?

Ms. Summers suddenly remembered her boyfriend Jeff, from her first year of college. He had been Buffy's first normal boyfriend, other than the guy called Pike, ever since the whole Slayer destiny thing had been sprung on her.

He had been sophisticated - although looking back on it, Buffy conceded that Jeff had had a superior attitude that bordered on arrogance at times - worldly, and cultured. Things that she hadn't associated with Xander, EVER, back in high school.

And yet, the first time Jeff had encountered the real world all around him that contained vamps and demons, he had *sprinted* out of town as quick as he could - heading for Princeton. He hadn't wanted anything more to do with Buffy, or her insane life.

Xander, on the other hand, had thrown himself into that world with abandon. Even when she'd tried to talk him out of coming to look for Jesse, he had gone down into those sewers with her anyway.

Even when it had gotten worse - the Master, the Judge, Acathla - Harris had refused to run. No matter what, he'd been there for her even if it would most likely get him killed.

Until she had turned on him. The former Scooby hadn't run, he had been...forced out. Left on the street, bruised and dazed from a vampire attack - and with another undead bastard waiting to pounce on him, as soon as his so-called friends had abandoned him.

And even after spending all that time in Hell - Buffy involuntarily shuddered at the thought of what Xander had must have gone through, there - when he'd done his job with those zombies that night, Xander *still* hadn't walked away.

Looking at it in retrospect, after his memories had been restored...with the fallout from Willow's spell, the guy must have known exactly what was going to happen at Graduation. No one would have criticized him for it, if he hadn't been there; it wasn't like he was a member of the Scooby gang anymore...

And yet Xander had stayed, making the giant Mayor-snake follow him into the trap the Scoobies had planned for the pure demon. And paying with his life, for doing so. Buffy felt herself tearing up again.

< He didn't run. Instead, he ran headlong into danger and got killed for it. That's the kind of person I turned my back on... >

And it was her decision, even if Cordy and Willow had freely participated in it. Leaving him there, to be saved by Angel. Buffy frowned for a second, < Angel, of all people, would have had the best reason to hate Xander. And yet, he didn't leave him on the street that night. >

Afterwards, he and the time-displaced refugee had seemed to have arrived at some kind of tacit understanding; for when the former Soldier Guy had left the library after that night, it had been the ensouled vampire he had found refuge and safety with.

Buffy knew that the few times she had visited Angel at his mansion on Crawford Street after that cursed evening, that Xander had been somewhere in the house. Harris had *haunted* the place, was the best way to put it; she understood that it hadn't been his home, because he didn't have one anymore. It was just a temporary resting place, till Graduation came.

One time she'd even tried to talk her former friend, but only once. Because when he'd heard the screams of pain, Angel had made it *very* clear that if she tried to do that again, he'd throw her out like he'd done with Cordelia - and she would never again set foot in his house.

The former Scooby would not come out when Buffy was around, after that. Or when Willow, or Giles, or Wesley had followed in her footsteps. He only talked to Angel.

< Angel. He'd know about Xander, and what really happened after he returned, > Buffy thought to herself. The Slayer made a mental note to contact the ensouled vampire in Los Angeles, to ask him about her former friend.

< Angel seemed to be his friend there at the end, and I doubt I could ever have been even that much - with what I did. > Buffy sighed heavily, and anyone who might have heard it could tell it was a sigh of sadness.

The vampire Slayer looked up at the stars again. < Oh Xander, what I wouldn't give for a chance to set things right with you... >


The Sunnydale industrial district, across town. The same time

Orlando of the Knights of Byzantium surveyed the warehouse, that his unit had been able to obtain for use as a base. His brethren hurried around, moving into the locale that they had only arrived at earlier in the day.

The mission of the Knights of Byzantium was *far* too important to stop for any rest breaks.

"Orlando?" another of the Knights approached his nominal leader.

"Yes, Dante?"

"All the supplies are unloaded, brother. I have our people doing sweeps of the building. It appears that there is at least two sewer entrances into the warehouse; and I've ordered that they be closed up."

Orlando nodded. "Good. Although, don't seal them up completely - we may have use of them ourselves. Once the building is secure, have a work party start preparing a training area for us."

Dante nodded, "As you say, brother." He started to head off, but stopped when Orlando motioned for him to stay. "There's something else?"

"Indeed, brother mine. General Gregor's orders are that we'll be sending out a search party tomorrow, to do some reconnaissance. We know the Key is somewhere here, in this cursed town. And we have to find it, before the Beast does."


Rural South Carolina. Later that night

Xander took a bite of the apple pie that had been the desert for dinner, earlier that evening. Dinner, like breakfast, had been a large affair. Now Xander, Oz, Bethany and Cleburne were sitting on the front porch, just allowing the world to go by and enjoying the quiet.

The front door swung open, and the child genius Irving Hollins walked out. He took a seat next to his companions.

"Isn't it getting late for you to still be up?" Cleburne joked with the 12-year-old kid.

Hollins looked at Cleburne. "I haven't had a regular bedtime for almost six years, Joshua. And you know that perfectly well."

Cleburne chuckled. "Tell that to my mother. Deep down she thinks you're just a normal snotnosed brat, who is way too bright for his own good. It hasn't dawned on her yet, that it's strange how after you worked on her computer - she could launch the Space Shuttle by remote control, if she wanted to..."

Cleburne suddenly looked worried. "Wait a minute, I saw you working on Ronald's computer. Do I need to call NASA, and give them a heads-up?" Joshua asked, referring to one of his teenage nephews.

"We lose another Shuttle in the future, you know."

That comment from Xander brought the group's attention to him exclusively.

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Hall?" Hollins asked, as Cleburne checked frantically to make sure that no one from his family was within earshot.

"I remember, one of the Space Shuttles burns up on reentry during the February of 2003. The tiles got damaged by some debris, on launch - and when it tried to return at the end of the mission, well...the Shuttle didn't make it. And neither did the crew."

Hollins looked thoughtful. "Do you remember anything else about that mission?"

"Only that some Israeli Air Force officer was an astronaut on it. Merry Christmas, guys," Xander said with a shrug. "Consider that a freebie..."

A year ago, the former slave would have never even considered mentioning that. And one could consider him quite the hypocrite these days, for going against his former beliefs like this. But Xander figured that since he had already changed so much in this world, there really wasn't any reason not to share that piece of future history trivia anymore.

The families of the victims wouldn't call him out on it, that was for sure...

Bethany Chaulk looked confused at Xander's announcement, much like Gwen Raiden had once done before her. Hollins noticed and said, "A somewhat similar situation to ours, Ms. Chaulk. Mr. Hall has a gift - or curse, depending how you look at it - which in broad terms resembles ours. I'll go into more detail later, if you like."

"Curse, Irving, it's definitely a curse. Don't try to sugarcoat it," Xander commented acidly, as he put on the now-empty plate on the porch next to his chair.

"Kid, I've been thinking-" Cleburne started.

"Don't hurt yourself, start small - because doing any heavy lifting, after everything you've eaten tonight..." Xander joked.

Cleburne continued on, ignoring Xander's attempt at humor despite the chuckles from their companions. "With your screwy timeline, you've been doing the 'saving the world' thing and fighting demons for almost nine years. Outside the Watchers Council, I don't think anyone I know has been at it as long as you have, or with as much success."

Xander raised an eyebrow at Mother Hen's compliment, for they were rare indeed. "And this gets me where?"

"Next month, I'm going to start changing the training procedures for the new recruits. And Irving was right all along - I want you to start teaching 'em what you know. Can you be around Finn now?" Cleburne asked, referring to Captain Riley Finn of the U.S. Army Rangers, who had recently returned from Belize.

"I don't know, to be honest. Last time I saw Riley was February, 2002 - so there will be some discomfort, but I figure as long as I know it's coming, maybe I can handle it."

One of the advantages of having drunk from the Holy Grail, was that the pain from thinking about the conflicting timelines seemed to be much more muted now. Xander hadn't tried out the experience with someone he had known in the previous history, though, so his one-time friend seemed as good a choice as any to experiment with.

And while he had the chance, maybe tell him about Samantha...

"Good, we'll draw up some kind of schedule for you to work from. I want you to show sword techniques to everyone. None of us have ever actually used a sword in combat. You're the guru in that field." Cleburne took a breath before continuing. "And I'll see what I can do with those forged papers you've got, about getting you bumped up to captain. I think that you've earned the right to be Finn's superior," Cleburne nodded.

Xander laughed at that. "Do I get the key to the girls' locker room?" he asked mockingly.

"Don't push your luck..." Cleburne leaned back in annoyance.

"People?" Oz suddenly spoke up.

Everyone looked at him as the werewolf in human form continued, "Treasure this moment."

Cleburne agreed. "Yeah. This holiday is probably going to be the last real break we'll have, for a couple of years. At least till 2002, and that's assuming all those people you've told us about stick to their schedule, Harris..."


A remote castle in Central Europe. The same time

The retainer knocked hesitantly on the door. "Enter," came the sultry female voice in reply.

He quickly opened the door, and entered with the proper attitude of deference. "Mistress."

The beautiful woman reclining on the antique love seat looked at the retainer for a few seconds, before replying. "What news do you bring?" A table was in front of her, with a glass of what looked like wine on it.

"We have confirmed that the Knights of Byzantium have sent a detachment to a town in the United States. One called Sunnydale," the man said with his eyes lowered.

The woman's eyebrows rose up, just a fraction of an inch. "Isn't that the town Dracula met his end in?"

"Yes Mistress, I'm told he was slain by the Slayer who is guardian of the Hellmouth there. The older blonde one."

The woman snorted. "The egomaniacal fool, why did he feel he had to challenge the Slayer on her home turf? She wasn't leaving there, so he decided to go to her. Men!" She leaned over, and took a sip from the glass. She then put it back down, "Do we know what they're looking for there?"

"No, Mistress, although if the Knights are present - it surely must be connected to Glorificus."

"Who hasn't been seen or heard from for almost two years now, yes I know. Something is going on, something has *changed* with the humans. Two Slayers, the human governments paying more attention to us than is appropriate, rumors of this warrior lost in time. I miss the old days, I tell you, when all you had to worry about was a teenage girl controlled by men with ego issues..."

The retainer remained silent during her statement. He knew enough to not interrupt, when his Mistress was thinking out loud. He had seen her in a bad mood before...

Elizabeth Bathory, the Bloody Countess of Hungary during 1610 and murderer of Ildiko the vampire Slayer, made up her mind. She fixed the retainer with a glare that would cause most men to shiver in fear. But the servant controlled his terror; he knew that if he reacted openly, he would fail the test she was always giving her retainers and forfeit his life to her whim.

"This has gone on long enough. It's time for us to take action! Contact the Immortal, and tell him I desire a meeting. Also, see about finding a secure neutral site for said meeting, within the next six months. There is much for us to talk about."


The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles, California. December 26, 2000

Lilah Morgan was talking on the phone, and she was not in a good mood. "What do you mean, you don't know what he's up to!?"

She listened for a second. "You *have* to know, after all - you've been doing this for me for nearly a year! All right, find out and then let me know. Or else you'll find your ass transferred to a third world dimension, by this time tomorrow!" She hung up the phone, slamming it down angrily.

Lilah knew that Lindsey MacDonald was getting desperate with the Angel & Darla situation. He was up to something, and according to rumor something drastic at that. And Lilah wanted to know what it was, as she suspected the one-handed man would screw up and get them both killed - if Angel decided to take the gloves off.

Her intercom buzzed. "Ms. Morgan, the individual you've requested for the Harris project is here."

"Good, send him in!"

Hopefully, this would take of her problem with the so-called *timetripper*. Then she could find out more about Lindsey's little scheme...

Part Twenty-One

Abandoned warehouse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. January 12, 2001

Malcolm Fletcher watched the building across the street, through the binoculars mounted on a tripod. He watched two men approach the building, then enter it. After they had done so, he leaned back and made a notation on the notepad the man had set up next to the tripod.

"Two more just entered," the balding agent said to his companion.

"How many does that make?" the Siberian nicknamed Red leaned over his shoulder, to look at the building in question.

"Total of 25 have gone in, since sundown. Of those, 17 are still in there," Fletcher responded.

"Not counting those who came in through the sewers," Red commented.

Fletcher frowned at that one. He had joined Siberian Trip Wire to help fight against the nasties in the dark; of course, someone with the skills that he had picked up while with the FBI would be completely wasted, as just another grunt in the STW armed forces.

So he'd promptly found himself doing the same things he had done in the Bureau, for his new teammates. A good investigator was worth his or her weight in gold, in this game.

Because fighting the baddies in the night involved more that just busting in through doors, and cracking heads open. That sort of thing only took place in the movies or on television, as more and more people in America were starting to realize. In order for everything to work properly when the time came to fight, preparation and investigation had to be done first.

And that was where Fletcher came in.

When he'd started his new job, Malcolm found himself tracking crime reports, crime statistics, missing person trends, newspaper stories and a multitude of other facts. He'd sifted through it all and when he thought he had spotted something, well - that's what he was doing here in the city of Brotherly Love.

Fletcher had spotted a discrepancy in the number of bodies of homeless people discovered by the local police.

Namely, there were too damned few of them.

An urban metropolis the size of Philadelphia should have had more dead homeless people per square capita, than the numbers he had unearthed. And somehow, Fletcher had doubted that it was just because that the local authorities were doing such a great job of dealing with the homeless problem.

So he had taken an investigation team to the area, and done some good old-fashioned detective work. After a week of digging, the unit had discovered the building across the road from where he was now sitting. He had called for reinforcements, and a day later Red had shown up leading a team of commandos.

"What are their peak hours?" Red asked.

"Looks like from about midnight, to five in the morning or so."

"So, we definitely don't want to go in during those hours. We'd have to deal with both the customers and staff, and that's too many variables for me to be comfortable with..."

Fletcher went back to the binoculars, and examined the building across the way. Every window was boarded up, on every floor. There was one door in the front, and he knew the only other entrance above ground was a loading dock in the rear. Everything else had been bricked up.

"Your people been able to figure out how large the staff might be?" the former FBI agent asked.

Red shook his head. "Uh, no. We'd normally do it by looking at the target area with heat sensors, but the problem is that vampires don't show up on heat sensors. We're having to find alternate ways of trying to figure out the enemy numbers."

"No Ninja recon?"

Red shook his head again at Fletcher's question. "No way, until we have at least some idea how big the operation is - we don't need to go tipping them off that we're coming. They're flying out some ground radar to us, should be here later tonight. Once it's in place, we'll give it a try."

Fletcher looked grim. "I hope it works. The sooner we get in there, the sooner I stop being physically ill - from thinking about what they're doing over there..."


Cleveland, Ohio. The same time

Wesley Wyndham-Pryce leaned back in his seat and sighed, massaging his temple. He was not happy to be here.

As part of Angel's quest to cure Darla, Wes had travelled to this city - not long after a major case in LA had been resolved. He'd come to a large warehouse with an apartment suite on the top floor, that was used by the Watcher named Sam Zabuto - and his Slayer named Kennedy.

The reason for this was that Mr. Zabuto was reputed to have an excellent, wide-ranging library, and if there was any chance a cure for the blonde woman could be found - this place was the best bet for it, outside of the Council's book repositories in England.

That wasn't why Wes was unhappy at being here...

Rather, meeting the latest incarnation of the vampire Slayer was.

Wesley hadn't met Kennedy yet, and he was dreading doing so. He understood now why so many Watchers retired or resigned after their charge was killed; after all, how do you relate to the latest Chosen One, knowing that a young girl that you had trained and cared for had to die in order for her to become empowered this way?

Not that Faith had cared for *him* very much, mind you, but still.

Sam Zabuto walked into the library, and handed Wesley a cup of tea. "Here you are, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. Earl Grey, hot, two sugars."

Wes smiled at his host, thanking him at once. Sam then asked, "How does it progress?"

Pryce sighed again. "Nothing so far, I'm afraid. All the healing spells I've uncovered so far are either based on irredeemably dark magicks, or require a witch of unthinkably immense power to be cast. Neither of which are compatible with our current circumstances in Los Angeles, I'm sorry to say."

Zabuto shook his head. "I still find it hard to believe the tale you told me, my friend. Vampires returning from the dead, in human form? It almost makes our job redundant, treating vampirism as some sort of disease that can eventually be overcome..."

Wes chuckled. "Quite, yes. Still, I doubt the ritual of the Raising could ever be mass-produced that way - which is probably just as well-" Just then, Kennedy the vampire Slayer came in to prepare for her night's patrol. "Sam? Where are you-" She stopped at seeing Wyndham-Pryce sitting with her Watcher. "Hi. Uh, who are you?"

Wesley froze, instantly knowing who she was. The Jamaican Watcher noticed and said hurriedly, "Miss Kennedy, may I present to you a former colleague of mine - Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, currently with the Angel Investigations detective agency in Los Angeles."

Kennedy's eyes went wide. "*The* Wesley Wyndham-Pryce? You were the Watcher for my predecessor, what was her name - Faith - weren't you? As well as the man who debriefed that guy Xander Harris back in 1999, right?"

Wesley slowly nodded his head, < Suck it up and deal, man. Faith's been dead for nearly two years now. And even if you failed her miserably at the end, that doesn't change the fact that she died a true heroine... > "I am he. And I knew Xander, yes."

The Slayer demanded, "Was he really from the future? And if he was, did he ever mention anything about me? Was he really romantically involved with Faith? Did he ever-"

"I should think that's quite enough for the moment, Miss Kennedy," Sam interrupted somberly. "Not only does the man need a moment of silence to answer your questions one at a time, you should show some respect for his feelings in these matters."

The young woman looked abashed as Wesley said with a sigh, "That's quite all right, Mr. Zabuto. Well, to answer your questions in order, no - he wasn't from the future, exactly, even if he was cursed with the knowledge of it-"

"How did that happen? I mean, I've heard the rumors - but really, what took place then, exactly?" Kennedy demanded.

Wes shrugged, "A botched magic ritual, by the witch called Willow Rosenberg. As the man had amnesia after spending nearly five years in a hell dimension suffering unthinkable torment, and the woman tried to restore his memory..."

Then he paused. "And did Xander ever mention anything about, not to me at least. But then, he only ever talked freely to me once, that night we restored his memories. Hmm, he might have talked about you to Angel, I suppose..."

"The vampire with a soul? Ewww," Kennedy screwed up her face in distaste. "No offence, but as far as I'm concerned - a vamp is a vamp is a vamp!"

"Kennedy!" Sam scolded her at once, in consternation. "Have your parents and I taught you no manners?"

"Sorry," the dark-haired Slayer shrugged, not sounding it at all.

Wesley politely ignored her attitude and finished up, "And as for whether he and my Slayer Faith Daniels were lovers, well, uh - the answer's yes. Or so I'm told - I, um, I never actually knew either of them, when they were still sleeping together. Faith was still under the supervision of Mr. Rupert Giles, along with Buffy Summers, during that stage of her calling."

Kennedy looked at her Watcher. "I've got to meet that Buffy girl one day. And Rupert Giles? The English guy who was here last month?"

Zabuto nodded and explained to Wesley, "Rupert was in the city then for his own reasons, and I invited him around for a cup of tea - despite the Council's orders. We reminisced somewhat, about the old days..."

Kennedy got a look of boredom on her face, and decided to go out - rather than listen to another story of Watcher 'do you remember whens'. "I'm outta here, Sam. See you in a few hours after patrol..." Pausing only to gather her weapons, the lesbian girl then vanished out the door.

Wesley watched her leave, his face suddenly expressionless. Sam said simply, "My apologies if Miss Kennedy caused offence, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce..."

Wes denied it with a shake of his head. "Please, call me Wesley. And no, no, it's fine. In fact, compared to some of Faith's temper tantrums, your girl was quite positively well-mannered..." He then looked at his companion, "She turns 18 years old within the next six months, doesn't she?"

Zabuto looked away. "You are referring to the Cruciamentum, I take it. I must confess, that I am not looking forward to that part of my duty at all - no, not in the slightest."

Wesley shrugged. "You're thinking perhaps of emulating the example of Mr. Giles, with Miss Summers?"

Sam didn't answer directly, "It is difficult to say. One never knows till one is tested - and my previous charge Kendra was killed by that damned hellspawn Drusilla before she came of age, after all..."

Wes became somewhat uncomfortable with the topic of conversation, and taking a sip of his cooling tea decided to hit the books once more. "Well, I'd best get back to it. Please, don't let me keep you from your duties..."

The Caribbean native nodded and got up. "I have some urgent cross-referencing to do, from 'Bristow's Demon Index'. But if there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to call for me..." The Council operative then left, as Wesley quickly buried his nose in the ancient tome he was holding.


Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. January 13, 2001

Darla absent-mindedly sorted through the mail, as she walked into Angel's private office. Ever since she had moved into the Hyperion she had felt better, both physically and mentally, and the color was slowly returning to her skin.

Even though the syphilis was still eating away at her heart, she now had hope. Because even if medical science had given up on her, Angel and the others hadn't; they were still looking for some magical cure. Something to stop her dying, within the next two months or so.

Seeing how determined Angel was and the effect it had on the others, Darla had allowed herself to feel hope for the first time, in a *very* long time.

She placed the mail requiring Angel's immediate attention on his chair. The mail requiring his attention in the near future, she placed in the in tray sitting on the desk. The others quickly found their way into the wastepaper basket next to the desk.

Since she had settled into the Hyperion, Darla had been trying to make herself useful wherever possible. One of these ways was to help with the clerical work. Which was a good idea, except for the fact that it put her in close proximity to Cordelia Chase.

The 20-year-old woman who detested Darla, with every fiber of her being.

The former whore couldn't really blame the other femme, well - not too much, anyway. Because Darla knew that Cordy worried about the effect she was having on the former Angelus. Every once in a while, she could even hear the former cheerleader muttering something along the lines of, "First Buffy, and now her? Maybe I ought to put on a blonde wig or something to get him to do anything around here..."

Darla knew something had happened between the time Angel had staked her in Sunnydale, and when Wolfram & Hart had brought her back from the realms of oblivion. Something that had resulted in Angelus returning for several months, after a moment of pure happiness during 1998. But neither the vampire in question or Cordelia were willing to talk about what *exactly* had happened, between Buffy and Angel.

Whatever the blonde knew she had gotten from Lindsey MacDonald - and from Wesley, who was still a little bit wary of trusting her with too much information. Still, the blonde woman was wearing him down bit by bit, and had learned much during the last week or so.

Darla quickly exited the office back into the lobby, as Cordy looked up - then glared at the former vamp, before going back to her filing. The one-time May Queen thought to herself, < This just isn't right. Why can't those stupid Powers just send me a vision on how we can cure her already, and get her the hell out of our lives? >

Yes indeed, Darla was not having any success bringing the former Queen C of Sunnydale High School over onto her side. The centuries-old woman at times thought that Cordelia was acting like an angry lioness, protecting her territory. And the longer that Darla was part of the Fang Gang, the more territorial Cordy got.

"Any word from Wesley?" she suddenly asked her rival. Darla knew that Wesley was in Ohio, trying to find some way of curing her illness.

"The guy called about half an hour ago. He's going to arrive back tomorrow morning," Cordy replied, without looking up from her filing.

"And?" Darla asked hopefully.

Cordy stopped filing. Even though she didn't like Darla, she didn't enjoy the news she was about to impart either. "I'm sorry, but no dice. What he found wasn't usable, except through the creepy black arts or whatever."

Cordelia thought for a second. "You know, you'd think that healing would be something that those people who do the whole white magic thing would really be big into - wouldn't you?"

Darla shook her head. She had actually picked up a fair amount of knowledge about magic, during her 400 years of being a vampire. "No, in this sort of situation you'd expect only the black arts would do. White magic tries not to disrupt the balance of things too much, whereas black magic exults in upsetting the balance. With my condition, such that it is, well - a lot of upsetting the balance would be needed..."

Ms. Chase didn't know what to say in response to that. Sometimes it was hard to dislike Darla, particularly when Cordy remembered that she was dying like this.

Everything the Fang Gang had tried so far to reverse her condition, had been unsuccessful. Both Angel and Wes had tried to find someone within the magic scene in Los Angeles to cure her, without success. And so with nowhere else to go, Darla had sung for Lorne...

The anagogic demon had then sent them to an empty pool, and after diving in Angel had undergone some trials conducted by an English butler type. Later the Champion had gotten pissed when, even though he had passed the trials to give Darla a second chance at life, the wording he had used to try and save his former sire had proved insufficient to give her said second chance.

Angel had been furious. Furious, as in 'throw things around and break them' furious. Furious, as in 'going out and laying the smackdown on any demon or vampire foolish enough to get in his way' furious. Furious in a way that had wrecked the lobby so badly that Gunn had grumbled about it for days, afterwards.

It was after that that the gang had concentrated their efforts on finding a cure for her. Whether they were working on a case or trying to save the world, curing Darla was their mission. It was a mission that all of them, even Cordy after some hostility, had adopted.

The brunette looked up at the blonde. "Darla, I want you to know-"

"Don't," the blonde interrupted her. "At least - not right now." She quickly walked off, across the lobby and up the stairs.

Not knowing that the two of them were being watched the whole time, by not unfamiliar eyes.


Washington, D.C. January 14, 2001

"He'll see you now."

Esther Marcum and Joshua Cleburne looked up in response to the statement of the aide. Then they got up and followed him, into the temporary office set up by the man they had come to see.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary," Esther greeted him.

Donald Rumsfeld got up and shook their hands. "Not yet, not officially; not till after the twentieth..."

He then motioned for them to sit down across the desk from him, as the man took his seat. "Now, what's all this about? It strikes me that a Marine colonel and a civilian would not bypass the chain of command this way, unless there was something really important at stake."

Esther started up, "Mr. Secretary-designate, I'm not sure if you're familiar with our organization, but we're from Siberian Trip Wire. That is-"

Rumsfeld interrupted Esther, "Yeah, yeah, I know what it is. I was SecDef back in '75, when you guys had to handle that A-bomb those Palestinian terrorists had smuggled into Boston. I'm familiar with your organization..."

This man, in addition to being the oldest Secretary of Defense in U.S. history, had also been the youngest in U.S. history. "...and as I recall, you people only come out of the woodwork when there's something drastic going on. So what's the situation here?"

Esther spoke up. "Sir, we have intelligence - in which we place the highest possible degree of confidence - that within nine months, we will be attacked in such a manner that the casualties will exceed the number of dead from Pearl Harbor."

Rumsfeld's eyes narrowed at Esther's declaration. "Who?" he demanded simply.

"Al-Qaeda," Cleburne said succinctly.

"That's the group that bombed the embassies in Africa during '98, isn't it? Osama bin Laden and his associates?" Rumsfeld asked.

"Yes, sir. They want to try to hit us on our soil here, in an attempt to bring the jihad to us," Cleburne clarified.

"State-sponsored?" Cleburne had a suspicion about what state that Rumsfeld had in mind.

"We don't believe so, at least not anything beyond unknowingly providing logistical support," Joshua quoted what Xander had told him.

"Why within nine months?"

Esther answered this one, "Our information indicates that the attack will take place, during the first two weeks of September this year."

Rumsfeld fixed Esther with a piercing look. "This all seems mighty detailed. How confident are you that it's not disinformation?"

"Completely," was Cleburne's strong reply.

"You've got a human resource in al-Qaeda?"

"No sir, as far as we know, our informant's never left the country - except in the company of U.S. military personnel."

The soon-to-be Secretary of Defense looked puzzled now. "Then why the huge confidence in him?"

Esther mentally prepared herself. She nodded at Cleburne, who opened an attaché case and pulled out a large file. "Mr. Secretary-designate. Let us explain - but let me say first, we're not insane and we can prove every detail of the fantastic tale that you're about to hear. Do you remember the situation with the USS Cole, back in October?"

"That destroyer that some terrorists tried to blow up in Aden?"

"Yes sir, our source tipped us off about that also. You see, his memories are...different from any of ours. The fact is - he can remember everything up till the summer of 2003 quite clearly," Esther said, half enjoying what she was doing and half-worrying over the reaction.

"Explain yourselves right the hell now," Rumsfeld said tersely, glaring at them both.

And thus, they did so.


Outside the abandoned warehouse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Later that day

Xander checked his weapon one more time. And down the line behind him, the other commandos did the same.

The ground radar of the Siberians had done its job, and now the STW force had both a detailed layout of the interior of their target, and an idea of the number of hostiles they would face. Enough information was present, 'actionable intelligence' as the professionals called it, to make the planned operation feasible.

The commandos for the operation, including Xander, had arrived the night before and hurriedly familiarized themselves with the target area and the plan. And once they'd learned the exact nature of their target, they had all thrown themselves into the preparation with a vengeance.

Now, in the midday sun, which was midnight for the undead, Xander found himself with the other soldiers - preparing to storm the building. He shifted uncomfortably in the gear that the Siberians had issued him. < These things are uncomfortable as hell. Huh, as I recall good old PFC Grant never had to wear anything like this in Vietnam... >

He was outfitted in the standard get-up for a special operation team. Helmet, bulletproof vest, night-vision goggles (not in use at the moment, but they would come in handy indoors) and everything else a SWAT team member could need or want.

But Oz, who was next to Xander, was dressed casually. Because after all, such equipment would just get in his way, when he turned into a werewolf.

Up ahead of Xander was Red, the Navy Seal in command of the operation. And Mike Byrne was talking on his throat microphone, coordinating with the other teams. Agent Fletcher was in the back with another team, sealing off the loading dock in the back of the old warehouse.

Under the street, there were three teams maneuvering to seal access to the target through the sewer system, under the command of Graham Miller. Xander was glad of that, because over the last year or so, he had come to be good friends with the Army Ranger. In the previous history, Harris had really never gotten to know him; he was someone that had hung around with Riley, not the Scoobies.

Xander regretted that now. He had come to treasure his friendship with Graham, and felt that if he'd known him better in that other world - it would have been nice to have had a friend outside the tight-knit circle of Scoobies.

Xander looked at his watch. "How much longer?" Oz asked, seeing his old buddy checking the time.

"About ten minutes, according to the schedule," Xander replied.

"What are we waiting for?" Oz asked.

"Philadelphia's main contribution to our little party," Xander replied tersely.

The Philadelphia PD had cleared out the few civilians in the abandoned industrial area, and was keeping the media away with a cover story about a large-scale methamphetamine lab. However, their main contribution was a piece of equipment almost tailor-made for what STW had in mind.

Xander's chain of thought was broken, as he saw Red tense up. "Say again, Team Delta. I did not copy your last transmission..." He listened for a few seconds, and then spoke again. "Come in, damn it - Montgomery! What's going on-"

Suddenly the commandos heard a burst of gunfire, sounding tinny and far off. Xander looked around, and saw that it was coming from up through the grate in the street underneath them. Red listened to his mike for a few seconds. Xander mentally kicked himself as he turned his radio on, as they hadn't done a radio check yet.

He caught the last little bit of the transmission, "...only two of them. We got one right away, but the other one slipped past us. Jeremy's down, but he got off a burst before the vamp got him...what the-!" Xander recognized the voice of Smithers, the commando in charge of Team Delta.

Red started running, with the other commandos hurrying to catch up. "All teams, listen up. Move in now!! I repeat, move in right the hell now!!! And bring the ram up, IMMEDIATELY!!"

Xander caught up to Red. "What happened?"

"Two vamps looking for a midnight snack stumbled across Team Delta. One of them got away. We have to assume he's tipping off the rest of the bad guys that we're coming..."

They turned the corner onto the street, where the front door of the abandoned warehouse was. Xander could see the door had been cracked open, with a figure in the shadows looking out.

Whatever was looking out, it saw the commandos and slammed the door shut. Even from down the street, Xander could hear bolts and bars being placed on the door. "Well, that wasn't unexpected," the young man commented, as he headed towards the target.

"Yeah, sometimes the bad guys can be so predictable. Luckily we planned for that," Red replied, as they reached the front door.

Behind them, they heard an engine roaring. Turning to the sound of the noise, Xander saw an armored personnel carrier come around the corner and start down the street towards the front door. On the top of the APC and extending outwards, was a battering ram. At the end of the ram was a large plate with the words 'HAVE A NICE DAY' emblazoned on it, above a police shield.

The APC picked up speed, as it approached the building. Xander, Red and the others quickly moved out of the way, as the battering ram impacted on the door with a loud thud. The door bent, but held as the APC backed up halfway down the street. It then came back at the door, at a high rate of speed.

This time, a loud crash accompanied the impact as the door crumbled and fell backwards, exposing the interior of the building to the outside.

Two of the commandos rushed forward, as the APC backed up, and tossed grenades into the entryway of the building. After three seconds, a loud boom came to the ears of the white hats.

"Go, go, go!" Red shouted as he entered the building, after slipping his goggles on. Xander followed along with the other commandos, Oz bringing up the rear of the attack.

Two bodies that were still smoldering greeted Xander, as he came through the doorway. Before he had even gone ten feet, one of the bodies erupted into flames and then turned to ash. The other started to get up; the disadvantage of fighting the undead, was that usually it took more to kill them than the living.

Red stepped over the rising vampire, and fired a five-round burst from his M4A1 carbine into the chest of it. The undead American cried out in pain and then his eyes grew wide, as smoke came from his skin. Suddenly his chest burst into flames, as the vampire futilely tried to pat the fire out with his hands. Within seconds, the bloodsucker was consumed by fire and turning to dust.

Red looked over his shoulders at the commandos. "You know your assignments! MOVE!" The team quickly split up into several groups and headed into the building, with one group staying to secure the front entrance. Xander could hear the sound of gunfire from elsewhere in the building, as the other teams effected entry themselves.

He followed Red into the building, figuring he needed to keep an eye on Cleburne's friend - who was definitely in love with that waitress these days, and had a lot to live for. Xander made his way through the maze-like interior of the warehouse, looking at scene after scene through the greenish tint of his night-vision goggles.

For the current occupiers had not turned on any lights, clearly to maintain control of the premises.

After several twists and turns, the commandos came to what appeared to be a lounge room. There was a bar, with several barstools that had been overturned. A pool table was in the center of the room. It looked like any other honkytonk bar in the world, except for the employees who were reacting to the new arrivals.

Several vampires were approaching with their game faces on, as a handful of fiercesome-looking demons came out from behind the bar. What alarmed Xander the most was that two of the demons were carrying shotguns.

"Targets at ten o'clock!" Red shouted out.

Three of the commandos raised their assault carbines and aimed, as they let loose a five-shot burst each. The head of demon closest to them crumpled from the impact, as green blood replaced much of its forehead.

The second demon howled, as a bullet hit its shoulder. But apparently, his shoulder was more bulletproof than his compatriot's head. He swung the shotgun up to hip level and fired off a blast.

The pellets flew through the room. Several of the vampires howled as they were hit by them, while one of the commandos screamed as the ammo hit his leg below the vest. Xander could also hear beneath the boom of the shotgun several low thuds, as pellets hit the vests of several of the commandos.

Himself included. Xander felt the hammering sensation in his left rib cage, and he staggered for a second before his reflexes kicked in and the human started moving once more. The other combatants were doing the same.

Suddenly behind them, an inhuman roar was heard - as a werewolf bounded into the bar.

Oz, in lupine form, looked around - and then leaped at the vampire nearest to him. The vampire, which had been a gangbanger before he had been turned, raised his arms in an attempt to deflect the ball of enraged fur flying towards him.

But the momentum of Oz's impact pushed both him and the vamp back and over the bar. After a few seconds, screams could be heard from behind the bar.

This caused the vampires and remaining demon to pause for a second. The Siberians had no such qualms, as they took advantage of the opportunity and attacked their opponents.

Red fired off several shots from his carbine into the head of the still-standing demon holding the shotgun. These gunshots found their mark and the head, of the demon vanished into a fine mist. "Head shots, always go for the head shots..." Red muttered.

Xander stepped forward towards a vampire that had just turned from the spectacle at the bar. He swung the stock of his assault weapon into the vampire's chest, hard. His opponent groaned and fell back. So Xander brought the barrel of the weapon up and pointed it at the falling form of the vampire, firing off a five-round burst once it was in position.

The Siberians preferred firing five-round bursts these days, actually, as they had determined that in general...three of their bullets with potassium in the tip grouped together, started enough of a fire to turn a vampire to ash. So it was three shots, with two spares for the kill strike.

In this case, it worked. The vampire looked down with wide eyes, as the smoldering fire on his shoulder lit up the darkness of the room. This was clearly not what the vampire had expected, from being shot. The fire then flared up and within seconds the vampire was consumed, turning into dust.

Around them, the commandos and vampires were mixing it up. Most of the Siberians choose not to use their firearms unless they were almost touching the enemy, so as to avoid the danger of collateral damage upon friendly fire.

This evened up the odds somewhat. Still, the vampires were fighting professionally trained killers, not your normal blood bag walking along the street. The Siberians mostly came out on top, but not in every fight. Xander saw one commando go down, with blood flowing from an open wound on the neck.

At the bar, Werewolf Oz jumped up from behind it and crouched on the bar top surveying the scene. It appeared that his supernatural senses enabled him to see in the dark, without the aid of the goggles worn by the soldiers. The wolf then fixed its glare at one of the remaining demons.

Oz leapt through the air towards his intended target, landing on its back. The demon twisted and turned, trying unsuccessfully to dislodge the werewolf. The whole time, Oz's claws tore into the bad guy, opening up huge gashes that it could not ignore.

Xander made his way across the bar room, fighting a vampire here and there. He finally reached his destination, a large and sturdily-built door. He tugged at it once, and it wouldn't budge. He saw a vampire laying on a table nearby, with its arm clearly broken. A commando was about to plunge a stake into its chest...

"Wait!" Xander shouted out, his comrade stopping the stake before it began its downward descent. Harris then hurried over, and grabbed the vampire by the collar. "How do we get through that door? Tell me, and you might get to see tomorrow night!"

His prisoner gulped, he had seen enough to know his chances were not good unless he cooperated. So he nodded over towards the bar, "There's a button underneath the counter, near the beer dispensers. It disengages the lock and opens the door. But we've got guards on the other side..."

"Don't worry about that part," Xander pushed the vampire down. "Now don't resist, and you'll survive this. Probably..."

Xander looked around, and saw that the Siberians had taken the room. Red headed over to the bar, having heard the response to Xander's question. He waited a few seconds till the Siberians were in position. He then nodded, and pushed the button.

A loud click could be heard from the door, as it swung open. A primal scream was then heard, as a huge red and blue demon ran out.

He was easily nine feet tall, and had to bend down to come through the door. But before he could straighten up, the Siberians opened fire on him. He extended himself to his full height, just shrugging off the bullets.

"Oh great, he's bulletproof!!" Xander shouted.

Red shouted, "Fall back. Pineapple inbound!"

The commandos scrambled out of the way, taking what shelter they could. The demon shook himself, several bullets falling out of its clothes when it did so. It then looked up, and was hit almost square in the face with the grenade that Red had just thrown. It squinted the its eyes as the grenade came to rest at the feet of the demon.

The grenade then went off with a loud boom. Dust, much of it from former vampires, swirled around the room.

The demon guard swayed on its feet, clearly stunned by the explosion. Over the Siberians, Oz leaped and attacked the demon, tearing into him where the bullets had failed to penetrate.

Unfortunately, this just brought the demon back to its senses. With a roar, it grabbed Oz and held him out at arm's length. The evil thing then prepared to hurl Oz across the bar, but before it got the chance Xander slammed into the demon's torso. < No one hurts my friends, asshole! >

The demon tried to hit Xander, but he was able to dodge the blow. The former slave then slipped out the silver knife issued to the commandos for the mission, and thrust it upwards into the demon's armpit. Luckily, the attack had the desired effect as the demon howled in pain and dropped Oz.

The werewolf quickly pressed the advantage, as Xander pressed the knife in further and twisted. Several other commandos swarmed the demon, as the guard fell to the ground and was quickly dispatched.

Red made his way over to the door. A quick peek revealed that the next room was devoid of opposition. "Okay, the way's clear. Straight through to the holding cells. Come on!" Byrne then went through the door, followed by the others.


Another part of the building. The same time

Graham Miller led his team down a darkened corridor. His team had encountered less resistance than Red's or Fletcher's had, as they had slipped in through one of the sewer entrances.

Although the undead minions they were facing had never really expected an assault, they had still gone ahead and made some preparations for trouble from the surface. But they had never thought though that there would be any trouble coming up from the sewers, apart from maybe a customer or two trying not to pay the cover charge.

So the commandos had made short work of the sole vampire acting as a doorman, for the sewer entrance. They had then quickly made their way into the interior of the abandoned warehouse, encountering the occasional vampire here and there.

They were able to hear over their radios the progress of the other teams. And they'd heard the fight Xander and his team had had, up in the waiting lounge. They were now making their way to link up with the team Xander was in; it was taking longer than they'd expected, for the blueprints they had of the building were incomplete.

Or more accurately, the building's interior had been changed somewhat since the blueprints had been filed. The undead owners had added walls and rooms, which made the interior of the basement into a maze. This was something the ground radar had failed to pick up. So the commandos had to make their way cautiously through the corridors, with military precision.

The commando in front of Graham suddenly signaled for the others to freeze in place. Thus, they all did so immediately.

"Report," Graham whispered into his microphone.

"Movement up ahead," was the instant whispered reply.

"Team Charlie, this is Team Bravo. We have movement in front of us. What is your position?" Graham radioed to the other team.

"We've entered the basement. Making our way through the corridors. Unsure if we have your position pegged accurately," Red's voice came in reply.

"Okay, we'll advance to see if that's you up front..." Graham signaled for two commandos to come forward. "Game plan is, we're going to move forward and see what's there. Watch your six and be on guard for anything," he ordered.

They nodded, and the three of them half-walked and half-crawled to the advance scout's location. He nodded at them. Through hand signals Graham ordered the scout and one of the commandos forward. The two of them started scooting forward to the junction, where the movement had been spotted.

As they arrived at the junction, a dark shape dropped down from the roof onto the point scout. The shape, by now recognized as a vampire, pushed the scout down to the ground and tore a huge chunk of flesh out of the back of his neck. The other commando twisted and brought his H&K submachine gun up, and pointed it at the vampire.

The commando waited for a few seconds till he had a clear shot, then he fired a short burst from his weapon. The vampire twisted and growled in pain, before exploding into dust. The soldier then quickly checked his companion; not liking what he found, he signaled for the others to come and help.

Graham and the two other commandos in front started forward. Suddenly, Miller saw a large burly shape fly above the commandos. His goggles showed that one end of it was burning slightly. Then it hit the wall, and exploded.

Graham and most of the other commandos then screamed in pain, as the light from the explosion filled their night-vision goggles and blinded them.

Miller hurriedly tore off his goggles, and he could hear the other commandos doing the same. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only thing he heard. He could hear growling and feet coming towards him.

The soldier-in-charge then heard the screams of the scout and commando ahead of him, as the vampires that had thrown the improvised Molotov cocktail reached them. Graham heard the sickening sounds of flesh being torn, and tried to keep it together...

The scout, who had been looking down when the explosion had blinded the others, still had some vision left. He swung his carbine up and slammed it into the face of the vampire moving in, to finish him off.

The vampire cursed, as it fell backwards. The scout saw the soldier next to him hit the floor hard, as another vamp tore out the poor soul's throat. He also saw several other undead moving past him, down the corridor.

Graham heard those vampires scurrying towards him. He agonized over his decision; the man's first impulse was to fire his carbine at the sound of the approaching vampires, but firing blind might hit his fellow commandos in front of him.

So Miller pulled at his equipment harness to get out the standard-issue silver knife, even though he would have to slash blind with that. He blinked furiously, hoping to regain his vision in time.

He was surprised to hear at least one step of footsteps hurry by him. One set stopped near him, and Graham felt the presence of a body nearby - one that wasn't breathing.

The soldier lashed out, and was rewarded with a cry of pain. "You bastard!"

Graham instantly felt a kick in his stomach. He heard nearby the sounds of attack on the other members of this team that had come forward. Behind him, he heard a series of gunshots take place as the vampire that had fled past him got to where the commandos not blinded were.

Graham also heard a lot more footsteps coming his way. Clearly, the vamps and demons in the building were trying to escape, right through his team. Graham knew that they couldn't stop them now, with most of his team blinded. So he resigned himself to dying, but he was still going to take as many of the bastards with him as he could...

A second kick to his stomach gave him the chance to grab the attacking foot, and pull the vampire off its feet. Graham stabbed again with his knife, feeling the weapon sink into its target.

A fist to his face was the vampire's reply. But suddenly, Graham heard an animalistic roar ahead of him, and could feel the vampire shift his attention towards the source of the roar.

"Shit!" the bloodsucker cried out.

The growling got closer, and Graham could suddenly smell an animal nearby. The attacking vampire turned to deal with the new threat; Graham heard the sounds of a fierce hand-to-hand combat nearby, accompanied by grunts and growls.

He also heard more motion in front of him, as the commando moved his body to put his back against the wall. There were shouts and curses, and he also heard what could only be the sound of flesh tearing. Graham was sickened, 'cause he knew that was the men under his command dying...

He suddenly heard shouts and the sounds of advancing men from in front of him. "Careful about using the firearms. You might hit one of ours!" Graham recognized Red's voice.

The sounds of footsteps trying to get past him quickened. The bad guys were clearly desperate to get away from the advancing commandos, from in front of Graham. Of course, to do so they had to get past whatever was growling nearby, which the Ranger had a strong suspicion was Oz in werewolf form.

He heard some more shouts and cries, both of the attackers and his men. And by this time, Graham could see blurry shadows. Of course, since the hallway was darkened almost to the point of invisibility, the only thing he *could* see if he had functional eyesight was dark shadows.

There was a large blur near him, swinging at several smaller blurs. One of the blurs suddenly staggered back, as a small part on top of it came loose and separated. The blur then disintegrated, as it turned to dust. Happy for a moment, Graham knew that one of the vampires that had attacked his men was no more.

Behind him, he still kept hearing shouts and gunshots, as most of the fleeing demons and vampires reached the commandos Miller had left behind. He saw several blurs of brightness, as those vampires burnt up and turned to dust - as the potassium-tipped bullets of the soldiers reacted with the water within the vamps, and started a fire that consumed their target.

A blur came up to him, and knelt down. "Miller, what's your status?"

Graham recognized Red's voice. "What about my men?" he asked first.

"They're being taken care of. Now what about you?"

"What's happened to my men?!" Graham insisted. He blinked again, as more of his eyesight returned. He could make out some features now. The soldier could now definitely make out the werewolf he knew was Oz crouching over several of the wounded, in a protective stance.

Red was silent for a second. "It's real bad. At least five dead; multiple casualties down, and most of them won't make it, if I'm any judge of battlefield wounds..."

"Damn," Graham muttered. He had failed his men, he had...

Red seemed to know what the Army Ranger was thinking. "Don't beat yourself up about it too much, Miller, this wasn't your fault - despite all the planning beforehand, sometimes the situation just turns into a complete goddamn nightmare. But learn how to deal, as it's most likely gonna happen again in the future. Now, lean back and let the medics look at you..."

Graham leaned back, as he heard Red on the radio calling for the corpsmen to get down to their location. Then he noticed his eyesight had returned enough that he could make out the trail of blood flowing, from further up in the hallway.


Another part of the building. The same time

Fletcher led his team through the hallway. Suddenly, his earpiece squawked to life. "We're about to turn the lights on in twenty seconds. Get ready."

Malcolm and the others took off their goggles. And waited. The lights in the room flickered on; but forewarned, the commandos were able to quickly reorient themselves.

Once they were ready, they made their way down the hallway to a large door bolted on this side. A commando stepped forward, and undid the bolt. The door then swung open, as the soldiers advanced, with their weapons at the ready.

They entered what looked like a hospital ward, with a long line of gurneys - along with chairs next to each one. Fletcher noted that each gurney had a set of restraints. Off to the side was a table and chair, that had been turned on its side. The lead commando noticed that a cup of coffee was spilled, and steam was rising from it. He signaled for the others to stop.

It was obvious that the table wasn't big enough for a large man to hide behind. Still, no chances were being taken, so the field commander circled wide to get a view of behind the table, outside of the reach of whatever might be behind it.

The thoughts of the commando were right, the table wasn't large enough for a man to hide behind.

But a small teenage girl turned into a vampire, that was different story.

She leapt up, growling in game face. "Goddamn bastards locked me in when they ran. I'll have to pay them back, once I'm done with you!"

The girl vamp then attacked the lead commando. Unfortunately, she was far enough away that a full burst from the H&K submachine gun caught her in the stomach, as she advanced. Smoke came from her clothes, as she started to burn and then quickly disintegrated.

The sound of the weapon firing was answered by screams from further down the chamber. Fletcher and the commandos looked at each other, and made their way down the room as quick as they safely could.

They got to a large heavy door that was secured form this side also. They quickly flung the door open, though.

They were greeted by a line of cages, within which were whimpering forms trying to shield their eyes from the now-blazing lights. Fletcher keyed his throat mike, "We've reached the holding cells. Get the medics in here, pronto! They're in pretty bad shape."

Fletcher looked down the row of cages at what were, even if they were unrecognizable as such, human beings who had once existed as the homeless of Philadelphia.


Thirty minutes later

Xander leaned his back against the wall, then he sat down exhausted as a steady line of U.S. army medics led the former captives out of their holding cells. It was obvious that the road to their recovery would be a long and difficult one.

< Sometimes I wonder, > Xander thought to himself. < Is all of it really worth the blood and pain? No, wait a minute - right now, in that other world, I'd be standing around like an idiot while Glory was kicking our asses, and wondering how to stop Anya embarrassing me with her tactless comments. Instead, I'm here in Philly and *I'm* the ass-kicker. So maybe it was just a little bit worth it all... >

Oz sat next to him, having gotten some new clothes after turning back into a human being from his lycanthrope form. "Rough day," he commented.

"Worse for them," Xander nodded at the homeless people.

Oz nodded. "True, but we caught this one at least. The vamps killed or captured today won't do something like this ever again."

"These ones, yeah. But there are still plenty of others out there, killing people," Xander's cynicism was in full force today.

"Yeah, and we'll take care of them one at a time as soon as we find them," Oz responded. He stood up. "There's some bottled water outside, man. Come on."

Xander shook his head. "Go ahead, I'll be along in a little bit. I just want to rest here for a few more minutes."

Oz nodded. "Okay, see you outside." He then walked towards the exit. Xander closed his eyes, and leaned his head against the wall.

"Hey buddy, you all right?"

Xander barely opened his eyes to see a medic in front of him. He waved his hand in answer, "I'm fine."

The medic looked down at Xander. "Okay. Uh, it's Lieutenant Hall right? I think we share a mutual acquaintance..."

Xander's alarm bells starting going off in his head. "And who's that?"

The medic leaned down. "Oh, he's in Los Angeles right now. Tall, dark-haired fella? Depressed all the time."

< Angel, > Xander immediately thought. "I know several people like that."

The medic looked around, and instantly Xander knew this guy wasn't supposed to be here; and probably wasn't even a real medic. < A messenger from Angel. Huh, wonder what's so important that Deadboy is contacting me like this? >

"We'll talk more later. Come to this address later tonight, around ten or so; I kinda doubt your bodyguards are gonna be keeping too close an eye on you this evening, not after everything that everybody went through today. And it's best if the rest of your pals in the organization don't know about any of this..." He handed Xander a bottle of water, with some paper wrapped around it.

Xander took the bottle, and saw that the outer sheet of paper had an address written on it. "Okay, how do I find you there?"

The fake medic shook his head."Not me. Just mention the name Sam Lawson," the medic said hurriedly, as he walked back towards the sewer entrance.

Part Twenty-Two

Fautis Bar, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. January 14, 2001

Sam Lawson took a drink from the cup of blood-laced coffee that he had ordered. The dark-haired bloodsucker sired by the one and only vampire with a soul then checked his watch again, somewhat impatiently.

It was almost ten, the time that he had told Xander to be here. But still, so far there had been no trace of him. < Humans... > The undead guy really hoped this went as planned, as he knew that his employer would not look kindly upon failure.

Around him, the demon bar hummed with activity. Despite considering themselves separate and superior to human beings, there were many demons in this world that didn't seem to mind living amongst them. Therefore, anywhere a large number of humans lived, you would also find members of the supernatural world.

In any major urban area, there was bound to be several bars that catered to the demon community. Some bars were exclusively for demons, and these were very bad places for any humans who weren't suicidal to appear in. One such establishment in the City of Brotherly Love had been forcibly closed down, earlier in the day.

Fautis was the type of bar that had a mixed clientele. Namely, demons and humans in the know. Normally, the two parties got along well enough. But tonight looked to be an exception to that rule.

From the conversations Sam had heard around him, several of the patrons of Fautis probably would be at the 'Blood Bank' right now, except that they had gotten word of the closing. Lawson was somewhat worried about that, and he hoped these 'bloodthirsty' patrons wouldn't interfere with his business. Already though, they had sent some hostile looks towards the humans in the bar...

Lawson sighed to himself, < I wish I could drink something stronger than coffee, but not until I've completed the assignment. Like the chief once said, the mission is what matters... >

The door to the bar opened, and a group of men subsequently entered. Sam's eyes narrowed, as he saw that Xander Harris was with them. He also picked out the twenty-something guy that was obviously a werewolf. < Damn it, the asshole brought backup. I'm a dead vamp! >

But as soon as Sam thought that, he had a nagging thought in the back of his head. < If they know or suspect something, why haven't I been dusted yet? >

Red and several other commandos pulled some tables together, so that the entire group could sit at the same place. Byrne glanced around at the dive, "Well, you chose this demon bar Hall. Hey, how did you even find it?"

"Blind luck..." the man said loud enough for other patrons to hear him.

Xander had indeed been the one to choose the bar for the post-op tradition. At first, the guy had thought that the tradition would not take place, what with the number of dead and wounded they had sustained. It didn't seem right to him...

However, the former slave had discovered that the STW commandos were determined to continue with the tradition, despite the casualties. In fact, the number of dead actually made them more determined than ever to carry on.

Red had explained it earlier to Xander. "You see, the tradition lives on. No matter what happens to individuals, the tradition lives on - and we all know we're part of something larger that just ourselves. One death, a hundred deaths, they're tragedies, but we go on. We mourn the losses, but we don't let ourselves fall apart or lose sight of the mission. You get what I'm saying?"

So when Xander had realized the upcoming drinking session was still on, he'd instantly known he had a solution to the problem the fake medic had presented him with.

Because basically, he wasn't stupid; Harris had immediately suspected a trap. After all, he had arranged for Angel to be able to reach him through Lemke in Sunnydale, if it was that damn important enough. So someone showing up claiming to be from Deadboy, would naturally be suspect.

However, some doubts nibbled at the back of Xander's mind. The Lemke method was only for the end-of-the-world scenarios, since it was a one-shot-only affair. Maybe Angel had wanted to contact him about something less than the end of the world...

And so Xander had immediately thought of Cordy, of course. With Gwen now getting the visions, there may have been news on his former girlfriend, good or bad. Not that he cared all that much either way, but Xander knew he had to follow up on the contact.

Of course, he wasn't going in solo; he knew that he had to make...arrangements. Xander Harris was many things, but a fool wasn't one of them. Not anymore.

Thus as said, when the young man had realized the place chosen for the meeting was a demon bar - well, it just seemed a tailor-made solution for his problem.

A waitress hurried over and took the orders for the group. The first round of drinks was served, and Red raised his glass in a toast as the others did the same. "Here's to us, those like us and those who can't be with us now. Salud!" And as one, all the commandos downed their drinks.

The second round was delivered almost immediately. The soldiers started drinking and talking amongst themselves. Xander scanned the bar, seeing if he could pick out this Sam Lawson character he was supposed to meet. But no one he looked at seemed to be the Sam Lawson type.

After a few minutes, Xander sighed and stood up to walk to the bar. He ordered another beer. As the bartender handed to him, Xander leaned over to pay him. "There a Sam Lawson here tonight?" he whispered.

The bartender nodded over to where the vampire was sitting at the end of the bar, while he took Xander's money.

"Keep the change," Xander said absently. He then went back to the table where the commandos were.

"You make him?" Red asked, before he briefly chugged his beer.

"Yeah," Xander said. "He's the one sitting at the end of the bar."

"How do you want to play this?" Red asked, pointedly not looking in Sam's direction.

"Well, after a few minutes I'm going to spill my beer, complain loudly about it and wander on back to the bar to buy another one. Strangely enough, I'm going to walk in such a way that I end up close to our messenger boy. I'll strike up a conversation, and see just what good ol' Sam wants," Xander replied.

"So what do you think? Watcher wannabe?" Oz asked.

"Hmmmm, maybe. You'd imagine the Men in Tweed are getting frustrated with their lack of success in grabbing me these days. Maybe they decided to try subtlety instead of brute force," Xander commented.

Red shook his head. "I don't know. From what I've seen of that Travers blowhard, he strikes me as more of the direct type fella. His idea of subtlety would be to tell his goons to beat up the enemy! Maybe it's Dante Industries - he's probably one of their lawyers, with some kind of slimy deal."

"Or those lawyers from Los Angeles, they're pretty slimy too. Syndrome that goes with the breed," Xander joked.

A careful observer would have noticed that the Siberians weren't really drinking that hard, just looking that way. Xander, Oz, and Red casually talked amongst themselves, as to who might have sent Sam Lawson. And after about 20 minutes, Xander 'accidentally' knocked his beer over with his arm.

"Damn. Spilled my beer!" Xander said in a loud voice. He stood up, "I'll be back in a minute, I'm just getting another one."

Red nodded at him, as Xander walked off. The 24-year-old then arrived at the bar in such a manner that he was in close proximity to Sam Lawson. And the whole time he was walking, Red managed to keep an eye on the former Scooby without being obvious about it.

Xander looked at Sam out of the corner of his eye, easily noting the telltale signs of the undead. < Damn! Vampire. Guess that rules out the Watchers, > he thought to himself. Xander had noticed the way Sam drank his beer, not needing to take breaths as he did so. The bartender then came up to Xander and took his order.

"You Lawson?" Xander said in a low tone.

"You were supposed to come alone," Sam commented without looking at his companion.

"Yeah, well, it's not like they enjoy me walking around all by my lonesomeness, after dark. Taking the guys out drinking means I can go where I need to and do I what I need to, right under their noses..."

The bartender came back with Xander's beer. Xander took a sip and then continued, "Besides, this way they're not out searching the city for me. I imagine you wouldn't like them crashing our conversation, huh?"

Sam nodded at that. He wasn't happy about it, but he understood the reasoning. "Will they get suspicious of you talking to me?"

Xander shook his head. "Nah. They see me being friendly in a bar, shouldn't get too worked up about that," Xander replied. < 'Course, they expect me to talk to you, how else do we learn all about you? >

The two sat there for a few seconds, before Xander spoke again. "All right, vampire, let's cut the crap. I've already pretty much guessed that you're not from Angel. Probably don't even know him-"

Sam shook his head this time. "Actually, I know him quite well. He sired me."

"Angelus sired you? No offense, but you don't seem his type-"

"No. Angel, not Angelus. He made me almost 50 years after he got his soul."

Xander looked at Sam in disbelief for a second. "Deadboy turned you, even though he had his soul intact? Bull!"

Lawson snorted. "Not that it's any of your business, but the situation was such that the chief didn't have a choice at the time. Didn't you hear me? There was a war on back then, things happen. I wound up a vampire on a German sub during 1943, only - a little bit different from other vampires."

Xander frowned at hearing that. < Angel was on a submarine during World War 2? Well, I suppose he *did* have a life back before he ever met the Scooby gang...and I should have known he would have been busy during the war. > Then he focused on the rest of the sentence from the undead guy. "How are you different?"

"Well, again not that it's any of your business, but I don't enjoy hurting people. I can do it, and I *have* done it, but I just don't get the thrill out of it that other vampires do." Sam then took a long gulp from his beer. "But enough with us flapping our jaws about the old days. Let me tell you why I'm here..."

A momentary pause. "Like you said, Angel didn't send me. I don't even know what he's up to these days, I only check up on him once a decade or so. However, the people who sent me know that Angel and you are friends. They figured that dropping his name by you would be a good way to get a foot inside the door."

"Well, the foot's there, congratulations. 'Course, I could slam on it real hard a few dozen times just for laughs," Xander commented.

"Don't do that, you listen - and you can come away from this a very rich man," Sam said with a smirk.

"Oh come on, you're going to try to bribe me? You can't afford it-"

"My employers can," Sam said in a matter of fact voice.

"Prove it. Tell me about them and their offer," Xander said. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the Siberians were still sitting at the table drinking, however he could tell from Red's body language that Xander was the center of his attention.

"They're Wolfram & Hart, a big multinational law firm. Okay, I don't work for the home office, just the LA branch based out on the West Coast. But the truth is, they're the mouthpieces for some of the heaviest hitters in this or any other dimension. The Senior Partners of the firm, they're the ones with the big bucks backing them. Bottom line? The Senior Partners want you to work for them."

Xander chuckled. "But I'm not the lawyer type."

"Oh, they can find other uses for you besides legal matters. They're what you call a 'full-service' law firm. Anything their clients need done or want, they take care of. And anything you want, they can give you. Money, women, knowledge, or even...revenge...a young guy like you could make out pretty well. From what I've heard you've got some people you probably wouldn't mind giving some payback to. "

Xander regarded the vampire with a neutral expression, while inwardly he scowled. "Go on."

Sam inwardly smirked, he was sure he had the target hooked. "You go to work for them as a consultant. Tell them things. You don't even have to do any heavy lifting, other than taking the bucks to the bank and broads to the bedroom, if you don't want to. And we're talking a salary that runs into six figures per month..."

Xander turned and look at the vampire. "Let me get this straight, you're trying to tell me that your law firm - one that freely admits it's Evil Incorporated - it wants me to believe that I can trust them to pay me a boatload of money, and they won't dissect my brain at the first opportunity? Come on!! I can't believe I wasted my time like this!" That last sentence was said with rising volume, as Xander stood up.

Sam noticed that several of the Siberians had suddenly approached his position. Xander turned to Red, "It's those lawyers from Los Angeles, he's trying to convince me they want to hire me - and not put one over on me."

Sam Lawson now felt panic. < Harris set me up. Damn it! > Lawson watched as several of the Siberians approached him. < I'm not getting paid for my ashes to wind up on someone's mantelpiece as a trophy! > he thought furiously, trying to figure a way for him to escape.

The soulless undead then noticed the table of scowling vampires, they had been the ones complaining earlier about the 'Blood Bank' being closed. Inspiration suddenly struck him; Sam stood up, knocking back his barstool as he did.

He then put on his game face before shouting to the other patrons, as they needed to know he was one of the demons if this was to work. "It's them!! They're the ones who knocked over the Blood Bank. They think they can come into our bar, and cause trouble!"

Lawson was grateful to see at least one table of vampires had slipped into game face, and were standing up. "You going to let them come in here and mess around with us?"

The Siberians finished surrounding Lawson, but Oz noticed what was going on. "Guys, we've got an audience!" The rest of the bar, except for the few fleeing humans, was now advancing towards the Siberians.

The undead former sailor smirked. "Should have taken the money, *Mr. Hall*, now we're going to do this the hard way..." Lawson did some quick calculations in his head. It looked like the humans were outnumbered at least two to one. < I should be able to snatch Harris while his friends get slaughtered- >

Xander looked at his would-be tormentor, and for some reason he had a cold smile on his face. "Don't count your chickens just yet, asshole!"

The last of the humans reached the front door and stopped, as the door burst open and a large number of SWAT team members with the letters FBI on their uniforms rushed in. Similarly dressed & equipped officers came through the kitchen and back entrance. And leading the group through the front door, was the one and only former Agent Malcolm Fletcher.

"FBI!!! NO ONE MOVE!" he shouted out. His point was emphasized by the sound of him chambering a round in the shotgun he was carrying. The numbers had suddenly evened up between the bar patrons and the Siberians, and Xander was silently thankful that Fletcher and Red had wired him up for sound tonight.

Of course, some of the patrons had been drinking quite a bit, and their judgment was thus impaired quite a *lot*. Thus one of the first vampires to have stood up lurched at one of the commandos, who had come in through the back door. "Damn humans. Don't know your place anymore-"

The response he got for his trouble was a sheet of flames leaping out from the barrel, as the FBI SWAT team member gave the patrons of the bar a demonstration of the effectiveness of dragonbreath ammo in a shotgun.

The vampire fell back screaming, as his clothes burned. He quickly flashed, and burned to ashes. And oddly enough, this had a wonderfully sobering effect on the other patrons in the bar.

Red noticed that the situation seemed to be under control now. He turned and faced the vamp working for Wolfram & Hart, who was definitely scared again. "Sam Lawson. Under the National Security Act of 1948, you are to be detained on charges of attempted bribery and kidnapping of U.S. military personnel. Any resistance will be met with overwhelming lethal force-"

"Please, resist," Xander said flatly.

Sam looked around and quickly calculated the odds. At heart, he was a survivor. He didn't fight because he enjoyed inflicting pain on others, the former Navy ensign fought to survive - and only when he felt confident about the chances of survival. Here, the chances were definitely against him. So Sam raised his hands in surrender.

The Siberians moved quickly to take him into custody. The bartender suddenly spoke up, "Hey, I don't want the bar broken up. So the rest of you, calm down and go about your business."

Fletcher nodded at that. "Sound advice. You all sit back down and start drinking again. Hell, the next round of drinks is on us!"

That had the effect of calming most of the bar patrons down, as they eagerly headed for the bar. The remaining ones saw they had no support and backed down, as the Siberians horribly outnumbered them.

Red watched as Lawson was led off. He looked over at Fletcher, "We're buying them drinks?"

"Hey, it worked. Fighting or drinking? They chose free booze," Fletcher responded.

"Yeah, but I don't have that much money," Xander said in annoyance.

"Don't worry," Red said, as he handed a large envelope to Xander. "One thing I learned about going into a bar with these guys, is to always be prepared in case you need to buy several rounds of drinks. So go pay the bartender, and give him a little extra to cover the cost of our troubles."

"Why me?" Xander asked.

Red chuckled. "Because *you* picked the bar!" Red then turned to the other Siberians, and started organizing them to leave. They had a regular human bar to go to next.

Xander sighed, and turned to the bartender. The bartender was actually relieved that Harris was the one coming to pay him. As he had been thinking of how to approach the young Siberian, without attracting undue attention.

Xander opened up the envelope, and handed a large wad of bills to the bartender. "This should cover the costs."

The bartender looked at him. "And the tab of the customer you just dragged out?"

Xander sighed with heartfelt exasperation, as he gave up and handed over the entire envelope. "Okay, *this* should do the trick."

The bartender took the envelope. "Let me just get your change..."

"Keep the change," Xander remarked, and turned to join his companions.

"No, you should take your change, *sir*. I really don't need the money."

Xander turned back and look at the bartender, who was holding out the envelope to him. Xander took the envelope back, and was surprised to realize that it was heavier than when he had given it to the bartender.

He glanced inside, and was surprised to see a DVD was in it. There was a yellow note attached to it. Xander could make out the words, 'Don't say anything. Watch the DVD later in private, or she'll get hurt.' Xander looked up, puzzled, and glanced at the bartender.

The bartender looked back at him. "Have a nice evening. And excuse me, but I need to go and smooth things out, over there..." He nodded at the waitress, who was dealing with some irate demon customers. "I'd hate for my girl to get hurt."


1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California. The same time

Buffy Summers was tossing and turning in her bed. For she was in the depths of troubled slumber, and about to start dreaming.

And not just a normal dream, either; like when she'd dreamed of graduating high school, moving to Europe, marrying Christian Slater and eventually dying of old age as an innocent 15-year-old schoolgirl.

This was a prophetic Slayer dream.

It had been quite a while though, since Buffy had had one of these. In fact, the last time had been when...she and Faith had dreamed together, just before Graduation. When they'd had a creepy vision of Angel and Xander wearing matching monks' robes, in a graveyard; and the male duo had then told the Chosen Two they had to know who to trust, with leading the assault against the Mayor.

But now Buffy found herself in her bedroom, spreading a bedsheet over her bed while the daylight streamed in through the window. And looking up, she saw that Xander Harris was on the other side of the bunk. Not really understanding what the hell was happening, Buffy said simply, "Well, this is new..."

The dream Xander just smiled, and as he turned his head slightly...the blonde Slayer saw that his neck was bleeding. From where that damnable vamp Lenny had almost torn his throat out, so long ago.

"Not exactly," the former soldier said in response to her comment. "Although Faith should be here making this bed with you, not me."

Ms. Summers nodded at his neck, not even knowing why. "You're hurt bad."

Xander shrugged, dismissing that. "Scar tissue. It fades. It all fades. Just takes awhile."

Buffy looked troubled. "There's something I'm supposed to be doing..."

Harris shook his head. "No, not anymore. I saw to it. So did Angel. The sandbox is all yours to play in now."

The college girl grimaced. "Great. Riddles."

Xander seemed to lean forward. "I just can't protect yourself from...some stuff. That's where I come in. It's what I do. Fix things."

The Chosen One frowned again. "Like what?"

Her former best male friend then seemed to lean back, a strange look on his face. "We all gotta have something. Gotta be with movin' forward. Like a shark with feet and...much less fins..." He then strode out of the bedroom, an utterly confused Buffy following him.

The Slayer then noticed a huge party seemed to be taking place in her house, as she stopped climbing down the stairs. A festival that instantly gave her the creeps, as Buffy realized that many of the guests were *dead*; victims of Graduation. "Oh boy..."

One of the party guests accosted someone who looked to be high on weed, close to the blonde girl in question, after she left the stairwell. "Hey, what's the deal with this party anyway?"

The dude, who was obviously stoned, replied simply, "This party? Heard it was for some chick, that just got out of rehab..."

Buffy frowned, the words meaning nothing to her. As she looked for Xander, the Chosen One finally noticed him by the stairs; and to her great shock, he was making out with her sister Slayer Faith. "What the hell-"

As she got close enough to hear what they were saying, Xander broke off the kiss and said to his brunette companion, "Great party, right? And it's good that the Buffster's back, isn't it?"

Faith smiled and nodded. "Totally. Except you were kinda turning me on, with that whole Boy Slayer thing."

Xander seemed intrigued. "Was I now?"

The dark-haired Slayer nodded. "You bet, stud."

"Look at them." Buffy heard Cordelia's voice. She looked up and saw the former Sunnydale High School cheerleader walking through the hallway with a black haired small woman. "He needs to move on, even if he doesn't know it. He's going to get hurt, he'll see it coming, but still get hurt."

The petite woman spoke up with a Texas Twang. "She has competition." The woman, who Buffy hadn't met yet and therefore didn't recognize as Fred, nodded at the liviing room where a woman in the her mid twenties was standing and staring at Xander and Faith. Buffy noticed that she had curly hair and had a resemblance to Faith.

"Poor Girl. She doesn't know what's going to happen." Cordelia said as the two of them walked into the dining room. The other woman spoke again.

"I know, yet it won't be the end. He will...." They passed beyond Buffy's hearing. Buffy turned her attention back to Fiath and Xander.

They smiled and giggled at each other, and resumed their kissing as Buffy watched in amazement. Then the Slayer noticed Dawn carrying a tray of drinks, being momentarily distracted; and when she turned back to the stairs, both Xander and Faith were gone.

Buffy looked even more confused, and then chased after Dawn. Before she could catch up with her sister though, a strange-looking man bearing a platter of cheese stepped into her path. The guy with glasses offered her the cheese slices and said in a sorrowful voice, "These...will not make up for past mistakes."

Buffy simply ignored him, stepping around the Cheese Man. She finally reached her sibling, "Dawn, what's going on? And, and where's Mom?"

The younger Summers daughter seemed unconcerned, as the sisters headed for the kitchen. "You tried looking to see if she's living in the walls?"


Dawn shrugged, "You think you know...what's to come...what you are. You haven't even begun."

Buffy sighed. "Now you're the one starting with the cryptic?"

Suddenly the tray was dropped, the glasses on it shattering into thousands of pieces with a huge exaggerated noise, as everything crashed onto the ground. Startled, Buffy stared at the floor now covered in glass fragments - before staring back up at her sister.

The brunette Key had a sword in her hand, and pointed at her heart. "Hands off my daddy, big sis-"

And that was the point where Buffy jerked up in her bed, instantly becoming awake in the darkness, with a definite sheen of sweat on her forehead. < What the hell was that? >

Oh, the Slayer knew it was a prophetic dream of course; she'd had them often enough, ever since 1996. What she didn't understand, was why she would dream of Xander and Faith like that...

< I mean, they're both gone now. Dead is dead, and there's no coming back from that - vampires not included! > The blonde shook her head, as if trying to get rid of some water lodged in her ear. < And never mind that bald idiot with the cheese, what was the whole sword deal with Dawnie anyway? >

Buffy was worried about the implications of her sister raising a weapon against her. Ever since she'd found out about the whole Key deal, she'd been more than somewhat concerned about what all that might mean for the future. Especially with her 20th birthday coming up, within a few days...

The young woman shuddered at past memories of Buffy's Birthday Disasters. Angelus and the Judge, the Cruciamentum and her mom almost getting killed, Barvain and the Giles demon... < Wonder what's scheduled for this year? Uprising, prophesised ritual, preordained death-fest? >

Trying to banish such thoughts, Buffy got up from bed and went to check on her family, knowing that she'd never get back to sleep now. The Slayer snuck a quick peek into Joyce's room; and luckily, her mother's sleep seemed to be peaceful and undisturbed, as the middle-aged woman seemed to be making good progress in recovering from her brain operation.

< Yeah, sure, > Buffy thought bitterly to herself. < Just like how Xander described it in that letter, till Mom dropped dead about a month from now...I swear, February 21st? Dawn and I are gonna be sticking to her like glue, if I can't persuade her to spend the day in hospital just to be safe... >

Ms. Summers then went to check on her sibling, and to her consternation found Dawn to be tossing and turning in her sleep. Buffy's Slayer hearing then caught the brunette girl mumbling, "I don't care if Ampata wasn't evil to start with! I'm gonna marry Xander when I grow up-"

Buffy shut the door and sighed, remembering that argument with her little sis years ago - then she frowned, realizing that it had actually never happened, that Dawn hadn't even been around then.

It was freaky to think that the 14-year-old still had a crush on someone that she'd never really met...

Buffy sighed again and trudged off to bed. < I need to get some sleep. Tomorrow's another day, after all, and I can discuss the dream with Giles; he'll know what to do... >

But the Slayer soon realized she was way too wired to just lay down, and try to get some shut-eye. So Buffy pulled on some clothes, grabbed Mr. Pointy and hit the road to patrol.


An alley near the Bronze, Sunnydale, California. Half an hour later

Buffy ducked and dropped to the ground, as the sword swished above her head. < Whoa, these guys are better than they look! > the blonde Champion thought, as she struck out with her left leg in a sweep kick and her attacker fell to the ground. He hit with a loud clang as his armor impacted the ground, and his sword skittered off to the side.

Buffy rolled back and jumped up. She saw two more of her armor-clad attackers advancing on her and asked hopefully, "Come on, you guys, I think we're on the same side here. Can't we just be friends?"

The Chosen One had seen a teenage girl follow a vampire into this alley, and Buffy had immediately gone in Slayer mode. The college girl had been with a guy named Greg she had met at the Espresso Pump earlier on, and Buffy just *knew* it would ruin the semi-date completely when she had told him she'd just remembered she needed to do something, and run off.

Buffy hadn't needed her enhanced hearing to hear the male graduate student yelling after her, and she knew some of it hadn't been complimentary. She had ignored him though, better to deal with that disaster afterwards. The Slayer had then run down the twists and turns of the alley, until she found the girl.

And a surprise. Several men wearing medieval armor were decapitating the vampire. The girl had screamed and run off, leaving Buffy and the King Arthur-wannabes alone. They had stared at her for a few seconds, before they had started advancing towards her.

The fight had started almost immediately afterwards, because after all - the Slayer did not like men advancing on her with drawn swords. And it wasn't entirely her fault; Buffy had just reacted the way Slayers had always reacted throughout history, when so threatened.

"We have no friends," the one closest to her responded to Buffy's earlier question. "Nor do we desire them. We serve only the will of God-"

The Knight swung his sword at her, as Buffy jumped back. He leapt forward and slugged him with a right uppercut as he turned back to her, having reacted to his weight being shifted by the use of the sword. He staggered back, and Buffy prepared to follow up her advantage - only to have to dodge the sword from the second attacker. She could see the one she had knocked to the ground earlier getting up.

"You will not interfere!" the leader of the group declared.

"Fine, but still not following you. Interfere with what?" the blonde girl demanded.

"The Key is the link. The link must be severed. Such is the will of God!" another Knight shouted as Buffy's guts froze in fear. < Dawn? >

The leader, Orlando, nodded. "We will find it. For we must make sure that the Beast cannot use it, for its own hellish purposes."

"The Beast?" Buffy asked cautiously, tensing her body.

The Knight called Dante snapped, "Glorificus, the hellgod. Or Glory, or whatever she calls herself now!"

Buffy immediately felt her stomach drop. < Glory. Oh yeah, that's the name of the thing that wanted Dawn to open that portal. These bozos want to kill my little sister? Then they're the enemy... > She jumped up and hit the second attacker with a flying kick to the chest, that knocked him across the alley and hard into the brick wall on the other side.

"Look guys, I don't know what your story is, but you've got a lousy way of trying to get a girl's interest. Flowers and candy? That works, swords..." She shook her head. "Not so much..."

Buffy immediately pressed her advantage, moving towards the Knight who had just gotten up. She parried his blow, and counterpunched him in the face. She managed at the last moment to pull the punch a little bit, and not use her full strength; for the Slayer knew that her attackers were human, and...

She didn't want to kill humans, never having forgotten how close Faith had come to killing a man back in 1999.

Of course, since they were threatening Dawn, Buffy didn't hold back that much. Because her temper and bloodlust were now up. The third attacker then unwisely came closer, when it probably would have been better for him to hang back a little bit.

He lunged forward, trying to stab Buffy with the sword. He missed, as she leaned to the left. The female warrior for the Light then grabbed his outstretched arms and pulled hard. The Knight stumbled forward, and his groin met the raised knee of the Slayer.

Now, the protection there would have been sufficient for a knee strike from a normal person. A Slayer's knee with the accompanying power, however, that was a whole different story.

The man howled in pain, as his voice raised at least five octaves in the second that it took Buffy to hit him. He fell backwards, dropping his sword and clutching at Mr. Wiggly and the twins in horrible pain. The Knight then assumed a fetal position, clearly out of the fight for the time being.

Buffy turned her attention to the two other attackers. The one who had hit the brick wall was advancing at her unevenly on his feet, but the leader was in much better shape.

Orlando cautiously advanced, with his sword at the ready. Clearly, this small woman was more than she seemed. For a second, he thought that maybe this was Glory's undisguised form; but he quickly discarded that possibility. < If she were the Beast, we would all already be dead... >

He waited, allowing his fellow Knight to get into position, before advancing again.

Buffy eyed the two of them. < Well, these guys aren't idiots, they're advancing in such a way to cover each other. I attack one, and the other takes advantage of my attention being elsewhere... > The Slayer looked around the alley, for something she could use. She then remembered the first time she had met Angel; Buffy waited for a second, as her attackers approached her.

And right before they got within striking distance, she jumped up and grabbed a pipe that was above the alley. Buffy then did several moves that would have left an Olympic gymnast green with envy; she then let go, and sailed down right behind the second of her attackers.

Dante turned to face her, only to be met by Buffy's fist in his face. He flew back hard, and hit the wall again. The second time, he groaned a little bit and didn't get back up. The Chosen One quickly turned, and faced off against the third attacker.

Orlando raced forward with a wild battle cry, his sword above his head. Buffy waited for a second, then stepped back and threw her right fist at her attacker, hitting in the chest. The body armor actually crumpled from the force of the impact, as he also flew back into the alley wall.

Orlando slumped to the ground, groggy from the impact, barely staying awake. Buffy walked over and leaned down into his face, "Look, I don't know who you people are. If you're working for Glory, then I gotta tell ya - you really should be more worried about what *I'll* do to you! And if you're not working for Glory...well, geez, but you guys have got a *weird* way of trying to make friends! Either way, just stay out of my way - comprende?" she snarled.

Buffy then stood up, and walked away. < Maybe Greg is still there, and I can salvage something of our so-called date... >

Orlando of the Knights of Byzantium looked at the departing woman he and his brothers had attacked tonight. It was clear that she knew something about Glory. And he knew now she was something more than human, from what they had observed of her skills - for no one that was *normal* could best three armed Knights alone in combat that way. < I believe we may just have found our first lead. General Gregor must be so informed at once... >


Bethesda Navy Hospital, Maryland. January 15, 2001

Cleburne knocked on the door, and entered a few seconds afterwards. The morning sunlight shone through the window, lighting up the private room.

Graham Miller looked up at the colonel's entry. "Colonel," the former Ranger greeted the senior Siberian.

"Lieutenant," Cleburne returned the greeting. "The doctors tell me you should make a full recovery. They think you'll be up and about within a week."

"Yes sir, I was lucky. More lucky than I deserve." Graham looked grim. The fact that his face was bandaged in places didn't help either. Cleburne, for once in military uniform, pulled up a chair and sat down next the bed.

"Red told me you were taking what happened hard. Care to explain?"

"Sir, I failed in my duty miserably. Nine of my men are dead. I'm told that two more of them are in serious condition, and the docs are saying it could still go either way. The only reason we weren't completely massacred is that the werewolf came along, and kept the bad guys busy long enough for Lt. Commander Byrne and the others to get to us. Otherwise, I would have done a very good imitation of Custer's last stand..."

Cleburne looked at the injured man laying in front of him. This was a talk that every officer in the military, as well as anyone worth his or her salt in any respectable armed forces on the planet, went through in their career. "Lieutenant, I've read the after-action reports. I admit they're preliminary, but I've come to some pretty definite conclusions already."

Graham steeled himself. "Sir, if this is about the upcoming court-martial? I'm fully-"

Cleburne interrupted him. "Lieutenant, tell me something. Just what did you do wrong? Exactly what would you have done differently, with the benefit of hindsight?"

"Sir, I would have ditched those night-vision goggles for one thing, they made us too vulnerable. We shouldn't have relied on them. When that explosion lit up the hallway, it rendered us blind and helpless," Graham replied at once.

"I see. But it's my understanding that the whole building was completely dark, since the hostiles don't need as much light as we do to move around. If you hadn't been wearing the goggles, you and your men would have been as blind as a bat, and a free meal for the enemy. The goggles evened the playing field between you and the vamps, didn't it?" Cleburne replied.


"No, Miller, even with hindsight - the goggles were necessary. They allowed you to get in and engage the enemy. They were a double-edged sword, but then what weapon isn't - one way or another?"

"Regardless, I led my men into a trap."

"From the mission reports, apparently you left enough behind to deal with the hostiles. You didn't lead *all* of your men to that intersection, you knew enough to not put all your eggs in one basket. You were thinking clearly. Hold on!" The USMC colonel waved off Graham before he could interrupt.

"You think just because men died under your command, that you did something wrong?" Cleburne leaned back in his chair, with a fierce look on his face. "Bullshit."

Graham looked confused. "Sir?"

"Miller, our line of work is *very* different from the work that bankers, lawyers and insurance salesmen do. It's based on a simple very fact, that most people outside the service refuse to admit is valid. When you're in the field, you kill before someone else kills you. You tell some egghead from Harvard that and he would be shocked at that fact, and complain about someone's rights being violated..."

Cleburne took a breath and continued. "But, you and I both know that being a soldier means that sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how many possibilities you prepare for, no matter how much you try to stack the odds in your favor, when all is said and done - people are going to die."

A pause. "It's just part of a soldier's life. We don't have to like it. We don't have to be happy about it. We can do everything imaginable to lessen the chances of it, but in the end - we have to accept it."

He shook his head. "I swear, sometimes I get so frustrated with the noncombatants that I could tear them all a new asshole! Sometimes they forget that we're not bureaucrats or pencil pushers. Warfare hasn't gotten to the point where it's almost bloodless. You don't just push a button, and watch a nice special effects show on the idiot box. They forget that we have to spill blood and have our own blood spilled, sometimes."

Graham looked a little angry. "So that's what this talk boils down to, 'shit happens and people die'? Sir, with all due respect, that's just a pile of crap."

Cleburne nodded. "Maybe, but it's also the cold hard truth. You don't throw away lives foolishly or for a bad purpose, but you have to resign yourself to the fact that sometimes your orders will get your people killed."

"Nine of my men are dead, maybe more before the night is done," Graham looked away.

"Yeah, they're dead and gone. Nothing will bring them back. But at the end of the day, they saved some lives. Those homeless people are no longer Happy Meals in cages. They've got a chance."

"Sir, most of them are so messed up that they'll probably be right back on the street, as soon as we let them go-"

"Could be, but some of them will turn out all right and those bloodsuckers won't do their blood bank trick again. I'm also hoping that word gets out of what we did, and any copycat vampires will think twice about it and find another way of annoying us, particularly after that little trick Red pulled with the surviving vamps in the exercise yard at dawn the next day. I don't know about you, but the whole 'blood bank' idea gave me the creeps."

"Still. I lost nine men," Graham said softly.

Cleburne leaned in close to Graham. "You *only* lost nine."

"Only nine..." Graham's voice started to rise.

"When I had a battalion under my watch in Beirut, I had to deal with a much larger number. One day I personally held 241 lives in my hands, I did everything I thought I could to stop their deaths. Still, it happened. Rules were stacked against us, damn sentries didn't even have loaded weapons..." Cleburne looked thoughtful for a second. "Anyway, it tore me up for a while, but then I went out and dealt with those responsible for it. I felt a lot better afterwards. I also felt better, when I realized what I just told you."

Cleburne stood up. "Look, Graham. You're a good officer, otherwise I wouldn't have you in my unit. You've got the potential to become a great officer too, if you don't let this eat you up inside. Think about what I said. I've got to meet Esther for another meeting, and I'll check in on you tonight. We'll talk later."


Richmond, Virginia. Later that day

Xander looked around one last time. He and Oz had gotten back to the apartment last night, and Harris hadn't had a chance to watch the DVD in private until now. He hadn't had access to a DVD player in Philadelphia, and here Oz had constantly been around.

But the werewolf had slipped out now, just a few minutes ago. He had told his roommate he was going to a music store, to get some equipment. Just because the guy had become a consultant for the government, didn't mean that Oz had given up the music scene; he had even played a few sets in the different cities STW had sequestered them, and Xander had gone to watch him perform.

Yeah, Oz still enjoyed the whole musician thing. With any luck, he would meet a nice girl one day at a rock concert or something, settle down and live a good life. Totally unlike the one Xander Harris could ever live, because basically the former Zeppo knew that he was a marked man, until the day he died...

Anyway, Xander knew that Oz would be gone a while and he would be uninterrupted in finding out what was going on with the bartender's little present. The young man slipped the DVD into the player, and turned on the TV.

< Hang on a moment... > Suddenly suspicious, Xander looked around, and went into his bedroom. He quickly came out with Gwen's white noise generator, *just in case* the place was bugged and he wanted this message to stay private. Harris switched on the generator, then dropped into a lounge chair and watched, as a picture on the TV screen eventually appeared.

Xander promptly saw an attractive woman in a business suit looking out at him. "Mr. Harris, hello. How nice to finally get to talk to you, so to speak...let me introduce myself. I'm Lilah Morgan."

Xander thought furiously, trying to remember if he had heard the name before. But he drew a blank, not knowing that in the previous future - her name had never come up with Willow, during the witch's trip to Los Angeles. And in this world, he hadn't been told the names of attorneys from the lawsuit designed to get access to him.

"I imagine that if you're watching this recording, Mr. Lawson has come to a tragic end. Well, to be honest, I must admit that I'm not too torn up about that, or about using him as a distraction. From what I've heard of you, you have this disturbing sense of morality which no doubt caused you to turn him into your jailers, the first chance you got. Still, as I said, no great loss; he was a complete bore, and even other vampires didn't like him all that much. Too squeamish for their tastes."

Lilah smiled in a friendly way as she continued on, "And no doubt by now, you've guessed that I'm from the law firm of Wolfram & Hart. Mr. Harris, we've heard a great deal about you, and I for one have been wanting to meet you for quite some time. My associates and I tried to get together with you once before, but alas your nasty keepers pulled some strings to make sure that didn't happen. Ah, well..."

The camera pulled back a little bit and Xander saw that she was sitting on a desk, one that he assumed was hers. She crossed her legs, giving Xander an impressive view of them.

The ghost of the Soldier Guy he'd been for years, otherwise known as PFC Donald Grant, spoke up in Xander's mind. < Classic battle strategy. The target knows how to distract an audience. Don't let her use her appearance put you off-balance! > Xander nodded to himself, still - Lilah *was* attractive, in an evil, "I'll buy your soul for a dollar" kind of way. He shook his head, and concentrated on the screen.

Lilah continued talking, "Long story short, in the end we figured that we should just be polite, and send you an invitation to come visit us. Of course, your current hosts seem to have gotten it into their heads, to deliberately not let you know of the invite! Strange, I have to say. So, I thought I'd make sure it got hand-delivered to you. And if something unfortunate were to occur to Mr. Lawson, oh well - these things happen."

She smiled with a predator's smile this time. "So, Xander Harris, feel free to drop by at our branch here in LA anytime. We have *so* much to talk about it! You're invited to come as soon as possible. As a matter of fact, the sooner the better. You see, we've got a friend of yours here that's probably dying to see you..."

Lilah laughed softly at that. "It's been a while since you've seen her, too. So I just *bet* you would be thrilled to see her again."

The camera panned to the right, and Xander could see a conference table set up next to the desk. On it was a small orb that glowed with a misty white light. The camera focused in on the glass ball, as Lilah's commentary continued as a voice-over.

"Like it, Mr. Harris? Well, it's a special kind of globe. It's an Orb of Thesulah, and I'm told that the Watchers Council intended to use one of them on you before they learned you were still alive. No doubt given your history with a certain vampire we both know, you're aware that it's used to house souls summoned from otherworldly realms. Most of the time when you see one, it's empty. This one, however, it's occupied at the moment."

The camera turned back to the female attorney. And Xander got worried all of sudden, he had a sinking feeling as to whose soul was trapped within the orb. < No, damn you, not *her*... >

Lilah continued, "Now, ever since word of your...condition got out, quite a bit of research has been done on your past activities in Sunnydale. Lots of people wanted to know *all* about you, to see if they could...entice you into their camp, so to speak. But sadly, your old friends in Sunnydale are under some form of protection from your hosts. What happened when the French tried to send agents to spy on your old high school associates...well, suffice it to say it's dissuaded all other parties, including us, from ever bothering them like that."

The evil lawyer paused and smirked. "By the way, that's a cute nickname they use, the Scooby gang. How *did* they come up with it..."

Xander felt the anger rise in him. He *really* didn't like it when people threatened his friends. < Even those who I'm not friends with anymore, > he rationalized it in his mind.

"Now, there are several people you know here in Los Angeles too, most especially a former girlfriend, but..." She paused for effect. "Angel doesn't like people messing with his employees. Bothersome, but there you have it. So I thought we should...try something else. Now, where would there be a friend of yours not under someone's protection? Well, someone who wouldn't interfere?"

Lilah smirked again. "You know, it's common knowledge you got quite close to the junior Slayer, while you were just an ordinary teenager in Sunnydale. Now, she was killed during your high school graduation. Then again, so were you, and yet here - there - you are. So if you can come back, why not Faith Daniels?"

Xander felt the rage reach a peak in his head, and had an urge to smash the TV set to pieces. < Control yourself!!! Focus. Listen to what the enemy is saying! > Soldier Guy screamed in his head.

The female lawyer looked very smug. "You want details? Well, let's just say I used some people that knew how to bring her back. Well, not all the way back of course, just her soul. For now..."

Lilah then pointed at the Orb. "That's what's in there, Mr. Harris. The thing is, we thought it would be better to bring back just her soul, and not the whole person like we did for Angel's friend Darla. Because let me tell you, that turned into a complete disaster! She's just totally out of control, but hey - not my concern. Or yours."

Lilah paused, with another big smile on her face. "So, with just Faith's soul here, we don't have to worry about our guest trying to escape, or cause trouble. After all, she's just a little ball of light right now, one that couldn't harm a fly - or a security guard. And if perchance you're thinking that all this is just a big con? Here's something our psychics have unearthed from reading her soul, to prove authenticity. I don't understand it myself, but I'm told you will. So here goes - 'yeah, wouldn't want to cut into that seven minutes'. Believe me now?"

Xander was stunned, the last fragments of doubt blasted away. He was instantly transported to a world that didn't exist, and hopefully would now never exist; one where an evil Faith had hijacked Buffy's body and insulted him like that, about their one and only sexual encounter...

Lilah then looked directly into the camera, and coming back to reality Xander was somewhat unnerved - as it seemed like she was staring directly at him. "Here's the deal, Harris. Bottom line - we can bring her back, all the way back. Mind, body, soul, everything - good as new. It'll be like she was never even gone. And I imagine you could find several fun things to do with a fully returned Ms. Daniels! We would be happy to arrange all that, if you'd come visit and help us with several pressing issues that we have..."

Ms. Morgan showed the predator smile again. "Now, I'm sure you're wondering about the stick we have in mind, given that I've told you all about the carrot. You're thinking that what's the worst they can do, kill her? Well, she isn't exactly alive, so we can't do that. 'Course, we can't just release her soul either, as it would just find its way back to Heaven - and somehow, I don't think you would view that as a bad thing..."

Xander sat frozen, as the attorney went on. "However, I can keep your former lover's soul here for a *very* long time. A long time that wouldn't be pleasant either, not in the least. You see, the soul can feel pain, quite exquisite pain too I'm told..."

Lilah nodded off-camera for a second, and the orb glowed red for about three seconds. "Like that. Hmm, I wonder what kind of agony the essence of Ms. Daniels is going through, right about now?"

Harris again had to restrain his urge to launch himself at the TV screen, as a lethal fury unlike any he'd ever known - even when he'd realized the Scooby women had left him to die that night - threatened to overwhelm his reason. < Control. Honor, loyalty, duty, obedience and discipline, but this above all - control! >

"Well, I'm sure you wouldn't want her to suffer needlessly, I mean you're supposedly this White Knight or something..."

Lilah nodded at the camera, as Xander started in surprise. "Oh yes, Mr. Harris, we know what Angelus called you that night during 1998; our files and records are *quite* extensive. My compliments; you *really* pissed him off, from what we're told, and I can count on one hand the number of people who ever did that and survived. So I'm thinking, someone with a personality like that? He won't abandon Miss Faith, no matter what..."

The former slave took in a deep breath, the deadly rage subsiding a bit. Things had just gotten real complicated.

"Now, you'll probably want to come alone, after all we don't have room for all your friends here. Besides, in all honesty, I don't think they'd *want* you to come. After all, they've known for quite a while about Ms. Daniels, and they saw fit not to tell you about it. Sounds to me that they *really* don't need to know about this invitation."

The camera refocused back on the Orb. "Now, just in case you get the idea of doing to us what you did to Sam Lawson..."

The Orb flared red again, almost tearing Xander's heart in half. < I swear - you're dead meat, you bitch! >

"You should know that this orb is in a place, where the men in black can't even imagine how to find it. You see, the Senior Partners have so many branches available to hide it in, within so many different dimensions, that it'll be like you trying to find a needle in a haystack - and one that's roughly the size of the entire solar system, at that! And if by some miracle they do show up where it is? The orb will wind up looking like a burned-out Christmas tree light, before they ever get their hands on it. And you wouldn't want that, now, would you?"

The camera went back to Lilah's smiling face. "When you get to Los Angeles, just tell them who you are at the front desk, they'll know what to do. And don't keep us waiting too long, Harris. We both know Ms. Daniels is waiting for you to come save her."


Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. January 16, 2001

Cordelia looked up as Darla walked down the stairs, into the lobby. And where once the young woman would have unleashed her razor-sharp tongue upon her blonde companion, now she felt only sorrow and sympathy for her.

The strain of the knowing the syphilis was killing her, had clearly taken its toll on the former vampire. And all the efforts of Angel and the others to find some way to save her, had been fruitless so far. Her condition had been worsening over time, and it showed physically.

Cordy knew that Darla hadn't sleeping the last few nights. She had been so hoping that Wesley would bring something to help her back from his trip to Cleveland, but that had been a complete bust. < Just our luck, too... >

Ever since then, the first stages of doubt had crept into Darla's mind. Angel and the others were still just as determined to save her; but Darla was starting to mentally prepare herself for the possibility that they would fail. After a night of wandering the hallways, she was now headed down to the kitchen hoping to find a cup of warm milk, hoping it would help her get to sleep.

"Evening Darla," Cordy greeted her.

"Hello. Is that milk from yesterday still in the fridge?" she asked.

"Yeah, we got lucky and the men haven't done their imitations of Huns raiding a village in the kitchen yet." It was a fact that Wes and Gunn consumed quite a bit of food, and Cordy was always complaining about the amount of money it took to keep the kitchen stocked.

"Good, where is everyone?" Darla asked.

"Gunn and Wesley are somewhere around. I think they're researching, or some such thing. Angel's in the office," Cordy replied.

"Good! I'd 'ave hated to come all this way to find ol' Peaches, and not be able to say hello!"

Both Cordelia and Darla's heads swung around at the sound of the male voice with the coarse North London accent.

And standing there in the entrance of the lobby was Spike, otherwise known as William the Bloody.

Both women froze at the sight of him. Darla because he was her great-grandchilde, and Cordelia because this was the creature that had haunted her nightmares for months, after he had sent Xander to Hell.

Indeed, had Xander been there to see it, he would have instantly known that this version of Spike looked nothing like the chipped, lovesick, reluctant ally of the Scooby gang he would have been right now, in the original history. Instead, the flaxen-haired British vamp was standing tall - and carrying himself confidently like the true creature of the night he was.

And just to make things worse, next to him stood Drusilla. His mad sire clapped her hands, "Oh goody, everyone's here at last!"

Behind her several SWAT team members came in through the door, and Cordy instantly recognized them as belonging to Wolfram & Hart - as they took up position in the lobby. "Angel!!" she shouted out, as the former cheerleader started backing up towards the office door. Darla started to run towards her.

"Oh no, Darla. Because heck, you're the reason we dropped by, luv, so don't run off..." Spike jumped from the entranceway, and landed almost right behind Darla. She let out a scream, as she saw him reaching for her.

"What's going on?" Angel asked as he exited the private office. He saw Spike near his former sire, and then he saw the others; so the ensouled vamp shifted into game face, and instantly prepared himself for a fight. "Cordy, get the others!"

"But Angel-" Cordy started to protest.

"Now!" he growled out. At once Cordy ran off to get Wes and Gunn, while Angel advanced on the intruders. < Spike and Dru. Oh, I owe you both a great deal - both for what you've done to me, and what you did to Xander- >

"So, mate, 'ow ya been? 'Cause it's been a while! Nearly three years, innit? Well, however long it's been, haven't seen you ever since you got ya soul back. Gotta say though, ya poncy bugger, it's not much of an improvement..." Spike took a step towards Darla.

"Darla, get behind me!" Angel said, as he moved to protect her.

But Spike reached out and grabbed her. "Sorry, but I'm thinkin' not. We haven't a chance to catch up yet, after all..."

Angel leaped over the circular couch, and knocked Spike down. William the Bloody quickly rolled back up with his game face on, as Darla scrambled away.

"Oh, so the magnificent poof wants to play? I figured all this time you were 'anging out with the Slayer, it'd made you into her pussywhipped li'l puppy! Do ya really want to run with the big dogs, *Angel*? 'Cause I'll bet yer form ain't what it was-"

Angel's response was to punch Spike again, and knock him back down. William responded by kicking upwards, and catching Angel in the stomach. The dark-haired vamp staggered back, before regaining his balance.

Darla started to run towards the door Cordy had gone through, as the black-clad SWAT team was guarding the front entrance, but suddenly Drusilla showed up in front of her with an oddly hurt look on her face. "Naughty, naughty. You shouldn't run off like that..."

Dru looked at Darla for a second and said in that distinctive British accent, "This is all that precious boy's fault, y'know. My naughty kitten's meddled about, and filled the Angel-beast's head with all these wicked thoughts! Things that make it so 'ard for my Daddy to get all better! Not to worry though, he's where he belongs now. Given Daddy's old fate..."

For Drusilla still thought Xander was in that hell dimension, or more accurately that he was dead by now. She and Spike hadn't heard of his return to the world via the demon grapevine - which was probably just as well, for Xander's continued health and existence.

Of course, all this made no sense to Darla. She had been dust when Xander had been sent through that portal, and his name hadn't come up in any conversations she'd had with Angel's Avengers ever since her return.

"You're crazy, Dru. Always were, always will be..." Darla gasped out. The major disadvantage of being sick was that it was harder for her to move around physically, the way she used to.

"Oh, the priest said that, said the stars couldn't talk. Silly man, they told me to kill him." Dru reached out for her former vampiric grandmother. Darla stepped back, and somehow managed to avoid her grasp.

Angel and Spike were now exchanging blows eagerly, and Angel wasn't holding anything back - not with the history he shared with his grandchilde. He landed a particularly hard blow to Spike's face, and William actually staggered back.

"Yeah, now that's the way to do it, Captain Hairgel! Get some of the old game back..." He quickly unleashed a series of blows on Angel, that drove the ensouled vampire backwards. Then the Champion for the Powers saw the SWAT team members moving towards Darla, before he caught another one of Spike's incoming hits in his fist.

"I don't have time for this!" The former Angelus instantly belted Spike hard in the face, knocking him back. Angel then turned and ran over to Darla's position. However, by then three commandos had gotten in his path. They tried to hit him with their tasers, trying to stop Angel from getting to his objective.

Dru looked at Darla, who was backpedaling like crazy to try and escape her attacker. "Come now, Grandmother, no need to be scared. You've already been through this once before...and remember when I told you I could be your mummy, the night we all met my precious Spike?"

< Oh God, no - she wants to turn me! > Darla thought in a great panic. She scrambled back, trying desperately to get away from her attackers. Where she would have welcomed Drusilla's intentions a short time ago, now she wanted nothing more than to remain human and live, for however long God intended her to do so.

Darla looked to where Angel was. He was fighting the three commandos from the evil law firm. He dodged the attack of the first taser, but the second attack hit home on his left side. Angel howled in pain, as blue sparks leapt from the weapon. He staggered back, but still remained on his feet.

Darla looked back at Dru, as the nutty vampiress advanced towards her. "Grandmother, why do you make this so hard?"

"Quit toying with her, luv. Just do it!" Spike shouted, as he got back to his feet. He quickly ran towards Darla and Dru. Again, Darla headed for the door that Cordy had exited through.

But suddenly, Spike was in front of her. "Hello, Darla. Miss me then?" The woman screamed in response, as Spike reached for her - a vicious scowl appearing on his game face.

The bleached-blonde vampire was suddenly knocked forward though and tumbled past Darla, grabbing at her as he passed by but missing. The door he had been standing in front of had swung open - and Gunn, Wesley and Cordelia ran through, all carrying weapons.

"Get back, undead fiend!" Wesley shouted out, hefting his custom-made battleaxe.

Spike looked up at his attackers. "Oh great, the tweed poser!" He moved back, and as he did so - he caught something in his peripheral vision. "Doesn't matter - you're too late!"

Wesley looked in horror at what Spike was referring to. When Spike had fallen forward, Dru had used the opportunity to grab Darla. The blonde woman struggled, before the undead seer sank her fangs into Darla's neck.

Darla kept struggling for a few seconds, but her strength was meaningless compared to Drusilla's supernatural abilities. Gulping noisily, Dru's demonic features exhibited pure bliss as she drank and drank and drank.

There were some who may have thought that what she was doing was a kindness, given Darla's situation. Nonetheless, like with any other type of murder, it was as cold and brutal as rape.

While she did that, the front door opened again as more commandos rushed in, and the Fang Gang suddenly themselves completely outnumbered. < Oh, shit... > they all thought as one, at the sight of the guns and stakes.

Spike smirked at his adversaries and then turned to the flunkies, "Kill 'em all, except for the Nancy Boy there. And hurry up, I ain't got all bleedin' day!"

The commandos started to advance, as Drusilla dragged Darla's limp body towards the entranceway. Suddenly though the front doors were blasted open again, thanks to the flying bodies of two Wolfram & Hart commandos.

Their bodies hit the ground, and electrical sparks could be seen flying off them. Because there in the doorway stood a leather-clad Gwen Raiden.

She stared at the enemy soldiers. "Pardon me, but I don't think you people are supposed to be here..."

Part Twenty-Three

Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. January 16, 2001

The commandos started to advance, as Drusilla dragged Darla's limp body towards the entranceway. Suddenly though the front doors were blasted open again, thanks to the flying bodies of two Wolfram & Hart commandos.

Their bodies hit the ground, and electrical sparks could be seen flying off them. Because there in the doorway stood a leather-clad Gwen Raiden.

She stared at the Spike and the commandoes. "Pardon me, but I don't think you people are supposed to be here..."

Spike glared at the unwelcome intruder. "Who the bloody hell are you? No, never mind - guess there's just gonna be another body for the big poofter to explain, when the bleedin' LAPD arrives..." His eyes took in Gwen's body, leering at her. "Pity too, you could have been fun. Shoulda brought in that zapper thing you used on the two goons though, luv; might have helped..."

Gwen, whose right hand was already barehanded, pulled her left glove off. "Who says I didn't bring my zapper thing with me?" He surveyed Spike. "You're a vampire, I can tell. Well, I've got to tell you, you just don't carry it off very well; you're nothing like Dracula-"

Spike actually managed to redden a little bit, at the comparison to his old foe. "Kill the hell outta that blasted stupid bint!!!" he snapped at the SWAT minions with him.

William the Bloody then turned towards Angel, as four commandos attacked Gwen. "Now then, has-been, let's see about you-"

The undead British guy started towards Angel, as he saw several commandos headed towards the Fang Gang - some of them carrying guns. But then Spike suddenly felt himself get knocked to the ground, from something hitting him in the back.

"Bloody toffing hell!!" the soulless creature screamed in annoyance, as he scrambled up. He saw that the offending object was the twitching body of one of the commandos. "I'm surrounded by idiots-"

Spike whirled around, his leather duster whipping around his body, to see the second commando twitch as Gwen sent a bolt of lightning from her hand into his chest. Then the black-clad soldier was hurled against the wall, a loud 'thump' echoing in the lobby as the man collapsed unconscious.

Gwen looked at the body. She then looked up at her other two attackers. "Who's next?"

The two commandos looked at each other. After less than a second, they both pulled out pistols, with which to shoot the enemy dead dead dead...

"Boys, being guns to a fistfight, that's just not fair! Oh well..." Gwen lost no time in blasting both of Wolfram & Hart's soldiers into oblivion. And in a somewhat amusing way, Spike was about to charge the newcomer, when once again he got knocked down by the thrown body of one the commandos.

"Damn it!" Spike growled as he scrambled up again. He turned, and saw Angel's fist coming straight at his face - and this just not being his day, William went down yet *again*. When he hit the ground, he saw that the two remaining commandos who had been attacking Angel were now out of the fight, the third having been thrown into Spike's back by the souled vampire...

< This is getting completely buggered up, and in a sodding huge way! > the bleached-blonde vampire quickly thought to himself. He looked over, and saw that Wesley and the others were barely holding their own against the commandos attacking them. Spike instantly got back on his feet, and faced the vampire with a soul.

"All right, Gel Boy, let's dance. Tell ya what, I even promise not to mess your face up too much! That way, that blonde Slayer o' yours won't retch at the sight of you..." He threw a punch at Angel, which was easily dodged.

"Spike, I don't know what the hell Dru ever saw in you - but every time I think about it, the fact that she turned you? It proves to me that I really *did* drive her insane!" He kicked Spike hard in the stomach.

His grandchilde grunted, but then quickly renewed the attack against Angel. They traded punches and kicks with a viciousness that only came from enemies who had known their foe for years.

Suddenly, Spike heard another electrical discharge. He stole a glance off to the side, and saw that Gwen had almost finished off the commandos attacking the Fang Gang.

Spike quickly did the math in his head; but he already knew that the odds had now turned against him. He also knew that he had technically overstepped the mark, with regards to what Lindsey had recruited him and Dru for; as all that they had been hired to do was snatch Darla, and turn her. Trying to kill Angel's friends hadn't been part of the deal.

Plus, the Master vampire knew that if he and his ladylove stayed around, it would only be a matter of time before either him or Dru would fit comfortably into a vacuum cleaner. So he threw a punch at Angel, one that was easily dodged. But in doing so, Angel moved a little bit away from Spike, allowing him to make a break for the exit.

Spike turned and yelled to the two remaining Wolfram & Hart commandos. "Move out! We got what we came for-"

Drusilla had already long since vanished out of the hotel lobby, carrying her prize; and the law firm's grunts quickly followed in her tracks. And once Spike had ascertained that Dru was safely absent with a momentary glance, he turned towards Angel from the doorway. "We'll be back, mate - count on it! All three of us..." With that, he bounded out the door.

Angel felt the rage build in him, when he realized what Spike meant. "Darla..." he growled. He looked around, quickly confirming that both Darla and Dru were now missing from the lobby.

Angel sprang towards the door, in hot pursuit of Spike. Because right now, that particular vamp was his only lead as to where Darla was! He flung the doors open, not bothering to make sure whether the sun had set or not.

Luckily for him, it had. The former Angelus then saw Spike jumping into a stationary black van with its engine running, in the street.

"Go!" Angel could hear Spike yelling at the van's driver. Angel increased his sprint, as the van's wheels squealed.

Angel reached the street in front of the hotel, as the van started to tear away. The Champion leapt frantically, and *just* managed to grab onto the rear bumper.

"Bloody 'ell!" Spike shouted from within the van, as he realized what had happened.

The Billy Idol-lookalike then threw open the rear door and start to pummel Angel, trying to dislodge him from his hold on the bumper. Angel held on as tightly as he could. However, by the end of the block, William the Bloody got in a particularly hard blow that knocked Angel loose.

The ensouled vamp tumbled to a stop, as the van sped away. Angel stood up, his skin raw and burning from the street surface, and saw that the van was too far away for him to catch on foot now. He shook in restrained anger, and quickly went back to the Hyperion.

And as he entered the lobby, the full impact of what had just happened sank in.

Angel instantly punched the wall in a great fury, his supernatural strength piercing the plaster with effortless ease as he unleashed a primal scream of spiritual pain. He hadn't actually seen Darla drink from his prescient childe, but given Spike's sounded like the plan had been for the nutty female vampire to do that, right from the start, and so the odds were Darla was now lost to the darkness.

Cordelia looked startled at his aggression, even though she shouldn't have been. "Angel?"

The Champion paid her no attention. The ensouled vamp thought bleakly to himself, realizing that all his efforts to save the blonde woman had been for naught, < I-I thought I knew what I was doing. I saw him do it back in Sunnydale, and I thought he gave me enough clues on how to change it all. What the hell was I thinking? I'm not him. I'll never be him. I'm just like everyone else, marching ass-backwards into the future... >

Indeed, thoughts of Xander and his letter were very much prominent in Angel's mind right now. Events had been set in motion like the former Scooby had prophesised, and the Irish-born vampire didn't like where they led - not in the slightest. He hadn't been able to save Darla as a human; and all he could do now was save her as a vampire, as well as try to save their future son Connor from ending up in that hell dimension.

The future felt like a long, dark tunnel to be crawled through, to reach an uncertain yet immutable goal...

Gunn looked at the leather-clad woman who had saved their asses, and silently helped him and Wes tie up the unconscious commandos. "Hi. Uh, who are you?"

The professional thief smirked at the Fang Gang's manners. "Name's Gwen Raiden. And by the way, you're welcome-"

Cordelia suddenly gasped, attracting everyone's attention. "Hey, I know you! You're the Leather Girl from that museum last year!" She tried not to think about what that might mean about the vision of Xander she'd had, for the moment.

Angel frowned, distracted from thoughts about Darla for a moment. "What?"

Gwen rolled her eyes. < She *would* remember that! > Then the new seer for Angel Investigations pointed at the boss of the detective agency, she needed to establish herself real quick. Things were damned tense in the lobby, and the chances of an irreparable misstep were too high for the calculating thief's taste. "I need to talk to you, vampire. In private, preferably."

But said vampire wasn't in the mood for games. "Look, thanks for the assist, but I don't know who you are and I don't have time for this!" He looked at his watch, "It's 5:53 pm, and sunrise will take place at 6:58 am. I have to find Darla before then, before she rises - and call someone on the phone. Whatever you have to say to me, you can say in front of my friends-"

Gwen thought to herself, < Well, this new job of mine has certain gotten off to an auspicious start! I better use the code phrase Harris told me about... > "May, 1997. I told you to eat before we left!"

Angel, who had been heading for the phone to call Willow in Sunnydale, stopped dead in his tracks. He turned around slowly and stared at Gwen, < That's...that's what Xander said to me in the sewers that night the Master got loose and killed Buffy, isn't it? How the hell did she know-!? >

The others looked confused as the undead guy gestured abruptly to Ms. Raiden, "My private office. Right now, through there..." The duo quickly left the Fang Gang, who basically just stared at one another and wondered what the hell was going on.

Angel quickly closed the door behind him, with a force that clearly showed he was just barely controlling his overwhelming rage. He stalked towards to his desk where Gwen was now standing, < I want some answers, damn it... >

"All right. Who sent you?" the undead guy demanded, being intentionally vague - on the off chance the newcomer had been sent by someone other than the person who had said those words to him.

Gwen folded her arms, and looked at the vampire. "First off, prove to me that you're Angel. And not Angelus, or this so-called Jay-don character I saw at that museum, back in December..."

Angel's anger subsided as he asked in surprise, "You know about that? Well, how about the fact that I'm a vampire, and I haven't tried to kill you yet?"

Gwen shrugged, not wanting to bother with any more trick questions that STW had insisted she go through. "Good enough. And to answer your question? Well, these days he goes by many different names. You know him, though. He said those words to you, way back when. And he sent me here to hook up with you."

Angel was still on guard. "Tell me something which makes *me* believe *you*. Something which tells me you actually know...the person...I'm thinking about."

Gwen thought for a second. "Hmmm, Twinkies. He loves them. Beyond that, well, I can only tell you why he sent me - and hope that does the trick."

"You're here to help out with Darla, aren't you?" Angel prompted his guest, his hopes getting the better of him.

Gwen shook her head. "Sorry, but the name doesn't ring a bell. Our mutual friend didn't mention her. He mentioned stuff about a lot of your people, but no one by that name."

Angel was growing impatient, as the clock was ticking on Darla. "Then why are you here?"

Gwen waved her hand in front of her forehead, an annoyed expression on her face. "Because all of sudden, about a month ago, I start getting these really weird headaches - they come out of the blue, with visions in full surround-sound and in living color! Freaked me out. I'd never heard of anything like it before!"

"I have," Angel whispered in shock. < She's become a messenger for the Powers, like Doyle and Cordy? >

"Yeah, and funny thing - so had our Twinkie-loving friend. Oh, what the hell - our mutual pal instantly knew *exactly* what was going on! He gave me the Reader's Digest version of what I've gotten myself drafted into. And he was the one who figured out I was being told to come here."


"Yeah, LA, the so-called City of Angels, to become your new seer. Seems that this Cordy chick I was told about - that *was* her out front, wasn't it? The brunette? She can't handle those vision mind trips, long-term. Oh yeah, she doesn't know it yet, but she's dying from them..."

"I know, the guy we've both met - he managed to get a letter to me about it last July." Both Angel and Gwen were carefully avoiding mentioning Xander's name, because God only knew who amongst the Fang Gang might be listening at the door...

Gwen raised an eyebrow at that piece of news, though. "Interesting. I suspect the people he's with right now, don't know about that. Because they're weren't too happy even with the situation of *me* coming here! They like everyone not having their beliefs changed about our friend."

Angel suddenly frowned. "You say you had your first vision a month ago? But Cordy's had visions since then - although come to think of it, she's not had anywhere near as many as you'd normally expect, for that period of time..."

"Really? Well, the brain guy was thinking, in that case...over time, she should lose the visions thing entirely - as I get them more and more."

Angel looked at Gwen. "Brain guy, a little kid named Hollins?"

Gwen was surprised. "I seen our literary friend wrote quite a lot in that letter! I've got to say, I'm *really* looking forward to seeing the face of at least one of the people I just left behind, when he finds out that particular nugget of news. He's liable to pop a vein..." Gwen still bore some hard feelings towards Cleburne, over his questioning her trustworthiness.

"These people you just left, are they going to pop up here anytime soon?"

Gwen shook her head. "I doubt it, there's something coming in September that they're pretty close to being obsessed with. I think that until that's taken care of, they're not going to bother you too much."

"So they're not going to help with Darla?" Angel asked in despair.

"Angel - I doubt they even know the details of what's going on! How much time do we have to help this girl?"

The vampire reached for the phone. "Not much at all, sunrise is probably the deadline we're working against. Although, I do have a backup plan. Still, we need to find Darla as soon as possible..."


The apartment of Rupert Giles, Sunnydale, California. Thirty seconds later

Giles put down the book he had been carrying, and picked up the phone. "Rupert Giles speaking. May I help you?" Clearly, the British man had carried some of his work habits home from the Magic Box.

"Giles, it's me Angel. Is Willow there? It's an emergency."

The Scoobies, who were there getting ready for the night's patrol, immediately noticed Giles' physical reaction to the phone conversation he had just started. Giles still remembered in the back of his mind what Angelus had done to him back when Acathla had almost been discovered. Even though Agel had helped out the snior year in High school, Giles still had some issues when it came to the souled vampire. Giles could work with Angel, but his body still tensed in the presence of Angel or the sound of his voice. Buffy, who was closest to Giles, stepped towards her Watcher with a worried look on her face.

"She's here, Angel. This emergency - is there something I can do?"

Buffy reacted even more at hearing Angel's name mentioned. < Angel's in trouble? > She stepped forward, clearly expecting to be handed the phone.

But she was shocked when Giles, after listening a few seconds, turned and held the phone out to Willow. "Willow, it's Angel. He says that it's urgent he speaks to you, right now."

Willow immediately knew in her gut what the phone call was about, even if she had all but forgotten Angel's visit to her dorm room back in September. She took the phone from Giles and put it to her ear, "Angel, hey. It's me..."

Buffy approached Giles, while Willow listened. "Giles, what's going on? Why is Angel calling Willow, and not me?" she demanded. Even though the blonde was working through some of the issues from her time with the undead Champion, the Chosen One still felt some pangs of jealousy that her former lover hadn't immediately asked for her.

"I don't know, Buffy. He just said it was an emergency, and only Willow could help him." Giles looked at the other Scoobies to see if they might be able to shed some light on the subject, but they all looked as equally baffled as he did.

Tara shrugged her shoulders. "The only thing I know of Willow doing for Angel is that bookkeeping program she set up, and the website for Angel Investigations. I-I can't see how his payroll or PR would qualify as an emergency..."

"Okay, Angel, when do you need me there?" Willow listened for a few more seconds. "Right now? Well, okay, I'll be there before sunrise..." She hung up and turned around.

To be greeted by the questioning looks on the faces of all the Scoobies. "Ah, guys, I have to go to Los Angeles. I, I have to help out Angel..." Willow noted that Buffy had folded her arms under her chest, giving her the Summers version of the Resolve Face.

"What's going on, Will? Just what does Angel need help with?"

Willow looked from Buffy to the others. The body language of each of them silently echoed Buffy's question. Willow took a deep breath. < Oh, this is *not* going to be easy. Still, you gotta do what you darn well gotta do... >

"Okay, do any of you guys remember Darla? Angel's sire? Well, um, she's back..."


Interstate 101 from Sunnydale to Los Angeles, southern California. Two hours later

Willow had been right, it hadn't been easy. The Scoobies had not taken well the news that Darla was back, that she had been turned and that Willow had agreed to do the ensouling spell on the female vampire. Any one of those particular pieces of news would have caused chaos within the Scoobies' ranks.

So all three together had led to utter pandemonium in Giles' apartment.

The initial opinion of the Scoobies was that Willow should not go, and it had taken quite a bit of convincing on the redhead's part to get the gang to change their minds. But oddly enough, it had been Tara who had put up the biggest fight to her lover heading off to the City of Angels.

She had been quite vocal, surprisingly so, in that she did not want Willow doing a spell of that magnitude. Because ever since the time when Willow had gotten split into two halves, Tara had kept a close watch on her beloved's magic use. And the sad fact was that only Willow agreeing to Tara coming along had managed to convince the Slayer and her Watcher to allow her to go.

The others had wanted to come too. Willow hadn't been thrilled with the idea of Angel and Buffy visiting each other, Buffy had told Willow what happened that night when Angel had visited the witch in her dorm room. Luckily though, Willow had been able to argue with some force that they couldn't just leave the Hellmouth unguarded. She wasn't sure if that was 100% true, as they hadn't really had a major challenge since the Mayor in his demon-snaky form had gotten blown up, but what the hell...

The others had finally accepted this reasoning, but had secured the promise from Willow and Tara that if something happened, the first thing they would do would be to call for the Scoobies on their cell phone.

"Willow?" Tara's voice pulled the younger witch from her contemplation.

"Yeah, honey?"

"I'm sorry - but I, I'm still incredibly worried about what you're planning to do. Are you absolutely *sure* you're up to this?" Tara had to ask with a very concerned tone in her voice.

Willow sighed. "Tara, I've done this spell before, and I know how much of a big deal it is. Trust me, I remember what it felt like when I restored Angel's soul during 1998. I was a wreck for days afterwards, but this time I'm sure it won't be that bad; I'm no longer the amateur I was then..."

"But, but that was before we saw you with your magic unleashed the way it was, a few months back. I don't want you to turn 'dark' that way again..."

Willow took one hand off the steering wheel, and placed it on Tara's shoulder. "I know, that's why I want you there with me; you'll anchor me. If I'm gonna fly off into the unknown, you'll be my...kite string..."

Tara smiled at that, as the two of them drove on into the night.


Los Angeles, California. Ninety minutes later

The demon felt his face repeatedly slam into the brick wall of the alley. He knew that Angel was in a bad mood, and a *really* bad mood at that, but the snitch known as Merl hadn't realized just how bad his situation was - until the number of counts of impact against the wall had passed thirty.

And the vampire probably would have kept going, except Wesley managed to convince him otherwise. "Angel, please - he needs to be able to talk to us, to actually say anything..."

Angel almost growled at Wes, and then turned his attention back to the parasite demon. He pulled Merl from the wall and hissed, "You know, I'm not even tired yet. I could do this all night, and with a real song in my heart! Now I know that your head is thicker than that of most things in my city; but I'm willing to bet that at some point, it'll break. Want to test that theory?"

"Angel, come on! You know I've always been a straight shooter with you-" That brought another impact with the wall. "Okay, apart from that thing with the Prio Motu demon! And you know I tell you what you want to know, when you *persuade* me properly. Why would that change now?"

Angel glowered at Merl. "Well, let's hope for your sake that you're not screwing around with me. Because I've got some questions, and I'm not in the mood to be played with!"

Merl bit back the sarcastic reply he had formulated in his head. To be truthful, he did have a headache and really didn't want to make it worse. "Go ahead, ask."

"Spike and Dru are in town, what do you know?"

"Them bloodsuckers? Oh yeah, word is they've been here for a while now. They were sent for-"

"Who by?" Angel already knew, but he wanted to test Merl.

"Heard that those lawyers you're so fond of, they were behind their little visit to the City of Angels. Someone high up in the food chain was nervous about something, and seemed to think that those two were the solution to their problem." Merl shifted uncomfortably, still wedged up against the wall by Angel.

"How long?"

"Hey, you've been a pain in their asses for a long time..." That earned Merl another close-up view of the wall.

"How long have Spike and Drusilla been in LA?" Angel growled through clenched teeth.

"Couple of weeks! They blew into town, but almost immediately went under everyone's radar. They've been laying low, and that sure surprised a whole bunch of people - what with their reputation of coming on strong! Only thing I know for sure is that Spike wanted a video camera-"

Wesley looked puzzled at that. "Video camera?"

Angel answered the question, knowing from experience what that was about, "Spike wanted to watch us, get our habits down pat. He did the same thing in Sunnydale back in '97, when he was trying to kill Buffy..." Angel turned his attention back to the snitch. "And you didn't think this was information I might have wanted to know?" he growled with a menacing tone in his voice.

"Hey, I didn't know what they were planning! If I thought Spike was thinkin' on hurting such a fine upstanding fellow like yourself, I would have said something!" Merl responded in a hurry.

The look on Angel's face clearly showed that the vampire didn't believe that fact for an instant, but that was neither here nor there right now. "Okay, here's where I decide whether or not I permanently merge your face with this wall. Where are those two right now? They've got to have some sort of base, or bolthole. This scheme of theirs needs for them to have a place to hole up, while waiting for..." Angel paused, as he refused to say that Darla was about to rise from the dead.

"Hey, I don't know...but uh, I might have some clues..."

Merl yelled out, as he felt Angel's hand tense up behind him. "Okay, okay!! I heard that Spike mentioned a nursery, when he picked up the video camera. Something about how the female vampire nut was expecting a baby..."

"What else?" Angel leaned in close. Merl found it unnerving having a human body that close to him, but no breath coming from it.

"That's all, well - apart from the fact that Spike went and got himself some dirt. Something about how only the finest would I'm thinking, nursery as in growin' some fruit and vegetables, and not for a baby? Who the hell knows...anyway, he had that specialist store over on Sepulveda deliver. They might know where your vamp buddies are. Yeah, go talk to them and show them the wall..."

"How about I show *you* their wall," Angel hissed.

"Angel..." Wesley spoke up. "We don't have time for this, we have to find Darla!"

Angel glared at Merl. "If you've lied to me, I *will* find you. And after I'm done, no one will *ever* find your remains!"

Merl inwardly shivered, as Angel and Wesley stalked off. < Lousy bloodsucker... >


Abandoned nursery, Los Angeles, California. January 17, 2001

Spike whistled happily to himself, as he spread some more dirt over Darla's body. It was after midnight, and he had *finally* gotten rid of those damn lawyers; Holland, Lindsey and Lilah had departed after promising him and Dru a huge financial extra, for all the unanticipated trouble in turning the woman.

William noticed the dried blood around her mouth from where Drusilla had made Darla drink from the self-inflicted wound on the seer's body, and smiled. "Won't be long now, ducks," he said to the body cheerfully. "Then we'll have ourselves a right old visit with the Brooding One..."

Spike frowned for a moment. "Ya know what though, Darla? Suddenly realized just how much that whole broody thing really bugs me! 'Course, even before those bloody gypsies went and gave him that soul, the big ponce wasn't too much fun. Always stalkin' his prey, making the kill into some knackered performance art piece..."

Spike stopped and leaned on the shovel. "Gotta admit, I don't get those performance art people either. Drank a few of them back in New York in the late Seventies, while you were off being the Master's pet. And that was a bleedin' lousy mistake, almost as bad as that hippie I ate at Woodstock! Let me tell you, my opinion - back in the Seventies, the humans put the weirdest damn things in their bodies. Any self-respectin' vamp 'ad to be careful who he drank! And hell, luv, I've heard horror stories about vampires who drink from some idiot with AIDS, thing is it won't kill 'em. It just makes 'em wish it did, though..."

At that moment, Drusilla danced her way into the room, clutching her doll. The insane undead was talking to herself, "Grandmother's coming back, yes she is! We'll have tea and crumpets, and she'll make everything all better! We'll be one big happy family again..."

Spike instantly smiled at his beloved, with all the affection that in another world - he would be showering upon Buffy right now. "That's right, pet. Well, no rest for the wicked..." And then he went back to spreading the dirt, burying the blonde corpse completely.

Suddenly, Dru screamed and dropped the doll. "The witch, the witch, the wicked redheaded witch!!! Miss Edith says she's coming, she's going to change everything! Put that nasty shiny thing back where it shouldn't be. And the Angel-beast will come with her..."


Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. The same time

While Angel and Wes were on the hunt for Darla's whereabouts, Gunn had received a call from the rest of the Lost Boys about problems with the cops in their 'hood, and a vamp nest they had found near Venice Boulevard.

And unlike in a world where he was more involved with Angel's Avengers, Charles had instantly ditched his side gig with a quick but sincere apology to those in the hotel, and gone to where he was needed most.

So, that had left Gwen and Cordelia alone together.

And had he been there, Xander would have known straightaway that *that* was a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

The former cheerleader had almost instantly taken a dislike to the Electra Girl, some things truly being inevitable. And when she had learned that Gwen had supposedly taken over her role as Angel's seer, Cordelia had gone ballistic.

"NO WAY!" she'd shouted to her counterpart. "My visions are a part of me now. I'm not giving them up - especially to you!"

Gwen had thought, < Harris, you didn't warn me enough about what this woman is really like! She left you to die on the sidewalk nearly three years ago? Oh yeah, I believe it now... > "Problem is, it's not up to you *or* me lady. And hey, I never asked for this-"

"Then why even bother coming here?"

Ms. Raiden had gritted her teeth, somehow preventing herself from telling Cordy that she should be *grateful* how she most likely wouldn't die during 2004 now. "Because bottom line, the mystical forces up there decided for me to become even more of a freak than I already am!!"

Cordy had argued with Gwen some more, until there was nothing left to say on the matter. But then the brunette said hesitantly to the newcomer, "Uh, about that night..."

"You mean when the visions were transferred from you to me? What about it?"

Ms. Chase looked uncomfortable. "Well, did...did you see anybody else there in the room, just before you showed up and the big electric shock took place?"

Gwen never hesitated. "No. As far as I could tell, you were just talking to yourself; and hey, for the record? If I could do it all over again, I'd have just left you alone - and stolen what I went there to get!" For the young woman had told her cover story about being a former thief to the entire Fang Gang, to explain why she'd been at the museum that night - before Angel and Wes had hit the road.

Cordelia's hopes were instantly crushed, with regard to what had happened. < Damn it, I guess that conversation with Xander really did all take place in my head then... > She had wanted it to be real so badly that the femme had hoped wherever his spirit was, Xander had finally forgiven her - for what had happened all those years ago.

Gwen started pacing. "So, the current situation. This thing with this person called Darla - anything I absolutely need to know?"

Cordy snorted. "You need to pray Angel doesn't do anything stupid, if worst comes to worst and she becomes a soulless monster-"

"Actually, I think you need a witch."

Both Gwen and Cordelia turned around, and saw two women - a redhead and a blonde - standing at the front doors of the Hyperion. Willow Rosenberg then looked at Tara and added, "Even better - two witches for the price of one!"

Cordelia looked in surprise at her friend from high school. "Willow! You're here..." Cordy hurried over and hugged her former classmate intensely. Normally, the former May Queen wouldn't be this enthusiastic at seeing Willow again; however, with everything going on - she was just happy to see a familiar face.

She stepped back, and looked at Willow's blonde companion. "Willow, who's your friend? Is she a witch also?"

Willow smiled slyly. "Why Cordy, you interested in my gal pal?"

Cordy looked at Willow in shock. "Gal pal? You mean this is Giles' girlfriend? Oh, that dirty old man..."

Willow shook her head. "No, Tara's MY girlfriend. See, things have changed since you left Sunnydale..."

Cordy stepped back from Willow. "What? No, that - that can't be. Because we had gym class together! We were in the same locker room, you...we showered in the, you, you *can't* be gay!"

Gwen actually chuckled at that, which earned her a glare from Cordelia. Tara took the opportunity to introduce herself. "I'm Tara Maclay, I'm pleased to meet you." She offered her hand to the former cheerleader.

Cordy collected her thoughts for a second, and took the offered hand. "I'm Cordelia Chase. And likewise. And anything Willow here told you, is almost certainly a lie..."

Willow chuckled at that. And Gwen, off to the side, recognized the redhead from some of the pictures in Rupert Giles' apartment. < Another one of the women who left Harris to die? Huh... > Although Gwen normally worked alone, unless forced to do otherwise, she couldn't comprehend the thought processes that led to leaving someone to be eaten by a vampire.

Willow noticed Gwen, and looked at Cordelia. "So Cordy, who's your friend? Anything you want to tell us?"

Cordy actually paled a little bit at Willow's joke. "God, no! We've only just met, and I don't even like her. She's basically a scab-"

"Cordy!" Willow squeaked out. Because it had been a while since Willow had seen Queen C in action.

"Well, she is! She's come to replace me as the Vision Girl around here, so that makes her a job-stealing scab..." Cordy quickly explained who Gwen was, and how it had come to pass she now got the visions that Cordy had been getting. Cordy even managed to introduce the thief to the two witches.

Willow clearly sensed that her friend was not taking Gwen's arrival well. Actually - a deaf, blind mute could have sensed it also, from just the tension in the room! But suddenly the Sunnydale woman's musings were interrupted by Cordelia saying, "Willow, you picked a hell of a time to visit. Darla's..."

"Back, and she's been turned. I know," Willow replied.

That garnered a look of shock on Cordy's face. "How did you know?"

"Angel told me, when he called me. Don't you know why I'm here?"

Cordy's reply was prevented from happening, by Angel and Wesley storming into the lobby. And Angel was clearly enraged almost beyond belief.

"What happened?" Cordelia asked Wesley, as he was obviously the saner of the two.

The Englishman replied, "Well, we know Spike is hiding at a nursery somewhere, and even had some dirt delivered there. However, it looks like he used a fake address to get the package delivered - and he must had killed the deliveryman, as he's not been seen since that day. So..."

"Our only lead is a dead end," Angel finished for Wesley.


Angel's head turned, and he noticed Willow and Tara standing there. He suddenly beamed in delight, "Willow! I'm glad you're here. Do you have everything you need?"

"Yeah, we've got the Orb and everything else."

Wesley looked concerned. "Orb? Just what are you planning on doing, Willow?"

"Well, you see, it's like this, we're going to...we hope that..." Willow stammered, trying to find a response that wouldn't cause a firestorm in the lobby.

"I asked her to do the ensouling spell on Darla, preferably before she rises from the dead," Angel cut to the chase.

"What!!?" Cordy and Wesley said in unison.

"Why would you do that?" Cordy then demanded. < Like we need *two* vamps around here, that we have to watch out don't have a moment of pure happiness? >

"This is highly irregular," Wesley lapsed for a second back to his Watcher habits.

"Look, I've told you all before - she's my responsibility. I can't just stake her, and I do *not* want to let a vampire Darla - without a soul - loose on the world again. Believe me, I've seen what she can get up to as a soulless bloodthirsty demon - and now that the Master's not around to control her, God only knows what she'd do! That's why I asked Willow to come and do the spell. So suck it up and deal," Angel announced.

"Oh - and I have some good news there, too," Willow said excitedly. "I remember enough from when I was all Dark Willow, on how to delete the happiness clause from the ritual..."

Angel's face exhibited pure shock. "What?!"

Cordy looked excited. "So, does this mean you can fix Angel? I mean, y'know, so that he doesn't have to be a eunuch anymore?"

Gwen just raised her eyebrows, as the vampire instantly looked annoyed. "Hey, could we *not* use that word again?" the Champion demanded.

Willow shook her head. "I'm sorry, but no. The soul curse can only work on a soulless vampire; Angel is...well, uh, immune to those magicks, while his soul's present. I could curse *Angelus* that way, yeah; but since that vamp is already caged up..." She turned to her old friend. "Sorry, Angel."

The Irish-born vamp seemed to just take it in stride, "That's okay, don't worry about it..." But deep down, the man was more than a little excited over the astonishing news. As if Xander was right, when he lost his soul in 2003 and Willow restored day soon, the threat of Angelus would be gone for good.

Of course he would have to warn Willow about the danger she had just put herself in, as his inner demon was now howling for the lesbian girl's blood even more strongly than ever before - as it feared and hated this particular witch, more than anyone else in the world. But first, the priority around here.

Namely, Darla.

Wesley cleared his throat. "If I may ask, are you sure you can you do this - for Darla? I mean we all know you've performed such magicks before, on Angelus, but still - that spell is incredibly complex. And what is this Dark Willow you refer to?"

Willow looked ashamed for a second. She then quickly explained what had happened, when the Toth demon had split her in half. "It's kinda like Xander after that Halloween, when he was possessed by that soldier persona? He kept some of the memories and skills from the possession, and, uh, I think it's the same for me - I kept some of the skill that Dark Willow had. Basically, I have more ability to do magic than ever before. But don't worry - Tara and the others are watching, to make sure I don't go all black-eyed again." The Wicca then put down the valise she had carried in and opened it up, to take out the items she needed.

Cordelia watched, as Tara and Willow began to set up for the spell. And that, along with the earlier mention of her ex-boyfriend, suddenly brought back memories of the last time her friend had done this... < Acathla. Angelus. Buffy. Oh God, Xander... >

Willow saw Cordelia's face tighten up before anyone else did, and letting Tara take over for a moment, she went to talk to her friend - before subtly telling Angel and Wes to back off with just a look. "Hey. Guess all this is bringing back memories, huh?"

"Yeah," Cordelia nodded. "Bad ones."

"He's gone now, Cordy," the Wiccan said as gently as she could. "And this is a whole new millennium here. Xander wouldn't want you to-"

"I actually thought I talked to him last month," the brunette interrupted the other woman, as Willow started in surprise. "It was so real, too. The Xander ghost or whatever told me to let go, to move on. And I'm trying, I swear - but somehow, what I did then is too horrible for my subconscious to do the whole 'forgive and forget' routine..."

Willow had no answer for that, as she was in the exact same boat here. So she settled for giving Cordy's hand a squeeze, before the redhead rejoined her lover in the spell preparations.


Unknown heavenly dimension. The same time

Jasmine watched, as her plans began to unravel more and more with every passing moment.

The Power could feel the primal magicks being invoked, could feel Darla's soul - oh-so-recently freed once again, from its mortal coil - being summoned back to the earthly plane.

But then, the entity decided enough was enough. As it heard Willow begin to chant, the Power That Be latched onto the soul - and withheld its passage through to the mortal realm. "Quod perditum est, invenietur semper..."

Jasmine didn't know exactly what difference an ensouled Darla would make in her plan to eventually create her father the miracle child, but she didn't want to find out.

"Nici mort, nici al fiintei. Te invoc, spirit al trecerii..."

Because quite frankly, too much had already gone wrong - ever since Angelus had gotten whacked on the head by his demented childe that day, back in 1998.

"Te implor, doamne. Nu ignora accasta rugaminte, lasa orbita sa fie vasul care-i va transporta sufletul la lei!"

Jasmine started gritting her metaphorical teeth, as Willow shouted, "Este scris, aceasta putere este dreptul poporuil meu de a conduce. Asa sa fie! Asa sa fie! Acum!"

To her amazement, it took all of her inhuman strength to keep Darla's soul from becoming earthbound. Jasmine then couldn't believe it as she sensed a feral snarl appearing on Willow's black-eyed face, "Alesh ashtoreth!"

In the lobby of the Hyperion, Tara cried out when she saw Willow's face. "Willow." The red-headed witch continued on with the spell opposing Jasmine.

For the first time *ever*, the Power in question knew pain as the Hyperion hotel started shaking at its very foundations, the ground trembling as if in the grip of an earthquake. And *still* that damnable daughter of the Hebrews refused to give up, or give in...

Suddenly, Jasmine sensed the attention of the other Powers That Be; for they had felt how something unusual was happening, and were gathering to investigate. With a silent howl, the higher being yielded to the mortal witch's will and let go of Darla's soul - before the others found out what she was secretly up to, and all her plans were ruined.

Retreating into the anonymity of the group, Jasmine noted with perfectly disguised hostility how the Orb of Thesulah glowed briefly, before reuniting its cargo with the corporeal target vessel. And that Willow instantly demanded a map, to point out where the newly ensouled vampire was located to her freaked companions - before collapsing unconscious from the strain of her exertions.

Not to mention how the crazed vampire called Drusilla screamed in pain, before doing the exact same thing...


Richmond, Virginia. The same time

Xander Harris punched the punching bag repeatedly. To the outside observer it would appear that he was just working out, albeit with a frightening intensity. And he was in fact doing that, but the observer would not be aware of the inner dialogue also going on between Xander and the Soldier Guy - who had been part of him now, for nearly 7 years.

The essence of Donald Grant, the paratrooper killed in Vietnam, had gone into overdrive once the plight of Faith's soul had been revealed to him. The soldier had looking at the problem from all possible angles, and coming up with many different scenarios at a mile a minute.

Clearly, just walking into Wolfram & Hart and relying on them to honor their word was not an option. As stated previously, Xander was many things, but he wasn't that much a fool.

Telling the Siberians and relying on them wasn't much better. Harris knew that once they knew that he knew...there was no way they would allow him to be involved in the attempt to retrieve his former girlfriend's soul.

Also, there was the fact that they had known about Faith's condition and hadn't told him. That clearly showed that they were afraid that he might go off on his own, to try and rescue her. They didn't trust him not to instantly go in guns blazing - and to be honest, that bugged Xander a lot.

It all came back to his memories of the history that had never happened, and the morning they'd encountered the Sisterhood of Jhe. He'd gotten knocked out in that cave, and basically the Scoobies had decided to render him fray-adjacent for the next couple of days. On something he had a personal stake in.

Xander shook his head, banishing such thoughts. Like Oz had said in England, all that was just would-have-been material now; and he had to focus. This was Faith they were talking about, the one good thing he remembered from his senior year of high school.

He had a right to know what was being done to rescue her, if anything. And suddenly, Xander had a disturbing thought - that maybe some parts of the organization he had aligned himself with...weren't doing anything to save Faith's soul. < They'd view her loss as acceptable consequence. The brass thinks in those terms. Consider what happened during the Tet Offensive, > Soldier Guy whispered in Xander's mind.

The ones who were able to help, could very well decide that the cost just wasn't justified in the grand scheme of things. Xander grunted, as he landed a particularly hard blow on the punching bag. < I guess Travers isn't such a unique attitude, after all... >

The soldier answered back in his head, < Every unit has someone like that, can't be helped. You just hope that they know boundaries about the mission. The mission may come first, but don't destroy yourself in believing that. >

Xander nodded to himself. He remembered when Buffy had gone up against the First Evil in the future history; in his opinion she had become so consumed by the fight, that the slayer hadn't even realized how far off the rails she'd fallen. He still shuddered a little bit about how Buffy had treated Wood over the presence of Spike, the killer of the principal's mother...

Xander stepped back, and wiped some sweat from his forehead. He had contemplated going in solo, Rambo style - something which had amused the soldier persona for a few seconds, before the problems with that idea were pointed out.

That might have worked for a situation where he was going in to kill everyone within the combat zone, but since he was going there to rescue someone - someone's soul, anyway - he couldn't go in with that sort of bloody mindset. That would make it too easy for him to get killed. Which clearly wasn't a good idea.

After all, storming into an enemy stronghold with no plan gets people killed, or at least someone's eye gouged out...

He needed a plan. Something that accomplished the goal of freeing Faith's soul, not leaving him a prisoner of Wolfram & Hart and at the same time give the law firm a bloody nose.

Well, one thing Xander was good at now was planning for situations such as these. And as such, the man knew he couldn't go it alone. He would need to find help.

Harris already knew he could rely upon Oz; however, the werewolf alone wouldn't be enough. The 24-year-old man also needed someone more experienced than himself, in the shadowy espionage world he now found himself inhabiting.

Gunny and Red were definitely out, as their first loyalty was to Mother Hen. Riley, Graham and any of their comrades, ditto. Any attempt to get into contact with Gunn or Angel would raise unwelcome questions, and since the Scooby gang all thought he was dead...

Xander thought briefly about confronting Cleburne in private, but decided against it. As even if, as he suspected, the Marine colonel was out of the loop on this - *nobody* could successfully lie to his face like that for long - it would put the man into an impossible position, with regard to obeying orders and doing the right thing.

Suddenly, the soldier persona whispered a name in the back of his mind.


Townhouse outside of Washington, D.C. Two hours later

The phone's annoying twittering jolted her awake. Her hand fumbled around on the nightstand for a second, then she found the offending instrument and put it up to the ear that wasn't scrunched up against the pillow.

"Yes?" The woman managed to say with some clarity.

"Rachael, it's me. Hall," Xander's voice woke up the Israeli secret agent instantly.

"Alexander? What's wrong?" Something bad must have happened for Xander to call her.

"Nothing's wrong. Just thought I would give you a call," was the calm reply.

"What?" Rachael now was confused and worried, a phone call out of the blue from an individual whose existence was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world - well, it wasn't something that happened every day. "Do you even know what time it is?"

"Yeah, about three in the morning. Couldn't sleep. Listen, you want to drive down here and have dinner tonight? Oz and I were feeling like having some company..."


Abandoned nursery, Los Angeles, California. Nearly four hours later

Spike looked at Dru with some worry, a few minutes before daybreak. She had been muttering incoherently ever since she had woken up after collapsing, hours ago. And all Spike could make out was something about a witch, and her grandmother...

It reminded him of the night Angel had lost his soul in Sunnydale, and Angelus had come back into their unlives. So, William was worried enough that he had ordered his minions and the commandos from Wolfram & Hart to double the guard, around the nursery where they were based.

He again silently wished that Darla would hurry up and rise, so she could then get on with turning the magnificent poof back to the dark side, as it were. He figured the three of them should be able to do what Wolfram & Hart wanted in a couple of days, and then it would be time to receive their well-earned payment.

Spike's thoughts of what he could do with the money were interrupted by a shout from outside. He turned to the door to go out, as he couldn't see what was going on outside - given the windows of the greenhouse had been painted black to keep out the sunlight.

Luckily, Spike did not shun the modern-day tools of human society the way most vampires seemed to. He took the walkie-talkie of the pocket of his leather duster, "What the hell's goin' on out there?" the Bloody One snapped into the device.

After a few seconds, the device crackled as a reply came through. "Some kids running through the parking lot. Can't be more than teenagers, if that. We yelled at them a bit to scare them off."

Spike immediately recalled the Slayer and her friends, who had repeatedly thwarted him in Sunnydale, had been almost all teenagers. His sense of some form of danger approaching kicked in, "How many of them? Were they armed? Where did they go?"

"Don't know, boss, want me to chase after them?"

Spike sighed in exasperation. "No, you bloody dunce! It's almost sunrise. I want minions, not the contents of a dust buster!" Spike lowered the walkie-talkie for a second. "I swear, luv," he said to Dru, "These idiots that those moron lawyers supplied us with are bloody useless! Remind me to complain about that, and try to get some more money off of 'em for it..."

Dru didn't answer him, she just sat there and continued mumbling about "Grandmother" and "the witch".

Spike shook his head, and keyed the walkie-talkie to send again. "Get some of those of wannabe soldiers from the lawyers, and have them go take a look. Understand, Lucas?" He waited for a response.

Only silence reached his ears. "Lucas? LUCAS!"

"Bugger it!" Spike muttered to himself, and started to walk out of the nursery into the business area in front. "Everybody, listen up - the white hats are 'ere, so head to the display room and we'll-"

But he didn't get a chance to tell them what to do. As when Spike stepped into the display room - a large room in front used by the nursery to display their products, in the days when it was open to the living public - a roar and then a shattering of glass preceded Angel's convertible crashing through the front window.

Spike jumped back, silently thankful that the building faced west. "They're here!" he screamed out to the few dazed denizens that had been in the display room.

Indeed, Willow had *finally* woken up and done a locator spell along with Tara - who had been almost out of her mind with worry about the redhead, and not focusing on anything else. Not knowing anything about that though, Spike saw the driver's side door of the car with very tinted windows open up, and the ensouled vampire that was right now the bane of his existence step out.

Angel saw one of the vampires that were on his to-do list for dusting this morning, standing in the doorway openmouthed. "Where is she, Spike? Tell me right now, and I might be satisfied with just staking you," he growled at his grandchilde.

Spike snapped himself out of the shock he'd been in. "Get him!" he shouted to the commandos and vampires in the display room, and those running into it in response to the crash. Spike did some quick math in his head, and felt comfortable attacking Angel with the almost three to one odds against the souled vampire.

Suddenly though, accompanied by the shouts of a dozen throats, Gunn led his Lost Boys charging into the display room through the opening created by Angel's car. < Gee, can't the big wanker do anything by himself? > Spike thought to himself in annoyance, as he saw the odds even up rather quickly.

Spike moved forward to attack Angel, but stopped when he heard the voice of Drusilla. "Spike? SPIKE!!! It's happening, my precious 'eart, she's coming..."

Spike smiled viciously at Angel, and then ran back into the nursery. Spike knew that with three Master vampires such as themselves, nothing could stop them now. Maybe they could even take out those lawyers. Spike liked the idea of being the boss - even in part - of a city containing 10 million people...

He ran into the nursery, and saw the dirt where he had buried Darla rolling back and forth. "All right!" Spike called out, pumping his fist up in the air. "We'll show that bloody nance what bein' bad is all about..."

He hurried forward to where Dru was. She had now stopped mumbling, and seemed to have regained what passed for normalcy with her. "Oh, oh! Grandmother's coming, but Spike, the stars...the stars tell me..."

Spike put his hand on Drusilla's shoulder, calming her down. "Don't worry pet, she's one of us now - and not a walking Happy Meal anymore!"

Angel burst through the door. "You're too late, mate, 'cause ya know what? It's showtime!!" Spike called out sneeringly to the other male vamp, and gestured.

Suddenly Darla sat up, bursting through the dirt. Her mouth was working as if she was trying to take in deep breaths, even though she didn't need oxygen anymore. She looked around in wild-eyed terror and finally managed to gasp out, "What...where...where am I..."

"You're back, luv! We'll have a party!" Spike shouted out. Holding his arms out wide in an imitation of a game show host, trying to excite his audience.

Angel looked in part-dread and part-hope at his sire. "Darla?" he called out.

Darla's head snapped around at the sound of Angel's voice. "Angelus? What's happened?"

Angel looked at Darla, looking for a sign that Willow's spell had worked. He could tell she was struggling with the demon that was now inside her. "We were attacked in the Hyperion-"

"Yes, I-I remember that, Spike and Drusilla came in and..." Darla' voice trailed off, as her memory of the events of the last 24 hours returned. "I was grabbed from behind. Dru bit me, I remember her drinking from me..."

Darla put her hand up to her mouth. She felt the dried blood. "And she made me drink from her. She...she made me into this. I'm a vampire again..."

"No, no, no! Grandmother came back, she's back but she's not happy!" Dru suddenly shouted from the corner of the room.

William the Bloody misunderstood what that meant. "Don't worry Darla, we'll get ya something to eat - and you'll be as good as new, ducks. Maybe even better! Come on, there's a whole bunch o' white hats out in the front room. We'll get you breakfast, alright?" Spike said, stepping forward to lead Darla to the promised blood bags.

Darla struggled to her feet. The look on her face was dark. Angel wondered if it was because Darla needed to feed, or something else. < This might get ugly, if the soul curse didn't work... >

But right then, a vampire from the front room ran by Angel to report to Spike. "Sir! There's too many of them, we need your help out there..."

Darla grabbed the vampire, and easily broke his left arm. A loud snap echoed across the room. "She bit me. Then she forced me to drink..." Darla looked down at the vampire who was now cradling his broken arm, and whimpering in pain.

"Don't *ever* interrupt me," she said curtly, before continuing. "Dru turned me. After all I went through, Angel, trying to get *you* to turn me...searching for a cure to the syphilis. Looking through all those books. Contemplating my life, and what I had done." The blonde saw the shovel that Spike had been using earlier, and quickly walked over to it.

Darla turned and looked at Spike and Dru, with a truly vicious glare. "I had made peace with myself, you know. I was willing to endure what was coming. I had made my choice-"

"Choice? You were human! Tell me a sodding other one-" Spike sputtered out.

Darla looked at the younger vampire with a great fury, she then picked up the shovel and broke it over her knee. It snapped in two easily. Darla then grabbed the top of the shovel, and threw it. Staking the messenger vampire that was in pain, right through his heart.

"I wanted to stay human," the 400-year-old woman declared, as the vampire turned to dust.

"Well, didn't see that coming," Spike muttered to himself. And there was no more time for talk, as he quickly defended himself when Darla attacked him.

Drusilla screamed out, "NO! I knew it, I knew it, this is all the nasty witch's doing! She made Grandmother all wrong, she has, and she's poisoned Daddy's mind like apples in a brewery. Her and my kitten. The kitten's paid for his sins, and now she'll 'ave to as well..."

Meanwhile, seeing that Darla was in possession of her soul, Angel said a silent prayer and launched himself into the combat.

Spike threw off Darla, as she hit the ground near the wall. The newly-risen vamp saw a crack of light through the painted window, "Tell you what, Spike, let me show you the light..." With that, Darla swung up the bottom of the shovel that she was still holding, and smashed a section of the greenhouse wall.

A wall that was made of glass.

A wall that faced east, and so allowed the light beams of the rising sun to shoot in.

Right towards the door leading to the front room, where Angel had just been standing before jumping towards Drusilla.

And incinerated three vampire minions that had been coming to see what was going on, and the escape the onslaught of the combined Fang Gang and Lost Boys.

"Bugger it, you lousy bint!" Spike shouted out. "Watch it, or you'll get all dusty too!"

Darla smiled at William the Bloody with a smile that would have chilled Spike's blood, if he'd had any body heat left. "I know, but you'll go to Hell first..." With that, she launched herself at Spike.

Spike rolled back, as Darla landed on top of him and punched him. Dru went to help her lover, but was intercepted by an uppercut from Angel.

"Now let's keep it fair, Dru, don't cut into their fun," Angel smirked at her.

"Daddy, why won't you get better? You're all sick now," she whined at Angel.

Angel didn't reply, knowing it was a trick by Drusilla to distract him. Instead, he just blocked the punch that his female childe sent his way.

"You know Dru, for a seer - you suck! As you should have seen that I wouldn't be fooled by that..." Angel kicked out and hit Dru hard in the stomach. She fell back against another part of the glass window, cracking it but not breaking it.

Dru shook her head, and stood back up. "Daddy, please, you've been bad. You goin' to discipline me, say I've been naughty?"

"No, *I'm* the one that's going to do that!" Darla suddenly appeared in front of Drusilla, and punched her hard in the face. She fell back again, and the glass broke this time. Then Dru was engulfed by the deadly sunshine, smoke beginning to come from her.

"Dru!" Spike called out from the ground where he had been knocked down. He jumped up, and ran over to protect his love, covering the both of them with his leather duster. "C'mon luv, we'll take care o' these bloody do-gooders later!"

With that the two of them, covered up with Spike's duster, semi-crawled around the corner. A few seconds later, the sound of a fleeing car could be heard.

Darla looked at the sunlight, and took a step forward. But Angel leapt at his sire, and knocked her out of the way. Darla teared up, "Why, Angel, why did you do that? I could have finally ended it-"

Angel looked at her. "I wouldn't let you end it as a human, and I won't let you end it now! Darla, I've got some things to tell you; see, the situation is, you've still got a very important role to play..."

Part Twenty-Four

Richmond, Virginia. January 17, 2001

Rachael Weitz drove along the street, towards the residence of Xander Harris and Daniel Osbourne. And she was not in a good mood this evening.

After the strange phone call from the former Scooby during the night, Rachael had of course reported it at once to the embassy - and the embassy had instantly ordered her to appear for some questions, in the morning. And the secret agent hadn't liked that, not at all.

Because as Rachael had dreaded, the Mossad station chief had wanted to talk to her.

The ugly truth was, as Xander had more than suspected at the time, that Ms. Weitz had been given this assignment not only because she was well qualified to act as an observer to Siberian Trip Wire - but also since she was a beautiful woman, and resembled Faith more than just the average person on the street. The thinking had been that Xander would not be able to resist her advances, at least not for long, as he was a man - and practically all men had certain...needs.

But unfortunately, Rachael hadn't gotten anywhere in months of trying to break through the temporal-displaced refugee's defenses. And if not for her contacts back home, she almost certainly would have been hauled away by now, for the Israelis to send someone else to get to Xander Harris - to sleep with him, and hopefully learn all the secrets he wasn't sharing with STW.

Well, such is the spy business; it's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it.

But now, the people at the embassy were thinking Xander had started warming up to her, as a dinner invitation - even in the middle of the night - was a good sign. For her country, that is; for Rachael, not so much...

Because she had been ordered not to be 'coy' any longer. Weitz had almost laughed out loud at the use of that word by her superior, as her attentions towards Xander Harris hadn't exactly been coy or subtle! But in any case, the big man in Washington had flat-out told her to ditch the werewolf by any and all means possible, and seduce Harris tonight - or else.

That had left a bad taste in Rachael's mouth, to be honest. Because this wasn't just an assignment anymore; she had definitely started developing feelings for the guy, despite all training and common sense to the contrary.

With a sigh, the brunette spy arrived and quickly rang on the doorbell. But what she wasn't expecting was to be yanked inside, and shoved up against the wall in the foyer.

To her shock, Xander leaned close to her face; his forearm against her throat and pinning her in place, he coldly asked a single question. "Did you know about what's happened to Faith?"

"What-?" the Jewish woman stuttered, choking from the pressure and never having expected this.

Harris leaned forward, staring into her eyes and not giving her a chance to react. "Did you *know* how Wolfram & Hart had captured her soul?"

Rachael almost shook her head. "No, I-"

But Xander had already let go, and put away the stiletto he had concealed in his hand before Rachael had rung the doorbell. He turned to Oz and said succinctly, "She's clean."

The musician frowned. "A lot's depending on whether you've guessed right..."

The former slave grinned nastily. "Trust me, dude; because yours truly spent nearly 5 years in a place where if you trusted the wrong person, the demons turned you into dead meat! She's not lying, I got me no doubts Rachael's on the level here..."

Harris then felt a tap on his shoulder, before Weitz's fist headed straight for his face - in retaliation for what he'd just done. But ducking aside instantly, Xander captured her hand and squeezed *hard*; yelping, Rachael jumped back as Harris let go with a scowl. "Sorry about the little test - but don't try to do that again. You get one free shot, and that's all. I'm warning you..."

Clutching her right hand in pain, the female Israeli spy just demanded angrily, "All right, just what the hell is going on here?!?"


Byron's Lobster House, Richmond, Virginia. Later that night

"You're insane!" That was Rachael's stated opinion, after Xander had finished telling her what he was thinking.

Oddly enough, she had gone out to dinner with Xander and Oz at a local seafood restaurant despite recent events, after the young woman had made a phone call to the embassy - and told her boss about Harris' actions, without telling him the reason for them. The senior spy had just sighed...

...and told her to forget the seduction scenario, until further notice. And thus, Rachael had gladly done so. < I swear, if I didn't find the big lunkhead so drop-dead gorgeous, I'd have kicked this guy's ass into next week for the stunt he pulled tonight! >

Earlier in the day Xander had talked to Oz, taking the necessary precautions to avoid being overheard, explaining the situation with Faith's soul. Oz had taken the news with the calm face that Xander had expected, although he thought he had seen the werewolf's eyebrow twitch up when the news of the soul being held captive had been told him. Harris had then detailed the plan he had come up with to get Faith out of the clutches of the evil lawyers in Los Angeles, and enlist Rachael's help in doing so.

Oz had voiced his concerns to Xander. And the so-called Timetripper had agreed that it sounded dangerous, but asked that Oz reserve his final decision until they'd talked to Rachael.

Over dinner in a corner of the restaurant, Xander had told the Israeli woman what was going on, and his plan to deal with the situation. Like Oz, she'd had concerns - not to mention issues. She was just more forthcoming in voicing her opinion of Xander's mental state.

"Don't hold back, Rachael, tell me what you really think," Xander quipped at Rachael's opinion.

"I'm serious, *Mr. Hall*! This plan you've come up with is downright insane, too. It depends on everything going off exactly as you planned! The slightest thing going wrong, and it spirals off into disaster-"

Xander nodded. "I agree. It's a finely tuned plan. But it'll work."

"Oh, come on! I know you've got that soldier persona kibbutzing around in your head; he'll tell you that no plan ever completely survives contact with the enemy. And this one is worse, since you have no margin for error! I think you should forget the whole thing, and just tell the colonel what's going on. You're gambling an awful lot on his reactions to your little scheme-"

Xander shook his head. "No, because we all know that won't work. There is no way in hell once he knows what's going on, that Mother Hen will let me go anywhere near Los Angeles. And there's no guarantee that he'll be able to get anywhere near the orb with Faith in it! My way, at least it gives us a better than even chance to find out where the orb is being held..."

Rachael looked concerned and shook her head. "There are better ways to pull this off-"

"And those ways involve too much risk of not getting Faith back. So we gotta go with my idea. End of discussion," Xander said.

"No it's not! Look, Alexander, this isn't exactly what you'd call a...a standard hostage rescue scenario. Because the kidnap victim, she's already dead..." Rachael said, hoping for Xander to see reason.

"You should know better than that by now," Xander snapped. "Her soul exists here, in this world. Rachael - everything that Faith is, or was, those bastards are holding prisoner. So that's good enough for me!"

Rachael looked at Xander, and noted how he looked fiercely determined to do something. "Hall, think this through logically. You have to-"

Xander interrupted her. "No. I am not leaving her there, that is *not* an option. I don't care about the big picture. I don't care about what's coming in the future. I don't care about the national interest. What I know is that a comrade in arms, a...friend of mine is in need. I am not going to leave her in the lurch like that-"

For a moment, Xander flashed back to the night outside the Bronze, and felt the pain all over again when Lenny bit into him. < NO! >

Then he pulled himself together, "Look, I know what it's like to be left behind like that. Trust me, it's one of the worst feelings in the world. Feeling abandoned by your friends, knowing that you've been left to die..." His face grew grim. "I am not going to let Faith feel that. Even though she's dead, her soul can still feel. Her only hope is that we'll come for her."

"Still, there has got to be a better way!" the Israeli secret agent insisted.

"For nearly 24 hours I've gone over and over the situation in my head, Rachael. Nonstop. If you can think of a solution with a better chance of getting Faith out of there, tell me now. Otherwise, this is the plan we're going with."

Rachael leaned back and folded her arms. "Going in like that is stupid."

"Maybe, but it's the lesser choice of a whole lot of terrible evils," Xander declared.

"Hmm. Sounds like you've already made your mind up," Rachael said, with almost a pouting quality to her voice.

"I have."

"Then what do you need *me* for?" she asked.

"Well, I have to get to Los Angeles. I'm thinking me buying a plane ticket or flying under my own name might start some alarm bells ringing." It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Siberians were obsessing with airline passenger lists, in light of what was coming in September. Xander knew that if his name showed up on any such list, assuming the guard dogs even let it get that far, that flight would attract an incredible amount of attention.

Rachael looked at Oz. "If it's a matter of buying a ticket, why not get Osbourne to buy one?"

Xander shook his head. "No, his name would set off the alarm bells as well. You know how the Siberians operate. Their net is cast so wide these days, that any name associated with me would raise a red flag. Hell, that's how they found me in the first place; they knew what name to look for, and kept watch for it till I showed up at that bus station in San Francisco."

Comprehension came to Rachael. "You want me to get you to Los Angeles underneath the radar?"

Xander nodded. "Underneath everyone's radar."

Rachael quickly figured out what Xander meant. "Even from my own people? Oy vey! You don't ask for much, do you?!"

The woman already knew that if she did as she was asked, she would have to do it without the help of the entire Mossad network within the United States. Rachael knew enough of how her agency worked to understand that more than a few people of responsibility in it, might get ideas of taking advantage of the situation - to spirit away the prize, as Xander was sometimes referred to as, back to Israel.

"Look, Alexander, you're asking for a helluva lot. And when all's said and done, I'm a patriot-"

"I know," Xander interrupted Rachael. "I'm not asking you to do anything that will harm the state of Israel. I wouldn't do that-"

"Yeah, but you winding up in the hands of those lawyers could lead to things that would harm my country, along with a whole lot of others! You have to weigh all the possible outcomes here."

"I think she's right, Xander," Oz had never really gotten used to calling his old friend by his alias in private. "Any way you want to paint it, you're taking a big risk in doing this. And it could end up a real disaster if anything goes wrong. Disaster along the lines of, say, Buffy sleeping with Angel-type bad..." Oz knew it was a calculated risk mentioning the Slayer and the events of their junior year in high school, but he was hoping it would be enough to make Xander reconsider his position.

For a moment, hurt flashed in Xander's eyes. Then it quickly vanished, as the temporally displaced warrior regained control over his emotions. "I know the risks are high. I know it could go all horribly wrong. However, I can *not* just leave Faith there, or hope that someone else eventually decides to do something about it. Like I said, that's not an option."

Xander paused for a second. There were parts of his plan that he wasn't ready to share with Oz and Rachael just yet. "I understand the risks, but thing is - I've got something in mind to try to deal with them..."


Georgetown, Washington D.C. January 18, 2001

Cleburne knocked on the door, and entered Esther's office. "Morning..."

"Good morning, Joshua," Esther responded. "Anything to report?"

Cleburne sat down across from Esther's desk. "No, nothing major. That vamp nest in Oklahoma City is dust in the wind." Cleburne chuckled a little at his own joke. "We're also picking up rumblings about some kind of vampire activity in Alaska."

"I see you've also been busy in some other ways..." Esther turned the monitor of her computer, so that Cleburne could see it.

The Marine then saw that the Internet Explorer software package was on the web page denoted "Uh, I can explain that."

Esther cocked her head and looked at Cleburne. "You can explain why this website is now reporting that the 'Timetripper' was the subject of an interstellar summit meeting, between President-elect Bush and aliens from outer space?"

Cleburne nodded his head. "Yes, I can."

Esther waited for a few seconds for Cleburne to continue. Seeing that he wasn't going to, she prompted him. "And?"

"I planted the story."

"And you did this, why?"

"Come on, Esther! This makes the people out there, take this website much less seriously than before. Which I admit wasn't much to begin with, but I figure why take any chances? This way, if that wacko actually manages to get some proof, we can always say that he talks about aliens. Besides it was fun."

"And the picture of Bush with these so-called aliens?"

"Hey, the boys in the computer lab loved the idea. They sat up me up with the program to do it and everything," Cleburne replied with a look of amusement on his face.

Esther smiled. "I see. In that spirit, I thought you might like to know that the Watchers Council is about to get a little surprise. Something that should make them sit up, and take notice. Hopefully afterwards, they won't be as much of a bother as they've been in the past. Speaking of the Watchers being a bother, I hear Lt. Hall had a visitor last night?" the black woman commented.

The Marine colonel chuckled. "Weitz went down there for dinner, at his invitation. Actually, I'm sort of glad; I was getting kinda worried about Harris acting as if he was a monk or something, all this time. Professionally speaking, it's good to see the kid starting to loosen up a bit. And Rachael will be good for him..."

Esther raised an eyebrow at that comment. "You're not worried about Weitz?"

The Marine waved his dismissively at Esther's question. "Nah, she can take of herself; it's the kid you should be worried about."

Esther chuckled at that. "Well, anyway, I called you here for a reason."

"So what's the mission? Vampires, werewolves, witches gone bad? What creepy-crawly do I gotta deal with now?"

Esther smiled at the question. "Actually, it's the return of a golden oldie. Been a while, I know, but we *do* still deal with terrorists..." She slid a folder, with a photograph attached to it, across the desk. "Recognize him?"

Cleburne leaned over, and picked up the file. He looked at the photograph, and snorted. "Oh yeah, Mikhail Notenchenko. He was a colonel in the KGB. Back in the Eighties, he was chief liaison with a variety of terrorists groups in the Middle East. Went private sector in the mid-Nineties; but had to leave Russia, as Putin really doesn't like him on a personal level. Last I heard, he had set up shop in Rome, selling AK-47s and RPGs and whatever else he could find to anyone who could afford it..."

Esther nodded at Cleburne's recall. "Well, I'm afraid he's expanded his product line."

Cleburne looked up, halfway knowing what was coming. "What's he selling now?"

"Biological weapons, I'm sorry to say."


Richmond, Virginia. Later that day

Xander finished writing the email he had spent the last hour composing. Rachael and Oz had been right about his plan requiring almost everything going as planned, for it to work. That required the timing to work out *precisely* as Xander hoped. He would only have a tiny window of opportunity for it to work; once the opportunity passed, he wouldn't get another one.

Rachael had continued trying to convince Xander to tell the Siberians what was going on. Oz had joined in on occasion, although with less vigor, the werewolf having less experience dealing with them than the Israeli secret agent. Xander, however, would not be swayed from his course.

The young man knew that at some level, his actions were irrational, the soldier persona whispered that in his ear - but he just found it impossible to be sidelined with this situation. Harris needed to act knowing that someone he cared about, well her soul anyway, was in trouble. It was, as Lilah had guessed in the video message, the old White Knight syndrome coming to the fore.

Still, despite what Rachael and Oz may have thought, he wasn't a fool. Xander knew just how dangerous the path he had chosen was going to be. More than once, he had convinced himself to tell the others what was going to happen, only to change his mind - for their own safety.

The man then saved the email to disk. He didn't know when the break for Los Angeles would take place, so he didn't want to set a time for the email to be sent just yet. Xander knew he had to be sure of the timing.

He also knew that the Siberians could do a lot to prevent him from doing anything they considered foolish. The Californian had never forgotten the story of the boy who could read minds, who was now in a drug-induced coma at a clinic right here in Virginia. He could very easily himself wind up locked away in an underground cell, after all he hadn't heard hide nor hair of Ethan Rayne since the election scam he had tried in Florida last year.

Harris knew the Siberians were capable of drastic measures, when they thought they were called for.

Indeed, he was hoping for just that capacity in his upcoming plan...


Washington, D.C. The same time

Rachael Weitz sat in the chair with her fingers in front of her, pushing against each other like a church steeple, considering her options.

Since she hadn't been able to talk the guys out of this, the woman knew there was no other option; she had to get papers and transportation for them. The only other choice was Harris getting himself locked up by the Siberians, for his own safety - and in that case, Rachael would lose her access to him...

So she had to go along with the whole nutbar plan - keeping a close eye on the loose cannon and his sidekick, of course.

Weitz sighed, knowing this wasn't going to be easy. Normally, she would be able to use the resources of her organization. However, that wasn't possible here. For the moment, she had been able to fool her superiors as to what was going on; they believed that Xander had momentarily buckled under the stress of his situation...

Which was perfectly understandable. Rachael knew that back home, several experts had been consulted concerning the mental health of Xander Harris, and their consensus was that some form of breakdown was inevitable.

She suspected that the Siberians had some people on staff here, who had told them the exact same thing. The spy knew that there was a Dr. Angleman within STW, who was treating - well, *trying* to treat - Harris on a regular basis, for suspected psychosis...

Still, Rachael didn't accept that. She just didn't believe Xander was headed for a padded cell, the way the so-called experts did.

Oh, Weitz knew that much of his behaviour would be considered abnormal or questionable, by most human standards. However, Xander Harris almost *defined* abnormal; after all, the guy knew exactly what was coming for the next 2 1/2 years. He had spent nearly a quarter of his life in that hell dimension. And he had grown up with the knowledge of demons and vampires...the same way other kids grew up with baseball statistics and other sporting activities...

Bottom line, Rachael had seen enough of Xander in action to know that he hadn't lost his capacity for rational actions. He just sometimes didn't use that capacity.

Anyway, she had seen the exact same thing in quite a few people like him, in her line of work. Field agents often exhibited pathological behaviour; after all - what completely rational person willingly enters the lethal shadow world of black ops? Rational people stayed at home, they became doctors, architects or lawyers with 2.4 kids and a mortgage. They didn't plunge headlong into the night looking for terrorists, vampires and demons...

So the Israeli woman accepted that Xander knew what he was doing, just not that it was a good idea.

Her mind snapped back to the problem at head. Okay, so she couldn't use her people - they would know something was up, and take steps to secure advantage from it. And Rachael knew that she couldn't stop that, even with her influence back home.

That meant unofficial resources for this one. Of course, she needed to find someone good enough to do the job, and not breach the confidence required. And that limited the number of choices Rachael had, particularly since she was working with a pretty short amount of time here.

The ringing of her doorbell interrupted her musings. And Weitz was surprised to see Monsignor Bentallo standing there, when she opened the door.

"Good evening, my child. May I come in?"

Rachael stood aside to allow the Catholic official to enter. She shut the door as he did so, "Monsignor! Welcome to my home. And I hope you don't find this offensive, but I'm in a hurry - so what can I do for you?"

Bentallo just smiled in response. "It's more along the lines of what *I* can do for *you* - and Lt. Hall."


Los Angeles, California. Later that night

Lindsey MacDonald pushed the 'end call' button on his cell phone. This had been the fourth time today that Spike had phoned him, to complain about not getting paid. And each time, Lindsey had told the vampire to read the terms of their contract - that he hadn't upheld his end of the bargain to turn Darla into a soulless vampire, and thus Wolfram & Hart wasn't going to pay up.

Each time William the Bloody had declared that part of it wasn't his fault, and he had done everything asked of him. And with each phone call, Spike's ire had grown; just now a whole string of British curses, most of which the one-handed man didn't even know what they meant, had voluminously blasted the lawyer's ears.

Lindsey was just glad that he hadn't been in the physical presence of the vampire, or his insane companion. He would have been fearful of his physical safety in such a situation; and given the threat potential, the Texan had already alerted the firm's security today to be on the lookout for the undead version of Sid and Nancy.

Lindsey had also taken personal precautions for his apartment; and he was now trying to think of ways to increase his safety during the commute to and from work, but apart from stakes and crosses couldn't think of anything. The man silently cursed to himself, < This is just typical... >

The plan had been for Spike and Drusilla to make life miserable for Angel, not the people - well, some of them were people - who had hired the duo. The whole plan with turning Angel back to the dark side was rapidly falling apart, and *he* was the one who would be blamed for dropping the ball. Lindsey pocketed his cell phone, and saw Lilah looking at him with a smug expression on her face.

Lindsey idly wondered what, other than his misfortune, she had so much to be pleased with. Office gossip was that her project involving Xander Harris, a.k.a. the Timetripper, was stalled. Although come to think of it, his immediate superior Holland Manners had also seemed very pleased recently, the few times he had asked Lilah about that project.

At that moment, Holland entered the room, where a gathering of the Special Projects division of lawyers were present having cocktails. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you're ready we can all adjourn to the wine cellar. I have some finger food and drinks ready for us down there." He smiled, as the attorneys followed him downstairs.

Lilah grabbed Lindsey, just as the male attorney was about to march off with the others. "Wait up."

The man cocked an eyebrow, "Why?"

"We need to talk."


Half a mile away. The same time

"Bollocks!!" Spike slammed his palm onto the steering wheel of the car. A crushed cell phone lay beneath his feet. "Where do they get off, treatin' us like this? We did everything they wanted, luv, and we woulda been successful too - if the bloody fools had bothered to warn us that that damn witch was gonna get in the way!"

Spike had quickly figured out that it must have been Willow who had cast that spell ensouling Darla, there was no one else he knew that had the skill. < Shoulda killed her way back when I had the chance! Damn that silver-coloured demon wanker, what stopped me that night... >

In any case, William took the position that her intervention was something outside the terms of his contract, something that the insurance people would call 'an act of God'. Therefore, he had earned the money that the demonic law firm had promised him. He wanted that money, too - beer and cigarettes didn't exactly grow on trees here, after all.

Spike had grown increasingly more and more frustrated, as his efforts to get paid had come up with no results. He had even tried going in person, well in vampire, to the law firm to argue his case. But he hadn't even been able to get past security! Normally, security guards wouldn't have fazed *this* vampire, but when the security guard was a nine-foot-tall demon - well, that had caused Spike to decide on something a bit more subtle.

Like finding out where this party was, that he had heard two interns in the parking garage talking about before he'd had dinner. They had been bickering over what to wear, and had mentioned a dress store that everyone who would be attending the party had patronized...

And needless to say, the staff at the dress store had been most helpful as to where the cocktail gathering was. Spike figured that he could find Lindsey MacDonald leaving said party, and express his...displeasure in person.

Next to him Drusilla suddenly said to herself, "The stars warned me, they did; they spoke of the naughty witch, said she was coming..."

Dru's mumbling caused Spike to realize something. "Seers. Those bleedin' seers that firm uses must've seen what was going to happen. They could have warned us..." Spike then grew *very* angry. "Wait, that's it! They knew we were gonna face more 'n two pansy vampires. They musta wanted us dusted, so they wouldn't 'ave to pay up! Oh, those right bastards!!" He slammed the steering wheel several times, with enough force to rock the whole car.

Spike sat there and stewed for a few minutes. Then he reached down, and turned the ignition of the automobile on. The vamp instantly started to drive off, heading for a destination that he kept to himself.

Dru looked at her boyfriend. "Where are we going, my precious Spike?" she asked in that sing-song voice, oddly happy in her own weird way.

William the Bloody just grinned, with that grin of his that indicated a large amount of violence was about to happen. For this was Spike the Master vampire, and not some chipped white hat. "I want to collect on our fee, ducks, in person. And if I can't get money, well, there are other forms of payment..."


Ten minutes later

Holland Manners looked up as his little speech was interrupted, when someone slammed shut the doors into the wine cellar with a loud bang. He recognized the two vampires in front of him, and suddenly knew fear. Even more fear than he felt when he dealt with the Senior Partners, for they at least wouldn't kill him without reason...

"Hello there, mates - hope you don't mind, but the little woman let us in!" Spike declared to the roomful of lawyers. Then the male vampire laughed at Holland, "She was one decently tasty snack, too! Shoulda warned the missus never to invite anyone in, ya dumb git - even if they look like they'd just been in a car accident..."

< Catherine... > Holland thought in horrified regret. "Spike. Drusilla. What brings you here?"

"You," Dru replied dreamily, seeming to stare off into space - as the moon and the stars whispered their secrets to her.

William the Bloody, ignoring the comment of his beloved, laughed again in genuine amusement. "Now, that's a good one! Well, why don't ya take a wild stab at why we're 'ere - you sodding cheapskate?" His face becoming a horrible scowl with that last phrase.


Richmond, Virginia. The same time

Xander Harris copied the email message from the disk to the computer. He then quickly set up the message to send, in 12 hours. He figured that would be enough time for him to get to Los Angeles. Rachael had said that she had air transport arranged that should get them to LA, in a couple of hours.

Harris figured they could set up camp in the City of Angels for about a day or so, before he made his move. That should be long enough for his plans to come to fruition...

Or so he thought. Unfortunately, Xander had no way of knowing that his email would actually remain unread longer than he expected, for the person he was counting on reading it...was at this moment, flying across the Atlantic on his way to Italy.

Unaware that his plan had already hit its first deadly flaw, Xander hit the send button on the computer. He then turned off the machine, and stood up. The young man quickly grabbed his jacket, and headed to the roof of the apartment building.

Over time, the strictness of the surveillance upon him had lessened, as he'd become more and more part of the team. Plus, Oz had been a big help with that sort of duty; not only was the werewolf an infinitely better guard than almost anyone else due to his supernatural abilities, he was someone whose presence Harris could tolerate. And so, there was just less hassle all around if the two of them were simply left alone in the house.

Still, Xander suspected that someone would notice him walking out the front door, as Cleburne hadn't relaxed surveillance *that* much. So, it was a roof exit for him. Oz had already left, taking his guitar with him so it looked like he was going out to play at one of the bars he frequented. And no one watching the building from the street had thought anything of that.

Xander got to the roof, the cold January night causing him to involuntarily shiver. He zipped up the jacket to try and ward off the cold. Still, the man knew that the cold here in Virginia was not as bad as elsewhere; after all, he had visited Hollins at his office in Urbana during the winter often enough, to feel *real* cold. < Lord help me, am I getting used to this kind of weather? No! It can't be true! >

Yes, Xander knew this was mild compared to Illinois. Of course, compared to the winters in Sunnydale that he had grown up with, well - January nights in Virginia were almost freezing compared to those. < Maybe one day, I can move back to good ol' southern California. Still - that's not possible for years yet, if ever... >

He looked around, to make sure he was alone. Satisfied that he was the solo person on the roof, Xander clambered down the fire escape to the street behind the apartment building. He then pulled a balaclava out of his jacket pocket, right before he dropped to the street; pulling the balaclava over his head, Harris figured just in case someone was looking, this might disguise his appearance a little bit. < Or make them think you're going to rob a liquor store! > He quickly made his way down the street towards the nearby park.

After a few minutes, Xander saw his destination. He looked up and down the street to see if she was here. And then 30 yards from him, a car roared to life, making its way to where Xander was standing.

"Hey there, handsome. Want to party?" Rachael said, as she leaned over from the driver's seat and opened the passenger door for Xander.

He quickly got in, tearing the covering off his head. "I bet you say that to all the guys!" Harris retorted.

"Only the ones I like - and want to take home, to meet Mother!" Rachael replied easily, as she started to drive through the early morning streets of Richmond.

"Oz taken care of?" Xander asked, after a few minutes.

Rachael nodded. "Yes, he's already at the airfield. And he was even able to get some sets in at that club he likes to play at, before he left! The man seemed happy." Rachael paused for a second. "You know, it's not too late to-"

"Yes it is," Xander said with finality. "The email's been sent. So either we do this, or we part company - right now!"

Rachael stared at him, but said nothing. In fact, the two of them were silent for the rest of the trip to the airport; as there was nothing left to say on the matter. But internally, Weitz was fuming... < Bull-headed jerk! I swear to God, Cleburne must be teaching this guy his people skills... >

In the end, Rachael pulled the car up into a secluded hangar. There was a Lear jet in front of it, and Xander could see Oz standing next to the plane. He got out of the car and headed over to the werewolf, while Rachael parked the vehicle.

"Looks like she came through," Xander commented to his friend.

"Well - she had a little help, my son..."

Xander turned at the new voice and saw Monsignor Bentallo standing in the doorway of the jet, motioning the newcomers to board the plane. "Please hurry, my children - we have a long way to travel, and not much time in which to make the trip..."

He noticed Xander's expression and explained, "I've learned of how the immortal soul of Ms. Daniels was abducted from Heaven, by Wolfram & Hart. Those unclean monsters..." Bentallo growled, as said act was an affront and an insult to his faith - one that could not and would not be tolerated. "Now please, all of you - hurry!"

Xander and Oz exchanged a glance at Bentallo's statement. And Giles or Buffy, had they been there, would have been struck how the dynamic between Oz and Xander mirrored the long-ago dynamic between Willow and Xander. After a second, they reached an unspoken decision and boarded the plane as Rachael followed them.


Outside the Manners residence, Los Angeles, California. January 19, 2001

Kate Lockley made her way up the pathway to the front of the house, a little after midnight. She moved to the side, as some paramedics wheeled out a gurney with a sheet-covered body on it. The blonde woman suddenly looked back at the street, where onlookers and reporters were being held at bay by several uniformed police officers.

With a grimace, Kate then turned around and continued on her way. "How bad is it?" she asked the officer guarding the front door.

"Awful, the wife got it near the door here. The staff and caterers, we found in the main body of the house. The party guests were all killed down in the wine cellar. Looks like the killers locked the doors behind them, and went to town on the poor bastards..."

Kate hurried through the house - noting in passing where the chalk outline was, that indicated where the lady of the house had met her end. She made her way to the stairs, and from there down to the wine cellar.

When the female detective got there, a beehive of activity greeted her as well as various paramedics and police officers. Forensic experts walked around, taking crime scene photographs.

A panicked call to 911 about an hour ago had summoned the police to this residence. The caller had shouted something about being trapped with the murderers in the wine cellar, and the door locked. A young British woman had then terminated the call, screaming some sort of incomprehensible nonsense.

The patrol unit arriving there ten minutes later, had found only a house full of corpses...

Kate cursed to herself under her breath; she knew that this crime scene just screamed out vampires, even if no one would believe her if she told them that. Thus the woman halfway expected to have Angel and maybe some of his sidekicks show up, any moment. She hadn't heard from them for a couple of days...

Lockley also wondered if this was the kind of thing that she should call those Federal agents about. They had been in contact a few times, and she had called them occasionally also. On a hunch the detective made a mental note to call her contact number, once she was done here.

She tentatively stepped into the wine cellar. One of the other detectives noticed her, "Hey. I swear - it's a real mess here, Kate. I don't know if they'll ever be able to get all the bloodstains out of the floor..."

"Do we know how many dead yet, Lew?" Kate asked.

The police lieutenant shook his head. "No clear body count for now. Most of the dead met their maker here in the wine cellar, but we're searching the whole house to find all the victims." The detective leaned over and whispered to Lockley, "Be careful on this one, all right? The brass is watching all of us in here, real carefully. I've already had calls from both the mayor's and Governor's offices..."

Lockley nodded at that. She had heard enough to know that this law firm moved in the highest possible circles. She wondered just how much more trouble could she get into with this case, as she was already skating on thin ice over the zombie police officer situation...

Something which had happened earlier here than in that other world, without Wesley getting shot - but with Angel shutting down the operation, and beating up that police captain dabbling in the black arts.

"Lieutenant, we've got a couple of live ones here!" an officer shouted down from the top of the stairs.

Lockley quickly made her way up the stairs, and followed her fellow cops to the kitchen - where she found a couple of still-breathing lawyers, Lilah Morgan and Lindsey MacDonald. Both of them were shivering and wrapped in blankets. Lockley looked at the officer with a questioning look.

He shrugged in response. "We found them hiding in the meat locker, near the back. It *is* pretty cold in there-"

Kate glanced towards the cold room, and could see the hunks of meat hanging down the length of the freezer. She noted that there were puddles of blood on the floor of the freezer. She glanced again at the officer.

"From what we can gather, Manners regularly entertained guests who like their meat very rare," he said in response to the look.

She turned to the two attorneys. "I'm Detective Kate-"

"Lockley, yes detective - I recognize you. We've met before, right? You've been involved in several cases involving some clients of the firm," Lindsey said.

The lieutenant figured this was his cue to back off, as if Kate knew these people - he'd let her take point on the interrogation. As it was a known fact the witnesses always spoke more freely to someone they knew, instead of some anonymous flatfoot. < Lord knows, we need to find out everything they know- >

"Okay, so you know me. Who are you two?" Kate was a little put off by the Texan's attitude.

"Lilah Morgan, and the one-handed wonder here is Lindsey MacDonald," the woman spoke up with a slight smirk before her counterpart could.

"Okay, Ms. Morgan," Kate's tone was now definitely frosty. She had heard of Lilah through Angel. "What happened here?"

Lilah hesitated for a second. "We were upstairs discussing a case, when we heard Mrs. Manners cry out..."

That was true, of course the case in question involved a certain warrior of the light who was misplaced in time. Lindsey had been trying to get information from Lilah about her project, while at the same time she had been trying to get information from him.

The internal politics of Wolfram & Hart sometimes led to strange situations; but in this case, it had saved both their lives. Because Darla hadn't been here this time around, and Spike would have slaughtered them both with a song in his heart; and since these two still had their important roles to play, it was all just as well.

Lilah went on, "We went to the kitchen, where we found some of the staff. Well, what was left of them..."

"Were you able to see the attackers, or learn who they were?" Kate asked.

Lindsey shook his head. "No, all we heard was a woman's voice yelling. It was in a British accent, if that helps."

Kate nodded, that matched up with the phone call that was now common police knowledge. "What did she say?"

"Oh, something like - Grandmother and Daddy should be here. It's all changed. All changed. It's all their fault. The kitten and witch," Lilah said, half a second before Lindsey could say they hadn't been able to make out the words.

Kate frowned at that, as none of it made sense to her. "Any idea what she meant?"

"No," Lindsey quickly said, lying through his teeth.

"What then?"

"We hid in there. We figured no one would look in the meat locker," Lilah replied, not adding that she had gambled that the meat and accompanying blood would mask their scent from the two rampaging vampires.

The thing was, both Lilah and Lindsey knew perfectly well who was behind the massacre. They just didn't feel like sharing that info with the thin blue line; both attorneys knew the law firm would be dealing with that undead duo, soon enough. "How about the others, in the wine cellar? What happened to them?" Lindsey asked.

"All dead," Kate said in an even tone.

"I see," Lilah commented. < Well, that means there's certainly going to be a big shake-up at work in the morning! Someone's gonna have to take over for Holland... >


The Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. Six hours later

Angel walked into his office, looking more tired than someone who was undead should. He sat down behind his desk, and ran his fingers through his hair.

Wesley knocked on the door, as he entered the office. "Any news?" he asked.

Angel shook his head. "No, Spike and Drusilla aren't anywhere to be found. I figured they would be out trying to obtain new minions to attack us with, to be honest. Maybe rounding up some help from Wolfram & Hart-"

"Speaking of which, the news services are reporting that there was a mass murder at Holland Manners' house, earlier tonight. Angel - if it's who I think it is, I more than suspect that those two and Wolfram & Hart have come to a parting of the ways. And Spike must have decided to..."

Angel sighed, or at least appeared to. "It's typical of him, actually. Whenever Spike starts something, he doesn't stop until everything in his path is dead. I remember back in Sunnydale, I warned Giles and the others about that..."

The vampire then noticed the Englishman's confusion. "Before your time, Wes. Anyway, point is, when something goes wrong his motto is to kill everyone he can reach." Angel looked up worriedly for a second. "Did Willow get back safely to the Hellmouth?"

Giles nodded. "She did. I called Mr. Giles about half an hour ago, and both Willow and Tara arrived back in Sunnydale without incident. Ah, what about Darla? How is she adapting to status?"

"You mean being a vampire with a soul? Well, she hasn't freaked out yet. I think she's focused on finding our two - wayward children - so much, that it hasn't really sunk in completely. Once those two are taken care of, I expect she'll have to face her new status head-on. But for now, she's upstairs in one of the rooms resting. Given how we can't get too much else done, with sunrise so close."

"Of course," Wesley commented. "Gunn's people are looking, and if they hear anything they'll let us know. You might want to contact Ms. Lockley, although from what Gunn tells me with regard to the fallout from the incident with those zombie police officers - that may well be a last-resort scenario. Anything else?"

Angel shook his head. "No, I think we have quite enough to deal with at the present time."

"Quite. Well, I'm going to go out and see what I can find." With that Wesley turned and exited the room. Right before he left the room, his face, unseen by Angel, showed a look of hesitation for a second.

< No, this isn't the time. I'll talk to him about it later, > Wesley thought as he closed the door behind him.


Sunnydale, California. An hour later

Orlando checked his weaponry again. He always kept his weapons in perfect condition, but that came from always checking them carefully, day and night. He knew that the slightest flaw in the weapon could be disastrous in a battle.

Particularly at this time.

Dante and his other brothers had been very diligent in finding out what they could, about the woman they had fought that night in the alley. She clearly had some connection to either Glory, or the Key. General Gregor had ordered the Knights to learn all they could about her. Thus, his orders had been followed to the letter.

The Knights had interrogated many of the undead and demonic citizens of Sunnydale as to her identity. The fact that she was the Slayer was something that worried Orlando. He had ordered his men to be extra cautious, to not be spotted.

That had slowed down the rate at which they could get information, but that couldn't be helped. In any case, they respected her fighting ability. Particularly since most of their information had been gathered from the captives they took, before said captives were...dispatched.

A couple of the other Knights had gone undercover in the neighborhood where the Slayer frequented. They had determined which house she lived in, and more importantly that she had some kind of celebration coming up.

Orlando had decided that this celebration would be a good time to visit the Slayer, and try to learn some information. They might be able to snatch some of her friends, or whatever else was necessary to determine what she really knew.

Orlando looked at the calendar. The date read Friday, January 19th, 2001.

Today was the day the Summers clan would be celebrating the birth of the Buff...


Los Angeles, California. Later that day

Xander tentatively made his way down the stairs, into a place he remembered very well from his time in the City of Angels.

Dismissing from his mind the thought that STW must have learned he was missing by now, Harris looked around the bombed-out basement of the building - that at one time had housed, subsequent to his residence there, the offices of Angel Investigations.

Xander took a breath, and started coughing on the dust that was in the air of the cellar. He finished up coughing and grimaced, "Oh yeah, there's no place like home..."

Rachael and the others followed him down the stairs. "Home? Hall, I didn't know you once lived in the Batcave!" the woman joked, as she brushed some of the dust from her clothes.

Xander instantly recalled the man called Allen Francis Doyle visiting him here two years ago, when the Donald Grant soldier persona had been in complete control. The Soldier Guy hadn't thought the joke that the messenger for the Powers had made about the Batcave was funny, not at all. However - Xander was more easygoing, at least in some things. And it didn't hurt that the person making the joke was much better looking than the hard-drinking half-Irish seer...

Suddenly Xander thought, < Can't help wondering - what would this world be like today, if I'd just shot Doyle that night...instead of hearing him out? >

Well, for one thing, it would have upset Jasmine's plans a lot. But the former slave knew nothing about all that - yet - and it was a decent mental exercise, imagining yet another would-have-been world and not having to think of his immediate problems.

As Harris contemplated the possibilities he came to the conclusion that most likely, the Hellmouth in Sunnydale would have remained open that evening, thanks to Jack O'Toole and his buddies killing everyone in the library with that bomb - and a Hell on Earth scenario would apply.

But assuming the world had managed to survive somehow, he wouldn't be the Xander Harris right now that he was today. He would be just another anonymous resident of LA, most likely hooked up with Gunn and his Lost Boys, fighting the things that went bump in the night - and with no knowledge of the shape of things to come...

And *that* meant the First Evil would have been able to manipulate the playing field to its heart's content, without interference.

Bringing himself back to the present, Xander chuckled lightly at Rachael's joke. "Sorry, this is Alfred's week off. If I'd have known we'd be visiting so soon, I would have called him back from vacation early."

Oz walked around the cellar, his wolfish senses faintly picking up the almost-nonexistent smells of Xander having been at this locale before today. And he could tell that it had been a long-term habitation, too. "This was home to you, wasn't it?"

Xander nodded, some of his earlier levity gone now. "Yeah, for a few months - after I got back from that hell dimension. The portal out of there led to LA, ya see, and I made my base camp here till I got sent back to Sunnydale."

Oz raised an eyebrow at Xander's short description, he was sure that there was more to it than just setting up a base camp here. But he held his tongue for now, seeing the expression on his old friend's face.

Bentallo looked around, somewhat appalled. "My son, surely you could have found a better place elsewhere? The Church has many shelters in the city you could have-"

"Monsignor, I know the Catholic church is doing what it can to help - however, I doubt any shelter run by you guys would have turned a blind eye to what I was doing, during that time! One look at me after one of my missions, and I'm sure LA's finest would have gotten quite a few calls from my hosts," Xander responded. The soldier persona had been quite ruthless in his dealing with demonic threats, and hadn't wanted to be where humans could have been hurt or interfered in his missions.

"So what next? We hang out here till Cleburne shows up? Or do we get pro-active?" Rachael asked. She silently hoped that she could come up with a way to head off Xander's plan, with one that involved less danger. However, she hadn't been able to come up with anything yet, so she was now stalling for time.

"Well, there are a few things to do before we move on to the next phase," Xander said, ignoring the look of distress on Rachael's face when he referred to what was coming as the next phase. He just continued, "I have to be *certain* that Wolfram & Hart can't get the knowledge they want. I know Faith's important and all, but I shudder to think how many people would suffer or die - if they got their hands on the information they're after! So, we have to be sure that doesn't happen."

"How about you not going straight into the lion's den? That sounds like a perfectly good way to avoid the danger to me-" Rachael started to say. She wasn't giving up the game anytime soon.

"No, Rachael, I told you - I can't leave Faith there. We get her out, no matter what it takes!" Xander replied. He wasn't budging on that part of the plan, and everyone knew it.

"What did you have in mind?" Oz asked. He knew from personal experience that Xander could be *very* stubborn at times, and he wanted to avoid a fight between the former Scooby and the Israeli secret agent if he could help it.

"Well, I know some people here in Los Angeles who can handle mystical matters, professionally speaking. We need to get in contact with them, and they can take care of the arrangements for me."

"Angel and the others?" Oz asked, as that made sense to him. Xander had told him how Angel was in on the secret from the start, and he further knew that Gwen Raiden was with him now. They could provide support in going up against Wolfram & Hart...

But Xander shook his head. "No, I have someone else in mind. On account of these three ladies pack one helluva mean punch, in the mojo arena..."


Outside the Caritas Karaoke bar, Los Angeles, California. Half an hour later

Monsignor Bentallo tugged at the collar of the shirt he was wearing. He felt nervous, both from being dressed in disguise and going to a demon bar. As these were things he had not expected to ever have to do, as part of his duties with the Holy See.

As said, Xander had a plan to contact the Furies. The problem was that both Cleburne and Gunny knew of the girls, and Xander's connection to them. Thus the runaway believed that STW would certainly have their apartment under surveillance, and he couldn't contact them directly.

However, Xander knew that there were others who, when visiting the Furies, would not raise any concerns with any potential agents watching the suite.

The tricky part was contacting them. So Bentallo, being the one least likely to be recognized by any Siberian agents in the city, had ventured forth while the others had stayed in the basement of 1.03.

Bentallo entered the bar, and looked around. A waitress walked by and smiled, "Evening honey, grab a chair and I'll come by to get your order in a sec-"

"I'm looking for Lorne," the holy man said uneasily.

The waitress nodded over to where the lounge demon was working the crowd. So Bentallo walked over to where Lorne was, and sat down on a barstool near his objective.

After a few minutes, the Host noticed Bentallo watching him and turned his attention to the guy. "Hey there, Sinatra junior, how you doing? Haven't seen you around, in these here parts before. What can I get you?" Lorne asked.

"Mineral water," Bentallo said simply.

Lorne raised an eyebrow. "Mineral water? Come on! I picture you as a Rat Pack kinda guy. And they don't drink mineral water...lemme guess, you'd love to sing something in homage to the Chairman of the Board? Tonight's a night for the classics, after all..."

Bentallo nodded. He was actually kind of flattered, as he was a big fan of Frank Sinatra's music, but business came first. "Thank you, however my needs are more direct at this time. I was sent to contact you," the Catholic official said, after making sure no one was listening to their conversation.

Lorne's guard immediately went up. "Me? Who would want to contact me, except to plan a party here at my club or something?"

Bentallo shook his sadly. "I'm sorry, but this isn't a party scenario. A man called Alexander Hall sent me, to tell you that he needs your help. And I'm afraid he must insist on your assistance..."


Los Angeles, California. Shortly before sunset

Xander paced the floor. He had been pacing ever since Monsignor Bentallo had left for Caritas, and his return had done nothing to stop Xander's progress.

"Hall, if you don't stop walking around in circles like that, you're going to drop from exhaustion before too long!" Rachael commented from the chair where she had been watching the former Scooby.

"I just can't sit here and wait. We should have heard something by now!" He turned to Bentallo. "Lorne said he would do it before sunset?"

Bentallo nodded. "Yes, after I discussed the situation with him, he said he would do as I asked. And the demon promised he would get it done before sunset, as he didn't want to miss the peak hours of activity in his club." In fact Lorne hadn't wanted to help at all at first, but whatever Xander had written in his letter to the Pylean, had persuaded the Host to assist them.

Xander knew that the Furies were the ones who'd taken care of the sanctuary spell in the Host's establishment. So it made sense for Lorne to visit them about the spell, and he wouldn't raise any red flags with anyone watching the apartment. All that the green guy had to do was tell the sisters that Xander needed to talk to them. If they were agreeable, Lorne was then to call Bentallo on the cell phone number he had given the Karaoke bar owner.

"Don't worry. He'll come through. I have every confidence in your ability to judge people...well, demons too," Oz said sympathetically.

But Daniel, like Rachael, was hoping in some way that Lorne did *not* come through. He had been trying, subtly but clearly, to divert Xander from his plan - even if he'd had the same lack of success that Rachael had. Of course, Xander hadn't lost his temper with Oz the way he had with the Israeli woman in Richmond...

The funny thing was Xander held no illusions as to Oz's motivations for trying to talk him out of this idea. He knew the werewolf wasn't afraid of losing a potential intelligence source for his country; the guy was worried about a friend getting himself killed.

"What if he doesn't call or can't get to them? What then?" Rachael asked. Despite what Xander thought, she too was concerned about his safety and welfare.

"Mmmm, Alexander..." a trio of voices with a dreamy quality said.

Xander's head twisted around, to see the Transuding Furies standing about five feet away from him. He then realized he was no longer in the condemned basement, but in the Furies' apartment suite.

After all these years and with all the memories in his head, the teleportation spell or whatever didn't faze Xander at all. Oz didn't really react either, beyond raising an eyebrow, and that was only to be expected. But Lorne was standing near the door, with a look of amazement on his face. Bentallo looked around in wonder, barely suppressing the urge to cross himself.

Somewhat tellingly, of all those present only Rachael jumped in shock. "What the hell!?" she shouted out.

Xander motioned at her to calm down. "Don't worry, they're the people we need to see-"

"What!?" Rachael cried out again. "Look around you, pal - we're not where we were a few seconds ago!" She glanced around, the setting sun was visible from the patio door leading to the balcony. "Last time I checked, that cellar of yours did not have a view of Los Angeles skyline!"

"I know it's unnerving-" Xander again started to try and calm her.

"Unnerving? Unnerving? It's downright freaky! We didn't walk, we didn't drive, we didn't fly. We simply showed up here! What just happened - it goes against all known laws of God and man! And you're not bothered by this?"

"We do not abide by-"

"-your limited perceptions-"

"-of this amazing universe," The Furies said in succession, freaking out Rachael even more. She stood there, open-mouthed and looked at them.

At that moment Lorne spoke up. "Boys and girls, it's been a blast. Mr. Hall, not that I'm not happy to see you again, but I need to get back to my club. I'll meet you later, to complete my part in all this. And by the way, honeybun, thanks heaps for the tip!" With that, the empath demon exited the suite.

"Tip?" Oz said, looking at Xander.

"Nothing from the future, I just wrote in the letter that it seemed to me that the spell preventing demon violence in Caritas? It might not stop human-caused violence - and that he might want to look into that. I also made a few other suggestions, on how to make sure no violence from outside would spill over into his bar."

Xander turned his attention to the three Furies, that had moved closer to him during the conversation - in that gliding way that they all used, in order to move. The women had a look on their faces that left no doubt in Xander's thoughts, what was on their minds.

"Ladies, really great to see you all again-"

"Yeah, I'm sure!" Rachael interrupted him. She had eyes too, and disliked the sisters at first sight - on general principles.

Xander continued on, ignoring her rudeness. "Girls, I need your help. A situation has developed, and I...need to do some things that require your unique brand of abilities." Harris then proceeded to describe to them the threat from Wolfram & Hart, and his plan to deal with it. "Look, bottom line, I really need the assist here. I can't afford for my plan to blow up in my face, and let those demons-slash-lawyers get what they want..."

The three Furies looked at each other. Their body language indicated a conversation, but they made no sound. Suddenly, the eldest of the three spoke. "Yes, it is foolhardy. And it is also reckless. But what he seeks to do is noble and worthy, to rescue a lost soul."

The other two looked at her and nodded. She then moved to a chest in the room. The first Fury quickly took out two stones, and went to Xander. She handed one to him, keeping the other. The stones then instantly lit up, when Xander took the rock in his hand. He looked questioningly at the women.

The Furies then said in turn, "They're called Soul Stones. As long as you are alive, the stones will shine."

"Now that the stones have imprinted your soul's aura upon themselves, they will reflect that your soul is earthbound."

"But if you die, they will go dark once more."

The Furies paused for a second; behind them, Xander could see Rachael getting red-faced. < Just great. Guess I should have convinced her somehow to simply stay in Washington- >

"If the stones go dark, we will be able to summon your essence into an Orb of Thesulah, before Wolfram & Hart is able to do so. This will prevent your knowledge from becoming known to those you don't want it to," the Asian Fury spoke up.

Xander nodded, looking concerned. "That's good. If the lawyers kill me to interrogate my soul, that'll put the kibosh on their plans. However...that may not be enough." Xander suspected, and the Soldier Guy agreed, that the lawyers might decide that interrogating a soul without a body was much easier than, say, questioning someone always trying to escape.

"What?" Bentallo demanded, as he heard the young man say those words. "How can that be?"

"Easy," Xander said, then he looked at the three sisters. "Wolfram & Hart apparently has lots of resources, they could very well figure out your involvement. And then they'll come after you. They'll most likely sacrifice as many demons as it takes to get to my soul, after all - look at all the trouble they went through just to get to me, in the first place! You're powerful, but not all-powerful. So if it pans out that way, you gotta be prepared. You three need to be prepared to...utterly destroy my soul."

Harris looked hard at the Furies, completely ignoring the clamor from his companions. "Can you do that?"

The Furies looked horrified. They stared at each other, and then they turned towards Xander - with something close to a look of shame on their faces. "It is possible. There is a spell involving a living flame-"

"-and the Breath of Entropics. It would destroy a soul-"

"-beyond the power of almost all entities to resurrect," the Furies chorused.

Xander raised an eyebrow. "*Almost* all?"

The eldest Fury answered him. "Any entity able to reverse this spell - would not need your soul to know what lies ahead, in the first place."

"However - it still goes against everything we believe in," the second Fury added.

"What you ask - is almost impossible for us to countenance," the youngest sister finished up.

"I hate to suggest this," Oz spoke up. "But what if they torture you enough, that you crack under the interrogation? Not kill you, but make you do anything necessary to end the pain?"

Xander turned his attention from the Furies to his friend, snorting dismissively as he did so. "Not wanting to blown my own trumpet here, and this is something no one likes bragging about - but I *seriously* doubt that those lawyers, or their demon buddies, could do anything to me that would accomplish that. Never gonna happen."

The others gave him looks that clearly said they had trouble believing this. Rachael spoke up, "Hall, believe me, everyone has their breaking point. The human body can only take so much pain-"

Xander took a breath and responded, "I know I've been sketchy on the details of my time there, and I know it sounds pretty cocky, but the hell dimension and Ken made me able to withstand anything these people might throw at me. It's the truth, pure and simple - I survived 5 years of Ken's attention, plus I survived the emotional turmoil that was my life in the previous history..."

"My son-" Bentallo started up.

"No, Monsignor, it's not a consideration. That's just a fact, after all - how many people have had a wakeup call, that was a demon trying to set them on fire?" Xander declared.

The sisters then spoke up, interrupting Xander's companions' attempt to dissuade him from doing this. "There is still the-"

"-matter of payment for-"

"-our services to be discussed," the Furies said.

Xander looked at the Furies. The others looked on in puzzlement, as they were unaware of what his payment had been last time - when the Furies had helped out on the raid into the demon dimension, to retrieve the human slaves there.

"I understand. And, uh, I imagine you'll be wanting payment in advance - considering what I'm about to do, huh?" Harris sighed.

"Payment?" Oz asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, ol' buddy, there's no such thing as a free lunch," Xander commented. "Well - you guys probably don't want to stick around for this part of it. And since you can't exactly walk out the door, the sisters can transport you back-"

But then the young man was surprised when the girls shook their heads, "No, Alexander. This time-"

"-we require more. Your body-"

"-is not enough," the three women said.

"Body? What do they mean by, 'your body'?" Rachael asked, actually finding to her amazement that she could get angrier at this situation than she'd thought - as the implications of the comment by the Furies set in.

Xander frowned, ignoring her. "What else can I give you? After all, you girls aren't exactly into money..."

"Your seed," the eldest Fury said calmly.

Xander continued frowning, and then his eyes went huge - as he *finally* processed what had just been said. "My seed? My seed!?" Harris demanded, his voice rising. "You mean - you want to have my..."

"Your blood is uniquely blessed, from drinking the water within that holy cup. You have a destiny to fulfill."

"Even if we do not know what that destiny is, we know it is vitally important to this world."

"If you die beyond all hope of resurrection, disaster is certain," the Furies rhymed.

"And how would you girls having my seed prevent that?" Xander asked. He didn't notice Rachael edging closer to him.

"If you succeed in your objective-"

"-retrieving the soul of your fellow warrior, you donation-"

"-will not be allowed to develop. It will be as if it never happened," the Furies explained.

"And if I don't come back?" Xander asked grimly, already halfway knowing the answer.

"Your three sons will be born-"

"-and cared for. When they grow up-"

"-one of them will take over for you, in the destiny you have been chosen for," the Furies answered.

Rachael spoke up, now white as a sheet, "You're all crazy. Or joking. Or both! I don't care which!" Even though the woman wouldn't admit to herself, more than a little jealousy was prominent in her reaction to this situation.

"I don't think so, for any of the three choices," Oz said in his Yoda-like manner. As always, he was exhibiting a serene presence that the others present couldn't hope to match.

Xander just stood there, saying nothing. For a full minute, he appeared to think about it, and all the ramifications.

But Rachael had had enough of this, and she grabbed the man's arm to drag him out of the suite. By this time, all she was thinking about was getting her so-called assignment away from these nut cases - not caring anymore about who might be watching the apartment.

But Xander easily batted away Rachael's hand, without breaking his stare at the Furies. Ignoring the Israeli's look of stunned hurt, Harris said quietly to the sisters, "I want your word of honor, your pledge, your most sacred holy vow that if I agree to your terms - you'll take good care of my kids. Give them as normal a life as possible, until they're old enough to make their own decisions. And that it'll be up to *them*, to decide how to fulfill their own destiny."

Rachael looked on in complete disbelief at the former Scooby, as the Furies nodded in unison to his request. "We swear by our powers that we will do so. We will honor your request to the letter, if the need arises," the eldest Fury spoke for the group.

Xander nodded, taking a deep breath at the enormity of his actions. "Then I guess...we have ourselves a deal. So, uh - it'd be best if you transport the others back to where we just came from-"

"Now wait a minute, if you think for a moment I'm going along with this-" Rachael started, only to be interrupted by Xander.


"No, damn it! Have you completely lost your mind? Enough's enough, I'm not putting up with this crap any longer. I'm putting my foot dow-" She stopped, as the brunette felt Oz take hold of her arm.

"Come on. We're leaving," the werewolf said with some force.

"No way, I'm not going!" Rachael snapped back, having lost almost all semblance of reason.

Oz's eyes flashed black, and fangs were suddenly visible in his mouth. "It's his play, Rachael. And we're backing it."

This outer display of his inner wolf was enough to quiet the Jewish woman down, and get her to cooperate. She allowed Oz to mover her away from Xander and the Furies, towards where Monsignor Bentallo was.

The eldest Fury spoke soothingly to Ms. Weitz, "Do not give up hope for Alexander's survival. He is special. The destiny we speak of - truly belongs to him." As she finished saying that, Xander's companions shimmered out of existence - and found themselves back in the cellar, that had once been la casa del Soldier Guy.


Later that evening

Xander walked down the street. And Lorne walked alongside him, in disguise of course - a hat and sunglasses covering up his horns and eyes.

Soon enough, Xander had fulfilled what the Furies had requested of him. And one of the Soul Stones was now the constant companion of the Furies, so they could monitor Xander's status.

Strange as it was to contemplate, they were now also the potential mothers of Xander's children. And after the deal had been 'finalized', the Furies had transported Harris back to his friends in that dark basement.

Rachael had been angry at what had transpired, and she had certainly let everyone know that. Even though technically it wasn't really her place to say so, basically logic had no place in her rants anymore - and she had torn into Xander, using everything she could think of to convince to give up his insane plan. The spy was now definitely sorry she'd had anything to do with getting Xander to Los Angeles...

But Rachael hadn't been successful, and finally had stormed out of the cellar. And unknown to Xander - she intended to contact the Siberians as soon as she could, to stop the plan in its tracks.

Immediately after she'd left though, Harris had finalized the plans with Oz and Bentallo. And after a hasty goodbye, Xander had departed to meet up with Lorne - who would take him to the law firm's building, in the quickest and most secure way possible these days.

The Host, striding along next to his companion, hurried his pace to keep up. "Well now, you're anxious - aren't you?" the demon asked.

"I just want to get this over with," Xander replied simply.

Lorne could sense Xander had recently had sex, and he could also easily guess as to who with. "All I gotta say, studmuffin, is keep your pants on. You *did* just get them back on, after all..."

Xander sent a sideways look at the Host. And the singing demon hastily added, "Whoa there, lover boy, just joking around with you! You seem pretty antsy, is all."

"Yeah, I know, but life or death situations *do* tend to put a person on edge," Xander replied.

"Hey, tell me about it. Business always goes down at Caritas, when something like that comes up!" Lorne replied.

Unknown to either of them at that moment, two blocks away, Rachael was talking into a cell phone with Esther Marcum. The Israeli secret agent was learning to her horror, that Cleburne was out of the country - and therefore the email to him had not yet been read.

The Siberians knew that the Timetripper was missing, of course, and a Black Alert had been sent out; but they were unaware of just what Xander was planning, and thus no commando teams were here in LA, and ready to go in after him.

There was no time left to lose. The female spy hung up in a panic, and started running towards the Wolfram & Hart building.

Which was where Xander and Lorne had just arrived.

"Well, here you go Mr. Hall. Bad vibes Central, live and in person. I don't know why the hell anyone would want to go in there voluntarily," Lorne looked around nervously.

"Not quite voluntary here," Xander said musingly. "Thanks, Lorne. And if I don't see you again - live long and prosper..." He grinned at how the old geek-speak had just slipped out, and then grasped the demon's hand in gratitude. Something that a relatively short while ago, Harris wouldn't even have considered doing - never in a million years.

Lorne half-smiled, not sure how to respond. He took off his sunglasses, "Hey kid, don't worry. You'll come through fine, I'm sure. Betcha you'll be belting out show tunes at Caritas again, in no time..."

Xander just smiled, and turned around to walk towards the entrance of the law firm. Lorne turned around as well and started walking away, but as he did so - Xander started to hum the Battle Hymn of the Republic, to psych himself up for what lay ahead.

Instantly Lorne whirled around, his eyes widening in sheer horror and disbelief. "No-!" he choked out in a terrified whisper.

Behind him, Rachael turned the corner at the end of the street and screamed in horror and frustration - as she watched Xander walk through the front doors of Wolfram & Hart.

Part Twenty-Five

Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles, California. January 19, 2001

Xander Harris walked in through the front doors of the law firm, and immediately the old spider-sense started tingling at the presence of so many demons.

Unfortunately for him, Xander hadn't heard Lorne's shocked remark with regard to his upcoming future. And Rachael was under orders not to let herself get captured as well, and so the poor woman had to agonizingly wait outside the building for backup to arrive.

Thus, just like for a lot of his life, Xander was all alone amongst enemies.

The head security guard - the same incredibly tall demon that had made Spike reconsider wreaking havoc, here in the lobby of Evil Inc. - came up to Harris at once. "Hold it right there-"

But unfortunately for the bad guy, Xander knew about his species and their few weaknesses. The young man just instantly drove a long knife through the body into the demon's left butt cheek, penetrating the heart blindingly fast; and someone even William the Bloody was wary of, quickly joined the ranks of the dearly departed thanks to the one-time Zeppo.

Xander subsequently didn't move as several security guards rushed forward, and aimed their guns at him. He just said, "The name's Alexander Hall. I have an...appointment with Lilah Morgan."

"Lower your weapon to the ground, right the hell now!" the second-in-command, who looked human, demanded.

But Xander just released a cruel grin, as he hefted the knife. "You guys try to disarm me, and I'll try to kill you all. In fact, I'll try so hard - that you'll be forced to kill me, to stop me! And if that happens, well...let's just say the Senior Partners won't be very happy with you. In fact, they're probably watching us all right what do you say, punk? Do you feel lucky?"

The guards looked at themselves in confusion. They weren't used to their targets acting like this. And the mention of the Senior Partners was definitely unnerving...

The thing was, if the comparison was to be made - these flunkies were like rabid dogs, while Xander was like a feral wolf. And the difference between wolves and dogs is that the latter, having been domesticated by humanity over the millennia, had picked up some of their habits - a dog could conceive of the notion of 'he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day'.

But wolves, as Xander had learnt from Oz, know nothing of such human thought patterns. A wolf only ever loses one fight in its life - the one it does not get up, and walk away from afterwards.

And at a subconscious level, if it came down to that - both Xander and the guards knew *exactly* who was going to win the fight around here.


The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles. A few minutes later

Shortly before midnight, Lilah leaned back in her chair, alone in her office. Things had certainly changed dramatically for her, in the last 24 hours.

The day had started out with only the promise of future action, on her Timetripper project. Plus, middle management had been in an uproar about Lindsey's hiring of Spike and Drusilla backfiring on the firm.

Then had come the party at Holland Manners' residence, which had quickly turned into a nightmare bloodbath for the Special Projects division. As Mr. Hunt Acrey had so charmingly put it, a 15-body massacre with the majority of the contracts staff dead was not part of its quarterly plan, at this branch of the firm! Nonetheless, this had had the effect of making Lilah and Lindsey the senior surviving members of the division.

Of course, Lindsey was tainted by the Spike situation. After all, he had been the one who had hired the vampires in the first place, that had killed a large number of the firm's personnel. Not something that looked good on Lindsey's record, for his attempt to move up the ladder within Wolfram & Hart.

With that as her competition, Lilah felt optimistic about her chances for promotion. And what she was watching right now on the monitors, made her chances look even brighter. Her plan was finally coming to fruition, in a manner that the Senior Partners were certain to appreciate.

Lilah stared at the screen. It showed the interior of an elevator. And in the elevator, as it made its way to the floor where Lilah was now sitting, stood Xander Harris flanked by two security guards.

"Why, hello, Mr. Harris. I've been waiting so long to meet you in person," she said out loud, a predatory smile crossing her face.


1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California. January 20, 2001

"Why can't my daughter just have a normal birthday?" Joyce asked angrily after midnight, as she hit the armored knight on the head with a frying pan. The Knight of Byzantium had stuck his head through the kitchen window, and Joyce wasn't about to let that go unchallenged.

The party had started out so normally, too. All of the Scoobies had been there. They had pitched in to help prepare the party, insisting that Joyce not strain herself. Even though she seemed to be healing well from her surgery, the Scoobies still knew that February 21, 2001 wasn't that far off...

All the members of the gang knew of Xander's first letter, by now. Buffy had, with the permission of Joyce and Giles, shared it with the others. They immediately of course had taken to doing whatever they could to help Joyce's recovery, although Anya had unnerved them all - when for an entire weekend, she had learned all she could about estates and wills...

Her comment that the transfer of wealth through California's probate laws being more complicated than she had first thought, had thankfully been made out of earshot of both Buffy and Joyce.

The blonde guardian of the Hellmouth had hoped to keep all of the details of the first letter from the Scoobies. However, she had underestimated Willow's determination, when it came to the matter of her former childhood friend. And the redhead, once she knew Xander had written something to Giles, just would not let the matter go. Buffy and her father figure had finally been worn down, and Willow had become the fourth person to read the letter in its entirety.

The others only knew the gist of the note and that future letters were coming, just not when. That delayed explaining the second letter, describing Dawn's origins. Giles had shown it to Buffy and Joyce, but that was all - figuring his Slayer and her mom had a right to know all the information possible, that might help in defending Dawn.

And just like in that other world, those in the know were unsure as to how that news would be received, so they figured they would put it off as long as possible. Unbeknownst to them though, now that Dawn knew how Xander would be writing a second letter, she was actively looking for it to read for herself...

In any case, life had progressed for the Sunnydale inhabitants as normal as it was possible on the Hellmouth. Buffy had encountered, on several occasions, these armored knights who were now attacking the Summers household. She knew enough about them to understand that they were after Dawn, and were somehow connected to Glory.

Of course, Buffy couldn't just go up to them and say that Glory was dead. They would demand explanations, and that would lead to...uncomfortable subject matters. So she simply tried to avoid them as much as possible, and when that didn't work the Chosen One just beat them up a lot.

Buffy's birthday had rolled around and despite the promising start, the festive occasion had maintained the traditional attendant weirdness. By this time, the Scoobies had barricaded themselves within 1630 Revello Drive, and were doing their best imitation of settlers in the Old West waiting for the cavalry to come to the rescue.

Of course, the settlers in the Old West hadn't had a Slayer and several magically gifted individuals in their midst. And the Sunnydale PD was quite simply incapable of a good imitation of the U.S. cavalry, even if they had bothered to respond...

Yes, even though Richard Wilkins was dead, his legacy lived on. A police force in the know, but still determined to do anything and everything to make Buffy's life hell.

Thankfully however, that was *finally* changing; the latest actions of the new DA, who as said was not beholden to the late Mayor in any shape or form, had convinced several of the top cops in town that the climate would be more congenial for them elsewhere.

And Cleburne's replacements were slowly working their way up the ladder, keeping a close eye on the Scoobies - especially Willow.

Getting back to the here and now, the Knight whose head had been Joyce's target drew himself back outside. Well, he fell that way would be a more accurate description. < A curse on this house, and all these people in it! > the man angrily thought to himself.

Joyce looked around, to see what else was going on in the kitchen. Anya, Andrew and Giles were the others defending this room. Giles moved over from where he had finished helping moving the kitchen table up against the back door, to where Joyce was.

"Joyce, you shouldn't be here. Look, get upstairs and we'll hold them off-" Giles said.

"I'm staying!" the oldest Summers female present said to the former Watcher.

"But Joyce, your condition-" the British man started.

Only to be interrupted by the middle-aged woman, "NO! Rupert, this is my house - I'm staying. After all, it's my daughter they're after..." She was one of the few who knew the contents of Xander's second letter, after all.

"Is that the best you can do?" the two of them suddenly heard Anya snapping at Andrew. She appeared to be unhappy with the way he'd wedged the table against the door, even though it looked fine to Giles.

The former vengeance demon quickly pushed the apologetic Mr. Wells out of the way, and started positioning the table herself. "This is like when we're in bed together, I have to do all the work!" she growled at her boyfriend.

Despite being in the middle of a life-or-death struggle, both Giles and Joyce blushed at Anya's comments. < Good God - has the woman learned *no* tact whatsoever, ever since she became human? > Rupert briefly thought to himself.

Giles then heard noise from the other parts of the house, where the Scoobies were also fighting off the attackers. He turned back to Joyce. "Stay here - if you need assistance, just shout!" With that, he headed into the dining room. In there Jonathan, Tara and Willow were defending those windows.

"Need any help?" Giles asked the trio of defenders.

Willow shook her head. "No, we have it under control. I think Buffy might need some help though, I saw a bunch of those knights running towards the window near the front door. Jonathan, go with him!" she said.

Jonathan and Giles quickly hurried from the dining room into the living room, where Buffy and Dawn were making their stand. The two males could hear the two sisters arguing...

"I'm telling you, Dawn, get upstairs!" Buffy shouted at her sister. But before the Key could respond, the window shattered as several Knights jumped through.

The Slayer muttered under her breath, and moved to attack them. < You'd think these guys would get the hint, from all the times I've put the beat down on them! >

She kicked out at the lead one, and he flew back out the window. As Buffy, knowing that these jokers would put Dawn in danger, barely held back when fighting them. She turned to face the next one, just ducking under the sword he swung at her head.

The Knight, in so doing, left himself vulnerable to Giles punching him in the side of the head. The Knight staggered off-balance to his left, from the blow. This allowed Buffy enough time to turn her full attention to the Knight in question. When he righted up, he was met by Buffy's fist full in the face. Thus he fell back towards the window, out of the fight for the present.

But sadly, like ants at a picnic, if you swatted away one Knight - three others appeared to take his place. Buffy found herself being advanced upon by several more of the Knights, the blonde girl recognizing the lead one being as the leader from that night in the alley.

"We seek the Key! Tell us what we want to know, and we will spare you and the others in this domicile," Orlando gravely intoned.

"Oh, come on! Just leave us alone. Can't we have one normal night here?" Dawn yelled at him, not realizing that she was in fact what he was seeking. One of the Knights then knocked her unconscious, swinging the handle of the sword that he held.

"Dawn!" Buffy yelled. "You bastards! And I'm thinking that the threatening act hasn't worked before, so why should it work now?" the Slayer declared, as she punched that Knight who had gotten too close to her.

The other Knights advanced, supporting each other. "Because we are within your home, and unless you plan to somehow kill us all - we can return whenever we desire. And hurt all those who live here!" Orlando threatened.

Threatening Buffy was not a good idea, and threatening her family and friends was an even worse idea. And doing so within earshot of her Watcher, who had once been known and feared by the name 'Ripper' was, most likely, the worst possible idea they could have come up with.

The Knights were concentrating on the Slayer, and so didn't see Giles come up upon their flank with a mace he had just picked up from the weapons chest. Rupert swung the mace, and was rewarded with a satisfying crack as the mace impacted on the helmet worn by the nearest attacker. The legs of that Knight buckled, as the others realized they were under attack from another source.

"You two!" Orlando said to the two Knights nearest Giles. "Kill him!"

They advanced as ordered, and now that they knew of the threat that was the British man, they were taking no chances. Giles prepared himself; he had no illusions about the upcoming results of this fight. Even though he was more than competent when it came to armed combat, he could easily recognize the highly trained warriors in his opponents.

They weren't going to give the older guy a chance in this battle. However, the universe was not about to abandon the Tweed Man, for the Knights had again forgotten about a threat to them. As they advanced on Giles, they suddenly tripped when they shouldn't have.

Off to the side, Jonathan finished the hex spell he had just incanted. It was just some quick and dirty minor magic, but enough to make the two attackers clumsy on their feet. Giles looked back at the young man, smiled in appreciation and immediately attacked the two Knights as they tried to get up.

Orlando took in what had just happened, and silently berated himself for not gathering more information on the Slayer's friends. General Gregor would surely have not made such a mistake. But his self-recriminations were cut short, by his being attacked by Buffy.

The vampire Slayer, still pissed over her sister and seeing that he was momentarily distracted, launched a flying kick at Orlando that impacted on his chest. He fell back with a loud thud. Buffy was unable to follow up her advantage though, as two other Knights rushed forward to defend their leader.

But the college girl parried their blows with ease. Giles was getting the upper hand on his two opponents. Jonathan was keeping an eye on the fight, looking for opportunities to intervene.

However suddenly, his eyes widened. "Guys!" Levinson shouted out. "We got a lot more visitors coming!"

Through the window, Jonathan could see quite a few Knights on the street starting towards the house. Giles looked out the window too, as he finished throwing one of his attackers back out through it. "Damn!" he said. "We need a wall or something there, to-to keep them out..."

Suddenly, a look came to Giles' face. "Willow, Tara! Get in here!" He then used the handle of the mace to hit his second attacker, still on the floor, in the head. The Knight slumped back down. Giles reached down, and half-dragged/half-hurled him out the window.

"Buffy, we need to get those three back out through the window - right now!" Giles shouted, as Willow and Tara came into the living room.

Buffy started attacking her two opponents with gusto, driving them back towards the window. Orlando started to rise to attack the Slayer from the rear, however he met Giles as he rose.

Once again the mace descended in a downward descent, and met the head of one of the Knights of Byzantium. As the blow stunned Orlando, Giles had an easy time pushing him out of the house. He then noticed that Buffy had just about forced the two other Knights outside too. Thus, the Brit turned his attention to the three magic users in the room; he hurried over to the trio, and explained what he wanted them to do.

All three nodded, and quickly moved into position. Giles ran over and tackled one of Buffy's attackers. Once down, he kneed him hard in the side, where there was a gap in his armor. The Knight moaned in pain, and Giles used the opportunity to lift the guy up and push him through the window.

That left one - who, now that he was alone, Buffy quickly kicked out through the broken glass.

Once he was gone Jonathan, Tara and Willow quickly chanted a spell. There was a flash of light; and then the Knights who were running up to the broken window, suddenly bounced back as if they had hit an invisible wall. Which was exactly what they had done; hit an energy wall put up by the magical spell.

Giles surveyed the scene. "Well, that should hold them off for a while..."

A noise from behind them in the hall closet caused the Scoobies to whirl around, to see the source of the noise. The closet door squeaked as it opened, and a young man looked out.

"Is, is it back to normal out here yet?" Greg asked nervously, the guy who just happened to be Buffy's date for the evening.


Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California. The same time

The demon known as 'Doc' observed the scene that was taking place in front of Summers home, from the safety of further down the street. He knew who lived there. When the Knights of Byzantium had shown up in town, Doc had made it a point to be fully informed as to their activities and their interests.

When they had become determined to learn more about the Summers woman, Doc had done likewise. And when they had figured out that Buffy Summers knew something about the Key, Doc hadn't been far behind.

Needless to say, this information had been of great interest to him. In his evil mind, it could possibly help out in his plans to bring back Glorificus. To put right what had once gone wrong...

So when he'd learned the Knights were moving upon the Summers home, Doc had gone there himself. With some friends, of course.

"Well, now. It looks like the Knights may have bitten off a little more than they can chew," Doc commented, his demonic eyes and tail briefly appearing.

"They'll find a way around that shield, good sir; if not tonight, then later!" one of Doc's three companions, the hobbit-with-leprosy looking creature named Jinx, commented.

The others, fellow worshippers of Glory called Dreg and Murk, were quick to agree. "Most definitely!" "Absolutely!"

Doc raised an eye at the minions' actions. He knew that Glorificus had preferred their sycophantic ways, but to be honest, he wasn't too thrilled with their attitude himself. < Oh well, you take your help where you can get it - as Ms. Summers is about to learn, > he mused to himself.

"Then it would be beneficial to us to make sure that doesn't happen, at least not until we have what we need. Come, let's see what we can do to help."

And they proceeded to do so - luckily for the Scoobies, as the man known as Josef Lemke was spending a much-needed evening at home with his wife and newborn child.


The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles. The same time

"So *this* is the guy everyone has been all worked up about!" Lindsey MacDonald remarked, as he entered Lilah's office.

Xander was sitting on a couch at the far side of the office from Lilah's desk. For some reason, he really wasn't being that sociable with Lilah and her staff - two security guards hovered nearby him, but stayed out of arm's reach.

Lilah smiled, with the smile of someone who feels the game had been won already. "Mr. Alexander Harris, meet Mr. Lindsey MacDonald. You'll have to pardon him, he just managed to get most of our department killed - so he may not be the most pleasant person to be around, at the moment..." Lilah took advantage and twisted the figurative knife in Lindsey's gut quite a lot. After all - she could afford to do so, now that she had won everything she'd planned to get.

Lindsey grimaced. "How was I supposed to know that that loopy duo would go off the deep end completely? Besides, Holland authorised everything I did, all the way to the hilt. Don't forget that little tidbit, Lilah..."

Xander just watched the interplay between the two lawyers in silence.

"And of course, he's here to say that now, isn't he? You should have seen what was coming, Lindsey, what with the nut case talking about the stars and everything-"

Lilah's comment stirred Xander's memory. "Drusilla and Spike, right? You guys hired those two for something. And you're surprised when it turned around and bit you on the ass?" Xander said with a smirk.

This annoyed Lindsey, who to be honest wasn't having the best day. So he wasn't about to put up with lip from someone who was supposedly a prisoner of the firm. < This guy needs to be taught a lesson... >

The man strode over to where Xander was sitting, "I'm thinking that you're in no position to criticize anyone right now-" he started to say, leaning down and placing his hands on the table in front of the former Scooby as he did so.

Xander just grinned at the attorney. With a speed that the lawyer clearly did not expect, Xander pulled out the knife he had used on the demon in the lobby - and drove it through Lindsey's plastic hand, pinning him to the table.

The male attorney yelped in surprise, but fortunately not pain.

"*That's* why I'm over here!" Lilah observed, wondering to herself if Xander had known ahead of time that the hand he had pinned to the table was a fake one, and if the Timetripper even cared one way or another. The security guards just looked at Lilah - and seeing that she wasn't too disturbed, didn't move to help Lindsey.

"You really aren't very good at that whole 'thinking' thing, are you?" Xander asked the Texan, as he pulled at his impaled fake hand. "You know, I thought lawyers were supposed to be smart, but after meeting you two - I'm not so sure anymore."

"A little help here?" Lindsey hissed out at Lilah.

"Yes, Ms. Morgan, please help your colleague. After all, here at Wolfram & Hart, we're all one big happy family," Xander said sarcastically, with a feral grin on his face.

"How the hell did he get a weapon into the building?" Lindsey asked, finally getting free.

"He told security that if they tried to take it from him, they would have to kill him. And that a dead Mr. Harris would make the Senior Partners...unhappy. All true enough, so they brought him to me," Lilah replied.

"And you couldn't have warned me about that?" Lindsey asked, with more than a trace of irritation.

"I could have, but I thought I'd see what happened if I didn't," Lilah smiled and folded her arms, as she answered her colleague.

Growing impatient with the banter, Xander turned and fixed his glare on Lilah. "Where is Faith's soul?" he asked in a deadly cold voice. Inwardly, he was starting to feel concerned - Cleburne probably should have stormed in here by now...

"Mr. Harris, please - let's not get ahead of ourselves. We have much discuss as to what you can do for the firm. Later on, we'll discuss Ms. Daniels' ultimate disposition-" Lilah continued grinning at Xander.

Which was a big mistake.

With a speed that again took all the other occupants in the room by surprise, Xander leapt up and charged at Ms. Morgan. He easily passed by the guards and before they could react, he was in front of the female attorney. The man grabbed her by the throat with his left head, easily thwarting her attempts to push him away.

"Listen to me, you bitca! You should have no illusions about what I'll do to you, for all the shit you've pulled lately. Because when I came back from Ken's playpen, I killed three people for things they hadn't even done yet! Technically, they were all innocents. So the way I look at it, I'm not exactly gonna be welcome when it comes to getting through the Pearly Gates one day! I got nothing to lose - so if you don't tell me where that Orb is right now, I'll put you on an express elevator straight to Hell!" Xander growled at her.

Lilah actually felt her blood turning into ice at his words. She knew enough about Xander's history to know he wasn't bluffing. "Mr. Harris-" she managed to choke out.

The two guards *finally* rushed to her aid, and the first man received Xander's right fist to his face for his trouble - quickly ending up in dreamland.

"Don't push your luck!" Xander then snarled, and the second one stopped in his tracks at the threat potential in the former slave's voice. Harris then turned his attention back to the lawyer in his grasp. "Now, where were we?" he asked.

"Sleep," a voice at the doorway said, and Xander visibly struggled against the order for a second. "Sleep!" the new arrival said again with more force.

Xander struggled some more. "Get...out...of my..." he grunted. The former Scooby actively fought against what was happening, and tried to grab his trusty old .45 handgun tucked in the waistband of his pants. However Xander's right arm had already fallen asleep, and it was like trying to move through liquid lead.

"Sleep!" There was a higher volume used by the speaker, and there was more than just a trace of frustration in his voice. Finally Xander lost the battle and slumped over, letting go of Lilah's throat as he did.

Ms. Morgan almost leapt clear of him, rubbing at her throat. "You took your own sweet time about it!" she managed to croak out.

The warlock just grinned at Lilah, and didn't fail to notice Lindsey had a matching smirk on his face. "Ma'am, you just paid me to stick my head in if he got out of hand. You didn't pay me to run around after you, or anything like that."

Lilah made an exasperated face at her contract employee. One of the disadvantages from Spike's little rampage was that the majority of the on-call staff used by Wolfram & Hart were a little busy hunting him down, and Lilah had been forced to used contract labor for her own project.

She turned to the security guard that was still standing, "Move him to the interrogation room, and do it quickly. Tell them to start with the drugs right away! We probably only have a limited amount of time..."


Rome, Italy. Two hours later

Several ambulances raced down the street, with their sirens blaring in the morning daylight. One of them came dangerously close to the curb, and several pedestrians scattered. With the exception of two men - who judged that the ambulance wouldn't get close enough to concern them.

"Huh. Personally, I think that went well," Cleburne commented.

"Yes sir, they shouldn't bother any of the good people of this city ever again," Gunny replied. Behind them, off in the direction from which they were coming, the top couple of floors of an luxury apartment building had smoke and flames pouring out from several of the windows.

"Remind me to ask Esther for a raise after this one. And while I'm at it - one for you too, Gunny," Cleburne joked as they continued walking down the street.

At the end of the street there was a sidewalk cafe, with several of its customers rubbernecking at the scene they could see down the street. As the two Siberians approached the cafe, they both started to slow down a little bit.

"Colonel..." Gunny said softly.

"I see him." Cleburne was referring to the one customer in the cafe who was not enthralled by the scene a short distance from them. An older man, with the look of someone who had seen a lot in life, was sitting at one of the tables calmly sipping a cup of coffee.

He watched the two Siberians get closer to him with feigned disinterest. But all three parties knew how much this was just an act.

"Morning, gents," the older man said in English with a coarse Afrikaner accent. "You two been up early. What was that old Yank army slogan, get more done before nine o'clock than most people do all day?"

"Cyrus," Cleburne said simply.

"I hear you're been asking after me, trying to find me," Cyrus motioned for Cleburne and Gunny to sit down at the table with him. The two of them looked at each other and then surveyed the surrounding area, before sitting down.

"Well, it *would* have been easier if you had a steady address. 'Course, you've not really had one since 1999 and your company folded," Cleburne debated for a second about ordering something, then decided against it. "You were still in the trade, but not easy to get in touch with. Last I heard, you were in Sierra Leone..."

"Things got better there, with less need of my services. And you don't keep people like me around when things are going well, man. I thought it best to keep moving after that, I'm a real popular man back home!" He grinned at Cleburne.

"Yes, there's no doubt the South African authorities would like to have a chat with you - among other things," Gunny said.

Cyrus raised an eyebrow at the noncom's comment. The South African then turned his attention back to Cleburne, who had just finished turning on his cell phone. "Generally, if they're not looking to lock me up, people only look for me when they're in a tight spot. I've not heard anything about you blokes being in a tight spot. Just some crazy ragheads takin' potshots at you..."

Cleburne ignored Cyrus's comment. "I recall one time you mentioning a bit of trouble you got into back during the late Seventies, up in Angola. You and your patrol had quite a story to tell, huh?"

Cyrus' face reddened. "You dragged me out of hiding, to make fun of stories I told years ago-?" he started to seethe.

Joshua raised his hand. "I know better than to do that. Look, Cyrus, you know there are things that go bump in the night, things that most people refuse to even acknowledge exist. Your own government knew that, otherwise they would have retired you permanently when you told them your story - and sure as hell they wouldn't have reinstated you a few years later, back to your old duties."

"Lotta good it did me, man. You know what happened, when they gave up the ghost..."

"Capitalism became your guiding light. Personal security companies, I think that's what they call your line of work now. Been a real growth industry in Africa, ever since Idi Amin. Every little dirty war became your personal training ground, as you trained the troops of the side that paid you the most. And you were quite good at it."

The older man now looked a little bit confused. "And this brings me to Rome to talk to you, why?"

"Certain arrangements are taking place at the international level now, Cyrus. One result of those arrangements is the need to train individuals with how to deal with certain threats...not normally covered in boot camp. You've dealt with these things before, and you're good at training soldiers...hold on."

The buzzing of Cleburne's cell phone drew his attention. He opened up the secure communications device, "Hello?"

A pause. "Yeah, Esther, we're done here. No need to worry about that problem anymore."

Cleburne's brow then furrowed in response to whatever he was hearing. "What?"

"When, how, where?" Cleburne was clearly getting agitated

"What? Wolfram & Hart?!? Crap! Call Red, he's in Los Angeles right now. I think Riley might be there also, tell them to play cavalry. They're already doing that? Good! We're on our way back, right the hell now!" He jabbed at the phone and stood up, "Come on, you two, we'll have to talk as we run and fly!"

Gunny stood up immediately, he knew the Marine colonel well enough to know that whatever had happened, it was bad. "What's the situation?"

"The kid has gone and gotten himself into a whole shitload of big trouble!"


Conference Room, Wolfram & Hart, Los Angeles. The same time

Lilah and Lindsey had gathered together with someone called Nathan Reed - who had taken over for Holland Manners earlier that day, to the big annoyance of Lilah. In fact, when she had heard the news, the female attorney had thought to herself, < Unbelievable! What does a woman have to *do* to get ahead in a man's world, I ask you? > Then she involuntarily shuddered when some of the answers came into her mind, particularly when the Wolfram & Hart twist to Lilah's life was factored in.

In any case, the bald white man had lost no time in asserting his authority. "Mr. MacDonald. Ms. Morgan. Quite a situation you've created for me - and during my first day on the job, too."

"Sir-" Lilah started to say.

"As long as I'm the head of Special Projects, I don't want to hear anything except results, counselor. Is that clear? What's the situation with Mr. Harris?"

Lilah and Lindsey looked at one another. The Texan started to explain, "Well, sir, it's problematical to question someone who's unconscious. The drugs that we administered should have gotten him awake and talking, but they didn't. And why the hell the scopolamine and all the other stuff didn't work - is just beyond the technicians' ability to explain, at the moment. I'm sorry-"

Nathan was in no mood for this, though. "I'm not Holland Manners, Mr. MacDonald. I don't have the sentimental streak for you two that he did - let's be clear on that right now! And as for Harris, wake him up and get him talking the old-fashioned way. Kill him if necessary, and interrogate his soul-"

Lilah and Lindsey again looked at each other, and Lindsey cleared his throat. "Well, sir - that's a complicated thing right now..."

Nathan sighed. "Don't beat around the bush with me, either of you. Or you'll end up in it! Speak frankly!"

Lilah started to explain about the Soul Stone, placing it on the table in front of Reed. "We found this artifact on him. Mr. Harris has obviously done something that we're not sure of the implications of yet-"

Lindsey almost had admiration in his voice as he interrupted, "Man must have planned ahead, in case something went wrong for him - the moment he dies, the guy's essence will most likely undergo something none of us here at Wolfram & Hart will like. The Soul Stone is proof of that - its counterpart must be somewhere close by in the city, Harris must have someone ready to grab his soul before we can do it..."

Lilah went on, "We can almost certainly come up with a way to get around that,'ll take time. And most likely, that's a commodity that's in short supply right now..."

Nathan looked annoyed. He told the duo, "Fine. Get a Falanjoid demon to suck out the man's brains, then it won't matter if he dies or not; the psychics can get all the answers they need that way!"

Again the two lawyers looked at each other, as Lilah uncomfortably admitted that they'd already thought of that. "I'm afraid though that the Falanjoid took one sniff of Mr. Harris, and then ran away screaming - as did another of its species, later on..."

Reed now looked pissed. The bald guy with glasses looked at his watch and then told Lilah and Lindsey, "We don't have time for this, Siberian Trip Wire is probably on its way here right now..."

He paused. "We need the best people available, to get every bit of information that the Senior Partners want. And we can't afford to be disturbed by these interlopers, who think they have a claim on Xander Harris. So, have him transferred into the custody of..."

"Who?" asked Lindsey and Lilah together, when it became obvious that the question was begging to be asked.

Nathan smiled. "The Covenant of Trombli, in that dimension called Pylea."


Unknown place, unknown time

"Hello. Anyone there?" the female voice rang out, oddly familiar to Xander.

The former Scooby and current 'guest' of Wolfram & Hart looked around the dark surroundings he found himself in. "Hello?" Harris called back, somewhat uncertainly.

"Hello, where are you?" The voice shouted back.

"Stay there, I'll come to you!" Xander answered, shouting into the darkness. He started towards where the voice was, "And keep talking so I can find you!"

"Okay, but what do I say? Oh! How about this? I think there should be a law passed that my sister no longer be allowed to celebrate her birthday! Because every time she does it, something strange and dangerous happens..."

Xander couldn't help but laugh at that. "Sounds like someone I used to know..." Several yards away in the gloom, he could make out the dim form of a young girl. "What happened to you?"

"I don't know. One moment I'm in the living room enjoying some birthday cake, when these nuts in medieval armor come in yelling about some key - then one of 'em hit me on the head, and next thing I know I'm here..."

Xander stopped for a moment, when he heard the word key. The shape in front of him seemed familiar. < I know it, don't I? Yeah, yeah - it's definitely a blast from my past- > He looked closely, and slowly approached his companion. "Dawn?" the 24-year-old guy asked hesitantly.

Dawn Summers's head shot up. She then stepped forward herself... "Xander!!" the girl shouted out, and threw herself into a tight hug of her friend. "How-? I thought I'd never see you again..."

Xander Harris was now confused. The last thing he remembered was being in that bitch Lilah Morgan's office, and hearing some guy telling him to sleep. And Dawn would surely not be anywhere near Wolfram & Hart; as by this time, Buffy and Giles would be aware of what Dawn's true origins were, the second letter should have been delivered by now - so this couldn't be the girl in question.

But still, as he hugged what looked like Dawn - Xander realized just how much he had *missed* the child in his arms.

Because by the summer of 2003 - Buffy and Anya had slept with Spike, Willow and Faith had become murderers, Tara and Joyce had ended up dead, Angel and Cordy had hit the road and completely left him behind, and Giles had abandoned them all to go to England - twice...

Dawn was the one pure thing he remembered from his other life; the only part of it that was never sullied or tainted by living on the Hellmouth - her whining, kleptomania and taser that night notwithstanding.

The brunette teenager was also a little confused. The last thing she remembered had been the Knights of Byzantium attacking Buffy's birthday party, now she was here in this dark landscape. Of course, her confusion at meeting Xander was understandable - as she believed the guy had been dead for nearly two years now.

Dawn suddenly trembled. < Oh I dead too? Is, is this the afterlife? I don't remember dying, though, just getting knocked out... >

Actually, she needn't have worried. What neither of them knew was that Brother Feodor's changes to the ritual that had converted the Key into human form months ago - had granted Dawn some...well, extra benefits, this time around.

Extra benefits that in the fullness of time would become apparent to Xander, the Scoobies and others who came to be interested in the whole Key situation.

The young girl then thought firmly, < I'm not dead, I can't be - this all feels way too real. So that means... > She squealed in delight and thought, < XANDER'S ALIVE! How, why - wait, I don't care! My future husband is back!!! >

Dawn, still hugging Xander, suddenly sensed him tense up. "Xander? What's wrong? You're back, everything should be fine - right?"

Xander didn't answer, as his mind worked through what he was experiencing. < This can't be Dawn, since I'm a prisoner of Wolfram & Hart - and there is no way they would just leave me here, wherever *here* is. > He straightened up as he thought, < So, I guess this isn't real. I'm dreaming or something... >

"Xander?" Dawn asked in a frightened voice. < Why are you looking at me like that? >

Xander smiled at what he thought was the dream version of Dawn. "It's all right, Dawnie. I know now that you're not real-"

Dawn stepped back, and stabbed him with a fierce look in her teenage eyes. "Not real? Not *real*?! Hold on there, bucko-"

Xander couldn't help himself, he laughed out loud at Dawn's fiery response to his comment. "Dawn-patrol, I got to admit - you do remind me quite a bit of the real Dawn-"

"I AM THE REAL DAWN!!" Dawn shouted at Xander. She proceeded to poke Xander in the shoulder with her finger. "See, see? No dream can poke you like that. And I'll make you black and blue if I have to, to convince you that I'm real!"

"Ow!" Xander said half-laughingly, as he grabbed Dawn's fingers to stop the poking. "Okay. Okay, if you say you're real, then you're real." < Even though it's obvious you can't be, otherwise I'd be screaming in pain from the damn headaches... >

Dawn leaned back, seemingly mollified by Xander's stated acceptance of her realness. "That's better. Now, let's get back to the important stuff. Like, where have you been these past two years, and are you coming back home with me now?" She folded her arms in an unconscious imitation of her sister, when the brunette asked that question.

Xander chuckled again. < Hey, this is pretty good! > "Well - you know, a little bit of this and that, here and there, doing the James Bond thing. Although come to think of it, I don't have any snazzy gadgets or clothes. How about you, Dawnster?"

"Oh, it's been a drag. I tell you, living with Buffy is just awful at times! She's always whining about one thing or another..." Dawn's voice shifted to a high-pitched imitation of Buffy's, "I can't keep a boyfriend, school is hard, slaying interferes with my social life, Greg doesn't understand me..."

Xander frowned. "Greg? I don't - there's no Greg in Buffy's life-"

"Well, you haven't been around since high school. She hooked up with him a few weeks ago, after her former honey Jeff Johnson ran out of town - when Dracula made him like some kinda mindless slave, last year? Anyway, she brought Greg to her birthday party. Some upperclassman, but he's like totally useless! When those Knights of the Round Table wannabes attacked, he just vanished! I think he's hiding in the basement or something..."

< Wait a minute. Buffy never dated anyone named Greg, or Jeff Johnson. And the Knights of Byzantium never attacked Buffy's house, as I recall. Why the heck would my imagination get so creative like this? > Xander thought to himself, with a sudden feeling of dread.

His thoughts were cut short by Dawn. "And you haven't answered my other question. Are you coming back home with me? I mean - you gotta, Xander! Everyone will be so thrilled to see you-"

Xander couldn't help but snort at this. "Somehow, Dawn, I kinda doubt that. I know of several people back in the 'dale, who really weren't too gung-ho on me being around..."

Dawn sighed. "Hey, I'm not going to defend what those three scatterbrains did. It was way stupid, and I've torn into them about it more than once, so they know how I feel. And hey, Christmas was a real knock-down and drag-out fight with Buffy about it! I think they're finally seeing the light, though; when Willow went to LA recently to re-ensoul that Darla person, she told me afterwards how she talked to Cordelia about you. And I may be a teenager, but I can still read between the lines...would you believe that that - that - brunette *hussy* still wants you?"

Xander felt more doubt creep into his mind, as the memory of talking with Gwen Raiden briefly ignited. For a figment of his imagination, this Dawn seemed to know an awful lot beyond what his subconscious should know...

Harris shook his head. < More likely it's my subconscious projecting a wish fulfillment with regard to the girls, > he thought to himself. Xander silently chuckled, those classes the Wizard had him taking were clearly leaving their mark on his psyche.

"If you say so, Dawn. But still, I'm not coming back with you. You know that old poem, 'miles to go before I sleep'..."

Dawn frowned at him. < Xander quoting poetry? And not from a comic book? >

She looked around for some place to sit. Not seeing anything to use as a chair, the teenage girl shrugged her shoulders and sat down on the ground. Miss Summers noticed that it seemed to be black sand, so it was probably okay. She then reached up and grabbed Xander's hand, pulling him to sit down next to her.

"Xander, there is nothing in the world which should stand between you and coming back home! Everyone misses you. *I* miss you. I visit your gravesite weekly, although now that I know you're alive I probably won't be going anymore..." She sheepishly smiled at Xander. "Uh, sorry, I know she was your girlfriend and everything - but I wasn't that close to Faith. So I don't visit her often."


"Yeah, we buried her close to you, but not right next to you. Several yards away. Mom had a bench put in between your two graves so that when we visit, we'll have a place to sit down." Dawn smiled. "By the way, thanks for the letter to Giles about Mom. They operated on her, and it looks like she's recovering nicely."

Xander smiled at Dawn's comments. "You're welcome. And I have a gravesite? Cool. I hope it's nice. 'Course in Sunnydale, that's one thing they do right, designing tombstones. After all - the undertakers have so much experience."

Dawn nodded. "Oh yeah. Very quiet and peaceful, with a great view. I enjoy my visits there..." Dawn suddenly looked troubled. "Well, maybe not enjoy visiting your gravesite, I like spending time at some place that we honored you with. Because we thought you were dead. Not that we were happy that you were dead. Or thought you were dead..."

Xander reached over and patted Dawn on her knee, amused by the teen babble. "That's all right, Dawnster. I know what you meant. As matter of fact, I'm honored that you visit my grave so regularly."

Dawn smiled with a big grin at that. "When we get back home, I'll show it to you. You'll like the saying on the tombstone! 'The soul of a hero'." Dawn used her hands to emphasize her point about the saying.

"The soul of a hero?" Xander repeated. "I never knew that. Uh, so who came up with it?" < Now, why would that even matter? You know all this is just a figment of your imagination! >

"Willow did. She was all torn up after you died in that explosion. We all were, when it looked like you had gotten blown up. But Willow took it the worst-"

"Well, she has only herself to blame!" Xander snapped.

"Xander!" Dawn almost shouted. "Willow's sorry, they are all for what they did-"

"Look, Dawn, I know what you're saying is some form of deep-seated desire to make everything right again, on behalf of my subconscious. But I can't believe I'm having this conversation with myself!" Xander sighed to himself.

"Hey, I told you I'm real!" She folded her arms and looked fiercely again at Xander. "Look, I know this is real. This doesn't feel like a dream. So I'm real, and you're real. The sooner you accept that, the sooner we can get you back home!"

Xander frowned, < She's right about one thing, this doesn't feel like a dream. It feels different. Stronger, more focused. > "Dawn-" he started to say.

"No, you listen here Xander!" Dawn declared, her tone clearly showing she would brook no interruption. "Somehow, I don't know how, we have a connection. So we're here. Together. We're talking to each other, and we need to plan how to get you back home! It's the key to resolving this whole thing-"

< The Key? Wait, Dawn mentioned that before - oh no. Oh, crap! This is Dawn Summers talking - and she doesn't know she's the Key? Then it's really her!? Maybe we *do* have a connection - oh God, Brother Feodor. He must've done something different from the first time around, when he did that ritual! This has gotta be Dawn's consciousness or whatever, her body is probably back in Sunnydale right physical proximity, that's why there are no headaches from the Vulcan mind-meld thing... >

Focusing his thoughts, the man then said, "Dawn, I can't go back to the Hellmouth. Not now, and possibly not ever." Xander held his hand up, to stop the inevitable interruption from the Key in human form. "I can't show my face publicly."

"Why not? It's a really handsome face!" Dawn pouted.

"Well, it's also a face a lot of people have come to know, and want to be in the company of. And they aren't too sensitive when it comes to the methods they would use to know me, and get to spend time with me."

"We could stop them. Look at all the things we've stopped before!" Dawn declared.

"Yeah - the Scooby gang's stopped demons, vampires and all the things that go bump in the night. But the things I hide from don't need to hide in the dark, kiddo. They can walk around in broad daylight, without people screaming and running away in terror. And they can make people go away and not come back, in a very bad way."

"I'm not afraid of them! Buffy can kick their asses, if it comes to that-" Dawn declared.

Xander smiled, looking at his young friend. "No she can't, because Buffy can't kill people that way with a gun or a knife - and that's what it'd take, to stop these humans. Plus - remember Ted, and what happened then? Dawn, you need to be afraid if these guys ever try to grab hold of any of you. In their own way, they're more dangerous than anything you've ever faced. And bottom line - I have things to do over the next few years, and I don't want to know that you got hurt because of me."

Dawn's face clearly showed she wasn't happy at Xander's words. "You're still mad because of what Buffy and the others did, aren't you?"

For a fraction of a second, Xander considered dodging that question. Then he decided a straight answer was the best response. "Yeah, I am. Very much so in fact, even after all this time. That's the kind of thing you don't ever forget. You don't leave a fellow warrior down in the field."


Xander sighed. "Look, Dawnie, if there's one thing I want you to understand from our little confab today - it's the fact that I'm no hero. I'm a survivor."

"I still don't get what you're-"

"Lemme finish. Dawn, heroes are people who die in a blaze of glory on the battlefield or whatever, and everyone remembers who they were and what they did. The survivors? They're the guys that no one remembers, but they're also the ones that walk away alive once the smoke clears afterwards..."

Xander had a cold, wintry smile on his face. "I know what category I've always belonged in. I do what I have to do, and a lot of the stuff I've done - it would quite possibly make you hate and despise me, if you knew details! But there are rules that even I follow, and not leaving someone behind to be eaten by a vamp is one of them."

Dawn focused on just that last sentence. "Xander, they were wrong, they were stupid, and it was horrible what they did. No one's gonna argue with you on that point! I told Buffy as much at the time, and several times since as a matter of fact! I think we just about drove Mom crazy with some of our arguments, at that..."

Xander chuckled, as he imagined the two Summers girls arguing. "You two should go easy on your mother, Dawn. She needs peace and quiet. Now more than ever."

"I know, but over time I managed to drill it into Buffy's head the wrongness of what she did. She's really sorry about it-"

Xander's snort interrupted Dawn's sentence, but ignoring that she just kept right on going. "-and she wishes that she could do whatever it took, to set things right. Can't you please find it within your heart to forgive them? And come home where you belong? We need you, *I* need you-"

Then the Key noticed the former Zeppo starting to smile. "What?"

Xander almost chuckled again. "I'd almost forgotten. You still have that cute crush on me these days, don't you?"

"IT IS NOT A CRUSH!" Dawn screeched, before she heard herself and her face instantly went red. "I-I-I mean..."

"Dawn. It's okay. Future knowledge and all, remember? Believe it or not, you'll get past this, meet someone your own age. Well, as long as it's not that asshole vamp you parked with during Halloween-"

But Dawn only heard the love of her life rejecting her, in the cruelest way possible. "NO! You're the one I want...I mean, as soon as I turn 18-"

Xander interrupted, "I'll be 28 years old by then, remember? And *way* too old for you. Look, Dawnie-"

"DON'T CALL ME THAT! I'm not a child!"

Xander sighed, as he contemplated that. "Yeah, you're not. And I know that, even if no one else does in quite the same way. Okay, Dawn Summers, lemme put it like this - you're someone very special. No, let me rephrase that - you're not special, you're extraordinary..."

The man went on, "I remember during 2003, how I told you that - you were nearly 17 years old by then, and we were in the fight of our lives against an enemy that had us outmatched in almost every which way. You did something that really impressed me, and I'll never forget it. So you're not a little girl, but you're not a grownup yet either. Do us both a favour, Dawn - don't be in such a hurry to become one. 'Cause it really ain't all it's cracked up to be..."

Miss Summers had listened to Xander's little speech in complete fascination, when suddenly she noticed the gloomy landscape around them starting to become brighter. White light was definitely appearing, and growing more intense with each passing second. "Xander-?"

But Harris just smiled, as they both got up. "It was good to see ya again, Dawn. Take care of your mom and Giles for me-"

There was no time for her to reply, as their connection was broken in a blast wave of blinding light.


Sunnydale General Hospital, Sunnydale, California. The same time

Dawn blinked, thinking she was still talking with Mr. Harris. "Xander-?" Then she noticed she was lying in a bed that was not her own, and there were bright lights shining down upon her. "What-?"

"Dawn?" That was Buffy's voice, and she sounded scared. "Are, are you okay?"

The young brunette winced, as her head hurt. A LOT. "Buffy? Where am I?"

Joyce Summers leaned down, all sweet motherly concern. "You're in the hospital, sweetie. You got a very nasty hit on the head-"

"What happened?" the teenager asked, the pain receding a little.

"That doesn't matter right now," Joyce said quickly, shooting a look towards her oldest daughter not to mention anything. Especially how the Knights had retreated, after they had been openly attacked on the street by a horde of mercenary demons that were on Doc's payroll. "All that matters is that you rest, and get better."

"Mom-" Dawn started to say. Then she remembered, "Xander! Mom, he's alive, I was just talking to him-"

Buffy shook her head at once. "It was only a dream, Dawn. I mean, you've been out cold - from the moment that guy hit you. And Mom and I have been right by your side, every instant since then."


"I'm afraid Buffy's right, sweetheart. I'm sorry, but Xander's gone now and whatever you thought happened - you must have just dreamed it all up," Joyce said comfortingly.

The human incarnation of the Key contemplated that. And the more she thought about it, the more it made sense to her. "Yeah, I-I guess you're right..." Dawn said hesitantly, already starting to dismiss the memories as just a schoolgirl fantasy.

Which was rather unfortunate, as in a higher dimension the Senior Partners had plans for Xander Harris - plans that were not pleasant to contemplate, not at all.


Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles, California. Two hours later

Red flattened himself against the wall, as the bullets whizzed past him. The guards at the end of the hallway were definitely determined to stop the commandos from getting through the door they were guarding.

Red sighed to himself, and squeezed off a couple of shots in return as several of his fellow soldiers worked their way down the hallway. < The things I do for my country... >

Not long ago, Red had been enjoying his leave. He had come to Los Angeles to spend time with Ametila; she had been able to get a couple of evenings off from work, and they had hoped for a fun couple of days together...

Still. They had been out at the Griffin Observatory stargazing, when his constant companion had interrupted. Every member of Siberian Trip Wire was required to always have his or her cell phone nearby, when on leave or not in the field. The ringing that came from it was sometimes dreaded, and sometimes welcomed by the members who carried said communications device on their person.

Red, although he sometimes welcomed the adrenaline rush from his job - after all, he was a Navy SEAL - had definitely not welcomed this interruption to his date. Ametila had not been happy, either; she wasn't stupid, and by this time had a pretty good idea as to what her boyfriend did for a living. The demon waitress knew that whatever had prompted the call, would most likely consume the time she had set aside for the two of them...

Of course she had been right; when Red had learned what was going on, well - he fully believed in Cleburne's creed that when one of their people was in trouble, everyone rode in to the rescue. He had taken Ametila back to her apartment, and after a quick kiss goodbye had hurried to the point where STW was setting up a base in Los Angeles.

Riley Finn had already arrived and was setting up the S&R operation, trying to pull together the loose elements of STW that could get to Los Angeles on such short notice. Red knew that there were more elements on the way, Cleburne was rocketing across the Atlantic in his rush to get to the City of Angels - but in a situation like this, time was of the essence. The operation had to be launched as soon as possible, and thus couldn't wait for the additional forces.

Red had taken command, and quickly completed the work Finn had started. The first order of business had to been to learn as much as possible, from Rachael and the others. Also, as much information as they could gather on Wolfram & Hart's activities had been gathered. Once that was done, a quick raid had been launched.

They had timed the raid to go off about 3 am. A raid in broad daylight might be too hard to explain - and going in at this time, Red hoped to minimize any possible public questions that needed to be answered later. The soldier knew that this was a gamble, at that time of the morning vampires were most likely to be moving around - but he accurately judged that once they got into the building, the time of day wouldn't make a difference as to the number of vampires present.

The two dozen commandos had entered the Wolfram & Hart building through the parking garage, and were making their way up to the office suites where they believed Xander was. Well - *hoped* was a better description, the intelligence available for this op was much more sketchy then Red was used to dealing with, and he silently hoped it wouldn't come back to haunt him later when this was all over.

At any rate, Byrne heard the gunfire from the guards up ahead slacking off, as some of the enemy combatants were forced to reload their weapons. Red and two other commandos took advantage of the opportunity to slip around the corner, and spray that end of the hallway with a burst from their assault carbines.

Behind them Riley stepped forward, and tossed a grenade down the hall. The explosion silenced the remaining guards there. The STW commandos then advanced down the hallway to the doorway leading upstairs. Needless to say, they knew better than to take the elevators in such a situation. Elevators were too likely to be stalled between floors by those defending the building.

Red and his team made their way up the floors up their objective. Every once in a while, they would stop on a floor to change stairwells. This acted to shake up the defenders of the building. After all, the commandos being used by Wolfram & Hart were clearly not strangers to their line of work.

And so, despite all the efforts of the bad guys, the Siberians slowly but surely made their way to the office of Lilah Morgan.

Red knew from talking to Rachael and Oz that this was the attorney who had delivered the threat to Xander. So Byrne figured this was the best place to find the answers he was seeking and maybe, just maybe, Alexander Hall himself.

After several minutes, they arrived at the floor of their destination. The door to the floor was opened, and the commandos kept themselves hidden for a few seconds.

Riley then peered around the door, using a small mirror stuck to a short pole. "Clear!" he announced.

Red motioned, and the commandos made their way into the lobby of the floor. The men stayed close to the walls and shadows. Their caution was proven justified, when several shots rang out from above their positions. Several enemy guards and commandos were overlooking the balcony on them.

"I hate being on the lower ground..." Red grumbled. He returned fire, as did his comrades. After several seconds, the defenders of the building were driven back, and the STW operatives resumed their advance to Ms. Morgan's office.

Several figures were suddenly visible through the glass windows. One of them looked to be restrained in a chair...

< That's gotta be him! > Red thought. < Okay, showtime... >

The commandos quickly moved into position around the door. Riley and Red looked at each other for a second, and then nodded. Riley reached over and opened the door...

...and they found themselves standing in the parking garage, exactly where they had started from ages ago. All of the commandos looked around in confusion, and Red felt a pounding pain behind his forehead. He heard Riley next to him checking the magazine on the soldier's weapon.

The Iowan said in complete disbelief, "This is impossible, I have all the ammo I started out with - it's like I haven't used any yet! And that can't be, from all the fighting we just did-"


Red and the others turned to the source of the voice addressing them, and saw Lilah Morgan standing there.

"You're standing on private property with lethal weapons, and you do not have a warrant to do so. As a lawyer, it's my professional duty to inform you that as such, you're committing a crime. And if you have any funny ideas of trying to force your way upstairs? Please be assured that while you were undergoing your little magical mystery mind tour, enough security was moved into place to turn any such attempt into a bloodbath..."

Lilah smiled. "And of course, *that* will lead to unfortunate publicity, that I'm sure none of us here wants. And who knows what'll happen, after that? So I suggest that you vacate the premises immediately. You have 30 seconds to depart, before this all becomes a media circus..."

With that, Lilah turned around and walked off. Red watched her victoriously strut away, knowing that something really supernaturally freaky had just happened. < Well, crap. Make that holy crap - Mother Hen is surely going to blow a gasket over this... >


The private office of Lilah Morgan. A few minutes later

Lilah walked into her office. "They're taken care of, but I don't know how long it'll be before they try something else," she announced.

Nathan Reed nodded, as several warlocks busied themselves in their endeavours. "It doesn't matter. We just needed enough time to get ready for this..." He turned to the warlock, who had been the one to perform the sleep spell on Xander earlier. "Is it done?" he asked in a no-nonsense tone.

The warlock's reply was in the form of consonant representations of a mathematical transfiguration formula. "Crv dr pff lr ploos pls vos strp umpt pls plsrts in uft frm pltz!"

The chant resulted in a glowing interdimensional portal opening in front of them; as the entire building was a hotspot of psychic energy, and the doorway to other worlds. Nathan then nodded to the guards, who were present in the room. They reached down and grabbed the unconscious Mr. Harris; they subsequently dragged him through the portal, followed closely by Reed and Morgan.

And just like last time, what awaited the former Zeppo on the other side of the rainbow was a fate even worse than death...