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;

Part One

San Francisco, California. November, 1999

His head was majorly throbbing in pain. Xander Harris moaned softly, as he put his hand to his forehead. He kept his eyes tightly closed, hoping that might deaden the pain a little bit.

No such luck.

"My apologies for any pain you may be feeling, Mr. Harris. The toxin we used to incapacitate you has no serious long_term effects, but it does give you a rather nasty headache right after you wake up. I'm told it's kind of like having a hangover..."

Xander carefully opened his eyes and peered out, hoping to see where he was. The last thing he remembered was being in the bus station restaurant, then having a seizure of some kind; then el mucho pain, before the blackout.

Looking around, the son of two drunks saw that he was in a lounge of some kind. The young man could also tell he was in a high_rise apartment, just from looking out the window. It showed an impressive view of San Francisco's skyline.

The voice belonged to a middle_aged black woman, sitting across from him. Behind her, looking out the window, was a younger white man. The woman ignored his presence and continued talking, "The toxin simulates a seizure from epilepsy very convincingly. Unfortunately, it also dehydrates the body in the same way that drinking too much alcohol does. I would suggest you drink some water, that'll make you feel better." She indicated the pitcher of water on the table in front of Xander.

Harris shrugged and reached out for the pitcher, pouring himself a glass of water. He got the glass halfway up to his mouth, when it hit him.

She had definitely called him 'Harris'.

Xander took a drink to hide his discomfort. "I'm sorry, but you're telling me I was brought here against my will? Why is that?"

"Oh, please! Surely, Mr. Harris, you can't expect me to believe that you don't know why you're here? And you probably think that attempted mugging of you last week was just happenstance..."

"Uh, you must have me mistaken with someone else. I'm not this Harris guy you're talking about!"

As the captive talked the man walked along through the room, and he reached the point where he was behind Xander. The former Zeppo glanced behind him to check the dude out, and saw a door at the back of the room. Then he turned back to face the woman, his features neutral and expressionless.

The black woman responded, "It's true that the papers in your wallet identify you as one 'Alexander Hall' from Phoenix, Arizona. And I'm glad to see you learned the old trick that a good alias uses the first name of the person in hiding, so the name is responded to when someone calls out to you. You even have a bus ticket and passport in that name, I see..."

"But we all know that you're actually Alexander Lavelle Harris, better known as Xander Harris, formerly from Sunnydale California." Xander jumped a little bit, as the man behind him spoke up.

"I'm telling you that..." Xander started to stammer out in reply, when the man again cut him off.

"Oh, come on kid. Don't play games. You think we're the kind of people to play games with? Hell, you should be thankful it was *us*who caught up with you, and not someone else!" The woman held up her hand to interrupt her companion. "What my associate means, in his own blunt way, is that we are basically operating with a much more gentle touch in this matter than...other parties who are interested in finding you."

< Other parties? > Xander didn't like the sound of that. As far as his friends in Sunnydale knew, he was dead. So did the Watchers Council. Only the vampire with a soul called Angel knew he was still alive...

Xander just stayed silent, something he had learned both from dealing with his parents and being held captive as a slave. An old survivor's trick is never to draw attention to yourself, when living in fear of your life...

The woman continued, "Mr. Harris, please believe me when I say we don't mean you any harm. Our main objective is to ensure that those who seek to do our country harm do not exploit your situation. And if we can prevent certain hypothetical events from occurring? That's strictly a bonus to us."

Xander frowned. "I don't know what you're talking about, lady. I'm just a carpenter heading to Canada, to start a new job..."

The man walked in front of Xander, and dropped a folder on the table in front of him. "You may have changed your name, kid, but you haven't changed your fingerprints. Strictly speaking, that's real sloppy! Remember when your parents had you fingerprinted, during one of those kid safety programs back in the 1980s? We have the records. They match the ones of your hands, 100%. The positive ID came in just a few hours ago. Want me to prove it, here and now?"

Xander inwardly groaned, as he realized what the man as talking about. It hadn't been *his* parents, of course; it had been Willow's parents who had taken him, Willow and Jesse to get fingerprinted back in '87 at a school fair. Damn it, he had forgotten all about that.

The man continued, "We even triple_checked to be sure, while you were sleeping. There's no doubt, kid. Alexander Harris didn't die at the Sunnydale High School gas explosion last May. He's sitting here in front of me, breathing and everything."

Xander thought for a long pause. He considered making a break for it right then and there. He could probably get to the door, and from there somehow to the outside... "Forget it, kid. You wouldn't get past me, I've been doing this sorta thing long enough I can take you _ no matter if you do got some soldier memories, or the hyena possession thing going. Plus, even if by some miracle you got outta this room, you think you can deal with my men waiting out there in the corridor? All of them are professionals, and have orders not to let you leave here alive..." the man said, correctly guessing what Xander was thinking.

The woman spoke up, glaring at her colleague, "No one here wants you hurt, let me just reiterate that. But the point is, even if you got away from us, all you would accomplish is make a target of yourself for the more nasty people out there. By the way _ you were right to suspect that the Watchers Council had sent a retrieval team for you, back in May. And you don't even want to know what the others would do to you..."

"Who are you guys?" Xander managed to croak out, as obviously these people knew too much about him to continue to try bluffing.

The man answered him, "I'm sure you paid attention to some things in high school, kid. You remember that stuff with Pearl Harbor? That kind of thing, getting caught with its pants down _ it can cripple a government for years afterwards. It makes a man like me want to make damn *sure* that sorta crap never happens again..."

The woman continued, "Various government agencies wanted to make certain that, after World War 2 was over, the United States wouldn't get blindsided that way ever again. Something of a new group was organized to make sure that World War 3 didn't start the same way for our country. The best of the CIA, FBI, NSA, U.S. military intelligence, Special Forces and the like were forwarded to this group."

Xander was about to interrupt, but she kept going. "Their mandate was to make sure the Russians didn't get the jump on us. But my point is, the group stayed hidden. For years, too, making sure that the Soviets never got in a position to kick off World War 3 in a big way. They stopped the Russians from smuggling A_bombs into the country on more than one occasion. But over time, it became obvious that there were other threats. Other countries to worry about."

The man took up the monologue then. "Then in the late Sixties, something came up that really scared the shit outta the bigwigs in the government. The ragheads..."

The woman stole a glare at the man, at the use of that term. He continued, not paying her the slightest bit of attention. "Their blowing up planes, and the like. They may have concentrated mostly on El Al, but we knew it was only a matter of time before it was our turn. So, we changed targets. There were enough groups out there watching the Russkies, that we felt secure in going after the terrorists instead. And just for the record? We're damn good at what we do."

The woman took a drink of water herself, and took over after the man shut up, "We also learned of other, more...unconventional threats. Vampires, demons, all the things that go bump in the night and more stranger things. Not our department, of course," she shrugged. "But sometimes, we dealt with them. Other times, we just left them to those whose sole purpose it was to fight them."

"Like that Slayer of yours, and the Watchers Council," the man said succinctly.

"You were behind the Initiative," Xander said unthinkingly, with growing horror.

"Hell no, kid. Those grunts were too stupid to know how to stake a bloodsucker, even after watching 'Dracula' as a training video, and the lab coats especially the evil bitch Monster of Death were too unbalanced for our liking. Besides, we exist in *complete* secrecy. They were probably headed for a spectacular coming_out party. We opposed it every step of the way..."

The woman nodded in agreement. "Unfortunately, we were losing the bureaucratic fight over that. Well, but politics is an ugly business. It looked like the Initiative would come into being; then something happened. Or more accurately, *you* happened."

The man threw a videotape down onto the table, in front of Xander. "Were you to watch that tape, you would see Professor Maggie Walsh's last moments on this mortal coil. And more importantly, we would see you make a *very* special guest appearance in her life."

Xander stared at the man, knowing what would come next. The secret agent nodded, "We had her under surveillance, yeah. We had just been ordered to withdraw it by the higher_ups, when you took her out of the picture." He smiled nastily, "And at first, everyone thought you had done it for us. Took quite a bit of doing to convince the big shots otherwise, let me tell you..." The woman said earnestly, "So, we started digging into you. In certain circles, you've become quite a celebrity during the last year or so."

"Why's that?" Xander felt the need to say something, as opposed to just sitting there.

The lady shrugged. "Mr. Harris _ despite its pretensions, the Watchers Council is not as powerful or security_minded as it believes itself to be. Over the years several groups have infiltrated the Council for their own reasons, ourselves among them."

Her colleague clarified, "For a while there, kid, the writings of that idiot wimp Wyndham_Pryce? They were probably one of the most closely read documents on the planet. Because of you. And we're talking at the highest levels of government. People who can ignore the President if they have to."

The woman added, "The details you gave him were sparse, granted, but your very existence even _ that was enough to cause anxiety in many centers of power, all around the globe. The reports we got were censored from within the Council, before we read them. But still, they were more than enough to panic us all."

"Yeah, especially that comment about a witch trying to destroy the planet. *That* really got everyone's attention."

< Oh shit, they know about Willow going all crazy in the near future. > Xander suddenly felt afraid for the Scoobies; after all, what would these people do with that knowledge?

The woman continued on, "We really started looking at you, then. Someone who had detailed prescient knowledge, of the next four years? Let's be honest; it was far too juicy, for everyone who was anyone to possibly leave alone. Combine that with what you did back in April, and we *really* got interested in you! We all asked ourselves _ why would someone, knowing what would happen over the next four years, kill Maggie Walsh? We didn't know the exact answer, but could hazard a guess..."

She leaned over poured herself a glass of water from the table and took another drink from it, as the man started talking again. The two of them were doing a pretty good job of tag_teaming Xander...

"'Course, we then found the other bodies. Warren Mears, Ben Maxwell. You...dealt with them. Decently professional job by you and the vampire, granted, but you don't get to where I am in life without knowing what's what. Smart money's saying you headed off some major events, by removing them from the playing field. 'Course, you know what I'm about to ask now, don't you?"

Xander looked up, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. < Oh no... >

The man said firmly, "Worst case scenario. Do we need to make similar arrangements, to remove a witch from the world?"

"No! Don't you dare!" Xander yelled.

The man raised an eyebrow at Xander's outburst. "Mr. Harris, our job is to deal with threats to the security of the United States. The end of the world would qualify."

The woman looked sympathetically at Xander. "We suspected that you'd already taken all the necessary steps before leaving your home town, but the stakes are so must understand _ we *have* to be sure." She had a questioning look on her face.

Xander fought an internal battle with himself. He really wanted to try and convince them they were wrong. That he was just a poor carpenter, who was on his way to Canada to make a buck.

But he knew they wouldn't believe it. More importantly, they were worried over Willow. He had no doubts about how they knew who the witch was, that was going to try and destroy the world. How hard would it be to figure out what witches he'd hung out with?

Xander looked at the duo. The man had gone back to looking out at the skyline. The woman regarded him with a hopeful look. That look told him that they didn't *want* to do it. They were hoping he had resolved the situation already, but if they hadn't they were ready to step in and deal.

The teenager knew that they had to be satisfied. But he also knew if he told them what they wanted to hear, he had no more hope of talking himself out of their company.

Was he willing to do that to Willow, and the others? After all, they had left him to die outside the Bronze that night, for lying to Buffy about that mess with Acathla. If not for Angel, he would literally have become vamp chowder. But Xander then remembered what Angel had told him afterwards; 'secrets have a way of coming out.'

Sometimes, hiding stuff just led to worse problems further down the line.

So Harris said curtly, "It's taken care of. Warren Mears, he was the trigger for what you people are afraid of. With him gone, the threat potential and the reason for trying to end the world are also gone. Fact is, she only got that power to go after him."

The man turned around from the window, and looked at Xander, nodding with a half_smile on his face. The woman had a full smile on her face. "I am *very* relieved to hear that. Just because we'll do what is necessary, doesn't mean we enjoy it."

"Still, we have to ask if there's anything else out there we need to know about, ya know?" The man came over and sat down in a chair next to Xander.

Xander just looked at him impassively, also knowing where this was heading. < Screw you, asshole. >

The man just said, "Kid, I promise you, we're not looking for winning lottery numbers or hot stock market tips! We're beyond that garbage. We're looking to make sure that terrorists don't drop a nuke on New York City, or spread some killer virus all over the U.S.! India and Pakistan ain't gonna start lobbing nukes at each other on my watch, and neither is there gonna be a worldwide famine because some loopy labcoat goofs on his laboratory safety protocols..."

Xander tensed a little bit; just a little. He didn't know if they had caught it, at the mention of New York City and terrorists. But then, those 4 ½ years in a hell dimension because of the vampires Spike and Drusilla had taught him how to hide his thoughts and feelings well, when he needed to.

The man leaned back. "Of course, I also want to know if the Cubs win the next World Series. That's the most important thing! We can talk about the end of the world stuff after that."

The woman stabbed the man with a slight look of exasperation. "What say we give Mr. Harris some time to think it all over? As we do have some business to attend to, that is unrelated to all this..."

She turned to Xander. "You must be starving. After all, you were unconscious for almost a whole day! I'll arrange for some dinner to be brought in to you. I'm told the kitchen is quite good here. Some steak, perhaps?"


Later, the man and woman were in another room, looking at a monitor that showed Xander eating in the lounge. The duo was amazed at his appetite, if nothing else.

"You noticed how he tensed up at the mention of New York and terrorists?" the man suddenly asked.

"I wondered if you had caught that."

"Almost didn't, he's damn good at hiding things. Probably slipped up, only 'cause we hit him hard and fast with too much, too soon, while he was still disoriented. But that's always just a one_time event; no way we can ever count on that again."

"I agree."

The man looked speculative. "Just between us, I think against anyone else? His tensing up would've gone unnoticed. And the only reason he even confirmed his real ID was 'cause he was worried over Ms. Rosenberg, or Ms. Madison. For the record, my money's still on the Rosenberg girl being the uber_witch..."

The woman nodded. "Most probably true, since Ms. Madison is still missing. Still, thankfully that's no longer an issue. Oh, by the way _ what's the latest with that 'mugging'?" The quotation marks could be heard around the woman's remarks.

"Yeah, still looking into that. We identified at least two of the perps as stringers working for the French SDECE..." The man then looked angry, "Jesus, but this could wind up being just like the mess back in the early 1940s, over that stupid race with the atomic bomb! Intelligence agencies tripping over themselves. Rogue agents trying to sell secrets to the highest bidder."

"Not to mention the Watchers Council."

The man sighed. "I know, I *really* wish they weren't in the mix. Normally, I got no problem trusting the Brits; but the Watchers are so deep in bed with the cousins these days, we gotta be real careful what we tell 'em."

"And that California law firm?"

He shrugged again. "Having trouble getting a fix on them. Normally, they're not a player in our particular game. They're more into the weird stuff."

"Which, unfortunately, is a category Mr. Harris falls directly under."

"Too true..."


Two hours later

Xander leaned back on the couch, watching the television in the apartment. He had finished up the meal they had brought him, about a, hour or so before. Now, the young man was just waiting for the man and woman to return.

Harris thought about trying to get some sleep, but decided against it. Sleeping when the others, as he had taken to calling his captors, were hanging around somewhere nearby didn't seem like a good idea. So he just sat there, and watched the TV screen.

And thought about his situation.

His captors obviously knew what they were doing. When they had come in to clear away the dishes from his meal, it had taken three people to do it. Two to actually gather up everything, while the third watched him. They had made a point of accounting for every single piece of silverware, too. They were on guard for Xander to try something, anything...

The former Soldier Guy sighed. Even if he managed to get away from them, their statements to him had made it clear that the only result would be that he would become a target for everyone else out there. The Watchers Council for sure, and some nebulous others also.

Xander wondered idly who said others were. Several ideas ran through his head. The image of a leather_coated Gestapo agent from an old World War 2 movie figured most prominently in his thoughts, even if he felt ridiculous to contemplate it.

Still, he knew in his gut that the others might not even be as nice as the Gestapo had been. The former class clown knew enough about the world now to understand that some groups didn't play by the clean rules, as the man in the street understood them. Xander seriously wondered who would be harsher; the demons who had kept him prisoner for nearly five years; or the men in black who were looking for him...

The 22yearold man then shuddered, when he realized that the demons were constrained somewhat by not wanting to hurt someone so much that they couldn't work. The people looking for him now wouldn't have that restraint. They would just want him to talk. Anything else wouldn't concern them.

He remembered that old TV show about the Fugitive, looking for the onearmed man to clear his name. But Xander didn't have a onearmed man out there, to eventually stop the suits from chasing him. < Although I wound up being an one_eyed man in the future. I wonder if that counts? >

Maybe if he escaped and disappeared, and somehow made it to 2003 alone in the Canadian mountains, when his knowledge would be useless...

Of course, that was no guarantee that some Initiative wannabe wouldn't eventually snatch him up anyway to see if his brain ticked differently, due to all the tinkering done up there by Willow.

The television flickered as the program he was watching ended, and the early news came on. But he ignored it, and thought some more. If these people knew about Willow, did the other people looking for him know too? Would they go after her? What should he do?

Xander found himself arguing the point with himself. The memories from the first version of history rebelled at the thought of not doing something to help her. After all, it was Willow. The yin to his yang. The yellow crayon girl, who along with his then_best friend Jesse had kept him sane throughout an...ugly childhood. He had to do *something* to protect her...

But the memories from the second version of reality whispered very differently. Willow had basically left him for dead, so as to curry favor with Buffy. She had thrown all the tattered fragments of their friendship away that night on that sidewalk. Then she'd made it worse by sending him to that hell dimension, however hypnotized she'd been by that damn nutcase Dru...

Then the redhead had cursed him with all these memories in his head. These nevertobesufficientlydamned potentially aneurysm_causing memories, which made him a target. Made him walk around with a huge neon light above his head, blinking out the words 'FUTURE BOY'. What did he really owe her? What did he owe any of them?

God help him, but the second voice whispered fervently to let them all be thrown to the wolves. They'd willingly bought their own ticket into this chamber of horrors, and paid a full fare. So let them reap the consequences of their actions, let them learn what it was like to live in fear...

Common sense told him to run for it, at the first opportunity. What was the worst that could happen? He could get himself killed? Sometimes, that seemed like an act of mercy. He could vanish into the night, avoid everyone...

Xander thought for a second. And the ghost of the Soldier Guy he had once been said firmly in his brain, < Unacceptable. No win scenario. Another alternative required. >

If he ran, someone somewhere would catch him at some point. Evaluating the possibilities, Xander suspected that the treatment he had received here so far would be the best he could hope for in his life.

And besides, he was still Xander Harris, even if he wasn't a PFC with that Vietnam_era serial number anymore. He knew what was coming...

The ridiculous Y2K hysteria. September 11. The Bali bombing of 2002. The second war against Saddam Hussein, during 2003. And of course, the First Evil...

Now obviously something, and his money was on the First, had changed history in a big way. Otherwise, he would be banging his girlfriend Anya in his Sunnydale basement apartment right about now, instead of being someone's 'guest' here in San Francisco.

Despite his time_delayed letter, Xander wasn't sure of the chances of the Scoobies and the potential Slayers stopping the First Evil now that history had been played with. Was he really going to risk that out of spite? < Am I going to do the same thing I condemned Buffy, Willow and Cordelia for? >

At that moment, the door to the lounge opened up and the woman walked back in. "Where's the other guy?" Xander asked her.

"He's finishing up with our other guests."

Xander chuckled to himself. "You let him talk to other people without you, lady? He's got quite a bark."

The woman walked over and sat down on the chair, next to the couch where Xander was sitting. She also turned the TV off as she walked by it. "His bark's worse than his bite, to be absolutely honest. It's when he's not barking that you really have to watch out for him. Besides, he speaks fluent Japanese."


"Yes, our counterparts from the Land of the Rising Sun paid us a visit. They had some things they wanted to talk about."

"Such as." Xander didn't expect an answer, and was surprised when he got one.

"Two things; first, North Korea. All those nukes nestled right next door to their home unnerves them more than a little bit. Secondly, they've heard rumors about you. They were...curious."

"Interesting. Do they_?"

"Know that you're here?" The woman shook her head "No, even though we're allies with them, we're not ready to share that knowledge with them yet. They'll be told what they need to know, when they need to know it."

Xander remembered back to his earlier conversation with the woman. "Who else?" She looked at him questioningly. "Who else knows about me, and might be looking for me?"

She shrugged. "Quite a few people, actually. The Watchers Council, obviously. Us, the CIA, NSA, MI_6, the French, Russians, Israelis, Chinese, Poles, Germans, the Vatican, the Indians, Aussies, Wolfram & Hart_"

Xander got a strange look on his face. "Who?" "A...special law firm in Los Angeles, who handles legal matters for demons and the like. Your old vampire acquaintance and his friends Doyle and Cordelia Chase have already made themselves their sworn enemy, by the way..."

"Doyle? You mean that half_breed demon I met who sent me to Sunnydale on a mission for the PowersThatBe, earlier this year? Deadboy's working with him, to fight the good fight?"

"Yes, quite so." She mentally noted down the reference to the Powers_ That_Be for future investigation.

Xander contemplated that for a moment, as she went on, "There also seem to be several demon factions and cults that know about you. And for some odd reason, the Mormon Church." She shrugged at Xander's look of incomprehension. "I know, it makes no sense at all; but somehow, they know."

"So many," Xander observed quietly.

"It started out small. A few groups learned about you from the Council, just as we did. But these groups had moles or people willing to sell the information for the right price, and it all just spiraled out of control from there..."

"Then I'm just surprised my face hasn't shown up on the 'National Enquirer', or Sixty Minutes or something."

"Oh, don't worry about that. I doubt knowledge of your existence will spread now much beyond those who already know. There are only a certain number of people who can get access to this kind of secret, and I'd say we've moreorless reached that number already." She indicated where the plates had been on the table. "You get enough to eat?"

Xander regarded her impassively. "Yeah, I'm not going to start up with that epilepsy thing again, am I?"

"No, nothing of the sort. You're already here, and we want to talk."

"Probably pointless to ask, but why didn't you just come up and talk to me instead of shanghaiing me like that?"

"Now, please! You know as well as I do, that you would've bolted at the first hint that we knew who you were. Why go through all the trouble of finding you, and not be able to talk to you for more than a minute? This conversation needed to be conducted in a controlled setting."

"Says you. How did you find me, anyway?" Xander had given up all pretense of hiding who he really was now.

"There are only so many people in Los Angeles, who can prepare a new identity for someone. We know all of them, and can be...persuasive when the need arises. Once that was done, it was a simple matter to just throw out a net for you."

"You knew I went to LA?"

"It's where the vampire went. We suspected you would have some connection to him."

Xander nodded. It was too bad he hadn't been able to stay there; but Cordelia had been on her way to Los Angeles, and destined to meet and then go to work for Angel. He remembered that much, and since she thought he was dead...

The thing was even though Xander thought he could be around her without having the goddamn headaches, since he hadn't dealt with his ex since Graduation and there weren't any conflicting memories, he still didn't want her to know about him.

Because if *she* found out, how long would it be before the others found out also? Buffy had gone to LA to visit Angel a couple of times in the future he remembered, and she would probably do so at least once in this upcoming one. < That reminds me, Angel was expecting me to check in with him today using my fake name. He must be getting worried by now... > "So, what now?"

"Well, first off you stay with us." She held up her hand to head off Xander's interruption. "You have to understand the situation. You can't just wander around like a target out there, as all the people looking zero in on you! A single person alone would almost have no chance against all the resources all those groups can bring to bear. So unless you crawled into a cave and stayed there for the next four years, as most likely you were planning to do, they'll find you. And we cannot let that happen."

"That's not your decision to make," Xander crossed her arms and glared at her.

She frowned at him. "We made it ours. If someone is able to use what's in your head to influence events to this country's detriment, the consequences could be...disturbing. Possibly catastrophic. Put yourself in my place; how could you justify risking it?"

Xander sneered, "I shoulda known you'd play that card, eventually. Look, do you want to hear my impressions of all this, so far?" She nodded. "Fine. You all see yourselves as a collection of noble good guys handling a damned useful if dangerous commodity, one that might save the world someday if used properly. But what I see is a bunch of monkeys playing with matchsticks, in a dark room filled with explosives."

"That's not_"

"Shut up and lemme finish! I'm assuming all this is being taped, so consider it also a message for your bosses. You probably know I told Wesley there are at least half a dozen apocalypse scenarios coming up, within the next four years. And you're thinking to yourself, why not make him give us all the details?"

Xander snorted. "Except I won't do that, unless you strap me down and hit me with the chemicals. It's too dangerous _ I KNOW. But you'd justify it to yourselves that forewarned is forearmed; you'll save a lot of lives that need not be lost, that sort of thing. But tell me, what if for example one of your soldiers charges into the wrong place at the wrong time, and some kid accidentally gets caught in the crossfire? Someone who oh, I dunno was destined to become President and save the world from nuclear war, except that now he's dead?"

The woman was unable to look him in the eye, as that was a very real fear with every scientist within every group that was in the know. "Well, be that as it may, you have to stay somewhere where you'll be safe. And your best bet is with us. I promise that *we* at least won't use the chemicals."

"A prisoner?" Xander kept his arms folded as he still glared at her.

"Think of it as a honored guest," the man said as entered the lounge. "And it's nice to know you at least have a brain, pal. Interesting speech, by the way."

"Thanks. Glad you liked it."

"'Course, it was more than a little hypocritical for you to make it." He folded his arms and looked at Xander.


"Yeah, kid. It's a big word, meaning the pot calling the kettle black! That kinda talk was pretty rich, coming from the guy who's already has changed history. Three bodies getting colder, before their time. That was your doing, remember? For all you know, one of them may have found a cure for cancer or hooked up the parents of the next generation's greatest rock star. But we won't know now, will we? You put us all in virgin territory, and not the good kind either."

Xander snarled back at the man, "Don't *ever* try to second_guess me or my actions, or speak about things you know next to nothing about! Nothing like a cancer cure was ever coming from those three, and none of them never lived beyond 2003 anyway..."

The woman looked at the man, interjecting herself in the conversation to calm things down. "Our other guests are taken care of?"

"Bet your ass they are. Within the hour, they'll be winging their way back home. They seemed a little disappointed that I couldn't go out and down a few sakis with 'em..."

He held up his hands, at the new glare the woman sent him. "I know, I know, this is San Francisco and not Tokyo or Okinawa. Bar room brawls lead to the police being called, which leads to unwelcome attention and all that crap." He sat down next to Xander, muttering as he did so, "Things really are so much damn easier overseas..."

The woman continued to Xander, "We'll make you as comfortable as possible, and make sure you're not as much of a target as before. The CIA and NSA, for example, we can make back off quite easily. Some of the others, like the Aussies and the Poles, trust us enough that they'll be satisfied with that. The others, well...we'll be on guard. We've done this type of thing before quite successfully..."

"And I have no choice in the matter?" Xander asked petulantly.

"There are always choices, Harris. How successful those choices are, is another thing entirely. You can choose to make the best out of this situation that you can, or you can just make it that much harder on yourself!" the man snapped at Xander

Xander glared at him. He didn't like the man, even beyond the fact he was one of the people holding him captive. He had more than a trace of Buffy's annoying 'I am the law' attitude..."You can't stop me from trying to escape."

"Actually, we can. There's nothing requiring us to keep you awake, you know. Worst case scenario for you, we just keep you sedated for the next five years; feed you with an I.V. tube, while you really catch up on your Z's."

"Cleburne..." The woman hissed at the man. "Will you turn off the act for a moment?"

The man seemed to think for a second, and shrugged his shoulders. He leaned forward, folding his hands in his lap, his demeanor relaxing as he did.

"Look, kid, we'll do what we have to. Just like you did, when you killed those three people. We would be remiss in the duty we've sworn to uphold, if we did anything less. The threat of you being exploited by hostile powers is just too great to risk," the man, Cleburne, said in a calm voice.

Xander was surprised. The heavy had actually seemed to tone it down a bit.

The woman started talking, "We would want to avoid such a thing; although in the past, circumstances have compelled us to...well, never mind that now..."

Cleburne leaned back with a thoughtful look on his face. "About five years ago, there was this kid in Peru. Got messed up to the point where he could read minds. Couldn't turn it off, either; every time he was near someone, he knew exactly what they were thinking. Almost drove him nuts..."

A sigh. "As you can imagine, that parlor trick was quite sought after. We tried to help him, but to no avail. In the end, all we could do was sedate the little guy so that the voices wouldn't drive him completely insane. He's still at a clinic in Virginia right now, sleeping peacefully with no more secrets in his head."

"Cleburne!" the women hissed in alarm at the man.

He looked at her. "You told me to drop the act, so I did. No point in trying to sugarcoat this crap, it's just an insult to Harris anyway if you try. We're asking him to trust us. The least we can do is trust him right back." He turned towards Xander and held out his hand. "Name's Joshua Cleburne."

Xander was briefly surprised. Then his guard went right back up; he recognized the old good cop, bad cop routine. < Normally, you don't see both the good and bad cop in the same person... >

Cleburne noticed Xander's hesitation. "Kid, I'm not asking you to marry me or anything. As I don't swing that way! I'm just introducing myself." The earlier coarseness of the man crept back into his voice.

Xander reached over and shook his hand. "You already know my name, and I still don't like you."

Cleburne chuckled. "Fine, I'm not in this business to be Mr. Popularity. Just to get the job done."

The woman looked at Cleburne. "You know, every once and a while you do something noble, and it just throws me for a loop..." She leaned across the table, extending her own hand. "Mrs. Esther Marcum."

Cleburne snorted. "Well, just don't tell anyone about me being noble. How would it look to bin Laden if he finds out I can be a nice guy at times?"

Xander couldn't help it; he tensed just a little bit at the mention of that name. Cleburne noticed it, of course; after all, he had been looking for such a reaction when he'd mentioned the guy's moniker.

Marcum leaned forward. "Mr. Harris. Do we have an agreement as to you remaining with us willingly?"

Xander stifled a laugh. They really didn't need his agreement. Still, they wanted it. He could try to escape, but what would it get him? A life on the run. No friends, no support base, just waiting for the inevitable knock on the door that would start the torment of people tearing apart his memories, to learn the shape of things to come.

No choice, really.

"Tell me something. Do these 'others'..." he referred to the other agencies who knew about him, "...know about the witch and the situation in Sunnydale?" "Some do, yeah. The Watchers Council obviously knows everything. Some only know bits and pieces. Only the Watchers and ourselves are really in a position to put names and faces to the information."

"Still, it's possible others could figure out who to target?"

Marcum and Cleburne exchanged a look. "Yes, I imagine someone could put together enough things to mount an operation to do so," the woman said slowly.

Xander's two separate inner voices warred for a few seconds over what was coming next. From within the recesses of Xander's brain, the voice of the Hyena whispered to him, <Protect the Pack..> That in the end, tipped the former slave into going with his instincts; as they were now the only things which had kept him alive, for nearly 23 years.

He said to the duo, "You want an agreement, then the people in Sunnydale are to be protected but not interfered with. In ANY way, shape or form! This is not negotiable. They're important; and besides that shouldn't be targeted, because of something they don't even know."

Marcum frowned. "That may not be easy as you think. We can't let them in on the secret..." she trailed off as Cleburne caught her eye.

"Yeah, I think maybe I have a solution for that one. Lemke's been wanting to get out of field operations. Says he's too old for it, and wants to settle down with that CPA he's been dating."

"Isn't Lemke younger than you?" Marcum asked, with a barely hidden grin on her features.

Cleburne made a face, but kept right on going. "The CPA is from California, and wants to move back home. I think Sunnydale is a place where she could open up a new office. Lemke could open a bookstore or something as well. Put that knowledge of literature of his to good use. At the same time, he can keep an eye out..."

Cleburne looked at the face Xander was making. "Kid, we can't give them 24/7 protection if that's what you're asking for. Other than dragging them to Langley, Virginia and sticking them into a safe house, it's just not possible. We all know that, so just accept it. Besides, from everything I've read, they can take care of themselves. Lemke can call in the cavalry for anything that looks like is gonna get out of hand..." Xander nodded. "All right, I'll agree to that."

Seeing that Xander was relaxing, Cleburne asked the next question to knock him off_balance. "So kid, how many people did bin Laden kill when he hit New York?"

Xander's head snapped around, as he looked at Cleburne. The military conditioning for a moment failed him; the comment had the desired reaction from the target for a second, till Xander's face returned to its impassive state.

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"Kid, you tensed up earlier when I mentioned New York being nuked, and also a few seconds ago when I mentioned the raghead's name. Two and two does equal four."

Marcum piped up, softening up Cleburne's harsh edges. "As far as I can tell, Mr. Harris, it seems that the situation is the same here as when you took out Walsh, Mears and Maxwell. We can stop whatever Osama bin Laden is planning, the same way you stopped their plans, with a similar surgical strike _ can't we?"

This one was easier for Xander to decide. < What's the difference between those terrorists, and the people I killed? Not much, really. > As he came to a decision, images of the final battle with the First Evil came to mind. That had to be dealt with also.

"I'm gonna need your help, in exchange for my help on your problem."

"Go on," Marcum leaned forward.

"Four years from now, an evil older than either of you can possibly imagine tries to destroy this world. I've not been able to head that off. The only thing that was standing in its way was a small group in Sunnydale, that was mostly made up of teenage girls. And, funny thing; I've noticed some changes in the world events leading up to that, beyond what I've done personally. Bottom line; someone else is messing with history, as you know it."

At that, both Marcum and Cleburne stirred with looks of concern on their faces. "Holy shit," the male secret agent said succinctly. Even he hadn't been expecting this.

"In my original memories, we barely stopped it. And even then, it was at great personal cost..." Xander paused as he remembered Anya. His soul mate, and the woman he had also hurt so much.

Of all the people he had left behind, she was the only one that was truly forever lost; as Anyanka was probably tearing out some guy's liver right now, her humanity abandoned and forgotten over 1100 years ago.

Xander finished up, "So with the Big Bad playing with history like that, the good guys might not win this time around."

"You want us to fight it also?" Cleburne asked.


Cleburne and Marcum exchanged a glance. Xander was reminded for a second of the glances that he and Willow had used to exchange, years before all the weirdness had started in their lives. Glances that were almost conversations. These two were coming to some sort of agreement. They broke their stare, and turned back to Xander.

Marcum spoke for both of them. "Okay, we're in."

Xander nodded and took a deep breath. "It wasn't a nuke; as I recall, those bastards used four hijacked airliners..."


Los Angeles, California. The same night

Angel stalked into his office, from the basement apartment he had below the office building. The same apartment Xander had once lived in, before the half_Brachen demon named Doyle had found him.

Cordelia looked up from behind the desk. The former cheerleader had taken to the receptionist job with some enthusiasm, if not efficiency; well, of course, that was only until the inevitable superstardom hurried up and arrived on her doorstep. "Hey, Angel."

Angel just went over and checked his message box. "No messages for me?"

Cordy shook her head. "Nope, been pretty quiet. Maybe the nighttime action might pick up! Some people well, I assume they were people they called asking for directions..." She tilted her head at Angel. "You know, maybe we should put in a special line for the demons? That way, I'll know if special arrangements need to be made..."

Angel glanced at Cordy with a combination of amusement and a baffled look. "I think that might offend some demons, Cordy. A few of them take pride in fitting into the human world."

Cordy just shrugged and went back to her work. "Whatever..."

"Anything from Doyle? And did you check the emails? Nothing from carpenterdude@y...?"

Cordy looked up with a smirk. "Our little Irish Bam_Bam is mourning his latest losses at the racetrack over a beer somewhere. And yeah, I checked the account not less than twenty minutes ago. Just some junk mail. Nothing from that carpenter guy! Who is he, anyway?"

"Just some guy I helped out a while back. Before I met you and Doyle. He was supposed to stay in contact..." Angel said as he walked into his office, closing the door behind him. That effectively prevented Cordelia from asking any follow_up question about the carpenter guy, a.k.a. Xander Harris _ whom she still regretted not making peace with, before he'd supposedly died.

Angel sat at his desk, a little worried. < Xander said he would check in when he got to San Francisco. Haven't heard from him yet. I may have to go looking for him, before too long... >


San Francisco, California. Later that same night

Both Marcum and Cleburne stared out the window at the San Francisco nighttime skyline, thinking their own private thoughts.

Their talk with Xander had taken a couple of hours. The former soldier had given them a broad overview of his memories of the 9/11 attacks, the hell dimension, life in Sunnydale and the First Evil's attacks during 2002_2003. He was now sleeping in another room.

"What do we do with him tomorrow?" Marcum suddenly asked.

"Move him out of town, I want us all back east ASAP. I'll feel a lot better when we have him on our home turf," Cleburne replied. "Also, our experts are back there. They can do a more extensive debriefing; there's a lot more we have to uncover in his memory..."

He waved off Marcum's objection. "No, I'm not saying he's hiding anything from us. Just that with all that's happened to the kid, some details are bound to have slipped into the background. After all, he spent four years as a slave in that goddamn hell dimension! Even *I*wouldn't have survived something like that, unscathed..."

Cleburne paused, and then continued, "Gotta respect his negotiation stance, though."

"In what way?"

"Most people in his position would want money, or some other kinda riches. Something for themselves, as payback for all the crap they've suffered. Him? We protect his friends and fight the bad guy. Even though he thinks they abandoned him, he still protects his friends. Stand_up terms..."

He sighed again. "So, looks like we're joining the fight against the things that go bump in the night, and this ultimate evil thing?" Both of them kept their voices down.

"It would appear so. And he called it the First Evil, or more simply the First."

"You measure all other experiences in your life, against the First time. It's a guy thing," Cleburne joked. "Yeesh, we'll need to change our organizational structure somewhat if we're gonna be dealing with the paranormal 24/7. I'll also need equipment. Different training program. Not to mention, a lot more men."

"Got any ideas for possible recruits?"

"A few, at least. It strikes me as kinda funny that those operatives slated for the Initiative, now have no place to go..."

Marcum nodded. "Anything else?"

"Yes. I want to know, why didn't we catch all this the first time around?"

"What do you mean?"

Cleburne said roughly, "September 11, 2001. It's not *that* far away! And it's exactly the kind of thing we're supposed to head off, remember? So why didn't we stop it? Why didn't Harris remember us being there, blowing up the damn planes or whatever? That thing with the First Evil, doesn't surprise me us not being there for the final battle; after all, unless we literally stumble across the weird crap we don't get involved, until now."

A shrug. "Maybe we were all dead by then. Or incapacitated. Or it just slipped through the cracks..."

"I sure as hell hope not, and I don't think we can rely on that sort of thing now. Personally I think there's something else out there, working against us, that wasn't made public."

"Such as?"

Cleburne glared down at the street. "I wish I knew. And, this time around, I intend to find out..."

Part Two

Sunnydale, California. November, 1999

The wet grass flattened, as Buffy Summers the vampire Slayer walked through the cemetery. The dew from the early evening air had dampened the ground nicely. It wasn't too cold from the autumn weather, yet it was just cold enough that Buffy shivered a tiny bit within the jacket she was wearing.

She approached her destination, and saw that someone was already there. She slowed down her pace, and made a little more noise than normal so as to not startle her companion. "Hey, Willow."

The redheaded Wiccan turned, and waved at the approaching Slayer. "Hi Buffy, you coming to visit also?" she asked wistfully.

"Yeah; with Thanksgiving coming up, I just wanted to stop by and say hello. Been here long?"

"Oh, a few minutes. I was just telling him everything what's been going on with college. I really wish he was here, Buffy. I really do. It's, it's not right, it's..."

Buffy put her arm around Willow. "I know, he deserved better." She looked down at the tombstone before them.

Alexander Lavelle Harris
April 12, 1981 - May 21, 1999.
The soul of a hero

Willow sniffled a little bit, wiping her nose with a piece of Kleenex she held in her left hand. "I was thinking on the way over here, about the last conversation I had with the 'real' Xander. You know, before Spike sent him to Hell and before he had the whole soldier amnesia thing and conflicting memories. That was the day at the start of our senior year, remember? When I saw the hatred in his eyes. When he told you, me and Cordy he didn't want anything more to do with us..." Willow started to tear up.

Buffy tried to comfort her, "Willow, it's not your fault. I...I'm responsible for that. Don't blame yourself..."

"You should take your own advice, Buff; no one forced me to do what I did. That night, if I hadn't been so mad over him lying to you about Angel's curse...I would have stayed to help him. After all, it was Xander! He'd been Xander to me, ever since the yellow crayon day at kindergarten."

Buffy raised an eyebrow at that. "Yellow crayon?"

Willow smiled. "First day of kindergarten, I broke the yellow crayon. I was so scared that I was going to get into trouble that I started to cry. Then this little black-haired boy comes up to me, and asks what's wrong. I tell him. He takes the crayon from my hand and marches up to the teacher, telling her that he had broken the crayon. He couldn't stand to see me cry."

Willow wiped her eyes, as they had teared up a little bit during her telling of the story. "That's the day I named him Xander, since I couldn't pronounce Alexander. He liked Xander so much, he went around the classroom telling all the other kids to call him that. And they all did; oh, except for Cordelia, she kept calling him doody head, 'cause she couldn't say dorkhead..."

Buffy laughed at that. "Nice to see Cordy hasn't changed that much over the years..."

That got a laugh from Willow in return. "Well, she has learned to drive a car..." That brought further laughter from Buffy. Willow continued, "My mom saw Xander's parents at the store the other day."

Buffy nodded. She knew Willow's parents didn't really like Mr. and Mrs. Harris. "Anything interesting come up?"

"They were complaining that someone had broken into their house and stolen a bunch of things, including some of Xander's stuff. Comic books, personal mementos and stuff like that. They seemed all torn up about it, since they figured out the comic books could have been sold for a profit..."

The amateur witch snorted. "You know, at times I wonder maybe if Xander was adopted, or left at the Harris' doorstep as a newborn. They seem more interested in him dead, than when he was ever alive. That law firm from Los Angeles, it got them all hot and heavy to sue the school board over the 'natural gas' explosion. Darn greedy of them, if you ask me..."

"Yeah. It's hard to believe that they managed to have a son like Xander."

Willow nodded. "I think the only reason my parents even spoke to them, is that they really liked Xander. You know, my mom even asked me once if I thought he would ever convert to Judaism?"

Buffy raised an eyebrow at that as Willow hastened to explain, "Well, that, that was when I spent most of my spare time planning my wedding to him. I think mom liked the idea of him as a son-in-law..."

Buffy smiled. "What mother wouldn't? My mom sure hinted every once in a while for me to see Xander as something more than a friend. Sure, he had his issues, and me, still a little ticked at him over the lie about the soul curse thing; but in the end, the mothers could tell he was all right."

Buffy looked over at the other tombstone, a few yards away.

Faith Daniels March 24, 1982 - May 21, 1999 The heart of a lioness rests

Willow noticed where Buffy was looking. "We lost both of them, the same day. Well, at least their bodies..."

Buffy held her silence. She remembered how badly Willow had taken it, when Faith and Xander had taken to 'dating' during the senior year of high school. < Heck, I'm a little surprised that she agreed to Faith being buried so close to Xander's grave... >

As if reading Buffy's mind, Willow spoke up in shame, "You know, I-I-I'm an awful person. She loved him, even more than me, and I didn't even let them bury Faith next to Xander. I made them put her several yards away..."

Buffy patted Willow on the back. "You were hurting, Willow, we all were. Emotions were raw."

"Still, how could I do that? After all, Faith's last words were asking after Xander."

"Well, she did seem content when Giles told her Xander had saved the day."

"While leaving out the details of what he did. I *should* have let them bury Faith next to Xander's grave marker!"

"Don't tear yourself up over it, Willow. Heck, Xander's body isn't actually there..."

Despite the best efforts of the Sunnydale Fire Department, the body had never been recovered. Everyone assumed it had been disintegrated in the explosion. "His spirit isn't bound to this spot, and neither is Faith's. They're at peace now."

Willow nodded at the tombstone. "And all we have is a tombstone, with no body underneath it. And the memories of what we did."


Urbana, Illinois. December, 1999

The reason the Sunnydale FD had never found the body was now walking along a path in a campus-type setting, towards an academic building.

After all, it was kinda hard to retrieve a body when it was able to walk away from where it was being looked for.

Xander shivered slightly, and pulled his coat closer to him to combat the cold air. < God, I miss California... >

"Kid, this isn't cold, believe me," Cleburne snickered, as he walked alongside Xander. "I can't believe you think *this* is cold, and you were heading to Canada! Now *that* is cold. This..." He waved his hands around, "This is a warm spring afternoon up there." Cleburne looked just a tad too smug in his windbreaker, compared to the heavy coat Xander was wearing.

Xander half-growled at him, "Just a breeze that caught me unaware, that's all. I can handle the cold. I've handled much worse..."

Cleburne regarded him with a half-smirk. < You just keep telling yourself that... >

Since that first night, Xander's life had almost settled into a routine. The next morning, he and the others had all flown out of San Francisco. Xander still didn't know where they had flown to. He only knew the city he was staying in was somewhere in the eastern time zone, and it had more mountains than he had ever seen in his life before.

He had been situated in an apartment suite, on the top floor of a townhouse. It was a fairly comfortable place. All the amenities were present; fully stocked kitchen, satellite television (with no local channels), Internet access (with email capacity blocked) and exercise room. It would have fit right in at any top-class resort or spa.

It would have been great to stay there as a guest. As a prisoner, well, it was nice enough; but it was still a prison.

Xander always had at least three 'house mates' to keep him company. They changed on a weekly basis, and the rotation seemed to not have any set pattern. They were all clearly still on guard for something to happen. Mostly, they said, for someone to try and get at Xander; but still, he knew some of it was just in case he decided to make a run for it.

His mornings were generally filled with talking to people about what he remembered of the events before and after September 11. When he complained, saying he had already told them all about it, the reply was swift and decisive.

Repeated recitation of the facts, from different angles, to discover tidbits that had slipped his memory at the first telling. This had actually been borne out a few times, when Xander suddenly remembered a detail or two he had forgotten.

The afternoons were spent talking about what Xander referred to as 'Sunnydale specials'. The facts of life and the undead, as he had learned from his time on the Hellmouth. The people who came to talk to him in the afternoons were very different from the ones in the mornings.

The morning people seemed to be intellectual types mostly, with some Cleburne types thrown in. Xander had mentally nicknamed them 'the professors'.

The afternoon people were a harder bunch. He'd quickly pegged them as black-ops and Special Forces types. They were interested in what was out there; and more importantly, how to kill it.

They were good pupils, and Xander suspected that they were already putting his lessons to good use. But instructing them didn't make up for the lack of obstacle courses, firing ranges, and upkeep of personal weapons his finely-tuned body and soul had started itching for. And God knew he needed to keep his edge up; the former soldier knew he was going to have to do something about that, eventually...

When Xander had first arrived at 'the golden cage', as he called his residence, his evenings had been taken up talking to Lemke, the operative who was getting ready to move to Sunnydale.

Lemke was a giant of a man, easily topping six feet six, in his mid-30's. Xander told him all he needed to know about Sunnydale; the best dry cleaners, the best neighborhoods, never to go out unprotected after dark, the need to have crosses and garlic in every single room of his house, to never directly invite anyone into the residence at any time...

Things that made short-term visitors to Sunnydale able to last long enough, to be a long-term resident of la Boca del Infierno.

After about a month, Lemke had gone away, presumably to Sunnydale, and Xander's nights were taken up with nothing much in particular.

Working out and watching movies and TV only took up so much of his time, particularly since most of what he watched he had already seen in the future. Xander found himself spending more and more of his time reading, something he had really started to do for enjoyment the summer between his junior and senior years in high school.

The suite had an extensive library; and once it was discovered that Harris liked reading, the shelves were updated frequently by his hosts.

There were still tensions between Xander and his hosts, though. Because the former demon slave was sticking to his guns on not revealing any more of the future than he had to.

And his hosts tried just as hard to find out as much as they could. There had been several heated discussions over it, with neither side backing down...

At times Xander felt as if the entire weight of the U.S. government was concentrating on him, trying to get him to play fortuneteller for them. 'Course, this wasn't true, but certain things were not visible to Xander from his vantage point.

He couldn't see the U.S. intelligence community able to reorient itself to examine the al-Qaeda network, much more closely than it had before. A massive amount of resources were already dedicated to the task of tracking and trying to second-guess the terrorist organization.

And he couldn't see his hosts starting to learn as much as they could about the world of the supernatural, like what it was and how to deal with it, without going into complete denial over not being at the top of the food chain anymore.

Harris also couldn't see them strive to obtain, or to put it more bluntly steal, information about the supernatural from those in the know. This included orders for their operatives within the Council, to obtain copies of the diaries of the Watchers known as Rupert Giles and Wesley Wyndham-Pryce.

He couldn't even see his hosts inheriting the resources of the Initiative, such as the demon-hunter commandos he remembered. Which included several people that Xander would have recognized, such as Riley Finn, Graham Miller and Forrest Gates. As even if they *could* get a few good men like that trio, Xander couldn't be around them if he wanted to avoid the mind-splitting headaches; the unavoidable consequences what came from trying to reconcile different memories of someone, with two separate histories.

Xander Harris now felt like he was someone watching a play, that was happening while hidden behind a curtain. He could hear quite a bit, but couldn't actually see anything.

He could tell that his refusal to share more information about the future was frustrating the hell out of his captors. So the guy wasn't too surprised when one morning, instead of the professors, Cleburne had shown up. What *had* surprised him was that Cleburne had told him to get his coat, that they were going on a field trip.

A short plane ride later, Xander found himself on the grounds of a think tank in Urbana, Illinois. And Xander knew it was Urbana, only from some of the road signs he had seen on the drive from the airport.

"You finish that book I gave you?" Cleburne suddenly asked him, they entered the building. The security detail tagged along, silent and watchful like the guard dogs they were.

"Yeah, finished reading it a few nights ago." Xander had been surprised when Cleburne had given him the book called "The Proteus Operation". The secret agent surely hadn't struck him as a science fiction fan.

Still, it was something new to read. Xander had become a little uneasy though, in that it had been a story of time travelers from a 1974 United States about to be invaded by Nazi Germany, going back to 1938 to change the course of World War 2.

< Trying to be subtle? Not exactly your strong point, Cleburne... > "You want a book report on it, or something?"

"Not me. Maybe from the wizard."

Xander looked quizzically at him. "Wizard?"

"Yeah, kid, it was his idea for you to read the book." They got onto an elevator, and rode it up a few stories. "Today, we pull back the curtain a little bit and you see the wizard behind the big operation. You have read "The Wizard of Oz", haven't you?"

Xander shook his head. "Saw the movie a few times." Another of his soured childhood memories of Willow.

Cleburne chuckled. ", you get to play the role of Dorothy."

"Really? You mean I click my shoe heels three times saying there's no place like home, and I finally get to be free of you?" Xander smirked at the chance to score a point off the man.

A frown met that jibe from Xander. "Okay, maybe not Dorothy, more like...the scarecrow."

They exited the elevator and walked down a hallway to a door that read 'Dr. Hollins'. Cleburne opened the door, and motioned for Xander to go in. "Into the Wizard's lair..." The security detail stayed in the hallway, as Cleburne followed Xander in.

It was a big, long office. A desk was set up at the far end, with a couch and some chairs opposite it. A computer workstation was next to it, upon which a small boy could be seen working on the computer.

< Probably the Wizard's kid, > Xander thought to himself grouchily, quickly dismissing the boy from his immediate concerns.

A conference table was set up at the other end of the room, with a portable chalkboard behind it. The chalkboard had some complex mathematical equation on it. A picture window was opposite the chalkboard.

Cleburne took off his windbreaker, hanging it up and doing the same for Xander's heavier coat. The agent then walked along the room to where the desk was, and sat down in one of the chairs.

Xander followed him, and did likewise. "How long do ya think we'll have to wait for this wizard of yours?"

Cleburne didn't answer, he just smiled at Xander.

"Mr. Harris, I'm very pleased to meet you. I'm Dr. Irving Hollins..."

Xander turned around at the sound of the piping voice addressing him. He found himself forced to look down in surprise, when he realized the prepubescent child at the workstation had approached him and was the one talking. "Say what?"

"I'm Dr. Hollins. I'm the one you're here to see."

Xander looked back at Cleburne. < Real funny, trying to pull a crappy joke like this... > He glared at his companion, "Don't you have enough to do nowadays, without something as pointless as this?"

Cleburne just grinned back at him. "Xander Harris, meet the Wizard!" A low chuckle escaped from his mouth. "Freaked the hell out of me too, the first time I met him. But believe me, he's on the up and up!"

Xander looked at Irving Hollins, and for some reason...he instantly started to get suspicious. Another little souvenir, of his old sojourn into Hell. < Assume nothing. Presume nothing. Take nothing for granted... > "I see a ten-year-old child."

"Eleven," Hollins responded.


"I'm 11 years old, Mr. Harris. I also assure you that no one is pulling your leg, as you no doubt suspect. I am the one tasked with reviewing and interpreting the data that you have provided. Thus I felt it would be best to facilitate the free flow of information, if we met in person. To that end, I asked that arrangements be made for you to be brought here for an exchange of views." Hollins stood in front of Xander during his monologue, with his hands clasped in front of him.

Xander got even more suspicious. < No normal 11-year-old kid talks like that... > He then looked at Cleburne, who just seemed disappointed no more disbelieving remarks were being voiced.

Hollins continued on, "I'm what is described in certain circles as, well, gifted. A prodigy. My mental faculties are developed to the point where I actually have several postgraduate degrees in a number of subjects. I also have the ability to see patterns from large amounts of information, and make deductions that allow action to be taken in a timely manner."

< Oh my freakin' God. It's like Giles and Willow had a love child... and that is going to a *really* scary mental place! > Xander just stared at Hollins, maintaining his silence.

Cleburne started talking, "Thing is, Harris; the wizard here, up until your little appearance on the scene, was like the crown jewels of STW. He's basically what gives us an edge over the bad guys. His IQ tests out to almost 200. Don't ever bother playing chess against him, and there isn't a crossword puzzle around that he can't solve in under 15 minutes."

"STW?" Xander managed to ask.

Hollins answered him, "Siberian Trip Wire. It's the name of the organization that you feel is holding you prisoner. The people in it back in the 1950's, named it so since they were watching the Russians and were rather isolated from the government they served. The in-joke was that being assigned to the organization, was like being sent to a gulag in that part of the USSR..."

Xander remembered the cold he had just walked through. "I can see why the 'Siberia' part would fit with the weather around here."

"Mr. Harris, I assure you, it's not that cold outside," Hollins reached over and shook Xander's hand. He then walked, and sat down behind the desk. "Although since you're a native of California, I can understand why you wouldn't be used to the climate here in Illinois. I, on the other hand, was born and raised in Chicago, where this type of weather is just a run-up to the big cold when winter arrives full-force."

Cleburne suppressed a laugh, as Hollins looked at him. "I wouldn't laugh too much if I were you, Joshua. I've been told that you weren't too fond of the cold either, at first. South Carolina, although not southern California, is not exactly home to too may blizzards. I see no point in you having too much fun at Mr. Harris' expense."

Cleburne actually looked slightly ashamed at Hollins' reproach. He turned towards Xander and shrugged. "Sorry, kid."

Xander was shocked, although there was no outward sign of it. < This guy has been in everyone's face ever since I met him, and it takes an 11-year-old kid to make him apologize? >

Hollins sighed, and turned his attention back to Xander. "As you may have guessed, several issues have arisen that make it necessary for me to meet you in person. In particular, your determination to try and limit the information about the future that you provide to us. Now, you are quite correct to be worried over the possibility that trying to change said future, can lead to potentially apocalyptic problems. Your example of the accidental killing of a child destined to become a President who avoids a nuclear war, was one that very nicely illustrates the point."

"So I *was* being taped back in San Francisco."

"Yes, you were, and the practice has been continued for all of your debriefings to date. I have viewed them all." Hollins turned to Cleburne. "Has he read the book I sent?"

"He tells me he has."

Hollins turned back to Xander. "Mr. Harris, may I ask; what did you notice about Mr. Hogan's work?"

It took Xander a second or two to figure what Hollins was referring to. Then he remembered the book "The Proteus Operation" had been written by a James Hogan. "What did you *want* me to notice?" < Better be careful here, the super-genius is up to something... > Xander's spider-sense tingled.

"Many things, actually. But most of all I was wondering if you'd noticed how the travelers from 1974 dealt with the situation they found themselves in, when they got to 1938?"

"I did. But I'm not sure that what you read in science fiction can be translated into this real-life situation." Xander said with more than a trace of sarcasm in his voice.

Xander heard Cleburne shuffling in the chair next to him, as Hollins smiled. "Joshua has probably taken offense to that statement, as I believe he bases most of his personal philosophy on one of Robert Heinlein's books. I must disagree as well; sometimes, fiction can be used to illustrate real-life dilemmas and possible solutions to them very nicely."

< And I always pegged Cleburne as more of a "Soldier of Fortune"-type guy. > "Let's cut to the chase; you're going to try to persuade me to come clean about everything what's coming, a few years down the road?"

Cleburne smiled a wide, shark-like grin. "How ever did you guess?"

Xander just turned and stared impassively at him, and then gestured towards Hollins; Cleburne lost his amused look, as he clearly read the unspoken threat five-by-five. "Don't even think it..." he snarled.

Harris smiled like a jungle predator in return. "It's supposed to be a free country here, Cleburne. You telling me what or what not to think? That's kinda hypocritical..."

Hollins sighed, as the two older men glared at each other. "And they call *me* a child..."

Cleburne didn't say anything, he just kept glaring at Xander. Suddenly Harris remembered something Marcum had told him, when he had first met her in San Francisco. She had been describing Cleburne's character, < It's when he's not barking that you really have to watch out for him. >

Xander sensed that trying to harm Hollins would cross some line, and Cleburne would react without restraint. < Loyalty to his people. An admirable trait. If only Buffy and the others had followed that philosophy a few years back... >

Hollins noticed the silent interplay between the two older men. < The testosterone factor in this room is suffocating. God help me, when *I* have to go through puberty! Better step in, before they start growling at each other like a pair of Dobermans... >

"Gentlemen. Let's stand down and remember why we're all here?" He turned to the oldest in the room. "Joshua, as much as I appreciate your protective instincts, I fully believe that Mr. Harris would not actually do any harm to myself. Deep down, don't you as well?"

Hollins then turned to the teenager, on paper but nowhere else, in the room. "And Mr. Harris, if for some odd reason I have misjudged you, which I sincerely doubt, and you do attempt to harm me...I assure you that Mr. Cleburne's skills are such that you would quickly regret it in ways that you can't even imagine."

< I don't know about that. My little holiday in that hell dimension expanded my imagination a *lot* when it came to pain and suffering, > Xander thought as he stared at the older of the trio. But after a few seconds Xander relaxed, and Cleburne quickly followed suit. "I'm still not telling you everything. The risks are too great."

Hollins reached over, and picked up a hardback book that was on his desk. "The travelers from 1974 found that the history they had prepared themselves for was changed, in small amounts agreed, but changed nonetheless..."

Xander saw the title of the book, and sure enough it was "The Proteus Operation". The child genius went on, "Also, the resulting future was not the one they'd envisioned. They had expected to give nuclear devices to Britain and France in 1939, so as to crush Nazi Germany then. But it didn't work out that way."

Hollins played with the book for a few seconds, then put it back down. "They also learned that the information they had quickly became outdated, as the world changed around them. They were even taken by surprise by Pearl Harbor."

"I'm still not seeing how this will get me to change my mind," Xander observed.

"Just because you went through *a* possible future, don't assume that everything will play out exactly the same as you expect it will," Hollins continued on. "Those travelers changed history in small ways, that then cascaded into bigger changes. Remember how their changing a few words in a speech delayed the start of World War 2 by several days? Well, you've done that already."

"Delayed World War 2?" Xander quipped.

"No, eliminated at least three end-of-the-world scenarios. And who knows how many other things have been changed by your actions? You've already started the chain of events. Where it ends, you really can't be sure anymore."

"And there is that concern of the *other*," Cleburne added.

Hollins nodded, "You yourself admitted there is another party out there, who seems able to change history also. Consider the events of your senior year in high school. Everything changed, and not by your hand. I suspect its purpose is not all friendly. We have to consider the possibility that it possesses superior knowledge of the future. We could wind up facing a superior enemy, with inferior information."

"As opposed to inadvertently blowing up the world, and causing it to end?" Xander replied. "You don't understand, you would just wind up messing things up worse. The road to Hell..."

"Is paved with good intentions, true enough," Hollins finished the saying for Xander. "And Mr. Harris, I assure you that I am one of the few people on the planet who *does* fully understand the potential for drastic consequences, if your information is misapplied. As you can see, I have been refreshing myself on quantum physics ever since you came to my attention." He pointed at the chalkboard, with its long complex formula on it.

"I understand that the potential exists for causal blowback, from everything we do. Do you know there is some discussion within STW, to allow the plane attacks on September 11th to proceed unimpeded? So as to ensure that disaster does not strike, further down the line. Consider for example if the next Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray, is destined to die there..."

Hollins looked directly at Xander. "But either way, are you comfortable with letting all those people die, due to a potential worry?"

The ex-soldier shifted uncomfortably. Philosophical discussions were one thing, but having thousands of lives rest on your decision was something else entirely. < It sucks, big-time. > An internal dialogue took place in his head for a second, as the soldier memories spoke to him. < Losses happen. People die. Can't be helped, during a war. >

Other internal voices raised an objection to this, though. He couldn't do that; he couldn't just stand aside and let the forces of evil kill all those people, anymore than he could walk away knowing what Maggie Walsh, Glory and the others had been planning. Granted that had been different, but he hadn't worried much about destroying the future then...

Hollins watched Xander, guessing what he was thinking. "If it makes you feel any better, we haven't taken any overt actions yet with the information you've given us about the terrorist attacks - for that very reason. We definitely do not want to do anything, without assessing all the possible consequences first."

Xander finished up his internal debate and reached a decision. "What do you suggest?"

"Unlike Joshua here, I don't want everything. For example, I have no desire to know who wins the Presidential election next year."

Xander snorted, surprising his companions. "Trust me, that's just as well. So what *do* you want?"

"Just be more forthcoming. Allow us, or more accurately, allow *me* to worry about the blowback. I have enough authority within STW that I can promise you, no actions will be taken without your input and agreement; and no one will gainsay me on that."

Cleburne frowned at that. "Irving?" he said with hesitation.

"Joshua, please, I know what I'm doing. Mr. Harris can help us evaluate his own information, since he alone truly knows what happened as a result of it. Can you think of a better person to help interpret such info?"

Hollins turned back to Xander. "What I propose is that as to the terrorist actions of 2001 and their results, you be completely forthcoming. This would also be true as to any other terrorist activities you can remember. You and I, along with some others, will review the information - with an eye towards tailoring a response that engenders minimal risks for temporal fallout."

"And the more information you give him, kid, the better. He's a wizard at figuring out the big picture, with a whole bunch of little pictures to work from. He's the one who figured out that you were still alive," Cleburne nodded at Hollins.

Hollins shrugged his shoulders a little, as Harris turned and stared. "It made sense. It simply was not logical to me that someone with detailed knowledge of the future would die in such a manner, at an event that was preordained that way. Nothing about you has ever made me think you're suicidal. Once that was established, finding you simply came down to good old-fashioned detective work."

Xander felt a flash of anger at the prepubescent sitting in front of him. So, *he* was the one responsible for this current situation? Xander masked his feelings though, with the aid of the 'lessons' he had learned as a slave.

But still, Hollins regarded him with an upraised eyebrow. "You should be aware that the Watchers Council also knew you were still alive, from the fact they sent some magically-inclined operatives to the site of your 'death', almost immediately afterwards with the intention of performing a hostile seance."

Xander was confused. "Hostile seance?"

"In effect, your soul was to be captured into an Orb of Thesulah and held there, pending long-term interrogation. When they attempted the spell though, the mages discovered that your essence had not left its mortal coil and you were still alive. This was quickly relayed to the Council, and from there it leaked out to all those others. This was a few days after I came to my conclusions, though. So even without me, you would still be a hunted man today."

Xander muttered under his breath, "Goddamned bastards..."

Hollins regarded him with a look of understanding. "I agree, the Watchers Council has always struck me as somewhat callous and cold in their attitudes to anyone who wasn't one of them. Even their treatment of the Slayer is shocking; the ritual they make the girl go through if she lives to turn 18 years old, is in my opinion quite barbaric and pointless. We're not prepared to do anything like to you; we just want your help to stop bad things. But, we want it willingly. So will you help us?"

Xander thought about the kid's case for a few seconds. He then nodded his head, "Agreed. What else?"

"The same would hold true for the supernatural aspect of your knowledge. There, you seem to have eliminated all the current world-ending threats. There appears to be less chance of blowback there from giving us information. Also, that is the area we are facing immediate threats from."

Hollins pointed at Cleburne, "I suspect that Joshua here would very much like to know why Cleveland seems to be demanding more and more of his attention, lately."

"Well, that and John McCain."

Both Hollins and Xander looked at Cleburne after that remark. The boy chuckled, "You'll have to forgive Joshua. He is a little upset that the only graduate of Annapolis to ever become President was Jimmy Carter."

"Damn straight. West Point had Eisenhower and Grant. The academy only had one, and that was the peanut farmer to boot!"

Xander thought for a second, then smiled mischievously. < Guess I can twist his tail a little bit, without causing too many problems. > "Sorry dude, still holding that one close to the vest." The cursing from Cleburne brought a smile to Xander's face, as he faced Hollins again. "So, what, I move in with you now?"

"No, although I will be present more often. I'll pop into the site you're staying at on a regular basis. My understanding is that they're about to alter your living arrangements somewhat, due to security concerns."

Cleburne shrugged apologetically. "Sorry kid, but you stay in one place too long, everyone falls into a routine. Complacency gets people killed. We shakes things up every once in a while, and it's better all around."

Xander sighed. < My life truly sucks. But something good should come out of it for somebody, even if I don't know who. > He turned to Cleburne, "We'll go into details later, but I want different facilities this time. No more watchdog spy house mates. And I want my own personal weapons back."

Cleburne looked ready to pop a blood vessel. "No way in-"

"Agreed," Hollins overruled him.

"No," Cleburne stated, turning to face Hollins. "We learned the hard way, with the Soviet bloc defectors. Someone needs to be there with him. He can't just be left alone, and a big fat juicy target for anyone who wants to take a shot at grabbing him. There *has* to be assets for protection on-site."

"I want some privacy. I don't need a sitter every goddamn moment of the day. No watchdogs."

Cleburne faced Xander again. "Kid, privacy is one thing, but do you want wake up one morning to learn the many different uses the Chinese or French have for electricity? 'Cause that's what will happen. There are worse things out there than us. And without protection, they'll get you."

Hollins regarded Cleburne for a few seconds. "An arrangement can be made. Security can be balanced with Mr. Harris' desires. I can certainly understand them, in light of my own living arrangements."

Hollins faced Xander. "Joshua is right that there does need to be some protection. As a man with a military background, I have no doubts that you understand that too. However, we'll do it in such a way so as not to be as onerous as the current situation. And we will of course return your weapons."

"Wait a minute..." Cleburne tried to interject.

"His weapons will be returned. For self-defense, if nothing else," Hollins said forcefully to Cleburne. "He's supposed to be an ally, Joshua, not a POW to be interrogated without mercy. As you yourself said in San Francisco, we're asking him to trust us. And trust is - has to be - a two-way street."

"Trust but verify as Reagan used to say. Trust has to be earned, not given," Cleburne sulkily replied.

"True enough. But if you insist on starting down that road - consider the fact with his treatment thus far, Mr. Harris has more reason to disseminate disinformation rather than to help us. Look, *someone* has to make first positive move. Consider it a criminal order if you must, but new arrangements will be made."

Xander smiled, while Cleburne fumed helplessly. Then the ex-slave shrugged, figuring he might as well start sharing now. "It's a Hellmouth."

The other two in the room looked at Xander in incomprehension. Cleburne spoke first. "What?"

"Cleveland has a Hellmouth underneath it. That's why all the things that go bump in the night, seem to show up there. Just like in Sunnydale."

Hollins looked at Xander intently. "What's a Hellmouth, exactly?"

Xander suddenly got a big grin on his face. < Forgive me, G-man... > "This world is older than you know..."


Los Angeles, California. December, 1999

Angel stalked the streets of the city that night, keeping an eye out for trouble. He'd patrolled a little bit more often than usual, lately. It helped relieve the stress from the last few weeks, at least a little.

Buffy appearing in Los Angeles followed by the encounter with the Mohra demon, Doyle dying and Cordy getting the visions, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce showing up in town...

And those were the things he could share with the others. His main worry right now, was that he still hadn't heard anything from Xander.

It had been almost five weeks since the ex-Scooby would have arrived in San Francisco, promising to keep in touch by email. But not a word had come since then.

Angel knew he had almost driven Cordelia insane, asking her to check the email account every five minutes. As the vampire knew that Xander probably wouldn't call, since he didn't want his former girlfriend recognizing his voice.

And God knew she was really getting curious as to who this Alexander Hall truly was. She kept asking questions, that Angel somehow kept ducking. Because as far as she knew, Xander was dead; and he wanted to keep it that way, since that would mean less chance of anyone else finding out.

Of course, it also meant that the ensouled vamp had no one to help out in the search for Xander. The problem was that Angel just couldn't up and leave LA to go looking. Wolfram & Hart had to be monitored at all times, for one thing...

All of a sudden, Angel saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Disappearing down an alley like a ghost, he waited calmly for a few moments; then the undead hero jumped the guy that was following him.

The Bavarian fighting axe fell from his hands, as the human stared at the vampire. The champion for the Powers just muttered, "Now, just what did you think you were doing?"

Wesley Wyndham-Pryce shrugged. "A rogue demon-hunter like myself? Watching your back in the fight against evil, of course..."

Angel would have sighed, if he were human. < Xander, I *really* hope you knew what you were talking about, when you said Wes has potential here... >

Wesley only helped the situation a little bit. Because although he helped out with the evil fighting, he surely complicated the whole missing Scooby scene.

Wes definitely could not be told that Xander had survived that blast wave; the way Cordelia could manipulate human men, she would find out almost at once. And then, at worst, she might try to stake him for hiding the fact her ex-boyfriend was still alive and kicking!

Cordy might tell Buffy and the Scoobies that Xander was still around too. That might not be the worst thing in the world to have happen. Angel had been planning on trying to convince Xander to reconcile with his former friends, once he could be near them without having life-threatening headaches...

That was still a few years off, but if for some reason the Scoobies learned early, maybe they would be more inclined to understand Xander's situation. Still, Angel hesitated to involve them in the search for Xander; they wouldn't knowingly harm their friend, but...

< The odds are the Council would find out, as most likely they've got all of them there under surveillance. And the Watchers sure as hell would not feel the same way I do about this! They'd regard Xander as nothing more than a commodity to be exploited... >

There was yet another possibility; old habits died hard. Wesley, even though no longer employed by the Council, might feel the need to relay that vital piece of information back to merrie olde England.

Angel mused to himself, not knowing that the Watchers actually knew more about the situation than he did, < Yeah, both Cordy and Wes are definitely out. I need an outsider, someone I can trust and who's discreet. Damn it, if only Doyle hadn't died on that ship! He'd be the perfect choice to go find Xander... >

So for now, he searched by remote control, doing what he could without leaving Los Angeles. But with Wesley now here, maybe he could shake free for a few days to head up to San Francisco, see if he could pick up the trail...

Angel then watched as Wesley bent down and picked up the Bavarian fighting axe. And as he was straightening back up, the axe slipped from his hands again. < Then again, maybe leaving Wes to mind the store isn't such a good idea. Perhaps the Oracles might know something, about what to do? >


London, England. December 30, 1999

Quentin Travers strode through the corridors of the Watchers Council's headquarters on Great Russell Street with his usual arrogant attitude. He arrived at his destination, and quickly entered the room without bothering to knock.

The Watcher looked over the occupants of the room, and then quickly dismissed them. His gaze turned to the pile of items that were sitting upon a table in the middle of the room. "Do you have everything you need?"

"Yes, sir. The materials from Sunnydale should enable us to successfully carry out the spell..." The man who replied then looked around at the others in the room. He continued on with some hesitation, "Sir, you should know that we might have to cast the spell several times, to refine it down to a level where we can act. And even then, it will take us a period of time to complete the process..."

"I already know all that!" Travers snapped at him. "Just do what you have to do, and do it as quickly as possible. Enough time has been wasted already! Alexander Harris has been on the loose for far too long. That situation needs to be remedied, at once! He needs to be put under proper supervision; and so unless you want to be transferred to Reykjavik, Iceland, you better find him soon..."

Part Three

Los Angeles, California. March, 2000

Angel advanced cautiously towards his target, taking his time and keeping his eyes and ears open. He mused to himself, < I swear, I'm *really* not sure about this... > The one and only vampire with a soul then looked around, not seeing anyone.

The former Angelus had had a difficult three months or so. Angel had been meaning to continue his hunt for Xander, he really had; but the life of a Champion is never easy, and something or another always seemed to pop up and distract him.

Not long after he and Wesley had had their little scuffle in the alley, his childe Penn had shown up in town. The shared dreams had started, and Penn had tried to go on a killing spree, before he'd been stopped with aid of a wooden two-by-four and an almost-deranged lady cop.

Then Cordelia had lost her virginity to a human male who had impregnated her with seven infant demons, and she'd woken up the next day 9 months pregnant. Luckily, he and Wesley had killed the Hacksaw Beast father, and saved her life before she'd given birth along with the other surrogate mothers. After that had come the other-dimensional "space princess" called Jhiera, and the slavemasters who were after her hide. Again luckily, he had kicked ass and warned them not to bring their war into *his* city, or he'd kill them all.

Then had come the Ethros demon, the drug-trafficking demons, himself ending up a gladiator in a slave prizefighting ring, as well as that stupid actress that had wanted him to turn her and unwittingly unleashed Angelus for a short time...

It was damn lucky that while under the influence of those drugs, his evil alter ego hadn't told his friends the news that Xander was still alive. Fortunately, there hadn't been enough time; besides...the vampire had been too busy anticipating how much he'd enjoy crucifying Wes and raping Cordelia, and *then* spilling the beans to those two - just to see the looks on their faces...

That was why Angel had finally broken down, and gone to see the Oracles about his search for the man now with STW. And the pair had been annoying in their usual way, although they'd become skittish once they'd realized what he had come to them for.

Angel remembered the conversation perfectly. The male Oracle had looked at him and said in deep annoyance, "You, yet again?"

The female had then added, "What have you brought us this time?"

Angel had subsequently thrown over an expensive piece of crystal, with a slight flaw in its center. One that, from a certain point of view...very much resembled a hyena. "Zarlythian crystal. Circa the Murshan Dynasty."

"Lovely. As always," the sister Oracle murmured appreciatively.

"Thanks, but I need help. Help to find a lost soul," Angel had then gotten straight to the point.

"Who is this soul of whom you speak, lower being?" the brother had brusquely demanded.

Angel had then taken in a deep, unnecessary breath. "His name is Xander Harris."

The duo had quickly looked at each other in alarm. "He speaks of the lost warrior. The one lost in time, and space, and meaning..." the woman had said nervously.

The Oracles had then refused to tell him anything very helpful. Only that Angel couldn't leave Los Angeles to find his old acquaintance; that he had his own path to follow, just as the former Zeppo did.

However, they had sent him to this abandoned warehouse to tell the people he'd meet there, to go to another place. That the one he sought would need help there. That he couldn't give it; it had to be the humans he would seek out. That was Angel all he could get from the Greek-looking duo; and giventhe circumstances, it would have to do.

The vampire walked into the deserted building. "Hello? Anyone here?" Angel called out, only to be greeted by silence. "Great, they sent me on some kind of wild goose chase?" he muttered to himself. < I should go back and really tear those so-called higher beings a new one... >

At that moment, he heard the faint rustling of someone moving, coming from near the doorway at the other end of the room. Angel looked across and saw a small figure starting to run away.

"Wait!" the Champion called out, and started to run after the child with vamp speed. Angel could now see it was young woman, "I don't want to hurt you! I just want to talk-"

Angel was so intent on following her, he almost didn't hear the creak in the floor behind him. But luckily at the last moment, Angel sensed that he was under attack, and started to react. He jumped with not a second to spare, and avoided being hit full-on by a huge crossbow bolt that was hurled towards him, receiving only a glancing blow.

The Dark Avenger was knocked off balance enough that he couldn't effectively respond though, when a man popped out of the shadows and quickly tackled Angel. The momentum knocked the ensouled vamp to the ground at once. He tried to get up, but was knocked right back down again.

"Stay down, you!" growled the young black man who had tackled him.

Angel could suddenly see several others emerge, from various hiding places throughout the warehouse. All of them looked to be teenagers, or even younger. But nonetheless, they were all armed with various stakes, swords and axes.

"Hey, get off me! I'm just looking for someone-" the undead dude who loved Barry Manilow started to say.

His captor didn't seem to care much. "Yeah, right, and who's that?"

"You. I think? Look, I was told to come talk to whoever was here. And right now, I'm guessing that's you?"

The man who had tackled Angel just looked at him for a few seconds, with a skeptical air. Then his eyes narrowed in anger, as the bald black man's face shifted to an expression of hatred. "Shit!! He's not breathing. It's a goddamn vampire!!! Somebody, gimme a stake!"

"No, wait a minute!" Angel protested vainly, as one of the teenagers ran forward with a wooden stake.

Seeing his protests weren't getting anywhere and his un-life was now in danger, the vamp reluctantly shoved really hard, and forced the man looking to stake him back a few feet. Angel rolled over and jumped to his feet, assuming a fighting stance. "Look, I don't want to fight you..." "Too bad, whitebread," said the man who'd attacked him. "'Cause I wanna stake your ass, and fighting's the way to do it!" He lunged with the stake, and with a clever feint Angel dodged to the left. The others in the room started cheering the attacker on...

Angel tried to get through to them. "Please! I'm just looking for a friend!"

"Well, you've got no friends here!" was the growled response.

Angel danced back but didn't retaliate, as his attacker swung again at him. "I can tell that, already. But I was told you or somebody here could help that friend!" Angel's hand went to his pocket, where he had the picture of Xander he had brought.

"Really? Now, why would *we* help any friend of a damn bloodsucker? And a white middle-class one, at that?"

Another swing. Angel again dodged, only this time he didn't see the leg sweep until it was too late. He tumbled to the ground, the picture in his hand falling onto the ground. The attacker followed up with a few quick kicks to Angel's side, enjoying himself just a little *too* much.

Angel rolled away, and jumped back up. He then blocked the succession of blows that were thrown at him and shouted, "Come on! The guy needs help! And I can't give it to him!" Angel was getting frustrated. "You've got to help him. Please..."

"You givin' me orders!? Now that's rich, even if you weren't already dead..." Another punch that was blocked, then one that got through. The vampire couldn't help it; Angel's face vamped out at the pain and anger.

The black man then got a feral grin on his face, "Look at you now, all fang-y. Not that it matters none, but just for the record? You wasted your time comin' here, with the big speech. 'Cause any friend of a vampire is someone we don't want to help-"

"Gunn!!!" Angel's attacker jumped at the shout of the black girl, who the vampire saw had been the one he'd initially chased. She had picked up the picture that Angel had dropped in the fight. "Look at this, big brother!"

"Busy now, Alonna. Talk to me *after* I make this thing all ash-y!"

"Not yet. He's got a picture of Army Guy!"

The one that called Gunn looked intensely at Angel, and suddenly stopped moving. "All right, you got five seconds. What have you done with Harris?" he growled at Angel.

Angel was surprised at those words, as his face turned human again. "Huh. You actually know Xander?"

Gunn and the other homeless kids looked confused. "Xander? We don't know any Xander, white man..." Gunn glanced at the photo his sister showed him. "This here is Harris. Stand-offish, but we owe him. Soldier boy took out anest of vamps for us 'bout 13 months ago, then he disappeared and ain't no one seen him since."

Angel nodded, that had been about the time the former Scooby had shown up in Sunnydale. "He goes by Xander now. How well do you know him?"

Gunn sneered, all attitude. "Now, why should I answer your question?"

"'Cause I think he's in trouble. I've known him ever since he was in high school. Xander was supposed to contact me five months ago, but he never did. I can't leave LA to find him, and I'm thinking he needs help. In other words, you guys."

"I don't know..."

Angel continued on, as Gunn's face screwed up in doubt, "Look, I got this from some people who were pretty vague on the details, but they've never given me false info before. Please. If you want, don't do it for me - do it for him."

"He's that important to you? You go help him then," Gunn had relaxed just a little bit, still he was on guard in case something went south.

Angel shrugged. "I already told you - I want to, but I can't; *someone* has to fight the good fight here in LA."

Gunn looked at Angel with skepticism. "A vampire, fightin' the good fight? I think you got your wires crossed somewhere on the wrong side of reality here, bro. You're on the dark side of the Force; sorta comes with the being undead thing?"

Angel was starting to get impatient. "Listen to me. If I was still the evil soulless bastard I was 100 years ago, all of you would be dead right now! But I got traded to the side of the good guys a long time ago, thanks to some pissed-off gypsies. Look, I'm Angel-"

"Angel, of Angel investigations?" one of the onlookers named Bobby asked. "'Cause I heard some things on the street lately, about them being on the right side of things."

Alonna shrugged, looking somewhat surprised. "I heard that on the street too..." She turned to her brother; a living woman who would be dead right now, if not for Xander staking the vampire called Knox all those months ago. "Gunn, I'm not saying trust the bloodsucker, but we owe Harris. If Army Guy's in deep shit, we gotta help out," she said in response to Gunn's questioning look.

The Gunnster turned back. "All right, assumin' you're on the level. What exactly does Harris need?"

Angel sighed, < I hope the Oracles know what they're doing... > and started to tell Gunn what he needed to do.


Chattanooga, Tennessee. A week later

Xander patiently cooked his own breakfast. Growing up as the son of two drunks, he had learned to cook for himself early on in life. He actually enjoyed it. It forced him to slow down, and make sure things were done right. Kinda like carpentry had been for him, in another world that now only he remembered.

The young man pondered for a second, the memories of the 'past future' - as he had taken to calling it. There were some good memories there. Pride in the job he'd had in construction. His engagement to Anya. The friendships he'd had. Those memories were much more pleasant than the ones he had now, of this new world that had been made.

Not that the old ones had been all peachy, of course. There had been more than enough heartache in them for any sane man to endure.

Jesse being turned, Kendra getting killed, Cordelia never really forgiving him for Willow, Joyce's death, Buffy's sacrifice, his leaving Anya at the altar, Tara's murder, his losing an eye at Caleb's hands, and Anya's subsequent death while fighting the Bringers...

Xander was hoping to change what he could in this new 'virgin territory', as Cleburne had taken to calling the future that was developing now. He knew some things had changed already. Warren Mears wasn't around to kill Tara now; and he had left a time-delayed letter for Giles, that also included information about Joyce's condition. He hoped that would be enough.

The former slave had told Hollins and STW about Caleb. He didn't know if they had found the demented preacher yet, or even if he had become tainted that way by the First at this time. But the former soldier had gotten a promise that nothing would be done about Caleb, without telling him first.

Because Xander Harris wanted to be there, when Caleb was...dealt with. He had missed out on that opportunity originally, and he didn't intend to miss it a second time.

He had been able to get that promise, as a result of that meeting in December when he had first met the Wizard, a.k.a. Dr. Irving Hollins. And the freer flow of information both ways had borne fruit.

Cleburne was happy, when the first tidbit he could act on arrived. It was the plot to bomb LAX on New Year's Day, 2000, by al-Qaeda. STW, knowing it had been coming and that the materials would be smuggled down from Canada, had been able to intercept it quite easily.

Well, actually, it was perfectly set up to react when a customs official had discovered the bomb materials in a random search of a vehicle at the border.

Just as in the original history. Nothing had been changed. The fear of altering the timeline too early was firmly recognized by the Wizard, andthose he worked for. Nothing overt was being done to ensure that history proceeded along more-or-less the same lines as before, until the time was right.

Xander stirred the eggs, while keeping an eye on the sausage as it sizzled. Siberian Trip Wire had kept the promises made by Hollins. Security was less onerous than before. He didn't have those asshole 'house mates' anymore shadowing his every move, although he knew that they were still nearby. His weapons had been returned to him. And the training facilities were much more complete than they previously had been.

Also, the facilities were better overall. Xander had been moved after the meeting in Illinois, and it turned out he had been living in what STW used to house defectors and the like in. It was comfortable enough; but then again long-term occupancy had not been the intended purpose of the apartment.

Now, Xander was undergoing a tour of medium-sized cities of the southeastern United States. Every month or so, he was transported to a new site. The lodgings were those used by STW for their own operatives. The comfort and longevity levels were, accordingly, higher.

The first place he had moved to was a beachfront house near Charleston, in South Carolina. It would have been nice staying some month besides January. Then it had been a house in an exclusive suburb in Birmingham, Alabama. Now he was in a studio apartment in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Xander wasn't quite sure why he was being limited to the Old South. When he asked the question of Cleburne all he got in reply was a chuckle and the statement, "Hey, you go with what you're comfortable with. Besides, do you really want to spend January in someplace like Anchorage, Alaska?"

To which Xander had to concede the point. Even though it still felt damned cold to the southern California native, he knew it was far worse further north. Xander did, however, slowly find himself getting used to it. He even managed to go jogging, with a companion of course, without freezing to death. The jogging was part of his training regimen.

The training had been paying off for Xander in other ways. He now had access to most of the same training facilities that the STW operatives used. Using what remained of his soldier memories, his hand-to-hand combat skills had progressed to the point where he was not totally embarrassed in sparring with his minders. Although those men had been astonished at his reflex speed...

Well, when an seven-foot-tall demon often kicks or punches at you to start working harder in Hell, you learn what you can to try to get out of the way.

His marksmanship was progressing nicely also. Xander was determined to be prepared this time, if and when the First made its move a few years down the road. Also, any rematch with Caleb was going to turn out *real*differently this time.

Of course, the downside of STW keeping its promises was that Xander hadbeen exposed to Cleburne's idea of a sense of humor.

The second week of January was when the first knock on the front door of the house he was staying at had come. He had encountered something he had never really had a reason to fear, before now that was.


Without fail, no matter where he was staying, once every two weeks or so Mormon missionaries visited him. They knocked on the door, were unfailingly polite, well-mannered and soft-spoken, and asked if Xander wanted to talk about converting to the Mormon church.

At first, Xander had thought it was a fluke. Then when they had also shown up in Birmingham, he'd known it wasn't a fluke. He had immediately complained to Cleburne about it, the first chance he got.

The immediate response had been another chuckle and, "Hey, kid, what do you expect? You wanted looser security, and now you got it."

At that moment, Xander had known it was Cleburne's idea of a joke. He knew Cleburne wasn't a Mormon, since he had never heard of Mormon who cussed and drank coffee and alcohol like that. But, somehow, the Mormons were the secret agent's idea.

< Well, it could be worse; those guys are never pushy and actually brought me honey a couple of times, > Xander thought, as he put the toast on his breakfast plate along with the sausage. The eggs were just about done.

Once a week or so, the 11-year-old Hollins showed up for a day-long session with Xander. Cleburne normally also attended these sessions. They usually took place wherever he was staying, although on at least two occasions he had been flown back to Urbana for the meet.

The sessions covered a variety of subjects - from the September 2001 attacks, to the world that most people refused to acknowledge existed. They were more in-depth that the other sessions he'd had.

Hollins seemed to have a method of information-gathering that careened all over the map, though. Xander recalled that at one session the child had spent over an hour quizzing him on what he had eaten on September 11th. Xander hadn't realized that he associated the details of where the hijacked planes had taken off from with Mars bars, but it turned out he did.

< Who the hell would have thought that I would associate memories with food? > Xander thought to himself as he put the eggs on his plate, not realizing the irony that anyone who had ever seen him eat would *expect*him to associate memories with food. The size of his appetite had become something of an inside joke, with those tasked with watching over him.

Xander put eggs on his breakfast plate. He looked to make sure that he had made enough. His house mates had a habit of showing up around the time he had finished cooking whatever meal it was time for. Thus, he suspected this meal would no different. Harris walked over to the breakfast table, and placed his plate down. He then walked back to the kitchen counter, picking up a coffee mug as he did. "Grub's ready." He called out, suspecting that he would be heard. "Food's done!" Then the former Sunnydalian picked up the coffeepot, ready to pour himself a cup of java.

But suddenly, the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up. The soldier memories cried out in alarm, < Danger. Danger! Danger! > Xander looked around to see the threat, but didn't see anything. He hesitantly stepped forward, still gripping the coffeepot.

There was glittering in the air, Xander noticed. It seemed to be in all corners of the room, and then it started to mass towards the center of the room. "What the..."

Xander quickly shouted, "Hey, guys! Incoming-!"

The glittering came together, and five men appeared in the center of the room. One of them, sporting a bloody nose, immediately collapsed as a second man hurried to his aid. The other three looked around the room, spotting Xander as they did so.

"There he is, get him! Quickly!" one cried out, as the other two started to flank Xander's position.

Xander backpedaled as they advanced. "Uh, people, I think you took a wrong turn at Pismo Beach. Or maybe if you back-tracked, and turned left at Albuquerque..."

The one advancing in the center spoke up. "Alexander Harris, by order of the...."

That was as far as he got, before Xander threw the coffeepot at him. The man tried to block it, but only succeeded in shattering the urn, which spilled the hot coffee on him.

He started screaming, as the scalding liquid burned him. Xander ignored it; he just turned to his right, ready to face the next attacker.

The attacker took a swing at Xander, one that he easily dodged. The man seemed a little lightheaded, though. < Probably still a little woozy, from whatever spell they used to pop in... > Xander quickly threw a punch at the guy, knocking him back against one of the counters.

"A little help here, guys!" Xander shouted out, hoping that his 'house mates' were close enough to hear him and the sounds of the struggle. He dodged the arm thrown out by the intruder he had just punched. < Maybe this whole privacy thing may have not been that good an idea? >

Xander heard a crackle to his left and jumped at the last moment, barely avoiding the taser thrust forward by the third attacker. Xander grabbed the arm and pushed him forward, the taser shocking the second assailant. Theguy jerked involuntarily at the contact of 50,000 volts and slumped back against the counter.

Xander, keeping an arm lock on the taser-holding arm, turned to see the first attacker crawling forward. "You bloody bastard!" the man muttered, betraying his English diction as he climbed to his feet.

Seeing Xander's attention momentarily distracted, the taser-bearing guy dropped the weapon and swept his leg forward to kick Xander in the back of his left knee. Xander felt his knee buckling. He released the grip on the arm, and rolled forward; the young man letting his momentum carry him out of reach of his attackers.

The newly-freed kidnapper reached down, and scooped up the taser he had dropped. He gripped the taser and advanced on Xander, with his coffee-soaked companion also advancing slowly behind him.

Xander scrambled to his feet, and assumed a combat stance. The soldier memories whispered in his head, < Great care required. Two attackers present. One will distract, while the other takes the shot. > And sure enough, the two attackers separated from each other and tried to outflank Xander.

The Xandman jockeyed a little bit, trying to keep both men off-balance so as not to be rushed by either one. < Just need to delay, the guard dogs should be here soon. But damn it, why aren't they here yet? >

The others obviously realized this also. "Hurry up!" the one on his left muttered to the other.

Xander braced himself for the next attack. When suddenly, his soldier instincts kicked in screaming a warning. < The others, the others! > Xander shifted his attention real quick.

The two men who had hung back during the fight were now approaching where Xander was. The hair on the back of his neck actually managed to stand up further, as he saw those two approach.

They certainly didn't look like operatives or soldiers. Academic types, maybe. < Caution required. Appearances are deceiving. Never underestimate the enemy, > the ghost of Soldier Guy whispered to him.

The warning proved prophetic, in the next few seconds. The one who had collapsed, still sporting a bloody nose, threw out his hands and chanted something in Latin. Xander instantly felt himself get thrown across the kitchen, hitting the wall hard.

< Damn, a warlock, witch or wizard! > Xander scrambled to his feet, his ribs aching from the impact.

The man again, after shaking his head in pain, began to bring his arms up. Xander grabbed the pan that had held the eggs, and threw it at him. The mage was too slow in dodging; the pan glanced off his left arm, and he staggered back. Unfortunately, this gave the man holding the taser the opening he had been looking for. He leaped forward before Xander, whose aching ribs were slowing him down somewhat, could react and hit the former slave with the taser.

Xander slammed back against the wall again, his body shaking in convulsions. He tried to get up, only to be hit again with the taser. The wizard hurried up and whispered another phrase in Latin.

Xander felt himself going to sleep, even as he tried to fight it. He was unsuccessful, and felt himself surrendering to the darkness as his body slumped to the floor.

The men who had attacked him hurried forward. The one who had been drenched in coffee leaned forward, and kicked the unconscious X-man. Hard.

"Damn son of a bitch. That hurt!" he growled at the helpless Xander. "Now come on, hurry up!"

Finally, the sounds of men running in from the other parts of the house could be heard clearly, as the intruders dragged Xander into the middle of the room and helped the stunned member of their group.

The door to the kitchen swung open, and two men wielding pistols came running in. "Hold it!!" the lead one shouted out.

The man who had stayed back during the fight, raised his arms and shouted out a phrase in Latin. He clapped his hands together, causing the attackers and Xander to vanish in another cloud of glitter.

The two STW operatives left behind advanced cautiously into the room. "Oh, shit," the lead agent muttered under his breath. "Cleburne's gonna string us up by the nuts for this..."


Georgetown, Washington DC. Twenty minutes later

Esther Marcum listened impatiently, as the person on the other end of phone finished up talking. The woman then snapped, "Well, I'm not that concerned RIGHT NOW about how they got in, or how they found him. What I want to know is, where is he? And how do we get him back!!"

She glared out the window, looking at the Washington skyline, the sun rising in the sky. The response took a minute or so. Marcum then said, "No idea at all? Well, it strikes me that an operation of this type had to have *some* support on the ground. They couldn't just drop out of thin air..."

There was another long response from the other end of the phone conversation. "Yes, I know that! But even though they vanished into thin air, they had to have come from somewhere and go to somewhere. What does the video feed show?" Esther stared out the window, noting a traffic helicopter slowly moving across the horizon. "You recognized none of them? Well, have you converted all the video footage for email transfer yet? Good, at least that much is done. Now email the file to Gulag at once, and we'll take a look at it..."

Mrs. Esther Marcum listened some more. "Oh, I also hope that you find something soon. Because I suspect Cleburne may not be as patient with you as I've been..." Marcum listened for a second. "Yes he knows, I talked to him just a few minutes ago. He's hopping a plane back from Gibraltar; what with flying nonstop to your location, the man should be there in a few hours. I imagine he'll want to go over everything that's happened. What? Yes, he seemed quite...disturbed at this turn of events..."

While the person on the phone started to babble, Marcum smiled to herself; Cleburne had probably used more swear words in more languages in the minute after he had learned what had happened, than most people probably even knew existed.

"Not to worry; I'm sure the fact that he's spending several hours in the back seat of an F-16 as it blasts across the Atlantic, will let him get in touch with his inner child or whatever, and make him be calm and at peace when he lands there..."

Esther then listened to the other end again, for a few more seconds. "No, just be thankful we couldn't get an SR-71 to the Rock like he wanted. At least this way, you have a little time to get your affairs in order before Hurricane Cleburne lands!"

The woman again listened to the response. "Yes, let me know what you find. I'll let Gulag know to be on the lookout for those video files!" She hung up the phone, and sighed to herself. < People popping out of thin air. What have we *really* gotten ourselves into? Things were so much simpler, when it was just the Soviets and terrorists. These new people with their special resources have made things so damned confusing... >

A mental sigh. < Better see what I can do about finding a target for Cleburne to take out his anger on, besides our own people. > Esther picked up the phone again; like the kidnappers, STW had access to some special resources of its own.

She quickly dialed a number that was definitely not available to the general public. < I had hoped to save this as our hole card, but I guess we'll have to play it right now. > "Hello, this is Siberia. We have a Black Alert. I need an emergency retasking immediately."


Unknown location

Xander Harris slowly regained consciousness, his head throbbing in pain. < Man. Why does this crap keep happening to me? I'm cursed, that's what it is... >

"Hullo, kitten. It's been such a lonnnnnnng time..." Xander focused his eyesight, at hearing the female British accent. He saw that he was sitting in the back of an armored car. His hands were handcuffed above him, to a hook in the ceiling. The vehicle was clearly moving at a fast clip, from the motion he could feel. But what really got his attention was who sitting across from him.


The nutty vampiress smiled. "You look so 'andsome and strong! I just knew I'd see you again..."

Xander shook his head, and blinked his eyes. The motion of the vehicle did not help him deal with the pain he was experiencing. < Great, now I'm imagining things. Damn nightmares... >

She leaned forward suggestively. "It's no dream, kitten. Aren't you glad to see me 'n all?"

Suddenly, Xander began to get suspicious. If this wasn't a dream - and now he didn't think it was - in the few times that he had encountered her, Dru had never acted like this. She was acting way too...


At that moment, Xander's stomach twisted when he realized who was sitting across from him. "Well, well. If it isn't the First..."

Dru/the First gave him a naughty wink. "Clever boy. Couldn't fool you, could I?"

Then the First Evil morphed into another British vampire. A male one with bleached-blonde hair, and a coarse North London accent. "Nope, no point in even trying. 'Cause we're beyond that crap, aren't we mate?"

"What do you want?" Xander asked as emotionlessly as he could.

Spike/the First laughed. "Well, to talk o' course! But ya know what? I can tell, whelp, that you're not at ease with what I've currently got on. So why don't I slip into something a little more-"

Then it morphed again, into a brunette woman that held a very special place in Xander's heart.

"-comfortable. Hey, boy toy. How's it going?"

Faith, the vampire Slayer.

Faith/the First was dressed just as Xander remembered, both in this world and the original history. Red tank top, black leather pants and boots. The image of Faith leaned back and put her left leg on the bench she was sitting on, resting her arm on it also.

For a fake imitation, she looked pretty good. Actually, she looked smokin'hot, period.

"Come on stud, nothing to say to your old squeeze?"

Xander strained to get loose, furious at this outrage. "You're gonna pay for this! Stop looking like her. She's not here, don't you dare defile her memory like that!"

Faith/the First smirked. "Now I'm hurt. Look at me, Xander; I certainly look like I'm here, don't I? Besides, wasn't that long ago you had a much different reaction whenever you saw me at nights. Remember?" she leaned forward with a feral grin, and wiggled her ass.

"Back then, we never thought to give those a try..." She nodded her head at the handcuffs. "Something to keep in mind though, for next time."

"Kinda hard, since my ex-girlfriend's dead!" Xander had truly regretted Faith being killed at Graduation. His future memories hadn't prepared him for that; she had been supposed to live and eventually fall in love with the man called Robin Wood, who was probably out there right now looking for his mother's killer somewhere.

Faith/the First winked at Xander. "Hey, stud, can't keep me down. I'm coming back. Set things the way they ought to be."

Xander glared at the First Evil. "Things *are* the way they're supposed to be! Now stop being-"

The brunette laughed and said in that sexy Boston accent, "Yeah, yeah. Your one and only cherry-poppin', accept-no-substitutes Slayer. Miss me?"

"How could I? We've never even met before now!"

The First slowly leaned back, letting Xander get a good look at Faith's body. "Oh, come on! We've met. Met quite often, back in Sunnydale 1998. You enjoyed our meetings, as I recall. Got all hot and sweaty during them."

"That wasn't you," Xander growled back.

"That was Faith, yeah; but FYI, Faith is in here, stud. The real thing, I kid you not. There really is a piece of her talking to you, right now. A piece that if I was corporeal you would *really* like, ya know?" Faith/the First grinned evilly at Xander.

The former slave snarled, "No wonder Buffy kicked your ass that Christmas! So, is this your grand plan? Just to come here and talk dirty to me? 'Cause I'm thinking your reputation really is pretty overrated, if that's the case!"

"Who said anything about having any master plans?" She glanced around the compartment. "Real fix you got yourself into here, boy toy."

The young man tried to calm himself. "I'll get by. I'm a survivor. It's what I do." "Yeah, right. You're really handling it well! Funny, but I don't see your new friends around..."

Xander stayed silent, not responding to the First's jibe.

It went on, "Then again, you're totally used to being abandoned, right? Almost directly outta the cradle. Your parents - man, they shoulda been neutered after they had you! Remember before B showed up, how much they wanted you around? Betcha by now, your old bedroom is full of empty beer bottles and used car parts..."

< Be careful. The enemy wants to get inside your mind. Don't let it, > the soldier memories whispered to him. Already, the old instincts of how to survive being a POW were coming back into play.

"Buffy and her little pep squad, they sure as hell abandoned you. Especially that Cordy chick, remember? Man, I hated her! They all left you there to die outside the Bronze, just 'cause you upset the almighty Slayer. Awful place to die, my opinion. 'Cause, I can think of so many other better places to go out with a bang! Like my bed, while I'm screwing your brains out..."

The First smiled maliciously. "Yeah, good ol' B and the Scoobs, they really went out of their way to screw you over. You just weren't good enough for them, I guess. Don't worry though, you were always good enough for me. Damn, I even wanted to have your children there for a while..."

"I'll ask again. What do you want?" Xander tested the handcuffs, doing his best to ignore that last shot which tore a bloody hole in his soul; but they held tight.

"Told ya, boy toy, to talk. Who else you gonna talk to? Don't see your new friends riding to the rescue. Probably won't, either. After all, why would they?"

Xander just glared at the First, trying to make it explode with his thoughts. Which was pointless, but nonetheless satisfying.

"Think about it, stud; you've already given them what they want. They know what's coming now. Only thing you can do for them anymore is fill in the blanks, which is something they can eventually do themselves. I figure deep down, they're happy to be rid of you! Let someone else handle the hassles of keeping you safe. They got better things to do..."

Xander remained silent, giving the ancient evil nothing to work with.

"Look, sweetheart. You want out of here? Sure you do, you don't wanna be cooped up as this bunch starts raping your mind. 'Cause these guys that took you, they'll tear it into shreds. Just say the word and I can get you out. What do you say? Wanna play ball? Mmm-mmmm, I can also make it worthwhile in ways you can't even imagine..."

Xander looked at his nemesis, and slowly said five words. "My name is not Caleb." For the first time, the false image of the First Evil appeared shocked and startled.

The First leaned back against the side of the armored car, morphing into Buffy Summers as it did so. She looked at Xander with a pouting smile, "Well, I gotta say, Xand; aren't you full of surprises? Ya know, I think I'm finally beginning to understand why all this fuss is being made over you..."

Xander glared at her. He was feeling great anger, although he couldn't tell if it was due to the fact that the First Evil was sitting across from him -or that it was using Buffy's form.

"Buffy's not dead. So, how-?" the guy suddenly demanded. < And hey, no headache? Either it's because I know she isn't the real deal, or it's something else. I'll have to remember that, for the future. If I have one, that is. >

"Not dead now, yeah, but I was. Remember? Well, I was only gone for a minute. Then I got better. You and Angel, you guys brought me back. Well, actually, *you* did it while he just stood around and looked like an idiot. And did I ever thank you for it? Maybe at the Bronze, months later...anyway, I surely thanked Angel. A lot! Oh, and did you enjoy making out with me? As we both know you ended up getting a raging hard-on, after giving me the kiss of life that night..."

Xander snarled wordlessly, as Buffy crossed her arms and leaned forward, looking into the guy's face.

"Okay, let's get back on track. I was dead, fine. Gone into the light and everything. Like the inevitable lamesass prophecy said. Then you came charging in like the proverbial white knight, not caring about anything except saving me. Because you loved me? Oh, please! You brought me back, being my knight and all, but still - a bit of Buffy remains in here..." She tapped her hand over her chest.

"'Course, then you had to go and lie to me that day, about the plan to get my one true love back. How could you, Xander? Were you *really* that jealous?"

"Damn you," Xander growled, not sure if he was saying it to the First or to Buffy. "And just for the record, I don't need to justify myself or my actions. Not to you, or anyone else! I did what I did to save the world. And I stand by my decisions, no matter what anyone else's opinions may be..." He paused then said firmly, "Plus, if the *real* Buffy couldn't make me crack over that, what in the hell makes you think you've got any chance to do so?"

Buffy/the First just smiled back in return. "I've gotta admit, having watched your little antics over the last year or so, I'm beginning to think maybe - just maybe - I really did back the wrong horse when I chose Angel..." She smiled seductively at Xander. Xander was surprised to realize that a portion of his brain was actually happy at hearing that comment. The soldier persona quickly stepped up though, < This is not the Slayer. Classic psychological warfare. Counterattack if you can... >

Buffy/the First continued on before he could do so, "Still, after what you did, I abandoned you. Left you to die. Like everyone else." And then suddenly, it was Angel sitting in front of the prisoner.

Angel/the First said with a sneer, "Paint it any way you want, but everyone knows that you lied about my soul being restored, that you manipulated Buffy to fight me all-out. To send me to Hell, if possible. Well, here's the joke, boy; you're the one who got sent to Hell instead. Or a reasonable approximation thereof. Irony; don't you just hate it?" The vampire then shook his head with a sadistic smile on his face.

Xander realized that it was supposed to be Angelus, not Angel, sitting there. He snorted, "You honestly think looking like *that* is gonna make any impression on me? Please! If I could make the real Angelus back off in that hospital, way back when..."

Suddenly, the First Evil morphed into a face and form he'd not seen in ages. His lost then-best friend, the 15-year-old boy named Jesse McNally -that he had dusted at the Bronze during the night of the Harvest, back in 1997. "Hey, Xan. Good to see ya, after all these years..."

"YOU SICK SON OF A BITCH!!!" Xander screamed in instant loathing. "Don't you dare use his face-"

Jesse/the First sat upright on the bench. "Hey, you wanted someone that would make an impression! 'Course, that doesn't mean I'm still not upset about you stealing my girl like that. Really, how could ya do that buddy? I mean, you and Willow knew how much I loved Cordelia..."

The ex-PFC had had enough. He shouted at the First, "You must really be bored, huh?! I mean, you spending all this time talking to me. I thought you were out to conquer the world? Seems to me you're just trying to torture me, by boring me to death!"

"Hey, no, dude, I'm not the one that's gonna be doing the torture thing. That's for them to do," the First pointed to the door.

The image of Jesse, was suddenly replaced by that of Dr. Maggie Walsh. "And that's a waste. You show such aptitude. Such promise. There's a vein of pure ruthlessness and viciousness that is crying to get let out. The way you dealt with the others and myself? Very impressive..."

The image of the college professor looked down at a clipboard it held in its arms. "A question, if I may. Do you think your friends, old and new, would really appreciate your murderous behavior? They all seem to have this morality thing, that gets in the way of such things..."

The former Zeppo fought to calm himself down. He needed to be focused for what was coming. "I did what I had to. I stopped a lot of bad stuff from ever happening, and as for the cost to my soul - that's strictly between me and God. But the way I figure it, just this once; the end justifies the means." < Which includes not having Glory force Buffy to have to give up her life, to save the world. Therefore she isn't raised from the dead, and the forces protecting the Slayer line aren't disrupted the way they were originally... > "Too bad if some plans of yours were spoiled."

Walsh/the First checked something on the clipboard, and then looked up. "You go right on believing that if you wish. But I think both of us know better. Nothing has changed. I'm still coming to overrun this world."

Then it morphed into Buffy again. "Just remember, I can get you out of this mess anytime. All you have to do is play ball. And hey, it's not all bad being on my team! You can get to do all the things to her, that you've ever fantasized about. Pay her back for everything she did, if that's what you want. Over, and over, and over again..." Buffy/the First winked seductively at Xander.

Xander bit back a curse, furious at the incorporeal monster. The First continued on, morphing finally back into Faith, "Looks like the ride's coming to an end, lover..." The armored car was indeed slowing down. "One more incentive for you to sign up with the winning team. Because no fooling, I can bring Faith - your Faith - back. What do you say?"

Xander felt his stomach lurch at that statement, as he considered *all* the implications - and he suddenly froze in fear, as something unspeakably horrible occurred to him. Faith/the First just smiled at him though, with a grin that he remembered quite vividly from when they were 'dating'.

"That's right, man-meat. All this can be yours again..." She leaned forward, giving Xander a good view of her cleavage. "You think about that, while they're ripping your mind apart!"

The First then vanished in a short burst of white light, as the door to the armored car started to open.


Georgetown, Washington DC

The remains of the salad sat in its bowl on the desk, the shadows from the midday sun lengthening out behind it. Esther played with the phone, waiting for the connection to be made. After a few seconds, she heard what she was waiting for.

"Cleburne? We've caught a little bit of a break. Another review of the video files came up with an ID match on one of the attackers." She paused for a second, gathering herself for what was coming. "Thing is - he's a cousin."

That got the reaction she'd more-or-less expected. And if Cleburne hadn't been stuck in a cockpit over the Atlantic, she was absolutely sure thescreaming male agent would have thrown his phone out of the window.

Marcum continued on, "There's no doubt in my mind - it had to be the Watchers. And they used some sort of magic they had access to, somehow. But if they're using the cousins for ground support, we can get an idea of where they're operating out of...yes, don't worry, I'll make our displeasure at all this *very* well known to them!"

She sighed, as the response continued on. < Good Lord, he has got to be violating so many FCC regulations regarding vulgar language over the radio waves, that I wouldn't be surprised if we received a visit from a SWAT team... >

"Look, according to Hollins they had to be close by, in order to perform that sort of teleportation spell. Keep heading to Chattanooga and if I get anything more specific, we'll vector you in on it. Until then, I suppose there's nothing more to say - Cleburne, for heaven's sake, that's no way to talk to a lady!"

Esther hung up. < God help us, I *really* hope that he can't fire any of the weapons on that plane onto downtown Chattanooga Tennessee... >

Part Four

Fort Meade, Maryland. National Security Agency headquarters

"We've got something!" the technician hunched over the computer workstation called out. A dozen other technicians worked on similar systems in silence, as the supervisor walked over the man who had called out.

The supervisor, wearing the uniform of a U.S. Air Force Major, leaned over the technician's shoulder. "Talk to me," she said in a clipped, impatient voice.

"The computers keyed onto a cell phone call, made about twenty minutes ago." He held a pair of headphones to his superior, which the Major took and put on. The technician then tapped a few buttons, and the playback began.

"Cummings here." The supervisor raised an eyebrow, as normally names weren't used for these types of conversations.

"The colonial package has been secured; and he's being transported to the extraction site, as we speak."

"Everything go all right, then?"

There was a pause of several seconds.

"Essentially, although they roughed him up a little bit during extraction. Damned unprofessional, if you ask me."


"He fought them, as you'd expect. And they took exception to the fact that someone would actually dare defy them! I think the package has some bruised or broken ribs. And later..."


"Later, he started yelling in the back of the transport. Almost like he was having a conversation with someone. They figured that since he was awake 'n all, he might answer a few questions. So they pulled over, and started in on him. But the blasted sod wasn't exactly...cooperative."

"Tell me that they didn't..."

"No, only slapped him around a few times. It's bloody obvious that these thugs really don't have a clue on how to interrogate someone properly."

"Language," the first voice reproached the second one.

"My apologies. It's just that I hate to see amateurs operating, in any form, within the craft."

"Understandable. You can confirm no permanent injury to the package?"

"Yes. And after about twenty minutes they finally figured out they might be drawing attention to themselves, their transport just sitting around on the side of the road like that. So they drugged him again and proceeded off."

The next silence lasted over ten seconds.

"There's been a change of plans. Extraction cannot take place at the primary site. You'll need to tell them to go to the secondary site."

"You should know that'll add hours to the transport time, and the risk of enemy detection."

"I know, can't be helped. That's an order, by the way. The secondary site will be used."


"Also, check back in with me every hour. Keep me informed of the progress."

"Are you certain that's..."

"That's also an order."


With that, both parties to the conversation hung up.

The major took off her headphones. "Sure sounds like what we're looking for..."

It was a little-known secret, at least outside of the professional conspiracy theory nutcase circles, that the NSA had the ability to intercept almost every cell phone conversation in the world. Of course, having that capability and actually using it were two very different things. With the size of the national deficit lately, the U.S. government was not in the habit of intercepting cell phone conversations without a good reason.

But a phone call from the Siberians had given the NSA a good reason to do so.

"Came off of a tower in Dalton, Georgia," the technician said, referring to the fact the phone call had been bounced off a cell phone node, to get it into the national phone system.

"Ah, the carpet capital of the world?" the female Major joked.


"You've never built a house, obviously. When John and I built our place, we actually drove down there to buy carpets, wholesale. Lots of factories there make the stuff, and the prices they charge? Well, let's just say the money we saved paid for the tiles in the master bathroom. Anyway, what else can you tell me?"

"The call was made to a number in their Washington embassy. I'd suspect that the voices would be identifiable to the spooks."

"And the cell phone?"

"Knowing which tower they made this call from, greatly limits where we have to look next time."

"You'll catch the call next time?"

"Yeah. They can't hide using that cell from us, not anymore. We'll be able to listen in during real time."

The Major smiled. "Good." She picked up the phone next to the workstation, dialed a number and waited for an answer.

"This is Puzzle Palace. We have something for you."


Georgia. Thirty minutes later

Charles Gunn drove his beloved pickup truck through the Georgia countryside, the afternoon sun beating down on him and the vehicle. He had left LA behind a while ago, leaving his best friend Rondell in charge of the group; the 'Lost Boys', as his sister Alonna laughingly called them, after Harris had come up with the name last year.

Alonna was here with him now, not trusting him to do this alone. She slept in the middle, between him and Bobby, as the other man just stared out at the countryside as it went by.

"Hey, Gunn. This really makin' sense to you?" Bobby suddenly spoke up.

"Whatcha mean, dog?"

"This," Bobby waved his hand in the air. "Driving across the country to redneck central, to look for someone we really didn't even get to know that well, to go an airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Start a fire, and get all those people all stirred up. Then jump back into the truck, while being shot at, and then drive to another airport to do Lord knows what. All of this, based on what a vampire told us?" Bobby snorted. "Just doesn't seem right..."

"Hey, has anything seemed right to you lately? It's like, the shit's been hittin' the fan for ages now."

"And that's the reason we drove across the entire goddamn country, when we could be back home? 'Cause if that's it, we had plenty messes back in our own 'hood to take care of first!"

Gunn watched a police car pass them going in the opposite direction. It made him nervous, < The cops back home are bad enough. Don't wanna imagine how the rednecks with badges are gonna react, to a brother in a truck with California license plates... >

Bobby nodded as the cruiser went by. "See what I'm sayin'? We're liable to meet some damn fools who use their momma's white bedsheets more 'n they should, if ya know what I mean..." He sighed and continued on, "You ask me, we should just turn around and head back to LA. Pretend none of this ever happened."

"Leave if you want, but I'm staying and helping him out, you ungrateful horse's ass!" Alonna said, without opening her eyes.

"Alonna, now don't..." Gunn started to say, uncomfortable at the notion she had heard all this. Both because the loud voices had woken her up, which he could handle, and because his little sister might call him out on a lack of honor, which he could not.

"Don't you try to shush me, Gunn! 'Cause I ain't just one of your soldiers," Alonna opened her eyes and snapped at her older brother.

She glared at Bobby. "I see some people got a real short memory, these days! Army Guy helped out when things started getting weird, remember? We hardly knew even what was going on, when things started going south at that gym. Then Harris shows up, and teaches us how to kill 'em fast and clean? We owe him, and don't you try to tell me no different. What do you think would have happened without him, back then? My money says a lot of us would probably be fang-faced or takin' the big dirt nap, right now!"

Bobby snorted. "We could have done just fine without him. Didn't need no help."

"Bullshit! You're just a jealous asshole."

Bobby looked at Alonna with a sneer. "Yeah? Well, sounds to me like someone has a crush on Army Guy."

Alonna smacked Bobby on the arm, making him yelp. "Do not!"

Gunn joined in, "You know, Alonna, can't help wondering? He's right, why couldn't you have had a crush on someone in a closer state? I hear Nevada is nice..."

"Gunn!!!" shrieked Alonna. "Knock it off! I don't have a crush on Harris. I'm just worried, is all. He saved our tails..."

"And you're probably hoping the guy likes your tail enough to-" But that comment earned Bobby a menacing glare from Gunn, and the kid quickly shut up. "Hey, just joking man..." the gang member raised his hands when he saw his leader's face.

"Turnoff, here!" Alonna shouted out, pointing at a road sign. Gunn quickly made the turn onto the next road, and the truck jostled a little. "How long?" Alonna then asked.

"'Nother couple of hours, is my guess," Gunn replied.

"Wake me when we get closer," Alonna closed her eyes again and leaned on Gunn's shoulder.


Rural Georgia. A few minutes later

Xander faded in and out of consciousness. He couldn't tell how long he had been drugged this time. He could only vaguely make out shapes and snippets of conversations around him; but Harris could tell that wherever he was now, it was not in a moving vehicle.

"Is he able to answer questions?" demanded a voice with more than a trace of arrogance.

"Not really. I suspect he can talk, but I'm not sure how much sense he'll make."

A face appeared in Xander's vision, and he felt a mild headache coming on. < Hey, I know him! > Xander thought. He tried to place the hazy man's features...

"Mr. Harris? Mr. Harris!" the British guy said with a snappish tone.

< Oh, shit. Travers? Quentin Travers. It's that pompous asshole from the Watchers Council, > Xander finally placed the face.

The man left Xander's line of sight, but his voice could still be heard. "Wake him up enough so that he can answer my questions."

Xander felt himself manhandled and injected with something. And he heard someone say, "That should rouse him, sir. Give it a few minutes, and he'll be ready for interrogation..."

The Soldier Guy memories started whispering to Xander. < Wake up and focus. The enemy is present in unknown numbers, and you need to be on guard. Be wary and keep an eye out for any opportunity to escape. > Xander then shook his head, as full consciousness returned to him.

The 23-year-old looked around, and saw that he seemed to be in a warehouse of some kind. Several men and one woman surrounded him. He recognized some of the men from the attack in the apartment. Xander also recognized Travers, the woman and one of the men from his original memories of the Watchers' visit to Sunnydale during the crisis over Glory.

"Mr. Harris. Do you understand me, child?" Oh yeah, that was Travers.

"I'm not a child, you overgrown balding windbag," Xander growled at him.

Travis sent his trademark arrogant smirk towards the captive. "Mr. Harris, by order of the Watchers Council I am taking you into protective custody, and having you removed to a secure locale in England for further study."

"And if I don't want to come?" Xander started to assess his situation. He was sitting handcuffed in a chair. He could see the armored car that he assumed he'd come in parked several yards away. The prospects did not look promising...

In addition to the slight headache Travers was giving him from his proximity, Xander was also glad that he had only met the Watcher that one time due to the fact his ribs ached. He just hoped that none of them were broken, on account of the smash and grab raid the Brits had carried out.

"What you want is irrelevant, as no doubt you have no idea what it is we're truly on about. And you colonials can never understand what's best, anyway-" the Council operative started to say.

"Actually, I think I have a pretty good idea what you're after." Xander wondered if he could bluff his way out of this. < Nothing to lose by trying, anyway. > "You guys want to study me, because you're thinking the Slayer gene might skip sexes next time a Chosen One gets called?"

A few of the Watchers smirked at that, but the amusement instantly disappeared under Travers' quick glare.

"Child, you are obviously as foolish as any member of your underdeveloped nation. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, before his resignation from the Council, told us about your situation. There is no point trying to deny anything. We know who and what you are, Future Boy, and more importantly what you know..."

Travers turned to one of the other men. "Get Kennsington." The man hurried off to do Quentin's bidding.

"I don't suppose I could give you guys some winning lottery numbers, and we can just call it all even?" Xander suddenly joked, abandoning the subterfuge approach. "I mean running the Watchers Council can't be cheap these days, after all..."

Travers regarded Xander with disdain. "To be honest, I find it almost impossible to believe that someone such as yourself could have the knowledge we seek. Someone so...insignificant."

Xander glared at Travers. "Insignificant, huh? This coming from someone without a Slayer to abuse on her 18th birthday?"

Travers looked a little confused at that. "You know of the Cruciamentum? No, never mind. Your question seems to indicate, though, that you expect us to be without a Chosen One. But you should know that even though Ms. Summers has seen fit to abandon her duty, we have another Slayer. A *true* Slayer, who was called when Ms. Daniels was killed."

Travers regarded Xander closely for a second. "Wesley's reports stated that some of your memories were indicative that history has changed, from the original timeline. If so, I look forward to learning all the details. I quite look forward to learning *all* that you know, young man..."

Xander silently cursed himself. Of course - Faith had never screwed up, and later gone to prison for her crimes, in this reality. He should have realized before now that when his first time had been killed at Graduation, a new Slayer would have been called.

In this new world, even though Buffy had quit the Council when they had refused to help after Mr. Trick had poisoned Angel, the Watchers would have a Slayer to order around.

< Wonder which one of the potentials it was? You got Annabelle, Molly, Vi, Chloe, Eve, Rona, Amanda, Chao-Ahn, and all those others to choose from. Damn, all those kids would still be so young in 1999, though...wait, what about Kennedy? She'd have been what, 15 or 16? Probably old enough... >

Xander grimaced upon realizing that there was a young girl out there somewhere, under the control of these thugs. < Worry about that later. For now, get yourself out of this mess! > the soldier memories commanded him.

Two men approached; one of them, Xander recognized from the apartment. < You! That asshole mage. We are gonna settle accounts soon, buddy. I promise... >

The wizard - Kennsington, Xander guessed - approached Travers. "You sent for me, sir?"

"Yes. I want you to cast a truth spell on him, right now."

"Ah, no, I can't."

Travers looked royally pissed at that. < Of all the impertinent... >

"I'm sorry, Mr. Travers, but my reserves are still too drained from the teleportation spell you ordered. At the moment any attempted spellcasting would be meaningless, and almost certainly fail. Like it or lump it, I need time to recover..."

Travers looked at his watch, getting over his minor tantrum. "Blast. I had hoped to get some initial interrogations done before we left..." He turned to the young man Xander remembered from the original history. "How long till the plane is ready to take him out of here?"

"At least an hour, we're still rearranging everything from the original site."

Travers turned back to Xander. "Mr. Harris, for reasons you can't comprehend, I intend to travel separately from you. I suggest you use that time to resign yourself to your new place in the scheme of things."

"You're just afraid I'll get loose and kick your pathetic British ass."

Quentin let loose a superior smile. "Hardly, little boy."

Xander suddenly got a cold look on his face. "Some free advice for you, 'Quentin'. If you hit me with the magic mojo? For your sake, don't inquire too closely about what happens to you and the Council..." The former slave grinned like a shark, and it was a sight that left most of the Watchers wanting to shiver. "'Cause I promise you, you're not gonna like what you learn..."

Travers looked offended at the fact that Xander had addressed him using his first name. "Mr. Travers is the proper way to address me, child. Just for that, I will make sure that learning proper respect is added to your 'debriefing sessions'. I will learn all there is to know from your head. And we *will* properly use all the information you have."

"Sure, to line your own pockets or play Council politics. Oh yeah, old man, I remember; it's not as if you don't make out like gangbusters exploiting those poor little girls. You get off on that, having power over kids who do your fighting for you."

"Quiet, you!" snapped the man who Xander remembered throwing coffee on, back at the apartment.

He stepped forward, and backhanded the captive. Xander's head rocked back, and the chair shook from the force of the blow. The female Watcher suppressed a gasp when she saw that.

Travers glanced at her. "No need to feel sympathy for him. Remember after all, you're a Watcher. You can't get too concerned over the little things." He turned to the leader of the retrieval squad. "Use the hour before the plane arrives to ask questions of him. Just don't do anything which might render him unable to travel."

With that Travers turned and left the room, followed by his two assistants, the female looking back with carefully concealed concern before she left the room.

"Hey, Travers!" Xander shouted. As the entourage looked back, Harris said simply, "I'll see you in Hell, before you get anything useful outta me..."

The Watchers left without another word, and the leader of the retrieval squad turned to Xander. "Well, I guess we'll just have to find a way to entertain ourselves while we wait for our flight, won't we?"


Los Angeles, California. Wolfram & Hart Law Offices, the same time

Lilah Morgan entered the meeting room. She could see that a heated discussion had already begun; her colleague Lindsey MacDonald was trying to make his point to middle management.

"We can get a tactical team ready to go after him in 60 seconds. They're made up of ex-Special Forces and black-ops personnel. They can handle anything that stands in their way..." the male attorney who had the nagging case of an occasional conscience offered.

Lilah sat down and felt the need to interrupt. "You know, for some odd reason, once we tell the tactical teams who they'll be facing? They seem to find so many strategic reasons to not pursue the operation. They're genuinely afraid of this STW, as they call it."

"Afraid of *them*? You'd think they would be more worried about the Senior Partners making them eat their own livers," Lindsey responded.

"Yes, *you* would think so, but most of our SWAT teams are aware of STW's track record. They feel that any such operation would just cause pain for us. More pain than normal, that is," the beautiful brunette cooed back at Lindsey.

The head of the special projects division, Holland Manners, looked at Lilah. "What do you suggest?"

Lilah gestured, "We have to adapt our strategy, and attack the problem where his protectors are weakest. I have two ideas. The first one is so mundane, that I would be very surprised if the protectors have even considered it. The second one plays to the strengths to the Senior Partners and would have Mr. Harris deliver himself to us, willingly."

Holland smiled, the evil in his corrupted soul clearly visible. "Do tell us more."


Rural Georgia. One hour later

Xander ached all over. < You know, for a group sworn to protect humanity and the rest of this sorry world, these assholes know quite a bit about putting the hurt on a person... >

An hour had passed since Travers had left. The interrogation by the retrieval squad had not gone to their satisfaction. And as their frustration level grew Xander's discomfort, well pain if you were being truthful, had grown in kind.

< Damn fools think their methods are gonna work on *me*? They ought to try a Gar-wak demon, attempting to set you on fire! I'm not gonna give them anything, well nothing beyond boom. > Every time they had asked a question about the Watchers Council, he had answered with only one word. "Boom."

And they *really* hadn't liked that.

When the time had come, they had put him back into the armored car he'd been in before. They were now driving to wherever the plane, or at least Xander assumed it was to be a plane, was waiting for them.

< Be wary. Take whatever chance you can get to escape. If they get you on that plane, the odds of you escaping go down dramatically. > Xander mentally steeled himself for when they came to put him on the aircraft.

"Been having fun, lover?"

Xander looked up at the question, and saw the image of Faith sitting in the vehicle with him. "You again? Aren't you supposed to be somewhere annoying someone, who'll actually listen to you?"

The First Evil just ignored the question, just looking Xander up and down. "Looks like you were on the losing end of the conversation. What happened, they didn't like your sparkling personality?" She/it shrugged. "Me, I always did! That and the other things about you," Faith/the First smiled evilly at Xander.

"Go to Hell, you bitca," Xander snapped, as he was not in the mood for this.

"Actually just came from there, stud. Nice place, I like it. Although I'm looking forward into moving into bigger quarters, before too long. Going to do a lot of remodeling. I can do something special for your little bit of it..."

The First suddenly morphed into Buffy. "You seem to like me and Faith, I can tell. Nostalgia. You get a kick out of seeing the old gang. Maybe I can arrange for Willow, Oz or Cordy to make an appearance? Would you like that?"

Panic gripped Xander's soul. "You are gonna leave them alone," he snarled at the First.

"Fine, all you gotta do is join me. They'll be protected as much as you want, then. They can be, like, your loyal subjects in the new world order or whatever. And don't wanna nag but you gotta hurry up, on account of you don't have much time left. You can either join me now, or pay the price when your own personal hell really begins."

All of a sudden, the soldier persona started screaming in Xander's head, < The enemy has become desperate. Something is about to happen, that it can't control. And it wants you to commit to its side, before whatever it is comes to pass... >

Xander stared directly into the First's eyes. "I've been to Hell already. Go torture your Bringers or whatever it is you do for kicks, because You. Have. Nothing. To. Offer. Me!"

All of sudden, Harris then heard the horn of the armored car begin honking furiously, as the First Evil folded up on itself and disappeared.

The armored car shuddered suddenly, and came to an abrupt stop. Xander swayed with the momentum of the vehicle, and his shoulders ached in pain from the sudden movement. "Damn," he choked out, as the pain threatened to distract from what was going on.

The soldier persona was not so easily distracted. < Get up! This is your chance. Get loose right now! > Xander started struggling, trying to get the handcuffs loose. He noticed that this time, unlike before where his captors had hooked them up to the roof, the Watchers had only looped them over a thin rod. He pulled hard, trying to get the rod to come loose.

But the rod stubbornly held in place. Xander grunted. < Okay, let's look at this from another angle... > The horn of the armored car continued honking, and Xander heard shouting outside. < Got to do this fast! > An idea then came to the captive.

He moved the fingers on his right hand in as close as he could, almost making his hand cone-shaped. The former soldier then started pulling it downward, as he grabbed the cuffs with his left hand and started pulling them upward. His skin quickly began bleeding, as it started being peeled off and scraped in the process.

Xander ignored the pain; back in the hell dimension, this would have been nothing more than a wake-up call, and he continued pulling. The blood acting as a lubricant, he felt his fist constrict and slide down a little bit. He just continued pulling.

Harris could see his skin being rubbed raw on his right wrist. He then heard a few clicks from his hand. < Damn, that's going to smart in the morning! > The pain mounted, as the guy relentlessly pulled the handcuffs upward with his left hand.

And then suddenly, the resistance lessened as his fist slipped through the handcuffs, his bloody right hand coming free. The left hand dropped down as the empty part of the handcuffs looped over the rod, and came down from the roof. < Yes! >

Xander absent-mindedly examined his right hand, as he got up. < Gonna need to get that looked at, afterwards. It's going to sting like crazy before too long. > He then moved to the doors at the rear of the compartment, already planning how to jimmy them open.

The former slave suddenly heard someone fidgeting with the doors on the outside. He just silently moved off to the side, out of the main line of sight, so as to surprise the enemy.

One of the doors opened up, and light spilled into the compartment. A small figure hesitantly climbed in, "Hello?"

Xander grabbed the intruder and pulled him further in, and was about to punch him; only stopping himself, when he saw it was a young girl. She twisted around, and looked at him with fear. Then her features lightened up a little bit, when she recognized Xander.

"It's you! Gladness. Don't worry, we're here to help..." She motioned to the outside. "Come on!" The young black woman started back out the door, as Xander quickly followed.

< I know her, don't I? Yeah, yeah, from Los Angeles, a few weeks after I escaped from the hell dimension. She was with those kids I helped out, eliminating that vampire nest. > "I'm sorry, I don't-"

"It's Alonna. Alonna Gunn. It's okay, your dark-haired vampire friend told us you maybe might be a little hurt in the head. We gotta haul ass though, so come on!" She grabbed Xander's hand, the left one thankfully, and pulled him along.

Xander looked around. They were on the outskirts of a small airport, somewhere. The armored car had been hit in the engine compartment, by one of those tractors that had the 'follow me' signs. He saw the driver of his mobile cell laying on the ground, moving just enough to prove he wasn't dead.

A black teenager ran up to them. < Charles Gunn, > the name popped into Xander's head. < A damn good man to cover your rear in a war zone. Things are definitely looking up! >

"Hey, Soldier Guy. Good to see you intact..." He looked at Alonna. "I sent Bobby to bring the truck!"

Xander then heard the squeal of tires, and saw Gunn's old weapons-modified pickup truck come roaring to stop right in front of them, driven by another black teenager.

"Get in!" he shouted out. The three of them tumbled into the cab, and Bobby roared off back down the runway, eager to get gone.


"Bloody toffing hell!" the leader of the retrieval squad yelled into his cell phone. "Where did they go, damn you?"

The MI-6 operative assigned as a liaison and consultant carefully noticed as the much-vaunted Watchers retrieval team started to fall apart, as things went wrong for them. He had been finishing his report to Cummings as they had driven up to the Lear jet, and were getting ready to board - when the Watcher's cell phone had rung.

The other Watchers milled around, looking concerned. They had expected to be airborne back to England by now. < You get the feeling they've never had problems like this before. No contingency plans, either. Useless amateurs... >

Everyone's attention was then pulled to the end of the runway, when they heard the roar of a jet engine. A small military fighter plane roared down the runway at almost treetop level, the Watchers moving their heads keeping track of it.

One of them spoke up as the plane reached the end of the runway, "You know, I could have sworn that one of the pilots was giving us the finger..."

< Oh, no... > the English spy's stomach dropped, as he realized what was probably happening and about to happen. < Odds are all this has just gotten completely and totally beyond my control. Damn you for rostering me for external duty, Cummings! >

The man, whose real name was Roger Symons, looked up again and watched as the fighter plane looped back around, and came in for another run, only on a slightly different course. "Take cover!" he shouted, as the guy started to sprint away.

The Watchers looked at Symons in incomprehension, as he ran from the plane and van. They quickly followed him though, when the roar of the F-16's cannons reached their ears.

The intelligence operative and the Watchers threw themselves to the ground, as a stream of 20mm shells blasted their way along the runway until they reached the Lear jet, and proceeded to tear through the tail section of the aircraft like it was tissue paper.

Symons didn't have to look to know that his aeroplane was not going to be flying again, at least not anytime soon.

The operative just looked upwards. < I hope Cummings wasn't right, about who that's most likely going to be, > the man thought, as he watched the fighter start to land and taxi towards them. Symons then heard sirens in the distance and then knew beyond any doubt the whole thing had now become, as the Yanks liked to say, a complete cluster-fuck.

< Bloody hell, now I'm in for it... > Symons glanced at the others near him, and began to distance himself both literally and figuratively. < Well, first things first. Establish the diplomatic creds, even if technically I'm here on the black. Try to request communicating with the embassy, or even better the head of section A - ah, damnation, this is going to be so embarrassing back home though! Then again... >

The professional spook suddenly stared at the Watchers and smiled, his survival instincts having a stroke of genius. < Yes, you lot definitely just became criminal kidnappers, and it's my patriotic duty to break cover and help the American law enforcement system put your sorry arses into prison... >

The fighter pulled up next to the Lear jet, and Symons noticed that it kept its cannons pointed in the direction of the Watchers. The canopy popped open, and one of the pilots clambered out of the cockpit. He dropped to the ground, and started stomping his way towards Xander's kidnappers.

One of the Watchers started to reach under his jacket for his sidearm. "I wouldn't," the trained professional called out.

The Watcher looked at him as Symons went on, "Their guns are much bigger than yours, and they'll use them to turn you into a piece of hamburger." He pointed at the F-16.

The Council operative thought for a second, and then reluctantly put his hands up. The leader of the retrieval team glowered at him. "What are you doing? We're Watchers!" But by this time, the pilot had reached to where the Watcher was.

"You're the leader of this group of idiots?!" the pilot snapped out. Symons silently cursed, it *was* who he'd thought it would be. < The violence level has just gone up dramatically, I'll wager... >

The retrieval leader spoke up. "See here, I'll have you-"

That was far as he got, before the Englishman was on the ground clutching his stomach. The brutal kick from Cleburne had taken him completely by surprise. The MI-6 adviser watched on, < Yes - somehow, I don't think he'll be reading us our rights for all this. >

Cleburne looked around. Several police cars and black SUVs pulled up, and started to disgorge men in uniforms and black suits. One of the people in the black suits had been one of the guards in the apartment. Joshua looked around, as he took off his flight helmet; his look one of sheer menace. "Which one of you kicked the kid's ribs after he was down?"

The Watchers looked at each other questioningly, suddenly resembling a pack of sheep; or better yet, airheaded Cordettes, from a long-ago age of lost innocence.

Symons had no such afflictions. "Him, most likely because he didn't like getting sprayed with hot coffee." He pointed at the leader, who was laying on the ground.

The guard from the apartment came up and looked at the leader. "Yes sir, I recognize him. They were all there." He pointed at Kenningston. "He was the one with the magic tricks and glittery light show."

Cleburne nodded. "Keep an eye on him. The guy even starts to try anything funny, shoot him in the head till his brains leak out of his ears!" The guard nodded. Cleburne then stalked up to where the leader was starting to get off the ground.

The Watcher stated angrily, "This is completely unacceptable! I demand-"

Again the team leader was unable to finish his sentence, as Cleburne hit him square in the face with the flight helmet he was holding in his hand. The leader fell back to the ground with a broken nose, as the STW agent followed up his advantage.

"I can understand the reasons for the snatch, and I'm not one to hold anything against you for taking advantage of our holes in security. But beating the kid up, after he was taken down? That does *not* make me happy. And when I'm unhappy, I'm never unhappy alone..."

Joshua reached down, grabbed the Watcher's right arm and pulled it up. He suddenly jerked it an impossible angle, and a sharp crack was the result. The Englishman screamed in pain, as Cleburne leaned down and looked directly into his face. "If I find out the kid has more than one broken rib, I'm going to break the other arm too - just for starters."

Cleburne got back up. "Where's Harris?" The Watchers just looked at their leader on the ground.

Symons answered again, "The man got a call, right before you arrived. Something unexpected happened with the package's transport."

Cleburne looked down at the Watcher, who was cradling his broken arm. "Well?"

The employee of the Council whimpered something about not knowing. Cleburne just reached down and grabbed his left arm. The Watcher started screaming again before he blubbered, "Someone rammed his transport over at the hangers. He got out of the armored car in all the confusion!"

Cleburne sighed. He turned to the police officers and operatives surrounding the Watchers, "Search everywhere. Find the guy, right now!" Several of the cops and STW personnel scurried off to do so, as the rest took over training their guns on the Watchers.

Cleburne stalked over to Symons. The spook braced himself, "Joshua Cleburne? I'm a cousin, my name is Roger Symons and I work for-"

Cleburne cut him off. "I already know who you work for, and most likely why you're here. Just gimme me your damn cell phone!"

Symons instantly complied, handing it over. "Travers and the Watchers VIPs decided to travel separately?" Cleburne asked, as he started dialing a number on the cell phone.

Symons nodded. "The comfort level they were expecting was obviously insufficient to warrant traveling with the captive." He could not help but notice that the Watchers were being herded off to a waiting police van, while he was just being watched by the guard from the apartment building.

Cleburne looked at the guard. "We *will* talk later about your role in all this!" The guard visibly blanched. Cleburne then focused attention to the cell phone, as his call went through.

"It's me. Tomorrow. Army-Navy Club, 1:30 in the afternoon and bring that Travers asshole with you!" Cleburne growled into the phone. He then silently handed the phone back to Symons.


Xander lay silently in the grass, watching the scene on the runway unfold before him. Gunn, Alonna and Bobby lay next to him on top of a slight rise, about 300 yards from the runway. They had managed to get outside the fenced enclosure of the airport, before the police and black-ops personnel had swooped in.

"Man, who are those guys?" Gunn asked, referring to the suits rounding up the Watchers.

"Your tax dollars at work," Xander joked. "And oddly enough, technically also the good guys in this equation."

Bobby snuck a glance at Xander. "*They're* the good guys? You saw what he did that one..."

"Trust me, I'm not going to lose any sleep over that guy's pain. As I've got the broken ribs to remind me of why he had it coming!" Xander shifted uncomfortably. With his adrenaline rush starting to fade, the pain from his mistreatment was starting to come to the forefront.

Alonna noticed Xander's discomfort. "Hey, soldier boy, we need to get you to a doctor or something." She pointed at his red right hand, "Especially for that!"

Xander waved her off. "No, I'll all right for now."

Alonna looked again with concern at the bleeding hand and bruises that Xander sported. "What are you tryin' to prove, you got vamp healing or something? Don't be an asshole! We really need to get you looked at, pronto."

"And I said don't worry about it, that can wait."

Gunn noticed the look of concern Alonna had for Xander. < Damn, she really does have a crush on him! Oh well, white or not, guess she could do worse... > "What do you mean, it can wait? Because we need to haul tail outta here, dog! Sooner we're back in LA, the better," he motioned back towards the pickup truck.

Xander rolled over, and looked at the others. "Angel sent you?"

"Yeah, something about some spooky mystical types telling him you needed help," Gunn answered with a shrug.

< True enough, > Xander thought, analyzing the situation dispassionately. < If they hadn't hit that armored car when they did, I probably would have gotten put on that plane and been airborne before STW arrived. Talk about cutting it close... >

The former slave smiled. "That I did. Thanks for saving my ass, you guys. So. How's tall, dark and brooding doing these days, anyway?"

Gunn snorted. "That's about it in a nutshell, bro; tall, dark and brooding. C'mon, man, what's the story with that? You really used to run with a vampire?"

"Very special case; Angel's been...modified, to the point where he's on the good side of the Force. As long as he doesn't get too happy, anyway, but that's a whole different story. I know it sounds impossible, but it's true - he's saved my life more than once. He got cursed by some gypsies over 100 years ago..."

"Yeah, dude mentioned that. But hell, you and him can tell us all about it once we're home. Can't wait to get back to California; goddamn, this place feels like it's Alaska or something!"

Xander smiled. "Be grateful it's not Illinois, you'd think we were at the North Pole! But thing is, I'm not going back with you."

"What!?" both Gunn and Alonna said at the same time.

Xander shrugged. "I can't come with you to LA."

"We went through all this trouble, drove across the entire country - including Texas, which is no fun for a bunch of brothers I might add - and you're staying here?" Bobby demanded.

"Has to be done."

Xander had been shaken by the First's references to the Scooby gang. About Willow and the others making an appearance, the next time his nemesis showed up. < I can't protect them, even if I wanted to, not when I can't even be near them without my head exploding. And what's to stop the Bringers from making an early visit to the Scooby gang or LA in the meantime? > For now, their best protection rested with Xander helping the Siberians, and them providing covert protection in return.

Xander continued on, "Tell Angel, that I'm all right for now and what I've gotten caught up in - it involves the First Evil. He'll know what that means. Look, bottom line is, I have to stay away. Don't worry, though; Angel's a stand-up guy, if a little dark and tormented. So he'll be there for you, if or when you ever need him..."

"The First Evil?" Alonna looked at her crush in complete confusion.

"There's no time for details. Angel can fill you in on all of it later..." Xander then thought for a second, and decided it would be best to leave another lifeline out there, just in case something like this ever happened again in the future.

"Tell him he can get in touch with me through a guy named Lemke, who lives in Sunnydale. It's a town about two hours north of LA, that's also known as la Boca del Infierno-"

"The mouth of Hell?" Bobby asked in amazement, his high school Spanish the best of the group.

Xander nodded. "Lemke runs a bookstore or something like that there. He can probably get a message through to me. But, it's a one-time-only thing; once that message is sent, he can't ever use that route again. Too risky. So tell Deadboy to play that card only if *absolutely* necessary."

"Deadboy?" Alonna raised her eyebrows in amusement.

Xander shrugged. "Sorry. Old habits die hard." He paused for a second. "This is important. Don't tell anyone what happened here or about me without Angel telling you it's all right. That includes the friends he has hanging around." <Can't run the risk of Cordy and Wesley finding out about me. Who knows where that would end.>

Gunn shook his head. "This is crazy, Army Guy. You can't stay here! Next time, we may not be around in time to save you!"

"Charlie, you think I *want* any of this? Problem is, it's not like how it was in the good old days - when it was just us, versus the demons. Right now, I should be living in a cave in Canada, but there are people after me for what I know. And I hate to sound all Terminator, but they absolutely will not stop, ever, until I'm dead! I gotta do what I gotta do, to protect my people. It's an honor thing."

Gunn nodded in understanding. "I hear you. So what are y'all gonna do, then?"

"Catch a ride outta here with those guys," Xander said, as he got ready to stand up. "Again, thanks for saving my ass, I seriously owe you three. If I can, I'll arrange for supplies and whatnot to get to you on the Q.T. But for now, you'd best get out of here. Less questions all around, if they don't find you."

The others stood up at the same time Xander did. "Take care of yourself, Harris," Alonna said softly, as she hugged Xander.

"I will. You too," the former soldier said fervently as he shook hands with the guys and walked off, not knowing that it was the last time he would ever see Alonna Gunn alive.


Takoma Park, Maryland. The next day

Xander woke up, trying to shake off the mental cobwebs. The medication the doctors had given yesterday him had helped him sleep peacefully, and for that he was eternally grateful.

"Good morning, Mr. Harris."

Xander opened his eyes, and saw Irving Hollins sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed that he was in. "Morning?"

"Well, it's almost time for lunch. You've been sleeping for quite a while. The doctors felt it was best to let you rest. You've not really been fully awake, ever since they brought you here yesterday afternoon. Don't worry though, I had them bring you some lunch." Hollins motioned at the tray on the table next to the bed.

"Where am I, anyway?"

"A private medical clinic STW uses in situations like this. The quality of the medical care here is quite excellent, and also very discreet."

Xander reached over to grab a roll off the tray. He was subsequently rewarded with a sharp stabbing pain in his ribcage.

Hollins nodded. "Be careful. The doctors tell me you don't have any broken ribs, but it will still hurt quite strongly for a while."

Xander almost swallowed the roll whole, he was that famished. "Any other things I need to know?"

"Well, no broken bones, although that was not from any lack of trying by your captors. And your right wrist is still pretty well mangled. What happened with that, by the way? The doctors seemed to think it was self-inflicted."

"It was, I had to slip out of a pair of handcuffs. No big deal."

Hollins grimaced. "Still painful to imagine though, in my opinion. When you can, I want to hear all about your escapade yesterday."

"Wanting is good," Xander said as he gingerly maneuvered himself to get access to all the food on the tray. Hollins raised an eyebrow at that comment. "But first, what happens next? And did I get to number one target in the world today?"

The child nodded sadly. "Probably yes, there are quite a few groups out there who are no doubt waiting to make their own move to acquire you."

< He could have lied, but he didn't. Told me the truth straight up-front, and didn't sugarcoat it. Decent of him, > Xander noticed. "I thought the whole point of moving around so much was to confuse the bad guys as to where I was, so how the hell did the Watchers find me?"

"Their superior knowledge of the occult. I'm sorry; it was our fault for not being fully cognizant of the dangers of that aspect of the situation. My own fault especially, as I am ultimately responsible for analysis of the available data."

Xander raised an eyebrow. "Do tell."

Hollins stated calmly, "Apparently last fall, they broke into your parents' house and stole some of your personal belongings. Then they used the items in a spell that could track your aura, or soul. They had to cast it several times, to narrow it down to whatever city you were in. Once they knew that, they flew to Chattanooga using the cousins as support, did another locator spell, found you and popped in using a teleportation spell."

Xander sighed. "What's to stop that from ever happening again?"

"We're in the process of recruiting several Wiccans and warlocks to help out. The plan is to have them cast a masking spell, or something like that over you. Or else get some sort of amulet to do the job, if that's what it takes. Ah, I was wondering; given your greater familiarity with the supernatural, do you have any ideas of your own?"

Harris looked thoughtful. "When I was living in LA, about a month or so before I got all my memories back? I ran into this trio of awesome-looking babes, who called themselves the Transuding Furies." He then smirked, "They're into magic in a big way, and I think they'll remember me. Get someone to contact them."

Hollins nodded. "Thank you for the suggestion. I wish we'd known of them sooner, but then, we're still on the learning curve with the entire magic thing..."

Xander finished chewing on the pork chop bite he had taken, and swallowed. "Well, learn quick. You've only got two or three years, before the First gets into 'destroy the world' mode. Maybe even sooner than that."

Hollins raised an eyebrow at this. "How so?"

"The First Evil gave me a couple of private audiences, while I was with the Watchers. It's definitely on the prowl, and seems to know there's something hinky going on." Xander then gave a bare-bones version of what had happened with the First to Hollins.

"This is most disturbing. I had hoped that we would have resolved the situation with al-Qaeda completely, before dealing with all that," the child genius mused.

"You may not have that luxury anymore. So, we can add the First to the list of those people looking for me."

Hollins thought for a second. "You're right. You should also know the operatives who have been watching-"

"Guarding," Xander corrected.

Hollins nodded. "-guarding you, seem to think your ability is fairly impressive. A review of the video footage of the attack shows that you handled yourself quite well. The only reason the enemy was able to accomplish their objective, was that they had paranormal assistance. Against more mundane opponents, you would have held them off long enough for the guards to arrive."

The Soldier Guy persona within Xander noted with appreciation the analytic comment by Hollins. "Still, that kinda reminds me of the old saying that close only matters with horseshoes and hand grenades."

"True, but if you prove you can handle yourself, it makes my new proposal all the more easier to sell to my fellow Siberians."

"And that is?" Xander poked at the Jell-O with a spoon. < Damn it, why does every hospital meal have to come with Jell-O in it? It's gotta be some sorta evil conspiracy! >

"You've been advising us on the supernatural threat, and I feel that it's time for you to be an advisor in the field. Let us use your abilities against the paranormal. Of course, there is an obstacle to that."

"And that is?" Xander repeated himself, as he gave up and took a bite of the Jell-O.

"Cleburne. He's very territorial when it comes to field operations, and he exercises close to a veto over the mechanics of them. Arbitrarily overruling him would lead to complications, down the road. However, if Joshua feels you can truly handle yourself as part of his crew, he would be more inclined to accept my proposal."

Xander looked at Hollins skeptically. "What will he do, put me through an audition?"

"Actually, he's been known to do exactly that in the past. But I think after viewing the videofeed of your little fight and talking to the guards, he could be persuaded to give you a shot. There's also another advantage to you working in the field."

Hollins reached over a grabbed a cookie off of Xander's lunch tray, the first childlike action the older male had ever seen out of him. "Pardon me, but I indulge myself every once in a while..."

The boy took a bite out of the cookie and continued, "You may or may not know, that there are various unwritten rules within the espionage world. One of them is that the members of each organization are generally not specifically targeted, by another organization. It *is* more-or-less accepted that losses will occur; such are the fortunes of the craft. However, aiming at individual members crosses a line, and disrupts the uneasy understanding that exists between the players of the game. It also leads to retaliation, reprisals and on occasion the risk of an overt war. Open warfare is not good for those in this business; it leads to questions being asked by the governments overseeing the organizations, which is something almost always to be avoided."

Xander nodded, as memories of his time with the Scoobies years ago flashed through his brain. Incidents with MOO and the Sunnydale PD getting involved, for example, and proving that Hollins was quite right. "I agree."

"Good. But my point is with you becoming a legitimate member of STW, the other espionage agencies out there will think long and hard about coming after you the way the Watchers did. No one really wants a war with us. I imagine they'll still try every once in a while, given what you are, but it'll be in a much more subtle way. Our main concern will be the paranormal groups; we'll concentrate our resources there. And they'll be far less effective, if the mundane ones won't be supporting them. The real reason the Watchers got as close as they did, was that they had ground support from the cousins."

"Cousins? I've heard that reference before, somewhere. What's it mean, exactly?"

"It's what the American and British spy agencies refer to each other as. There's been an incredibly close cooperation between them, you see, ever since the end of World War 2. That's why there is now currently a real hullabaloo, to quote Joshua, over your kidnapping. To use an analogy, imagine the family situation if a man had basically spat in his brother's face and tried to abduct his own nephew."

Xander nodded. "I can see where that can be disturbing."

Hollins went on, "Indeed, that's why Joshua and Esther aren't here. They're meeting in about a hour or so with the local representatives of the cousins, to convey their feelings over this situation."

Xander perked up. "Are the Watchers going to be there?"

Hollins looked a little surprised by the question. "I believe so. This Quentin Travers person is supposed to be there, at any rate. His presence was specifically requested."

"The meeting place - it isn't far from here, is it?"

Now Hollins was worried. "No, as a matter of fact it's over at the Army-Navy Club..."

Xander smiled a feral, animalistic grin that actually chilled Hollins' blood a little bit. "Good." He started to get out of bed.

"Mr. Harris? Xander? What-"

"Irving, last time I spoke with Travers, I was unable to convey to him certain facts of life - what with me being handcuffed and all. Now, well, let's just say it's gonna be a little different."


Private dining room, Army-Navy Club, Washington DC. 1:45 PM

Alec Cummings massaged his temples. This meeting was not going at all well.

Normally, being MI-6 station chief in Washington DC was a plum job. Mostly acting as liaison with the cousins, over various exchanges and joint operations; also occasionally playing at being a diplomat. A nice change of pace, as it were, from the usual espionage duty where secrecy, death and fear of betrayal were your constant companions.

< Yes, it was very nice, until those Watcher Council arses came along with their politically influenced orders from London. > This entire hare-brained scheme of theirs had failed, and more importantly had really ticked off Siberian Trip Wire; the one agency in the U.S. spy community that Cummings *knew* made it a point of holding a grudge.

And Travers, the head of the Watchers delegation, was not helping things in any way, shape or form - what with how he was lecturing Marcum and Cleburne right now. Alec honestly wished his compatriot was not here; the man was only showing his ignorance of the faux pas they had committed, and the repercussions that were sure to follow.

In any case, Cummings' attempts to play peacemaker had failed miserably; and the discussion had grown quite heated over the last 15 minutes. Marcum had interjected quite often, as she sat between Cleburne and Travers.

But Cleburne hadn't said a word the whole time, which given his reputation honestly worried Alec Cummings. Quite a bit.

Travers raised his voice, "The sad fact is, you're completely ignorant of the true ramifications over the existence of Xander Harris! You have no idea of what you're dealing with; you're like children, sticking your fingers into the pretty-looking fire. You should leave it to the professionals, and go play your cloak and dagger games elsewhere! We are equipped to handle this, not you. Turn Mr. Harris over to us, and-"

"He's an American citizen, not a British one." Those were the first words Cleburne had spoken during the entire meeting.

Travers glared at him. "Yes, and while we're on the subject; the way you treated our retrieval team is absolutely criminal!"

That caused Cummings to raise an eyebrow. He had personally debriefed Symons, and been told in great detail of all that the Watchers' team had done. < Damn it, Travers, please shut up about that... >

But the Englishman continued on, not caring the double standard he was applying. "Broken arms, physical violence and threats. These are criminal acts!"

"As opposed to kidnapping a U.S. citizen?" That was Marcum.

"There's no comparison at all. We're acting for the greater good; you're acting solely for your own petty interests. Mr. Harris should be examined and studied back in England, after that man is arrested and prosecuted!" he pointed at Cleburne.

Cummings noticed that Marcum had picked up her glass of water off of the table. He then realized that it had been in the path between Cleburne and Travers. < Uh-oh, > the MI-6 station chief thought as he saw Marcum subtly nod to Cleburne.

Joshua moved so suddenly, that Alec honestly didn't have time to blink before Travers was face-down on the table, being pulled out of his chair by the back of his neck by the American.

The female Watcher, the woman named Lydia who had accompanied Travers on this assignment, yelped and bolted up away from the table, her hands covering her mouth. Marcum just pushed herself back from the table to get out of the way.

The woman's scream also caused noise to occur from outside the room, where the aides and bodyguards were waiting. But Cummings had no doubts as to how a confrontation between the Siberians and the Watchers would turn out.

Travers, by now, was completely across the table. "What the - unhand me immediately, you sordid ruffian!" he shouted.

Cleburne responded by punching the Watcher so hard, that he ended up against the wall. Travers went down wheezing, as Cleburne walked over to a window and kicked out the glass. The broken shards fell four floors to the alley below.

Alec did nothing as Cleburne reached over, and grabbed the now-terrified Travers by the lapels of his jacket. The STW agent hissed, "Say good night, you stuck-up piece of-"

"Hold on a second. He's mine."

Everyone in the room looked at the source. There in the doorway, stood Xander with Hollins next to him. Several bodyguards flanked them.

< So this is the source of all the trouble, > Cummings thought, as he drank in the sight of the modern-day Cassandra of Troy. Then he saw Xander's eyes, and instantly took a step back. < Good God, the man's gone mad... >

Xander advanced into the room towards Travers. Cleburne thought about it for a second, and then let go of Travers' lapels. The Brit fell to the ground, gasping.

Travers started to push himself up, with his back to the wall. "Alexander Harris, by the authority of..."

That was as far as he got, before Quentin felt the whoosh of air near his ear as a knife thudded into the wall to the left of his head, by just a few inches. Xander's left hand remained extended for a moment, from where he had thrown it.

Cleburne nodded his head, obviously impressed. Travers was just wide-eyed and speechless, as Xander approached. "Good throw." Clebrune complimented Xander.

"Not really, I was aiming to put the knife next to his right ear."

Cleburne shurgged. "We'll work on that later." Xander walked to where Travers was and leaned down.

"Quentin, I could make you scream. I could make you die," Harris said with an ugly look on his face, echoing the words that Faith the vampire Slayer had spoken in another reality.

He then grabbed Travers by the throat and yanked him to a standing position. "And there would be nothing, *nothing* you could do to stop me. The only reason I won't? It's the fact that the days of you and your sorry organization are already numbered..."

Xander paused, assessing his former captor's astonishment and the situation as a whole. "You still want me? Then think about this; there are people willing to kill you for that now. You ever wondered what it's like, to live in fear of your life? A car bomb outside your house. Poison in your favorite restaurant food. Even cyanide in your expensive cigars! Any of your Watcher Council buddies, the same can be said. So you remember all that, the next time you get any bright ideas of me being given an-all-expenses paid trip to England."

"I will not sit here and listen to this-"

Then Quentin Travers howled, as Xander let go and kicked him in the groin.



As the former soldier started to walk away, he suddenly stopped and turned back around. "Also, if anything happens to Kennedy on her 18th birthday? I'll hold you *personally* responsible. In the end, you will be *begging* me to kill you..."

Travers was more shocked than ever, as his dazed mind fought to recover from his ordeal. < He knows who the new Slayer is. Damn. What else does he know? Blast it, we have to find out, and to hell with all the stupid threats! >

As Xander exited the room, Cleburne walked over and got the knife out of the wall. He looked down at Travers. "Unit, Corps, God and Country."

Quentin was honestly confused. "What?"

"Unit, Corps, God and Country. Which means in this case, that we'll help in whatever the kid does to you and your entire damn Council. We've got his back on this, understand? You're not just dealing with him now, you're dealing with all of us in Siberian Trip Wire. You want a war? You've got one."

"This isn't over!" Travers shouted, massaging his privates as the male agent turned away.

"For you, here, it is," Cleburne announced calmly, turning around again. "You and your people have until the morning to get out of my country, and never come back-"

"I don't respond well to idle threats!" the Watcher said heatedly, causing Cummings to grimace.

Joshua Cleburne merely smiled. "Oh, I'm not threatening you. I'm just telling you that your face is going to be hitting the newspapers and TV screens all around the country tomorrow, for attempting to kidnap a U.S. citizen. Someone who 'unidentified sources close to the investigation' will say, was a Federal witness against a Las Vegas organized crime syndicate. The police and FBI will have orders to arrest you on sight, as you *will* be on their Top Ten Most Wanted list for the foreseeable future. And this is all due to an undercover MI-6 agent's report to his superiors, about your criminal activities."

Travers looked in disbelief at Cummings, who was already staring at Cleburne; the British spook then shrugged and accepted the peace offering with a nod, knowing when to cut his losses and try to restore some good will around here. < And what's more, it'll finally get this amateur out of my hair... >

He turned to the Watcher, "It's not as bad as it sounds; given your contacts, I'm sure you'll not be a wanted man back home. But you have publicly embarrassed Her Majesty's government in this country, Mr. Travers, and my latest orders from London are to repair the damage you've caused. So I suggest you accept the situation for what it is, and leave the U.S. while you're still able to do so."

"This is outrageous!" the British man screamed.

Cleburne looked over at the female watcher named Lydia who still had a look of shock on her face. "A nice girl like you should find another line of work." He then looked back at Travers.

"The clock is ticking. If you want a preview of what I might do to you and your council, ask Cummings about Beirut 1983." With that Cleburne pocketed the knife, and led the other people from STW out of the dining room.

Part Five

Mid-Atlantic Tractor Pull, Richmond, Virginia. April, 2000

Alec Cummings couldn't believe he was actually here in this part of the U.S., watching a tractor pull of all things.

When the ticket to this event had been delivered to his office, the spy had almost instantly tossed it into the garbage in disgust. Only reason he hadn't, was that he had spotted the large blue S written on the back of the envelope.

So, it was time for the cloak and dagger stuff. And thus Cummings found himself in a crowed hall watching large farm implements being driving through dirt and mud, with his ears assaulted by the roar of their engines.

He then noticed that the empty seat next to him was now occupied.

"Sunday, Sunday Sunday," Cleburne joked in an imitation of the way television announcements for these events sounded.

"Interesting place you wanted to meet in," Cummings observed.

Cleburne smiled. "Well, how many people from the craft do you think would normally be here on a Friday night? And I'm damn sure that no one from the Watchers Council, would be caught within ten miles of a tractor pull. This way, our conversation stays very private."

The MI-6 station chief nodded at that. < Makes sense, in its own way. > "You're probably enjoying this?" Cummings remarked to his fellow intelligence operative.

"Enjoying watching you be uncomfortable? Oh, yeah. After all, you made me fly across the Atlantic in a small fighter jet, with no lavatory facilities. I really did *not* enjoy that plane ride, cuz. So you being uncomfortable at an event you have absolutely no comprehension of, is just a little bit of payback."

Cummings swallowed nervously. "Ah, about that..."

Cleburne continued on, not giving him a chance to finish. "You know, it strikes me that with your duties as liaison between our two countries' intelligence services, you're in a pretty good position to know things. For example, the fact that we share our electronic intercept capability with you, should give ya a pretty good idea of what we're capable of..."

He glanced over at the British spy. "And yet, you had your guy Symons reporting regularly to you. On your personal extension at the embassy, no less. A phone line you knew we would probably be monitoring, the moment we realized that a cousin was involved in the snatch. And while we're on the subject, why even have one of your operatives on the retrieval team? You musta known there was a pretty good chance we would recognize him. Particularly one of yours, that was based in Washington."

Cummings looked embarrassed. "Mistakes happen..."

"Let's can the games here, pal. Never mind that we woulda searched every warehouse, henhouse, outhouse and whorehouse to find the kid; you of all people know the NSA can intercept every cell phone call in the world. Particularly with that whole mess over Prince Charles years ago! And yet, you have your guy making regular phone calls to you every hour. You might as well have had him fire off flares, for us to find the guy..."

Cleburne looked at the arena floor and let out a big yell, as a monster truck rumbled towards a series of lined-up junk cars. Then he turned to his companion. "You wanted that mission to fail. The question is, why?"

Cummings stayed silent for a second. "As I said, mistakes happen. Of course, the mistakes I refer to were made by the bloody Watchers - when they started that entire mess. And their supporters in Whitehall, who ordered us to help them." He sighed, "I knew from the beginning that there was no way we could ever hide our involvement in the scheme, particularly when we learned that Mr. Harris was in *your* custody."

"I suspected that would have worried you."

Cummings shrugged. "My superiors back home were not ready to sacrifice the relationship we've shared for the last 60 years for the...hide-bound Watchers, no matter what the crisis. The Watchers don't watch our backs..."

"But we do. Still, we both know this is going to put a crimp in the trust for a while. Maybe as bad as back when everyone finally figured out Philby really was a Red spy."

Alec tried his best not to wince at past horrors. Kim Philby, the most notorious defector in British history, had operated undetected for decades within the British spy services - until the Americans figured out he was spying for the Soviet Union. MI-6 had refused to believe it at first, and then had had quite a bit of egg on its face when they had been proven wrong.

"Understandable, of course; we were scared of what the fallout would be, if the mission had succeeded."

Cleburne leaned back. "With good reason. I would have been *really* mad, as opposed to just incredibly annoyed."

Cummings silently wondered what it would be like to witness the American really mad, as he was worrisome enough when merely annoyed. "So what now?"

"Well, I'm not foolish enough to think that Travers and his Watchers will just gracefully give in and fade away into the woodwork. And neither are you."

The Englishman shrugged again. "True enough."

"So, we get to play ourselves a little game of the carrot and the stick."

Cummings figured he may as well get the worst part out of the way first. "And the stick is?"

"There are so many ways we can cause you pain, on so many different levels, it's not even funny. On the personal asset front, 24-hour surveillance by the FBI. On the broad policy thing, a lot of stuff can change in ways harmful to UK interests. Intelligence sharing could completely dry up, for example; or fiscal and monetary issues can be shifted to really screw up your economy. Number 10 Downing Street will not like that. And then, there's the really nasty stuff..."

Cleburne continued on, clapping eagerly as the monster truck started to crush the junk cars under its wheels, "We could start taking active black-ops measures to harm your interests. NORAID, for one, comes to mind."

The British spy's blood froze at the mention of NORAID; back in the 1970s, it had funneled guns and money to the IRA from American supporters. It had also caused immense problems, between the two countries. Just the mere mention of it now was able to raise horrifying thoughts in the mind of this operative, who had battled more than his fair share of Irish terrorists in the past.

Somehow, Alec managed to talk in a somewhat even voice. "And the carrot?"

"Same deal we have with the Mormons. We share what info is appropriate and relevant to your situation. We also share information on the paranormal threat. Personally I think you'll like that, makes you less dependent on the Watchers back home when dealing with the weird stuff."

Cummings looked confused. "You have a deal with the Mormons? Symons said Mr. Harris made some comment about them, during his captivity..."

"Yeah, they give us access to their records on the supernatural, in exchange for information from the debriefings. The church's library is quite extensive on some things. They also have some field experience that they're willing to share; it's one of the reasons there aren't any vampires in Utah. Oh yeah, they also get the right to send missionaries to visit Harris, once or twice a month. They're trying to convert him." Cleburne shrugged at that.

Cummings' eyebrow raised at that. "Do we get to send people?"

"No. You got to earn that level of trust all over again, after the recent escapade."

Cummings nodded, he'd expected no less. "And you get what, in return?"

"First off, you send up a red flag when the Watchers get up to something we need to know about. They're not good enough to mount covert operations without sending out signals; and given the situation, you'll probably get wind of those signals before we do."

"And second?"

"The FBI's noticed in the last week or so, the disappearance of several teenage girls. Now, in a country our size, that's a sad fact of life; they often head for the big city, to either become waitresses, strippers or Vegas showgirls. But in these cases, there are reports of individuals with English accents in the area at the time of the disappearances. Several disappearances were headed off, after a nationwide law enforcement alert was sent out about a UK-based cult kidnapping teenaged girls."

Cummings then realized he had heard about that. At first, he'd thought it was just a mundane law enforcement problem, but now he realized it was *his* problem. < Damn. Potential Slayers? Those bloody Watchers, they don't know when to stop... >

Cleburne continued on, "It appears to me that a lot of good will could be spread around, if these girls - all of whom are American citizens, by the way - were to be reunited with their families and left alone. Wouldn't you agree?"

Cummings nodded, already planning a meeting with the liaison to MI-5. "That would seem to be conducive to the improvement of relations. I am sure that Her Majesty's government would seek to facilitate the return of the young ladies, if or when they're found within our borders."

"All of them," Cleburne said flatly. "Including the one called Kennedy."

"I'm sure you already know that will be very difficult." Whoever this Kennedy was, Travers had been extremely shaken up at Xander mentioning her name in the Army-Navy Club last week. Cummings had no doubts the Council would not want to give her up easily, or at all.

"Just because it's difficult, doesn't mean you can't do it. Your government can be downright ruthless when the circumstances call for can be mine."

"Anything else?"

"You'll know if there is." And with that, Cleburne got up and walked away.


Lemke's Book Treasury, Sunnydale, California. April, 2000

The chimes sounded melodiously, as the door to the bookstore swung open. Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay walked in with book bags slung over their shoulders, and the early afternoon sun at their backs.

"Afternoon, ladies!" called the owner of the store, standing behind the counter. "What can I do for you today?"

"Well, Mr. Lemke-" Willow started, till she saw the frown on the bookstore owner's face and corrected herself. "-sorry, Josef, we have some books we need to get. Class assignments and all that." She held up a list.

"Here, let me take a look..." Lemke reached over, and accepted the list from Willow. "Hmmm, I should have most of these books. A few will be in the back with the special collection. Just wait a few minutes, and I'll see what I can do. There's some tea over next to the fiction section, if you want please help yourselves..." the guy said somewhat absently, as he wandered to the back room.

Willow smiled, as she went over to the teapot and poured both Wiccans a cup of tea. "Y'know, I really like it that this store is open. It's much nicer and cozier than the chain bookstores we previously had to go to."

Tara sipped the tea. "I'll, I'll have to take your word for it, sweetie. Remember, while I've been here since 1998, I-I've known you less than a year; a-a-and this store had been open longer than that."

"Not by much." Willow pondered for second. < Goddess - it's been a hectic seven months, hasn't it? No real Big Bad, only several medium bads and an awful lot of little bads running around... >

The college year had started out with the Scoobies dealing with the vampire bitch - Willow knew of no other way to put it - named Sunday, hiding out in an old abandoned fraternity house. Buffy had come back from summer break down on her game, and it had taken a few days for her to get back in the slaying groove.

Although Willow and Giles had finally been able to get her back into the Slayage mood, they just didn't have the gift to motivate someone - unlike the late, never-to-be-forgotten Xander Harris. Willow missed Xander's easy ability to cheer people up, back in the good old years of high school; and even though she was gay now, she missed *him* too.

Then after Sunday was dust had come Buffy's soul-sucking demon roommate, the so-called Kathy Newman. Followed up by the return of Harmony, their former classmate from high school, who was now a vampire.

And then there was the nightmare of what had happened with Oz.

The female werewolf Veruca had had sex with her boyfriend more than once, when she had found them in his cage. Willow had been devastated, and it had been made even worse when the wolfed-out Oz had later killed Veruca right in front of her. Oz had left Sunnydale almost immediately afterwards in despair, despite her pleas for him not to...

Which had put Willow into such horrible emotional pain, that it had spanned across the dimensions, and attracted the attention of a vengeance demon named Anyanka.

Late last year, the 1120-year-old creature had appeared to Willow as a co-ed named Anya to grant a Wish. Willow, not realizing what was going on, had off-handedly wished that people would just do what she wanted, for once in her life. After all, she had wanted Oz to stay, but he had abandoned her...

And then Willow, all of a sudden, had found herself with the power to make people do things with just her words alone; the ultimate 'my will be done' curse. Something which had had Anyanka, D'hoffryn and many other of the denizens of the demon dimension Arash ma'har laughing their asses off...

Of course, Willow hadn't realized what was going on at first, and had made a few comments she now wished she hadn't; such as her complaining that Buffy spent so much time with Giles these days, that she should just go ahead and marry him.

The image of the two of them kissing still caused Willow to shiver, whenever she thought of it. And she hoped - she *really* hoped - that Giles hadn't had time to sample both the mother *and* the daughter, thanks to those cursed magicks. Because if so, there weren't enough baked cookies in the world to ever make up for that.

It had taken her a few hours to figure out what was going on, during which things had gotten worse - Amy being only briefly de-ratted, for example. But finally, the Willster had figured out that the co-ed she had met must somehow have been behind all this, and confronted her about it; well, after a bit of research and the incantation to summon her was found.

A knock-down, hair-pulling, really vicious catfight had subsequently taken place. But after Anyanka went all vein-y on her, Willow had let loose with the dark magicks she had tapped into once before, when taking on Spike and Dru the day they'd sent Xander to Hell. And she'd accidentally crushed the necklace pendant, that was the source of the vengeance demon's powers.

Everything had returned back to normal, the incredible damage to Giles' condo disappearing as Anyanka became trapped into her identity as a mortal 20-year-old college student.

Anya Jenkins - the woman previously destined to love Xander Harris with all her heart - was born.

< Boy, was she *not* happy about that. She spent most of November and December trying to get her powers back. Kept annoying everyone! And the Goddess knows, if even half the things she said I did were true... >

But still, Anya had gotten to the point where she now helped out on occasion, as well as eagerly pursuing her business major at UC Sunnydale. Giles seemed very interested in her knowledge of the occult - so she was gradually, and unhappily at that, becoming a member of the Scoobies.

The upcoming arrival of Y2K had seen a big change in Willow Rosenberg's life. The Gentlemen had come to Sunnydale to collect seven hearts, and rendered the whole town mute. And during that crisis, Willow had bonded with Tara. She hadn't expected to ever fall for a woman - the redhead had spent *years* planning her wedding to Xander, after all - but completely fall for Tara she eventually did.

Buffy had been able to defeat the Gentlemen, although she had been helped by a masked man in fatigues that night; someone who had broken that box, to release the voices. Even now, the Scoobies still hadn't been able identify who it was; but since he had never been seen again, there wasn't much they could do about it.

And immediately afterwards, there had come that thing with the Vahrall demons wanting to open the Hellmouth, and destroy the world. Willow still had nightmares about finding that corpse that way; but luckily Anya had identified the Word of Valios in Giles' possession before the demons could find the darn thing and crushed it, ending the threat potential.

Then they'd had to deal with the rising of the demon prince Barvain, on Buffy's birthday of all days. < And oh my Goddess, but that was *such* a mess. Took us two months to finally deal with him! > Willow thought to herself.

She did not - she could not - know that in another world, the demon prince had been prevented from arising by the Initiative, long before the Scoobies had gotten involved; as that organization was something that had never existed, in this reality.

Well, things might have been easier if Ethan Rayne hadn't also shown up and turned Giles into a Fyarl demon for laughs, back then. Ethan had then fled town after learning of Barvain's presence, and turning Giles back into a human being had definitely distracted the Scoobies for a while there.

Then a month ago, Oz had returned. Even though he had learned to control his inner wolf, *his* arrival back in town had not gone at all well either.

When the guy had caught the scent of Willow on Tara and finally figured things out, he had lost control and attacked the blonde Wicca. If not for Buffy arriving in the nick of time in that UC Sunnydale hallroom, Tara might have been seriously hurt by the werewolf. So Oz had left town after that, afraid of losing control again - and Willow hadn't heard anything from him, since.

And now, yet another crisis had arisen. During the last few months, someone had started unifying the vampires of Sunnydale under one leader. For what purpose the gang wasn't sure, but it couldn't be good - because the lessons of Spike and Angelus had been forever engraved into the minds of the core Scoobs.

In any case - all that the good guys knew for certain was that it involved unicorns, for some strange reason...

So Giles had sent the two of them to find whatever books they could, on the magical aspects of unicorns. The lesbian duo had gotten several at the local tarot shop, that would one day be called the 'Magic Box'; and the owner, Mr. Hasim, had suggested that the few they couldn't find, might be found at Lemke's bookstore next door. Willow had nodded and added the books they were looking for to the list of books they were going to get for schoolwork.

Ever since Lemke's had opened, Willow had been spending more and more time there. It seemed to have a decent collection of occult and Wiccan lore; and even if it hadn't, Willow enjoyed the atmosphere of the store. As said, it was much more personal than the chain stores that seemed to be popping up everywhere these days.

Lemke came out from the back room, carrying four books. "Here you go. I don't have Martel's Guide to Magical Creatures, but I have a friend I can special-order it from; I should have it in by the end of the week. Will that be all right?"

Willow nodded, as she accepted the books from the STW agent. "That'll be fine. The other books on the list won't be a problem?"

Lemke smiled broadly, literally towering over the two Wiccans. "Not at all, they're over here in the stacks. I'll help you get them..."

< Personal service, > Willow thought with a smile, as she and Tara followed the bookstore owner around. < Very nice. > It was another reason Willow liked coming here. Lemke really loved running the bookstore, and it showed.

He really didn't look the part of a bookstore owner, being a real giant of man. Looked more like a professional linebacker, if anything. However, his personality was that of a book lover, no doubt. His treasured possessions were the first editions of many books, that he kept under lock and key underneath the counter.

< Well, them and his wife... > Willow knew Mrs. Lemke worked as an accountant, as she actually did the books for Buffy's mom Joyce's art gallery. They had just learned that the couple was going to have their first child, too.

"Kind of odd books here for college class, I have to say," Lemke commented, rousing Willow from her musings.


"Those books from the special collection," the spy said, as he handed a book on Spanish literature to Tara.

"They're...uh, th-they're for a class on ancient mythology, at UC Sunnydale," Tara stuttered out in response, but good enough to cover - she hoped.

Willow smiled at her lover. < She looks so darn cute when she stammers like that! > Tara caught the look, and couldn't help but smile back.

Unnoticed now, Lemke glanced at them. < Ancient mythology? Yeah, right. And to think I might have actually bought that - if Xander hadn't clued me in on what *really* goes on in this town! How the *heck* does the Hellmouth manage to put so many people into complete denial? As it would make for the perfect weapon, with regards to stealth operations! > the retired black-ops agent thought to himself.

Josef snapped out of it and mused, "Well, it's amazing all that they teach at college now. Sure is a lot different, from back in my day..."

He then continued on, "You know, if you're really into this Wiccan and witchcraft stuff? I might be able to dig up some of my great-grandmother's things. Back in the old country, everyone thought she was some kind of witch or something. And when my mother died, I wound up with a whole bunch of books she had been left by her grandma."

Willow perked up at that. "Oh, that would be great! We could get some extra credit for it in class..." < Best not to let him know what we might really do with it, > the redhead thought privately, not realizing that Lemke knew a helluva lot more than they gave him credit for - at the moment.

"Sure, I'll try to dig the books up later this week. They're in the spare room, and Joan's been wanting me to fix it up as a nursery. This way, I can kill two birds with one stone." He led the two witches over to the computer section. The guy then looked down the list, "Hmmmm, yes, I think this one is up here..."

Lemke picked a book off of the top shelf without a stepladder, which was an advantage of being as tall as he was, and handed it to Willow. "Say, you're pretty good with the computer, aren't you?"

Willow took the book, and added it to the pile she already had. The book pile looked too large in Willow's hands, which it was, so Tara reached over and took several of them for herself. Willow smiled in thanks. "Oh, I can do quite a bit on the computer," she then said in reply. "Knowledge Girl, that's me."

"Want to make some extra money?"

"In what way?" Willow asked.

"I was wanting to get a spreadsheet program or something set up, to track inventory. Of course, my skills in the computer field aren't really up to the task. So I was thinking of posting a job notice on the bulletin boards at the community college; but since you walked right in, I figured why not ask you first?"

Willow smiled. "I'd be happy to do it. I can try to swing by later on this week, if that's okay?"

Lemke smiled back at her. "Great, we can talk money and I can have my great-grandma's stuff for you by then too." < 'Course, this also means I can keep a closer eye on you and your friends. And that should make the higher-ups happy. >


Student Union Building, University of California, Sunnydale Campus

Buffy made her way across the student lounge. She had gotten out of class a few minutes earlier, and wanted to grab a quick snack. The blonde also hoped to get some quick studying and other normal college student stuff done while the sun was up, before she had to deal with the Slayer side of her life.

"Hey, Buffy!"

The Slayer turned to see who had called out to her, and saw a tall, black-haired 19-year-old guy waving at her. She headed over to the table where he was sitting; and arriving at the table Buffy gave the boy a passionate kiss, as she sat down in the chair next to him.

"Hey, Jeff, how's my favorite boyfriend doing?"

"Favorite boyfriend? You have more than one? Oh, now you know I don't like competitive games!"

Buffy just smiled at him. "Are you still upset that I had another boyfriend named Jeffrey, when I was 15 years old? Don't worry sweetie, I'll fix the competition so that you win..."

It was something of a miracle after what had happened with her first love, but the Slayer *had* moved on like the ensouled vampire had wanted. After a rough start due to her fling with Parker, she had finally put herself back out on the dating scene.

Buffy, never knowing about the now-nonexistent perfect day when Angel had briefly been human, had met Jeff, a junior majoring in philosophy shortly before Christmas. He had asked her out right after New Year's, and the two of them had started officially dating.

Of course, dating someone who knew nothing as yet about the special nightlife of Sunnydale - unlike, say, Xander or Oz or even the three-foot-tall Jonathan Levinson - had presented a whole new set of problems for Buffy.

And by the way, there was no chance she was *ever* going to look at that nerd in a similar manner again, as a matter of principle - not after the Super-Jonathan spell debacle he had carried out a few weeks ago.

"So, how was class today?" Jeff asked, pulling Buffy from her reverie.

"Long and mind-numbing. I swear, if I'd known that Psych 101 by Professor Parker would be so damn boring, I would've signed up for a psychology class thought up by a homicidal power-hungry bitch or something," Buffy joked.

"Should have been here a year ago, we had a professor who fitted that description to a T. I dropped her class, I was so worried that she might give me a bad grade. Turns out though, I was worried about nothing."

Buffy ate some of the chips she had just purchased. "What do you mean?"

"She got killed about this time last year, almost exactly to the day. It was a big scandal and everything. The police never found out who did it."

"That's awful," Buffy commented. < Although not surprising, the Sunnydale PD has never been any good at dealing with what really goes on around here. I betcha they saw the bite marks on her neck, and wrote it off as a PCP-related crazed gang attack, > Buffy thought sarcastically, not realizing that she would lose any such bets.

Although a vampire had been involved in the death of Maggie Walsh, the actual deed was done by a human being; and it was just as well for her sanity, Angel and Xander had kept what she couldn't deal with safely hidden from her.

Jeff sighed. "Let's talk about more pleasant things, babe. Like, what are you doing tonight? Maybe we can get together?" Jeff raised his eyebrows at Buffy.

Buffy frowned. "Sorry, sweetie. Will and the rest of the gang are having a Women's Studies Group meeting tonight. Knowing them, it might go on a long time..."

The Chosen One and the Scoobies had decided that it would be best if Jeff didn't learn from them what went on after dark around Sunnydale, at least for a while longer. And calling the Scooby gang a Women's Study Group seemed a good way to disguise what they really got up to after the sun went down. < You know, I *would* like to date a boy for more than three months, before he goes running off screaming from the things that go bump in the night... >

Jeff made a face. "This is the third time this week, isn't it? You should be the first in your class, when it comes to women's studies."

Buffy smiled at Jeff. "Well, since I'm blonde and have to study twice as hard to keep up with everyone else..."

For some odd reason, Jeff collected blonde jokes and forwarded them to Buffy. She thought it was cute, for now. But if he was still doing it in a few months, well, the Slayer knew she might have to reevaluate the cuteness factor involved.

"Come on. I'm your boyfriend!" Jeff pouted. "I would like to spend some time with you. I swear, you're spending so much time with Rosenberg that I'm beginning to imagine you're thinking of switching over to the other team..."

"JEFF!" Buffy almost shouted. "How could you say such a thing!?"

Jeff looked hurt at her reproach, so she softened her tone. "You know I don't go in for that. I mean, you *really* know that," she whispered to him.

Jeff cast his eyes down for a second. "I know, I know that, still - we've been together long enough that I *know* there's a part of you, that you just won't let me see. And I want in on your life, Buffy. All of it - not just the public face, as cute as it is."

Buffy reached over and covered Jeff's hand with her own, wishing this didn't have to be so complicated. "I know, still - there are things I have to do. And after all, we don't have all the same classes. Plus, you, you have your poetry club thing a couple nights a week-"

"And I'm still wishing you would come to those meetings more often than you do, by the way."

< Well, don't hold them during prime patrolling hours then, > Buffy thought to herself, trying not to be judgmental. "Tell you what, sweetie, what say after I finish up with the study group, I give you a call? We can do something."

Jeff thought for a second. "Promise?"

Buffy smiled at him and leaned over, and kissed him. "I pinky-swear." She stood up. "Yikes, my next class is in 15 minutes and I have to walk all the way across campus to get to it. I'll call you later on tonight."


Apartment B, 523 Oak Park Street, Sunnydale. Early that same night

Buffy walked into Giles' residence and looked around. It looked like she was the last one there. "Sorry I'm late, guys-"

Willow smiled indulgently at her. "Oooh, spending quality smoochie time with Jeff?" she asked sweetly. Tara, sitting next to her, nudged her slightly.

Buffy sighed. "I wish. Actually, I was checking on Mom. She was down at the gallery, going over the books with her accountant. If I'm lucky, I'm going to spend some quality girlfriend time with Jeff afterwards." She pulled up a chair to the dining table where Willow and Tara were sitting. "So, what's the sitch?"

"The sitch, a-as you so elegantly put it, is that we still don't know what's going on with this, this new vampire master who has set up shop in town," Giles said, as he exited the kitchen holding a cup of tea.

"Don't tell me that, Giles. I want you to gimme answers. That way I can go out and slay the bad guy really quickly, and then meet with Jeff before it gets too late. Here I go and get a nice normal boyfriend, and I can't spend time with him?" Buffy crossed her arm and leaned on the table. "I've been spending way too much time in Slayer mode, I need some girlfriend time or whatever real quick - or I'm getting the feeling things'll turn ugly."

"Don't worry, Buff, we'll get you out of here early so you can go and get some lust bunny action with your guy," Willow said.

"And, a-and so that others get some snuggle bunny action also," Tara said, which brought a smile to Willow's face.

Giles touched the bridge of his nose. "How the devil did I wind up as the only male in this group?" he wondered out loud.

"Blind luck?" Buffy offered with a cheeky grin.

Giles glanced at her in exasperation. < Maybe I can convince that Jonathan fellow to join up with these youngsters? True, he's no Xander or Oz, but at least he'll be someone else with a bloody Y chromosome around here. No, Buffy's still rather mad at him over that reality-alteration spell. Oh, well... > Giles looked at the three girls sitting at the tale in front of him.

"Ah, getting back to why we're here? To recap, we know someone is gathering the vampires of town under a new leader. Why, we don't know. I've done some checking - a-a-and it appears that whoever this new vampire is, he started uniting the local undead community under his leadership back in February. But what he's after doing this, we don't know either."

The former Watcher looked grim. "He, he has also been able to impose an unusual kind of control over the vampire attacks in town. They're a lot less random than before, more concentrated on certain locales such as nightclubs, malls and frat parties. It looks like they're also limiting the attacks to young people. Disappearances of students from the local colleges seem to up somewhat."

"And there's also the unicorns," Tara blurted out. She then looked at the others with a great deal of embarrassment on her face. "We got those books on unicorns you all wanted."

Giles nodded. "Good, good. Now whoever this new vampire master is, unicorns seem to somehow figure into his plans. Willow, Tara, any luck with research on that angle?"

Willow shook her head. "Not really. We've discovered that unicorns are rare mythical creatures, like we didn't know that already, but not completely fictitious. Still - what we've learned of them really doesn't match up to any of them being in southern California, or dealing with vampires. And why the heck one of them would be figuring in a Big Bad's plan for evil? Is something beyond me!" She looked apologetically at Giles. "Sorry we couldn't get more."

"No need to apologize. You did quite well, from what I reviewed before Buffy arrived. The spell looks quite promising."

"Spell?" Buffy looked a little worried at that. She disliked magic a *lot* these days; in her experience, it almost never led to anything good.

"Yes, uh, there's a spell we can use that can be used to locate an unicorn," Giles looked over his charges. "I, I'd suggest that Willow and Tara assemble the materials for that spell. We'll use it to locate one, or see if we can learn anything from interacting with a unicorn. We'll, we'll also get in touch with Ms. Jenkins, and see if she knows of anything from demon lore which might help us-"

Buffy snorted. "Ms. Jenkins? Giles, c'mon, everyone calls her Anya now. Why don't you?"

Giles ignored his former protégé for a reason. "Buffy, you'll patrol tonight and see if you can learn anything. You might swing by Willy's later on, and see if he can be persuaded to provide some information."

Willow thought for a second. "No luck with your contacts on the Council about this new vamp head honcho?"

Giles shook his head. "No. Uh, all the Watchers I knew seem to have left the United States. And the ones overseas seem to be squeamish and nervous, when they'll even talk to me. They're unnerved by something. They say they don't know anything, and despite their anxiety, I don't think they're lying..."

Buffy had a satisfied smile. "Well, it's not like we can't guess what's gotten their panties all in a bunch. Me, never been so happy to see a Wanted poster in my entire life!"

All of them had been surprised when a few weeks ago, the picture of Quentin Travers - the Watcher bigwig from England - had shown up in the nation's media, as being wanted in connection with an attempted kidnapping in Las Vegas. And what the hell - it had been enough to restore some of Buffy's faith that there truly *was* justice in this world, after his role in her Cruciamentum.

Giles shrugged. "Yes, something must have gone drastically wrong for Quentin and his people, and they're now facing the heat from the American government-"

"How much you wanna bet they screwed around with and messed up some poor new Slayer, and the Feds found out? Betcha they can't enjoy having Elliott Ness and J. Edgar Hoover breathing down their necks," Willow commented with a grin.

"Ewwww," Buffy said with a grimace. "Now you've put a mental image in my head, that I really want to get rid of!"

"Ladies. We're losing focus here," Giles reproached them. "A-a-and despite the imagery of American cultural icons that seems to have captured Buffy's attention, we need to deal with our current situation. For now, I suggest we get started with our tasks for the night."

All the girls looked at him, nodded and started about their assignments.


Restfield Cemetery, later that night

Buffy walked through the cemetery, quietly fuming to herself. The patrolling had gone on longer than she'd expected, and was beginning to cut into her Jeff time. < Why can't the vampires take a holiday, or just show up where I want them to be? > the woman thought in annoyance.

She had encountered several of the undead, soon after she had started her patrol. They'd seemed to be cleaning out some crypts, and had run as soon as they had seen her. Buffy had chased them, and managed to stake a few of them. Of course, vampires that were all dusty couldn't tell her what was going on, so the Buffmeister had realized she had to follow the other bloodsuckers for that.

And they were darn quick. < I guess the survival instinct really can make you run faster, alive or undead. > Buffy crossed over several rows of tombstones, and she vaguely sensed some vampires in the direction ahead, her Slayersense working overtime. < Man, I really wish my spidey-senses would operate different. Things would work a lot better, if I could just know where every vampire that's close to me is... >

The inner mental musings suddenly brought back nightmarish memories during 1998, of her Xander-shaped friend...ending up hating her guts, before eventually being lost forever. < Yeah. That would have avoided a lot of problems in the past. I'm sorry, Xander... >

Snapping out of it, Buffy saw movement about twenty yards in front of her. Two people were hovering behind a tree, and she jogged towards them. They saw her coming towards her, and did not look happy about it.

"Damn!" one of them shouted, and they started running away from her.

"Oh, come on!" the Slayer shouted out. "If you run, I'll just be mad when I catch you!"

She ran after them anyway. < This is kinda strange behavior for the undead, I gotta say. I mean normally, they at least try to fight; I dunno, maybe they're getting smarter? > Buffy gained on them gradually, determined to get some answers on who their boss was.

She remembered the layout of the cemetery well; the vampires seemed to be heading towards the west entrance. The blonde freshman recalled a shortcut to get there, and she swerved off to use it. < I guess all those nights in this cemetery finally paid off... >

The two vampires continued running towards the gate. Then one of them looked over his shoulder and not seeing the vampire Slayer, he slowed down. "Hold up, I think we lost her!"

The other one slowed down also. They then came to a complete halt under another big tree. They looked in all directions, to see if there was a sign of the Sunnydale Slayer.

"Where do ya think she went?" the vampire who had cursed earlier asked, not seeing anything.

"Probably back there somewhere, catching her breath. You know how humans are with their breathing."

"Yeah, well, at least we're not really allergic to wood!" Buffy said, as she dropped down out of the tree. She quickly staked the vampire that had made fun of humans and their breathing. The other one raised his arms to attack her, as his face vamped out...

Only to receive a kick to his face, that sent him sprawling back. He hit the ground hard, quickly followed by Buffy punching the guy in the face. She then pinned him to the ground, and held the stake above his chest.

"Hey! No! Come on, Slayer, what did I ever do to you?" the vampire cried out.

"You're breathing, that's what." Buffy got a confused look on her face. "Well, no, you're actually not breathing, you're...well, you know why!"

"You're hassling me just because of what I am! Isn't that racism, or species-ism, or some kind of -ism?" the male vamp asked, his game face disappearing.

< Oh great, a political science major! > Buffy thought to herself, taking in his human college boy appearance. "Right now, pal, I don't see the ACLU anywhere around - even if they did take on cases for undead Americans! Look, you've got a choice. You can either be a vampire, or you can be a pile of ashes. Want to play the game?"

The vampire struggled for a second, then gave up. "All right, all right, what do you want to know?"

"In order; what's going on with all the bloodsuckers lately? Why were you cleaning out the crypts? And who's the new head vamp in town?"

The vampire's human face looked panicked for a moment. "If I talk-"

"Be more scared of *me* right now, fang face!" Buffy looked beautiful and deadly dangerous.

The undead guy shrugged. "Okay. In order then, not much at the moment. We were given the duty. And don't know much about the new boss, all I know is what they say-"

"And that is?"

"It'll be a 'bitchin' time', once he's in control. Got plans for a lot more vampires. That's why we're cleaning out the crypts; he wants to move the new recruits in there. I mean, have you even looked at the rental property market in Sunnydale these days? Those real estate people, now they're the *real* monsters around here. You don't have a clue-"

The Slayer ignored that last part. "Who is he?"

He shrugged. "Don't know."

Buffy moved the stake closer to his chest. "Come on..."

The vampire shook his head in panic. "No, really! I've never laid eyes on him. No one I know has, either. That bastard's real smart; works through a guy that hangs out at Willy's, who goes by the handle of Tommy."

"He's down at Willy's bar?"

"Yeah, right now."

Buffy smiled. "And you'll try to warn him when I let you go, won't you?"

The vampire looked sheepishly up at Buffy. "He's expecting me and the others soon, Slayer. He'll ask what happened to everyone-"

"Don't worry. I'll tell him what happened to all of you," she replied, slightly stressing the 'all' in her sentence, as the Chosen One brought the stake down and turned the bloodsucker into dust.

Buffy stood up, and dusted off the ashes from her clothes. < God, my dry-cleaning bill is getting majorly out of control... > she thought in annoyance, as she headed towards Willy's Place.


Main Street, later that night

Willow and Tara strolled along the sidewalk, as they headed back to their dorm. They held hands as they did so; the girls were still new enough in their relationship, that they got a thrill just out of holding each other's hands.

"Do you think the spell will work?" Tara asked suddenly.

"Don't see why it won't. We've got all the ingredients, well - *will* have all of them, by tomorrow night. We've got the spell book. Giles can help out, and we're not exactly slouches at the whole witchcraft thing. Should be a snap," Willow replied with a smile.

"You sure?" Tara asked hopefully. Her life history had left her unsure of a lot of things, and the blonde Wicca honestly didn't know she was a lot better than she gave herself credit for.

Willow smiled again at her. "Sure. Just wait and see, you'll amaze yourself. Heck, you always amaze me!" With that, the two of them made their way down the road.

Not noticing that at the end of the street, Lemke was busy moving the last of the bodies into a nearby alley. Well, then again, they hadn't *been* bodies when the witches had started walking down the street...

< I'm supposed to be retired. Man, this *really* doesn't feel like retired to me! > Lemke pushed the last corpse over into the dumpster. < One good thing about the Hellmouth - the cops won't kick up much of a fuss at finding five bodies in a dumpster. Any other town, they would be in full-blown serial killer mode. Here? Just get the broom out and start sweeping! >

He glanced at the bodies in their nondescript brown robes again, before the lid slammed shut. < That's odd, how did they even see where to go with their eyes mutilated shut like that? I'll have report this back to Cleburne... >


Buffy stalked into Willy's bar, in a really foul mood. It had taken longer than she'd expected to get to the lowlife dive, as several of the undead citizens of Sunnydale had required her attention. The girl had hoped by this time to be snuggling with Jeff; instead, she was looking for a vampire minion to get information.

Willy saw her come into the bar. "Oh, it's you. Hey Slayer, how's it going! What's the Slayer doing here in my establishment?" he said in a loud voice, warning the various undead denizens of the bar of her arrival.

Buffy had no intention of playing games. She walked up to the bar, and demanded, "Which one of them is Tommy?"

"I don't know who you're talking-" was as far as Willy got, before he found himself gripped by the front of his shirt and pulled closer to the very agitated Slayer.

She snarled, "Willy, if you don't want me to burn this place down to the ground, preferably with you in it..."

Willy gulped, and nodded at the back door. "He's the one in the leather duster, who just went out the back!"

Buffy pushed the snitch away, and ran out of the establishment in high-speed hot pursuit. She ran into the back room and continued on, out the back door into the alley. Ms. Summers glanced around and saw her quarry at the end of the alleyway, running fast away from her. < More running? I should try out for the track team! Still, unfair Slayer advantage... > The Chosen One took off after him.

The vamp was sprinting down the street. Every once in a while he looked over his shoulder, and was rewarded seeing a rapidly gaining blonde Slayer. He picked up the pace each time, he did that.

This continued for about three blocks until, while he was glancing over his shoulder, the guy failed to notice the newspaper vending machine that was directly in his path. He ran straight into it and flipped over, the big dummy falling down flat on his face.

The vampire cursed loudly, as he got up and turned around to face the Slayer. Only to receive a punch to the face, that sent back to the ground. He struggled to get back up and would have been successful, except that Buffy pushed him right back down and held him there.

"Whoa there, vamp face. Didn't your mother ever tell you to always look where you were running?"

"Get off of me, Slayer!" Tommy shouted as he struggled.

Buffy then got a good look at him, for the first time. < He looks kinda young for a vamp minion... > "Not until you tell me what I want to know." She peered down at the undead. "Hey, don't I know you?"

"Must be all the times I kicked your ass!" her prisoner growled at her.

"Pfffft, you wish," Buffy replied nastily. "Still, I know you from somewhere. But where-"

"You better let me go, or else. My master will be real mad about this!"

"And on that point, by the way, who is the big noise you're working for? I keep hearing...nothing about him, and hey! I thought to myself, so want to meet this guy."

The vampire laughed. "You have no idea, do you? You keep saying him. You have no clue. The great and powerful Slayer really doesn't..." His rantings were stopped by Buffy's fist connecting with his face. "Owwwwww!" he whimpered.

"Okay, let's try this again. Who's your boss? What's the plan? And is there any way we can hurry this along, so I can get home by midnight?"

"Why, you got a date or something?" At her silence, Tommy laughed. "Oh my God, you *do* have a date! Boy, I almost feel sorry for you - the job must make it hell on your social life-"

Another fist in the face hit home. "Owwwww! Will you quit that? Okay, fine. My boss is the eternal radiance that lights up the night. She's the center of the entire macrocosmic universe. She's-" All these platitudes brought another punch to his face.

"So you work for a female vamp? Fine. How about just telling me the plan, without all the poetic garbage?" Buffy's eyes widened suddenly. "Hey, *now* I know who you are! You're Brad Konig. I knew you in high school, you were always writing bad poetry for literature class in 10th grade! That, and you beat up kids in gym-"

Her captive looked up sullenly at her. Buffy raised back her fist as if to strike him again.

"All right, all right! I'm him."

"Then why is everyone calling you Tommy?'

"I hate the name Brad. Always have, always will. That's why I killed my parents, for naming me that-"

Buffy belted him again, in what had now become a sad routine. "So you became a vampire and changed your name. You couldn't have just gone to night court, and paid fifty bucks to do it?"

"You mock me with your words, Slayer. But just you wait, she's almost ready. And once it's here, you'll all be resting in pieces!"

"It? Do tell," Buffy said menacingly.

Brad/Tommy gulped, when realized he may have said too much. "What do you mean? I don't know what you mean. There's no it. There's - nothing's going on," he babbled with more than a trace of panic in his voice.

Buffy smiled down at him with the grin of a lethal predator. "Oh there is, and by the time we're done here? You're going to tell me *exactly* what is going on."


The apartment of Rupert Giles, shortly after midnight

Giles headed downstairs, trying to get fully awake. Whoever was knocking on his door had roused him from a restful slumber, and the former Watcher was not happy about that. < I hope that whoever is pounding on my door like that is bloody well prepared to justify their actions... >

"What is it?" the former 'Ripper' growled, as he flung open the door. He then just stared at what was there.

"Out of the way, Giles, I *really* don't want to be seen with this in public," Buffy said, as she entered the apartment. Two sets of footsteps sounded; well, one set of footsteps and one set of hoofsteps sounded on the floor of Giles' condo.

Giles stood in open-mouthed shock at what he was looking at. "You can't bring that in here!"

Buffy looked at Giles. "Well, what do you suggest I do with it then? 'Cause I can't really take it to one of the local stables, now can I?"

There in the middle of the entryway stood Buffy, holding a leash that was connected to a honest-to-goodness...unicorn.

Giles looked around, trying to figure out what to do. "All right, uh - come on, we'll put it in the spare room for now." He led Buffy and the unicorn towards that part of the residence, "Now then - how did you, how did you come into possession of this unicorn?"

"Got a lead from one of the vampire master's henchmen, and by the way - we're dealing with a female vampire master here. Probably a sane version of that nut case, Drusilla."

Rupert frowned, remembering how she'd tricked him that day he'd been tortured. "Did you get a name?"

Buffy shook her head, as she led the unicorn into the spare room. "No, Brad preferred filling up a dust buster to giving up her ID."


"Yeah, uh, turns out I knew him in high school. Anyway, didn't get too many details out of the guy, as I don't think he was really part of the inner circle. One thing I did get though, was that our vampire queen was waiting for a special delivery. I also got the time and place of said delivery. So I decided to make an addition to the welcoming committee, namely good ol' me. Long story short, you now have a new houseguest...."


Thirty minutes later

Willow and Tara arrived at the apartment, and with the Avengers assembled they all gathered in the spare room to examine the animal that Buffy had brought back from her raid.

"Wow, it's so amazing! Look at that horn, all glittery. Actually, I'll admit I never thought I'd actually see one, 'cause you know - they were always the stuff of fairy tales or whatever," Willow commented.

"Like vampires?" Buffy remarked.

Willow looked over at Buffy with a sad half-smile, the ghosts of the fallen souls they both remembered suddenly between them. "Yeah, like vampires."

Giles studied the creature, thankful that it just seemed content to stand there and not do anything else, like chew on the carpet. As his safety deposit was not insubstantial... "Any idea of what the vampire queen needed the unicorn for?"

"Not a clue. All I know is, that the unicorn's the last piece in the queen's plan."

"Well, um, what do we do now?" Tara asked.

The others looked at each other. But Buffy was the first one to give voice to what the others were thinking, "You mean, we had all these plans about finding the unicorn, but we hadn't thought about what to do once we had it?"

Willow looked apologetically at Buffy. "I guess we just figured that once we had what we were after, it would be obvious what to do. Kinda dumb, huh?"

"Well, well, one thing is obvious," Giles said, as he started moving around the room. "I'm putting down newspapers, because I just had this carpet steam-cleaned a few weeks ago..." The Englishman laid down the newspapers as he spoke. When he got near the unicorn, it looked at him with sorrowful eyes and then stepped over onto the paper safety net. Giles cleared his throat, clearly unnerved by the unicorn's actions.

Buffy had her hands on her hips, as she regarded her mentor. "Okay Giles, now that you're done channeling Martha Stewart, can we get back to the problem at hand?"

"Quite," Giles clucked his tongue. "It's unfortunate the unicorn itself can't tell us what's going on, you know-"

"Why not?" The others looked at Tara questioningly. She wringed her hands a little bit. "It's just, well - she's intelligent. You can tell, just by looking at her! And look how she's making sure to stay on the newspapers. We just need to figure out a way to let her speak!"

"Sweetie, I-I-I don't recall there being a Dr. Doolittle spell out there anywhere," Willow said nervously.

Giles looked thoughtful for a second, then hurried out of the room. The girls just looked at each other. Giles then came back into the room a few moments later, flipping through a book. "Yes, yes, here we go, this Turkish spell lets someone without a voice have one. It links the mind of a person who can't speak, with someone that can. We could probably modify it, so we can use it between a human and a unicorn..."

"Cool," Buffy said unenthusiastically. "So I guess I'm channeling the horsey-horse, while you guys do the mojo?"

Giles shook his head. "No, uh, I'm sorry Buffy. But I'm afraid that - that wouldn't work," he said, looking slightly embarrassed.

"Why not?" Willow asked in confusion.

"Well, it''s like...well-"

"Spit it out, Watcher man! 'Cause right now, I'm supposed to be making out with Jeff, not here talking about this!" Buffy snapped.

Giles sighed. "As you wish. It's like how the one thing everyone knows about unicorns, that they can only be touched by virgins? Well, I'm afraid..."

"Still not getting what you...oh, no! You can't mean-!" Buffy said in exasperation, her voice rising a little bit.

"I'm afraid so. Buffy, changing the spell for a unicorn will be difficult enough. So we should do everything else in our power, to give the translation spell every possible chance of success."

Buffy Summers threw her arms up in the air. "Great. This is southern California, in the 21st century! Where the hell are we gonna find a virgin around here?"

Willow tentatively raised her hand. "Buffy? I, um, I think I have an idea..."


Thirty minutes later

"Okay, why exactly am I here again?" Jonathan Levinson asked hesitantly. As being roused from your bed by a ticked-off Slayer was not something that reassured one about one's continued safety.

"Don't ask too many questions, Jonathan. Just consider this part of making up for us kissing like that, a few weeks ago," the blonde Slayer said between clenched teeth.

The nerd and would-have-been member of the group known as the Trio backed off at once. "Whatever you say..." < I knew I should have gone with those twins instead of trying to make her my girlfriend, > Jonathan mused.

Buffy turned to the others. "Have I told you how much I hate this idea?"

"Yes you have," Giles answered, without looking up from the spell book he had in front of him. "You said so, many times before you left to go get Mr. Levinson. You called myself twice and Willow once with your cell phone, while you were on your way to get him. And once you had him, you called us no less than three further times trying to convince us to find another way."

"Hey, I just don't think we should eliminate my idea so quickly!" Buffy said with a pouting look.

"Buff, we cannot go looking for elementary school students by pounding on doors," Willow said. "Even the Sunnydale PD couldn't ignore that. And we don't want to join that creepy Mr. Travers on a Wanted poster!"

Buffy just crossed her arms and pouted. She really didn't have an answer to that.

Anya entered the room, holding some ingredients. "I've got the roots!" She headed over to the table where the pot was with the other ingredients, dropping the roots into it. The ex-demon then turned and looked at Jonathan, inspecting him like a prize animal. "Is that the only virgin you could find?"

"WHAT!!?!" the short guy yelled. He looked at the others with a panicked look, "What does she mean? And, and why is she calling me that?"

Buffy looked over at the nerd. A gleeful look came over her face as she thought, < A little payback is *definitely* in order here. > "Don't you remember, back when you had that whole Super-Jonathan spell going? When we were making out?" < And thank God it didn't go any farther than that, or I would have killed him for making me cheat on Jeff! > "You told me things. About how you glad you were, that you had waited..." she said in a sugary-sweet voice.

Jonathan just incoherently whimpered a bit, as everyone stared. < Oh yeah, definitely should have gone with the twins. Would have been twice the fun and without the guilt, all at the same time. > "No, no, this can't be happening-"

"Oh, but it is," Buffy continued with a grin, remembering the times she had made out with the geek at his mansion during the spell - so she felt no qualms of remorse, if he was now a little embarrassed. "Guess what goes around, comes around Jonathan. So, deal."

"I-I-I...think it's sweet. That he waited," Tara enjoined. "I mean, wanting to be sure and everything, for the right person t-to do it with."

"Who said I wanted to wait for that?" Jonathan muttered under his breath.

"What did you just say?" Buffy asked sharply.

Jonathan's stomach churned in dismay, at the thought Buffy might have heard him. He had planned to 'go all the way' with her during that spell, but had been interrupted by various undead and demonic activities. After all, she was the Slayer and he couldn't just stand aside and not fight evil when he was the superstar.

< Yeah, and I suppose I should actually be glad about that now. 'Cause, I can imagine how much damage she would have done to me if things had turned out otherwise. > "Nothing, just wondering what I'm waiting for here. I want to help out as best as I can, you know."

Buffy glared at Jonathan, as he started scooting away from her. < God. No wonder we never wanted you in the Scooby gang, back during high school! >

Anya looked at him for a second. "You know, I read that prostitution is still legal in parts of Nevada. You could always go there to cure your problem, if you want. I could even provide transport, for a nominal fee!" She then looked around at the looks from the rest of the Scoobies. "What? At business school, one of the first things they teach you is that if you want to make a profit, when you see a potential market opening - you find a way to be the first to fill it!"

"Geez, Anya, that's just cold. I mean if you wanna help him out, I can think of another way you could fill that need," Willow joked.

"Ewwwww!" Anya remarked in disgust. "No way, it's illegal here in California. And, look at him! He's not what I'm after, in terms of a mate to eventually provide me with a brood of squalling children."

"Standing right here," Jonathan whined in dismay, feeling his manhood being emasculated by the femmes.

"Yes you are." remarked Buffy, who had no traces of sympathy for him.

"Please, can we focus?" Giles spoke up. < I swear, one day I have to go home to England, before these youngsters drive me batty... >

He walked over towards the unicorn. "Now then, Mr. Levinson, come here and lay your hands on the unicorn. Willow, you and Tara start the incantation. Buffy, you stand by in case anything goes wrong with the spell. Ms. Jenkins, you're to help out Willow and Tara if anything untoward happens. I'll try conversing with her..."

Everyone did as instructed, Jonathan laying his hands on the unicorn's neck. After the chanting went on for a few minutes, the 18-year-old guy suddenly stiffened and his eyes glazed over.

Giles looked intently at the possessed Jonathan. "Hello," the former Watcher said hesitantly.

"Hello. Could I have something to eat?" Jonathan/the unicorn asked.

Giles and Buffy looked at each other. The British man answered, "Ah, yes, er, w-what would you like?"

"Something green and leafy."

Giles nodded at Buffy, who left the room and headed for the kitchen. Giles continued the questioning, "Do you know why you were brought here, to the Hellmouth?"

"No. I was enjoying myself at my favorite pool of water when the unbreathing ones captured me, and brought me to this unholy place. I was in a truck for a long time. They wouldn't let me out, and I learned that someone they worked for wanted me here."

Buffy came back in carrying some lettuce, which she fed to the unicorn. "Thank you," the unicorn said via Jonathan when it finished eating.

Giles continued on. "What happened when you got here?"

"The unbreathing ones said now that I had arrived, they could begin the initiation ceremony. That their leader would be pleased. She seemed to be someone rather..." The unicorn stumbled for the right words. "...easily distracted."

"Cool, now what can you tell us about el vampira?" Buffy asked, getting down to business.

"I never met the unbreathing one to whom you most likely refer, but from what I overheard she is blonde, like you. Young, for both a demon and a human. Barely beyond being a child."

Buffy suddenly felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. "Oh no, it can't be..."

Suddenly, a rock flew through the window. The Scoobies looked at it as a high-pitched female voice screamed from outside, "Hey, you in there! I want my unicorn back!!"

Buffy walked over to the window, looked out and sighed. "Oh my God, it's Harmony!"

"I assure you that I am not hers, in any sense of the word. I am a sentient being. No one can claim ownership over me," the unicorn snapped out in response as it headed over to the window, trailing Jonathan along.

When the unicorn became visible to those below outside the window, Harmony started clapping her hands together and jumping up and down. "Ohhhh, look at her, she's all pretty and everything!"

Harmony had about a dozen vampires with her on the lawn. The other Scoobies also went to the window, and craned their necks to see the scene outside. They then heard the undead blonde yell out, "Come to mama!"

Buffy's temper flared rapidly. "You mean, all the problems we've had these past few months, me having to go to Jonathan's dorm room - and oh my God! I actually saw him in his boxers! All that, was because of Harmony? That *airhead* excuse for a vampire? Oh, someone is *so* gonna die for this!" She stalked out of the room.

Willow watched her go with some concern. "Giles, you think it's a good thing letting her go outside like that? After all, there's over a dozen vamps out there-"

Giles looked out the window. "Considering her mood, Willow, I-I would be more concerned about the survival of the vampires..." He sighed, "Still, I suppose we should lend a hand. Come on." Giles led the other Scoobies out of the room. The unicorn thought for a second, and then followed them with its human translator.

Buffy stormed out of the front door of Giles' apartment. "Harmony! I swear, you give new definition to the word über-idiot. This has *got* to be the lamest scheme any vampire has ever come up with!"

Harmony looked insulted. "What are you talking about? This is the dawn of a great new era! Once the Sorority of the Unicorn is in place, we will *rule* this town!"

Buffy looked at Harmony in open-mouthed shock. "Sorority? Sorority? You did all this, just to form a sorority? I don't believe it. Of all the - I mean, the Master, Angelus, the Mayor - and now *this*? How lame can this year's Big Bad possibly get?" As she said that, the Scoobies came out of the apartment door behind Buffy.

"Right, spoken like a true loser. I mean, look at who you hang out with!" Vamp Harmony waved at the Scoobies. "Losers, every single one of you. God, you even made Cordelia a loser, and she was my best friend! Well, until she started dating that dweeb Harris-"

"Don't you *dare* even mention his name!" Willow shouted, her eyes going black.

Tara just glanced nervously over at her girlfriend. She knew enough about Willow's history to know that she still missed her best friend from high school, but in what way precisely Tara was unsure.

"Whatever. You just don't get it!" Harmony stomped her foot up and down on the grass twice, like a spoiled child. "Now, you're completely messing up my plan. Gimme my unicorn!" she shouted.

Then Harmony stared. "Oh God, look, now you've got the bigger loser of them all - touching *my* unicorn!!!" she yelled, when the blonde saw the unicorn stick its head out of the apartment, still having Jonathan touching her neck.

"I AM NOT YOURS, DEMON!" Jonathan/the unicorn shouted back. "What will it take for you to understand that? And even if I was inclined to tolerate your presence, which I never will, you could not touch me. You are not pure!"

Harmony looked hurt at that. "Not pure? Not pure? How can you say that?"

"Well, it's true ya moron! Remember the time back in high school, when you and Cody Weinberg were alone in his car at Lovers Lane that night, and I found you two going at it...?" Buffy's voice trailed off as Harmony glared at her.

"That was back before I got turned! Doesn't count. Since then, I've been pure!"

A couple of the male vampires cleared their throats at the same time, when Harmony made that comment. The so-called vamp queen looked back at them in exasperation, "You're supposed to be on my side! Could I possibly get a little help here?"

Buffy looked at the vampires around Harmony. "This is insane. Hey, c'mon, you guys have to know this whole thing is completely ridiculous! How come you're all going along with her?"

The vampires kinda shuffled nervously, looking embarrassed. One of them named Cyrus finally spoke up, "Well, she got all the hot chick vamps in town totally psyched up about this sorority of hers, and they're all on board with it. And they...well...they told us that-"

"WHAT?" Buffy demanded.

"Well, they all got together and decided that there would be no more..." He struggled trying to find the right word. ", until the sorority was all set up."

"What do you mean dating, why would that...oh!" Tara said, as realization set in what the vampire really meant.

With that though, Buffy *really* lost her temper. "WHAT!!!!! All this has been over the male vamps around here not getting any action? *That's* what this whole lameass thing has really been all about!?!? Oh, that's it. I am going to kill you guys, then I'm going to bring you back to life - just so I can kill you all over again!"

Harmony's face vamped out. "Get my unicorn!" she ordered the other vampires.

One of them advanced to where the unicorn was, and was promptly surprised when she staked him using her horn. Everyone stared in open-mouthed shock at that, as the soulless demon named Mort exploded into dust.

"How's not wood?" Buffy managed to stammer out.

"It must be because it's a magical creature, and the horn is blessed somehow. There are stories-" Giles said, then he shook his head and regained his focus. "We'll talk about it later, right now we must deal with the vampires!"

And with that, the Scoobies attacked the undead without another word, like the well-oiled machine they were.

Buffy waded into them, staking left and right. Giles fired a crossbow bolt that found its mark, every time. The unicorn turned into dust the few vampires that were foolish enough to get near enough to her, as Jonathan leapt onto the animal's back. Even Tara, Willow and Anya managed to dispatch one or two of the undead as well.

Unnoticed by the good guys, though, four of the vampires seemed to turn into dust from no apparent source at all.

The remaining few bloodsuckers looked around, and saw their depleted numbers. They quickly decided that just as discretion was the better part of valor, cowardice was the better part of discretion - and they quickly fled the scene, wisely looking out for number one.

Harmony finally realized that her support had disappeared, into thin air in some cases. "This isn't over, Slayer! You may have humiliated me tonight, but I'll be back one day, and when I return - you'll rue the day you ever messed with me!" With that, she turned around and fled the scene as well.

"Rue? Who the hell says rue anymore?" Buffy said, shaking her head.

"Well, I don't think that the term is that outdated," Giles started to say.

"Shut up, Giles, please," Buffy said tiredly.

"Pardon me. I hate to bother you, but I do have a question - how do I get back home?" Jonathan/the unicorn asked timidly. The Scoobies just stared at one another.

Across the street, Lemke looked down from his sniper post atop one of the apartment buildings, as he disassembled the rifle he had used a short time before. < Those wooden-based bullets really worked well! Of course, you have to be real proficient to use them properly, but still... >

Luckily for all concerned, Lemke *was* an excellent marksman. < Better call Cleburne in the morning; tell him about those weirdos with the mutilated eyes, and about the vampire floorshow that just finished up here... >


Room 214, Stevenson Hall, UC Sunnydale. Two hours later

Buffy sat bolt upright in her bed with a soft scream, and waking Willow up with a fright. "Buff-?"

The blonde Slayer paid her no attention, "Oh, no! Jeff! I completely forgot!"

Part Six

Los Angeles, California. July, 2000

Charles Gunn walked down the street. And although he would personally despise the comparison if it were ever mentioned to him, for all the world he acted like a police officer, walking his beat. He knew the neighborhoods he frequented. Knew the people in them, on them, and under them; knew the streets, knew the buildings.

And like a good beat cop, the gang leader could easily tell when something was wrong in his 'hood. Gunn could feel it in the air, in the very surroundings as he made his rounds.

Nowadays, his rounds had grown in size. The 'Lost Boys' had been able to expand their operations somewhat. Close to 18 months ago, they'd been struggling to hold onto just one neighborhood in the slums of LA...

Then that Harris guy had shown up, and helped them take a nest of vampires. And in doing so, he and his people had learned that life didn't have to be a desperate holding action. The runaways and homeless kids realized that with the right tools and training, they could go on the offensive - and take out the things that went bump in the night.

For the longest time, the LA underworld had always encountered the humans and caused fear and panic among them. After all, one teenage Slayer could only be in one place at a time; and the current Chosen One had left her hometown to guard the Hellmouth, nearly fours ago now.

And even though the vampire Champion with a soul had come to take over for her, he couldn't be everywhere at once either.

Facing off against human groups who knew that evil could be beaten, however, well - that threw off the underworld's game. Attitude made a huge difference in the fight against evil.

< As do supplies; man, they really help also! > Gunn thought to himself.

After that...interesting journey to Georgia to help out Army Guy, the Lost Boys had started to get some supplies from an 'unknown source'; mostly food, weapons and other combat supplies. There had only been two such supply drops since they had last seen Xander, but the supplies had come in very handy.

With these supplies, the Lost Boys gave better than they got with the undead. Gunn had started leading a crusade, and had also helped guard Wesley and Cordy in hospital after the headquarters of Angel Investigations had been blown up by a demon named Vocah. Still, despite that more street people had started wanting to hook up with his soldiers, which in turn had led to more successes for him and his boys. More territory made safe from the paranormal was an inevitable result of all this.

Of course, life also has a funny way of turning everything upside down on you.

There had been a surprise in the second supply package. A typewritten note, with no signature. All it said was for him and his forces to look out for something called the New Family or New Life shelter for runaways. There was also a phone number to be called, when something had been found.

The word had been put out on the street. Gunn was sure that if there was anything like it in Los Angeles, he would hear about it before too long.

And he had been right. Just two days after he had put the word out, a tip had come in about one particular place. Gunn had sent Bobby to check it out; and the phone call he had received a little earlier had been the result of said stakeout.

Gunn saw Bobby loitering on a street corner, effortlessly blending in with the other denizens of the metropolis. He casually walked up to him, "Hey, bro. What's the word?"

Bobby nodded to him in greeting. "Lotta bad vibes here, man. Been feeling 'em even worse than that little trip we took to Georgia, few months back. I think we're onto the real deal here."

"Like what?"

Bobby nonchalantly nodded to the building across the road from him. A sign proclaimed it as the 'New Hope Family Shelter'. "I swear that place is givin' me the serious wiggins, dog."

"Why's that?"

"Well, for one, I been watching it for almost two days now. Lots of kids go in, brought in by them counselors. Thing is, I ain't never seen any of them come out. All I seen is a bunch of old geezers come stumblin' outta there."

Gunn looked puzzled. "Old folks? At a runaway shelter?"

"Yeah, 'bout twice a day. The counselors herd them out, and push 'em away down the street. And lemme tell you, the old farts are almost zombie-like, in complete fear of the counselors. Caught up with one of 'em last night. She just kept mumbling, 'I'm no one'. Kinda freaked me out."

Gunn looked deep in thought. "What happened to her?"

"Eventually wandered off somewhere in the direction of Venice Boulevard. Acted real afraid of anyone showing guts, too."

Gunn thought some more, for about a second. "Kids go in, but don't come out? You seen any old people go in?"

"No, which is another reason my ass is gettin' all freaked out here."

"So kids go in, but don't come out; and old people come out, but don't go in. Yeah, I can see why this is freakworthy. And I'm thinkin' we just found whatever Harris was looking for." Gunn started walking down the street.

Bobby followed him. "Where you going?"

Gunn turned the corner, and took out the cell phone that had come in the last supply drop. "Don't want no one to see us makin' a phone call, man, not right in front of their building!" He started dialing the number that he had memorized several days ago. Then the black guy waited for the other end to answer.

"Hello." It was a female voice, older.

"Yeah, hi - this is Charles Gunn, with two n's. You the one lookin' for the New Family people?"

"We are."

"I've sure as shit got something for you, then."


Washington, DC. Five minutes later

Esther Marcum hung up the telephone, after talking with Gunn. She then made a mental note to have the number disconnected and erased, as soon as possible. < No reason to give anyone looking, a possible means of finding us. >

The STW operative frowned. < This is good, I suppose; we've been wondering if those demons had changed their slave-gathering habits, after Mr. Harris escaped from their custody. At least now, we know the answer. > She then turned to the computer workstation next to her desk, and started pulling up a menu.

< Hmmm, now let's see who's available to handle this... > A smile then spread over Esther's face. <Somehow, that's quite fitting. He's been looking to get into the field. And this would seem to be a perfect opportunity. > The black woman reached over, picked the phone and waited for the call to go through.

"Cleburne. You in the mood to kill something?"


141 Embury Street, Los Angeles, California. Four days later

"Angel Investigations. We help the helpless," Cordy chimed at her Silverlake apartment, which was also the temporary office for the detective agency, as she answered the phone.

"Cordelia, this is Lily. Any chance you're free to help me?"

"Yeah, I think I can shake loose for a while; no auditions or anything. What's up?" Cordy replied to her acquaintance.

The blonde woman called Lily - as well as Chantarelle and Sister Sunshine, a long time ago - was somebody who, in a different world, would have been known as Anne Steele by this time. As she had been supposed to meet Buffy the vampire Slayer, and help the Chosen One get her life back on track during the September of 1998.

But it hadn't worked out that way, this time around. Still, nonetheless, Lily had gotten involved in helping runaways, in the time she had been in Los Angeles - ever since she'd met Spike and left Sunnydale during 1997.

In this reality, her boyfriend named Rickie T had still ended up a slave in Ken's schemes, and died of old age after being thrown out onto the streets. But since Buffy hadn't been there to find him, Lily had just assumed the worst after a few days - and luckily for her disappeared out of town, before the demon slavemaster could find her to administer the same fate.

But eventually she had come back, cleaned up her act and as said, decided to help people like herself - granted, a bit later than it had previously destined to be. And it seemed that most of the runaways she dealt with had some connection to the paranormal; therefore, she had encountered Angel and the Fang Gang on more than one occasion.

Lily said simply in reply to Cordy's question, "I'm not sure, the LAPD called and said they were going to have a situation involving runaways. Asked if I could be there, to help out. They even gave me a time and place as to when they would need the help. But they couldn't tell me for sure how many kids there would be, so I figure I might need some help on this one."

"I'll do what I can. When do you need me?"

"In about an hour."

"Cool, swing by and pick me up."


New Hope Family Shelter, Los Angeles, California. Thirty minutes later

The three teenagers wearing white robes hesitantly approached the black tar-looking portal. There were seven 'counselors' arrayed throughout the room.

"Don't worry, you need to be cleansed before you start your new life. Just step into the pit," the counselor in charge said soothingly.

< You know, even though Ken got himself killed by that human, his method of gathering slaves worked pretty well. A few minor changes were needed here and there, of course, but the overall idea was pretty good, > the demon who had taken over when Xander had killed Ken thought to himself. He motioned for the teenagers, two girls and a boy, to step forward.

Suddenly, a racket arose outside the door to the chamber. Two of the counselors/disguised demons moved to the door. And were promptly blown back, when the door exploded inwards with the force of a tornado.

Heavily armored black-clad individuals with the word FBI emblazoned on their jackets came through the door, wielding menacing-looking sub-machine guns. The red laser beams used to sight the weapons popped up on the torsos of the demons/counselors. The number growing, too, as more SWAT team members entered the room.

"FBI, EVERYONE GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR! RIGHT THE HELL NOW!" yelled the first agent who had come through the door.

One of the demons, dumber than the rest, started towards the FBI agents. "Human! You don't know..."

That was far as he got, before a burst of gunfire tore into his chest.

The undercover slave trader staggered for a second, looked down at his chest in surprise at the growing pool of demon blood there, and fell face-first down onto the ground. One of the teenage girls started screaming at the sight of the corpse and the nonhuman ichor, as she and her fellow teenagers hit the floor and cowered there.

The other demons looked at each other for a second, and then at the multitude of red dots that was present on their persons. They all swiftly got down on the floor too.


Outside the New Hope Family Shelter, Los Angeles

The freelance photographer clicked picture after picture, as a line of police vans mostly blocked his view of the runaway shelter. He then looked down from his perch on the roof of the building across the street, and frowned.

The man didn't know what the hell was going on, but he figured that someone somewhere would pay something for these photographs.


The apartment of Rupert Giles, Sunnydale, California. The same time

Giles sighed, as he looked through his various letters and correspondences that had piled up lately. Bills, junk mail, and one or two letters from old friends back in the UK.

< What the devil am I really still doing here, in the U.S.? > the British man suddenly asked himself. < This is insane, I-I've been hanging around as an unemployed gentleman of leisure for over a year. Buffy's not a child anymore, and the rest of her friends can easily take over my former role in her life; I need to get a life of my own, damn it. I need to go home to England... >

The former Watcher made a decision then. He would initiate and complete a project with his protégé Willow, indexing all his diaries, labeling and archiving all his materials; and once the usual summer lull in vampire activity was over, announce his intentions to leave.

Oh, granted Buffy would kick up a bit of a fuss; but still, he was the one who was older and wiser around here, and-

Suddenly, Giles froze.

There amidst all the crap, was a letter with his name on it date-stamped May 21, 1999

The day Xander and Faith had died.

Rupert feverishly tore it open, and started to read. To read a letter written by the hand of a dead man. And what his eyes took in, was enough to freeze the Englishman's blood into ice.

Dear Giles,

Hey G-man, guess who? Yeah, on second thoughts there's really no need for you to answer, 'cause I remember that me calling ya that name - it always irritated the hell outta you. But for the record, it's me, Xander.

Bet you're surprised to be reading this now, huh? Well, don't be. One thing I learned, after nearly five years in that hell dimension, was always to have some sorta contingency plans in place. And since this letter was delivered and you're reading it, that means I was right to do this - as I'm either dead, or gone.

Either way, don't let it give you too much grief; there was no way I coulda stayed on the Hellmouth too much longer anyway, two months of avoiding you guys was hard enough. But Giles, there are things I remember that I couldn't tell you before, and that now you have to know; so that's why a series of time-delayed letters are in place here. This is the first of them that I wrote, to tell you something that you're not gonna want to hear.

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

Freaky, huh? But if this letter gets to you in the July of the year 2000 like I expect, a tumor will shortly begin growing inside her skull. When it was detected, which should happen during the upcoming fall, Joyce had the surgery for it. And afterwards, she seemed to be well along the road to full recovery; when one day Buffy came home, and found Mrs. S dead on the couch from a brain aneurysm.

What happened after that is not pleasant for me to remember, Giles. Trust me on that much. Buffy made...questionable decisions over the next three years in Joyce's absence, even though I'll admit my own viewpoint is pretty biased. And you could argue that I shouldn't be telling you all this, that it was her time and I shouldn't try to play God here; but somehow, I can't bring myself to believe that, so what the hell - don't let Joyce die her 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. Just like you. Oh, that reminds me - this was right about the time you were first planning to go back to England, wasn't it? Well, forget that idea, at least for now. Please. You will be needed here. Again, trust me on that.

Well, guess that's all for now. If all goes according to plan, expect my next letter sometime in November. Take care, Giles; you were the closest thing to what I always thought a parent should be, and the world would be a worse off place without you in it.

Your friend in time,

Alexander Lavelle Harris


Rupert Giles, for quite possibly the first time in his life, didn't know what the hell to think.

The entire thing was almost enough to drive any man mad. He couldn't help but admire Xander's tactical genius for planning ahead like this, and at the same time curse the boy for putting him into this sort of position.

< Joyce dies? > The thought horrified the British man. The effect it would have on Buffy would be devastating, and he didn't need Xander's prophetic warnings of doom to know that. But if his ex-lover was destined to die, to no longer be part of the tapestry of life after the next year - did he have the right to meddle with that?

Finally though, after a great deal of soul-searching Giles just went with his instincts. He picked up the phone and dialed a number he knew by heart, 555-0193; "Hello, Joyce? It's me, Rupert Giles. I need for you to come over at once...there's a letter I need to show you."


New Hope Family Shelter, Los Angeles, California. A few minutes later

The three teenagers had been hustled out of the room by paramedics, about two minutes earlier. They had been mostly incoherent, but unharmed. And they were also lucky beyond what they could even comprehend.

The demon slavers remained on the floor, under the watchful eyes of the heavily armed FBI agents. The body of their less intelligent comrade was an example of why they *really* didn't want to test the kindness of their human captors.

The leader of the demons lay face down, thinking furiously. Something had obviously gone terribly wrong. The humans had come here knowing what to expect. But maybe they didn't know everything...

And how *could* they know everything? The only real witnesses were conditioned to not cooperate with anyone except the undisguised demons. They could only respond "I'm no one" when approached by anybody else, before they died. < Yeah, I may be able to talk my way out of this. Pretend I'm human and make them think that all the really bad stuff was just the underlings going too far... >

"Well, at least we know for sure bullets will kill these things now."

That statement drew the demon's attention to the doorway that the FBI SWAT team had entered through. Cleburne and several other Siberians walked through, all dressed in the black fatigues that were popular amongst SWAT teams throughout the world.

The demon leader suddenly felt his stomach heave in terror, as he saw who was among the group. < No. No! Not him - that escapee who killed Ken? If he's here, damn it - they'll know *everything*! > He looked at Xander, with barely-concealed terror.

Cleburne walked over to the dead demon, and flipped him over. Xander and the others looked at the body, then Harris knelt down and pulled away the false face mask. Cleburne grimaced, then he too knelt down to examine the corpse closely.

"Three bullet spread to the chest. Almost instantly fatal, from what they tell me. Our normal armaments should do the trick." He glanced up at one of his agents. "Go get the gear from the van, and we'll suit up. Have the rest of the team do the same."

The agent nodded and headed out of the room, taking two other agents with him. Cleburne then looked around, "Recognize any of these things, kid?"

Xander looked closely at the demons. Now, they were the ones trying to avoid the eyes of their captors, not the humans.

Xander's gaze fell upon the leader of the demon slave gatherers. He walked over to him with a look of glee on his face, "Oh, this one I remember; he was number two on my shit list way back when. He took...great joy in his work." Harris then leaned down towards him. "I remember when I killed Ken, you led your people back through the portal. Took over back home, did you?"

The demon didn't respond. He remembered all the things done to this particular human; how could he not, given the peculiar way Xander had arrived into their domain? Ken had done most of the torture, but some of it was by his own hand. So the demon knew there was nothing he could say now that would help him.

< We should have killed you that very first day, damn it! Well, maybe I can fight my way out of here. What's the worst that could happen, I'll get myself shot? > The demon's thoughts were quickly disrupted from a sharp pain, behind its right knee. It then screamed out in horrible pain.

Xander stood up, from where he had stuck a knife into the back of the demon's leg. "Now that I have your attention? You're going to tell us everything we can expect on the other side of that pit, whether anything's changed since the old days." With that, Xander leaned back down and pulled the knife out. The pain intensified for the demon.

"And if you don't? Well, there are so *many* ideas you gave me from my time in your care that I want to try out - and my opinion, you'll make a great test subject for them."


Thirty minutes later

Xander checked his body armor, as the other Siberians did the same. The demons had talked quite quickly, when they suddenly found themselves the target of pain from the humans - instead of the other way around.

< They've beefed up security a lot, but practically nothing else. Typical. There should be no surprises for us on the other side, > Xander shrugged to himself.

The room, now empty of the demons, was filled with a little over two dozen soldiers. All of them wore reinforced body armor. Most of them had helmets on; and all of them were heavily armed, too.

Two of the operatives he'd recognized from the time of the Initiative. Forrest Gates and Graham Miller were suited up, like the others. But Riley Finn was a no-show. Xander knew he was involved with STW; but for the time being, Finn was not involved in anything Xander had had a hand in. Which was just as well; as no headaches were needed for this operation.

And for the first time, Xander felt like he was a part of the group. The bantering between them, Xander participated freely in it all the way from Illinois; and it had felt good. It had been quite a long time since the former slave had felt like he belonged to anything, besides his own thoughts and memories.

Actually, even though he could remember that future history, not since the end of his junior year of high school (when he had been effectively thrown out of the Scoobies) had Harris felt like a member of a group. But nowadays he felt accepted within the Siberians, with all their attendant quirks. The only other time that even came close was in the future history when he, Buffy and Dawn had almost bonded as a family, the summer Willow had gone to England after her murderous rampage.

Siberian Trip Wire was a mixture of the exotic and mundane that most people, including Xander at times, would find jarring. Xander still remembered the meeting he had once attended on how to neutralize a vampire nest with ranged weapons and napalm, when the instructor had dismissed everyone so that he could go watch his kid's little league baseball game...

In the past few months, Xander had also discovered that the American intelligence community was more aware of mental health issues than most other employers in the world. STW had a team of psychiatrists on staff, to help out any members who had trouble coping with their work. So the higher-ups had decided that if Hollins' scheme was to work, that Xander could benefit from some of their attention.

Xander hadn't been thrilled about that. He had been even less thrilled when he'd met Dr. Angleman, and realized just who he was - or rather would have been, if history had turned out the way it had before.

The thing was, Dr. Angleman would have been Maggie Walsh's right-hand man in that little shop of horrors known as the Initiative. Seeing him in the flesh had not amused. Of course, by the time Xander had met him, it was outside the time period he had interacted with the Initiative - so at least there were no mind-splitting headaches, from conflicting memories.

Just the normal headaches, associated with dealing with someone who thought Walsh was a good role model.

Xander had complained about the mandatory attendance - and also been surprised to learn that Cleburne agreed with him somewhat, with regard to what the agent called the 'goddamn headshrinker bullshit'. However, the idea for the counseling had come from Hollins and Marcum. So Xander had to endure it, in order to qualify for field assignments.

Thus the young man had gone to meeting after meeting with Dr. Angleman, for the past two months. And Xander had taken the opportunity to have some fun with the shrink, messing around with the guy's mind. Something to break up the monotony, anyway, of waiting to get the green light for fieldwork.

And now, at last, his chance had come. He was going back to the place of nightmares, to find and deal with those who had inflicted so much pain on him in the past.

< Granted, it can't make up for everything they did; and for all those I couldn't save, all the people I saw get whipped and tortured over the years. But still, this makes me happy. Very, very happy, > Xander thought way too calmly, as he checked the CAR-15 submachine gun they had given him.

Cleburne walked along, examining each operative. Checking the weapons and armor on each of them. His actions were duplicated by two others; a short, squat, bulldog-looking man and a red-haired guy smoking a cigar. The three of them had managed to examine almost every one of the operatives in the room, and would soon be ready to go.

Cleburne came up to Xander, and quickly visually checked his armor and equipment. He reached over, and tightened one of the straps on the bulletproof vest. He glanced at the weapon in Xander's shoulder holster.

"You taking that old cannon?" the senior agent asked, referring to the Colt .45 1911 Xander had procured from that LA drug dealer, when he had first escaped from the hell dimension.

"Like you're one to talk," Xander responded, pointing at the .357 caliber revolver Cleburne carried in his shoulder holster. "That thing is more of a cannon that everything else you're carrying!"

"Well, revolvers don't jam. That old piece of yours has a habit of jamming. I remember what the instructors used to say about .45's; once it jams, just throw it at the enemy 'cause you ain't getting it unjammed anytime soon." He patted his hip holster. "Besides, I've also got the Glock to use, kid. Here, put this on." He handed a black helmet to Xander.

"I don't see you wearing one," Xander chided the other man, as he put the helmet on.

Cleburne's response was a laugh. "Trust me. I'm too hard-headed to kill." He reached over, and adjusted the strap on the helmet. "Here; this way the helmet stays on, but if someone tries to choke you with the strap, it'll give way. Learned that trick from the riot police in Seoul, many years ago."

"Okay, Mother Hen," Xander said with a smirk.

One of the advantages of belonging to STW nowadays was that he knew one of the many nicknames the field ops called Cleburne, behind his back. And unlike the others, Xander didn't feel the need to restrict that nickname to usage when the agent wasn't around.

Cleburne squinted his eyes, and glared at Xander. He then turned and faced the others, "Okay, listen up. You all know the drill. But a few things we learned from our last-minute 'debriefing' of the bad guys on-site..." All of the Siberians paid attention to their leader.

"We've got about 30, 40 hostiles on the other side, in the immediate vicinity. Mostly with bladed weapons, but also some crossbows and the like. They all look like that piece of decaying flesh over there." He pointed at the body of the demon. "And they should be dressed in some sort of guard uniform. None of them should look human. However, if you come across a human dressed in a presentable way and not in a cage, be aware it may one of the hostiles with his disguise still on."

Cleburne took a breath and continued on. "Also, watch your flanks. The prisoners told us that there are additional portals to Chicago, Houston and New York down there. Local authorities should be sealing them up on their end, but something still might come through, so be aware of that - and make sure nothing sneaks up on your six."

A pause. "We're not sure how the slaves will react. And given what Hall's experience was like-" he pointed to Xander, using the undercover name that all these operatives knew him by. "I don't think there's any chance of Stockholm syndrome, in this situation. But nonetheless, keep your guard up. They may hide during the fighting, they may run or they may try to join in. So be prepared for anything."

He motioned to the three young-looking women, standing off to the side. "Our friends here will be keeping the portal open, for as long as we need. Isn't that right, ladies?"

One of the three sisters spoke up, "Such were the terms of the contract."

Another chimed in, "And as long as Alexander is equipped to make good on his debt."

The third of the Transuding Furies finished up, "Services rendered now, are acceptable to deferred payment later."

"Payment?" Graham whispered to Forrest.

"Mmmm, Alexander," all three of the Furies chorused as they overheard him, and his teammates got the idea and stared at Harris; who blushed red down to his roots, like the high school geek he once had been.

"Right," Cleburne semi-chuckled. "So all of you, don't worry about getting stuck there. Nobody gets left behind on my watch," he said with finality. He looked out at the group. "Any questions?"

"What about prisoners?"

"Don't go out of your way to take any. These bozos, they really are more trouble than they're worth. If we wind up with some, so be it; we bring 'em back with us. But this is primarily an S&R op, so do what you have to do."

"How careful should we be to avoid civilian losses?"

"Again, do what you can. Those kids have literally been though hell, so no reason to add to it." He looked around. "Any other questions?" Silence was his response.

"Okay, let's do this." He put on a baseball cap. "Stay with your fire teams. Gunny!" The short bulldog-looking man nodded in response. "The kid is my responsibility. Make sure nothing happens to his ass."

"Hey!" Xander said. But like a good soldier Gunny just moved over to where Xander was, and stood behind him.

"Hall, if you get killed or wounded, I will never hear the end of it from Marcum or the Wizard. Besides, you're a field advisor, not a field op; at least, not quite yet." He adjusted the headset for his radio mike, and looked out at his field operatives.

"Thirty seconds!" he then called out. Several of them, Cleburne included, bowed their heads for a few seconds - as if in prayer.

The heads raised up. Cleburne checked the watch. "Fifteen seconds." He chambered a round in the CAR-15 submachine gun he was carrying. "Ten seconds." He stepped to the edge of the black tar pit. "Five. Four. Three. Two-"

"All right, ladies, fangs out!" With that, the STW agent stepped forward into the tar pit, and vanished into another world; where time moved very differently.


The slaver hell dimension. A few minutes later

Xander kept his head low as he took cover behind one of the huge machines the demons had been working with slave labor, as a crossbow bolt hit the wall above his head. The operation had been going well, so far.

The demons had expected more slaves to come through the portal, not a bunch of angry commandos. Thus the initial group of demons at the entryway had fallen quickly, without the chance to sound the alarm.

The next obstacle had been the massive door to the entryway. It effectively stopped almost all attempts by the slaves to escape, being far too heavy for ordinary humans to lift it; and thus, it had to be taken out as soon as possible.

In the reality that had never happened, only one human had been able to lift the door; Buffy had used her Slayer strength on the damn thing to help a bunch of slaves get loose, during her escape from the hellish factory she had found herself in.

But, in this version of history, the door had only failed once in another way. Xander's escape had been timed to the change of the guards' shifts, so the demons themselves had opened it right before Xander had put his plan into action.

Now on his return to the hell dimension, Harris and the commandos he was with had something just as good as Slayer strength.

Explosives. Lots of them. And the blast of the door being totally destroyed had brought the guards running...

Right into the advancing Siberians.

Xander smiled to himself. < Short fight, those bastards weren't prepared to deal with humans able to resist them. Gooood. > The human army had gone through the first group of demons in no time flat, and quickly found themselves on the factory floor.

The fight had then become a series of small actions, as the STW operatives split into their fire teams and spread out to their objectives.

Xander could tell that it was all going the Siberians' way, so far. At most the demons had crossbows, which really were not a match for the firearms carried by the humans. So the supernatural creatures fell back in retreat, trying to figure out what to do.

The human slaves mostly tried to stay out of the way, hiding where they could. A pitiful few of them took the opportunity to attack their tormentors; Xander watched as one demon was swarmed over by five humans, swinging their makeshift clubs at him.

< Must be new arrivals here, > he thought. < Betcha they're not even conditioned to say "I'm no one" yet. God, this place brings back bad memories... >

He suddenly found himself pushed down to the ground. Xander then looked up in anger, sore from the impact. Gunny crouched down next to him, and pointed at a crossbow bolt that had dented the machine behind Xander. "Watch what's going on, Hall. You get killed, Mother Hen will make my life hell!"

Before Xander could snap off a response, he heard Cleburne call out. "Kid, get up here!"

Xander instantly made his way to where Cleburne was, on top of a walkway. He was looking down on a group of demons on the other side of the factory. The enemy had several crossbows with them, and had pinned down some of the human soldiers. Gunny followed Xander, keeping an eye out.

"Any other way to the cell blocks, besides going through that demon convention there?" the commanding officer asked.

Xander looked around, and shook his head. "Nope, you gotta go through that passageway to get to the target. No way around it, as far as I know."

The agent thought for a second. "All right." He keyed the microphone he was wearing. "Gomez! Give those creeps an Easter egg, five seconds from - mark. Fire teams B & C, rush their position right after the egg arrives!"

Off to Xander's left, a commando popped up holding a grenade launcher. He quickly fired off a round; the grenade then sailed into the middle of the demon pack, and exploded.

The demons, those that weren't killed immediately, were thrown aside helter-skelter. As they started to get up, the good guys rushed forward, firing single shots from their weapons as they did.

"Come on! Move your asses!" Cleburne was up and moving. Xander and the others followed him.

By the time they got to where the demons had been, there was quite a bit of blood on the floor. A couple of the guards had survived to try and fight the Siberians, in hand-to-hand combat. But they hadn't lasted for more than a couple of seconds; anyone used to beating helpless slaves was just no match for these trained, professional killers.

Xander entered the passageway, following several of the commandos. < Oh yeah, I remember this hallway, > he thought grimly. Shots rang down the passageway, as several demons were encountered up ahead. Xander ran down the corridor faster. < Hey, don't all of you bastards be dead before I get there! >

Xander then entered the room where the cells used to house the slaves were. Several of the demons were present, fighting the commandos. The slaves were in the cells, yelling at the soldiers, trying to understand what was going on. But then one of the demons suddenly appeared in front of Xander, and swung an axe at him.

His old army reflexes kicking in, the former slave ducked down and allowed the axe to sail over his head. He used his submachine gun as a club, ramming it hard into the demon's gut. The slaver fell back, grunting.

Xander pressed his advantage, kicking the demon in the face, hard, as he fell to the ground. The demon's axe fell loose; Xander reached down and grabbed it, dropping his own weapon as he did.

For the first time, the demon guard got a good look at Xander's face. "You!" he croaked out in pain, and the shock of recognition.

"Yeah, me. I'm baaaack!" Xander said, as he swung the axe into the demon's face, making a sickeningly wet thud as it got stuck in the former guard's body. < Damn, but that felt good! > Xander then put his booted foot on the demon's body, and heaved the axe up out of his late tormentor; blood sprayed his face. He looked around...

Gunny was standing next to him with a glare on his face, holding two submachine guns in his hands. "Hall! Don't drop your weapon again. I don't want these freaks shooting at us with bullets!"

Xander just smiled at him. "Hold onto that for me, will you?" Xander turned and advanced further into the room, wielding the axe with great glee. Gunny silently cursed at the loose cannon, slung Xander's CAR-15 over his shoulder and followed after him, taking a shot here and there at the demons that were still fighting.

Xander continued his bloody trip through the room, and down an even bloodier memory lane. The young man had spent quite a bit of time in this room, during his stint in Hell. Thus several of the demons recognized him, and after the inevitable curses tried to attack him.

All of them met with an extremely violent and painful demise.

Suddenly, Xander found himself facing a demon clutching a struggling teenage girl to his chest. "What's going on!? Humans are not supposed to act like this! What are you, vampires or something?"

"Do I look like a lousy bloodsucker to you?" Xander said emotionlessly, as he advanced on the demon.

"Stay back! I'll kill her, if you don't let me leave!" He shook the crying girl. Xander slowed down at that, looking for an opening.

Suddenly, a voice came from behind him. "You know something?"

The demon looked annoyed at this question. "What?" he shouted out, right before a bullet hole appeared in his forehead. The demon's body started to sag, the screaming girl falling out of its grip as it did so.

Xander turned around to see who was behind him. Gunny was there, holding up his CAR-15, smoke coming from its barrel. "You're a lot taller than she is."


The apartment of Rupert Giles, Sunnydale, California. The same time

Joyce Summers sat on the couch quietly, her hands folded in front of her. Xander's letter was on the table in front of her, where the blonde woman had put it after she had finished reading it.

Giles looked on with concern. Joyce had been silent for ten minutes, after she'd finished perusing the paper. The Englishman just sat in the chair across from the couch, wanting to help but not sure what to say.

After all, what *do* you say to someone who has just read their own death warrant?

"I'll need to make sure my health insurance is fully paid up, and upgrade to a better life insurance policy," the ex-Mrs. Summers suddenly said.

Giles started a little bit at Joyce's statement. "I beg your pardon?"

"Well, if the tumor shows up as having already developed, I can upgrade my health insurance without really paying that much more. The life insurance company will be harder to deal with once they know about my condition, of course."

"Joyce..." Giles said soothingly, wanting to help the woman he had once had sexual relations with.

"Don't you Joyce me, Rupert. I have to think of these things now, before I fall apart; which'll happen sooner rather than later, most likely..." She pointed at the letter. "We both know what the odds are, and you read what Xander wrote the same as I did. Buffy's going to need me. I have to be strong for her. That's all there is to it."

She folded her arms across her chest. "I'll meet with Joan, and make sure the finances are all in shape..." referring to her CPA. "I'll make an appointment with my lawyer tomorrow, as well. Update my will, and maybe establish a trust fund for Buffy. The art gallery also needs to be taken care of. Maybe I can find a way for Buffy to hold onto it if..." her voice faltered for a few seconds. "If something does happen to me."

"Joyce, this isn't - we should first see about getting you to a doctor. An MRI specialist, o-or something," Giles said softly.

Joyce nodded. "Yes, yes we will, but first let's get everything lined up on the money front. I can't afford to fall into complete poverty, if I get sick. I've read enough horror stories in the newspapers about families going bankrupt, because of an illness like this."

Giles nodded, Joyce was clearly keeping her head for the time being. "What do you need me to do?"

"Nothing for now, Rupert. Just - just let me have that letter."


Outside the New Hope Family Shelter, Los Angeles, California

Lily and Cordy maneuvered their way through the police vehicles, parked in front of the shelter. They had been challenged a few times, but each time the ID papers given to Lily by the LAPD had allowed them to pass. Several ambulances sat nearby with their doors open, and paramedics loitering nearby.

Cordelia looked around. "Do you know what to expect?" she asked her friend.

"No. I got the feeling that the police don't really, either. They just said the Feds were raiding some cult, and that there would be hostages that needed treatment and counseling." She looked puzzled for a second. "No, wait; they never actually said hostages. They said...prisoners or slaves. They seemed a little freaked out by the whole thing."

"Yeah, well, they look it." Cordy looked around at the LAPD officers, who clearly were not in charge of the scene. The Federal agents, wearing jackets with FBI printed on the back of them, were calling the shots here.

There were three teenagers wearing robes with towels wrapped around their shoulders in one of the ambulances. Lily and Cordelia spotted them, and so headed over towards them.

"Hi, you okay? Do you need anything? Better yet, is there anything I can do?" the blonde asked the nearest kid, a slight girl with dirty blonde hair.

"What the hell's going on?" the teenager asked in a small voice. "We were inside, the counselors said we had to go through a purification ceremony. They had us put these robes on, and took us into a room with this gross slime pit! But before we could get purified, the FBI broke in and shot up the entire place..." She hesitated for a second. "One of the counselors was shot, a-and he started bleeding to death; but-but the blood was black, not red..."

Cordy and Lily exchanged a look. Both knew about the things that went bump in the night, and finally realized that things were now gonna get complicated.

Cordelia Chase moved to comfort the scared girl, no longer the tactless bitch she'd been in high school - thanks to the never-ending vision throes the demon Vocah had put her through, around the time he'd slaughtered the Oracles. "Don't worry, everything's all right now..." She looked around. < Why haven't they been taken to the hospital or something? And why are all these paramedics just sitting around, waiting? >

Suddenly, a huge racket came from inside the building, in answer to Cordy's silent question.

A long line of ragged people, most of them crying or looking lost, started coming out of the entrance to the shelter. The paramedics sprang into action, and started towards to them. Within a minute or two, the people were clustered in a large group around the ambulances as the paramedics moved among them, treating the obvious injuries, and looking for the non-obvious ones too.

With nothing else to do, Cordy and Lily gave whatever help they could.


Inside the New Hope Family Shelter

Xander climbed out of the pit, helped up by some of the commandos. He moved from the black portal, and collapsed in exhaustion. The guy glanced up at the digital clock that had been set up on the wall, before they'd left. It showed they had only been gone about five minutes or so.

< On this end, that is. And yet, we just spent three days in the hell dimension... >

The STW soldiers had spent their time there scouring every square inch of the place, to make sure no captives had been left behind. Cleburne had been deathly serious when he'd said no one was getting left behind on his watch. Every human in the plant had been found and sent back through the portal, to planet Earth.

The Siberians had also done a few things designed to discourage any demons who might have been left behind alive, from ever trying to restart the idea of finding cheap labor in this dimension. The counterattack on the second day by demons from outside the factory had gone badly enough for them, that they didn't bother the humans for the rest of their stay.

The few demon prisoners they had been taken were brought up through the pit. Only a handful had survived the commandos' assault, followed by the wrath of the slaves. They would be interrogated with regard to their species' activities in this realm, but after that Xander wasn't sure what was going to happen to them.

Next through the pit came the three body bags, bearing the dead casualties of war; which unfortunately included Forrest Gates.

Xander truly regretted his death. He had gotten to know the guy during the battle, and realized that his experience with Gates that year in college before Adam had killed him, had not been the true reflection of the soldier's character. Xander understood now why Riley Finn had considered him his best friend.

The remainder of the Siberians then came up out of the pit, Cleburne coming out last. He caught his breath as he exited, and looked over at the three Furies; who had been keeping the portal open, despite the demons' attempts to close it.

"That's it, ladies. Last one out was me. Seal her up tight," Cleburne ordered.

The women nodded at the agent and the black tar pit vanished, just leaving the tiles on the floor.

"Everything's secure?" Xander asked them without thinking.

"Mmmm, Alexander," the Furies chorused, once they had accomplished their task. The commandos who heard them started chuckling. Xander just felt himself blushing again.

Cleburne laughed out loud. "Tomorrow ladies, because tonight the kid learns about the traditional post-op celebrations of Siberian Trip Wire..."


Outside the New Hope Family Shelter

Cordy moved from victim to victim, helping however she could. < What the hell have these people gone through? >

Most of them were scared to death of everything, shying away from those trying to help them. And when asked to identify themselves, they just kept mumbling, "I'm no one."

Several of them were physically injured, consistent with being deliberately tortured. Cordy felt herself getting angry about that. She knew that the demons - well, she *assumed* it was demons, as the 19-year-old woman had not been able to get a look at them - responsible for this had just been taken away in a covered van under heavy guard. And they were lucky she couldn't get her hands on them...

The Vision Girl of Angel Investigations glanced up, as she saw some of the SWAT team members who had captured the demons coming out. She then turned back to the victim in front of her to make sure the blanket covered him properly...when something in the back of the brunette's mind started screaming for attention.

< What the HELL!? No, it couldn't have been- > Her head snapped back around, and Cordelia stared at the agents as they walked away from the building. After a few seconds though, seeing nothing, Ms. Chase turned back to caring for the released slaves.

< It's impossible. Xander's dead! I must just have imagined it, > Cordy shakily thought to herself, fighting down the bad memories of high school - when the former ruler of Sunnydale's High elite had thrown away to Faith, the one guy she'd later realized that she still wanted.

Up above, the photographer snapped more pictures. And he was already thinking of the different people he could sell these pictures to; not realizing just how significant some of the shots would be.

Several yards away, Xander climbed into the waiting van. And as Fate would have it, the 23-year-old guy didn't realize it was only because he had turned left to put his body armor into another van, that had prevented his ex-girlfriend from seeing him again - after she'd caught a glimpse of him a few seconds before.

Cleburne, Graham Miller and the red-haired agent also climbed into the van and closed the door behind them, as the vehicle started driving off. "So, what's this tradition you keep talking about? Are we going to Disneyland or something?" Xander asked.

Cleburne grinned at him. "No, not Disneyland. Red, you wanna tell us what you found for the entertainment tonight?"

Red grinned right back at them. "We're going to an urban legend of LA. A Karaoke bar!"

Cleburne responded for all of them in the van. "Oh, crap!"


The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles

Lilah examined the photographs carefully, as there were several shots that were of great interest of her. Her assistant stood off to the side, waiting patiently.

"Has anyone else seen these pictures?" Lilah suddenly asked, turning around.

"I don't know at the moment, the photographer is a stringer who sells to the various media outlets. I do know that he approached us first, though. We've bought from him in the past."

"Make sure we're his only clients for these particular shots. Whatever it takes."

The assistant nodded, and headed out to make the necessary arrangements. As he did so, Lilah picked up her phone and dialed a number. "Sir, I think we've got enough to proceed with the proposal we discussed earlier. I can have the papers drawn up by the end of business today. Really? Thank you, Holland, that's very kind of you..."

Part Seven

The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles

"Mr. Harris, please listen to me very carefully," Lilah said with exasperation into the telephone. "There's been a new development in the case...*no*, they haven't settled yet. And this doesn't actually involve the school board-"

The papers were lying upon Lilah's desk. They had in fact been finished an hour before the close of business. Of course, the problem with legal papers was that you needed someone to sign them; in other words, a client. A plaintiff, or defendant.

And in this case, it would have to be a man and woman who had started drinking quite a bit earlier in the day - and to be perfectly honest, hadn't stopped since.

"Mr. Harris - fine, *Anthony*. We need you to review some, no, these can't be faxed back through our local counsel there. You and your wife need to sign the originals." She listened for several seconds, drumming her fingers on her desk. "No, this really can't wait till tomorrow. We're working under a big time constraint here - what? I'm sorry, what does that mean?"

The garbled voice mentioning something about Jack Daniels and peppermint schnapps indicated that obviously, this approach wasn't getting her anywhere. < Time to fall back on the red carpet treatment. Schmooze these good-for-nothing drunken assholes... > "Anthony, we can have a car at your house in twenty minutes. And it can drive you all the way here to LA, in under two hours." < Which, hopefully, will be enough time for you and your insecure cow of a wife to sober up... >

"No, there'll be no expense to you at all. We can put you up in a five-star hotel, maybe even get you tickets to a show later tonight or tomorrow." She listened again and mentally sighed, "Yes, yes Anthony, I'm sure about the hotel thing. And it'll be a suite, not just a hotel room, and it definitely will have an open bar-"

Lilah then smiled, as the very positive response came through. "Good, we can have the car there in a hour. That should give you and your wife enough time to pack for an overnight stay. The driver will bring you right to my office. No problem at all, I'll be glad to wait. And I'll be happy to see you too."

The junior partner of the firm hung up the phone. < Yeah, right. I'm overjoyed at the thought of being pawed at by that lecherous unemployed drunk, every time his wife's back is turned! > She then hit the intercom button.

"Yes, ma'am?" the voice of her assistant almost immediately answered.

"Have a limo pick up the Harrises at their house in Sunnydale, an hour from now. The chauffeur is to bring them straight here to my office. And tell the driver that he might want to have a large supply of coffee on hand, when he does pick them up. No alcohol, till they're here. They need to be at least semi-coherent for our meeting."

"Understood, ma'am," was the short response over the intercom.

Dismissing his words, Lilah looked out of her window at the sunset. A fair amount of Wolfram & Hart's business was done after dark, so the office was still humming with activity. The brunette then turned to her computer, gathering her thoughts.

< So. Phase one complete. Now I need to find a judge to file this in front of. Needs to be one that's distrustful of everything the government says, too. Someone who thinks Oliver Stone was hiding the real truth of JFK's assassination to protect the government. Hmmm, let's see... > A wide grin then came to her beautiful face.

"Perfect," she said out loud. < San Francisco judges. You gotta love them! >


Chinatown, Los Angeles, California. Later that evening

Xander followed the other Siberians down the stairway. The entire way over, Cleburne had been complaining. The thought of being the patron of a Karaoke bar did not exactly fill him with joy and love...

"Red, I can't believe you picked out a damn Karaoke bar! I figured you would want to make up for that mess in Pittsburgh, a few years back-" the STW chieftain started to say.

Up in front, the agent called Red laughed out loud. "I thought you liked it there. After all, you kept getting offered free drinks and asked to dance at the place..."

A growl was the response from Cleburne. "Right. Me dance? In a gay bar!?" The rest of the agents laughed out loud at that one.

Xander had learned of the post-op bar invasion tradition of the Siberian field ops, during the van ride over to this place. After a successful operation, the agents would go out to a bar and drink everyone they could under the table. And more often than not, fight those they couldn't outdrink as well.

Of course, not just any bar would do. It was always a bar that would raise eyebrows. A biker bar, or even a cop bar. Some kind of bar that normal people would shun out of concern or fear of the regular patrons, anyway. The Siberians flocked to that kind of bar, and made it their own for the night.

One of the operatives would choose, and the Siberians would head there. Red had been the one to choose tonight, as it was his turn. Still, Cleburne continued complaining.

'I figured you would pick something like a stewardess bar, you know? There has to be one out there *somewhere*. Or maybe a stuntman bar, after all - we are in Los Angeles! But you had to go and pick a Karaoke bar? You're going to pay for this. Lemme guess - when you came here earlier, you saw a waitress you wanted to make it with. That's why you're dragging us here, right?"

Red smiled. "Boss, let's just say I think you're going to appreciate this place. It goes with our new look and attitude, after all."

Cleburne frowned. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he demanded, as they arrived at the entrance to the club.

Red just smiled, opened the door and motioned for the others to enter. They stepped in...

And Cleburne was the first to speak. "Red, I'm going to kill you. Then I'm going to carve you into little itty-bitty pieces, and burn them. Then I'm taking the ashes and shooting them off into space, on board the goddamn space shuttle!!" he shouted, as they all looked out over the floor of Caritas, the demon bar whose name meant 'mercy' in Latin.

Xander was definitely having mixed emotions about all this, as they trooped inside the place protected from violence by a sanctuary spell. On the one hand, he was no big fan of demonkind; it was impossible not to be, after spending nearly 55 months in a hell world.

But on the other, what with the future memories the young human had acquired, he knew that not all demons were dedicated to the destruction of all life...

Xander suddenly remembered the floppy-eared demon called Clem, back in Sunnydale. The guy had helped Buffy, for no reason other than it was the right thing to do; and he had looked after Dawn as well, a few months before the First had shown up. Heck, the non-violent creature had even sat down with his side of the family during that wedding debacle with Anya, and had secretly been the one he'd been the least ashamed of...

So, for the moment, the soldier decided he would just go with the flow. < As long as no one tries anything funny, that is... >

"Welcome to Caritas! Someone'll be with you in just a minute," a green-skinned female demon waved to the group, as she juggled an order of drinks.

"Well, one thing for sure, Red won't be making it with any of the waitresses here," Xander observed cynically.


LAPD station headquarters. A few minutes later

Detective Kate Lockley finished up typing the report of day's activities on her computer. A task easier said than done nowadays, given how she couldn't say anything about the things that *really* went on in her city.

< Strange day indeed, > the blonde woman thought. <Even for me. > Because life had gotten damned weird for her, the past year or so. Meeting the ensouled vampire called Angel had introduced her to a world she had never even suspected existed...

Not that she was *grateful* for that, of course. And the vampires that had murdered her father five months ago had made her bitter, angry and determined to get rid of the weird crap in La-la land.

Now these Feds that she had worked with today, they seemed even stranger than her undead acquaintance. Kate was rather frustrated by their incredible secretiveness and aloofness, it was like they resented the fact she even knew they'd been around. The cop wanted to give them a piece of her mind for treating her that way.

And more importantly, the young woman also wanted to find out how the hell they'd known about that demon slave ring operating unnoticed, right under her nose...

A uniformed officer approached her desk, carrying a folder. "Got some information for you, about the excitement this morning. It's kinda strange-"

She looked up at the officer and took the file. "Hey, everything about today was frickin' strange! I've been sitting here for ages, trying to write a report that doesn't make it sound like we all need to be in a loony bin..."

The officer sighed. "Well, this isn't going to help then."

Lockley sighed too. "What is it?"

The bluesuit hesitated a second, then continued. "Well, I've been down at the hospital helping with the victims. They're scared of absolutely everything; but on the other hand, they're docile and will do just about anything we ask of them. So, fingerprinting has gone much quicker than normal, for that many people. 'Course, the results simply don't make any sense..."

The blonde-haired detective frowned. "What do you mean?"

The cop pointed to the file folded in Kate's hands. She opened it up, and looked at the report on top. It was a missing person's flier, with a picture of a young girl.

"Fingerprints came back for a Rachel Hunt, 14 years old, runaway from Chicago. Been missing about two months from her home."

"So?" Kate asked, or rather demanded.

The officer reached over, and turned the pages of the report to the third page. "This is what she looks like now, an hour ago at the hospital."

"This is impossible!" A picture of a middle-aged woman with drawn features, yet oddly resembling the teenage girl, stared back at her. "Someone must have mixed up the results here. Run the tests again."

"We did. In fact, we did it five times, just to be sure. There's no mistake. I even had the Chicago PD fax us their hard copies, just to be 100% certain. No doubt about it, either someone else has the exact same fingerprints as her - or that is Rachel Hunt, age 14."

Kate massaged her forehead. She had the naaasty suspicion that she was going to have to consult with the experts on LA's weirdness about this, and that did not make her happy. "What does she say?"

"Just keeps mumbling the same thing as the others. 'I'm no one'." The officer cogitated for a second. "And, FYI, practically all of the others at the hospital are the same way. The ID matches are all for someone who should be a lot younger than they look."

"Any chance it could just be a case of a hard life making them look older than they really are?" Lockley asked, grasping at straws and instantly berating herself for an idiot.

The officer shook his head. "No way, the docs have looked them over. And they're all older than they should be. Something screwy has happened here-"

Kate snorted. "Sure! But can anyone explain what's going on?"

"Not really, although..."

"WHAT?!?" Kate shouted, in no mood for his hesitation.

The policeman shrugged. "Well, that Lily Steele woman and her friend from the runaway shelter, they didn't seem all that freaked out. And the Feds..."

"What about them? What do they have to say about this? Can they explain it?" Kate felt a flush of anger at the mention of the group.

"No, but they weren't surprised at all. Just shook their heads and said that, uh, the necessary arrangements will be made."

Kate slammed her palm down on the desk. "Necessary arrangements, my ass!!" The female detective stood up from the desk. "Where are the men in black, anyway? And I don't mean the peons, where's the head honcho behind all this?"

"No idea. Whoever he was, he's not at the hospital. I did overhear some of the Federal agents talking about going to a really weird Karaoke bar-"

Lockley stood up. "I don't suppose you have any idea, where I can find this so-called really weird Karaoke bar?"


Caritas Karaoke bar, Los Angeles, California. Three hours later

< Well, gotta admit; I definitely called that one wrong! > Xander thought to himself, as he watched the agent known as Red chatting up the giggling demon waitress.

The STW operative had been making steady progress the whole evening, and Xander fully suspected that he and the waitress would be going home together tonight. < Well, what the hell, she *is* pretty good-looking for a demon. Nice body and everything, even if she is as green as the St. Patrick's Day underwear Willow wore back in third grade... >

Still, Xander was a little bothered by the potential liaison. Which struck him as kinda funny, due to his long-term relationship with the former demon Anya, that would now never happen - as far as he knew.

In any case, despite his early worries and spoken objections, Cleburne had adapted to the bar. The Siberians had taken over a bunch of tables off to the side, and by this time they were almost completely covered with drinks and empty glasses. The agents clearly were not strangers to hard drinking; Xander suspected that they could even outdrink his parents, who he had thought were without comparison when it came to consuming liquor.

However, unlike his parents, they didn't seem to lose control or start with the verbal abuse. He sensed at some level, they all retained some level of control. This was confirmed when an hour or so ago, two of the agents had started to pick a fight with a table full of demons. Cleburne had spoken up suddenly...

"HEY! Knock it off, you two. There's a spell in place here, that prevents them from fighting back. So don't pick on anyone, if they can't even hit you!" That piece of information had been learned very quickly from Red's questioning of the waitress.

The agents had simply shrugged, and quickly bought a round of free drinks for the demons. Which had gone a long way to smoothing things over. A few of the demons had even returned the favor and bought drinks for the agents, and the good mood in the establishment had picked up again.

The demons in the bar seemed to tolerate the presence of the human commandos, as this was a sanctuary for all - except dealers of the deadly, damned drug called 'Orpheus'. Oh, some vampires had left quickly once they began eyeing the soldiers greedily, and then were made to feel unwelcome in their own bar. Several of the agents had muttered darkly about taking the vamps out...

So one or two of the undead had been followed out the door, with the agents returning a few minutes later and brushing dust off their clothes. That image had quickly emptied Caritas of the bloodsuckers.

The remaining demons seemed to be in no hurry to try and stir up trouble. They all knew about the anti-violence spell in place. And a garbled version of the news had spread through the demon community quickly, as to what had happened to the slaver demons earlier in the day. So no demon wanted to pick a fight with the humans tonight, particularly when they couldn't fight back here.

Besides, demons all knew that picking on a large group of humans could very well lead to a mob bearing torches and pitchforks burning down your lair. These humans, well they looked like they would have more that torches and pitchforks. Better just to make nice with them and share the drinks.

So for now, they all concentrated on the main attraction of the bar, Karaoke. On the stage at the moment was a three-foot-tall green demon, that looked like a combination of Kermit the Frog and Yoda. Of course, the song he was singing was 'It's not easy being green'.

< Oh yeah, this night is going definitely down as one of my strangest nights ever! > Xander thought in amazement as the demon finished up the song, to the hooting and hollering of the audience.

The small demon just bowed, and came off the stage. He made a beeline to the main bar where a taller demon, also green but with red horns, was waiting. They started talking, and the smaller demon seemed to get excited.

< I guess he's getting good news. > Xander and the others had been told by the other patrons that the demon Host of the bar was anagogic, and could read your destiny just by listening to you sing.

But the funny thing was that Xander had already known all that beforehand, once he'd figured out who the demon was.

Harris remembered Future Willow describing her visits to Los Angeles, and some of the people/beings she had met. One of the creatures she had mentioned was the demon called Lorne...

And even though Xander had never personally met him in that other world, the former Sunnydalian had recognized Angel's friend from the description Willow had provided him with. The redhead had also described his power, gift or skill - Xander wasn't quite sure how to describe it. < Still, learning your destiny through Karaoke? How weird can all the mystical stuff in this world really get? >

A few of the Siberians had sung for Lorne, and had their destinies read. Red had been the first to do so, urged on by the waitress. He in turn had talked some others into doing it too. Although no one was willing to share details, each man had seemed intrigued by what he had been told...

They in turn had urged their comrades to do the same. Some of them seemed receptive to it; and the book with a listing of the songs available had been passed around the table several times. But others, including Xander and Cleburne, were not on board with the idea of humming a few bars.

Harris in particular, because he didn't want Lorne's brain to explode or anything - given his...unusual situation.

One of the commandos made his way to the stage. He staggered a little bit as he went up, holding a shot glass in his left hand while he grabbed the microphone with his right. "Hey, everybody!" he shouted out.

The crowd yelled back at him. "You ready to rock?" he then screamed. The crowd roared back its readiness. So the agent started to sing Rick Springfield's song, 'Jesse's Girl'.

Next to Xander, Cleburne muttered, "This is what you get for growing up during the Eighties..." He glanced over at Red. "I knew there was a woman behind his choice. Uh, she is a woman, isn't she?"

"I think so. She certainly looks like one, anyway," Xander answered. He looked around, and leaned towards the agent that had 'found' him in San Francisco last year. "Hey, where are the others? I'm seeing several of the troops missing in action here."

Cleburne took a swig out of the beer bottle he was holding. "Some of 'em had to do cleanup detail. Others opted out. Had girlfriends in town they wanted to spend time with, or had religious objections to drinking. Remember, Mormons won't drink alcohol or smoke-"

"Again with the Mormons! Hey, I wanna know why they keep popping up around me. And don't gimme that crap about security breaches! No way missionaries are able to just walk up to my door, without you turning a blind eye..."

Cleburne was saved from answering when Graham Miller reached over, and tapped him on the shoulder. He pointed at the doorway; a blonde woman had appeared with a look of anger on her face, as she stared at the demons. Lockley's gaze then settled on the commandos, and she headed towards the table.

Graham said ominously, "She was one of the LAPD's assets at the scene this morning. She's lookin' mad, and she's headed your way."

"Oh well, better handle this then..." Cleburne said lazily, as he got to his feet and moved to intercept her. He turned back towards Graham and the others and mentioned as if in passing, "Why don't you guys pick out a song for Hall to sing?"

The Siberians at the table grabbed the song listing, and started flipping through it with glee. < That should slow the kid down about the Mormons. Besides, newbies need to get razzed. It's tradition, > Cleburne thought with a smile.

Xander glared at his former captor, as he headed towards the blonde detective. < Do you have any idea what you've just done? Oh, I'm *so* going to get you for this... >


UC Sunnydale, Sunnydale, California. The same time

Tara Maclay was getting worried.

Ever since that business with the unicorn had happened, she had noticed...changes, in both Buffy and Willow. Changes that took place, whenever the subject of Xander Harris was brought up.

The blonde Wicca now had the definite feeling that there was something she didn't know, about the deceased gentleman in question. Before, whenever the guy's name had been mentioned, the conversation had usually revolved around how he had been able to cheer everyone up whenever they had needed it; or how he'd often gone to get snacks, during their late-night research sessions at the high school library.

Tara had gotten the impression from her friends of a man who was, basically, a not-too-bright class clown; someone who should have never gotten involved with fighting the supernatural in the first place, as he had no powers of his own. And that he had paid for his folly with his life, during the high school graduation ceremony.

But something about that just didn't feel right now.

Why would Buffy get an almost-hidden momentary look of semi-anger, when the concept of Xander fighting vampires alongside her was brought up? Why did Willow look away, whenever the subject of the high school senior year was mentioned?

Tara wanted to delve more deeply into the subject, as she knew Willow was still hurting about his loss - but the witch understood her two friends wouldn't or couldn't answer more detailed questions. There was no point talking to Anya about it, she hadn't been there then; ditto Joyce, as it was common knowledge that the middle-aged woman was kept out of the loop on almost everything, given her tendency to almost worry herself to death that the teenagers would get themselves killed...

And Tara's history with the men of her family left her unable to approach Giles in any way, shape or form. So, that left only one option.

Jonathan Levinson opened his Porter Hall dormitory door, after she knocked. "Hi. Uh, Miss Maclay?"

"It's, it's Tara," the blonde lesbian stammered, very uncomfortable. "Can, can I come in?"

"Sure," Jonathan shrugged. "My roommate's out. Probably getting laid again, at his girlfriend's place..."

Tara blushed deeply, as she went inside and Jonathan closed the door. The geek, who in another world would never even have entered college, then offered the witch some refreshments. "Can I get you something? I think we've only got juice at the moment, but if you want me to conjure something up-"

"NO!" Tara said sharply, forgetting to be insecure for once. "Look - magic shouldn't be abused like that, Jonathan. Start off down that road again, and there's no telling where you'll end up! Didn't your teacher ever warn you about the consequences of magic abuse or addiction?"

Mr. Levinson looked embarrassed. "Uh, I never had a teacher. Well, not unless you count that kid in rehab, who taught me that spell a few months ago..."

Tara blushed, her inner demons catching up to her again. "Oh. S-s-sorry."

"No big deal," the short nerd shrugged. "So, uh, to what do I owe the pleasure of this little visit?" He suddenly looked nervous. "Buffy's not after me again, is she? Because if she is, I swear I didn't do it, whatever she-"

"No, I - neither Buffy or Willow know I'm here," Tara said hastily. "I, I, uh, I wanted to ask you some questions. A-about Xander Harris."

Jonathan was confused. "Why ask me? He was their best friend-"

The woman who secretly believed she was part-demon, thanks to the bullshit story of her male relatives, hesitated. "Please. Just humor me here. Tell me what you know about him."

The amateur warlock looked thoughtful. "Okay. On one condition."

"What's that?"

"You become my magic teacher," Mr. Levinson looked very bashful in asking.

Tara was flabbergasted. "What? Jonathan, I-I-I don't know. There, there must be many more suitable people..."

"Not for someone like me," Jonathan said simply, as he turned to face her. "Look, I realize we barely even know each other, but I get the feeling that I can trust you. Maybe even trust you with my life, in time. Because from what I've seen, you're not judgmental; you accept people for who they are, and don't make fun of them. And I can tell you're a good person, that doesn't hold any grudges over what I did back then."

The Wicca blushed. "Oh. Wow. Uh, ah, I don't know what to say..."

The guy nodded. "Not unusual, where I'm concerned - people usually don't. Tara, the truth is I see more than anybody realizes, because nobody's ever paying attention to me. In high school, nobody noticed me except to make fun of me. But still, I learned a lot about what was happening in town, especially with Buffy and her little gang. Including that incident on the first day of senior year, when Xander told Buffy, Willow and Cordelia Chase to basically go to Hell..."

That was news to Tara, and making a snap decision the soon-to-be 20-year-old blonde girl made her choice. The femme knew that most likely she would cop some flak from her girlfriend and the Slayer over this, but Miss Maclay also figured it was her responsibility now to make sure Jonathan stayed on the straight and narrow, with regard to magic.

And so she said, "Okay - you got a deal, Jonathan. N-now tell me about the late Mr. Harris, as you knew him."

Jonathan settled down onto his bed. "I first met Xander in kindergarten during 1986, that first day when Willow broke the yellow crayon and cried..."


Fifteen minutes later

Tara's mind was reeling in shock. As she suddenly realized that she hadn't known who Xander Harris was, AT ALL.

Jonathan's story had included some things the young woman found it incredible to believe. He'd saved all his friends' lives more than once, ever since he was 16 years old? Then his friends had left him to die outside the Bronze, after a vampire had attacked him? And as far as Jonathan knew, they'd never even apologized for that?

True, she'd known that Harris had ended up in a hell dimension, but this was the first she'd ever even *heard* of Willow's involvement - from something Jonathan had inadvertently eavesdropped upon, later that November. And that thing about lying to Buffy...well, that certainly explained the look the Slayer sometimes got, when Xander's name was mentioned.

But still... "Are you sure you're not making any of this up?" Tara had a queasy look on her face.

Jonathan shrugged. "Absolutely," he said at once. "Look, Xander and I were never what you could call close friends, but we did talk a bit during senior year - before he disappeared. And one time, I bumped into him not long before Graduation-" the guy then shut up.

"What happened?" Tara asked gently, trying to get him to trust her.

She obviously did something right, because the young man looked up to her and said, "It was the weirdest thing. Xander was all dressed up in black, and he and Buffy's boyfriend at the time - this guy Angel? They were carrying what appeared to be some kinda body bag that night. Anyway, he took one look at me - and Xander almost seemed to have a brain seizure! Then he muttered what sounded like, 'Don't ever turn your back on that Andrew Wells asshole', before Angel dragged them both outta there."

Tara absently noted this down for further investigation one day, as she tried to figure out how she would confront her fellow Scooby members with her newfound knowledge. < They need to face up to what happened. They'll never have the chance to really apologize to Xander, granted, but they can at least acknowledge how wrong their actions that night were. >

Then the blonde rearranged her priorities, "Okay, th-thanks for all the info. Now, now, when do you want to meet for us to begin the magic training? I'm free most Tuesday nights-"

"Cool, so am I."

"Okay, then. Meet you at my dorm room at 8 o'clock?"

Jonathan shook his head. "I'd feel safer if it was here. As I don't want Willow or Buffy accidentally walking in on us or anything." Tara nodded in acquiescence. "And by the way, I was kinda hoping you knew something about animal transmogrification? See, there's a funny story about this witch called Amy Madison..."


Caritas Karaoke bar, Los Angeles, California. Twenty minutes earlier

Xander tried to figure out a way to avoid singing. "Come on, guys, you really don't want to hear me sing! I thought we came here to blow off some steam. Not to unleash a hideous-sounding thing, on the poor unsuspecting public!"

The other agents just looked up at him and grinned, and went right back to flipping through the song list. "How about 'Like a Virgin'?" one of the men named Willis suggested.

"Noooooo way!" Xander said in horror, as he heard Cleburne chuckling away in the distance. < Damn it, Cleburne... >

The lead agent finally walked up to the approaching Detective Lockley. "Officer, come to join us for a drink?"

Kate glared at the agent-in-charge. "No, I wanna know what the hell you're doing in my city!" She then glanced around at the patrons of the bar. "And what in God's name is this place? Where did all these freaks come from?" the female cop demanded, with her voice rising. Several of demons heard her, and threw dark glances her way - that she easily ignored.

Cleburne took her by the arm, which Kate immediately shook off - her eyes blazing. The man just shrugged, and motioned her over to an empty table close to the bar. Joshua then held a chair out for her, as Kate sat down and he sat down across from her.

"Detective, and I assume it's detective, language like that starts bar fights. Now, I have no worries about my people handling themselves in a bar fight here. You, on the other hand, I have serious reservations about."

"I can handle myself," Lockley snapped back.

"With your regular scumbags of LA, I got me no doubts about that. But if you haven't noticed, these are *not* your regular coked-up homeboys in here. Some of 'em are bulletproof; some aren't. There's a whole world you don't know about-"

"You can shove the patronizing sermon up your ass, mister! Because I know perfectly well what's out there. I've dealt with my share of creepy things! My father-" Kate snarled out, before she stopped herself. She wasn't going to lose control. < Not in front of them, I have to show them I can handle it. 'Cause I can. >

Cleburne stayed silent, taking a drink out of his beer, emptying the bottle. He then motioned to someone in the distance for another one.

The demon that owned the club came over. "Well, if it isn't two first-timers sitting here quietly, and givin' off vibes that say, 'I'm just about ready to explode'! So. What can I do for you two sweetcakes?" Lorne asked with a smile.

Cleburne glared at the guy; he wasn't used to terms of endearment like that coming from a demon. "Another beer." He motioned to Kate sitting across the table. "And whatever the lady wants."

She shook her head. "Just water. And I'll know if you put anything else besides that in it!" Kate glared, not trusting the Host one inch.

Lorne nodded and started off to get the drinks, but stopped when the secret agent spoke again. "Hey, mister. That waitress, she all right? Do I need to worry about Red over there?" Cleburne motioned to where Red and the demon waitress were giggling at each other again.

Lorne followed his look, and laughed. "Oh, honeybun, don't worry at all! Ametila is just the best. Your friend is in the best of all possible hands, and from what I saw will have the most incredible night of his life tonight..." the Deathwok clan demon reassured him, as he hustled off to get the drinks.

Cleburne turned back to the now-sullen Kate Lockley. "Okay, detective, you're here, I'm here. What's on your mind?"

"What's going on?"

"Now *that's* a loaded question! A cynic or a demon would say we're completely screwing up the planet, and that coming down from the trees was a pretty lousy move on our part, way back when. But since I'm pretty sure that's not what you meant, suffice it to say Hamlet was absolutely right in that statement of his to Horatio."

The blonde detective looked at the man sitting across from her in incredulity. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," the male agent said, quoting perfectly from the Bard of Avon's play.

"Well, not in my town! Look, right now I've got a bunch of middle-aged or elderly basket cases in the hospital, who are supposed to be missing teenagers. You mind telling me how the hell I can explain that, to the parents that I'm *bound* to hear from? Plus, my on-site officers tell me that these cult leaders, well...they weren't human. Which isn't the shocker it woulda been last year, granted, but - you guys, you went into the place looking all freshly-shaved, and came out a few minutes later with several days' worth of beard growth. Now what gives?"

Lorne came up and delivered their drinks. He then hurried back to the main bar, as the commando who sang 'Jesse's Girl' was coming up for his reading. Back at the table where the STW operatives were, several loud voices could be heard - offering suggestions for Xander's song.

Lockley took a drink of her water, ignoring everything but the man before her. "Look, mac. I know something weird is going on. Something beyond what even I'm used to, from my...acquaintances with regard to this sorta thing."

Cleburne raised an eyebrow at that, and made a mental note to find out about the acquaintances she had mentioned. But the detective continued on, "And, bottom line; if I get involved in something, I don't like being kept out of the loop. That kind of thing gets me and my fellow officers dead! Whatever it is that's going on in my city, the LAPD can handle it-"

"No they can't."

Kate felt a flash of anger. "What!?"

Cleburne held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "I'm not being insulting, or patronizing. But there are some..." He searched for the right word, "villains out there, that are just beyond the scope of the LAPD's concerns. Counterfeiters, the Secret Service handles them. Espionage? That's what the CIA's for. Kidnapping? FBI's got that covered. Same thing here. The things that go bump in the night? Well, we're the ones that go bump right back."

"Hey, you stole that from a comic book!" Xander said, as he came up to the table. He then pulled up a chair, and looked at Cleburne. "Don't ask. Basically, I'm hiding out over here; the others are getting just a little *too* enthusiastic for my liking, in finding me a song to sing."

"Kid, I'm working here if you haven't noticed."

"Yeah, sure, you're working about as much as Red is!" Xander pointed over at the agent in question, who was now whispering in the waitress' ear; and she was laughing helplessly in response.

Both Cleburne and Lockley blushed a little bit, in response to Xander's comment. The former slave then turned to the detective, "How are the kids doing?"


"The people we sent to the hospital from today. It has to be rough on them - I know."

Kate looked questioningly at him. "I was in their shoes once. Used to be one of them, when I was a teenager," Xander replied in answer to the look.

"Can you tell me what happened, then?" Kate quickly asked politely, sensing an opportunity.

Before Xander could answer, the secret agent raised his hand. "Before we get into that, what do you know about the underworld in LA? And I mean the *real* underworld," he asked the detective.

"I know enough. I've met my share of the vampires and other uglies out there. Lost people to them, also. I know some fairy tales aren't fairy tales, and then some."

The agent nodded. < Guess she can keep a secret. And maybe one day eventually when she gets fed up with all the lies, we can even recruit her? > "Tell her about what was at the shelter. But *only* the shelter," Cleburne cautioned Xander.

Nodding, Harris gave the blonde a bare-bones version of his tenure in the hell dimension, and what he had learned of the demons' operation. He also explained the fact that time passed very differently in demon dimensions, so that the ex-slaves in the hospital had only been off the streets of LA for less than a day - as far as anyone in the city would be concerned.

When he was done, Kate leaned back with a look of astonishment on her face. "Okay, one last thing. How long has all this been going on?!"

Cleburne answered her. "That we know for sure, ever since 1998. Probably been a lot longer than that, though." The man looked crestfallen for a second. "Guess a lot of teenagers never got to wise up and go home, because of those bastards."

"So, what's going to happen to all of those kids?" Kate asked neutrally.

"We'll have our experts - shrinks with the experience of handling people who've gone through an ordeal like that - brought in. Sadly, there are lots of humans who've done crap like that to other humans, so we know how to start dealing with the aftereffects. Odds are we'll find some way for them to live out a comfortable life somewhere, and if possible reintroduce them back into society."

"And the evil things?" Kate used her pet phrase for the demons.

"The Innsmouth solution," Cleburne said simply.

"What's that?" Lockley asked.

"Imprisonment and interrogation."

"Why do you call it Innsmouth?" Xander asked.

"Kid, you have your secrets, I have mine," Cleburne said with a smirk.

Kate listened, a little bit confused to the interaction between the former Zeppo and the secret agent. "Wait a minute..." She pointed at Xander. "How did *you* wind up in that hellhole? You don't look like any sort of runaway to me, and your age..."

Cleburne spoke up before Xander could answer. "That's classified. National security, and let's leave it at that." Kate looked unhappy with that answer. The agent continued though, "Look, you don't want to know about that; at least, no more than I want to know the inner workings of the LAPD undercover operations, right?"

Kate still didn't seem happy, but as a professional cop she did seem accepting of that answer. She leaned back and folded her arms. "Okay, what now?"

The two men at the table exchanged a glance. Cleburne was the first to speak. "What's your name, anyway?"

"Detective Kate Lockley."

"Well, Detective Kate Lockley, there's a new day coming."

"Celine Dion song," Xander piped up. "Man, don't you have any original catchphrases?"

The agent glared at Xander, and spoke slowly. "Jehovah's witnesses."

Xander raised his hands in mock surrender and stayed quiet. Cleburne turned back to Lockley, "We're all aware here of the fact that there is more to this world, than can be seen in the light of day. And we want to change things so that Mr. and Mrs. Joe Citizen can be safe at night. The problem is, that we still haven't caught up with or understood everything that's out there."

"And..." the policewoman prompted.

"We need an early warning system. Someone to sound the alarm, when things like this get out of hand. To pick up the phone and call us."

"Who you gonna call? Ghost-busters!" Xander joked. That earned him another glare from the older man.

"And..." Kate said again.

"You give us a call sometime?" Cleburne said, taking a long drink from his beer after he asked the question. "If you think the locals can't handle the problem, that is."

At that point, their conversation was interrupted by Graham Miller coming up to the table and dropping an open play list book in front of Xander. "Hey, Alex! We found the perfect song for you to sing..."

Xander looked down to where Miller was pointing, with quite a bit of worry. His eyes widened when he saw the song. "No way in hell, man, I am not singing *that* song!"

Cleburne leaned over to see just what song it was. "Whoa, being a little tough on the kid, aren't you? You're only supposed to razz him a bit, not scar him for life!" He reached over, took the book away from Graham and started flipping through the pages. "Command decision, guys..."

The man soon found what he was looking for, and signaled for Lorne to come over. "This is what Hall will be singing. This song here."

Lorne looked at the selection. "Ah, a classic! Perfectamundo. Just give me a few minutes to set it up, and as soon as that Kailiff demon's done? Your little buddy's on..." The Host then hurried off towards the stage.

Xander folded his arms in front of him. "I am not getting up there and singing Karaoke."

"Look, you're the new kid on the block here, you got to go through the rites of initiation. Everyone does, in my crew."

"I don't see you singing!"

"I'm the old man, I've already paid my dues."

"No way. And there is nothing you can say that will get me up there, and make a complete fool of myself like that!"

Cleburne shrugged. "I'll make sure the Mormon missionaries quit bothering you."

Xander's eyes flew open, as all concern for Lorne temporarily vanished. "Throw in the Jehovah's witnesses never replacing them, and I'm singing!"

Another shrug. "Deal."


The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles. The same time

"Sign here please, Mr. Harris," Lilah pointed on the paper where Anthony Harris had to put his signature. "Right next to where your wife signed-"

The brunette attorney sighed, as the man moved in close to her and she got a whiff of the drinks he had consumed before sobering up. There was also the fact that he was a lot closer to her, than was absolutely necessary...

Anthony grasped the pen firmly in his right hand and steadied himself with his left, by leaning on the attractive attorney's elbow. Inwardly, she winced.

The balding man finished signing the papers and straightened himself up, brushing against Lilah as he did. < Oh, the things I do for the Senior Partners. Just wait till I don't need these booze-soaked buffoons anymore...there are plenty of third world dimensions that could use their presence! >

At that moment, Mrs. Harris returned from the ladies room. And Jessica didn't notice, as Mr. Harris instantly scooted away from Lilah. The middle-aged man spoke up, "So, this is everything we need to do to get those bastards who are messing with our son?"

Lilah was almost surprised. This was the first indication she had ever witnessed that Anthony Harris even *cared* about his offspring. "Oh, yes sir. We'll file these first thing in the morning, and get a hearing set up as soon as possible."

"And the money issue you mentioned?" Xander's maternal unit asked.

"Well, I'm sure we can get you a tidy sum from the government, and also from the various media sources - who no doubt will want to know all about what's happened."

"We could be on Oprah. Oh, I'll have to have something done about my hair," Mrs. Harris said, feeling her scalp.

< There's no point, you stupid sow. Like the Senior Partners will want all this to become public knowledge, once we get your son released into our custody? And I swear, I really look forward to the day you and your lecher husband will just disappear! > Lilah didn't say that out loud, of course; she just kept smiling at the Harris couple, pushing the button to summon her assistant, pressing down with the barest hint of urgency.

"I'm sure you're both tired from the trip upstate. So I'll have the limo take you to your hotel suite, and you two can rest up." < Plus get drunk all over again, no doubt, but then that's neither here nor there anymore - at least as far as I'm concerned. > "Tomorrow, we'll be in touch to let you know what's happening with the case. Until then..." The assistant led the Harrises out of the office.

When he returned in a few minutes, Lilah - by now sitting behind her desk - handed the papers just signed over to him. "Copy these, and send the documents down to Files and Records at once. Then fast-courier the originals to San Francisco for filing, as soon as the clerk of the court's office opens up tomorrow morning."


Caritas Karaoke bar, Los Angeles, California. A few minutes later

"Thank you for that riveting performance, Briff. Because hey, that was absolutely Cher-rific - wasn't it, people? Ah, thank you, thank you...all right, guys and dolls. Coming up next for your listening pleasure, is a new guy here on our stage..."

Xander Harris joined Lorne in the spotlight, as the anagogic demon continued, "This is his first solo appearance anywhere, apparently, so be sure to watch - and you can tell your friends you were here, when he made his debut performance!"

Lorne held the microphone up, introducing Xander. "So let's put our hands together, and give a nice warm welcome to Alexander Hall!"

The crowd applauded, as the commandos hooted and hollered. Lorne got off the stage and headed over to his barstool, as Xander reluctantly took center stage. He grabbed hold of the microphone from the stand that the Host had put it on, and with a great deal of trepidation, waited for the music to start. < Man. I hope nothing goes wrong here... >

Cleburne was still at the table with Lockley, but he was keeping a close eye on Lorne. For the guy knew he would have to step in, if anything about Xander's singing or reading got out of hand.

The music started, and Xander tapped his right foot in perfect rhythm to it as he started to sing. He wasn't half-bad, either; after all, he had learned *something* after that business with the musical amulet. Not to mention listening to his ex-girlfriend Cordelia singing, 'The Greatest Love Of All' during sophomore year...

I see a bad moon rising I see trouble on the way I see earthquakes and lightnin' I see bad times today

< So far so good, > Xander thought to himself, as there were no screams of pain from the bar where Lorne was chatting to one of the waitresses.

Don't go 'round tonight 'Cause it's bound to take your life, There's a bad moon on the rise

Lorne stopped talking to the waitress suddenly; he turned and stared at Xander, locking his suddenly-huge red eyes with the human's as the song went on.

I hear hurricanes a-blowing, I know the end is coming soon I fear rivers overflowing I hear the voice of rage and ruin

< Got that right, > Xander thought to himself vaguely, as he watched Cleburne casually stroll over to the main bar to get another beer. The waitress that Lorne had been talking to, and who by the way was not the one Red had been making time with, stared at her boss - trying to figure out what had him so transfixed about this singer.

Don't go 'round tonight It's bound to take your life, There's a bad moon on the rise

Lockley looked around to where Cleburne had gone. < Here I am trying to chew his head off, then he offers me some kind of deal - and now he's wandered off to the bar? Men, > she thought to herself disgustedly.

Hope you got your things together Hope you are quite prepared to die Looks like we're in for nasty weather One eye is taken for an eye

Xander's voice faltered a little at that line, as future memories of Caleb maiming him came swarming into his mind. But he quickly recovered, and went on.

And at the bar, Lorne placed a hand to his forehead. He groaned - then yelled, "Ramone! Whatever the strongest thing is that we sell in this place, gimme it right now! No, make it a double!"

The waitress leaned over to see what was wrong, but Lorne waved her off. Cleburne watched all this, ready to step in if necessary. Back at the table, Kate's cop instincts kicked in and she watched the drama at the bar, trying to figure out what was going on.

Don't go 'round tonight It's bound to take your life, There's a bad moon on the rise

Ramone quickly served his boss, who just as quickly gulped down the drink; and as Xander continued singing, Lorne fainted, collapsing unconscious. The waitress was about to call for help, but then she saw Cleburne's face; and that quickly cured her of any notions of screaming for assistance.

The crowd then applauded, the commandos standing up and stomping their feet - hollering in joy, as Xander finished the song. The former class clown bowed in appreciation, then placed the microphone back on the stand and quickly walked to the bar - where Lorne was waiting for him with a guarded look on his face, having woken up a few moments ago.

"All right dimples, just who or what the hell are you?" the lounge demon asked, a thick edge of fear in his voice. For the Host had *never* done a reading like this before.

Xander glared at the STW agent. "I *told* you this was a lousy idea!" Then he turned to Lorne. "Alex Hall is who I am," Xander gave him the alias he was using for the time being.

"No, I didn't mean your name, which my instincts are saying is probably a fake anyway. Because there's a *lot* more to you than just that ID label!" Lorne noticed then that Cleburne was watching them. "Hey, sweetcheeks, I don't know about you, but most men wouldn't leave a cupcake like that alone in a bar like this for too long, or any bar for that matter - don't you think?"

Krevlornswath of the Deathwok clan, as he was known back home, pointed off into the distance - where Lockley was engaged in a staring contest with a nasty-looking demon, two tables over. "Methinks the natives are getting restless..."

Xander waved Cleburne off. "Don't worry about it. Whatever he says or does, I can handle myself."

The secret agent thought about it for a second; then nodding to Xander, he picked up a new beer and glass of water. He then headed back over to the table where the police detective was waiting. < Good luck, kid... >

Xander waited until Cleburne was out of earshot, and then turned back to his companion. "Okay, Lorne, you read my destiny - so give."

The demon eyed him suspiciously. "How did you know my name?"

Xander fidgeted. "This is your place, it's been mentioned often enough tonight..."

"Don't lie to me, pumpkin. Ever! Or you won't get squat of what I just learned. And by the way, just how old are you?"

Xander sighed. "Fine. We've never met before, but you've been described to me by a...friend. I recognized you almost at once from the description. And I'm roughly 23 years old. So, what's my destiny here?"

Lorne sighed too. "Destinies, sugar plum, as in plural. One that was, or rather - would have been. And that one was filled with so much pain and loss, even *I* couldn't hardly believe it!"

Xander stared at him as the demon went on, "Okay, for one thing, I saw you in the future standing over a tombstone with the name Cordelia Chase on it - staring down sadly, with this hideous-looking black eyepatch over your left peeper. And you looked the same age you are right now! She was a friend deceased before her time, I gather. I also saw other friends of yours, lost both in body and soul - a group split up, and traveling the world..."

Nearly all of this was totally unfamiliar to Xander. < Shit. This must have been what was supposed to happen, before the First started meddling with history. But hell, I'm the same age am I now? That would mean - Cordy dies around 2004. Yeesh, does every woman I know hafta go through the wringer like that? >

Lorne continued, "But something I can't explain happened. By the sweet sounds of Aretha, everything changed for you! Superimposed over the image of that graveyard, I saw you with both eyes still intact, dancing at a wedding with some woman, I couldn't get a good look at her - and you were what? About 27, 28 years old? I know it sounds crazy, but it was two outcomes for the same time..."

The demon was confused, unable to understand what he had foreseen. Xander could, at least sort of; but he decided to keep his peace until he'd had a chance to talk with Cleburne and Marcum, not to mention the Wizard, about all this.

The seer went on, "Plus from what I saw - almost everyone you know has ended up in uncharted territory. Because of what happened to you, pilgrim. But listen, Alex-cake; even though the darkness is there still and I can't see the end of it, it *can* be beaten back. I know that much for sure - so don't lose hope, no matter how bad it all ends up looking for you. Ah, yeah, before I forget - you need to do some things..."

Lorne took another quick gulp of his drink. "The Key, you need to make sure that something called the Key ends up where it should be. I saw you with some monks not long from now, and they have to be told to do something about the Key; you have to convince them to send it to where it was...before? Also, no matter how much you want to, you can't bring her back."

Xander looked at him oddly. "Her? Who her? What do you mean, who can't I bring back?"

The Key thing wasn't too hard to figure out. < Dawn, those monks need to create Dawn and send her to Sunnydale. Fine, I get that, in fact was planning to get 'em to do it anyway, but the other part... > The second thing was confusing to Xander, as several names of women he knew that were absent or even dead ran through his head.

"Trust me, you'll know who when the time is right. For now, take care of the Key. And, two other things. Your friends..." Lorne nodded to where the Siberians were doing their best to drink all the alcohol in the bar. "You'll doubt them, question their motives. But don't worry, when you need it - they'll back you up. All the way to the hilt."

The demon paused again. "And this one, please - remember always. Second chances are vital to everyone in this world. Because people are allowed to attempt to achieve redemption, if they're really sincere about it. Even if it takes an eternity, they have the right to try to make amends for whatever they've done-"

"Okay, what the hell are you talking about?" Xander asked, hopelessly confused. < You know, for someone who was supposed to tell me my destiny, this guy is being pretty damn vague about it! >

"Just remember, bucko, going home is a two-way process."

"You should know," Xander shrugged without thinking, remembering Willow's story and having heard enough of the cryptic garbage.

Lorne's eyes narrowed in fear, and his heart started palpitating in his left butt cheek. Which was not surprising, given the horrors he had endured growing up in the demon dimension called Pylea... "What?"

The grinning Mr. Harris quickly whispered in his ear, trying to be as annoyingly vague as Lorne, "Sometimes - the journey is taken, simply because it has to be taken...ya know what I mean?" before walking back to Cleburne and Lockley, ignoring the Host's strident demands for details.


Local offices of Federal Bureau of Investigation, San Francisco, California. The next morning

The Special Agent in Charge (SAC) for the FBI field office in San Francisco sipped on a cup of coffee, as he read the morning sports page. Mornings were generally quiet for him. Anything urgent would have been handled the night before, and meetings weren't normally scheduled until early in the afternoon.

But a knock on his partially-opened door drew his attention away from the sports page. "Yep?"

A secretary walked in, carrying a large envelope. "Courier just dropped this off. Since he said it was urgent and I had to sign for it, I figured I should go ahead and bring it up to you right away."

The SAC reached over and took the package, noting that the return address was a law firm in Los Angeles. "Okay Sally, thanks - I'll see what the hubbub is about here..."

The secretary nodded and left the office, as the FBI agent opened the envelope and started to read the contents. < God. I need a vacation... >

After a few minutes, the FBI agent put down his coffee, reached for the intercom and buzzed his assistant. "Sally, I need to know what the LA office was doing yesterday. Also, call the U.S. attorney's office, and tell them I need to talk to senior AUSAs, right away. This is just plain screwy..."


The penthouse suite of the Transuding Furies, Los Angeles, California. Later that afternoon

Cleburne leaned back and stretched his legs, as he waited impatiently on the couch. Gunny was on the other side of the living room from him, sitting patiently like the good soldier he was. And Cleburne was silently thankful that the penthouse was both a large one, and also apparently soundproofed - in the bedroom.

"Got to be one of the more screwier things we've ever done, don't ya think?" Cleburne suddenly said.

"In what way, Colonel?" Gunny responded, addressing the secret agent by his old military rank.

"Playing pimp for a trio of witches."

"Uh, are they actually witches? 'Cause I got me the impression they're something else, something...entirely different. And besides, what makes ya think we're pimping Hall out? I thought we brought him here to have some kind of hoodoo done to him, so that the locator mojo won't work on him no more."

"Well, you saw their faces when we got here, Gunny. Jeez, I think I drooled less when I picked up my date for senior prom, and that was Heather Copley - who really believed in finding out just how low-cut a Prom dress could be!" Cleburne chuckled at the memory, when his cell phone ringing interrupted the conversation.

He answered it, "Cleburne here." Joshua then listened for a few seconds. "Yeah, the kid's with us. We're meeting with the local talent right now. Yes, *that* local talent. The kid seemed quite eager to get started with this meeting..."

A pause. "No, not really hung over at all. Guy's smart, he paced himself last night. He knew he had a meeting to attend today. Yeah, our boy was definitely looking forward to it and didn't want to be under the weather or anything...after we're done here? We'll probably head back east. Why?"

The agent listened. "Yeah, we can do that, particularly if they're expecting us. But why?" Cleburne's eyes then became huge. "WHAT? What do you mean, we're being sued? That's not possible. We're the law here!"

Gunny looked at his superior with interest, as the conversation continued.

"Well, I suppose that's true, since we *are* a secret agency and publicity is bad news. Who's suing us...? Oh. *Them*. Yeah, I can see the problem. Okay, you handle it on that end, and I'll keep things quiet on this one. I'll check in when we have everything lined up." Cleburne hung up the phone.

"Trouble?" Gunny asked.

"Yeah, Marcum's trying to get a handle on the problem. Unfortunately, it's not the kind we can just shoot; at least, not without consequences. We better round up a traveling party..."

He dialed a number on the cell phone, and waited for an answer. "Red, it's Cleburne here. We've got a situation we have to deal with. I need for you to meet up with me...okay, I understand that you're tied up with something, but you still need to come on over-"

Cleburne looked confused for a second. "You mean, you're *really* tied up? So how are you talking on the phone then?"

The cell phone was silent for a few seconds. "Oh, it's nice to talk to you again too, Ametila. No, it was our pleasure, because you earned every cent of that tip! Ahhhh, would you mind putting Red back on? Thank you."

Another silence for a few seconds followed. "Red. I swear to God, one day...okay, finish up there, then meet us at the airport. You got an hour..."

Gunny cleared his throat, and nodded towards the closed door when Cleburne looked up.


Gunny shook his head, and Cleburne sighed. "All right, *three* hours at the airport. Be prepared for an overseas trip. What? No, not the tropics. Think desert heat."

Part Eight

U.S. Air Force transport aircraft, 35,000 feet above the North Atlantic Ocean. The next evening

Xander felt himself being shaken awake in mid-air. He rubbed his eyes, and tried to wake up.

The guy had more-or-less been asleep the whole time since they had left Los Angeles, barely being conscious when they had transferred planes at Andrews Air Force Base. The last few days had completely drained the young man; what with the attack on the hell dimension, drinking at Caritas, having his destiny read there and his 'appointment' with the Furies the next day.

Xander focused his eyes, and saw that it was Gunny who was shaking him awake. "Wizard's on the phone for you, Hall," he whispered to the former Scooby.

Xander looked around the cabin and saw Cleburne, Red and Graham all asleep. He nodded, "Where can I take the call?"

Gunny gestured to a forward alcove, where the stewards prepared food. Xander nodded again, and made his way forward to where Gunny had indicated. The stewards were nowhere in sight, probably working in the rear of the aircraft. So he picked up the phone, and punched the blinking light. "Hello?"

"Mr. Harris. I hope you're in good spirits," The voice of Dr. Hollins, the 11-year-old super-genius working for Siberian Trip Wire, came across the phone.

"Bit groggy right now, I've had a rough couple of days. Or is it day?" Xander sighed. "This time distortion thing from being in that hell dimension is really confusing."

"I had hypothesized that switching between the various rates of time passage can be disorienting; thank you for the clarification. I had hoped to discuss that with you in person, but unfortunately you had to leave the country at once."

"Yeah, about that. What the hell's going on, anyway? Cleburne was real tight-lipped when I finished up my, uh, *meeting* with the girls. Just said we were taking a field trip overseas for a while. Wouldn't tell me why." Xander glanced back into the cabin where Gunny had retaken his seat, and was reading a magazine. And the former soldier had no doubts that Gunny was also keeping a close eye on him.

"It appears that the law firm Wolfram & Hart has gotten creative in a rather mundane, yet nonetheless effective way. They're suing the U.S. government over custody of you."

That got Xander's attention and snapped him to being fully awake. "What!? Suing the government? Over *me*? But how the heck-?"

"They've filed a writ of Habeas Corpus, alleging that we are holding you against your will; and demanding that we produce you in public, at a place of their choosing. I must admit, that I never even once envisioned such an approach to get at you. We had been concentrating almost exclusively against another magical or paranormal attack, after all. Which reminds me, did the Furies make it so that a locator spell will not find you now?"

"Amongst other things, yeah," Xander smiled as he answered that question, and he checked the various love bites the sisters had given him during his settlement of the...contract. "But wait a minute. How can a law firm down in Los Angeles sue the government over me? I've never had any dealings with them, in this world or that other one..."

"I know; however, shortly after your high school *graduation* they managed to arrange it so that your parents procured their services, to sue the school board over the so-called natural gas explosion that 'killed' you. They've convinced your parents to file this action, no doubt telling them there would be punitive monetary damages as a result. And the two of them signed off on the paperwork yesterday."

Harris could not help it; he snorted. "I didn't know that they cared, or even knew that I had died."

"Be that as it may, Wolfram & Hart knows and most likely feels they have enough proof to make things difficult for us. That's why they decided to file their case in front of a judge that is...well, notorious for believing in conspiracy theories. He's liable to rule in way that would be problematic for the organization."

Xander had a strange look on his face. "Huh. I see. Well, so, what now? I'm not going to wind up on the front page of the National Enquirer after all, am I?"

Hollins responded at once, "That is most unlikely; it's in their best interests to keep everything that they know secret, after all. There's been no public notice of the action, and your name remains sealed. As to what's next, well, it would be best if you weren't in the country for at least the next week or so, while STW's legal staff deals with this. Hence, your field trip."

"A week? But Irving, I need to tell you about a reading this demon seer called Lorne did on me, back in LA. Several things came up, that you'll probably want to know about. Want me to fill you in on that now?"

"Not over this telephone line; hold off on that till you get to Ramstein. Their communication facilities are more secure than those of a moving aircraft, and we'll talk then. Also, there's a package waiting for you there."

Xander stared at the phone for a moment. "What kind of package?"

The Wizard said smoothly, "Suffice it to say, it struck me that your education should not suffer due to your situation. So I've made arrangements for one Alexander Hall to take some correspondence courses, that I can oversee."

"What is this, the University of Wizard?"

"Actually, they're through the University of Chicago, as I actually have faculty privileges there."

Harris looked ill. "Amazing. So in addition to dealing with the bad guys and saving the world, I also now have to worry about maintaining a decent GPA?"

Irving Hollins finished up with a smile, "You do indeed, Mr. Harris. Don't worry though, I tend to grade on the curve. We'll talk more when you land."


Secure videoconferencing center, Ramstein U.S. Air Force Base, Wiesbaden, Germany. Several hours later

The monitor blinked for a second, and then swiftly came to life. A picture of an office was shown, with Esther Marcum and Irving Hollins looking into the camera. Cleburne leaned over to make sure the camera on the Ramstein end was working, as Xander looked on.

They had arrived at Ramstein AFB an hour earlier. The massive base was the point from which most American military personnel were transported, when they were on their way to Europe, Africa or the Middle East. As such, the bustle and activity made it easy for STW to go about their activities unnoticed. Gunny, Red and Graham had gone off to make the arrangements for the next as-of-now-unknown leg of their journey.

"Can you see us?" Cleburne asked.

"Yes, we can see both of you fine. Was the flight pleasant?" Esther asked.

"Well, being cooped up on an air transport does allow you to get caught up on your sleep," Cleburne replied. "What's the good word back home?"

"The FBI is all confused over being sued because of someone who's dead. After all, they have no knowledge of a Xander Harris helping out in the cult raid."

Xander piped up, "Speaking of that, how are those ex-slaves doing?"

"Terrified. Confused. Withdrawn. You can imagine." That was Hollins.

"I can, actually, remember? I lived it."

Hollins shifted uncomfortably at the reminder of Xander's past. "Yes, quite. Anyway, we're transferring them to a facility we have in Idaho. It's a clinic, which specializes in helping people deal with the aftermath of prolonged, traumatic events. We're helping them as best we can."

"Anyway, what's happening with the lawsuit?" Cleburne steered the conversation back to the topic that had made it necessary for Xander to spend some time overseas.

"Well, we have the lawyers looking at it," Esther responded. "It looks like what happened is that some photographer was taking a bunch of photos outside the shelter, during the raid. A few of them seemed to have had Mr. Harris in the picture, so to speak."

"Oh, cripes, I thought we'd already herded all of the media out of the line of sight of us," Cleburne growled.

"From what I understand, the photographer was hiding on a roof across the street."

"Do I have to worry about being on the front page of the papers now?" Xander asked with worry in his voice.

"No, apparently the photographer offered the negatives to Wolfram & Hart first. They pay for information about anything with occult overtones, including cults. When the photos were shown to them, the lawyer on the spot immediately recognized their significance. Wolfram & Hart wanted to be an exclusive customer, and took steps to make sure of it."

"Oh," Xander said quietly. < In other words, he's dead. Those bastards killed that guy just to keep my secret all to themselves. People are dying nowadays because of me... >

Esther continued on, "The photos gave them enough proof to proceed with legal action. And so, all of this puts us into a bind. The FBI will deny it, of course, but just the denial itself starts people asking questions. And in this business when people know to start asking questions, that's almost as bad as the secret becoming public."

"Can you squash it like a bug, before it gets out of hand?" That was Cleburne.

"Maybe, it's not yet become public knowledge. After all, Wolfram & Hart doesn't want it to become public either. That would lead to too many questions afterwards, that they won't want to answer."

"Can it be contained?"

"We think so. We've also got the lawyers working on how to make it disappear. Unfortunately, the case is before a judge who is hostile to the government, a real radical firebrand. I suspect he'll allow the bad guys a lot more breaks than a more impartial judge would."

"God help us from judges with agendas," Cleburne muttered under his breath.

Xander half-heard him. "So where does that leave me?"

"Getting some downtime overseas. Look at it as an opportunity to broaden your horizons," Esther answered him.

"Yeah, kid, you've never been overseas. I mean hell, you thought Canada was a great place to hide. But c'mon, the Mounties are up there and they always get their man," Cleburne chided Xander.

"Also, this gives you a chance to start your studies. Joshua, be sure he gets started on that," Hollins added.

"Yes, Mr. Wizard. And the other package I requested?"

"It should be with the materials that Gunny and the others are picking up for Xander," Hollins replied.

Xander interrupted, "Hey, what about the destiny reading thing I had in Los Angeles? That guy Lorne told me I had to do some specific things. We need to figure out what to do about that."

"You are indeed correct. Tell us then, please, what the reading revealed to you."

In response to Hollins' request, Xander described to the listening government operatives what Lorne had told him. He covered everything, including both the cryptic remark about 'not bringing her back' and the stuff about the Key.

"Key? What do you know about this key?" Cleburne asked at once.

"Well..." Xander said with hesitation. "It's something from the future history."

"Do tell, Mr. Harris," Esther prompted him from thousands of miles away.

Xander again hesitated. < They'll freak over Dawn, says my money. A mystical energy being in human form? Still, these days I can't just wander off to find these monks without their help... >

The others were all looking at Xander, waiting for whatever nugget of information he was about to impart to them. He stared back at the group and said, "Okay, look, I want your agreement that you guys won't go off half-cocked about this. Consider it one of the non-negotiable terms of my agreement with you."

The others hesitated for a second. Cleburne answered first, "Okay, kid. We'll look before we leap, you got my word on it. So give us the sit-rep here."

Xander took a deep breath. "It's about Dawn, Buffy's sister."

All of the others looked confused. "Sister? But Ms. Summers is an only child. Is Joyce Summers going to have another daughter?" Esther asked.

"No. Or, rather - not exactly. And they're not going to adopt either. But back in the first go-around, in the fall of the year 2000 Buffy ended up having a sister in high school. A brunette which grew up with Buffy and everyone in Sunnydale, ever since she was 10 years old."

That just confused the others even more. So Xander began to explain the story of Dawn, the hellgoddess Glory, the Order of Dagon and the events of Buffy's second year of college. Once he was finished, the others all had various looks of shock on their faces.

"Holy shit," Cleburne muttered under his breath.

"This is very...interesting. We'll probably want to make sure any recordings of this conversation are secured, or better yet destroyed..." Hollins looked lost in thought.

"I'll take care of it," Esther volunteered.

Hollins suddenly focused and spoke up, "So, from the vision this Lorne person had; he said that you *had* to make sure that the Key was given human form as Ms. Summers's sister?"

Xander nodded. "You bet your 11-year-old kiester he did. He said I had to send Dawn to back where she was before, even though the guy didn't understand what that meant - or hell, even most of what he was saying. Just as well. So, I have to convince the monks to play ball here."

"Are you sure? I mean, is it wise to mess with reality that much?" Esther asked softly.

Hollins answered that one, "It would seem to be the most prudent course at first glance, given all the variables we're dealing with; after all, it happened in the first version of history. We may need to make sure it happens again, to ensure that the timeline doesn't fall apart."

Xander nodded. "Not to mention, I remember the future with her in it. I don't want to risk my head going all boom-boom, if after August Dawnie spends the rest of her eternity as some mystical ball of energy! Plus, if it was all dangerous or anything, I don't think the Powers That Be would even be letting us have this conversation..."

"Kid, these Powers That Be, any reason to think they're playing us? Or steering you wrong?" Cleburne asked.

"No. I mean they often seem pretty arrogant, but never intentionally evil. That guy Doyle was proof of that! And besides, the First Evil pretty much has that side of the equation covered..."

"Any chance this Lorne could be playing a game with us?" the secret agent inquired.

"I don't think so. From what I remember, everyone who knew him...before...seemed to trust him. And that reminds me - we also need to do something about Cordelia, given she was part of my reading. Well, I suppose we do, anyway," was Xander's noncommittal reply.

Hollins got everyone's attention again. "These monks, the Order of Dagon?" Xander nodded at the question, as the super-genius continued on, "Do you know where they are, or any other information about them?"

Xander shook his head. "All I know is they're somewhere in Europe, I think the eastern or central part. Oh, I remember somebody mentioning Prague. And that's in Europe, isn't it?"

"Yes it is," Hollins said as he glanced at Cleburne.

Cleburne shrugged his shoulders, knowing what the boy genius was thinking. "Okay, okay, I'll make sure he does the homework you send."

"Good, you do that." Hollins said, deep in thought. He then turned his attention back to Xander. "So you can't do anything about this Key..." The boy quickly corrected himself at Xander's look. "Dawn Summers, until you find those monks?"

"Yep, I'll have to go looking for them."

Irving thought for a second, and then reached a decision. "Very well, I'll spend the next week or so researching their order, finding out what I can about them and where they are. We can spend the intervening time figuring out our next step."

Xander raised his hand. "Hold on. You mean I get to spend a week on an airbase in Germany, doing homework while you people have a *research party*? No frickin' way. I am not staying cooped up here, while you guys get your ducks lined up in a row back home!"

Esther peered into the camera. "Not to worry, Mr. Harris, we have someplace nice for you to spend your time away from home. The Israelis have asked for our assistance with a problem that seems to be right up your alley..."


UC Sunnydale, Sunnydale, California. The same time

Tara Maclay was sitting on her bed, hugging her knees to her chin and gazing at nothing in particular, when Willow and Buffy came into her dorm room. The blonde Wicca obviously had something on her mind, and the two arrivals could tell this at once.

"Tara, sweetie? What's wrong?" Willow asked in concern.

The witch looked up, and stared at them. And both Sunnydale High graduates stepped back, at the expression on her face. "What is it?" Buffy demanded at once.

"Why didn't you tell me the truth?" Tara asked simply, staring straight at her.

The Chosen One was confused. "About what?"

"Xander Harris."

Willow and Buffy stared at one another. The redhead started to ask, "Tara, what do you mean? Who have you been talking to-"

Her lover interrupted her, though. "I just - I, I need to know something. D-did you two and that Cordelia Chase girl have *any* suspicion about what was going to happen to the guy, after what happened that night?"

Willow felt her guts freeze in horror, as one of her worst nightmares came to life. < She knows. Oh Goddess, she knows what I did then, and now she's gonna leave me because of it... > "NO! No, Tara, I swear, when we left Xander on that sidewalk we had no *idea*-" "Who told you about all this?" Buffy wanted to know, as she interrupted her friend. "Was it Giles? Because he wasn't there, and I-"

Tara shook her head. "It wasn't him. It was, uh, Jonathan."

Buffy's eyes went wide. "What?! Oh, that's it! I'm gonna kick his worthless ass all the way into next week-"

"NO!" Tara shouted, surprising herself as well as the two others. "What's the matter with you? I asked politely, and he-he told me what he knew. The, the things you guys didn't want to talk about. So when something happens that you don't like, y-your first and only solution is just to hit somebody? Th-that's assault and battery, and you c-could end up in jail from that sorta thing!"

Willow and Buffy looked startled, as the incredibly shy blonde they knew chastised the Slayer like that. "Look, Tara-" the Champion started to say.

"Did it happen like Jonathan said? D-did Xander lie to you about the soul curse?" the young woman interrupted.

"Well, yeah. And Lord knows I couldn't believe it, that the jealous idiot would actually *do* that to me!" Buffy shouted, as long-buried emotions and memories came to the surface, her first instinct being to attack rather than examine her own actions.

Tara stared at the Chosen One. "Is-is that why he did it? He was jealous of this Angel person?"

"What else could it have been?" the daughter of Hank and Joyce Summers demanded. "He, he hated and bad-mouthed Angel right from day one, even though the guy had done nothing to deserve it! And when we had the chance to get the real Angel back, Xander did everything he could to prevent it, and then some! Y'know, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but thank God that crazy 'ho Drusilla decided to attack Angelus when she did..."

"What if she hadn't?" Miss Maclay asked in that neutral tone. "And if you'd had to fight him and the other vampires all-out, a-and that portal to Hell had been activated? Would you have gone for the kill, o-or waited for the curse to kick in?"

Buffy shook her head. "It didn't happen that way-"

"Th-that's not what I asked. What if it had?"

The Slayer said nothing.

The other blonde's eyes went wide. "So, so, would you have been willing to gamble the fate of the world, a-against getting your lover back? W-would you have been willing to risk the lives of six billion people? R-risk *my* life?"

Her sensibilities offended, Buffy just said angrily, "This is ridiculous! I can't believe we're actually discussing this topic-"

Tara held up a conciliatory hand, shutting her up. "Buffy, y-you're my friend. And I believe you did nothing but what you thought was right, because I trust you with my life. I'm a part of your world now. And as part of that I-I'm just trying to understand exactly what happened that evening..."

The Slayer sighed. "Fine. Look, Tara, I'm not proud of what I did in hindsight. I was angry, and I recklessly put a human life in danger - I understand that. I know I screwed up. And I'm also willing to accept all the blame that goes with my mistake. But I didn't try to get him dead and thanks to Angel, he survived with nothing except some flesh wounds. So bottom line, Xander had no right to stay so pissed that way over the next six months..." Buffy then noticed Tara's expression. "What?"

The woman who'd lost her mother over two years ago shook her head. "Buffy, according to Jonathan - he wasn't just pissed. Rightly or wrongly, Xander Harris hated you."

Buffy was stunned silent by that revelation. Willow had been listening to the conversation in exponentially-growing horror and squeaked, "What?"

Buffy managed to find her voice. "How can Jonathan say that? He hardly even knew Xander-"

"No; h-he talked quite a bit with him, the first part of your senior year. And apparently, the guy didn't sit around stewing over what you...ah, what happened. From what I hear, he made new friends, a-and started a new life for himself outside of the slaying."

"Yeah, with Faith," Willow barely whispered.

Tara stared at her lover. "Amongst others. But uh, from what he said, a-and assuming Jonathan wasn't lying about his conversations with the late Mr. Harris - which I don't think he was - Xander ended up hating all three of you..."

Miss Rosenberg shook her head in denial. "No! No, he wouldn't have, he couldn't have-"

"Um, why not?"

Willow looked helplessly at Buffy. "Because he, he was Xander! He was always there for me. He saved my life, he saved Buffy's life too, he even saved Cordelia from getting burned alive that one time-"

Tara shook her head. "Willow, I love you. P-please don't ever doubt that. But if you guys had done s-something like that to *me*...I honestly don't know how I'd feel anymore, either."

This whole thing had unnerved the Slayer more than a little. < Xander hated me? And Willow? And Cordelia? > But she was a survivor, and so resolutely thought, < Even if it's true - there's nothing I can do about it anymore. I'm sorry, Xander, but you're gone now. And Willow and I need to move on... >

So Buffy said dismissively, "Well, this is all academic anyway. Xander's dead, Spike and Drusilla hit the road and even Angel left ages ago. I say what's done is done, and we should just leave the past to rest behind us - where it belongs."

Willow was still upset, but seemed willing to get on board with that. However Tara just gazed at her beloved's best friend silently, suddenly having the strangest feeling that one day...her words were going to rise up, and savagely bite her on the ass.

So she started to say, "Buffy, the, the past defines us. I-it's who we were, so it's a part of who we are. You need to face up to it-"

"Whatever. Look, all I know is that I can't do anything about it; so I'm not going to reopen old wounds for no good purpose, okay?" With that, she stomped out of the dorm room.

Willow looked at Tara. "Sweetie? I, I just can't talk about this right now..." She wiped at her eyes. "Maybe someday, yeah, but not now. It just - it still hurts too much." And with that, Willow also left the dorm room, as her girlfriend stared sadly.


United States District Court for the Middle District of California Federal Courthouse, San Francisco, California. The next morning

"Your Honor, as these photographs clearly show, as recently as two days ago Alexander Harris was alive and in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The court's experts are welcome to examine their authenticity, and these photos are directly connected to the raid by the FBI on a homeless shelter-" Lilah Morgan was making her statement in the courtroom, which was empty except for the attorneys and the Harris couple.

Judge Willard Younts interrupted Lilah's speech, as he directed a question to the Federal prosecutor. "Mr. Bowden, I would hope that with the current youth problem in America today, the Federal government would have better things to do than harass a shelter trying to help runaways. Care to explain the FBI's actions?"

Lilah smiled to herself. The choice of Judge Younts to preside over this case had been a masterstroke. She could come in here and allege that the government was killing babies to sell their organs overseas for an illegal profit, and he would demand that the Feds prove otherwise...

"Your Honor, it's my understanding that the raid was undertaken with investigation into a cult, pursuant to a court order issued by the U.S. District Court sitting in Los Angeles - which has jurisdiction over where the raid happened. If you'd care to examine the paperwork, I think you'll find it's all in order..."

Judge Younts didn't look happy about that, but then again he really couldn't complain - since he didn't have jurisdiction over Los Angeles. Bowden continued, "As a matter of fact, Your Honor, the United States would move to dismiss this case - on the grounds that this court has no jurisdiction over events happening in the Southern District of California. The plaintiffs in this matter have not made the connection to this court necessary to establish venue."

Lilah easily countered that, after all - she had expected that argument to be made. Lindsey MacDonald, who was sitting next to her at the counsel table, slid a paper over to her with his plastic right hand.

The woman then said, "Your Honor. Our investigation has shown that Mr. Harris was initially captured and illegally detained by the agents of the government, right here in San Francisco. With the initial wrongdoing undertaken within the district, this court would continue to have authority over this matter - no matter where the government may choose to hide the young man from his family."

"Indeed. You're quite correct, Ms. Morgan, malfeasance that starts here can be punished here," Judge Younts agreed with the lawyer from Wolfram & Hart. "Motion denied."

Bowden silently sighed. < I swear, this is the reason I hate ever coming before Judge Younts. Logic and the law have no place here...and I'm a senior prosecutor, for Pete's sake. This piddling case should be handled by one of the newbies in our office. Why the hell was I ordered to be here? >

"Your Honor, on face value, this action is baseless. The individual in question is deceased. There are numerous witnesses, classmates and teachers both, who are willing to swear Mr. Harris ran the wrong way into a building that exploded, mere moments later on the day in question..."

Bowden sighed. "He was killed over a year ago, as Ms. Morgan's clients acknowledged when they filed a suit for wrongful death against the Sunnydale High school board. Now, they're arguing a position that directly contradicts their earlier assertions, on the basis of inconclusive photographs? The United States would like it noted for the record that the Harrises are continuing their suit in the Los Angeles courts, arguing wrongful death. But the plaintiffs can't have their cake and eat it too. They have to elect one action or the other."

"Your Honor, if I may?" Lilah asked sweetly. < Damn. This government attorney's good, I have to give him that. > Against a more impartial judge, that argument might have given her trouble.

She went on, "When the original action was filed, all the information available to the Harrises was that their son was in fact dead. It was only due to information gathered since that point in time, that has allowed this suit to be filed. To force them to choose at this point would be premature and unfair to them. And to allow the government to hide their only child, whom they love very much, from them on a mere technicality - must surely offend the dignity of this court..." < Okay, granted I'm laying it on pretty thick there. They really only loved him when he brought them booze. But what the hell, whatever works! >

"It does indeed, Ms. Morgan," Willard intoned from the bench.

< Right. And letting a mass murderer loose on a technicality last week, doesn't bother you one bit? > Bowden thought silently. "Your Honor, despite Ms. Morgan's laudable eloquence, this entire case is nothing more than a conspiracy afficado's theory. The only evidence Wolfram & Hart have presented is some photographs, that they have yet to establish as bona fide. They haven't even produced the identity of the individual who took these photographs-"

Lilah interrupted the government lawyer, "Your Honor, the plaintiffs would like to produce the individual who took these photographs, and normally would have done so already. However, the man was killed recently in an automobile accident. I have the report in question from the LAPD," she held up another paper Lindsey gave to her.

Judge Younts raised an eyebrow, and looked at the Federal prosecutor. "I see. Very convenient, if you ask me," he remarked, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He clearly believed sinister forces were behind the 'automobile accident'. And the man in the black robes wouldn't have been wrong about that; only about who had really killed him.

Willard looked out over the empty courtroom. < You know, I'm surprised there's no media in here. Every time there's a hearing on a death penalty case, the attorneys make a point of having them around. Maybe I'll make a few phone calls, find out why. God knows me catching the government in a heinous act wouldn't hurt having some press exposure. Maybe I'll even get another award from the ACLU, > he thought vaguely to himself.

"Yes, Your Honor, it certainly has presented problems for the plaintiffs in this matter," Lilah commented, carefully concealing any sense of irony. < The main problem was, of course, that we didn't want the photographer talking to anyone else. > "Our firm is willing of course to do whatever the court desires to facilitate the fact-finding process."

Judge Younts smiled at the attractive attorney, and waved off the last sentence. "I don't think that'll be necessary, Ms. Morgan, this court has already heard all that it needs to."

<Uh-oh, > Bowden thought, suddenly suspecting his bosses might have known something about this he hadn't. < Odds are he's about to do something loopy. > "Your Honor, the United States would request to have a chance to examine and verify-"

"Mr. Bowden, I think the United States government has done just about enough, in this particular matter. So I'm ordering the FBI to produce Mr. Alexander Lavelle Harris at a time and place of the plaintiff's choosing, or else show just cause why it shouldn't be held in contempt-"

As the judge ruled, the door leading into his private chambers opened up, and a middle-aged woman with a very worried look on her face scurried through. "Ms. Morgan, if you could prepare an order reflecting that..." Younts' voice trailed off, as the woman arrived at his chair and whispered in his ear.

The mutterings between the two were unclear to the others in the courtroom. An occasional word could be made out, as well as the impatient tone of Younts' voice. Lilah and Lindsey didn't like the looks of this; but then any lawyer wouldn't, as it appeared something wrong was happening with their carefully-orchestrated scenario.

Eventually the man in black robes looked up at the courtroom, "There have been some unexpected developments. This court will be in recess for five minutes..." He banged his gavel then got up and went through the door, with the woman scurrying behind him.


Ten minutes later

Everyone in the courtroom rose, as Judge Younts exited his chambers and retook his place on the bench. As he sat down in his brown leather chair, the others did so too.

"Your Honor. Before the break, you instructed me to prepare a release order that I was-" Lilah started to say, before the judge interrupted her.

"Ms. Morgan, I have pondered the issue carefully, and upon further reflection now feel that this court would benefit from giving the United States a chance to examine your evidence, and present its own. Therefore, an evidentiary hearing that would be beneficial to all parties seems to be called for here," Judge Younts looked noticeably paler since before the course of the break.

The man continued on, "Accordingly, this court schedules another hearing for nine o'clock in the morning, two days from today. Between now and then, a gag order is in place - directing that all parties in this matter are not to make any public comments, or discuss the case with anyone other than those already involved. The courtroom transcripts are now also sealed and ordered hidden from public view, pending further orders from the bench. Court is adjourned, until then."

Lilah and Lindsey looked at each other, stunned. Bowden just gathered up his papers, as the other parties quickly left the courtroom. < I was right, something screwy's going on. I wonder, what the hell happened during that break? Well, no matter, at least I won't have to feel completely embarrassed when I get back to the office... >

He headed out of the room as well, not noticing in the slightest what appeared to be a short man wearing a leather coat and a really ugly hat, who had been hanging around outside the legal chambers.

"Well, this is interesting," was the only comment he made to himself, in a broad Queens accent.


Occupied Territory, West Bank, Israel. The next day

The line of Humvees came to stop in front of a line of dusty old apartment buildings. As the vehicles came to a stop, a horde of soldiers piled out. All of them had their weapons at the ready, and scanned the neighborhood for any signs of trouble.

Xander watched the soldiers go about securing the locale they had arrived at. He was sitting in a Humvee near the end of the line of the convoy. The vehicle was extremely cramped as Xander, Red, Graham, Gunny, an Israeli police liaison and an Israeli army driver were all present in the small passenger compartment.

Xander's arrival in the Holy Land last night had been not what he had expected. The plane from Germany had arrived at an Israeli Air Force base, under cover of complete darkness. Several Israeli army and police officers had been present to greet them. And after several hours for the American secret agents to get rested, the problem the Israelis had asked for help on was presented to them.

Intelligence sources within the Palestine resistance networks had passed word to the Mossad and Shin Bet, that something new and unique was on the way to attack targets within the country. Further investigation uncovered scant new details, except for the term 'hellhounds'; and the fact that many within the Palestine resistance movement disapproved of the new weapon, on the grounds that it used 'demons'.

Inquiries for information on this strange situation had been sent overseas, and the request had made its way to Siberian Trip Wire. Naturally, they thought it looked like something Xander Harris might be able to help with; and as the organization was looking for the man to be out of the way for a while, it seemed a good time for an exchange program with the Israeli security services.

An officer approached the Humvee, and signalled the all clear to those inside the vehicle. Xander and the others exited the stale air of the Humvee's interior, into what passed for fresh air on the windswept street.

Harris worked the kinks out of his limbs, as he exited the transport. "Guys, not that I don't like you all, but next time - let's get a limo."

"Mr. Hall, a limo is inadvisable here. It would make too tempting a target," the Israeli police liaison nodded towards the groups of Palestinian civilians, who were starting to gather outside the perimeter formed by the soldiers.

Gunny appeared at Xander's side. "Come on, Hall. The less time we're exposed out here, the better." He quickly led the others into the building, which was the center of the soldiers' attention. The solider continued, "Cleburne was quite clear that he wanted us to not make a scene. Strictly behind-the-scenes assist, which isn't helped by standing around in the street in front of a bunch of civilians."

< True enough, > Xander thought at once. < That's kinda what got me in trouble, back in Los Angeles. > "Where is Cleburne, anyway? I thought he lived for this kind of stuff."

"He had some meetings to attend. Officer stuff," Gunny said, as they walked through a dark hallway to a staircase that led down to the building's basement. "He'll catch up with us later, if need be."

The basement was cramped, with boxes strewn all over the place. It was obvious that whoever had been living here, hadn't been planning on making it a permanent abode. Already, several soldiers were going through the room looking for anything of interest.

An officer came up to the group that had just come down the stairs. "Looks like they were here just a few hours ago. We found the morning paper in this mess, so we must have just missed them."

The Israeli police liaison muttered under his breath. "Damn, I was hoping to contain this, now we'll have to track them down!"

The officer nodded. "Well, we need to do it quick. Because we found something else..." He led the others to a back room. "I don't know what it means, but this doesn't look good."

The room had three small cages, like the kind you would find in a kennel, set up in the middle of the room. Attached to each cage were jumper cables, which went to a car battery. Along the wall were various staffs, pikes and cattle prods. In front of each cage was a television set, which fed into a common videocassette player.

Xander shook his head. < Oh, I remember this. Tucker Wells, in all his glory. Both this time and the first time around Buffy had encountered Tucker and his hellhounds.... >

The Israeli said uncertainly, "We're not sure what they had in there, but the people in the apartment above heard a lot of animal growling. I think they were torturing whatever they had down here-"

"No. They were conditioning the hellhounds."

"Hellhounds? I, uh, thought that was just a code name," said the police liaison, who went by the name Levy.

"More than just a code name, pal. They're demon foot soldiers. Savage dog-like beasts that'll rip the skin from your bones..."

"Demon foot soldiers?" the army officer said, with more that a trace of skepticism in his voice. "Come on. It was probably just wild dogs they had down here-"

"No," Gunny said, as he examined the cages. "You don't need to electrify a cage to keep dogs penned up, however pissed they get. This was something more."

"And I've seen this before," Xander commented, as he looked around the room. "Well, heard about it, to be absolutely accurate. You train the hellhounds to go berserk at a specific trigger, and then turn them loose. You then sit back, and watch the body count multiply."

Levy looked around also. "You mean, kind of like an organic suicide bomber? Actually better, because less hassle than putting together a bomb..."

"Well, whatever it was, it wasn't completely safe." The army officer pointed at a patch of dried blood on the wall, next to one of the cages.

"I'd imagine they didn't like being cooped up, and wanted to lash out," Red commented.

The former Hellmouth resident looked thoughtful. "They'll have been conditioned to attack certain things. Let's see if we can find out what it is they'll go berserk at..."

Xander walked over to the VCR player, and checked to see if a tape was still in it. "Yep, they left without the tape, so whatever it is they're planning - they feel they've conditioned the demons enough." Xander pushed the play button on the VCR, and walked over to see what the picture was.

The picture showed several people praying, rocking their heads back and forth, in front of a stone wall. Gunny and the other Siberians looked at the screen, not recognizing what they were seeing.

But Xander, who had grown up with the Jewish girl known as Willow Rosenberg, recognized the site immediately. As did the two Israelis in the room; and all three of them were instantly worried.

"Blessed be Adonoi Elohim, but they're going to turn those things loose at the Wailing Wall," Levy whispered.


Shadyhill Cemetery, Sunnydale, California. The same day

Tara walked along the line of tombstones. Her conversation with Buffy and Willow about the former Scooby named Xander Harris hadn't gone as well as she had hoped. On the other hand, though, it hadn't been a complete disaster either.

It was obvious Buffy at least still had issues with her former friend. So afterwards Tara figured she should meet the source of the problem, or the next best thing. She approached the tombstone with the name 'Alexander Lavelle Harris' on it.

The Wicca knew where the marker was, even though she had never previously visited it before, as both Buffy and Willow visited it enough that it was a familiar landmark to the Scoobies.

She stopped in front of the stone. "H-hello," Tara said hesitantly. "I know we've never met before and if you could see me right now, you wouldn't have any idea who I am," she continued on saying, not knowing how incorrect that statement was. "But I'm Tara Maclay. I-I'm Willow's girlfriend. And I care for her very much."

The blonde then took a deep breath, unsure what to say next. After a few seconds she continued, "I know you think, or thought, that Willow deserted you that night. And that Buffy did the same thing. Ditto with that Cordelia girl, who-who I've never met also..."

She finished up, "But they didn't mean to. They just...weren't thinking. They never meant to hurt you. And I hope that wherever you are, by the grace of the Goddess you've forgiven them for what happened."

The woman who thought her demon side would erupt out when she hit 20 years old paused yet again. "I promise I'm going to continue working with them, trying to get them to come to grips with what they did. Because secrets within a family have a way of popping out...when you least expect them to." She deliberated for a second, realizing just how true that could be for her family's situation. "And that's what we all are, including you. A family." < More of a family than the one I came from, > she thought to herself.

"I wanted to ask that you, wherever you are, if you haven't already did so please try to find it in your heart to forgive them. I know you had a lot of anger towards them afterwards. I hope that you can put that aside, and see that they didn't mean for you to come to any harm. They never for a second suspected that there was another vampire there. If they'd had even the slightest inkling you could have come to harm, they never would have done what they did."

She stood there in thought for a few seconds. "Of course, even if there *hadn't* been another vampire, they still shouldn't have left you like that. They really weren't thinking straight. If they had thought it through, they never would have done it."

Tara sighed. "Well, that's what I wanted to say and if you don't mind, I'll just stay here for a few more minutes."


East Jerusalem. Later that day

Levy absentmindedly dropped the cigarette he had been smoking a moment before to the ground. He then ground it into the dirt with his foot.

The man had been watching the store across the street for the past couple of hours. He had reason to believe that the owners of the store had connections that might lead to these 'hellhounds', that the American agent called Hall had told them about.

Hall and the other Americans were in a van parked several blocks away. They had all headed here, once it been determined that man who had rented the basement where the demons had been held was the brother of the owner of this store. A constant of terrorist networks in the Arab world was that they all put great stock in family ties. And Levy was definitely hoping that it held true in this case.

So far, it hadn't. There had just been some deliveries and customers during the time the store was being watched. Levy knew they working against a deadline, but not what it was.

"So, anything shaking over there?"

Levy started a little bit at the sudden question from behind him. He glanced behind him, to see the person he knew as Alexander Hall standing there along with the one they called Gunny. Levy raised an eyebrow at the two.

Xander shrugged his shoulders. "What can I say? It was getting damn cramped in the van."

"You should have stayed there," Levy turned his attention back to the store. "Nothing's been happening here."

"So what do we know about this guy?" Xander nodded at the store.

"Local bigwig. Big contributor to the local mosque. Does lots of things for the neighborhood, and all of his neighbors look to him to settle their disputes. Connected to the local terrorist cells, but I suppose you could argue that's not entirely his fault; after all, you won't survive for long here if the bombers are gunning for you."

Xander and Gunny listened to Levy's description of the storeowner. "He's close to his brother?" Gunny asked.

"Yes, it's a tight-knit family. They all try to see each other every day. Well, except for those studying overseas."

"Who's overseas, and where are they studying?" Xander asked.

"He's got two sons and a daughter studying in America," was the reply.

"Why is it they're always chanting 'Yankee go home', but then they want to follow us there?" Gunny muttered under his breath.

"So he speaks English?" Xander asked, ignored Gunny's mutterings.

"Yes, quite well. American TV cameras seem to find him when they need a quote from the street."

Xander was thinking, "You say he contributes to the local mosque, so - is he very religious?"

Levy nodded in an affirmative manner to that. "Yes, he always closes the store whenever the time for prayers come."

Xander smiled in an enigmatic way. And Gunny instantly felt his stomach rumbling, he knew the kid was about to do something off the wall.

"Come on, Gunny. I'm thirsty, let's get something to drink..." Xander said as he started across the street, before the two men with him could react.

"Damn it..." Gunny muttered in exasperation, as he followed Harris.

The bell on the top of the door rang as Xander entered the store. The owner of the store stared, as Xander and Gunny made their way to where the soft drinks were. The younger man picked up two bottles, and gave one to Gunny. He then headed to the counter.

"Hey there. How much for this?" he asked in English, and motioned towards the bottles the secret agents now held.

The owner, still looking skeptical, quoted a price.

Xander nodded and paid it. "So what's the good word?" he nonchalantly asked, as he did so.

"There are many good words, are there not? Almost all of them in the Koran," the owner, who was called Abdullah, replied.

< Good, I was hoping for something like that in response. Let's hope the info Levy got about the dissension over the hellhounds is also on the money. > "True enough. However, sometimes the word can be hidden 'cause of how you learned of it."

Abdullah frowned at Xander, as he counted the change for the American. "In what way?"

"If a demon shows you the way, shouldn't you wonder why the demon is doing so? To use a demon to accomplish your goals, certainly taints what you seek with the mark of Satan. Or so they taught me in Sunday school," Xander took the change. "Thank you for the drinks," he then said cheerfully, as he left the store.

Gunny followed along beside him. "What the hell was all that about?"

"Just putting to good use memories of a dinner table I enjoyed eating at." As the dinner conversations at the Rosenberg table had forced Xander to think quick on his feet, when Mr. Rosenberg had gone into his debating mode.


Twenty minutes later

Xander leaned against the wall as he watched the store, sipping on his soft drink. Several people had gone in and out of the store since Xander and Gunny had been in there.

"What exactly are we waiting for?" Levy asked. "You know he's made us now. You going in spoiled the surveillance. We should pack it up and try a new source," he then said impatiently.

"No, we'll wait here," Xander said, looking vaguely at nothing.

Gunny just glanced at him and observed the street scene of children playing. Xander continued, "He knows we're here, that's the whole point..."

Levy shrugged, and went back to watching the store. All three of them continued doing so for a few minutes.

A child started babbling in Arabic; and even though Xander didn't know he was saying "Hey mister, you dropped this," the young American managed to get the general gist. Harris looked down at the kid that had been playing in the streets; he had wandered over to where the three boys were fooling around, and the child was now holding a folded piece of paper out towards Xander.

"Did I drop this? Guess I did. Thank you," Xander said with a smile, as he took the piece of paper. The kid nodded, and ran off to rejoin his friends in the game.

"Come on, we got what we needed," Xander turned to leave, followed by the other two.

"What is that?" Levy asked in curiosity.

Xander unfolded and looked at the writing on the paper. "What to look for in the morning." He handed the paper to Levy.

Levy took it and looked at the writing on it. Fajiel Soda truck, tomorrow morning was all it said.


United States District Court for the Middle District of California Federal Courthouse, San Francisco, California. The next morning

"All rise," the bailiff called out, as Judge Younts entered the court.

Everyone in the courtroom rose and waited for the judge to sit down, before they did. He quickly called the case to order, "Are both parties ready to proceed?"

Both Lilah and Bowden replied in the affirmative. The legal chambers were again empty, except for the lawyers and Xander's parents; Judge Younts had definitely not called the media, in light of the phone call he had received. And Lilah had put her witnesses in a room outside of the legal chambers.

"Ms. Morgan, you may call your first witness," Younts said in a no-nonsense tone.

Lilah signaled to Lindsey, who got up and headed to the door leading to the witness room. "Yes, Your Honor, the plaintiffs would like to call-"

Bowden interrupted her, though. "Your Honor, if I may? The United States believes it can facilitate bringing this case to a quick conclusion, by producing an individual which I believe can explain everything that has happened in this matter."

Judge Younts stared at the government attorney. "Is that so. Well, you may proceed, but I'm warning you Mr. Bowden - this had better be worth it..."

Lilah was taken aback by this turn of events. She glanced over at Lindsey, as one of the bailiffs opened the door to the waiting room for the government's witnesses. < What the hell have they got up their sleeves? >

Through the door walked a young man, dark-haired and about six feet tall. He also bore a striking resemblance to the image of Xander Harris, in the photographs.

< God, they're going with a lookalike argument? How pathetic! But good thing we prepared for this, > Lilah thought to herself. Lindsey headed back to the table, and started rifling through the briefcase he had brought with him.

Bowden said confidently, "Your Honor, may I present Special Agent Sean Thayer, from the FBI's field office in Oklahoma City. He is an expert on cults, and their efforts to recruit new members from teenage runaways on the streets. I'm told he was on temporary detached duty at the LA office, to assist with the raid on the cult's headquarters-"

Lilah was definitely worried now. < This is not good. Two days ago, Younts would have objected to calling those demons at the runaway shelter a cult. But today, he doesn't even bat an eye? >

The prosecutor continued on, "Since this action was filed here instead of in Los Angeles where the attorneys familiar with the raid are, none of the lawyers who were answering the complaint knew about Agent Thayer's resemblance to the deceased Mr. Harris. The fact is though, he is the individual in the photographs."

Younts looked over at the new arrival in the courtroom. "Agent Thayer, are you willing to swear under oath that you were involved in the raid on the cult compound, on the day in question?" The judge sounded a little broken up, when he spoke these words.

"Yes, Your Honor. I was also outside right after the raid was concluded, where I believe the photographs in question were taken. I'm sorry if there's been some sort of misunderstanding, and I'd like to help clear it up in any way I can..."

"I see," The judge looked out over the courtroom. "Well, after having heard the arguments from both parties, examining the photographs and seeing Agent Thayer in person here, this court is satisfied that he is indeed the individual in the photos."

"Your Honor-" Lilah tried to interject.

Judge Younts continued on, ignoring the attorney from Wolfram & Hart. "Accordingly, I must hereby rule that there is insufficient evidence on behalf of the plaintiffs; case dismissed..."

Lilah was engulfed by disbelief, she wasn't even getting a chance to cross-examine the witness! "Your Honor, if I may-"

The man in the black robes abruptly went on, "To avoid complications for any future cult-related investigations and to preserve Agent Thayer's ability to assist in said investigations, this court is ordering that the courtroom records shall remain sealed. And that the gag order issued by the court previously shall remain in place, until so ordered otherwise."

The judge banged his gavel down, cutting off the now half-coherent objections from both Lilah and Lindsey. "Court's adjourned." He then got up and left the room.

Lilah and Lindsey looked at each other again. < What the hell just happened here? > the male lawyer thought to himself.

But before he could say anything to Lilah, a bailiff leaned down and whispered into their ears, "You and your clients are wanted in chambers."


Five minutes later

Lilah looked up, as the door to the conference room they were in opened up. She had expected to see Judge Younts walking in, with some half-baked explanation of what had just happened. Instead, in walked a middle-aged African-American woman, followed by two men.

"Good morning, all," the woman said to Lilah, Lindsey and Mr. and Mrs. Harris. "I hope you've had a pleasant stay in San Francisco."

Lilith looked at the new arrivals, not wasting time. "You must know that we'll appeal. And there's no way that hearing will stand up to scrutiny in any appeals court-"

The woman looked across the table at Lilah. "That is certainly your clients' right. And in the spirit of friendly cooperation, the appellate process has been sped up for them." She slid a piece of paper across the table to the female attorney. "Here's the court order specifying that any appeal of Judge Younts' decision shall be heard by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That cuts out the middle man quite nicely, and should enable a rapid conclusion for all concerned."

< So that's what's going on. They brought out the big guns already - damn. Harris is more connected than I anticipated. I wonder what they have over Younts? > Lindsey thought to himself. "The wall to hide what you've done won't last long, once we start making noise about your actions-"

"That's assuming that your clients will want to push this matter much farther. Personally, I doubt that they will."

Mr. Harris, red-faced, snapped back at her, "I don't know what kind of game you're playing - but you're going to pay for what you've done to us, you bitch!" Lilah mentally sighed, thankful that Anthony hadn't had a chance to start drinking yet this morning, or who knew what he would have said then.

Esther Marcum raised an eyebrow at the people across the table. "Okay, I guess we'll start with the stick then..."

She nodded to one of the men with her. He opened the briefcase he was carrying, and brought out a sizeable chunk of papers. The man dropped them on the table, where they made a loud thump as they landed.

Marcum said, "In case you're wondering, Mr. Harris, these are your son's medical records from the various hospitals in the town of Sunnydale. They go back to when he was about four years old or so."

"What of it?" Harris growled back, ignoring the efforts of his wife to calm him down.

"Well, it certainly seems quite a prodigious amount of paper for just one child, don't you think?" She nodded to the man once more, who produced a second group of papers and dropped them next to the hospital records, again making a large thump as he did so. "Now these are records from social services, concerning your son. And the third group of papers my colleague is about to produce are various police reports, generated as a result of those records. Would you care to know what conclusion the Sunnydale PD came to?"

The middle-aged Mr. Harris just glared across the table at the new arrivals. His senses were free enough of alcohol at this time, to realize that something was now really wrong.

Esther continued on, "The authorities came to the conclusion, from the number of injuries that your son suffered, that you were abusing him. And that the abuse was maintained almost up to the day of his disappearance, in 1998. Quite frankly, Xander Harris's high school years read like a textbook of various injuries. Both the police and social services wanted you prosecuted for it. They forwarded that recommendation onto the relevant District Attorney's office."

Both Mr. and Mrs. Harris paled at that. Lilah just glanced at them without any compassion. This wasn't exactly news to her; what *was* a surprise was that her clients had thought they could possibly hide it.

"Now then," the STW bigwig continued on, noting with some satisfaction the discomfort of the Harris couple. "At the time when these recommendations were made, the district attorney was a protégé of the late Mayor Richard Wilkins III. And Wilkins, although very good at certain things, did have this nasty habit of turning a blind eye towards certain foibles of the residents of Sunnydale. Things were allowed to...slide."

"What *exactly* are you saying?" Lindsey asked.

"There's a new district attorney in Sunnydale nowadays. One not beholden to Mayor Wilkins or his beliefs." That fact hung in the air for a second, before Esther fired her next shot across their bow. "And it is my understanding that the statute of limitations has not yet run out, on these potential criminal charges."

The silence in the room lasted for a several seconds, as that information sunk in. Esther then spoke up again, "You must admit, that would be quite a feather in the cap of the new DA - getting a conviction on a child abuse case, and don't doubt that there would be a conviction, where the victim had died over a year ago."

Lilith cogitated for a second and thought, < There's certainly enough evidence to get a conviction, I know that much from my own background check. And with the man - no, sorry - woman in black pulling the strings from behind the curtain, a conviction is a certainty. This changes things... >

The man who had been placing the papers on the table suddenly spoke up. "You know, the prison population is reputed to be quite vicious, when it come to child abusers within their ranks. In both the men and women's facilities." He sent a pointed glance at Mrs. Harris, who went even paler than she had before.

After about a minute or so, the male Harris spoke up. "You said this was the stick, right? So, is there a carrot?"

Marcum nodded at him. She motioned to the other man, who had entered the room with her. "This is Stephen Maxwell, and he's prepared to become your new attorney with regard to your lawsuit against the Sunnydale High school board. He's already been in preliminary negotiations with them, and basically - the board is willing to enter into a settlement of your case, with a monetary compensation of approximately half a million dollars."

Both of the supposedly grieving parents perked up at the dollar amount mentioned. Lilah spoke up at once, "Now, hold on a second. This is a blatant attempt to subvert the legal process, and we're not..."

Mr. Harris interrupted her at once, "Shut up. All right lady, what do you want from us?"

"Firstly, drop the lawsuit against the government. Accept that your son is dead. And from what I've seen of your parenting abilities, I doubt that'll be too much of a burden for you. Second - leave Sunnydale and California, never to return. Arrangements can be made to relocate you to any other part of the country you want. As a matter of fact, we're packing you up as I speak; there's no need for you even to return to Sunnydale. And thirdly, never speak of this matter ever again, for the rest of your lives."

Lilah interrupted again, for the situation was rapidly getting beyond her control. "This is outrageous! You can't just come in here and try to-"

Esther interrupted her this time, talking directly to the Harris parents. "Also, you should be aware that there are several individuals I'm personally acquainted with that were particularly...disturbed by the information we discovered, concerning the treatment of your son. They wanted to meet with you in person to discuss the matter. Although knowing them, I suspect their views would be made in a...shall we say...non-verbal manner?"

Anthony and Jessica Harris looked at each other in silent communication. Mr. Harris then turned to Lilah and Lindsey, "You're fired." He then turned to Esther, "What do we do now?"

The black woman slid a group of papers across the table to him, barely suppressing a look of disgust as she did so. "Just sign on the dotted line."

Lindsey almost smirked, as Lilah looked ready to kill someone - when Anthony and then Jessica Harris signed on with the enemy. < Better luck next time, sweetheart. Well, I better get back to LA, and see how Darla's doing... >


The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, Israel. Later that day

Xander scanned the street. He kept his eyes peeled for the soft drink truck named in the note. With him was the Israeli police officer Levy, and Xander's fellow Siberians. They were in a second story office that overlooked the street, leading to the Wailing Wall.

The Israeli spoke up, "How do we know he didn't get another vehicle? Something more discreet..."

"He can't. He needs a truck to transport the hellhounds. They won't fit into just any old car," Xander replied. "Those things kinda stick out like a sore thumb. A really ugly, hairy, nasty-looking sore thumb. So he needs a custom job to transport the devil dogs."

The local authorities had flooded the area with undercover police officers, as they didn't want to spook the terrorist completely. If they did, he might decide to hit a target they would be completely unprepared for. The hope was to catch him before he got too close to the Wailing Wall and those praying there. When he was spotted, there was a large number of army troops out of sight ready to handle the situation.

Gunny checked his watch. "Nothing really special about these things, right?"

"Not really. No lasers coming from their eyes, if that's what you mean. Just the run-of-the-mill demons who want to tear you apart with their claws and teeth," Xander replied with a chuckle.

Back when the first senior Prom had taken place, and Xander hated it that he still had headache-inducing doubles of every experience in his life since the end of his junior year of high school, good old Slayer strength had worked to kill them. So the X-man was willing to bet that these beasts were vulnerable in the same way.

"You know Hall, before you came along, things were so much easier," Gunny grunted "Are we sure he'll come this way?"

"Yeah, this is the route the trucks take to deliver supplies to the concession stands nearby. Considering he's disguised as a soft drink truck, he has to come this way to avoid suspicion."

They kept watch for another 15 minutes, when they were finally rewarded. Red saw it first, "Truck coming, this might be it..."

The others turned their gazes to the truck Red had spotted. "Can anyone see the sign on the side?" Gunny asked.

"Not yet," Graham Miller replied. He shifted positions to try and get a better view.

Levy spoke into the walkie-talkie he was carrying. After a few seconds Graham spoke up, "Okay, Fajiel Soda. That's it!" He started out of the office. The others followed.

Levy started speaking into his walkie-talkie, "Truck sighted. Move into position. Be prepared to take it down when I give the word!"

The group made their way down the stairs and out into the street. The truck was about halfway down the street now. It was an old, small-sized moving van. As they hit the street, Levy again spoke into the walkie-talkie. "Go!"

As he finished speaking, an army truck pulled out at the end of the street and blocked further progress by the terrorist's van. Behind them, another truck did the same at the entry of the street. Soldiers started spilling out of the two trucks, the civilians on the street running for cover as they saw the army troops.

The van stopped and stood still, as the soldiers approached it with their weapons aimed at it.

"Don't wait, get him out now!" Xander yelled as the soldiers seemed to falter for a second, waiting for a reaction from the inside. Gunny could be heard to cuss as he saw the same thing Xander did.

There was movement in the van. The terrorist had slipped into the back compartment. A few seconds later, the back door of the van slid up, and three hellhounds jumped down and looked around.

They saw the army surrounding them, and responded to their conditioning. All three demon foot soldiers growled, and attacked the armed forces. The nearest grunt to them opened fire with his assault rifle...

The bullets impacted against the hellhound closest to him. The hellhound was clearly hurt, but it wasn't disabled. It leapt at its tormentor, and started tearing at his flesh with its claws.

The other soldiers were stunned for a second, at the sight of something that common sense said *couldn't* be there. "Move, now, kill them!!!" shouted Levy, who drew his pistol and blasted several shots at another of the hellhounds.

"Knives and bayonets! Use your knives and bayonets!" Xander shouted, drawing out a Bowie knife as he did so.

About half of the soldiers heard Xander's shout and did likewise, drawing their own melee weapons. The others opened up with their rifles. As they did so, a young Arab man dropped out of the rear of the van and darted down the street, towards an alley opening. The third hellhound leaping to attack had drawn off the soldiers who had been guarding that alley.

The second hellhound came towards the Siberians, aiming to get at Levy who was still shooting at it. Xander stabbed at it though, as the beast got within arm's reach. "Damn it, quit shooting! It's not big enough to do any good, and you might hit one of us!" he shouted at Levy. So the police liaison holstered his pistol, and looked for another weapon.

The first hellhound, the one that had attacked the soldier, fell back with blood pumping out from the numerous wounds on its chest. The solider who was being attacked had put the barrel against the beast's skin and kept pulling the trigger, until he had run out of ammo. The brute force had worked enough to push the hellhound off his bleeding victim, whereupon several bayonet-wielding soldiers dispatched the wounded creature.

The second hellhound found itself in the midst of the Siberians. They all had knives out, and quickly killed the demon. Levy, who had by now had picked up a knife from a fallen soldier, looked around. "Where did he go?" he shouted, referring to the terrorist.

"The alley!" yelled one soldier in Hebrew. "He took off down there, once the animals attacked!"

In the alley, the terrorist turned a corner and suddenly stopped and faced the person standing in front of him. "Abdullah? What are you doing?"

"How could you? Use the devil's tools."

The Siberians, Levy and several soldiers started down the alleyway. But before they got halfway down the alley, they heard a gunshot. Getting to the end of the alley, they found the terrorist's body laying on the ground.

"What happened?" Levy asked, as he scanned the alley for the source of the weapons fire.

"I think he just committed the ultimate cardinal sin for any terrorist organization," Gunny said, as he slowed down and examined the body.

"And that is?" Xander asked him.

"He had an idea that his superiors didn't like; and worse, from their viewpoint, it didn't work either."


Great Russell Street, London, England. The next day

The Watcher named Phillip strode into the office of his immediate superior, Quentin Travers. "The reports you wanted, Mr. Travers..."

Quentin didn't even look at him, as Phillip placed down the papers and the old man kept reading some documents at his desk. "Close the door on your way out."

Phillip took a deep breath. "Sir, there are matters we need to discuss. Alexander Harris has been sighted-"

Travers dropped his papers at once. "What? Where is he?"

"Jerusalem, sir."

The bearded man got up, with a wild look on his face. "Gather the necessary people immediately! I want to be there in a few hours-"

Phillip cringed but nonetheless said, "I think not, Mr. Travers."

Quentin stared at his underling, unable to believe what he'd heard. "What did you say? Did I actually hear you correctly?"

The younger Watcher said fearfully, "Israel is not the United States, sir. We don't have the contacts or resources there to mount a successful extraction - at least, not in the short time window available. He appears to be in the company of Israeli Army and we do not have the resources to face off against them on their home ground. According to our field Watchers on-site, he's leaving today for destination unknown. There's also the probability of exposure of our personnel-"

"The Devil take your details, man!" Travers shouted. "That insolent child dared threaten me. Actually dared to hurt my person! I will not rest until he's in our custody, and never mind how many people we lose along the way!" Then he saw Phillip wince. "What is it now?" the guy demanded.

The man sighed. "If I may, I'd suggest not repeating that in public. Sir."

The senior Watcher frowned. "Why not?"

Phillip stared at him. "Mr. Travers, after Lydia resigned, when asked why - she told the people involved what Mr. Harris told you, that day in the Army-Navy Club. That the only reason he didn't kill you, was that...the days of the Council and the Watchers are already numbered. It, uh, it's leaked out, and there have been a massive number of resignations ever since then..."

The balding man looked stunned. "Why wasn't I informed of this?"

"I don't know, sir. But to completely change the subject, there is another pressing matter we need to discuss."

Travers sighed, as he sat down. < Botheration. Well, I suppose I may as well get this over with... > "Get on with it, then."

Phillip hesitated. "It's to do with the Slayer, sir. Uh, not Ms. Summers; our Slayer."

"What about her?"

"The situation with the Cleveland Hellmouth is getting rather...difficult, I'm sorry to say. So, Miss Kennedy is, ah, already on her way there-"

Travers leapt up again at once, his eyes blazing. "She'll do no such thing! Those blasted American idiots are not getting their hands on our Chosen One!"

Phillip said softly, "Mr. Travers, I'm afraid I've not been completely honest with you."

Quentin sat down slowly, sending an unfriendly glare at his subordinate. "Explain yourself at once."

"I've known about the Ohio situation for some time, sir. It's, um, become common knowledge that the Hellmouth there is becoming more active, as a result of its supernatural energy increasing. The thing is, I've made - uh, unauthorized arrangements for one of our people and the Slayer to operate there, unmolested by the colonial government."

Travers frowned. "Who are you talking about? And just *how* did you pull that off?" the British man didn't like the fact his underling was showing so much initiative.

Phillip took another deep breath. "Sir, the fact that Mr. Harris is now part of the U.S. intelligence network, made me think that we needed someone he knew - to vouch for one of our operatives..." He then said in a rush, "That's why I contacted Rupert Giles."


The young Englishman babbled, "He was Alexander Harris's mentor for two years, and so the odds were that Rupert's word would hold some weight with the organization that's calling the shots in this matter. Even though he appears to be unaware that Mr Harris is still alive, he agreed to assist us. He, uh, Mr. Giles recommended Sam Zabuto to take over as Kennedy's Watcher, and Cummings with the embassy in Washington has managed to clear it with the government authorities. They'll be there by tomorrow, at the latest..."

Travers was apoplectic. "How *dare* you take it upon yourself, to make such decisions. Your services are terminated, effective immediately! Pack your things and get out of my sight!"

Phillip nodded, he'd been more-or-less expecting this. That was why he'd already packed his stuff...but he then thought with a mental shrug, < Who else was going to make the decision, old man? You've become obsessed with Alexander Harris, and nothing else. So *someone* had to do the job you're supposed to be doing... > "Very good, sir."

He turned around as if to leave, then looked back. "Oh, good luck on your meeting today at 3 pm, Mr. Travers."

"Meeting? What meeting?" his former superior demanded angrily.

Phillip sighed, his repressed disgust with his ex-boss finally surfacing now that he no longer had anything to lose. < No wonder the organization's in such a bloody mess. I *told* you about it yesterday! > "The assembly meeting to decide what to do about Mr. Harris's prophecies regarding the Council, sir." The young man then quickly left.

Quentin Travers gnashed his teeth furiously. < I promise you this much, child. The day *will* come when I have my pound of flesh... >

Part Nine

Unmarked military airfield near Prague, Czech Republic. July 2000, 72 hours later

Xander fidgeted in the chair, as they waited in the pilot's lounge. Gunny, Red and Graham all also sat in the chairs, just sitting around and killing time. It had been a hectic three days, since they had left Israel.

The incident at the Wailing Wall had definitely unnerved the Israeli officials. Xander and the other Siberians had spent the next day trying to explain to various higher-ups about the things that went bump in the night; and at first, the response to their story was skeptical.

However, the dead demon bodies and what was found at the terrorist hideaway was enough to eventually persuade the listeners of the validity of what they were told.

The whole group had been moved to an isolated Air Force base near Tel Aviv, where several Israeli military and espionage types had shown up to learn about the demon underworld that had previously existed beyond their sight. They had peppered the Americans with questions...

Well, Xander had told them what he could, carefully editing out any information from the future that didn't relate to vampires and the like. He figured that would be for Cleburne and the other leaders of Siberian Trip Wire to talk about. And the people he had met with were quick learners, listening with great interest about the demon threat.

They had quickly followed up with questions as to how to deal with it. Xander also got the feeling that the people he had talked to were doing some research of their own, since several of the demons they had asked about weren't of species that Xander or any of the American secret agents had mentioned to them.

Much as he hated school environments, Xander had found himself acting as a teacher to the Israelis, when he wasn't doing homework himself. Even though Cleburne wasn't there, still doing *officer stuff* as Gunny put it, he had made sure that Xander's travelling companions saw to it Harris ended up doing his assignments.

Graham even had some of the same materials, as it turned out, for he also was attending the 'University of Wizard' as they called the classes thought up by Hollins. They had sent the results of what they had done so far by email back to the States, which were followed twelve hours later by Hollins emailing them back the test scores and more assignments.

Finally, after three days of teaching and being a student at the same time, the next morning Gunny had announced that they were ready to leave. A plane ride later, the four had arrived at the airfield in the Czech Republic. The Czech military had placed them in a private lounge used by VIPs, and they were waiting now.

"When's Cleburne supposed to be here?" Xander asked.

"Shouldn't be long. He flew back to Ramstein to pick up the package that the Wizard sent. Should have the materials you need to find these monks. Other stuff also, something about a package to be sent on to the Israelis? I think they're trying to get something up and running to deal with the undead in the Holy Land," Gunny replied.

"Well, I wish he'd hurry up. Hanging out in the middle of night in the middle of Europe sounds too much like a bad horror movie."

They waited another twenty minutes, before the Siberian C.O. walked in. "Evening everyone, miss me?" he said with a smirk.

"Like a hangover," Xander replied back with a grimace.

"Kid, I figure you'd be happy to see me, on account of the Wizard came through for you. By the way, he said for you to work on your geography." Cleburne then tossed a paperback book to Xander. The guy looked down, and he saw that it was a pocket atlas.

He quickly glanced back up. "Wizard came through? The monks?"

Cleburne nodded, as he made his way over to a table. "The Order of Dagon. Right here on the map for us." The agent unfolded said map, and pointed down at it. "Premsyl Brod Koruna Monastery. Been on the map since the 1200s, after this guy called Tarnis founded it. It's about 200 klicks from here. Gotta say, it's a very decent-sized compound. They even have a tourist aspect to it, believe it or not. Lots of Baroque paintings and the like. I figure we just drive up as tourists."

"And then what?" Red asked.

"We see just how convincing Hall can be to the Abbot guy in charge," Cleburne motioned at Xander. "I hope you got your persuading hat in your suitcase, kid."

"Oh, I'll do my best," Xander replied. "When do we leave?"

"Well, our Czech liaison has gotten rooms for us on base. We'll get a good night's sleep, and by then our new traveling companion should arrive."

Gunny frowned at that. "New traveling companion? What's that about, Colonel?"

Xander stared at the older man for a moment, who appeared not to notice. Joshua just shrugged, "Israelis are sending a observer to learn the ins and outs of demon killing, the kid here made a real impression on them. So now, they want in on the game."

"And what do we get in return?" Gunny had known Cleburne long enough to know that he wouldn't let someone just tag along with no good reason.

"Complete access to their covert intelligence sources in the Middle East. That should help us deal with the terrorists better."

"You know, we're going to end up looking like a traveling circus before too long," Xander observed cynically.

"Don't worry about it kid, in fact - I'm betting pretty soon, you'll thank me," Cleburne said with a smirk.


UC Sunnydale, Sunnydale, California. Four hours later

Willow walked back into her dorm, after having gone out for a walk to try to clear her head. She had found herself walking through her old neighborhood, lost in thought...

Then passing by Xander's old house, the redhead had been surprised to see a 'For Sale' sign up. Asking some questions of the neighbors, who all remembered the red-haired girl from younger days, had revealed that the Harris clan - all two of them - had moved suddenly, having found new jobs out of town.

And that, along with the conversation with Tara from several days before, had gotten Ms. Rosenberg thinking.

< I can't talk to Buffy about this. She's still in her attack mode, > Will thought sadly to herself. < But I gotta talk to *someone* from back in high school, someone that would understand what I'm going through... > An idea had come to Willow suddenly, and she'd headed back to her dorm room.

The teenager entered and was happy to see that Buffy was absent, most likely with Jeff - as it was still summer vacation here. And with the mood her best friend was currently in, what with the sudden appearance of a new vamp Master that had taken Harmony's place and Tara's questions about Xander, Willow *so* did not want her in the room when she made this call.

A glance at the clock showed that there was at least an hour before Buffy would most likely be back. < Buffy said something about shopping when she left this morning. Then she was going by the gallery to see Joyce. That would use up the whole afternoon, for Buffy. > So Willow dialed the number, and waited for an answer.

"Angel Investigations. We help the helpless."

"Cordy? Hi, it's Willow. You free to talk for a while?"


141 Embury Street, Los Angeles, California. Half an hour later

Wesley Wyndham-Pryce wearily trudged into Cordelia Chase's Silverlake apartment, looking for Angel to discuss their latest case.

Under the ensouled vampire's tutelage, Wes had flourished and grown from the useless dweeb he had been in Sunnydale. Beneath the pompous exterior had been a competent man, who just needed to stop pretending he was something he wasn't; and the guy who had looked ridiculous after dropping that Bavarian fighting axe in that alley last year, was nowhere to be found nowadays.

"Angel?" he called out, as the Englishman made his way into the main room. "Angel, I-" But then he stopped in alarm, as he saw Cordy sitting on the couch. And tears were flowing freely down her cheeks. "Cordelia?"

At hearing her name, the brunette girl blinked, and turned around to face the former Watcher. "Wes? When did you get here?"

"Just now, I - Cordelia, what's wrong?"

The former cheerleader got some Kleenex, and hurriedly wiped her tears away. "Nothing."

Wesley cocked his head a little. "Now that's a load of old codswallop, if you'll pardon the expression," the man said with that British accent, that had charmed the girl in high school - before they'd found out how romantically incompatible they really were. "You said it yourself a few months ago, we're family now. What's troubling you?"

Cordy sighed in defeat and confessed, "I just - I, uh, just now got off the phone with Willow."

Wesley looked concerned, "Is she all right? Is the Hellmouth-"

"No, no, everything's normal there. Well, as normal as a town infested with demons and vampires gets anyway," the young woman shrugged. "This was something else, something...personal."

Wes asked delicately, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No," Ms. Chase sighed. "And thing is, I don't think anyone can, it's far too late now. See, Willow told me that she just learned that...that Xander hated her. And Buffy. And me..."

Wesley sat down, thinking furiously. He hadn't thought of Xander Harris for over a year now, the dead man being part of a past he preferred not to contemplate. But it was obvious that Cordelia needed major comfort here; and since Angel was absent, the job was his alone.

"As you recall, I never knew know, before," Wyndham-Pryce began awkwardly. "But I know that you and he were together romantically for a while..." he then took her right hand into his own.

Cordelia stared at their hands hollowly. "Six months, yeah. More or less."

Wes took a deep breath, "I've never mentioned this before, but - I heard about what happened with you three and young Mr. Harris, that night during 1998. Quite frankly, I always found it unlikely in the extreme the details of what Mr. Giles told me-"

"Oh, you can believe it alright, because it's all true," Cordelia said, still staring at nothing. "We left him there. *I* left him there. And if Angel hadn't saved Xander's ass, we would have been guilty of murder."

The British man shook his head. "No-"

Cordelia was adamant, though. "Do you wanna know the truth, Wes? Okay, here it is; when I found out what had happened, I freaked out with anger. Xander *lied* to Buffy that day, and I couldn't handle it. I have this thing with regard to liars, you see..."

She paused. "My dad, he used to lie to me and my mom all the time. He lied about his taxes, he lied about his background, and he lied about..." There was another pause, then Cordy said softly, "During my senior year, the freshman princess at Homecoming was this girl called Jennifer Naranjo. And just between us, I got me no doubts from the resemblance alone, that she's my half-sister..."

Wesley honestly had no idea what to say, as Cordelia went on, "That's why I overreacted, and dumped Xander's ass. And why I did nothing to help him that night, either. It's no excuse, I know - it's just the truth. But FYI, the real truth is he hurt me, a lot more than I hurt him."

Something went 'click' inside Wesley's mind. "Good Lord. You were in love with him, weren't you?"

Cordelia's eyes began to moisten again. "Oh, what does it matter now?"


After yet another pause, the young woman eventually nodded. "All right, fine. I'll admit he grew on me, kinda like a Chia pet. Why else do you think I gave it up, to that bastard Wilson? He reminded me of Xander so much. Whatever else may be a lie, I loved my boyfriend - but it was obvious afterwards, he never loved me back the same way. Xander just left me behind, and took up with that skanky 'ho Faith..."

Wes wanted to growl angrily, at hearing his Slayer being denigrated like this. But with both of them dead now, he knew it was pointless to open that can of worms at this late date. Then something occurred to him and Wesley said, "I'll grant you the boy may have been pissed before ending up in that hell dimension, but afterwards...Cordelia, he was a different person then..."

"Yeah, I know," Ms. Chase shrugged. "I actually went to see him at Angel's mansion, once. I thought maybe we could straighten a few things out, you know? But Xander just started screaming in pain, as soon as he saw me. Angel then found us and threw me out - like literally, I landed on my ass on the ground outside! And before he slammed the door in my face, our boss told me to never come back to that place on Crawford Street."

"I never knew any of that," the former "head boy" of the Watcher Academy said in astonishment. "When did all this happen?"

Cordelia thought back, a frown on her beautiful face. "A day or two before Prom, I think. By the way," she smiled at her friend, "I know it's a day late and a dollar short, but thanks for secretly paying for the rest of my Prom dress back then..."

At Wesley's blank look of confusion, the former ruler of Sunnydale High let out a gasp. "You didn't pay for it, did you? Then who did? I mean, nobody knew I was dirt poor at that time..."

Wes had an epiphany. "My God. Xander!" As Cordelia stared at him in disbelief, the guy explained, "Well, who else could it have been? He had to have known, with his future memories..." Then the Englishman said gently to her, "Cordelia, listen to me. Even though Xander may have passed on, I have no doubts that he didn't hate you when he died..."

Then Wes embraced his friend. "Please, pay no attention to what Willow said. Just remember the good and let go of the bad, and cherish the memories you have of the man. If Mr. Harris were here right now, I'm sure he'd tell you the exact same thing."


Unmarked military airfield near Prague, Czech Republic. The next morning

Xander finished his breakfast, picking at the last pieces of sausage. The night's sleep had been relaxing, and he felt rested for the trip to the monastery. The other Siberians also seemed to have been refreshed by their slumber, as they finished their breakfasts.

The senior Siberian came in, and handed a folder over to Xander. "Here, something for you to read on the trip up there."

Xander took the file, raising an eyebrow as he did. "What is this? More homework?"

Cleburne shook his head, as he poured himself a cup of coffee. "Nope. You remember when you went to that army base in California and reported for duty, after your time in that hell dimension?"

Xander nodded his head, as he finished off his breakfast. "Yeah, the Officer of the Day thought I was crazy and kicked me outta there."

"Right. Well, he noted the whole thing in his daily report, including the serial number you quoted to him. We dug up that report, and tracked down the file for the serial number. The Wizard sent it over with the stuff from last night. That's it in your hands..."

Xander looked at the file without opening it for several seconds. Cleburne noticed that and started talking, "Don't worry kid, the guy did all right. Donald Grant, he was a Private First Class with the 101st Airborne Division. Jump-trained, and a fair amount of combat training too. Got decorated with a Bronze Star during the Tet Offensive, and was killed in action during 1971 in the Mekong Delta."

Xander started flipping through the pages. The record showed a soldier who was damned good at his chosen profession. "Why was he only a PFC? I figure with this kind of record, he would have been a noncom at some point..."

Cleburne got a plate from the buffet the Czech authorities had arranged for them, and sat down. "Was a few times, yeah, but got demoted almost as fast as he got promoted. Liked barroom brawls." He started to eat the breakfast.

"Barroom brawls? Hall, next time we go bar-hopping I'll have to keep an eye on you," Red joked. By this time, his fellow Siberians knew all about Xander's history - everything about him, except his real name.

"You mean, when you're not eyeballing the waitresses?" Xander joked back.

"I'll have you know that I'm a perfect gentleman, at all times," Red shot back.

A snort of laughter came from both Cleburne and Gunny. Cleburne swallowed the mouthful of eggs he had almost spit out, when he laughed. "Red, remember when I talked to you on the phone when you were at that demon waitress' place? I don't think gentlemen get themselves into positions like that, with women like that."

"Hey, Ametila's a decent young lady - who just happens to have a different skin color to the rest of us!"

Cleburne raised an eyebrow at Red's response. "Anyway, speaking of promotions..." Joshua slid over a wallet to where Xander was sitting. "Here you go, kid, congrats."

Xander opened up the wallet and looked at the documents inside. "What's this?"

"Your papers identifying you as First Lieutenant Alexander L. Hall, U.S. Army Rangers. Keep them handy."

Xander nodded, and put the wallet in his back pocket. "Just outta interest, why Rangers? With all the Marines you guys seem to have in this group, I kinda figured I'd be a Marine also."

"You have to earn the right to be called Marine, Hall," Gunny said matter-of-factly from where he was sitting. "Go through boot camp at Parris Island first, and then we'll see about calling you a Marine."

Xander almost laughed out loud. "Wait a minute, being a Marine has to be earned; but you can throw around the Ranger designation, just like that?"

Cleburne and Gunny looked at each other before Cleburne answered, "Yeah, that's about right."

"Hey!" Graham and Xander said in unison.

"Truth hurts, huh," Cleburne said as he took a drink from his coffee cup.

"Come on, it's not like Hall is asking for anything impressive like being a Navy SeAL," Red joked. He was rewarded by a glare from Cleburne.

"Oh, please! Tell me that this much testosterone isn't the norm with you guys," a female voice said from the doorway.

Xander turned around, and was struck mute for a moment. Because standing right there, was one of the most beautiful women that he had ever seen.

She looked to be in her mid-twenties, and was just a little bit shorter than Xander. She had curly dark hair, and a complexion most models would kill and die for. But her face...

There was a striking resemblance to Faith.

Ever since the First had appeared to him as her in that prison truck of the Watchers, Xander had not allowed himself to think of his ex-girlfriend too often. It hurt too much to do so, and not all of that was due to the conflicting memories.

In this version of history, Faith had become Xander's lover in a better way than in that other world, which nearly two years ago had just been a quick and meaningless lay for the Chosen One. They had developed a friendship, a real connection first; the Scoobies had sent the junior Slayer to talk to him - and the brunette warrior had recognized the hidden bitterness within the former Zeppo at once, doing her best to drain it out.

Then had come that *bitch* Gwendolyn Post, and both Xander and Angel had warned Faith not to trust her at once - both men getting bad vibes from the evil ex-Watcher. Unfortunately, the rest of the gang had been taken in by her act; and after the shit had hit the fan with the Glove of Myhnegon...that was when Faith had decided Xander had been right all along, and the Scooby reconciliation topic never mentioned again.

But as said, that was long ago and far away now. Xander watched as the woman nodded at the senior Siberian, "Cleburne."

"Weitz," he nodded back at her. Joshua then looked at Xander and the others, "Boys, close your mouths, this is our Israeli friend Rachael Weitz. Weitz, meet Charles "Gunny" Rose, Graham Miller, Mike "Red" Byrne and Alexander Hall - even though I call him kid."

"No nickname for Mr. Miller?" she asked with an upraised eyebrow.

"I'm working on it," Cleburne replied with a shrug.

Weitz turned her dark eyes towards Xander. "Mr. Hall," she said with enough emphasis to show that she knew an alias when she heard one. "You are a *most* interesting person. I've heard many stories about you. I look forward to seeing if they're true or not."

Xander just stared for a few seconds. Cleburne spoke up, "Breathe, kid. Breathe in, and then breathe out. Then say hello to the nice woman."

"Hello," Xander finally managed to get out. He had only felt like this before, when he had seen Buffy and Faith for the first time. The other Siberians in the room also greeted the Israeli observer.

Cleburne finished off his cup of coffee. "Well, let's get this show on the road. Get your gear together, and meet Rachael and me out front in 15 minutes."


High Security Vault, First Millennium Holdings INC. Building, Los Angeles, California. The same time

The brunette woman lowered herself from the ceiling into the darkened vault, using a rope attached to her body. So far, everything her sources had told her about the security on this job had been right on the money.

< And the money for the job is going to be quite a pretty sum, > the femme thought, as she touched the floor.

The would-be thief unattached the rope from the harness, and made her way over to the security boxes. < Let's see, it's supposed to be in Box 11874... > She looked at the numbers, until she found the box she was looking for. < Here we go. > She went to work picking the lock.

"Viola!" the woman whispered, as the lock clicked and the door opened. She then reached in, and pulled out the contents. The thief then frowned, once she saw what it was.

< What the hell? A poster? > She looked in the box. < There's supposed to be a bag of diamonds in here! >

"I'm sorry, Ms. Raiden. But I'm afraid the diamonds you were hired to not in fact actually exist."

Gwen Raiden turned around quickly, dropping the poster as she did so, to see who was talking to her as the lights in the vault came on. < Damn! I gotta get outta here... >

A middle-aged African-American woman stood in the vault door, as it slowly swung open. As Gwen started to race towards her rope, it suddenly fell completely from the ceiling, making a clattering noise as the hook used to secure it to the ductway in the ceiling hit the floor.

"Ms. Raiden? Please don't try to run off. After all, we have much to talk about."

Gwen looked around for a way out. Several men appeared in every direction she considered. < Better stall for time... >

"What do you want?" the woman struck by lightning over 14 times said, as she began to take off her gloves.

"Ms. Raiden, although I'm sure shaking your hand would be a shocking experience, it is one I would decline at this time," the black woman said, as the men who had entered with her fanned out, clearly ready for any hostile action by the young thief.

The female big shot who had spoken then chuckled. "Oh my, I made a funny. Joshua would have appreciated that. Pity he couldn't be here."

Gwen eyed her carefully. "What do you want?" she asked again.

Esther Marcum pointed towards the poster Gwen had dropped, when the lights had come on. "I believe the poster explains it all."

Gwen looked down, and saw that it was the old military recruiting poster with Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer with the words *I want you* printed underneath. She looked up at Esther.

The STW woman shrugged. "Ms. Raiden, your country needs you."

Gwen shook her head. "Hey, last I heard the draft went out of style, right along with Vietnam."

"Of course. You'll volunteer for this, I've no doubt."

Gwen started tensing her body, to make a break towards the door. < I may be able to get past them and out the door, then I'll get out of town for a while. If not, it's been fun while it lasted. > "Now, why would I do that?"

"Because that way, the government won't feel the need to prosecute and convict you for all the thefts you've committed over the years. They've added up to quite an impressive number, if I do say so myself." Esther paused for a second before she continued, "You must forgive me if I don't seem as polished in my sales pitch, as one might expect. The person we would normally use to recruit someone of your profession is out of the country, and thus unavailable. I'm filling in for him." She nodded at the poster, "The poster was his idea, though."

"Oh great, I get the substitute." Gwen sighed and leaned towards the door.

"Ms. Raiden, please don't try to make a break through the vault door, there are several operatives outside who will stop you. All that it will get you is a needless headache. Besides, we can make it worth your while to listen to us."

"How'd you know I'd be here?" Gwen untensed. < Best to hear them out, then make a break for it. >

"My dear Ms. Raiden, we hired you to steal the diamonds, or what you thought were diamonds. It seemed the best way to get you here, for a job interview. And I must say, we were very impressed with your abilities. This building has a state of the art security system, but if we hadn't been here waiting for you, you would have gotten in and out completely unnoticed."

"Thanks for the compliment, now what do you want? Really."

"For you to become one of the good guys."


Premsyl Brod Koruna Monastery, Czech Republic. The next morning

Xander walked along an empty hallway. The trip from Prague had been uneventful, and the train had arrived at the nearest station to the monastery a little bit after lunch. A quick tour of the monastery had confirmed everything Cleburne had said about it; Baroque paintings seemed to be everywhere, along with historical items that seemed to occupy every spare inch of the area the tourists were allowed in.

Which was only about half of the monastery grounds.

When a tourist would 'accidentally' stray from the marked path, a monk would appear and politely but firmly steer them back to the approved zone. The Siberians knew this, as they had 'strayed' several times during their tour.

In ones and twos they had tested the monks' vigilance, and the last time Xander and Rachael had done so as a team. The former Scooby had been forced to admire the fortitude of the holy men, in dealing with Rachael. The flirting she had aimed at one such monk would have cracked the resolve of most men, the teenager Xander had once been included.

She had hinted that she and her 'boyfriend' were interested in seeing the art that was in the off-limits sections.

However, this monk was made of sterner material than that and he'd diverted the two back to the tour group, effortlessly. The tour had ended shortly ended thereafter, and the Siberians had regrouped back at the hotel where they were staying.

A review of the day's tour had helped narrow down the areas of the monastery that might house what they were looking for. They had planned for the next day's activities, aided by satellite photographs of the monastery sent by the child genius Hollins.

When Xander had commented on that, Cleburne had replied, "The Wizard thinks ahead like that all the time, it's what makes him the Wizard."

A plan was quickly devised for Xander to slip into the off-limits part of the monastery, and find the Abbot. He would then somehow convince him that the Key needed to be sent to Sunnydale, in human form. How exactly was up to him.

The Siberians and Rachael would be with a tour group, ready to come to the rescue if Xander signalled for help as the guy would be equipped with a signalling device, for just such an occasion.

So, Xander found himself back in the monastery the next morning. He slipped away from the group, after Rachael provided a distraction; the monk this morning being more susceptible to her charms.

Harris then made his way from the map of the monastery he had memorized, to where they believed the Abbot's office was. He would find the Abbot then.

Or the Abbot would find him. A question in Czech stopped Xander, as a monk stepped out of a doorway in front of him.

The American looked sheepish, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Czech."

The monk looked at him and then switched to English, "I'm sorry, sir. But this part of the monastery is closed to the public. Let me take you back to your tour group," he said with clipped words.

"I'm sorry too, but I have business I need to discuss with your Abbot guy in charge. Am I close to his office?"

"Sir, I'm sorry but the Abbot is unavailable. Perhaps you could call later for an appointment," the monk replied emotionlessly, moving to point Xander back to the tour group.

"Actually, I really need to talk to him right now. It's quite urgent, as it involves the Key. Y'know, great big green blobby thing?"

The monk instantly froze, as Xander finished speaking. He then looked at his companion with more than a trace of fear in his face. < He's wondering if I'm Glory's host, I'll bet, > Harris sighed to himself.

The holy man then seemed to come to a decision. He called out in Czech, and a few seconds later two more monks came running down the hallway. He spoke to them in their native language, and then turned to Xander.

"Please stay here. These brothers will stand by to make sure you are not disturbed. I will be back shortly." With that, the first monk headed off down the hallway in the direction that Xander believed the Abbot's office was is.

"Hey guys," Xander said to the monks now with him. They didn't say anything in response, and just stared at him. "No English I guess, oh well. We'll just have to find something else to pass the time, right?"

Which turned out to be just staring at each other, for the five minutes it took for the first monk to return. He did so, trailing after a middle-aged burly monk hurrying down the hallway towards Xander.

As they approached, the monks slowed down and warily eyed the Californian.

"Hey there!" Xander said simply, waving at the new arrivals.

The Abbot stepped forward slowly. "I'm sorry, young man, but this part of the monastery is closed to the public. You'll have to go back via the route you came."

"Not yet, and will you just forget about trying to get rid of me like I'm a tourist? We got a lot to talk about. The Key, for one," was Xander's reply.

"I don't know this key of which you speak of. Have you perhaps misplaced the keys to your automobile?"

Harris groaned in disbelief. "Uggggh! Look. Don't worry - I'm not Glory, or Glorificus, or the Beast, or whatever the hell you call the enemy around here. I ain't one of her little toad-like lackeys either. No need to fear that from me."

Xander's mention of Glory seemed to worry the monks even more. "Young man, I don't know what-"

But Xander interrupted him. "Come on, Father, or is it Brother? Whatever! I know you have the Key here, which can be used to unlock the interdimensional gateway for Glory to get back home to her hell dimension. You're also worried that said hell-bitch will one day come and use it, too; and in so doing, collapse all the barriers between all the different dimensions out there. Down side being, this would literally cause Hell to come to Earth."

The Abbot, Brother Feodor, swallowed nervously at the young American's words, his nationality obvious from his manner and speech. The holy man quickly went through the options, as to who he might really be.

< The Beast? Possibly, but she would have already attacked after emerging from her male prison by now. A Knight of Byzantium? No, they would come in force and attack also, not want to talk. A Watcher? They don't know the things this young man is speaking of. Or maybe... >

"You're trying to figure out who I am," Xander said, correctly guessing what was going the Abbot's mind. "Well, like I said, I'm not Glory or any lackey of hers. I'm also not from the Knights of Byzantium. I'm not a Watcher, and you can *really* believe me on that one. I'm not a demon and since it's daytime, I'm obviously not a vampire. Basically, I'm some poor slob who got dealt a really bad hand in life. I'm just trying to make my way through in a repeat of this sorry world, the best that I can."

Brother Feodor's eyes narrowed. Something in the back of his memory was jogged by the choice of words of the young man before him. So he took a big gamble, "My son, please come with me." He led Xander, followed by the other monks, to his office.


Twenty minutes later

The Abbot leaned back in his chair, pondering the tale the young visitor to the monastery had told them. "So, you came here to Europe to tell us to send the Key to America - because you sang a song, and the demon who listened to it told you it had to be done?"

Xander nodded his head. "That's what I'm saying. Now I know that it sounds strange, but I assure you that it's not that strange if you just think about it." Xander thought about it for a few seconds. "Okay, I thought about it myself, and it still sounds pretty damn strange! However, it's still the truth."

The monk nodded. "Why you, though? Why were you chosen to send us this message?"

Xander shrugged his shoulders. "Luck of the draw, I guess."

The monk continued on, "And your comment about this world being a repeat? What did you mean by that?"

< Uh-oh, > the displaced Scooby thought. "Well, you know, it's that, well, it's like this-" Xander stammered for a few seconds before latching onto an answer. "It's like the old saying goes; the more things change, the more they stay the same, y'know?"

The monk raised an eyebrow at that, as he looked at Xander. "My son, listen carefully. We are not as isolated here in our monastery as you might think. We hear things here. Friends of ours tell us of the world outside these walls. We do this, so as to warn ourselves if Glorificus should ever find us..."

Brother Feodor paused for a moment. "However, other stories reach us here as well. They range from the mundane - I'm told several of my brothers are now intense fans of the soap opera 'Passions' - to the fantastic. The tales of the vampire Slayer have reached us before now." He paused for another second. "As have the tales of a friend of a Slayer, who is from the future. A lost soul, and cursed with the knowledge of what is to come."

Xander shifted uncomfortably in the wooden chair he was sitting in. He wondered how much of this conversation the microphone strapped to his knee was transmitting, was audible to Cleburne who was with the tour group nearby, listening in through his earpiece. It had been the only way the senior Siberian had agreed to let Xander try to infiltrate the monastery hierarchy all alone.

The Abbot regarded Xander calmly, as he sat in silence. "Perhaps, my son, we would find it easier to do as you ask if you saw fit to trust us. After all, you are asking us to make a very large leap of faith. It is only fitting you show us the same faith."

Xander made a quick decision. < Cleburne is definitely going to freak. Ah well, can't be helped. I wonder if he'll catch himself, before he starts cussing in front of the monks? > He then took a deep breath and started talking.


Thirty seconds later

"God damn it!!!" Cleburne suddenly yelled out, shocking the people standing near him. A string of foul curses then poured out of his mouth.

Most of the tourists near him, at least those that understood the words that he was saying, moved away from the guy after casting wary glances in his direction.

The other Siberians, with one exception, tensed themselves ready for action. Gunny, on the other hand, after the first curse just smiled and relaxed. "Stand down, people. If there was anything seriously wrong, he'd already be halfway there to wherever Hall is..."

Gunny turned to Cleburne, as the cussing slowly became a noise that resembled the growling of a dog. "So what did Hall do now?"

Cleburne listened for a few seconds before answering, "He and the head monk of this place are talking. And the kid is being a little too friendly with all the facts!"

"Is it working?" Gunny asked with an innocent look on his face.

Cleburne looked at his old comrade. "Don't give me that innocent look. I know all about your family back in Philly. There's nothing innocent about either you or them!"

The look on Gunny's face didn't change. "So, it's working?"

Cleburne grimaced. "Yeah, sounds like it is anyway."

"Then how about you calm down and just trust in the lieutenant's instincts, Colonel?" Gunny turned around, and examined one of the Baroque paintings on the wall. "Nice picture."

"Oh, what the hell. I can always kill the kid later!" Cleburne turned and started examining the paintings along the wall. The two monks that had been drawn to the scene made their way back to their duties, satisfied that the situation was back to normal.


Fifteen minutes later

The Abbot leaned back in his chair, examining the young man in front of him. "My son, that is quite an incredible tale."

Xander shrugged. "Well, some people have interesting lives. Some people have strange lives. Yours truly, on the other hand, has an interesting strange life that has some serious weirdness and heartache about it."

"One can only imagine," the middle-aged monk replied. "So now, your trip has brought you here to us, and our burden."

"It's taken me to many places, Father. This is just the latest in a long string of them."

"Indeed. Now, let us speak frankly; do you honestly swear in the name of God the Father, that the Beast is truly no more?"

Xander nodded at once. "The man born as Ben Maxwell was Glory's vessel. I killed him back in 1999, as painlessly as I could. No one's got anything more to fear, on that score."

The monk crossed himself. "This day will be long remembered, Alexander Harris, I can promise you that much. And may the good Lord forgive me, but I truly desire to celebrate his death..." Then he looked up. "And you say you remember the Key as a human, from the future. You are concerned about your own health, if we don't send it to this Buffy and Joyce Summers?"

Xander shrugged. "I don't want to die from the headaches, Father. Selfish of me, maybe, but there you have it."

Brother Feodor sighed. "We know of the Slayer you described to me. As I said earlier, we know many things here. You tell me we can trust this Slayer to protect the Key in human form. Why, though? You yourself just said she abandoned you in the street, and you would have died had the vampire with a soul not been there to intervene."

Xander froze at the monk's question. < Sound battle strategy. The battalion commander does have a point. Restrategize and redeploy, > the voice of Soldier Guy whispered in his mind.

Then another voice started whispering in his head. < Well, why does Dawn *need* to be sent to Buffy, anyway? Just 'cause Lorne said so? How about Kennedy, though? She's a Slayer now. She could protect her little sister just as well as Buffy could. Or the monks could send her to the Fang Gang in LA? Or even the Siberians. Maybe Hollins could have a big sister! >

Xander inwardly shivered at that. < No, not the Siberians. Forget that, I would have those damn brain seizures all the time then... >

He looked around, and saw the head monk of the Order of Dagon was still staring at him. Memories of Kennedy came to mind, as Xander considered her for the role of Dawn's sister. < No, what I am thinking? The Watchers would eventually get their hands on her! They want to 'study' me. What kind of studying would the Council do on Dawnie? > Xander inwardly shivered at the thought.

< Angel's Fang Gang? > No, that was too risky; he remembered that Angelus was destined to appear again in a few years, and Willow would go to LA to re-ensoul him. Besides, that soulless vamp had slaughtered his original family. What might he do with the Key? Something that could bring about Hell on Earth? Heck, Angelus had already tried that before, so there was no reason to give him a second opportunity.

< Guess that leaves Buffy, > Xander decided. He thought about the future memories, and his own personal opinions of the girl. Buffy Summers had gone all out for Dawn, sacrificing her life at the last moment to save both her little sister and the world.

< She's undisciplined. Uncontrolled. Doesn't respond well to the chain of command, > the soldier's voice suddenly whispered in Xander's head. He then smiled, as he realized what that meant.

"No, Buffy's the one to send her to. Never mind my issues with her; the point is she'll tell anyone who comes for Dawn to damn well go to hell. No matter if it's a hellgod, the Watchers Council or even the President of the United States."

Xander took a breath and continued on, "What she did to me was horrible. Maybe even unforgivable. But still, I can't believe she'd do anything like that to someone she thinks is her own flesh and blood. Her issues were with me, so I don't think she'll transfer them to anyone else."

"Dawn? That's what the Key would be called, once molded into human flesh?"

"Yeah. Quite the little brunette spitfire she was, too. However, maybe you could be kind enough to-" Xander stopped in mid-sentence. He'd been about to ask the monks to make Dawn a lot less whiny...

But then a smile spread across his face. < Why make things that easy on Buffy and the others? After all, I do owe the Slayer *quite* a bit of payback. > "Never mind. Why mess with perfection? Just do whatever you guys were planning to do - y'know, before."

The monk regarded Xander for a second. "You trust the Slayer with your life?"

"Not at all," Xander quickly replied. "Not with *my* life, anyway. However, I would trust her with Dawn's life."

The Abbot sat in contemplative silence for about a minute. He then reached out to his desk, and picked up a bell that was on it. His ringing it brought the three monks, who had been hovering outside his office.

Brother Feodor spoke to them in Czech. The one who had found Xander originally said something back in a questioning tone. The Abbot just replied in a soothing voice. Whatever he said obviously satisfied the monks, as they left the office.

The Abbot turned back to Xander. "The preparations will take a while. In the meantime, I can hear your confession."

Xander frowned. "I'm an Episcopalian, Father, not Catholic."

"Not to worry, my son. God can forgive all souls."


The Art Gallery. A moment later

Cleburne cussed under his breath. "Oh come on, kid. I do *not* want to hear all about your sins!"


Dracula's castle, Sunnydale, California. August, 2000

"Haven't you ever wondered what it is we fight for?" Dracula said as he cut the skin on his left wrist, and blood started to trickle out of it. "Never even wondered what it tasted like?" He held his arm forward to the enthralled Buffy. "Taste it."

Buffy moved her lips to where the blood was, and started to suck on his wrist. Her heartbeat quickened, as she tasted it. Powerful images started flashing through her mind. Images of vampires, demons, the First Slayer. Her eyes snapped shut, then flew right back open.

"Wow," she said. Buffy then punched Dracula hard in the chest, blasting him across the room. "That was kind of gross."

Dracula clambered back up to his feet. "Come here!" he commanded the enemy. When she failed to do so, old Vlad looked at her with confusion. "You are no longer in my thrall."

Buffy smirked at the soulless vampire. "Let's just say the thrall's gone out of our relationship..."

She advanced on him. "You know, I've had a rough couple of days recently. You turned my boyfriend into a simpering lackey of yours, who loves to eat live spiders and beetles, and let me tell you he's not kissing me again with that mouth until he's done some *majorly* heavy-duty brushing and gargling. My mom has been bugging me to work at the gallery with her during my spare time; something about taking it over some day - like trés yuck. I've had some very unpleasant memories about a horrible sin I committed dredged up..."

The Chosen One tilted her head to left, and examined the famous vampire in front of her. "So, bottom line, I'm really looking forward to blowing off some steam by kicking your ass!"

With that, the blonde Champion launched an attack against her opponent. And Dracula was instantly catapulted over the table from the force of Buffy's first kick. Buffy quickly followed up, launching herself at the dazed famous vampire, leaping up and landing on the table.

Dracula managed to get his bearings, just in time to receive a kick to the face. He staggered back for a second, before recovering and punching Buffy as she jumped off of the table at him.

She fell back, as Dracula pressed his advantage. Hitting the ground, she quickly found that the soulless vampire was on top of her. Pushing off with her feet, she flipped over and wound up pinning Dracula to the floor. Buffy quickly launched a succession of punches against her opponent.

"Enough!" he roared, as the Drac-man pushed up with all his strength. Buffy fell back against the table, as Dracula rose to his feet. He quickly punched with enough strength to send her flying across the room.

The vampire advanced towards her, and then stopped. For Buffy had regained her feet, and grabbed something from the wall. That something happened to be a torch; and since vampires were really allergic to fire, Dracula backed up.

"Word of advice. Someone like you, should really consider electric." Buffy started towards the vampire with the best PR machine in the undead world.

Dracula bolted and ran from her, turning into a cloud with his showy gypsy magicks as he did so. Buffy followed the path the mist was travelling, and quickly dropped the torch. She then ran forward, grabbing the stake that had been laying on the table during the fight.

She then leapt up, using her Slayer strength to arrive on the balcony scant seconds before the mist that was Dracula became a solid vampire again. Ms. Summers then struck with the stake, driving it straight into Dracula's chest as he materialized.

A look of disbelief and shock came to Dracula's centuries-old face as he fell backwards onto the staircase, his body exploding into dust as he hit the ground. Buffy then sighed and turned around. She walked down the stairs, idly noting the dust that had been the vampire foremost in the public mind.

Giles and Jonathan Levinson ran into the room, weapons at the ready. "Buffy, are you all right?" Rupert managed to get out, despite being out of breath.

Buffy nodded. "I'm fine."

"And Dracula?"

Buffy kicked at the dust beneath her feet. "Dusted." She then noticed Jonathan behind Giles, "What the hell's he doing here?" she demanded, recalling that this guy had been the one who'd told Tara about Xander.

"Buffy," Giles cautioned her. "Please. He was most helpful, and provided sorely needed backup by saving me from three female vampires, a-a few minutes ago."

Buffy placed her hands on her hips, and glared at Giles. "What about Willow and Tara?"

"I, uh, I couldn't find them, and time w-was of the essence."


"Buffy, for Heaven's sake, you heard the woman talking about how proud she was of Dracula commending her on her curses. Do you really think it wise for me to have relied upon *her* for backup, against that blasted vampire?"

Buffy visibly pouted for a second as Giles continued, "Not to mention i-i-it would have reckless in the extreme to come here alone, as evidenced by what happened to you."

Buffy crossed her arms as Giles reproached her. "Just so you know, I did not come alone. I came with Jeff, and...oh! Jeff!" Buffy suddenly shouted, as she remembered her boyfriend.

"Come on, come on, we gotta find him!" She ran out of the room, followed closely by the two males who had just arrived. A quick search of nearby rooms turned up Jeff in what had originally passed as the kitchen. He was sitting in a chair, leaning over and quite energetically throwing up.

"Jeff?" Buffy said hesitantly.

The college boy looked at his girlfriend. "Could, could someone explain to me just what's happened here? This really weird dude shows up and stares real hard at me, and the next thing I know I'm chowing down on bugs!" He wiped his mouth with a cloth, that was on the table next to him.

"Come on sweetie, lemme take you home..." Buffy patted him on the back, as both she and Giles helped her boyfriend to his feet. Buffy just glared at Jonathan, though. < Yeah, we have some things to talk about. Soon! >

Jonathan gulped, knowing the look being sent his way. < Mental note to self, avoid being left alone with Buffy for the foreseeable future... >


Premsyl Brod Koruna Monastery, Czech Republic

Brother Feodor reviewed his notes, in preparation of the ritual to turn the Key into its human form. He had written these pages many years ago, when the threat of Glory finding the Key had been fully grasped. He had originally hoped never to have to use the ritual...

But that had been before the young American had arrived. Now, given that the pressing need was gone, the monk was actually looking forward to carrying out the procedure. < I imagine this is what expectant fathers must feel, before the birth of their child, > Brother Feodor thought with a self-indulgent smile.

For that was how the Abbot viewed the Key. As his child, for it *was* alive - albeit living energy. He had overseen its care ever since assuming his duties years ago, and had come to view it in a paternalistic manner. Now like any father, he was somewhat sad about his offspring going out alone into the world, away from home.

< I can't help wondering though what we'll do now in the Order, given our ancient task is finally complete, > he thought idly. < Our lives will feel very different, without the Key to watch over. Well, but we are Christian monks first and foremost - so I am sure the good Lord will provide something. >

As he finished reviewing the notes, a thought came to mind. < That young American. Mr. Harris. Yes, that would be just and fitting. > He quickly made some minor but vital changes to the ritual...


Apartment B, 523 Oak Park Street, Sunnydale, California

Jeff came out of the bathroom in Giles' apartment, vigorously brushing his teeth and still having a freaked look on his face.

Buffy looked on with concern; on the way here, the ex-Watcher and herself had explained about Sunnydale's unique nightlife. And the young man had been *very* quiet afterwards. "Are you all right, honey?" she asked.

Jeff held up his free hand, as he leaned back into the bathroom and spit into the sink. He had been brushing his teeth and rinsing his mouth out more-or-less the entire time, ever since they had gotten to the British man's condo. And that had been long enough for the sun to start rising.

Buffy's boyfriend rinsed out his mouth again, before speaking. "So let me get this straight," he took a breath before continuing. "Vampires are real?"

Buffy nodded as Jeff continued, "And you're some kind of superhero who fights the demons around here? The Chosen One."

Buffy nodded again.

"And Sunnydale is some kind of supernatural magnet to vampires and the other monsters in this world."

The Slayer nodded, "Yeah, we're living on a Hellmouth, which means-"

Jeff waved his hand, interrupting Buffy. "And that was the real Dracula, who hypnotized me into becoming his real-life Renfield - so's to get at you?"

Buffy cast her eyes downward and answered with a soft voice, "Yeah, see, I was afraid to tell you before because-"

Jeff again interrupted her, "I, I, I need to think about this, and I have an early class. A *really* early class. I cannot stress the earliness enough here. So, I'm, I'm going to go to my dorm room..." He started walking towards the door, with a slightly dazed look on his face. "Buffy? We'll talk later on tonight."

The blonde Slayer followed him until he left the apartment, hoping that Jeff would say something else. But he didn't.

Buffy watched the door close. As it did, she detected some movement out of the corner of her eye. So the college freshman turned quickly and spoke loudly, secretly thankful for the distraction from the Jeff situation, "JONATHAN!!!"

"Eeep!" He almost jumped when he heard Buffy's voice. Levinson had almost made it into the kitchen unobserved, while Giles was upstairs; and the teenager visibly gulped as he turned to face the Slayer, absolutely sure he was facing certain doom. "Yeah, Buffy?"

"I heard you've been talking to Tara. Telling her things about our high school days. So answer me this; were you spying on us back then or what?" the young woman said with her arms crossed, a fierce look on her face.

Jonathan shook his head at once. "NO! No, no, not at all. I just blend into the background, remember? It's just, no one notices me-"

"Then how did you know Xander told the three of us to go to hell, the first day of the senior year?"

"Buffy, I - okay. Look, you guys, that day you had this loud heated conversation, in the middle of the school cafeteria. I was less than ten feet away from all of you. How could I *not* hear what was being said? I betcha the entire student body heard the four of you tear into one another. It was all over the school for the first few weeks, the biggest gossip of the year!"

Buffy silently reflected on that. " I don't - I, look, I-I can't handle thinkin' about that right now, I just want to know one thing."

"What?" Jonathan said with an apprehensive look on his face.

"Is it true?"

The subject of her query looked confused. "Huh?"

"Did Xander hate all three of us? And I mean not just incredibly angry with us - but, like, really 'hate our guts' hate us?"

Jonathan didn't want to die. "Well, I'm sure have to was sorta like this..." he temporized, until Buffy snapped.


The short nerd looked ashamed as he answered, "Yes."

The queasy feeling in Buffy's stomach that had started with Jeff's behavior opened into a wide chasm of darkness. "I see. I have to go."

And with that Buffy exited through the same door that her boyfriend had used, a few minutes before.


Thirty miles outside Vienna, Austria. Three hours later

General Gregor of the Knights of Byzantium made his way into his private chambers, after a hard afternoon's training with his junior officers. < I'm getting old. Time was, the youngsters wouldn't have caught me by surprise like that today, > he thought with a hidden smile.

Actually, things had been pretty quiet recently. There had been no reports of insanity that could be traced back to Glorificus, for over a year. The General didn't know what to make of that.

< The Beast has to be out there somewhere. After all, hellgoddesses do not just vanish into thin air, > Gregor thought to himself. < Perhaps if we change our method of searching? Stop focusing completely on finding the male host that the damned thing was imprisoned within, all those years ago... >


He whirled around, and saw one of the clerics had arrived into his domicile. A man in black robes, that in another world would have been called Heckle or Jeckle by Willow Rosenberg. "What is it?" the head Knight snapped.

"There is urgent news," the holy man said. "The Key is being moved; a translocation spell will take place, if it has not done so already. The instrument of doom will be pure energy no longer..."

Gregor shuddered at hearing that. < The Key? Those fool monks are moving it? Hiding it in another form? > "Where?" he managed to say.

The cleric shrugged. "My informant did not know. All Father Caleb said was that the forces of evil have tricked its guardians, to sending it out into the world..."

Gregor stood and stared into space for a few seconds, until his training kicked in. He strode out of the room in a big hurry, bellowing for his attendants as the black-clad priest followed him.

All the while, someone who looked like Faith was observing from a darkened corner of the room, an evil smile playing across her face.


The private office of Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart building, Los Angeles, California. That afternoon

Lilah rubbed her eyes, as the last week or so had been pretty hard on the senior associate. Contrary to popular theory, she hadn't really expected the government to simply cough up and produce Xander Harris, just because a lawsuit had been filed...

More realistically, she had hoped that the pressure would force the government to do something that would give the firm's SWAT teams the opportunity to surprise them, and procure the so-called teenager - a man that had become a mythic legend nowadays, throughout the underworld.

But things hadn't even gotten to that point. Whoever it was that was protecting the Harris kid, they had much more power than she had expected. And the Senior Partners hadn't been happy about learning that, at all.

Luckily, she had avoided getting into too much trouble. The Senior Partners had been distracted recently with Lindsey McDonald's plan against Angel with Darla. So they had allowed Lilah to implement her fallback plan.

And the prospects of the fallback plan had been enough to save her job and skin. Thus Lilah looked over at the small crystal ball, that was set up on the conference table in her office.

It amazed her that the firm had found it being used by a fortuneteller, in a traveling carnival in Texas. And the woman clearly hadn't known what she had been using in her act. Otherwise, she wouldn't have been living from day to day that way. < 'Course, now she doesn't live at all. Well, boo-hoo for her. >

"Soon," Lilah whispered. "Soon, everything will be ready. I promise you..." She then just stared at the Orb.


1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California. That night

"Buffy! Willow and Tara are here," Joyce called up the stairs.

In response, Buffy Summers came down the stairs. Willow and Tara looked up as she did, and were immediately struck by how dejected she looked.

"That bad?" Willow said while cringing.

"Jeff and I had a talk this afternoon. It did not go well," Buffy said, leaving out the second reason she felt so depressed.

Willow moved to comfort her best friend. "Oh sweetie, it'll be okay. I'm sure that he'll come around-"

Buffy shook her head. "Yeah, I don't think so. He had brochures for Princeton, USC and Yale on the coffee table, and he was examining them real carefully just before I looked back while walking out the door."

Willow hugged Buffy tightly. "That's it. We came by to cheer you up, and y'know, that's what we're gonna do so. Come on, you're coming with us to a movie."

Buffy shook her head again. "No, I just want to stay home and-"

Willow firmly grasped Buffy by her shoulders, and looked at her square in the face. "Look. I've got my resolve face on. No one can stand up to my resolve face, remember?"

Buffy laughed in spite of herself. "Okay. Just lemme get my coat." With that, she turned around and went back up the stairs. She went into her old room, and was faced with a brunette teenage girl standing there.

"What are you doing here?" the Slayer demanded.

Just then, Joyce's voice floated from downstairs. "Buffy, if you're going to the movies, why don't you and your friends take Dawn with you?"

At which both Buffy and Dawn Summers shouted in unison, "MOM!!!!"


Prague, Czech Republic. The next night

Xander took a gulp of the beer that Red had just put on the table in front of him. The taste was not what he was used to, from drinking beer in the United States. The other Siberians partook in the drinks they had just been given too.

The trip back from the monastery had gone quickly. When they'd arrived back at the airfield they had started out from, a police official from Prague had been waiting for them. He'd looked decidedly uncomfortable...

Because the cop had come to ask for their help. He was a modern man, a man of science and reason. However, what was happening in his city was something which science and reason had not prepared him for. Something that couldn't be explained...except by going back to the old ways, and the old beliefs of his people.

So he had come to see these foreigners, of whom already various police forces across Europe were whispering strange tales about. Whispers that if you had something which couldn't be explained, they were the ones to ask for help and/or advice.

So the Siberians, along with their Israeli observer, had gone into Prague to see what they could do. They had done a good bit of work, too.

A nest of vampires preying on the homeless of Prague had been established, and then they had killed a couple of tourists. The Czech government had noticed that, and thus the Siberians had been called in.

Cleburne and his people had managed to track down the nest, from just an afternoon's worth of work. And careful planning and preparation had led to the nest being dealt with, in under an hour. These vampires hadn't been expecting the level of opposition that had introduced itself into their lair, and thus had paid for that with their unlives.

Afterwards, the Siberians had gone to do their post-mission tradition at a small bar in downtown Prague. They had been at the bar now for almost three hours.

Three hours during which Rachael Weitz had given her undivided attention, to the one and only Xander Harris.

Had he been a normal 23-year-old, Xander would have been thrilled to death. A woman who could easily have doubled as an international supermodel, looking at him that way? It was the stuff of his almost-forgotten teenage fantasies.

Of course, nothing was normal about Xander anymore. And his dreams didn't feature running along the beach with luscious "Baywatch" babes these days; they featured him being tortured in Hell.

An evil preacher tearing his left eye out.

Three women he once would have died for, looking at him with contempt while he lay on the street.

In any case Harris was faced with the relentless attention of a beautiful secret agent, who resembled his dead girlfriend, and who was fully aware of the fact that he had the future of the world for the next three years locked away in his head. That certainly called into question her motivations for her attention to the former Scooby.

And that also kind of put a damper on the evening's charm for Xander. Still, it was a chance to unwind; and so, he grabbed it with both hands.

"Gunny, points to you for finding us a normal bar. Well, somewhat normal bar anyway," Cleburne said, looking around.

The other patrons of the establishment looked to be of the type who had long criminal histories. An hour or two ago, some of them had tried to infringe onto the Siberians' table; and Xander suspected what they really wanted was to make time with Rachael. < Talk about being desperate to score! >

They had never even gotten the chance to talk to her though, quickly ending up unconscious and tied up. And so their example had given the other patrons ample reason not to harass this particular table.

Xander felt the need to answer the call of nature, which was not surprising considering what he had been doing the past three hours. He stood up, "I'll be back in a minute."

Rachael suddenly stood up also. "I'll come with you, I need to use the facilities too," she continued chatting up Xander, as they walked to the back of the bar.

As they arrived in the corridor that led to the restrooms, they passed an emergency exit. Suddenly, Xander felt himself slammed against the doorway; and he heard Rachael shouting out, as the door shattered under his weight...

Xander hit the ground of the alley behind the bar hard, his left shoulder screaming in pain. He tried to get up, only to have his attacker punch him back down to the ground. Xander finally got a look at him, and saw a face that was fully vamped out. The undead creature shouted and cursed at Xander, in Czech.

Harris didn't understand a word, but the tone was clear. < I bet he's from the nest, and is all upset about all of his playmates being dust, > Xander thought cynically, as he tried to get up and defend himself from the vamp.

At that moment, a man of small stature turned the corner into the alley and saw what was going on. < Vampire. Trying to feed on some poor slob, with his girlfriend as desert, > he thought as Rachael ran into the alley.

Suddenly, the red-haired man stiffened. < What's that scent? I know it, I know I do! But - but it can't be him! > He watched as the vampire blocked a punch that Xander threw, and lowered his head to feed on him. And at that moment, the new arrival felt his self-control slip and the transformation take hold of him.

Rachael was prepared to attack the vampire, when she suddenly heard an animal roar. The noise caused the enraged undead to pause and look up, too.

To be promptly bowled over by a large, furry beast. The bloodsucker flew several feet across the alley, coming to rest against the wall opposite the emergency exit.

Xander looked up at his savior. "Whoa!" he called out, as he started to scoot away as quickly as he could. < Werewolf!! >

The werewolf, standing between Xander and the Siberians who had come in response to Rachael's shout, glanced at him - and then turned its attention to the vampire.

The vamp started to get up, but the werewolf didn't give it the opportunity to recover. It leapt upon the undead creature, and tore into it with abandon. It was a damn short struggle too.

When the head was torn off and the soulless demon nothing but dust, the supernatural wolf turned its gaze back towards Xander, and started ambling towards him.

So Cleburne and the other Siberians started to move in on the werewolf. "Shit," the USMC colonel cursed. "If that's what I think it is? Someone please tell me they have silver bullets!"

"No!" Xander cried out. "There's a human being in there. We can't kill him or her just like that-"

At the sound of the voice, the werewolf stopped and stared at Xander for a couple of seconds. Suddenly the fur and fangs disappeared, as the werewolf transformed into...

... a very naked Daniel "Oz" Osbourne.

"Xander?" he asked uncertainly. But then he thought, < Oh yeah. It's him, that scent is unmistakable! > Oz suddenly hugged his old comrade-in-arms.

Cleburne looked on and suddenly commented, "You know, the funny part is I'm not too freaked out about having the werewolf turn into a man. But I'm weirded out by the fact that the kid is being hugged by a naked guy!"

Part Ten

Alleyway behind the seedy bar, Prague, Czech Republic. A few moments previously

Cleburne looked on and suddenly commented, "You know, the funny part is I'm not too freaked out about having the werewolf turn into a man. But I'm weirded out by the fact that the kid is being hugged by a naked guy!"

Xander heard Cleburne's statement, and instantly felt himself getting red with embarrassment. < Hey, focus! It's Oz!!! This is bad. Real bad! > his brain then started yammering in panic mode.

Not feeling any immediate pain, Harris did some quick calculations in his head as to when Oz had been in Sunnydale. He quickly concluded that his former classmate had already been there, and broken up with Willow for good. < Whew, that's one worry lessened. Still - better do something to try and fix this, though. >

So Xander pushed Oz back. "Hey, man, knock it off. What are you doing? You just can't go around hugging strangers!" he said, trying to alter his voice so as not to be recognized.

"Oh for cryin' out loud, would someone please get a coat or something for this guy? I'm still getting weirded out here by naked guy hugging!" Cleburne snarled, trying to avert his gaze, while at the same time wanting to make sure everything was all right. So Graham headed back into the bar at Cleburne's comment.

Rachael grinned and quipped from the doorway, "So, Mr. Hall, anything you want to share with us...about your choice of lifestyle?"

Xander glared at the Israeli agent. "Hey, lady, I don't know what's going on. Some guy I've never seen before changes from a big wolf into a naked man, who hugs me. What do you expect me to say?!" Xander tried glaring at Oz, while at the same time trying to hide his face.

"Xander, what are you doing? What is all this? Because I know it's you! You haven't changed your scent, on account of nothing can ever change that. We have to call Willow and the others-"

The red-haired guy was interrupted by Graham Miller coming back, and handing him a large overcoat. The werewolf took the overcoat and put it on, "Hey, thanks..."

Cleburne looked around at the small crowd that was gathering, attracted by the noise and commotion from the fight a few moments before. He was inwardly cursing and barely restraining himself from cursing out loud, "Listen up, people. Let's clear this up later. For now, I think we need to clear out of here before animal control shows up!"


Stedman Medical Building, Sunnydale, California. Thirty minutes later

"Hello, I'm Joyce Summers. I'm here to see Dr. Adams?"

The nurse nodded at the woman in response. "Yes, ma'am. Please fill out these forms..." She handed over a clipboard. "We need for you to update your records. Just make any changes we need to be aware of."

"Thank you."

Joyce took the clipboard, and went to sit down next to the person who had driven her here. She started to look over the papers in dismay, "All this, just because I went a year or two without seeing a doctor. I swear, my wrist is going to be completely sore from all the writing on forms I've done the past few weeks!"

"Well, it's, um, it's better than the alternative," Giles quipped, as he stared to polish his glasses.

Joyce sent him a quick smile. "True enough. I need to start realizing what's at stake here. It still feels a little unreal, though."

"Indeed. I-I-I can only imagine what it must feel like, knowing the date of-" Giles' voice cut off, as he was afraid to say the next word.

"It's all right, Rupert, you can say it. The date of my death. And it's *very* weird, knowing the exact date it's supposed to happen. Like something out of the Twilight Zone..." She flipped to the second page on the clipboard. "Sometimes when I wake up, I fool myself into thinking it was all just a bad nightmare, at least for a few seconds. Then, on my nightstand, I see it. And that quickly brings me back to reality."

Giles didn't have to ask to know what *it* was. It was the time-delayed letter the deceased Xander Harris had sent him. He knew that the mother of the two Summers girls had been using it as some kind of anchor, for what was going on in her life. And the British man inwardly shivered, when he recalled that more letters had been promised. < Lord only knows what bombshells they'll contain. >

"Joyce, I know I have no right to ask...but how are you holding up?" Giles asked in a soothing tone.

Joyce sighed, beating down the frustration she felt at the question. As the middle-aged blonde knew she would have to get used to people asking things like that, once her condition became public knowledge. "How do you think? I'm...doing the best I can. I'm just glad that I got all the money and business things taken care of. Now I can concentrate on the medical part of my life."

"What about Buffy and Dawn? How much do they know?"

"Oh, they don't really suspect anything. I think my behavior recently - well, they just attributed it to the fact that I'm *old*. Teenagers..." She used her fingers as quotation marks when she said old. "The problem is, Buffy really seems to not want to work at the gallery. And I can't just come out and say I want her to learn the ropes, because I want her to take over if something happens to me."

"You'll have to tell them at some point. And as a neutral third party, perhaps I should-"

Joyce shook her head. "No, I don't want them to panic, at least not for a while longer. I'll tell them when the doctors tell me something. That way, I can avoid telling them how I knew all about it in advance and they'll just assume that the doctors caught it early. Because God knows I don't want Dawn picking a fight with Buffy over Xander *again*! I thought for a while there, I was going to have to send one of them to boarding school, they were at each other's throats so often..."

Giles nodded. "I remember how Dawn w-was quite vocal about the situation involving young Mr. Harris, 12 years old or otherwise."

Joyce nodded. "She still is. Whenever the subject comes up, which happens pretty rarely nowadays thank God, she refuses to admit he's dead and nothing anyone says can convince her otherwise. I just don't want to throw anymore gasoline onto that fire..." She paused for a second. "Rupert, I just wanted to let you know...that I really appreciate you driving me here. Also, all the other stuff you've been doing. It's good to have someone who knows what's going on, to help out."

Giles smiled at the mother of the Slayer. "No need to thank me, Joyce. It's, uh, the least I can do."

Joyce returned Giles' smile in a sad way. "You may not want to say that, considering what else I may ask from you."

"Anything you need. Ask away," Giles took her hands in his.

"Oh, you'll regret that!" Joyce took a deep breath. "Given how Hank is only God knows where and can't be contacted, I want to ask your permission to set up some legal stuff, so that if we can't stop'll be the one watching over Buffy and Dawns' affairs."

"But, but Buffy's a legal adult now, a-a-and Dawn's 14 years old. Your eldest can do anything I could to take care of your little girl, surely..."

Joyce shook her head. "I know, I'm not talking about you being a parental guardian to them. I want you to, ah, take care of their financial and business matters. Either one of them would be overwhelmed, if they had to deal with it all."

The former Ripper got a firm look on his face. "Joyce Summers, you listen to me. We're going to beat this - this nightmare, that Xander warned us about. I'm going to be by your side for as long as it takes, to make sure you live to horribly spoil your grandchildren. You're going to get better. And you have my word on that," Giles replied forcefully.

Joyce was about to reply, when the nurse opened the sliding glass window to the waiting room. "Mrs. Summers? The doctor will see you now."


Unmarked military airfield near Prague, Czech Republic

Xander and Oz sat across from each other in the VIP lounge, at the military airbase that the Siberians had been based out ever since arriving in the country. The vehicle had been a quiet one, during the trip back.

Oz had tried to start a conversation a few times, but each time Cleburne had not-so-subtly suggested that any and all questions could wait, until they got to a secure area. Xander had used that time for recovering from the slight drunkeness - without which that damn vamp probably would've been staked without muss or fuss, in his humble opinion.

Once back at the base - Xander, Oz, Cleburne and Gunny had headed towards the lounge. The others had made themselves scarce, just from a Look sent by the senior Siberian. Xander and Oz had sat down around the conference table in the lounge, while Cleburne had fixed a pot of coffee. All the while, Gunny stood silently outside the entrance to the lounge, faithful watchdog that he was.

Cleburne placed a cup of coffee in front of both of the former residents of Sunnydale. He then got a cup for himself, and sat down on the couch close to the table. He took a drink, and waited to see what would happen.

Xander looked at Oz, and thought for a second about not saying anything. < No, that's not going to work. Oz'll just outwait me, and we both know he can do it. >

Even though Xander had gained in the ability to maintain his composure since his days in Sunnydale High School - Oz, excepting his performance earlier that night, was still the unquestioned king when it came to maintaining an appearance of calm despite everything going on around him.

"Oz-" Harris said abruptly.

"Xander," Oz interrupted. "Long time no see. Not wanting to sound too much like my grandmother, but you never call, you never write..."

Xander inwardly winced, recalling that in the past that had never happened, he had said something very similar to his werewolf companion. "I imagine you have questions," the former slave said, resigning himself to what was about to happen.

"Several," Oz said in an even voice.

"Ask away, then," Xander shrugged.

"Within reason, of course," Cleburne interjected.

Oz just glanced at the male secret agent, then turned back to Xander. "How?"

"How what? Can you narrow it down a bit here for me, ol' buddy?"

"Graduation. You, big snake, bigger fireball. Why aren't you charbroiled ashes?" Oz asked point-blank. "Not that I'm complaining or anything," the 20-year-old guy quickly added, in response to the look on Xander's face.

"Tunnels under the school, you remember - the ones Angel used to use? Got to them before the big fireworks. The Mayor couldn't fit, so we wound up with crispy-fried snake meat and a big victory parade."

"So you didn't stick around, because you decided to help us that day?" Oz observed.

"Actually, I - it was...complicated," Xander said, with an ashamed look on his face.

"Don't worry. I score well on tests. Helped a lot when I didn't study, during your junior year."

Harris looked away, guessing what would come even at this early stage. "Well, you know how I had trouble being around you guys."

"I know you avoided us, like a you-know-what avoids sunlight," Oz glanced nervously out of the corner of his eye at Cleburne and the doorway containing Gunny outside.

"Don't worry Wolfie, we know all about the things that go bump in the night. Known about them even longer than you and Mr. Hall here."

Oz raised an eyebrow at Cleburne's comment. "Wolfie? And, Hall?"

Xander shrugged. "That's the name I'm using now. Xander Harris is dead, after all. And hey, a few hours ago you had a whole lot more fur and pretty long fangs. I think the name fits-"

Oz turned his attention to his former classmate. "Wanting to focus. Any way you want to paint it, you definitely did not want to be around us, Xander. We didn't share a word from the time you got back, till the graduation ceremony."

A shrug. "Yeah, well, there was a reason for that."

Daniel Osbourne almost made an expression. "And that was?"

Another shrug. "It hurt too much."

For once, Oz looked confused; he raised an eyebrow. "Hurt? What do you mean?"

Xander sighed to himself. Other than with Angel he hadn't really been *Mr. Talkative*, as to what was wrong with him. The Scoobies had known bits and pieces, but not the whole story. The so-called Rangers lieutenant glanced over at Cleburne, to make sure he wasn't getting any subtle hints to not tell Oz about his condition; but seeing none, the guy started talking.

"Well, like Wesley probably told you guys, my brain couldn't process what I was experiencing. Every time I was near any of you except him and Angel, my brain couldn't cope - and I had these violent seizures. I had two sets of past memories, y'see, and the future memories as well to deal with."

"Two set of memories? I, uh, thought you just had that whole 'knowledge of the future' deal."

Xander shook his head, ignoring a glare from Cleburne. "No, dude, two sets of memories plus the future ones. The other memories of senior year I have, they diverged from the history you know...uh, from the time Angelus tried to send the world to Hell using Acathla."

"Huh," was Oz's only reply. And despite the brevity, the musician clearly grasped what he was being told. "Intense."

< Well, he always was pretty smart, > Xander quickly thought to himself with a hidden smile. < Not Wizard smart, granted, but clearly Willow smart. Damn shame Wills was secretly gay all along; their kids definitely woulda raised the average IQ on the planet, by at least a couple of points. >

"Yeah. Well, with all that stuff in my head, every time I was near anybody who caused conflicting memories of the future, I couldn't function," Xander summed it up.

Oz nodded. "That would had to have hurt. Knowing the future, but not able to do anything about it because of the brain seizures-"

Xander shook his head. "No, no, there were ways around that. I learned I could write warnings for the important stuff. Big Bads and the like," the young man said without thinking.

Oz sat there for a second, thinking. "You mean, you could have given us warnings about anything and everything that was to come?"

Xander nodded simply, "Yeah."

Oz's voice rose somewhat, even though his face was still expressionless. "And you didn't think me killing Veruca was something that I might have wanted to avoid?"

Xander mentally cursed. "Oz, I understand-"

The werewolf kept right on going, though. "And call me crazy, but maybe I might have wanted to know about Willow deciding to play for the other team, and hooking up with Tara. Don't you think?"

Now Cleburne was getting nervous, and considered calling for Gunny outside. Xander held up his hands in a calming manner, "Oz. I know you're upset, but you just have to-"

Joshua Cleburne looked at Oz, and frowned. "Hey, his hair's getting longer!"

Oz shut his eyes for a second. "You could have prevented all that, but you didn't. You *chose* not to-" Oz opened his eyes again; and they were bright yellow, as he succumbed to the transformation into the wolf.

Xander and Cleburne started backing up. "Oh, crap!" Xander yelled, as he was suddenly faced with a very angry werewolf.

Gunny burst in, and saw the wolf easily slam the table that was separating him from Xander across the room. The werewolf then stopped and yelped; it then looked down at the dart protruding out of its chest. Then it gracelessly fell to the ground.

Charles Rose approached it, still holding the tranquilizer gun he had picked up when they had gotten to the base. < For God's sake, Hall, can't I leave you alone for even one minute? I swear, one day I'm gonna let the bad guys have your ass, to save me the headache of safeguarding it! >

Cleburne looked down at the now-sleeping wolf. "I don't get paid enough for this horse hockey. Gunny, tell the others we're flying out in the next thirty minutes. I want to get to an American base, before Wolfie here wakes up!"


Cleveland, Ohio. The next day

"Nice place you got us here," she said with a trace of sarcasm.

Sam Zabuto mentally sighed. Kendra, the previous Slayer he had been assigned to, had been so much easier to deal with. This 'Kennedy' that was now his new charge, she was definitely cut from a different cloth.

"No doubt once we have the servants clean it up, it will look much better," the tall black Jamaican responded, also with a trace of sarcasm.

Kennedy the vampire Slayer just raised an eyebrow at the comment. As this new Watcher of hers, he was full of surprises.

The old one had been so straight-laced that Kennedy had honestly thought his head was going to explode, when she had casually mentioned that she was a lesbian. But Sam had just taken it in stride, and even wondered out loud if she wanted him to look through the personal ads for her. < At least this one seems to have some sense of humor. >

"Well, better get their asses in gear then. Sooner this place is up and running, the sooner I can entertain the Vanderbilts," she joked.

"Ah. If I recall correctly, you might encounter one or two of the Vanderbilts in your duties here."

"Really? Bummer! Dad would hate it, if I dusted anyone who might have connections to help his business..." She walked around the large room. "So, what, we make this the training room?"

The Watchers Council had obtained a large warehouse with an apartment suite on the top floor for Sam and his Slayer to use. Some modifications had been made, but the top floor had been left unfinished so it could be completed according to the tastes of the new occupants.

And this Slayer had pretty extravagant tastes, from what Sam had seen so far.

"Indeed, this will be the training room. With quite a bit of work, it should do very nicely. We have much for you to catch up on." For some reason, the Watcher before him had seemed more concerned with trying to drill into Kennedy a loyalty to the Council, rather than honing her combat skills. < The fool. Did the man have no desire to help his Slayer live as long as possible? >

Luckily, the ex-Watcher had not been successful at either getting Kennedy dead or turning her into the Council's robot. Then Sam had been pulled from his assignment in the Caribbean and recalled back to London, to take over as Kennedy's Watcher. He had been told several strange things as to the local authorities, too.

Zabuto had heard rumors of grave troubles between the American government, and the Council. He had also seen the news report which had Quentin Travers involved in the kidnapping of a Federal witness in the U.S.

And tellingly enough, Travers hadn't been the one to brief him on his new assignment. It had been his assistant Phillip who had carried out that task, who if the rumors were to be believed...had then been fired from his job almost immediately afterwards. Even more fascinating was the fact Phillip had also told him he could trust Rupert Giles and call him in an emergency, even though the orders from the Council were that his former colleague was *not* to be contacted at any time. There were further orders from the Council on the necessity of having emergency plans of getting out of the United States in a hurry, if circumstances called for it.

< Curiouser and curiouser, as the Englishman once said. My assignment in this country should prove to be most...interesting. >


Heathrow Airport, London, England. The same time

Quentin Travers leaned back in his seat, as the private jet took off. He looked around the cabin; the members of his retrieval team were likewise strapped into their seats.

< Soon, child, soon you'll pay for what you've done. And I will see to it, that the payment is delivered in full! >


Ramstein Air Force Base, Wiesbaden, Germany. The next day

Oz slowly made his way back to the land of consciousness. He absently grasped the blanket close to him, trying to stay warm. < You know, I definitely do not miss this part of the werewolf experience, > the young man thought to himself as he suppressed a groan.

"Morning, Mr. Osbourne. I hope you'll pardon the accommodations, but in light of the shape you were in when you arrived - we thought it best for all concerned."

Oz opened his eyes and looked around. He was laying on a cot with a blanket wrapped around him. Sitting across the room from him was Xander, and the older man that was named Cleburne. In between Oz and them, were the bars of a jail cell.

Oz was sitting in what appeared to be a row of cells, occupying the middle one. "Cozy arrangement you have here," he commented.

Xander looked apologetically at Oz. "Sorry, Oz. It was just-"

Cleburne interrupted the man born in Sunnydale, "My idea. The kid argued against it, said earlier was just the shock of the situation." He shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. I'm not going to take the risk. I would prefer not seeing my insides on the outside again. And the kid here?" The Siberian motioned over towards Xander. "I'm not risking his life. He's too damn important."

Xander looked over at Cleburne. "Seeing your insides on the outside...again?"

"Hey kid, I *did* have a life before you showed up. I had plenty of opportunities to get myself skewered."

"Anyone I know?"

"No, these people are actually scary. Nothing like what you dealt with. Serious stuff, out of your league," Cleburne ribbed Xander.

The former Zeppo looked annoyed. "Hey, you yourself said I was too important to risk my life. I think that qualifies as serious stuff!"

"You're important 'cause the Wizard and Esther would never let me hear the end of it, if you got yourself killed. You would be gone, and *I* would be the one having to clean up the mess."

Xander made a face at Cleburne, as Oz looked at the secret agents. "Any chance you guys will let me out, while you continue with this chat?"

The two on the outside turned their attention to the one in the cell, still underneath the blanket. Cleburne pointed into the cell, "Get dressed, we had some clothes brought in for you."

Oz looked where his captor was pointing. There was a set of clothes sitting there, and he quickly got dressed. "Okay, what next?" the guy asked.

Cleburne spoke up first, beating Xander by just a few seconds. "I'm told you can control the wolf inside of you. So what happened back in Prague?"

"Sometimes, not often, I lose control when I learn something..." Oz paused for a few seconds. "Shocking or disturbing."

"And this was shocking, how?"

"Willow," Oz said softly.

"I'm sorry about that, Oz. And believe me, I know how much it hurts," Xander said sympathetically.

"Then why didn't you warn me, or do something about it?"

Xander was silent for a few seconds, looking down at the floor. He then looked up, "You've met Tara?"

"Yeah," was the curt, tense reply.

"Bottom line, she makes Willow happier than anyone I've ever met till 2003. Everyone has a soul mate in this world, and like it or not - she's Willow's one true love, whatever universe I find myself in. And I say this as someone who loved Wills, happened."

Oz was silent for a few seconds. "I heard you that night, you know."

"What?" Xander asked in confusion.

"In the hospital, when she was in a coma. I heard you tell her that you loved her."

Xander again looked apologetically at Oz. "Ancient history, man. And that wasn't me; that was an idiot naïve teenager, blinded by concern and jealousy. I was wrong, and I'm sorry."

Oz waved off Xander's apology. "No. I should apologize to you, with everything what happened that week. When Buffy and the others got mad at you over the ensouling spell, I didn't stand up for you. Didn't do a damn thing to help you, just because Willow was my girlfriend. I should have."

"People?" Cleburne intoned. "You can talk about those issues later, on account of we have more important matters to deal with at the moment."

"Right. So, who else knows you're alive?" Oz asked calmly.

"Like that," Cleburne commented.

Xander shrugged. "In Sunnydale? Nobody you know. There's one guy who moved there last year that's part of the organization, but none of the Scooby gang know about him; or me."

Oz stared at Harris. "Uh-huh. Wouldn't that be something they might like to know?"

"It would be *very* inadvisable for them to know that fact," Cleburne commented. "Now let's cut to the bottom line. What do you intend to do?"

Oz looked at the man questioning him. "I don't see how that's any of your business."

"Oh no, it is *definitely* my business, Wolfie. Because after taking a wrong turn two nights ago, you now know one of the ultimate holy of holies when it comes to the maximum guarded secrets of Uncle Sam. The fact that Xander Harris is still alive, has led to plenty of sleepless nights for a lot of high mucky-mucks around the globe. That secret is one that lots of people are willing to kill and die for!"

Oz's expression never changed. "How many? And what are you going to do? Kill me to keep the secret?"

Xander shook his head. "Oz, no one is going to do anything like-"

"Nine," Cleburne spoke up.

"What?" Xander demanded.

"Nine," Cleburne said again. "That's the number of people that have been directly killed over the secret of Xander Harris."

Xander paled a little bit at that. "Nine? What the - I knew about the photographer in LA, but not the other eight! What gives?"

Oz felt concern building up within him, both for himself and his friend. "Nine, you've killed nine people to keep your secret?"

Cleburne shook his head at that. "No, we've killed *four* people to protect him. The other five got killed by third parties..."

The secret agent continued on, trying to clarify things, "The photographer in LA was killed by Wolfram & Hart. An information broker in Beirut was killed by French intelligence, two mercenaries were killed in Honolulu by the Chinese and a demon cult killed a man in San Francisco - thinking he was holding back information from them, as to the kid's location."

"And the four our side's killed?" Xander asked.

"Two of them were from the demon cult in San Francisco, along with a mercenary hired by the French at the same time - that was back when we first caught up with you, kid." Cleburne then looked at the werewolf. "The fourth one was another mercenary in New York, hired by a corporation to try and grab Harris away from us."

"Corporation?" Oz asked.

"Yeah! Ain't capitalism grand," Cleburne observed with a sneer. "So as you can see, Wolfie, this is something that can get people killed. That's why it's better for everyone concerned, if the old gang back in the land of the Hellmouth remains in the dark. Especially your former girlfriend, comprende?"

"So you've left them unguarded," Oz said with an accusatory tone in his voice, as he looked at Xander.

Cleburne shook his head. "No, as Harris here said, we've got a guy in Sunnydale to keep an eye on them."

The shape-shifter looked doubtful. "Just one guy?"

"Trust me, he's all we need. Anything he can't handle, we can have the First Marine Division there in less than an hour."

"Just one man?" Oz was still unconvinced.

"Oz, all the big stuff is already taken care of. Angel and I did it before we left town; they're going to have a couple of Big Bad-free years. The Little Bad and middle-range stuff, the Scoobs can handle on their own. Anything bigger, and the seventh cavalry gets called in," Xander responded in a soothing tone. Cleburne kept quiet, not observing that the seventh cavalry had been massacred.

That seemed to satisfy the wolf man. "Okay, but only because I trust Xander, not you," he said, pointing at Cleburne.

"Well, la-de-da," Cleburne replied nastily. "I don't need your trust, right now you need mine."

Oz stared at the secret agent, as Cleburne continued, "Look, buddy..." Xander noted that the senior agent hadn't called Oz kid. "You've stumbled onto something Top Secret. Something not meant for public ears."

"Like the aliens at Roswell?" Oz asked with a straight face.

"That was just a weather balloon at Roswell," Cleburne responded.

"Yeah, right!" Oz muttered.

Xander looked on silently. < Oh yeah, I forgot, these guys are probably the ones who can tell me if little green men and the like really do exist. Maybe I can get the inside scoop on that later on, from Hollins? After all, I am Future Boy and everything for them. >

Cleburne continued on, "Whatever, there are valid reasons for keeping Harris' survival a secret. Beyond just keeping his friends safe, although the kid did insist on that..." Oz raised an eyebrow and glanced over at Xander, at hearing this.

"He also knows the really bad stuff that's about to happen in this world, and not just the weird crap you guys had in Sunnyhell," Cleburne said, using Xander's nickname for his hometown. "Stuff that we normally handle. Stuff that history books will be full of one day. Stuff that people look back on and say, *if they only knew beforehand*."

Joshua stared right in Oz's eyes. "Well, now we know. We can stop this stuff and save a whole bunch of lives and really stick it to the bad guys in the process," Cleburne finished up.

"Come on," Oz said skeptically. "You've just found an excuse to try and warp the future to your own designs."

"Oz, he's right about something bad coming," Xander said with a sigh.

"Well, so we'll stop it like we always do," the wolfish former Scooby said with conviction.

"No, buddy, that's impossible," Xander said with sadness. "Because even if we always fight and beat the demon-type monsters, we don't have a clue how to look for terrorists and people like them. We don't know where they hide, where they go to take their pilot lessons and stuff like that. Thousands of people die during one single day, in New York City. These guys can stop it, not the Slayer. And I just couldn't keep silent and have the blood of all those people on my hands. Can you?"

Oz was silent for a few moments. "Have they stopped it yet?"

Xander shook his head. "No, 'cause it won't happen until late next year."

Oz thought for a few seconds on Xander's response. "Give us a few moments alone," the musician motioned at his former Sunnydale comrade.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Cleburne declared at once.

"No, it's all right Cleburne. I can handle it," Xander said with complete certainty.

Joshua looked torn for a few seconds. "All right, kid, but keep that cell door locked!" Cleburne started to leave the room, "I'll be right outside, if something goes wrong." The door then clicked, as the STW operative closed it.

As soon as he was sure that the Siberian was gone Xander got up, and walked to the table against the wall. He opened the drawer and pulled out the key. Harris then walked over and unlocked the cell door for Oz. "Come on out, dude."

Xander sat back down, as Oz came out and took the chair Cleburne had been using. "Where are we, anyway?" he asked, to get the ball rolling.

"Air Force base at Wiesbaden, Germany."

"So, what now?" Oz asked his time-displaced friend.

"Mother hen's question still stands, I'm thinkin'..." Oz raised an eyebrow at Xander's use of Cleburne's nickname. "What do you intend to do, now that you know I'm alive?"

"The others back home, they'd really be in danger if they knew?"

"Possibly. Probably. If I were to guess, Buffy at least would start asking questions that'll get the wrong people looking at them. Which would lead to the wrong people coming after them. And trust me, I know all about that!" He held up his right wrist, the scars and blisters from his escape still visible.

"What happened?" Oz asked neutrally.

"You remember that guy from the Council named Travers?"

Oz frowned. "Vaguely. He was the one that tested Buffy that January during her senior year, right?"

Xander smirked viciously. "Yeah, that's the one. He happened to me."


Harris laughed, and it was no expression of amusement. "Yeah, well, he's even less gentle with normal humans than he is with Slayers. And there are others out there just like him, who want to get ahold of me. You heard the list of the dead," Xander commented.

"How've you been holding up, all alone?" the werewolf asked suddenly.

The former class clown looked away. "Best as I can, and hell - at least these people actually seem to be trying to do the right thing," he motioned at the door Cleburne had exited through.

"You trust them?" Oz asked carefully.

"Yeah, as much as I trust anyone these days. They've carried through on their agreement with me, anyway."

The former member of 'Dingoes Ate My Baby' frowned and asked, "What agreement was that?"

"Well, I told them about the terrorist attacks that are coming, and believe me - they're real doozies. I also help them learn about vampires and demons. That's what we were doing in Prague."

"What are you getting in return?"

Xander shrugged. "They're joining in on the fight against the things that go bump in the night. And there's a really nasty Big Bad coming in two years. We're talking the ultimate evil here; remember the thing that tried to get Angel to off himself once? We barely stopped it, the first time around. This time, it looks like the baddie is trying to rig the game in its favor. The good guys need all the help they can get."

"That all?" Oz asked, already knowing the answer.

"No, as I said, they're also keeping an eye on Sunnydale and the gang."

Daniel Osbourne started pacing for a while, then he stopped and stared at Harris. "Something occurring. Now, back in Prague, you mentioned the headaches; as I recall they come from the conflicting memories of someone or something, that's made worse by physical presence. Is that right?"

The man currently working with Siberian Trip Wire nodded, as Oz went on, "And yet, you're able to talk to me no problem...which means I never went back to or got in contact with anyone in Sunnydale, till after 2003. So, odds are you don't have a clue what my destiny would have been, if I hadn't found you in that alley the other night. Am I wrong here?"

Xander cursed silently, he hadn't thought about that. "No."

The Oz-meister nodded. "So, this group you're with. Think they can use another helper?"

The former slave shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine..."


Lemke's Book Treasury, Sunnydale, California. The next day

"Where do these go?" Willow asked the bookstore owner, as she wheeled the cart with the boxes of books on them.

Lemke looked over at the two boxes that the redheaded Wiccan was pushing. "Hmmmm, put them in my office, I'll sort through them later on..."

Willow pushed the cart though the store back to the bookstore's owner. The few months she had been working in the bookstore had very relaxing for her, as a matter of fact.

She loved being among the books, it reminded her of the old days in the Sunnydale High library. And even if her boss had a real love for the old tomes, he was also accepting of new ideas. Willow had been able to convince him to set up some computer terminals for Internet access by the patrons. Business had then picked up quite a bit, as word spread through the local community about the new charms of the quaint store.

The witch moved the boxes from the cart and put them on the table, as Lemke also entered the office. Willow finished moving the boxes, and then looked around the walls of the office.

"Josef?" She had gotten over feeling uncomfortable calling her boss by his first name by this time. "I've been meaning to ask you. Who are these pictures of?" Several photos of Lemke in uniform, along with other soldiers, were present on the wall.

Lemke looked up to see which pictures she was referring to. "Oh, those are from my time in the army."

Willow examined the photos. "You sure seem to have got around. These photos look to be from all over the world! Oh, what did you do in the army?"

"A little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Nothing very exciting to someone like you, I'm sure," Lemke replied, hoping to be vague enough to dissuade her from asking more questions.

Willow came to a photo that seemed to hold a place of honor on the wall. It was of Lemke in fatigues holding a sniper rifle. He was flanked on either side by two soldiers similarly dressed, and holding a similar weapon. "Who are these guys?"

Lemke saw the photo she was looking at, and his expression grew grim. "That's from when I was in Africa. Somalia, actually, back in '93."

Willow noticed Lemke's change in demeanor. "Something bad happen there?"

"You could say that..." Lemke looked around. His eyes went to the bookshelf he kept behind his desk, and the STW operative went over there and took out a book with a black cover. "Here, this can tell you all about it better than I can. The two soldiers in the picture with me are Gary Gordon and Randall Shughart. They're mentioned in the book. Read this, and maybe I'll tell you everything about what happened someday. Then again, maybe not."

Willow looked down at the book; the title read, 'Blackhawk Down'.


Ramstein Air Force Base, Wiesbaden, Germany. The next day

It turned out that the Siberians were in fact very receptive to receiving another helper. "Hey, better for you to earn your keep around here, rather than just loaf around all day," Cleburne had commented when approached by Oz and Xander about it.

Communications back to the Siberians in the United States had a similar result, particularly once the child genius Hollins got a look at Oz's transcripts. It looked like there might finally be someone close to his age who could keep up, albeit with intense concentration, with Hollins' ideas.

There was also having a werewolf to actually help out in the studies of the paranormal. Apparently, no one had ever had the chance to examine a Garou in a controlled setting before. Of course, that may have been due to the fact that most of the people seeking to do so had been of the same vein as Maggie Walsh. They hadn't really gone out of their way to try to get the cooperation of the subject, as oddly enough mad scientists usually don't exactly measure up on people skills.

So Oz had been provisionally accepted into STW as a field advisor, the same as Xander. And when Harris had asked him why he wanted to sign up, Oz had just sighed and replied, "Hey, I've helped save the world a few times, both with the gang in Sunnydale and by myself. I can't exactly abandon the job now." Xander had smiled at that, understanding Oz perfectly.

Both men had spent the past few days catching up. They had avoided the subject of Willow, that night in the hospital and the events at the end of junior year. There was an unspoken understanding that that would be a conversation for another day.

Instead, Oz had been telling Xander of his adventures in the Orient, while he was learning to control his inner wolf and the people he had met. He'd spoken of the werewolf monk Shantou, who had taught him the self-control he valued so much now. Of the girl Jinan and her family of Kaohsiung demons in Hong Kong, that had helped him on his quest.

Not to mention the band he had hooked up with, after leaving Sunnydale for the second time. They had made their way across the United States, and then Europe. Along the way they had encountered vampires, demons and a warlock intent on destroying the world to gain supreme power.

Xander had silently wondered just how many end-of-the-world type situations had happened, that he'd never known about. < Better get the Siberians more into the game, to deal with them. On account of the good guys only have to fail once, for everything to end up ca-ca. >

Harris in turn had filled Oz in on what he knew about Siberian Trip Wire. Cleburne and his teams of agents, that had calmly slipped from the world of anti-terrorism into the world of demon fighting. Irving Hollins, the now 12-year-old supergenius who seemed to know everything and anticipate every possibility. The fight against the demons that was spreading around the world, and the new allies entering it.

Oz had hesitated when his old friend had mentioned that point. "Xander, that first time in the alley when I saw you. Rachael, the woman with you then? For a second, I thought she was..."

"I know, I know, she does look a little bit like Faith," Xander had replied, staring off into space. "And the worst part is, she wasn't supposed to die at Graduation."

Oz had looked a little shocked at that, which was saying something. "What? She survived...there?"

"Yeah, get me drunk sometime and I'll tell you the whole story. She lived until 2003, maybe longer. I remember how she had hooked up with Robin Wood, the new principal at Sunnydale High..." Xander had continued on, but seeing Oz raise an eyebrow at the reference to a Sunnydale High School principal he explained. "Hey, no! Woody was and is and will be *nothing* like Snyder. His mother was a Slayer, actually, someone Spike killed back in the 1970's."

Oz had frowned at the mention of the soulless undead. "Please tell me that particular bloodsucker is dusted in the future."

Xander had somehow laughed and frowned at the same time. "Another story for when we get drunk, at the next post-op celebration."

But now a few days later, the Siberians were getting ready to head back to the States. The problems with Xander's parents and the courtroom drama in San Francisco were all over, so it was time to go home. The gang was waiting in a hangar to board the plane; and they were being accompanied by Rachael, who hadn't yet given up on trying to charm Xander with her considerable feminine wiles.

But Harris only half-paid attention to her efforts. < Sweet mamalushin, I really have changed, > he thought in amusement. < Six years ago I'd have been so fixated on her, I wouldn't even know what country I was in. But nowadays? Her act, it's almost just a distraction. >

"Damn it, what now?!"

Cleburne cursing brought Xander back to giving his full attention to what was going on in the hangar. They were being approached by a group of German policemen, and several strange men in civilian clothes.

But as they got closer, Xander recognized one of them. Quentin Travers.

"Just what we need, Masterpiece Theater without the charm!" Cleburne grumbled. Unnoticed by everyone except the senior Siberian, Gunny slipped off and headed into an office.

The Watcher had a look of smug satisfaction on his face. "Kommissar Seitz, I believe you know what to do," he said to the German police officer in charge, as they got within earshot of the Siberians. The official then stepped forward.

He looked down the line of the Americans, his gaze stopping when it got to Xander. "You are Herr Alexander Harris? I have an arrest warrant for your person. As well as a request from Her Majesty's government in the United Kingdom, for extradition to that country at once."

"On what grounds?" Xander demanded. He noticed that Cleburne didn't seem to be getting too worked up by what was going on, though. < Geez, a little concern here would be nice! >

"Charges of murder, assault and kidnapping," was the reply.

< Well, when the Watchers trump up criminal charges, they sure don't mess around, > Xander mentally observed with a sneer. "I see."

"And if this is the wrong guy?" Red asked.

"The man will have ample opportunity to address that through the proper channels," Travers announced with a look of contempt. Gunny then quietly rejoined the group.

"Yeah, I'm really sure of that," Red announced with a generous helping of sarcasm.

Travers folded his arms, and glared at the Americans. "I assure you that everything is quite legal and aboveboard. The law is on our side here, and any attempt to interfere with the actions of these officials will only lead to you joining Mr. Harris in custody."

"Just for the record, my name is Alexander Hall," Xander said. < Best try to bluff this out if I can. I don't think the Watcher goon squad will try a shootout in front of the German police. >

"You'll have to come with me to the Polizeiwache, the stationhouse for us to confirm that, mein herr," the cop announced. And both the Watchers and the Siberians knew what would happen once Xander was on his way to the stationhouse, where there would be a window of opportunity for the Council to pull its dirty tricks.

"This is bullshit, and we don't have time for this. The plane is ready, and we have places to be," Cleburne announced frankly.

"Oh, you're quite free to leave. We'll just take the child with us, so run along if you like," Travers taunted Cleburne.

"The kid's not a child, you asshole," the STW operative sighed. "Hall, just show the nice German police officer your papers. Remember, I made sure you got them back at the airbase in the Czech Republic?"

Xander was confused for a second. < What good will that do? > But he pulled the wallet out and handed it to the police commissioner.

The Kommissar opened it up, and looked at the documents. After a few seconds, he looked back up. "These identify you as Herr Lieutenant Alexander Hall of the United States Army, nicht wahr?"

"Yeah, that's my name." < For now anyway, > Xander thought with a shrug after he spoke.

"Really?" Rachael whispered in his ear, thoroughly amused at the unexpected show. Xander just glared at her, as Oz stared unblinking at Travers - ready to wolf out, the moment it was necessary.

Some of the Watchers recognized the redheaded man from the photographs, and grew visibly nervous - on account of none of them had any silver bullets or knives, which almost everyone knew were the only things which would permanently kill Oz, if the blood started splattering the walls here.

"Now, I already know what you're going to ask next," Cleburne spoke up, ignoring the antics of those around him. "And to answer your question, Herr Kommissar, no - the American armed forces does *not* waive jurisdiction in this matter. When the JAG officer arrives, I'm sure he will confirm that to you. Now, are we done here?"

Suddenly Travers looked confused. "What do you mean? Everything is in order for the extradition and us taking Mr. Harris into immediate custody. What is the problem?"

"Everything is proper for a civilian, that is true Herr Travers-" Otto started to say.

"So what's the problem, man? Arrest him!" Travers snapped.

"Visiting Forces Agreement, you thickheaded ass," Cleburne announced with a smirk, as Seitz bristled at being ordered around like that.

"What?" Travers demanded.

"Alexander Hall is a member of the United States Army Rangers. Under the Visiting Forces Agreement signed between the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany, he is not subject to the jurisdiction of the German government. Any legal matters must proceed through the U.S. military justice system. I believe that the United Kingdom has a similar agreement with the USA..."

As Cleburne finished up, several jeeps of U.S. Air Force Air Policemen pulled up in front of the hangar. A uniformed officer also exited from the jeep. "Colonel Cleburne?"

Joshua raised his hand in identification to the officer. "Well, I suspect this is the JAG officer here. So you can take up your legal matters with him, right?" the man then added.

"Very good, Herr Oberst," the German policeman clicked his heels together, straight out of an old war movie.

"But, but this is outrageous!" Travers sputtered. < The child is not going to escape me this easily! >

"Nein, Herr Travers, this is the law," the cop observed humorlessly. "If memory serves me correct, your request must be filed through U.S. military channels before any action can be taken."

Cleburne nodded. "And I'm sure these nice military policemen can help the Tweed Brigade here not come to any harm while the paperwork is prepared." He then looked at his watch. "Oh my, look at the time. Too bad we can't stay, we've got a plane to catch." He motioned to the Siberians to follow him.

Several members of the Watchers retrieval team tensed up, and looked ready to start something. Red noticed this and commented, "Hey, Limey boys, you're in the middle of a U.S. Air Force base filled with heavily-armed soldiers, in a situation where the local cops are saying we're in the right. You try anything, and they'll need a firehose to wash your remains off of the floor - you understand me?"

The retrieval team members looked at each other; they had heard the underground rumors about what had happened in Georgia, during the first attempt at obtaining Mr. Harris. On the other hand, what would happen to them back in Britain upon doing nothing also definitely required consideration...

Otto Seitz, who was nobody's fool, quickly said to his men, "Immer ruhig," ordering them to remain calm as the U.S. soldiers cocked their weapons and took aim at the Council operatives, but not the cops.

It was very touch and go - but in the end, immediate personal survival came before a certain bloodbath. So the goon squad stood down despite the expression on Travers's face, as the Siberians walked to the plane.

"You knew about this?" Xander asked suspiciously.

"Not the timing. But we knew what they were going to try," Cleburne silently tipped a hat to Cummings, the MI-6 liaison in Washington who had warned them of what was coming. "It was simple enough to figure out how to stop them. And as long as you're in any country where Uncle Sam has a visiting forces agreement for its troops, kid, you're golden."

"Except for England," Oz observed.

"Well, yeah, we wouldn't want you going there. That might get a little...hairy."

A few minutes later, the plane taking the Siberians back across the Atlantic sped down the runway. Travers looked on seething, as the American JAG officer kept jabbering in his ear, killing time on a request that both of them knew would not go anywhere. < I'll get you one day, Harris. Your friends can't protect you forever. One day, your arse is mine! >