Trick or Treat

Trick, Most Definitely!

Author: Greywizard1235 <grey.wizard[at]>

Rating: maybe R for violence and some language, but definitely not much worse than the show.

Disclaimer: They're not mine. They belong to Crack-Head Joss. Deal with it. I have.

Category: Friendship only. No smut here, people. (Sorry about that.) Pretty much just friendship stuff. B/X, W/X, and some D/X and C/X, too.

Summery: Yet another fascinating alternate Halloween episode. How could have things been changed if everyone had chosen different costumes that night?

Time Frame: Canon for first season, then becomes AU at second season episode 6, "Halloween."

Spoilers: None really, if you've watched anything past the middle of second season.

Character Bashing: None. Really. :)

Feedback: Of course! Flames, however, will either be ignored or to used to toast marshmallows.

Author's Note 1: Significant changes in this particular universe are as follows: Dawn is present here, since the monks' spell in the Joss- verse retroactively altered the past when they cast it to create Dawn, give her a soul and make her Buffy's sibling. So she really was here all the time, and the false memories everyone has of her being here really aren't! Joyce knows about Buffy being the Slayer and that Xander, Willow and Giles support her, and everyone thinks that Dawn is unaware of everything concerning Buffy and Slaying, including the Scoobies' support of her sister. Angel is still a brooding asshole and Spike is most definitely the nasty, vicious, mean and underhanded prick he used to be, before Joss and Marti castrated him and turned him into the capering Nancy-boy poof he used to despise.

Latest addition

Chapter 1

Sunnydale High School Library
Wednesday, October 29, 1997

"So what are you guys planning to do Friday night, huh? Hang around the house and enjoy the opportunity to hand out candy to bunches of hopped-up sugar-charged kids dressed up like their favorite superheroes?" Xander grinned as he looked over at his two best friends in the world from his perch atop one of the card catalogue file cabinets.

"Well, since Giles insists that tomorrow night will be dead, figuratively speaking, as far as the actually dead and undead being out and about goes, I plan to veg out and spend a fruitful evening crammed full of doing nothing but pigging out on popcorn, chocolate covered raisins and other nutritious junk foods while watching movies and NOT being out Slaying," Buffy announced happily, leaning back in her chair and taking advantage of the momentary peace they were enjoying while Giles attended a faculty meeting.

"Why, Xand? Did you have something else in mind?" Willow asked him, looking up from the monitor of the library's computer where she had been idling away her time trying to hack into the state's DMV files and assign herself administrator privileges.

"Do I ever!" he replied enthusiastically, kicking himself off and dropping to the floor with an awkward stumble as he landed.

"*I* have been invited to attend the Sigma Phi Epsilon Halloween party, *and* told that I can bring along a friend or twelve!" he proudly announced, puffing his chest out with pride. "That is why I'm inviting you to accompany me on this soon-to-be-memorable excursion."

"Uh-uh, Xand," the petite Slayer shook her head negatively as she lay her head back against the chair frame and closed her eyes. "I haven't had a night off from Slaying in months, and I'm not going to waste it watching random groups of college guys drinking beer and then throwing up a little later. This girl is going to spend a quiet night at home and enjoy the lack of screaming, terror and bloodsucking fiends trying to kill me."

"So, Will, I guess that leaves just me and you, then, huh?" the tall brunet smiled at his best friend since kindergarten. "I'll dazzle the ladies and you can charm the Neanderthals when they're not busy grunting, drinking and throwing up, right?"

"Uh, I don't know, Xander," Willow replied uncertainly, turning to face him. "I'm thinking that we wouldn't fit in very well, or anything, what with us being non-college people and all that stuff."

"Aw, come on, guys! It's a frat party! You know you want to do this!" Xander cajoled his friends, urging them to accept.

"I can't just show up by myself, you know. Not after bragging about knowing the two most beautiful women in the world and promising that they'd show up with me," he admitted with an even bigger grin.

"Xander! You didn't!" Willow gasped, blushing at both the compliment and the gut-tightening thought of showing up at a party where she wouldn't know anyone at all.

"Yeah, I did, Will," he nodded his head affirmatively. "So you guys are gonna have to get busy picking out costumes 'cause the party's in just two nights, you know."

"Xander, I'm not going," Buffy repeated herself tranquilly, not opening her eyes or looking over at him as she relaxed and enjoyed the momentary tranquility. "I'm staying home and enjoying the quiet."

"All right, Buff, if it's your choice. Guess you forgot all about your Mom letting Dawn have that Halloween party at your place then, huh?" Xander reminded the blonde, a triumphant smile on his face as he delivered his argument's coup-d'etat.

"WHAT??!!!" Buffy screamed, immediately snapping upright and glaring at him when she heard the brunet's final words.

"Dawn's having a Halloween party tomorrow night, Buff, remember? Shouldn't be more than, oh, say a couple dozen of her friends and classmates there. Your Mom asked me if I could help her set everything up for the party after school on Friday, that's how I know," he hastily explained as his self-preservation instincts instantly kicked in and made him take a step backwards from the apparently agitated Slayer.

"NOOO! She can't do that!" the blonde looked up at the heavens and wailed in protest. "I had the night all planned out already! Sleepless in Seattle! The Princess Bride! Somewhere in Time! While You Were Sleeping! I already rented them! And I got two half gallons of Double Chocolate Fudge and Velvet Strawberry ice cream, too!! That's so not fair!"

"Well, since it seems your plans have to be cancelled due to annoying kid sister, Buff, would you like to accompany Willow and myself on our excursion to the realm of the educationally upwardly mobile?" Xander asked smugly, already knowing the answer he would be getting.

"If I thought there was the slightest chance that you were responsible, Xander..." Buffy frowned at him, letting the rest of her threat hang unsaid.

"Do I look that dumb to you, Buffy?" Xander challenged her, while inwardly he prayed that Dawn would keep her mouth shut about where the initial idea for her party had originated.

"It just seems too coincidental for some reason," the Slayer commented a bit suspiciously as she looked at him. The air of innocence that radiated from the brunet would have done justice to a saint.

Willow, too, regarded him with a jaundiced eye as she considered the various circumstances of timing involved for a moment, before dismissing the matter as just an unfortunate coincidence.

"Well, ladies, would you like to go pick out our costumes, or would you rather wait until the last minute?" Xander asked them; then, seeing the glares the two girls gave him, wisely shut his mouth and followed them out of the library.


"Xander, exactly how is it that you got invited to a frat party?" Willow asked him, as the three of them strolled down the street housing the newly opened costume shop.

"Yeah, Xan, what's going on? No offense, but you aren't exactly the first person I'd think of when somebody mentions a fraternity," Buffy chimed in.

"Well, ladies, you may not believe it, but over the course of the past several weeks, I have become an indispensable part of the Sigma Phi Epsilon on-campus community," the brunet announced with a wide smile, ostentatiously puffing out his chest in a parody of pride as he hooked his thumbs in his belt.

Seeing the dubious looks the girls were giving him, he grinned and elaborated.

"Well, guys, seeing as how Sigma Phi Ep has been holding parties virtually every third night since even before the semester began, and adding in the fact that, even though they're all college guys, pretty much none of them even know which end of a hammer to hold, they have been forced to seek outside help in repairing the collateral damage that seem to accompany their ongoing efforts to consume as much beer as is humanly possible and try to seduce every woman foolish enough to enter their viewing range," Xander told them.

"Enter moi, the enterprising young entrepreneur and independent contractor, who can repair the holes in the walls, paint over said repaired walls so that their landlord doesn't notice the damage, replace the broken windows, fix the various electrical switches and fuse boxes that seem to invariably blow out when they try to plug too many stereos and pieces of band equipment into the outlets, and generally handle all ongoing repairs the residents of the house find themselves in need of," he explained. "All at prices so reasonable that they would have to be even more drunk than they usually are, in order to refuse and look for someone else to do the work," he elaborated.

"Plus, there's also the fact that I'm not connected to the school in any way, so the administration won't ever hear anything from me about what goes on in there," he added offhandedly.

"So you're what, a handyman?" Buffy asked after hearing the brunet's explanation.

"I prefer the term maintenance engineer or housing repair contractor myself," Xander replied.

"I'm sure you do," Willow grinned at him.

"In any event, I've got a fairly steady cash flow coming in, now," Xander shrugged, "and that's something novel, innovative and almost inconceivable for a member of the Harris household.

"Actually, I'm hoping that they'll disown me, once they find out about it," he added with what appeared to be only a partially-joking expression.

"So, anyway, these guys appreciate your fixing up their place so much they invited you, a high school student, to their Halloween party?" Buffy inquired skeptically, raising a questioning eyebrow.

"Yeah," Xander nodded.

"Well, that, and the fact that I begged, pleaded, whined, brown-nosed and sucked up to pretty much everyone living there until they agreed," he added after a moment, as both girls merely stared at him doubtfully.

"I also told them I would bring two of the hottest women existent along with me, which is what clinched the deal," he continued.

Seeing the pleased smiles light up the girls' faces at that remark, he couldn't help himself but add, "And since Cordy and Harmony can't make it, would you two want to go, instead?"

"OW!!! No fair! Slayer strength, Buff!" he yelped a second later, rubbing his arm as both girls swatted him from either side.

"And you're getting a bit too enthusiastic, too, Wills," he stated, as he turned to glare at the frowning redhead on his other side.

"You deserved that, and you know it!" Willow told him without a flicker of remorse on her face. "And I've got a lot more where that came from, too," she warned him. "So you just watch yourself, mister."

"Oh hey, guys, we're here!" the redhead abruptly shifted moods as the three paused in front of a shop whose windows were adorned with 'Grand Opening!' signs.

"Think this place is some kind of franchise thing?" Buffy asked, as Xander pulled open the doors and gestured for the girls to precede him.

"Must be some really new chain or something," Xander guessed as he followed the girls in. "I've never heard of anyone or anything called Ethan before. Guess he must be the owner."

Chapter 2

"So, does this party have any particular theme, Xand?" Buffy asked, as they browsed through the aisles packed with apparently endless racks of costumes of every conceivable character or concept

"Yeah, fictional movie characters," he informed his companions. "I was thinking you guys might want to be checking out the Princess Leia slave girl or maybe the Xena Warrior Princess costumes," he commented, as he jumped back and narrowly avoided the reflexive smacks both girls threw at him. "Hey, it was just a suggestion!"

"Any more suggestions like that and you're going to end up going as the Mummy, you'll have so many bandages wrapped around you," Willow promised, blushing as she attempted to hide the incipient smile growing on her face the suggestion had brought.

"Have to agree with Will, Xander," Buffy warned her best male friend. "Unless you're going to go with the same kind of theme, like Conan or something like that, hmmm?" she grinned, relishing the surprised look on his face as she turned the tables and made her suggestion.

< Xander in a loin cloth and sandals, > the thought idly crossed her mind. < Oooo, yummy. Wait a minute! What am I thinking? He can't be yummy, he's Xander! He's my friend, Xander, that's all! No yummy Xander thoughts allowed, > she reminded herself sternly.

Glancing over at Willow, she thought she could see the same thoughts passing through the redhead's mind, too.

< No, can't do that. Will's already interested in him. Hands off, Buffy! No poaching! > she told herself.

"Oh-kay. Minds out of the gutter, ladies," Xander said nervously, seeing both girls momentarily seem to blank out and stare at him when Buffy made her comment. "I'm already in there, and it's too cramped for crowds."

Both girls blinked and then seemed to shake their heads, before looking at him again.

"Okay. So what do you think you're going as, Will?" Buffy took command of the conversation and changed its direction.

"I don't know Buffy. Did you have any ideas?" the redhead looked around the shop, a confused expression on her face

"May I suggest that we all try to follow the same idea?" Xander proposed. "You know, like the Three Musketeers, or something like that?"

"Sounds reasonable to me," Willow agreed. "How about you, Buffy?" she asked, turning to address petite blonde.

"Oh, uhm, yeah, I guess so," the Slayer absently nodded her acceptance of the idea, as she pulled an elaborate 18th century ballroom gown from the rack and gazed at it speculatively for a moment, before returning it to its place on the rack.

"Way too hot and stuffy," was her only comment.

"Hey, how about we all go as comic book characters?" Xander offered the idea. "You know, like the X-Men."

"I'm not wearing spandex, Xander, so forget about that idea right away," Buffy very emphatically stated, not having to even look in his direction to see the grin on his face as he made the suggestion.

"You never let me have any fun," he mock-pouted, before moving off to examine the selections available.

"Oh, hey, look, Will. This would be perfect for you!" he announced his discovery, grabbing Willow's arm and dragging her along with him to the display featuring a mannequin in a sleek, formfitting black silk bodysuit, complete with hood and a scarf concealing the lower half of its face, bristling with various martial arts weapons, including a katana slung across its back, a tanto knife, two sais and half a dozen shuriken partially concealed in various pockets.

"What?" the redhead asked, her lack of comprehension obvious to any onlooker.

"A ninja!" Xander repeated with a grin. "Like in the Saturday afternoon, badly-dubbed martial arts films we watch. You could be the orphaned farm girl who learns the arts of ninjutsu from the ancient masters, in order to gain your revenge for the callous murders of your family by the corrupt retainers of the evil duke!" he announced in a theatrical, movie narrator-type voice.

"Get it! It's perfect for you!" he urged his scandalized and dismayed friend.

"Xander! No! I could never wear something like that!" the redhead gasped, her eyes bulging wide with surprise and shock at the suggestion. "It's be like wearing just - I mean, I couldn't! Look at her! She's got all those curves and, and she bulges where I don't , and - I mean, she's gorgeous! And, and, I'm not! I mean - I'm me, you know! And I couldn't wear that, because then people could see my - I mean, no, I just couldn't!" she babbled.

"Sure you could, Wills," the tall brunet disagreed with her. "You'll look great! Don't you think so, Buff?" he called over to the Slayer, who had been inspecting the costumes in the next aisle over.

"Think what about what, Xand?" the blonde asked as she joined them to stand in front of the mannequin.

"About Wills being a ninja for the party," he clarified his suggestion. "Don't you think she'd look great in the costume?"

"Hmmm," the Slayer pursed her lips as she folded her arms and looked at the model, looked at Willow, and then back to the costumed figure again. "Yeah, you're right about that, Xand," she nodded her head vigorously as a brilliant smile flashed across her face.

"You'd look fabulous, Will," she assured the horrified redhead, who began shaking her head negatively upon hearing Buffy endorse Xander's recommendation.

"Oh no, Buffy! I couldn't!" the hacker argued anxiously.

"Everyone would be able to see me - like all of me - if I wore that," she began babbling, "and that would be like if I wore my bathing suit to go swimming, which I don't. Go swimming, I mean," she corrected herself hurriedly. "I don't go swimming, but if I did, I would wear my bathing suit, because if I didn't I'd be naked and, and without clothing, and I wouldn't do that, go naked, I mean, because that would be -"

"WILL! Chill, okay? You need to relax, all right? Just calm down," Buffy instructed the frantic hacker, putting her hand on the redhead's arm to calm her. "Take a deep breath. Like that. Good. Now take another. You're doing fine. Now just relax."

"What are you losers doing here?" The distinctive voice of Cordelia Chase cut through the babble of the other customers surrounding them, causing the girls to look over at her as she imperiously strode down the aisle as though she owned it and the rest of the store they were in.

"Let me guess, the Geek Club is having a Halloween party, right?" she reflexively sneered as she looked the two girls over. "My suggestion, Willow? Get a sheet, throw it over your head and pretend you're a ghost, because nobody notices you even when you're really there, so you'll fit right in even if you don't show up, 'cause nobody'll realize you're not there," she finished her knee-jerk putdown of the redhead as she glanced at the display.

"Now, *I* would look *good* in that," she opined as she looked over the ninja costume, "but since I've already got my costume, it'll just have to settle for being worn by someone else much less deserving."

Her opinion delivered, the cheerleader then strode off, a ball gown similar to the one Buffy had been checking over earlier draped over her arm, unaware of the dual glares directed her way by her less-than- charmed classmates.

"Boy, that Cordelia's got a knack for making herself about as welcome as a surprise auditor from the IRS, doesn't she?" Xander commented casually, his observation bringing a momentary grin to their faces.

"That does it!" Willow narrowed her eyes at the oblivious brunette walking away. "*I'm* wearing this costume tonight, since I saw it first!" she stated defiantly, staring angrily at the retreating brunette.

"I'll just be a couple minutes, guys, I want to try this on and make sure it fits properly. You go look for your own costumes, okay?" she uncharacteristically ordered them as she headed towards the dressing room to try the outfit on.

"So, Buff, found anything you're interested in?" Xander queried the blonde as they began to roam the store's aisles.

"Not yet," she confessed. "Haven't really seen anything wear-worthy, yet."

"Well, since Will's decided she's going to be a ninja, I guess we're gonna have to be cliché B-movie characters, too," Xander commented.

"Huh? Why're you saying that?" Buffy asked, turning to look at him, a puzzled expression on her face.

"Well, we all agreed to go with the same theme, didn't we? And since Will's already chosen her costume, we're kinda locked into the cliché B-movie character theme, now, right?" he replied.

"Oh. Yeah. I guess I did agree to that, didn't I?" the Slayer agreed, thinking back to their conversation of a few minutes previous. "Oh well," she sighed, "let's go see what's still left to choose from."

The two wandered further down the aisle they were in, checking out the various costumes on the racks and displays they passed.

"Hey, Xand, this would be perfect for you!" Buffy smiled as her eyes lit on another costumed mannequin. "And Will would love it!"

Joining the short blonde, Xander immediately began disputing the Slayer's opinion of the costume the moment he laid eyes on it.

"Uh-uh, Buffster. That one's a definite 'No!', followed by a series of 'Not under any circumstances' and finished off with an emphatic 'Not a chance!'," he told her as he paused to stare up at the imposing figure.

"But, Xan," Buffy purred with a grin, moving in closer and enjoying the opportunity to watch her best male friend squirm uncomfortably, "you'd look so superheroic with a bat emblem on your chest."

"Not a chance, Buff," Xander repeated firmly, shaking his had in negation. "That guy became dark and brooding after a crook killed his parents, and he became a superhero so that other people would never have to suffer the same pain he did. I haven't been nearly that lucky - my parents are still alive; they just appear to be embalmed, thanks to all the alcohol in their bodies.

"And even if somebody did ace them, I really don't think I'd be going all vengeance-y about it. In fact, I'd probably thank whoever did it," he stated a bit dispassionately. "The only reason I'm still living in that sewer pit is because I can't afford to move out yet."

The darkness in her friend's eyes was quickly replaced by the completely blank, expressionless mask that the Slayer had finally learned, after long hours of interrogating the redheaded hacker, usually appeared when he was reliving some extremely unpleasant memories.

Feeling quite uncomfortable hearing his comments about his family life, and feeling even more uncertain as to what she could, or should, say or do about it, Buffy quickly looked around for some way to change the subject of their conversation.

Catching sight of several additional costumed mannequins in the rear of the store, Buffy latched hold of his hand and began pulling him along behind her as she arrowed towards the display.

"Come on, Xand, I want to look over here," she said.

"Whoa, Buff! What's the rush?" the tall brunet asked, surprised, as he was relentlessly dragged along in the Slayer's wake.

"What's up? The store having an all-you-can-carry sale on shoes or something?" he asked, before lapsing into a reverent silence as Buffy stopped in front of a particular display and he caught sight of exactly what had caught Buffy's notice a moment earlier.

"Wow!" was his only comment as he stared at the black leather cat suit that had caught Buffy's interest.

Skin tight black leather clinging to the mannequin's figure was complimented by leather gloves and boots. One of the mannequin's gloved hands held a coil of rope, the other a soft bag filled with costume jewelry, while a simple black half mask covering the upper half of the model's face completed the costume.

"Good Lord, woman!" was the only comment Xander could make as he mentally envisioned the outfit before them adorning the Slayer standing next to him. "Now that is definitely *my* idea of a jewel thief!"

"Okay, Buff, you *have* to get that," he informed her as they both continued to stare at the display. "For two reasons. First, that is definitely the ultimate B-movie cliché character, the incredibly beautiful female cat burglar/jewel thief. And second, you'd look even more incredible wearing that than you usually do."

"You really think so?" Buffy asked uncertainly, flashing him an appreciative smile for the compliment as she turned to look at him.

"No question at all, Buffster," he returned the smile. "That costume was created for you to wear."

"Thanks, Xand. You're exactly the kind of guy a girl needs to have around her, to make her feel good about herself," she told him.

< Yeah, well, I'd rather be the guy the girl needs around her because she loves him, > he thought to himself, < not just because he feeds her ego. Oh well, at least she likes having me around, >he consoled himself.

"Yeah, that's me, Flattery-boy as well as the designated pack mule," he joked wanly.

"Your friend is most certainly correct about that costume, young lady," they heard a voice interject from behind them. "There is no question about it, at all - you would look absolutely stunning in that outfit."

Turning, they found themselves facing a rather thin, quasi- distinguished looking man, whose accent reminded Xander quite strongly of Giles at his most British.

"Allow me to introduce myself," he smiled at them. "I am Ethan, the proprietor of this establishment."

Something about the guy was rubbing Xander wrong, but he refrained from his typical smart-ass remarks, since the guy had supported his comment about how good Buffy would look in the costume.

"Nice to meet you," Buffy smiled up at him, basking in the compliments the shop owner and Xander were tossing her way. "It really is beautiful, but I probably couldn't afford it. Something that gorgeous must cost a fortune," she said.

Xander could hear the regret in her voice as she spoke, as Ethan obviously did also, since he immediately spoke up.

"Nonsense, young lady. It is obvious that that outfit is destined to be worn by you. I haven't seen any other young woman who would look nearly as ravishing in it as you most certainly will," the shop owner declared. "I'm sure we can come to some mutually agreeable arrangement as far as payment is concerned."

Seeing the narrow-eyed looks that Buffy and both Xander immediately shot him, the Englishman instantly held up both hands in a placating gesture, saying, "Please, excuse me. That was a most unfortunate choice of words for me to employ. I meant absolutely nothing improper by it, I assure you. I merely meant to suggest that you could arrange to pay for the costume over the course of several weeks, if need be."

Placated by his immediate apology, Buffy merely nodded her acceptance of his explanation and resumed her inspection of the surrounding mannequins, looking for something that her Xander-shaped friend could wear.

"Hey, Xand, who's this guy supposed to be? A Navy SEAL? Or some kind of ninja, maybe?" Buffy asked her friend curiously, stopping to look at an impressively costumed and armed mannequin set up at the end of a nearby aisle.

The dark-haired, life-sized figure was dressed in close fitting black pants and some sort of long-sleeved tunic top, ribbed and reinforced around all the joints, and overlaid with an armored vest of some tough synthetic material. Black tactical boots, leather gauntlets and a black-framed, blue-tinted wrap-around visor protecting his eyes completed the outfit. Twin semi-automatic pistols were carried in paired shoulder holsters, while a large Desert Eagle holstered at the right hip was balanced by a sheathed combat knife at the left on a black web belt carrying several small pouches, and the right hand was poised above the right shoulder, caught in the act of drawing the sword secured to the figure's back.

"Wow!" the brunet breathed as he looked at the mannequin. "Now there's a guy who's a *major* badass!"

"Ah yes," the two Scoobies heard Ethan's voice coming from behind them. "Yet another of Hollywood's illustrious action heroes." The disdain in the Englishman's voice carried to them clearly as he described the figure they stood looking at. "Demon Hunter Prime, I believe he was called, the heroic protagonist of a fortunately short- lived series of films that the entertainment scions of the silver screen believed would further enrich their already bulging coffers.

"An unidentified champion of virtually superhuman abilities, unequalled martial prowess and myriad mystical abilities. Alleged to be both a sorcerer and a former government agent, he came forth from out of nowhere to balance the scales of evolutionary justice and protect the huddling hordes of humanity from the burgeoning armies of demonkind that threatened them while the various national governments dithered and denied the reality of the threat facing the human race," he recited, the acerbic contempt in his voice unrelenting in its harshness.

"A modern day Robin Hood, armed with automatic weapons in lieu of a bow and arrow," he genteelly sneered.

"What's wrong with helping to protect people from things that want to hurt them?" Xander challenged the store owner, the man's attitude clearly grating on him. A glance at Buffy told him that she was finding the Englishman's mind-set somewhat upsetting also, given her apparently predestined Calling.

"Oh please!" Ethan said, a condescending smile on his face. "People who cannot protect themselves deserve whatever fate happens upon them."

"So, you're saying that little kids and babies, and handicapped people, or old people or pregnant women or anyone who isn't big or mean or smart enough to protect themselves are just getting what they deserve?" Xander demanded, the intense look in his eyes making it immediately obvious to Buffy that something in the shop owner's words had triggered a hot-button issue within the brunet.

"The strong, the smart and the lucky will always survive," Ethan stated, noticing the young man's growing agitation and attempting to re-phrase his words in an effort to circumvent any potential conflict.

"Although, there are inevitably a great many people who are unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and subsequently do not survive, through no real fault of their own," he backtracked on his earlier statement slightly.

"It is not so much that such people deserve what happens to them, as it is that they find themselves at the mercy of the Fates, who are notorious for having no mercy at all," he finished his mini-soliloquy.

Recognizing the shop owner's partial retreat for the white flag of truce that it was, and not wanting to further upset either Buffy or Willow, who had joined the two other Scoobies in the midst of his debate with the Englishman, Xander relented and let the matter drop.

"Yeah, I guess there's not much you can do if Fate's got it in for you," he said, acknowledging the vagaries that Destiny could throw in one's path.

"You obviously have found something about this costume that resonates with you, my young friend," Ethan stated, reaching out to lightly clap his hand on the brunet's shoulder as he gestured towards the mannequin that had initiated their discussion. "So, in the spirit of good fellowship, why don't you take it home with you and wear it to whatever festivities you were planning to attend? For half the price I would normally charge," he added.

"Oh, uh, I couldn't do that," Xander replied, flustered by the unexpected offer.

"No, no, no, I won't hear of it. I insist, young man," Ethan countered. "In fact, I'll include your two lovely companions' costumes in my offer as well. I can see that the three of you obviously share many traits in common, so you should share all equally in any benefits that might accrue, also."

"Wow, that's, that's very bighearted of you, sir," Willow said, flustered by the generosity of the offer, her eyes the size of tennis balls.

For her part, Buffy simply shrugged her shoulders and nodded her agreement with the redhead's statement as she appeared to casually peruse the store's other holiday paraphernalia. To anyone who knew her well, such as Xander, it was obvious that despite her seeming nonchalance, the petite blonde was forcibly restraining herself from saying anything that might influence Xander's decision.

Throwing another glance at the black leather cat burglar outfit to which Buffy had originally been attracted, and telling himself that he was merely trying to help his friends save money (not that Buffy wouldn't look *fantastic* in that outfit, though), Xander gave a small sigh and agreed.

"Thanks very much, sir," he said politely. "That's very kind of you. We all appreciate it very much."

"Nonsense, lad. All I ask is that you and your friends make the most of the night," Ethan smiled at them, as they followed the excitedly chattering girls to the front of the store to finalize their sales.

As they made their way home, Xander couldn't help but feel that there was something about the shop owner that gave him the wiggins. His smile as he watched them leave had set all of the youth's Hellmouth-y instincts on edge. He'd have to remember to mention it to Giles when he saw him, either after tonight's patrol or tomorrow at lunch.

Chapter 3

Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house
Thursday, October 30, 1997

"Come on, big guy! If there's anyone at all who could do something like this, it's you!"

Xander continued to rain his entreaties down on the ears of the older man he had been following around the basement workshop situated in the frat house's basement.

"And being a genius, it probably wouldn't take you more than a few minutes. Twenty minutes, tops," he noted.

"Well, you're probably right about that, Xander," the collegian agreed thoughtfully.

"Just what was you said you were looking for?" he asked, pausing and looking through one of the equipment bins on the shelves lining the wall.

"Well, Willow's dressing up as a ninja, so I was thinking that maybe we, well actually, YOU could fix up one of those dart thrower things she could wear on her arm, like you see in all those kung-fu movies they show on Channel 57 Saturday afternoons," he confided hopefully to his potential equipment provider.

"And Buffy's going as a cat burglar or jewel thief, sorta like Catherine Zeta-Jones was, in 'Entrapment,' so I was thinking she could use one of those really cool grappling hook launcher things that those guys always have in all the movies. Not that she'd really need it to actually work or anything," he immediately qualified his comments. "I'm just looking for something to make all of our costumes look cooler and a little more authentic, that's all."

"So, who or what are you going to be?" the older youth asked

"Me? I'm going as Demon Hunter Prime. You know, from that movie series they had going a couple years back, with Jeff Speakman as the Demon Hunter? I rented the first one and watched it again last night, and I've got to say, that movie was really cool! Speakman could really kick demon ass, man!" Xander waxed enthusiastically about the movie.

"Anyway, I was thinking that maybe I could use something like this sword that the Demon Hunter got after he killed the general of the demon forces. It was this really cool-looking longsword that glowed blue whenever he held it and all the demons who saw it were totally terrified of it because it was supposed to have been forged by this really ancient and powerful wizard to help defeat the demons who were trying to destroy humanity. It was so sharp it could cut through just about anything, and I think I'm starting to babble now, so I probably better just shut up," he finished up as he saw his companion grinning at him.

"Oh, that's okay, man," the older brunet said. "You just kinda reminded me of one of my frat brothers' younger brother. You might even meet him if he stops by the party tomorrow night.

"Anyway, this kid, Andrew, he and his friend, Jonathan, can quote the Star Wars and Star Trek technical specs almost word for word from any of the books that have been published in the past thirty years," he laughed. "They stopped by over winter break last semester, and they had this argument going for five hours straight about who would win in a fight between the Empire's Storm Troopers and the Federation's Security guards. You know, the red shirts, guys on the show you knew were going to die as soon as they walked on the set?"

"Yeah," Xander agreed with a grin. "Those poor guys may as well have worn a target on their back."

"Anyway, I thought everyone here was gonna end up choking them, because they just wouldn't shut up! We finally got rid of them by chipping in and giving them money for tickets to go see the Star Wars marathon they were showing down at the Revello," he revealed with a laugh. "Believe me, it was money well spent!"

"So, uh, is that a really subtle way you're using to tell me you're, uh, not interested in helping me out with this Halloween stuff, then?" Xander asked hesitantly.

"Oh, no, that's not what I meant," his companion laughed again. "You've been a lot of help around here this year, Xander. I think everybody here probably would have been evicted a couple times, if the school ever found out about all the repairs that you've done. So I've got no problem helping you out here. Leave your sword here, and I'll see what I can do with it, and I'll see what I can cobble together for your friends' costumes. What time do you finish school tomorrow?"

"I'm done at two fifteen."

"Okay. Stop by after that and I should have some stuff ready for you. These things are for the girls you're bringing with you tomorrow night, right?"

"You bet."

"Good. I'm looking forward to meeting them. Two of the hottest women ever, you said?"

"Oh, yeah, you'd better believe it, man!"

"Even better. See you then."

"Thanks, Warren. I really, really appreciate this."


Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house
Friday, October 31, 1997

"Okay, Xan, here's the stuff you asked for," Warren said, as he handed the wide-eyed high schooler a small armload of items.

"This little baby here," the collegian noted, holding up a small dark enameled object, "is that dart thrower you asked me to make for your friend who's going as a ninja. You have her strap it to the underside of her arm, like this," he demonstrated the proper method of securing it in place, "and then she can trigger it by double- clicking this button here," he pointed out a small assembly that fit over the user's thumb and rested on the web of skin between the thumb and the index finger.

"And this item is for whoever's going as the jewel thief." He held up a small object that somewhat resembled a truncated rod and accompanying reel assembly of a very high-tech fishing pole. "Point this end at the wall of whatever it is you want to climb, have her fasten it to her belt or, better yet, a climbing harness, and then press this one of these buttons," he indicated a small pressure sensitive area of the assembly, "They either raise or lower the wearer, so tell your friend to be very careful, because they'll do it *very* fast. The line will handle up to about two hundred and fifty pounds load, so they'll want to be careful what they're handling, so the line doesn't break."

"Thanks, man," Xander exclaimed as he took in the various gadgets which Warren had handed him. "This stuff is fantastic!"

"I fixed up your sword, too," the older youth added. "It'll glow blue whenever you remove it from its scabbard, like the one in the movie you were telling me about. Oh, and I found this in one of the basement lockers and figured maybe you would want to carry it, too," he noted as he handed Xander a large, futuristic-looking rifle, similar to the type seen in numerous science-fiction movies.

"Jeez, man, this is great!" Xander enthused, as he shifted the equipment into a more manageable array. "I owe you, genius-man. This stuff is really gonna make the night! Thanks!!"

"No problem at all, Xander," Warren smiled indulgently. "Just don't forget to introduce me to your lady friends tonight!"

"So, who are you going to be tonight, man?" the teenager asked curiously.

"I'm got a new lady I'm seeing, and we're going as Romeo and Juliet," the collegian gave Xander a wide self-satisfied smile. "You won't believe the way she treats me. You'd think I was her personal creator," he smirked.

"Wow. I've got to meet this girl!" Xander agreed. "Does she have any sisters?"

"Not yet. But maybe soon," was Warren's enigmatic reply.


Summers Residence
Friday, October 31, 1997

"So, Morning Dawn-y, guess you're looking forward to your Halloween party tonight, huh?"

"Gee, ya think so, Xand?" For a twelve year old, the young brunette had most certainly acquired a mastery of sarcasm that far exceeded her tender years.

"It would appear you need to expend more effort on your interpersonal relationship skills, young lady," the high-school student stated solemnly, looking down at her from his position on the ladder with a reserved and dignified expression on his face.

Looking up at her current semi-crush, the younger Summers sister giggled at the look so completely at odds with her partner-in-humor's normal expression.

"Nice try, Xand, but you're still not British-y enough to pull that off. Better luck next time," she smirked.

"I suppose I should actually give thanks to whatever deities might be up there for my lack of British-ness, shouldn't I?" the teenager said rhetorically as he thumb tacked one end of some orange and black crepe paper streamers to one of the overhead support beams in the basement, then proceeded to string them along the length of the beam before crossing over to another and running them back up to a point near their original starting point.

"Yeah, I think so," the pre-teen agreed. "You'd look weird in tweed. Or weird-er, at least. It's not like you don't look weird in the stuff you usually wear, anyway."

"Thanks, short stuff, I appreciate the fashion commentary. I can tell who Mr. Black submits his critiques to, before sending them out to Access Hollywood."

"Bite me, Xander."

"You and the Buffster both studied the same books for scathing conversational witticisms, I see, eh, Munchkin?" the male Scooby grinned as he reached down and mussed his companion's hair, ignoring the thousand watt glare his actions produced.

"You are *so* asking for it," Dawn warned him when the glare failed to produce the desired results, i.e., the 'older man' falling to his knees and begging her forgiveness.

"I've been asking for a lot of stuff for years, now, kiddo," Xander grinned down at the Slayer's sibling, "and I have yet to receive any of my requests, no matter how innocent they might have been. I somehow doubt that that's going to change anytime in the near, or even the far, future."

"Yeah, you're right about that," Dawn agreed with a smirk. "I don't think either Cindy Crawford or a Jaguar are going to be showing up anytime soon.

"In fact," the small brunette predicted confidently, "the only thing I can see in your future is you taking me on an extended trip to the mall and the movies next Saturday and spoiling me rotten."

"And why would I be doing this, oh exalted Seer of Sunnydale?" Xander asked curiously.

"To avoid my sister's finding out that you suggested this party to me?" Dawn asked, the apparent air of innocence surrounding her tottering on extremely flimsy foundations.

"You know, blackmail is an extremely ugly word, Dawn, and an even uglier concept for a pretty young woman like you to be familiar with," Xander stated with a long sigh.

"Especially when it's being used against you, grasshopper," he smiled down at her from his perch as he paused in his hanging of the decorations.

For some reason, the smile the brunette bestowed on her uncomfortably reminded the pre-teen of the Hyena possession her sister's best male friend had experienced the year before (which was yet another of the various weirdo things Buffy and her friends were involved in that she wasn't supposed to know about, she reminded herself).

"Remember a couple weeks back, when we were all playing around, making up messages for your Mom's answering machine, Dawnstar?" he asked her casually.

"Yeah, what about it, Xand?" Dawn asked cautiously. "We were all fooling around with the silly voices and stuff, and Mom decided she didn't like any of them, so she erased the whole tape. So what?" she said indifferently, her voice sounding much more nonchalant than she actually felt, as she frantically tried to remember what else they had talked about while eating pizza and Xander's ever-present Twinkies.

"Do you recall what other subjects we discussed after that?" he queried her with what she would describe as a truly evil smile. "You know, the conversation where you were talking about how much you liked that basketball player in your class? What was his name now? Don? No, that wasn't it. Johnny? No, that wasn't it, either. I know! Tommy! That was it! Tommy Gallagher, right?"

The young brunette's eyes had grown ever bigger, along with the look of horror and dismay on her face, as she listened to her companion speak.

"Wh-what brought that subject up, Xand?" she managed to casually squeak out, as portents of doom began filling her young mind.

"Well, as it happens," he said, the same smile still plastered across his face, "when we were cleaning up after dinner, your mother asked me to make sure the right tape was in the answering machine. And it turns out, when I checked, that the recorder must have been running for almost that entire conversation.

"Including the part when you were telling Buffy and Willow how cute you thought his butt was."

The easy smile on Xander's face showed that he knew he had just trumped his adversary's earlier attempt at manipulation and she anxiously sought about for alternative courses of action.

Various scenarios involving immediately assaulting and torturing Xander to reveal the location of the tape, followed by his murder, the disposal of the body and a frantic interstate flight all ran through Dawn's mind in the space of a few milliseconds, before crashing to a halt as she remembered she couldn't drive, had already spent her allowance for the week and had no ATM card to access for money, and the fact that her curfew was ten o'clock on week nights.

"A-all right, Xander," her voice quavered only the slightest bit as she immediately capitulated to her mentor's/opponent's superior expertise in their field of battle.

"You know, you look like you might be hungry. How's some of Mom's fresh-baked cookies and a big glass of cold milk sound?" she offered as a token of her surrender, all the while silently vowing to triumph in their next clash.

"That would be great, Dawnie," he said, as he stepped down and moved the ladder to the far wall to continue decorating. "That's very generous of you. Thanks."

Far be it for anyone to say that Xander Harris wasn't a gracious winner.

Besides, Mrs. Summers' cookies were some of the best he'd ever tasted. If Buffy could Slay as well as Mrs. Summers could bake, Sunnydale could be demon-free in just a few days.

Chapter 4

Summers Residence
Friday, October 31, 1997

"All right, ladies, it's time for the most beautiful and charming women of Sunnydale to step out and show off the costumes that will, hopefully, cause extreme cardiac dysfunction in the majority of males with a pulse between the ages of thirteen and ninety, and cause those without a pulse to spontaneously combust!" Xander announced in a deliberately portentous voice as he stood at the foot of the stairs. Joyce was standing in the living room with a camcorder, obviously intent on capturing the merrymakers' images for posterity, while a small tape recorder sat on the hall table off to one side of the male Scooby.

"Presenting our first finalist for the title of 'Miss Sunnydale Halloween 1997', the delectable but as-of-yet-still-underage Miss Dawn Summers, appearing as the Sacred Warrior Sophitia, from the computer game, 'Soul Blade.' Let's hear it for Dawn Summers, folks!!"

As he spoke, Xander pressed the 'play' button on the tape recorder and the sound of cheers and thunderous applause suddenly filled the air.

Dawn carefully walked down the stairs, apparently a bit self- conscious in her blue tunic and pseudo-leather armor, with a plastic sword at her hip and shield slung on her back, but she smiled gratefully at Xander as he took her hand and formally led her down the last few steps before stopping the tape.

"Good lord in heaven, young lady, you look magnificent!" he exclaimed, before turning to face Joyce.

"Mrs. Summers, if you'll excuse me for just a minute," he addressed her in a quite serious tone of voice, "I'll go get the bats right now, so we can be ready to beat the boys away when they start throwing themselves at the door!

"And I'm only half-joking about that last part!" he added in a loud stage-whisper that caused the future-Key to blush a bright red while her smile threatened to wrap around her head.

Turning back to face the stairway, Xander once more resumed his master of ceremonies duties.

"And now, our second contestant for the title of 'Miss Sunnydale Halloween 1997' is none other than the charming, hyper-intelligent and ethereally beautiful Willow Rosenberg, dressed tonight as a member of the Storm Shadow ninja clan! All right now, folks, let's hear it for this delectable combination of beauty, brains and lethality!"

Willow suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs, almost tripping over her feet and glancing back over her shoulder with an expression of betrayal at the blonde Slayer who had obviously pushed her into the spotlight. As the sounds of Xander's tape-recorded applause boomed out, she nailed her childhood friend with a narrow-eyed glare that promised dire repercussions for his clear enjoyment of her obvious discomfort, the scarf portion of her mask not yet in place to conceal her features. The black silk costume the redhead was wearing emphasized the softly rounded curves of her figure in their best aspect, revealing the femininity of her figure while also highlighting the athleticism of her slim frame. The katana slung across her back, the smaller tanto blade in her waistband and the tops of the two sais visible above the bands wrapped around her lower legs suggested a martial competence at odds with her current body language as she hesitantly made her way down the stairs to be offered her childhood friend's arm as he escorted her to stand next to Dawn.

"You look marvelous, Willow," Joyce smiled reassuringly at the redhead, as Xander offered her his arm in the same manner he had done with Dawn.

"Yeah, Will," Dawn piped in with a wide smile. "You look really cool!"

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, our final contestant of the night," Xander boomed out once again, after stopping the tape for the last time. "The incomparable, exquisitely gorgeous Buffy Summers, offering us her interpretation of a jewel thief fit to rival the legendary Catwoman herself! Come on, people, let's hear it for the Thief of Hearts!" he adlibbed.

As Xander spoke, Buffy had emerged at the top of the staircase, pausing for a moment before she began majestically descending, to best show off her costume. The formfitting black leather top and pants clung to the diminutive blonde like a second skin, and Xander felt his mouth unexpectedly go dry at the sight of his friend. The Slayer's golden tresses were the only relief from the monochromatic image she presented as she slowly made her way down the stairs, with her boots, gloves, a black demi-mask concealing the upper half of her face and a black knapsack slung over her shoulder and velvet bag containing faux jewelry secured at her left hip completing her costume.

Xander had had no doubts whatsoever that Buffy would look magnificent in her costume the moment he had set eyes on it, but the actuality of his vision exceeded even the bounds of what he had believed to be his limitless imagination.

"Wow!" he murmured to himself, repeating his initial assessment upon first seeing the outfit on the mannequin in Ethan's store to himself. "Gin Baker had absolutely nothing on you, Buff."

He remained motionless, staring dumbly at her as she approached him, and only shook off his stupor when Buffy walked up and lightly touched his chest, a look of mild concern furrowing her forehead.

"Are you okay, Xand?" she asked him, a bit unsure of what exactly his reaction meant, while a small part of her made note of it and sat back, extremely pleased.

"Oh! Uh, yeah! I'm good, Buff! I'm fine! Everything's fine!" he began babbling.

"You're looking pretty much 'Wow!' yourself," she complimented him, taking in the solid, muscular form the close-fitting tunic and pants outlined. With the weaponry now in place that had accompanied the costume's clothing, the tall brunet looked as though he were about to single-handedly launch an assault on the Hellmouth. "I think all the demons in the area better keep an eye out for you, Xand, if they want to make it to tomorrow."

"Okay, guys, everybody scrunch in together for a picture," Joyce instructed the foursome, drawing everyone's attention back to her as she waved her camera around. "I want pictures of all of you guys, so we can easily remember this night years from now."

"Hey, Xan, how come you're not carrying that humongous rifle I saw in your car this afternoon?" Dawn asked as she managed to squeeze in between her sister and Xander as they posed for Joyce's pictures, completely shrugging off the glare her actions elicited from her older sister.

"Well, it was a little inconvenient to carry around along with all the other stuff here, so I decided I wasn't going to use it and I let Cordelia borrow it to use for her costume," the male Scooby replied. Seeing the looks of surprise and incredulous disbelief his explanation received, he elaborated.

"It's not like I was gonna need it, and it definitely wouldn't go with any of your costumes, guys," he told his audience. "Anyway, Cordelia saw it in the back seat of Uncle Rory's car and asked me where I got it and how much it cost, 'cause she was looking for something that would make her costume look more realistic."

"Ah, Xan, I might not be a history expert, but I'm pretty sure eighteenth century noblewomen didn't carry firearms, let alone future- y looking movie rifles," Buffy interrupted him, "and I know I saw her carrying one of those old-fashioned ballroom gowns when we were in the costume shop Wednesday."

"Yeah, I know, Buff. I saw her carrying it, too," Xander agreed with her. "I asked her about it, and she said she was just picking it up as a favor for Harmony when she picked up her own costume."

"So, who's she going to be dressed as, then?" Willow asked.

"Remember that sneak preview movie we saw when we visited Universal Studios the week before last on the class trip?" he asked. "Cordelia liked it enough that she decided she was going to be Ellen Ripley from 'Alien Resurrection', " he informed them with a grin. "I think she decided on that character just so she could have a chance to wear leather pants and a vest.

"And with any luck at all, guys, maybe she'll manage to shoot herself in the foot before the night's over," he added with a hopeful grin.


UC Sunnydale dorms
Friday, October 31, 1997

"He's such a bastard!" the sobbing brunette stated emphatically, as she dabbed at her reddened eyes with an already sodden handkerchief. "We were supposed to go to a costume party tonight as Romeo and Juliet, and then last night, we had an argument and he told me to just forget about him, 'cause he didn't want to see me anymore. And then he said he was taking someone else to the party instead of me!

"I don't know what I ever saw in him to make me think he was a nice guy!" she scowled.

"Yes, you're completely right! Men are scum!" her lighter-haired companion agreed from her position on the couch next to her. "The only thing they're really any good for is butchering oxen and being torn to pieces by hunger-crazed ravaging wolves.

"And helping to produce more female children, of course," she added, apparently as an afterthought, not noticing the confused look the first woman threw her upon hearing her comment.

"Uh, yeah. That, too," the distraught young woman agreed, somewhat hesitantly.

"So, what would you do, if you could punish this worthless mass of protoplasm for what he's done to you?" the second woman asked conversationally.

"You know, several years back, a friend of mine told me of this curse that would turn a man's urine into acid and also shrink his kidneys to the size of a five-year old child's at the same time. That way, it would burn his penis from the inside out whenever he peed, and he couldn't drink more than a small glass of water before having to pee again," she noted with a wide smile, completely missing the look of incredulity and horror her companion gave her as she blathered on about the various catastrophes she had witnessed over the course of her life.


Sunnydale High library
Friday, October 31, 1997

"So, Giles, where are you and Ms. Calendar planning to boogey the night away?" Xander asked, as he sat atop the conference table that was home to the unrelenting 'research parties' the Scoobies conducted on virtually a daily basis.

"Yeah, Giles, inquiring minds want to know what character the well- dressed English librarian plans to impersonate at the party you're going be hitting tonight," Buffy grinned, seeing the Englishman flush uncomfortably and enjoying her putting her Watcher on the spot. "So, come on and spill. Who're you going to be?"

"Whatever in the world would give you the idea that Ms. Calendar and I might be seeing each other this evening, let alone be going to any kind of costume party together?" the Slayer's Watcher frowned, glancing over his shoulder as he shelved several volumes of mathematical reference tables that still looked as though they had just been taken from their shipping container, despite their having occupied shelf space for the past four years.

"Well, the fact that she asked us who or what we thought you were going to dress up as was probably our first clue, big guy," Xander grinned, delighted at having caught their mentor in an undeniable 'date-type-situation,' as Willow had phrased it earlier, on their way over. "So, who, exactly, are you going to be?"

The three had headed directly to the library after leaving Buffy's home, intent upon discovering exactly what type of costume their mentor had chosen for his date with their computer teacher, as well as to show off their own outfits.

As they headed into the Scooby Gang's headquarters, they smiled with a mixture of pity and aloof satisfaction at having avoided the fates of those poor, unfortunate students, who had been strong-armed by Snyder into escorting groups of elementary school children as they pillaged the neighborhoods for their annual processed-white-sugar and chocolate-enriched plunder. If not for a fortunate glimpse of the troll standing outside the main entrance as they were about to exit through the front of the school, they, too, might have been press- ganged into 'community service' and forced to shepherd the little minions of darkness from house to house for the majority of the evening, time that could have been productively spent doing anything else except that.

They had entered the library quietly, both to avoid Snyder's unwelcome attentions and to hopefully sneak up on their mentor and catch him unaware as he worked. Unfortunately for their purposes, Giles had been behind the counter as they entered and saw them, ruining their hopes to scare at least a few months off his lifespan, so they had immediately moved to the next step of their plans, grilling him about his costume.

Willow had spent hours pondering what Giles would choose as his costume, before deciding that the Englishman would most likely masquerade as Sherlock Holmes, the legendary fictional detective, based on the Englishman's not-inconsiderable intellect, while Buffy had argued for her selection of John Steed from 'The Avengers' television program, based on the 'British stiff upper-lip and coolness under stress' factor the character displayed. Xander, however, was of the opinion that the Douglas Fairbanks depiction of Robin Hood would be a much more suitable image for the librarian, given the Watcher's frequently demonstrated expertise with a sword and quarterstaff, as well as the other archaic weapons with which Buffy trained.

"You're busted, Watcher Guy," Buffy smiled at her surrogate father as he resigned himself to the admission that he did, indeed, have plans for the evening that did not involve musty old books, undead monsters or demons, or even the school library. "We already know everything we need to know," she bluffed, "except what you're going as, so, spill!"

"Yeah, where's your costume, Giles?" Willow inquired curiously. "Ms Calendar said she was meeting you here at six-thirty and it's after six now, so you'll never be able to make it back to your apartment to change and still meet her in time, unless you've got your costume in the car and you intend to change in there, which would be a really bad idea, 'cause Principal Snyder is still out in the parking lot, supervising the kids who had to lead the elementary school kids around their neighborhoods, and I don't think he'd like you changing out there, and -"

"Whoa there, Will!" Xander laughed as he reached over and clapped a hand over the babbling redhead's mouth to silence her. "One, take a breath or you're going to pass out from oxygen deprivation, and two, give the poor man a chance to answer your question, okay?"

"Actually, I'm already almost completely attired in my costume," the Englishman informed them, then smiled as the trio gave him a quick visual head-to-toe once-over before looking at him in bewilderment. Giles was wearing a white shirt with a red cravat, tan pants, a tan plaid vest and a brown jacket, clothing indistinguishable, at least to their eyes, from his normal garb.

"Uhm, you're pretending to be an Englishman?" Xander asked doubtfully. "Giles, the whole idea of Halloween is to pretend to be someone or something you really aren't, and you're already English."

"Thank you for that reassurance regarding my ancestral identity, Xander," Giles replied, just the least bit sarcastically. "As it happens, the character whose identity I am adopting is an Englishman also, at least nominally, that is.

"If you will permit me, I will don the remainder of my costume, in order to proffer you an additional opportunity to identify the inspiration for my masquerade," he concluded.

Seeing the look of incomprehension on Xander's face, Willow translated. "He's gonna put on the rest of his costume so we can guess who he is."

As his young wards watched, Giles walked over to the coat rack, picked up a six foot long striped scarf, wrapped it once around his neck and then stood before them, waiting expectantly.

"Well?" he asked, after a moment's silence.

The three Scoobies all stared at him blankly, without the slightest hint of recognition in their eyes.

It was at just that moment that the hall doors swung open and Jenny Calendar walked in, wearing a long silver-grey leather duster. Her hair had pulled back in a bun of sorts at the base of her neck, and she appeared to be wearing some sort of metallic makeup in a semi- crescent shape around her left eyebrow ridge, that curled down and around her eye to halt just at the point of her cheekbone, Xander noticed, a sight which strongly reminded him of someone he couldn't place at the moment.

"Rupert!" she smiled as she greeted him, and the smile grew larger to encompass the three Scoobies when she noticed them off to the side.

"You guys look fantastic," she raved, looking them over. "Generic ninja, jewel thief and apocalyptic soldier, right?" she hazarded her guesses, then turned to look Giles over more carefully, before bursting out in pleased laughter.

"Brilliant, Rupe! A marvelous idea! I haven't seen the anyone dress as the Doctor in years!" she exclaimed with delight.

"And who did you decide to emulate?" he asked her in return.

Jenny slid the coat off her shoulders to reveal a form-fitting silver catsuit, as she pirouetted in front of him. Seeing no sign of recognition from him, she simply grinned as she informed him, "I'm Seven of Nine."

"Seven of Nine what?" Giles questioned her, as the three students simply looked on in surprise for a moment, before bursting into laughter at the librarian's question.

Chapter 5

An abandoned warehouse in the Sunnydale industrial quarter
Friday, October 31, 1997

"They're all going to hide away, you see. Kitten and little tree and the sharp-tongued schoolgirl and the nasty, nasty Slayer - they're all going away to hide in secret places tonight. The double-faced servant will lock them up and hide them all away, and the mean and wicked Watcher man will not find them unless the fortune teller reveals the secret name."

The pale-complexioned brunette speaking recited her observations in the same tone and cadence of a five-year-old girl performing for her imaginary friends, pausing infrequently as she moved around the dinner table occupying the center of the voluminous room in which they sat, to rearrange the various place settings of the dinner service she had laid out, rearranging things so that one of the settings had only spoons while another had but a single fork and three knives.

Off to one side, stretched out full length on a long, ornately brocaded sofa, the white-haired vampire watching her smiled at her words.

"So you're saying the Slayer and her friends aren't going to be around tonight, eh, darlin'?" he asked, turning to lie on his side facing her and prop his head up on his hand. "Sounds to me like they're offering us an opportunity for a buffet dinner, luv. How's that sound, huh? We go out and drain everyone and everything we find and we turn them all. Her mother, her sister, her Watcher, everybody! And when the Slayer finally does get back, she'll find that everyone she cares about is now playing on our team!

"Won't that play wonderfully nasty games with her mind?" he grinned evilly.

Turning to one of the various minions waiting at his beck and call, he said, "Tommy boy, tell the children we're going to be eating out tonight, after all!"

Getting to his feet, Spike smiled down at the insane but presently quiescent Seer.

"I'm gonna take a little walk-around, luv," he told her. "Work up an appetite for dinner. Hmm, haven't had any Italian for a while. Maybe I'll see what they have that goes with a nice red wine," he murmured to himself as he strolled away.

"The stars dislike your idea very, very much, my dearest darling one!" the Seer said softly as she picked up her doll and cradled it in her arms. "They frown upon it and stick out their tongues at you when you're not looking at them! The stars snicker and they tease and they frown.

"No, no, no. They don't like it at all!" she whispered to herself. "They told Miss Edith they dislike your idea tremendously, my darling, and their empty eyes will fill with tears that will wash away the dirt. You'll see, my sweet. No good will come of this. You'll see," she repeated.


Sigma Phi Epsilon Halloween party
UC Sunnydale campus
Shortly after leaving the library

"Oh my god, I still can't believe he actually said that! 'Seven of Nine what?'" Xander repeated in a fair imitation of Giles' voice, before he began laughing again as he, Buffy and Willow crossed the front lawn of the frat house.

"Okay, Xan, get over it already!" Buffy told him, lightly slapping his shoulder. "He said it, we mocked him for it and Ms. Calendar explained to him exactly who she was supposed to be. It's over and done with. Stop acting like a goofball and pretend you're mature and responsible, at least for a little while! I don't want any of these college guys we're going to be meeting thinking I hang around with Peewee Herman. Understand me?" she instructed him with a low-level glare.

"Sorry, Buff-meister, it's far too late for that," he grinned back at her. "I've been hanging around this place for the past two months, remember? These guys already know the real me, and hold a place for me deep inside their hearts filled with never-ending respect and affection!"

Leading the way up the front porch steps, Xander smiled and nodded to the guys at the front doors and proudly ushered the girls into what, at first, appeared to be the Central Casting gathering hall for the Screen Actors Guild.

Monsters, aliens, fantasy creatures and characters from virtually every television show or movie you could name filled the lower level of the Sigma Phi Epsilon house, spilling out onto the side and back yards as well.

"Hey, Warren, you look great, man," Xander warmly greeted his benefactor, as he led the girls through the crowded room to the back of the house.

"Warren, this is Willow Rosenberg and Buffy Summers, the ladies I was telling you about," he introduced the two girls to his collegiate mentor of sorts. "Guys, this is Warren Mears. He's the guy who worked up the gadgets for our costumes."

"Nice to meet you, ladies," the somewhat heavy-set brunet in the medieval Renaissance costume not-quite-smirked as he shook their hands and they expressed their thanks for his assistance.

"And this is my lady, April," he said, turning and introducing the gorgeous brunette standing next to him, also in a matching Renaissance outfit.

"Hello there," April smiled at them, pleasantly but perhaps a bit vacantly, as she reached out to shake their hands. "It's very nice to meet you. Have you know Warren long?"

Buffy noticed that the girl's grip was quite firm, more like man's than a woman's would be.

"No," Willow answered, staring at the brunette intently, a slightly puzzled expression on her face. "We just met him for the first time tonight."

"Oh, well, you're very fortunate then," April continued to smile at the girls. "Warren is really a wonderful person, and a brilliant inventor, too. You'd be astonished at all the things he's developed. He's a genius. Most people just haven't recognized that about him yet," she informed them happily.

"I'm glad to hear that," Buffy said politely, staring at the other girl as though she had just announced that the sun was very big and hot and very far away.

"It was very nice meeting you," the strange girl said, "but I have to make sure that Warren's beer mug doesn't get empty. It's what any devoted girlfriend should do. Maybe I'll see you later," she smiled, as she picked up the aforementioned mug and hurried off towards the back porch where the kegs of beer were located.

"Your girlfriend seems very - devoted to you," Willow commented as they all watched the brunette leave.

"Yeah, that's a good word to describe her," Warren agreed. "She thinks everything I do is fascinating," he added. "It's nice to have someone feel that way about you."

"Hey, is that Andrew Wells over there?" Xander interrupted, pointing to a young blond guy wearing a Zorro style mask and cape and awkwardly waving around a long, thin-bladed sword with a basket style cup guard formed of intricately filigreed steel wire.

"Yeah, that's him," Warren nodded his head. "He's one of the guys I was talking to you about yesterday. He's a real trip, sometimes. I'll warn you, now, if you talk to him, he's gonna sweat to you that that mask he's wearing is from the Zorro movie and was worn by Antonio Banderas. But his brother was telling me that it's actually from the movie 'Don Juan DeMarco' and was worn by Johnny Depp.

"It seems Andrew doesn't think Depp is quite cool enough, so he's revised the mask's history a bit," he grinned. "I haven't seen his dwarf buddy, Jonathan, yet, but he's probably around somewhere, too. Look, I've got some stuff to take care of, so why don't you and your friends just make yourselves comfortable, and I'll see you later, okay?"

"Sure, man, sounds good," Xander agreed. "Go do what you gotta do."

Buffy and Willow had been looking around while Xander was brown- nosing Warren, checking out the partygoers around them.

Off to one side of the rec room, it appeared several Klingons were having a drinking contest with two Federation security personnel (red shirts), a Romulan and two generic humanoid aliens, while across the room a girl wearing a Princess Leia slave outfit was animatedly discussing make-up tips with a green-skinned Altairan slave girl, both of whom were showing a *lot* of skin, green and otherwise. Several other girls were sporting either the Xena Warrior Princess or the generic chainmail bikini armor outfits and being drooled over, in some cases literally, by the horde of would-be barbarian warriors clustered around them when they weren't quaffing down their super- sized mugs of beer.

Xander glanced around, noting numerous cowboys, cowgirls, spies, soldiers, policemen and policewomen, Dorothy and her entourage from the Land of Oz, along with a fair number of ninjas, three Count Dracula wanna-be's, a few wolf men (and a few wolf women, too), two Batmen (one Silver Age and one Dark Knight variant), a Flash, three Green Lanterns (one Hal Jordan type, the second a Guy Gardner clone while the third was an unidentifiable alien, possibly Killowog), one Joker, a Killer Croc look-alike, a Captain Cold, three Imperial Storm Troopers accompanying Darth Vader, two Captain Americas, two Red Skulls with half a dozen Hydra minions milling around them, one Sabretooth wannabe, half a dozen people appearing to be variants on members of the Legion of Superheroes, a Green Arrow and Black Canary couple, several Spidermen, two groups of the Fantastic Four (fortunately without any Dr. Doom wannabes following them around), at least a dozen run-of-the-mill pirates and several *definitely* disturbed people dressed as the fully mature form of the face-hugging aliens from the movie of the same name.

He also noticed a number of assholes dressed as Sunnydale vampires, right down to the demonic game face make-up they were wearing.

Yeah, this was definitely the night when pretty much anything was acceptable, and people still tried to push the boundaries.

"What are you losers doing here?"

All three Scoobies turned at the sound of the regrettably-familiar voice behind them, to see Cordelia Chase, her arm hooked around the arm of a *very* large football player-shaped person.

Where her date was wearing a tattered looking black suit, white shirt and a disheveled white wig, with every visible square inch of skin a long-dead-corpse-white pallor in color, Cordelia was clad in brown leather pants and a matching sleeveless vest, with an orange-brown tube top beneath, and sturdy-but-stylish high brown boots, the large futuristic-looking rifle Xander had lent her slung over her free shoulder.

"Oh look, it's the Creature from the Black Lagoon," Xander quipped, giving the couple his trademarked smart-ass grin, "along with her date. So, how're things going for you, Cordy? Street-walk around here often?"

"Where do you get off talking to my date like that, punk?" her escort rumbled as he narrowed his eyes and reached out to grab Xander. "Just who do you think you are?"

"Uh, the guy who's been repairing all of the damage you guys inflicted on the building here for the past two months?" Xander offered with a wan smile, using his arm to keep Buffy from interposing herself between him and the gorilla addressing him, as she was trying to do.

"Chill, Buff, okay?" he took a second to murmur to her. "Let me handle of this," he told her. "Please?"

A passing whiff of the guy's breath had immediately revealed to the three friends that it would probably have dissolved the inner workings of any Breathalyzer unfortunate enough to be used to check his blood alcohol levels. Realizing that being beaten up by a diminutive blonde wouldn't make the giant in front of them feel very friendly towards them, Buffy reluctantly gave Xander his chance to straighten things out with King Kong.

Besides, if things did get nasty, she could always hit the guy later.

"Don't you remember me, Brodey? I'm the one who fixed the extra- large football player-shaped hole you made in the rec room wall last week," Xander reminded the extra-humongous guy glaring at him while smiling hopefully. "So that the house's owner wouldn't find out and throw all of you guys out of here? And the coach wouldn't have to bench you like he threatened to do the week before that?"

"Hey, you're Harris!" the behemoth grunted after a somewhat beer-y and bleary-eyed look at him.

"Hey, man, you do real good work," the pie-eyed goliath smiled broadly at him, patting him a bit clumsily on the shoulder as his mood immediately changed upon recognizing his erstwhile opponent. "You couldn't even tell anything happened to the wall. Thanks, man! I really appreciate that!"

Xadner was dancing the 'Snoopy Dance of Triumph' inside his head when he saw the dumbfounded looks on both Buffy and Willow's faces from the corner of his eye as the momentarily-threatening giant transformed into an overly friendly two-legged St. Bernard, but limited his expression to just a friendly smile directed at the massive football player.

Brody turned his somewhat unfocused attention back to a perplexed- looking Cordelia, and confided loudly enough to be heard on the street, "Harris here is a real good friend of mine! Helped me take care of a problem so the coach wouldn't find out. Some of the walls here are real weak. Can't even lean against them for a minute or they'll break. Cheap construction, I think..."

"Hey, Brody, cool costume," Xander tried to shift the conversation's topic away from the repairs the house had required after some of the frat's parties. "Solomon Grundy, right?"

"Yeah," Brody grinned back, pleased that someone had recognized his alter-ego. "It was either him or the Hulk, and I didn't want to walk around in just some ripped-up pants all night."

"Looks perfect, man," Xander assured him. "Let me be the first to say that you make a great supervillain."

"Thanks, little buddy," the huge lineman smiled. "Hey, are these chicks the friends you were telling us about?" he asked as he looked over at Buffy and Willow.

"Yeah, these *ladies* are the ones I was telling you about, Brody," Xander agreed, as he turned back and put a careful, restraining hand on Buffy's shoulder as he heard her give a low growl. "Do me a favor, Brody, and *don't* call them chicks, okay? Believe me, you *don't* want to piss either one of them off."

"Okay," Brody shrugged agreeably. "You guys, come on in and let's get a beer," he said as he started up the steps to the front porch, apparently forgetting about his date's affront at being insulted. Behind him, Cordelia glared in outrage and took a deep breath, readying herself to begin verbally tearing him a new bodily orifice.

As they turned to follow the monolithic figure, Xander, Buffy and Willow suddenly all felt a wave of disorientation slip over them, followed by an all-encompassing darkness.


"Ethan's" costume shop
Friday, October 31, 1997

After locking the door behind the last customer, the Englishman headed to the back of the store and pushed through the curtain to kneel before the statue of Janus sitting atop the small pedestal he had built. He pressed his hands together and winced in pain as the spell he muttered under his breath took effect. Pulling his hands apart, he examined the wounds in his palms, and the blood flowing freely from them.

Nodding his satisfaction, he began chanting in Latin.

< "The world that denies thee, thou inhabit," > he intoned as he dabbed the blood from his left hand with his right middle finger and smeared it over his right eyelid.

< "The peace that ignores thee,..." > he continued as he dabbed the blood from his right hand with his left middle finger and smeared it over his left eyelid, < "...thou corrupt." >

He dabbed the blood from his left hand with his right middle finger again and smeared a cross onto his forehead.

< "Chaos, I remain, as ever, thy faithful, degenerate son," > he declared as his gaze traveled from the woman's face on one side to the of the statue to the man's face on the other.

< "Janus, I invoke your spirit. Hear my plea. Seize the night for your own reason. Come, appear and show to us that which is infinite power." >

The small glow that had surrounded the statue began to slowly brighten, before suddenly flaring for a moment into a blinding glare before then subsiding to its previous level, leaving a smug and smiling worshipper behind it.


UC Sunnydale dorms
Friday, October 31, 1997

Taking a deep breath, Katrina narrowed her eyes and thought about what the new girl had been telling her over the course of the past half-hour.

When she had first met him, she had thought Warren was possibly the smartest man she had ever met, although he did need some help as far as his people skills went. The bloom had faded from the rose, as the expression went, over the past few weeks, to the point where she had finally stood up and told him that she would no longer tolerate the careless indifference to her feelings he displayed, and demanded that he begin treating her with more respect. She had cared for him more than most of the guys she had dated previously, even to the point of procuring costumes for this Halloween party his frat brothers (virtually all of whom were gross caricatures of the drink-to-excess, girl-chasing pigs most teen movies displayed) had arranged.

She had thought Romeo and Juliet was a romantic theme that Warren would recognize and then aspire to. Instead, the pig had dumped her the night before, while callously mentioning that he would be attending the party with whatever slut he had been cheating on her with, and that they would be wearing the costumes she had gotten for the two of them!!

For someone who was so brilliant, Warren was surprisingly clueless and just plain down-right stupid in some areas of life. If he thought she was just going to let him walk all over her like that, he was about to get a major wake-up-to-reality call.

No one treated her like that and got away with it! By the time she was done, what little reputation he might have would be in tatters, ripped to shreds beyond all hope of repair!

Romeo might seem to be very romantic, but when it came down to it, he was just a stupid asshole who needed help trying to throw himself to the ground. When she was done with him, Romeo would look like a genius compared to Warren!

"You know, you're exactly right! I don't need that lousy, cheating sonuvabitch at all! It would serve him right. He's acting just like all those other dumb bastards, so it would serve him right if he got stuck like that dumb bastard Romeo forever! Let's see him try to figure out all of those brilliant inventions he's made, then!

"All right! If I could have anything I wish, I'd wish that those costumes of Warren's were real, and that they'd stay that way forever!" she muttered to herself, ignoring the other girl's presence for the moment as she thought of how best to punish and humiliate her ex-boyfriend.

"Wish granted!" cackled the vein-y faced, dark-haired creature that suddenly appeared in 'Annie's' place. "Thank you, D'Hoffryn! I love this job!!" she laughed to herself before she suddenly vanished from sight.

Katrina stared at the spot where her sympathetic companion had been sitting a moment before, then at the beer bottle in her hand before carefully setting it down and getting to her feet. "Okay, Kat, you've definitely had enough to drink. Time to get yourself to bed," she told herself.

Chapter 6

Sigma Phi Epsilon Halloween party
UC Sunnydale campus
A few moments before Ethan cast his spell

"All right, children, gather round and pay attention," Spike announced, raising his voice slightly so as to be clearly heard over the raucous music blaring from the assorted stereo speakers situated around the lower floor of the frat house.

One thing the Bleached Bad had come to admire about the 'Party hearty!' attitude of your typical college students, and most especially fraternity members, was their willingness to go out of their way to meet new people in their quest for new experiences.

Glancing down at the crumpled flyer he held in his hand, he smiled again as his eyes re-read the "HALLOWEEN HOLIDAY BLAST! EVERYONE INVITED!" banner across the top of the sheet.

The amazingly cooperative 'Happy Meals on Legs' responsible for gathering this buffet together for him and his minions had gone out of their way to try and ensure the greatest variety of food available for their snacking delight. White, black, Latino, Asian - you couldn't ask for a more eclectic selection of entrees! He'd have to make it a point to thank his hosts for their efforts before he killed them.

Turning his thoughts back to the dozen and a half bloodsucking monsters clustered around him, he began issuing instructions.

"Timmy, I want you, Marti, Lilly and Joss to make your way over to each of the doors, and make sure that they're closed tightly so no one can leave once dinner begins," he directed several of the older vamps looking at him. "You've done it before, so make sure there's no fuss and bother, hear me?

"Jamie, you take Susie and Wilson and check upstairs. I don't want anyone who might be hiding in closets getting missed, so you make sure you check everywhere.

"Everyone else, scatter yourselves through the crowds, and be prepared to have a good old time, once I give the okay," he smiled. "We'll wait a little longer, to let as many of these sheep get here as possible before we start dinner.

"Anyone have any questions?" he asked, looking around. Seeing no one speak up, he clapped his hands and shooed them away. "All right then, go get ready."


Sigma Phi Epsilon Halloween party
UC Sunnydale campus
A moment after Ethan cast his spell

Tanaka Akiko blinked and shook off the last vestiges of the dizziness that had suddenly come over her while reflexively looking around the room and evaluating her circumstances.

Only a moment ago she had been in her room, meditating and trying to calm her spirit after her most recent encounter with the Hand, and now she abruptly found herself in the midst of a large crowd of costumed people, dressed in her 'working clothes,' as one of her father's associates had jokingly described her upon seeing her return from a 'errand' she had been sent on. Thankfully, her outfit blended into the general atmosphere, and she found herself not drawing any untoward attention.

Seeing no obvious opponents or threats towards herself, Akiko focused her chi and slipped into stealth mode, obscuring herself from the conscious attentions of the crowd around her and flowed through the throngs of partygoers towards one of the less crowded corners of the room, to give herself an opportunity to evaluate her situation.

Since she knew she hadn't done anything to position herself here, that meant someone or something had intentionally transported her for some purpose of their own. The most important questions she needed immediate answers to were, what was that purpose, and should she cooperate with the unknown entity responsible for putting her here or work to frustrate their intentions?

On a more personal level, though, she was most definitely going to find out who was screwing around with her life, and why. Then she'd decide just how she was pissed about it she was, and who she was going to hold responsible.

*Nobody* jerked a Daughter of the Dragon around and got away with it. Blood or money, it didn't matter all that much to her.

Somebody was going to pay, one way or another.


Gin Baker staggered and almost fell to the floor before she managed to catch the edge of a nearby table and straighten herself up.

"You okay, babe?" she heard someone ask of to one side, as she shook her head, trying to clear the fuzziness from her mind.

"Yes, I'm fine, I'll -" she replied automatically as she looked up, before stopping in mid-sentence as she realized she was in the midst of a crowded room filled with scores of people in a riot of costumes.

< What the hell is going on? > she thought to herself. If she didn't know any better, she'd think she was at a Halloween party. But since Halloween wasn't for another five months, it couldn't be.

< And just where am I? > was the next thought that came to mind.

A minute ago, she had been at her desk, drinking her morning coffee and correlating all the available information on the reported Rembrandt heist of the night before, and now she was suddenly at some kind of costume party, at night, and god only knows where.

"You sure you're okay? You don't look too good," the kid, apparently a college student dressed up like an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, said.

"Uh, what I mean is, you look kinda pale. Apart from that, you look real good," he leered at her in what he probably thought was a casually charming smile, and that she considered an insultingly obvious prelude to trying to get in her pants.

"Do you think maybe you should sit down or something, till you're feeling better? It's kinda crowded and hot here. You look like you could use some fresh air and a chance to rest for a few minutes. If you'd like, you can use my room," he offered, trying to appear solicitous. "By the way, my name is Parker. Parker Abrams."

He reached out and 'solicitously' put his arm around her, his hand seemingly accidentally cupping her buttock as he tried to guide her towards his suggested locale.

< What an arrogant, vile, predatory little shit, > Gin thought, her disquiet and concern at her current situation quickly transforming into anger at the unwelcome touch. < He thinks I'm drunk, and that maybe he's going to get lucky. >

Reaching down with her left hand, she grabbed hold of the hand on her ass and bent the fingers backwards, tearing a anguished scream from the boy's throat as he felt several of his joints popping as the tendons and ligaments moved in directions opposite that for which they were intended. At the same time, she swung her right fist down and back in a hammer fist strike that impacted squarely on this asshole's scrotum and shifted the frequency of his scream into the ultrasonic range, triggering a reflexive howling response from every dog in the surrounding neighborhoods in a half-mile radius. Abrams immediately dropped to his knees like a pole-axed steer before slumping to the floor as though all the bones in his body had been removed at the same time.

"And I'm out of your league, kid," she replied as she walked away without a backwards glance, leaving her would-be mauler behind her on the floor, eyes bulging in disbelieving agony as he clutched at his throbbing, pureed testicles with his uninjured hand.

Locating the nearest powder room, Gin quickly locked the door behind her to ensure herself of some privacy, as she set her backpack on the top of the toilet tank and began taking inventory of her outfit and belongings. Her clothing consisted of a two-piece leather outfit apparently intended to reflect a Hollywood filmmaker's conception of what the well-dressed cat burglar would wear, combined with the latest in hookerware. Inside her backpack was a small tool kit identical to the one she usually carried when she worked her 'second job,' along with some kind of rappelling apparatus she had never laid eyes on before, and two pieces of jewelry that she would swear were of genuine Ming dynasty origin, and probably worth upwards of four hundred thousand dollars for their historical value alone, if she were correct.

Seeing them, she immediately started going through all of the reported claims for the past several years that she could remember, trying to identify any possible matches, but came up with absolutely nothing even coming close.

A sudden hunch made her check the velvet pouch on her hip, and she found herself looking, with a growing sense of apprehension, at half a dozen rings and necklaces worth at least as much as the two Chinese items.

Something was most definitely wrong here. She was being set up, by someone who was familiar with her M.O. and who obviously intended for her to be caught with what could only be extremely valuable stolen property.

As she shook her head in frustrated worry and concern, something caught her attention from the corner of her eye, and she turned to face the mirror mounted on the wall.

What she saw shocked her more than anything she had seen up to now in her far-from-sedate life.

Gin felt herself tottering on the edge of blacking out and fought frantically to stay conscious. She had just recently gotten a new haircut, and had had her normally long coal-black tresses, one aspect of her mother's proud Hispanic heritage that she had inherited, trimmed to just below her ears. The hair belonging to the image in the mirror currently fell past her shoulders in long blonde waves.

But what was even more frightening and disconcerting was that the reflection looking back at her was that of a stereotypical California cheerleader, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and at least ten years younger than she knew herself to be!


Ellen Ripley staggered and almost fell, only the grip she had on the arm next to her keeping her from slumping to the ground below.

< Wait a moment! Whose arm is this? > she wondered as she regained her footing, and immediately released the arm and took a step back.

It had only been a moment ago that she had been in one of the station's cubicles with Call and the other smugglers, waiting for the xenomprphs to attack again, and now, she suddenly found herself in some large room filled with dozens of strangely dressed people and what appeared to be humanoids. The arm she had been hanging onto belonged to some oversized corpse-white giant who was looking at her in an apparent mixture of surprise and alcohol-addled confusion.

"What's the matter, Cordelia? You okay?" he asked.

"Who's Cordelia? And who the hell are you, for that matter?" she demanded. She quickly slid the rifle slung over her shoulder into a firing position and glanced around her, checking out the entrances and exits of the room.

< What the hell? > she thought as she noticed that one of the windows seemed to be looking out onto a night sky. < Either I'm on one big mother-loving station or I'm somehow been transported to a planet. What the fuck is going on here? >

"Where are we? What the hell's going on here?" she snapped, checking over her shoulder as she maneuvered to put her back to the nearest wall.

Something was very wrong here, she was certain of that. The only good point about this situation that she could see, right now, was that there weren't any of the xenomorphs around.

At least, not yet.


John Phoenix caught himself as a momentary wave of disorientation swept over him, then looked around in a mixture of professional concern and personal confusion as he tried to determine where exactly it was that he now found himself.

< What's going on? > he thought to himself. < What happened, and where am I? >

The last thing he could remember was being caught in the backlash of the explosion that destroyed Kohlinakor's base, after he had managed to disrupt the demon's attempt to awaken and summon one of the Old Ones from their slumber in the Back Beyond.

Looking around, it appeared that he found himself currently in the midst of some sort of costume party, surrounded by scores of oddly costumed, unknown people in a unknown location.

Quietly sliding into a currently empty alcove, he immediately tried to contact the Zoo on his transceiver, but was unable to establish contact. His ear bug didn't even buzz with the characteristic hiss and crackle of a jamming device - it simply didn't do anything at all. Almost as though their ultra-secure channel had been shut down or wasn't online, something that would only happen in the most dire of circumstances.

More than a bit concerned with that datum, he quickly checked his weapons to ensure that everything was working properly. Both Walther P99's seemed to be okay, with their customary demon-killer loads in place, as was the case with the .50 AE Desert Eagle on his hip. The blessed D2 combat knife on his left hip and Godkiller on his back both appeared to intact and untampered with, along with the various spell components in their belt pouches. One of the belt pouches, however, held a cell phone which he could not recall acquiring, and, when he checked them, none of the numbers stored in it were at all familiar.

< Okay, something else to consider later, once I figure out what's going on, > he told himself.

Before returning to the crowded confines of the party in the outer room, he took a moment to concentrate and allow his mystic senses to reach out and try to discern if there were anything obviously askew with the world around him.

Once he opened up his awareness, he immediately staggered as the *wrongness* pervading the area battered at him. The sheer magnitude of the area affected was astonishing; as far as he could sense, the local environment had been twisted and warped to distort its normal multidimensional framework into something far different. It was the people in the area that were affected by the warp, but what exactly had been done to them he couldn't be sure without some additional, detailed examinations.

Even more disturbing had been the realization that he was one of the people affected by whatever had happened. He pushed that concern to the back of his mind for the time being; right now, he had to determine exactly what it was that had happened, and what needed to be done to rectify the situation.

After he was back among the crowds in the rooms outside, he'd have to make it a point to view everyone's auras, so that he could see just how many people were affected, and, if he were lucky, maybe see who or what were out there in the crowd waiting for him.

After all, it seemed to be an immutable law of nature: wherever he went, there was always someone or something waiting to kill him.

Chapter 7

Sunnydale High School parking lot
A moment after Ethan cast his spell

"Bloody hell!! What in the name of all that is holy is going on?!" Giles demanded as he and Jenny watched what appeared to be a horde of assorted miniature demons fanning out from the high school campus, apparently intent upon locating and terrorizing any humans still present in the area.

"Looks to me like a busload of demon offspring have invaded the school grounds," Jenny grinned as she watched the aimless forward progression of the multiple mini-monsters, accompanied by the shrill and annoying whine of Principal Snyder yelling out instructions that were being ignored even as they were spoken.

Jenny's smile vanished when a diminutive version of a Faragrath demon began charging at her, and only missed impaling her on its horns by her last-second dodge to the side.

"All right, now. That's enough of that," she stated, her brow furrowed with annoyed concentration. A quick gesture and a muttered "Immobilice!" brought the frenetic creature to a halt as it began a second charge towards the two of them.

"Oh goddess!" the computer teacher murmured, as she took a closer look at the frozen mini-monster who had tried to attack her. "Rupert! This isn't some random Faragrath nestling! It's really a child who's been transformed!"

"What are you saying, Jenny?" Giles asked, moving to stand next to her as he kept an eye alert for any other approaching demonic offspring.

"Just look at his aura, Rupert! You can see how this child's normal aura has had another one overlaid atop it," Jenny instructed her companion. "Somebody did this intentionally! To this boy and almost all of the other children around here."

The Gypsy's eyes narrowed ominously as she spoke, as she looked around, cataloguing all of the transformed children she could see.

"When I find the malicious bastard who did this, I'm going to feed him his testicles!" she vowed. "Raw."

"I believe I need to call Buffy about this, immediately," Giles said, as he helped Jenny lift the transformed Faragrath demonspawn from its current location and carry it over to a more secluded section of the school's landscape, so as to preclude any chance of it being hit by a car or truck in the parking lot. "This is obviously the work of some twisted and malign mind, and we need to put a stop to it as quickly as possible."

Once the child's/demonspawn's safety was assured, at least for the moment, Giles pulled out the cell phone the children had badgered him into purchasing and hit the speed dial button and the number for Buffy that Willow had so thoughtfully pre-programmed in for him prior to his receipt of the gift.

Upon hearing Buffy's "Hello?", the Watcher immediately launched into a description of the problem he and Jenny had encountered.

"Buffy, I'm sorry to interfere with your evening, but we seem to have a major crisis occurring here at the school, and I need you to return here right away. It would appear -"

Before he could continue, he heard his Slayer interrupt him and say, "Who is this and how did you get this number?"

Muttering a variety of curses under his breath about young people and manners, and the unreliability of new technology that had Jenny looking over at him with concern, Giles broke back in, figuring that Buffy was unable to recognize his voice on her new cell phone.

"Buffy, this is Giles," he informed her. "We have encountered some problems here at the school that both Jenny and I believe are Hellmouth-related, and we need you, Willow and Xander to return here immediately to help us determine what the cause may be."

"Look, I don't know who you are," came the immediate response, "but my name isn't Buffy and there isn't anyone here named Willow or whoever that other person you mentioned is, and I'm having some serious problems of my own here. I don't mean to sound rude, but I really don't have time to waste talking to complete strangers.

Although he definitely recognized the sound of his Slayer's voice, Giles now realized that the girl (woman?) at the other end of this conversation had a completely different accent and cadence to her speech than that of the young blonde he knew and mentored.

"Oh good Lord," he murmured, as he suddenly intuited that whatever it was that they had witnessed happen to the children here at the school had apparently happened to Buffy, also.

"Uhm, miss, please, do not hang up!" he pleaded desperately into the phone. "I have reason to believe that our problem here may be connected to the problem you're experiencing."

Gin was about to disconnect when she heard the guy on the other end suggest that their problems might be related. Lacking any idea at the moment about what may have caused *her* problem, she decided to at least listen to whatever this guy might have to say. After all, he at least seemed to have *some* idea of what was going on.

"All right," Gin agreed. "Tell me, just what is it you think is going on here?" she asked.


Sigma Phi Epsilon Halloween party
UC Sunnydale campus

Phoenix left the alcove he had taken temporary refuge in and was scanning the crowds, seeking others whose auras indicated that they, too, had been affected by whatever it was that had just happened, when he noticed the slim, dark-clad woman, standing impassively in one corner of the room, whose aura literally blazed with power. He also noted that her attention had instantly shifted from a casual perusal of room's inhabitants to center on him as he altered direction and headed towards her.

The woman's body language indicated a very strong confidence in her ability to handle pretty much any situation she might encounter, almost verging on arrogance, actually, and he smiled to himself as the thought came a half-second later that the same would probably be said about himself by any onlookers watching them. He also noted that the weapons the woman was carrying were not only quite real, but of a quality not readily available to the vast majority of people in their - professions. That, he decided, was probably the best word to describe their current situations. And if she actually was what he suspected her to be, then the state of affairs here, would either immediately improve significantly, or go pear-shaped just as fast..

He stopped approximately a meter away from the woman, and inclined his head slightly in a gesture of recognition and acknowledgement. As he looked at the woman, he suddenly felt an almost overwhelming feeling of familiarity, or recognition, although he was completely certain that he had never met or seen this woman before in his life. Or at least, in this life. Pushing the feeling off to one side for later evaluation, he proceeded with the plan that had formed in his mind as he approached the woman.

// "Please excuse my rudeness, My Lady. My name is John Phoenix, and I ask your pardon for not introducing myself in a more formal manner, but I believe that you, too, are aware that there is something seriously wrong with the world in which we have found ourselves. I also believe that the time available to us in which we can react may be in exceedingly short supply. To find myself embroiled in a matter involving a Celestial Pearl staggers my imagination, while also humbling me with the honor implied." // He spoke politely in Japanese, in the most formal manner he could muster, considering their situation and waited for the woman's response.


Aki watched the takokujin make his way through the multitude of people filling the first floor of the house like a breeze moving though a forest, his eyes alertly scanning the teeming masses in an obviously reflexive evaluation of his surroundings. He stood out from the others crowding the house the way a tiger stood out among a herd of gazelles, the unconscious power of his aura permeating his surroundings and alerting the people around him to quickly move aside and let him pass by, lest they draw his attention to them.

She felt his attention focus on her the moment his eyes lit on her, disregarding the impression of her not really being there that she had been maintaining while she pondered her circumstances.

< So, > she mused to herself, < he, too, has power. The question now is, what does he do with it? >

Only the strongest-willed or those warded by spell or device could shrug off the illusion of 'I'm-not-really-here' that she had created. This warrior, for he could not be anything else with those weapons he carried, intrigued her in a manner she had not seen in far too many years.

Her utter amazement when he spoke to her in formal Japanese, and addressed her with one of the clan's honor-titles disturbed her hard- won serenity, which explained the slightest widening of her eyes that betrayed her surprise, much as a disbelieving gasp by a civilian would express their astonishment and consternation.

That he had divined what she was in barely the space of a heartbeat revealed much about him to her, also.

Only the best of the best in only a few select groups, both governmental and non-, had any actual knowledge of her organization, and even that information was deliberately left spotty and incomplete. For him to see, evaluate and realize who she was so quickly required that he, himself, must fall within a small, very limited group of individuals.

That he had spoken to her in such a manner so as to provide all of the preceding information with a minimum number of words implied that he was offering her a conditional offer of alliance, at least until they could determine exactly what it was that had happened to them, and why.

The small pulse of deja-vu, a feeling of almost-recognition, a certainty that she could trust him at her back, when she first looked him in the eyes did nothing whatsoever to alleviate her situation.

"You may refer to me as Autumn, Phoenix-san. Exactly what is it that you wish to discuss with me, My Lord?" Aki asked, phrasing her reply in English and acknowledging both the offer and a tentative agreement, the honorific her own acknowledgement of his capabilities.

"Only a few moments ago, I suddenly found myself here in this place, without any knowledge of how I arrived here," Phoenix informed her. "When I tried to check in with my backup, I was unable to make any contact with them, whatsoever, which is something that is supposed to be completely impossible. I then examined our surroundings and discovered that our environs, for as great a distance as I could discern, have also been altered, apparently by magic.

"In addition, I have discovered that I, myself, appear to have been affected by the same magic that has altered this entire area, along with a large number of the people in this room" he added, with a rueful smile. "When I checked further, I quickly realized that this body you see before you is not my own."

Seeing Aki raise a single eyebrow in interest (Like Spock! a small part of his mind exclaimed with what seemed to be a mix of fascination and delight), the demon hunter elaborated further.

"I have acquired a number of scars over the course of my career," Phoenix stated matter-of-factly, "including a rather large one on my left forearm that runs from my wrist to my elbow.

"It seems I no longer have it," he noted, as he pulled his sleeve up to expose his arm, revealing an unmarred expanse of skin along the entire arm. "That and a number of other factors have convinced me that my spirit appears to have possessed this body, either dominating or replacing the true owner."

"And am I one of those people who also seem to have been affected by the magic?" Aki asked quietly.

"Apparently so," the brunet agreed. "Your aura appears to be overlaid and intermixed with that of another person, also."

"So, it appears that there is a very strong possibility that neither of us are truly who we believe ourselves to be, then," Aki said, her brow furrowed as she considered the implications of the information she had just received. She would, of course, have to verify the accuracy of what this John Phoenix said, but she already had a very strong feeling that what he had told her was correct.

"What would you suggest that we -" Aki's question was abruptly interrupted by the sounds of women screaming in terror and the outraged and fearful shouts of men accompanying them.

The two mystic warriors immediately turned and headed towards the sounds of the disturbances. As they entered what appeared to be a large rec room, pushing their way through a panicked crowd stampeding towards them, they saw several individuals apparently standing guard and preventing anyone from leaving through the various exits to the outside, all of whom had the same type of disfigured forehead and a set of fangs. One of the creatures, a blond-haired man, seemed to be the leader, as the others were apparently following his shouted orders.

"The deformed creatures are vampires," Phoenix informed the woman redhead as he caught sight of the demonspawn. "Holy water, stakes, blessed weapons, fire or decapitation are the preferred methods to remove them."

"I have encountered such as these in the past, but I thank you for the information," 'Autumn' replied, as she drew the katana slung across her back and headed for the pair of demons guarding the doors to the porch. "I will handle these two, you can see to the others by the far doors."

Nodding his agreement, Phoenix quickly drew one of his Walthers and squeezed off two quick shots into the chest of the vamp closest to the doors, but was then forced to re-holster the pistol, as the crowd surged too closely to the demon for him to risk any more shots.

The vamp the demon hunter shot had a look of incredulous disbelief and pain on her face as she looked down to see small tongues of flame erupting from the holes the bullets had made, and had just begun a short cry of outrage before her body turned to dust and began drifting to the floor.

The two other vamps were so intent on feeding from the unfortunates they had grabbed from the crowd that they didn't notice the fate of their again-deceased fellow, and looked up only when Phoenix pulled their victims from them and attacked.

Shoving the bleeding Green Lantern being drained by a tall black vampire off to the side for his safety, Phoenix wasted no time and drove his knife deep into the bloodsucker's chest, the blessed blade eliciting a brief scream of pain from his opponent before he turned to dust like his fellow demon a moment before.

Her attention finally caught by her companion's scream, the third vampire, a dark-haired Goth wannabe, looked up from her intended meal only to catch the glint of a knife blade heading toward her a bare millisecond before the blade sliced through her throat and exited the back of her neck, decapitating her.

The problem with gaining access to the outside now solved, Phoenix threw open the doors and shoved a few of the shocked partygoers towards them, then looked around to find the demon's leader, the bleached blond Billy Idol look-alike.


Akiko headed directly towards the pair of bloodsuckers guarding the doors to the outside terrace, her eyes automatically cataloguing their reactions and her training and experience telling her what would likely occur next.

As the vampire closest to her noted her approach and smiled and reached out for what he assumed would be a light mid-evening snack, the mystic warrior flicked her katana up and out, slicing off his outstretched hand before snapping the blade back and upward again, the cold, multiply-laminated steel alloy edge carving through the demon's neck like a knife through a Thanksgiving turkey, denying him even the opportunity to scream a protest.

Even as her blade ended the demon's unlife, Aki's left foot was snapping forward to shatter the second vampire's right kneecap and cripple him, at least temporarily. As the monster dropped to the floor, his supporting leg collapsing beneath him, Aki yanked the young blonde the creature had grabbed hold of away from him and pushed her towards the terrace, telling her, "Run!", before turning back to face her opponent. The monster lunged at her, his hands outstretched to rip and tear at her soft, peaches and cream- complected skin, and Aki's blade again whispered through the air to drive through the monster's heart, the holy alloy severing the monster's connection with this plane and transforming it into a pile of dust.


Ripley heard the screams suddenly erupting from inside the house and immediately began checking for any signs of the xenomorphs. It would only be a few moments before they began swarming the area, if they were the cause of the alarm. She was so intent on her search for the parasitic aliens that she didn't notice the guy with the deformed forehead until she had been grabbed from behind by a pair of incredibly strong arms that pinned her own arms to her sides.

"Mmmm, tall, dark and busty, just the way I like 'em," she heard her assailant murmur, a second before she felt two piercing pains in her throat.


"Okay," Gin replied as the guy on the other end of the connection finished speaking, her incredulity evident in her voice, "I'm inclined to believe pretty much everything you've told here, Mr. Giles, primarily because I'd already discovered that I'm not in my own body. Now let me check to make sure we're both working on the same page, here. First off, I have to find these other two people you've told me about, and see if they're still normal or if they've been possessed by somebody, too. After that, I have to persuade them that I'm not a raging lunatic, and then convince them to come with me to your high school library, so that we can try to find a solution to our problem. Right?"

"Uhm, yes, that is correct, Miss, er, Baker," the librarian agreed. "And we will begin investigating the possible causes of your transformations while we are awaiting your arrival."

Before Gin could say anything else, she heard several women begin screaming, and quickly told the Englishman, "Look, something's happening outside. I'm gonna check and see what's going on, and then try and find these people you told me about. I'll call you back later."

She hung up before Giles could say anything further, slipped her pack onto her back again, and cautiously opened the door, checking to see if she could determine what exactly was the cause for all the screaming.

A great many people were pushing and shoving each other in the outer rooms in what were obviously futile attempts to escape whatever it was that had terrified them. Several people with severely deformed faces seemed to be guarding the main doors to the front porch, since they were roughly shoving away anyone who tried to get out, and Gin watched in horror as one of them, a skanky-looking, obviously badly bleached blonde, grabbed a guy pushing by and sank her teeth into his neck.

Stories told to her by her grandmother, who had grown up deep in the Basque provinces in northern Spain, instantly came to mind and the realization struck her that she was seeing an actual vampire attack. Moving before she was even consciously aware of her actions, Gin picked up a light rattan chair pushed out of the way and slammed it against the wall, shattering it into numerous pieces. Snatching two of the larger fragments, she glided up to the vamp feeding on the unfortunate partygoer and slammed one of the pieces into the left side of its back, and was gratified to see the creature suddenly transform into a large pile of dust, its victim dropping to the floor once he was no longer being held by the monster.

Unfortunately, however, her reflexive action had attracted the attentions of the no-longer-present creature's companions, who began moving towards her with a less than delighted gleam in their eyes.

Chapter 8

Sunnydale High School parking lot
A moment after the previous scene

"What in the name of all that's holy could be causing these transformations?" Giles muttered to himself as he slid his cell phone back into his jacket pocket. "Since we can now be certain that the changes are not limited to just the area of the school, we need to determine exactly what it is that connects all of the transformations if we are going to be able to reverse the process."

"Well, since we can see that whatever it is, is affecting both elementary school and high school students," Jenny observed, "I think we can safely rule out location as the sole cause of the problem, although I wouldn't bet money against the Hellmouth being involved in some manner."

"What else do the individuals afflicted have in common?" Giles asked, more to himself than to the Gypsy computer teacher. "I believe we can safely rule out food, since I strongly doubt that someone would go to the lengths necessary to enchant the amount of candy necessary to transform all of these children. And even if someone were willing to put forth the effort, why is that not all of the children were changed, even though they all seemed to have visited the same locations?"

"The only common denominator that I can see is that everyone transformed was wearing a costume, although not everyone wearing a costume was transformed," Jenny noted while keeping an eye out for any other wandering mini-monsters that might be prowling the area. "Maybe there's something about the costumes the children were wearing that caused this."

"Well, that is something we should probably check out while we're waiting for Buffy, uhm, I mean, this Miss Baker to call and let us know what is happening, and whether she managed to locate Willow and Xander" Giles acknowledged. "Let me call Mrs. Summers and see if she knows where Buffy and the others purchased their costumes, so we can begin investigating."

"Oh, hold up a minute, Rupe," Jenny said. "Xander told me the other day where they got their costumes. It's a new shop that just opened up, the week before last. He was saying that something about the owner was 'giving him the wiggins' was the way he put it," she smiled slightly at the memory of her conversation with the brunet Scooby. "Very descriptive phraseology these kids use nowadays, isn't it?"

"Not to be rude, Jenny, but what did he say the name of the shop was?" Giles replied, his concern and barely restrained impatience obvious.

"Let me think a second. Nathan's, I think he said it was," the techno-pagan murmured, trying to remember the male Scooby's comments. "No, wait a minute, that wasn't it. I know! Ethan's! That was the name...Ethan's."

"Ethan? He wouldn't - No, what am I saying? He most definitely would! So help me god, if it is that bloody bastard, and any of the children are hurt because of him, he'll be begging me to kill him!" Giles snarled, his face taking on a look of rage alien to the librarian's normally placid demeanor. Jenny actually stopped and stared at him in shock for a moment, taken aback by the abrupt change in her date's behavior.

"Come on, we have move quickly," he snapped as he grabbed hold of Jenny's arm and headed towards her car. "Hurry! We don't have any time to waste! We have to find out if it is him. You drive, Jenny, your car is faster!"


Sigma Phi Epsilon Halloween party
UC Sunnydale campus

Phoenix glanced around, checking to see if there were any more civilians at imminent risk, and saw that the majority of the partygoers in the main room were fleeing through the two now-open exits that he and Autumn had provided.

Seeing several more vamps shoving their way through the crowds in an apparent attempt to close off the exit he had opened, he immediately moved to head them off, seeing 'Autumn' moving to intercept others trying to close off the doorways she had cleared.

Moving up in the left side blind spot of the vamp closest to him, a thin, sickly-looking brunette who had just casually tossed aside a football player-sized Klingon who had been in her way, Phoenix smoothly slid the combat knife in his left hand between two of her ribs and into her heart, and she turned to dust without even realizing she was dead again.

The vamp closest to his victim had caught her friend's involuntary transformation out of the corner of her eye and turned to attack the demon hunter, her clawed hands striking at his face and his abdomen. Pulling his head back sufficiently to let the demon's claws slide past fruitlessly, Phoenix shifted his grip on the knife so that it lay flat along his forearm and moved his arm into a guard position in front of him, then let the vamp drive her hand into the blackened blade, severing four fingers that dropped towards the floor but turned to dust before actually hitting the carpet. As the demon screamed in pain and reflexively pulled her hand (or what was left of it, at least) back, he drove the ball of his foot into the shin of her lead leg and fractured it, caught her flailing arm with his right hand when her leg collapsed under her and drove his knife up into and through her throat as she fell forward, severing her spinal column and dusting her.

The two remaining vamps split apart upon seeing him dust their companions and moved to attack him from opposite sides, and he smiled as he kept track of them through his peripheral vision. Unless two people have trained exhaustively to work together, such a maneuver was actually more beneficial to the person being attacked, since each of his assailants would usually wait for the other to attack, first.

Feigning a lunge towards the vamp to his right, Phoenix immediately spun on his left foot and whipped a hooking kick into his remaining foe's right temple, the force from the heel shattering the thin bone of the skull there and driving the fragments into the brain, dropping the vamp to the floor with a massive concussion that would require precious seconds from which to recover. Once more facing his original opponent as he completed his spin, the demon hunter allowed his attacker to rush forward and grab him, and drove his knife up between the demon's ribs, to puncture his blackened heart.

As the dusty remnants of the third demon drifted to the carpet, he turned and quickly slid his knife into the final remaining vampire, letting his dust intermingle with that of his also-deceased companions.

< That was easy enough, > Phoenix thought to himself as he regained his feet, < but they were expecting a kid in a costume at a party, not an experienced hunter. If they had known what I really am, things could have been seriously different. >

< Don't get cocky and you won't get dead, > he reminded himself.

The whole episode hadn't taken more than twenty, maybe twenty-five seconds, so Phoenix looked around for the blonde-haired vamp who had appeared to be giving orders. He caught a glimpse of him, on the far side of the room, not too far from 'Autumn,' who was quite efficiently handling three vamps who were actually on the defensive from the katana wielding woman. As the demon rounded the far corner of the room and entered the next, Phoenix immediately began to follow, noting with satisfaction and professional admiration as the female hunter simultaneously speared two of her opponents and they crumbled into dust.


Ripley felt two sharp, piercing pains lance into her throat, just a moment after someone incredibly strong grabbed her from behind and fastened their mouth on her neck. She was then released and violently shoved away a bare half-second later as the person who had grabbed her began screaming.

Turning to face her attacker, she was astonished to discover some type of humanoid creature with a bulging, deformed forehead and yellow eyes screaming in agony as it pawed at its mouth, the flesh around it smoking and burned. Its tongue and teeth, fangs actually, visible as it screamed were burnt and eroded, as though someone had thrown acid on them.

"Wha' eh you oo eh me, bit'?" the creature screamed at her, tears of pain streaming down its face. "I'll 'ill oo!" it screamed, before lunging at her, its clawed hands upraised to slash at her.

Automatically swinging the butt of her rifle up and across its face, Ripley slammed the creature back away from her, while sparing a second to glance around her to check and try to figure out exactly what the hell was going on. That glance almost cost her dearly, as the creature attacking her came at her again, moving surprisingly quickly, and slashed at her arm, tearing a long, shallow furrow along her bicep.

She immediately drove the rifle's butt up into the creature's throat, smashing it, but unable to fire with so many people present. Instead, she grabbed hold of the creature as it clutched at its throat, picked it up and threw it against one of the walls, unintentionally impaling it on one of the wooden coat pegs projecting out from the wall.

Ripley then stared in shocked disbelief as she saw the creature's body appear to turn to dust, which drifted slowly to the floor below.

"Just what the fuck is going on here!?" she demanded as she looked around in numbed incredulity. "Where the hell am I?"


Gin looked back at the two vampires who were quickly approaching her with angry looks on their faces and positioned herself with her back to a wall to prevent anyone from sneaking up behind her. Realizing the seriousness of her situation, she decided she might as well try to bluff her way out of the situation in which she found herself. She felt the need to verbally spar with them for some reason she could not quite put her finger on.

"I'm going to give you guys one chance to walk out of here," she said, taking a moment to look each of them in the eye. "And that's only because I'm feeling a little bit generous tonight. Turn around, walk away and you'll live through the night. Stay, and you'll end up like your friend there," she warned, with a nod of her head towards the small pile of dust covering the floor to one side.

For a moment, Gin actually thought that they were going to do as she had suggested and run. But then the two vamps looked at each other and she could see the decision firm up in their eyes.

As they turned back to face her, Gin decided to carry the battle to the enemy and launched herself at the closest of the two, determined to take at least one of her killers with her.

A part of her watched with astonishment at the speed with which she moved as she hurtled forward to punch her opponent in the face, snapping his head back, while her other hand swept his guarding arm aside to plunge the makeshift stake in her hand into his chest and quickly pull it back before it turned to dust like her victim.

That same part continued to stare, dumbfounded, as she immediately spun to face her second opponent and block the kick that she somehow had instinctively known was heading towards her back, then launch her own roundhouse kick at the demon's head that knocked it several staggering steps back, and followed it up with a front kick that succeeded in knocking it to the floor. Diving forward, she landed atop the vamp and her right hand sped downward to bury her stake in its chest, only to caught at the last moment as the demon caught her wrist in its hand.

"Not quite as good as you thought you were, huh, Slayer?" it grinned up at her, its fangs flashing as it laughed at her. Instead of wasting time with witty repartee, Gin bent forward and slammed her forehead against the demon's face, flattening its nose and taking it completely by surprise. As its gripped loosened slightly as it reflexively began reaching for its nose, Gin completed her initial motion and buried her stake in its chest, then dropped the few inches to the floor as its body turned to dust beneath her.

"Just what the hell did it mean when it called me 'Slayer'?" she asked herself rhetorically, as she began climbing back to her feet.

"I think he meant 'Vampire Slayer,' luv," she heard someone say to her, a moment before something impacted against the side of her head and a galaxy of stars bust into glorious supernovas.


'Autumn' almost absently noted the two kyuuketsui dusting around her blades as she slid forward and spun on her leading foot, sweeping the feet out from beneath her final opponent. With a quick thrust of her katana, she speared the demon before he could hit the floor, the blessed blade leaving a final sprinkling of dust to powder the carpet. As she smoothly rose to her feet, she checked the area for any more of the soulless ones that might be lurking around, and noted several fights in both the room she was in and outside the house, but a quickly murmured spell indicated that none of the disputes appeared to involve any supernatural creatures, although several of the participants seemed to possess some type of augmented powers. But that was something that could be addressed at a later moment, after the current problem with their environment was rectified. Right now, she was more concerned with dusting any of the soulless she could locate and determining who and what exactly was responsible for her presence here and now.

Chapter 9

"I think the girls said it was on McHenry Street, just past Bleeker," Jenny half-mumbled to herself, as she pressed a bit harder on the gas pedal and blew through an intersection just as the light changed to red.

"By the way, just who is this Ethan fellow?" she asked the obviously seething Englishman occupying the passenger seat next to her. "That is, if he actually is the person you believe him to be," the Gypsy added.

"An old acquaintance, whom I apparently mistakenly believed to be far from here," Giles replied. "His sense of humor tends to the more macabre aspect of things, unfortunately," he noted, before lapsing back into the ominous silence that had begun back at the school upon hearing the shop owner's name.

Another five minutes driving time, during which they didn't waste any of their precious seconds stopping or waiting at traffic lights, deposited the pair in front of the apparently closed and shuttered costume shop. A faint glow, outlining a doorway, could be discerned in the back of the store, and a quick check showed no one around on the street to observe their attempts to gain entrance.

"Where did you learn to do that, Rupe?" Jenny asked, a look of mild surprise on her face as she followed him into the store after watching him easily pick the door's lock.

"One of the less obvious advantages of a misspent youth," he managed a tight grin as he began to carefully lead their way through the darkened aisles to the glow in the back.

As they drew closer, it became obvious that the glow was the outline of a curtain, concealing access to a yet unseen area.

Pushing the curtain aside revealed a small storeroom containing a low altar on which sat a small double-faced statue on an ornate pedestal, surrounded by dozens of lit candles. The eyes of the statue glowed a bright green, seeming to illuminate the area while not shedding any true light.

"Do you have any idea whose image that may be, Rupert?" Jenny asked quietly, as they paused in the doorway.

"Janus. Roman mythical god," he answered in an equally quiet voice.

"What does this mean?" the computer teacher queried him.

"Primarily the division of self. Male and female, light and dark."

"Chunky and creamy. Oh, no, sorry, that's peanut butter," Ethan elaborated, appearing through another doorway on the nearest wall.

Giles stared at Ethan as though he'd seen a ghost for a moment, before his expression hardened with the anger he was now clearly holding in check.

"Jenny, get out of here, now," he stated flatly, his eyes never leaving the other Englishman for a second.

"Not a chance, Rupert," she immediately shot back. "And don't waste time arguing with me about it. The children likely can't have the time."

With a shrug of his shoulders, Giles conceded the point, his gaze still focused on the other man.

"Hello, Ethan," he said.

"Hello, Ripper," the shop owner smiled. "What? No hug? Aren't you pleased to see your old mate, Rupert?"

"I'm just surprised I didn't guess it was you. This Halloween stunt stinks of Ethan Rayne."

"Yes, it does, doesn't it? Don't wish to blow my own trumpet, but it's genius. The very embodiment of 'be careful what you wish for'," he practically beamed his delight at his accomplishment.

"It's sick, brutal, and it harms the innocent." Giles stated, his expression still not changing in the slightest.

"Oh, and we all know that you are the champion of innocents and all things pure and good, Rupert. It's quite a little act you've got going here, old man," he grinned. "Seems to have some rather nice fringe benefits, too," he added, turning to give Jenny a rather obvious once-over.

"It's no act. It's who I am," Giles told his old running mate.

"Who you are? The Watcher, sniveling, tweed-clad guardian of the Slayer and her kin? I think not," Ethan sneered. "I know who you are, Rupert, and I know what you're capable of. But they don't, do they? They have no idea where you come from. Do you, my dear?" he asked as he turned to address Jenny.

"I may not know who Rupert was, but I do know who he is, now, and that is enough for me," Jenny declared. "I don't know of anyone whose past is immaculate. And I would think that anyone who could safely say that theirs is, is most likely a rather boring individual."

"Oh, I think I like her, Ripper," Ethan smiled at the librarian. "She seems like she could be a lot of fun."

"Break the spell, Ethan. Then leave this place and never come back."

"Why should I? What's in the bargain for me?"

"You get to live," Giles told him, his eyes narrowing and coldness seeping into them.

"Oh, Rupert, you're scaring me."

"Excuse me for a moment, please, guys," Jenny said, as she approached the altar and the shop owner. Neither man looked at her as she spoke, their gazes locked in an apparent battle of wills.

It was for that reason that neither of them saw Jenny's foot snap up in an arc that quickly intersected with Ethan's groin, although the 'Thud!' of the impact and Ethan's wide-eyed, hollow "Uhh!" as he immediately dropped to his knees gave Giles an inkling of power she had delivered. Ethan realized the amount of force in the kick first hand.

As Ethan, eyes bulging, slumped bonelessly to the floor, Jenny caught him on the left cheek bone with a right hook, which was then followed up by a knee to the face, which managed to smash both his nose and his lips as it drove him to the floor.

"Sorry to break up your little testosterone contest, boys," she smiled sweetly, though Giles noted that the smile didn't extend to her eyes, "but we don't have any time to waste. We need to change the children affected back. And we need to do it *now*."


Phoenix rounded the corner of the room in time to see the Billy Idol look-alike blindsiding a petite blonde in black leather with a baseball bat to the head.

As the girl dropped to the floor, Phoenix suddenly found himself surging forward, an unexpected blinding rage accelerating his movements as the bloodsucker bent over his victim. He hit the demon- animated corpse with a beautiful low tackle that would have drawn an immediate, but admiring, flag from any NFL referee. Catching his target near the base of his spine and abruptly snapping the demon's torso sideward, the two of them flew over the blonde's prone form to impact a millisecond later on the oaken floor and roll wildly until they both slammed against the far wall.

As his hands reflexively grabbed the monster's hands and held them away from him as it attempted to slash at his face, Phoenix realized that he had dropped his knife during his attack on the monster, so he smashed his forehead down against the demon's deformed features, mashing its nose flat against its face and eliciting a howl of pain and rage from his opponent. The demon forgot the pain from his flattened nose a brief fraction of a second after the head butting, as Phoenix's knee rocketed up into the vampire's groin, pancake-ing the blond's testicles and eliciting a scream audible only to creatures able to hear in the ultrasonic region.

As the vamp's hands reflexively attempted to grab his injured organs, the black-clad warrior-mage took advantage of the monster's momentary distraction to grab hold of its head with both hands and give it a decisive turn to the left, to be rewarded by the clearly audible snap! of the monster's neck vertebrae breaking.

Letting his now-paralyzed opponent drop limply to the floor, Phoenix immediately turned to the blonde, feelings of apprehension and anxiety flooding through him, and murmured a quick diagnostic spell to determine the extent and degree of the young woman's injuries.

As part of him figuratively sighed with relief upon his determination that the girl had sustained noting more than a minor concussion, the professional warrior segment of his mind evaluated the circumstances and his emotional reactions, and immediately realized that the worried concern regarding the girl that currently filling him had to have been generated by the true owner of the body he currently occupied.

Just as the almost blinding rage and hatred that replaced concern for the girl when he looked over at his immobile enemy must be another reaction belonging to this body's true owner.

"Consider yourself fortunate, bloodsucker," Phoenix informed the demon as he rose from the girl's side, looking down on the corpse from above. "If I let the kid who really owns this body vent his feelings, you'd be spending the next few days lying in a tub full of holy water and screaming for mercy, before he'd finally realize that you aren't worth the time or effort he'd have to expend on you."

The glare of hatred the immobile demon shot him confirmed the warrior's suspicions of some sort of enmity between the demon and the true possessor of the body he currently controlled, and the stream of invective the vamp was spewing out at him left absolutely no room for any confusion regarding the depths of that hatred.

"I'll be coming back for you, you wanker bastard!" the vamp snarled, his face alit with enmity as he realized he was most certainly looking his death in the eye.

"And when I do, you'll be begging me to kill you, before I'm done!" he promised, as spittle flew from his mouth as he raged. "I'll kill everyone and everything you've ever cared about, and there won't be anything you can do about it! You just wait and see! I'll be back to get you and yours!"

"Burn in hell," Phoenix replied, a satisfied, almost malevolent smile on his face as he lifted his left foot up and then slammed his boot down on the left side of the demon's chest, shattering its ribs and puncturing its dead heart with the shards and fragments produced.

A small pile of dust, accompanied by an almost inaudible poof!, were the sole remnants of the bleached blond demon's existence as it was returned to hell.

Turning his attentions back to the still unconscious blonde, Phoenix carefully picked her up and headed back into the larger room he had exited only a moment before, intending to move the blonde onto one of the couches.


Off to one side, almost completely hidden in a corner alcove, a pale complexioned brunette had watched as everything played out.

"I wanted to tell you, my darling baby boy, but they wouldn't let me," she murmured almost inaudibly as she stared at the small pile of dust that was all that remained of the vampire name Spike. "The stars demanded you die again, tonight, my sweet. Even when Miss Edith asked them if she could save you, they said 'No.'

"But you'll be back someday, my darling," she prophesied. "And I'll be here waiting for you, darling boy. And then the nasty Slayer and her friends will pay. Oh yes, my darling! They'll pay. The stars have promised me that. Yes, they did. And Miss Edith heard them say it, too, so you don't have to worry, not even the littlest bit. Mummy will be waiting for you, and then we'll all have so much fun!"


As Ethan lay on the floor, clutching at his bruised groin, and Giles stared at Jenny in stunned disbelief, the computer teacher looked down at the sorcerer.

"Tell me how to stop the spell," she demanded.

"You didn't say 'pretty please'," he managed to whisper, still attempting to maintain a tough guy image.

As Giles moved towards his former comrade-in-arms, Jenny waved him to a stop as she crouched down and grabbed hold of Ethan's beard, pulling his face around so that she could stare directly into his eyes.

"We don't have any time to waste here, so I'm going to get right down to basics with you, you stupid, pompous, overbearing wannabe," she told him, the expression in the brunette's eyes immediately sending a chill down the Chaos mage's spine.

"I care quite a bit about several of the children who have been affected by this little 'joke' of yours. And something you need to know is that my birth name was Calderash, which you'll realize, if you have any sense at all, is a Gypsy surname. I've studied magic at my grandmother's side since I was three years old, and she was an avid enthusiast of vengeance spells, among other things," she explained in a quiet, measured voice to the now quite worried sorcerer, who was staring up at her with wide, apprehensive eyes.

"I'm going to give you one chance to tell us how to break the spell the children are under before I start demonstrating the reasons why my grandmother designated me as her successor on my thirteenth birthday, before the entire clan," she informed him, as Giles stood off to the side, watching and listening, and taking careful mental notes.

"Now, how do we break the spell?" she asked, as she gave the hand clutching his beard a little shake.

"Janus. Break its statue," Ethan practically screamed out the answer, his words spilling out of his mouth as quickly as humanly possible. "That'll do it. Break the statue!"

Hearing that, Giles grabbed the statue and lifted it over his head before throwing it down to the floor, where it shattered into thousands of small pieces. As it did so, there was a momentary flash of light that blinded both Giles and Jenny and left prismatic after- images on their retinas for several minutes.

By the time their vision returned to normal, they discovered that Ethan had managed to flee the premises. Concerned with the status of the children affected, and having decided that there was nothing substantial to be gained by chasing the Chaos mage, other than the opportunity to pummel him unmercifully, the two teachers hurried back to the high school.


Chapter 10

Concentrating for a moment, Aki scanned the surrounding area for sign of any kyuuketsui that might still be around and sensed the presence of several more of the creatures on the upper floors of the building. Looking around, she located the closest stairway and headed towards them, pausing only to rabbit punch and toss to the side a massive, heavily-built pirate who had been molesting a cowering blonde dressed as a Renaissance noblewoman. The mottled, interwoven auras of both of individuals revealed them to be suffering from the effects of the same spell that had apparently targeted this whole region, which was the only reason she had not handled the pirate in the much less-kindly, and much more permanent, manner that he deserved for his behavior.

As she reached the top of the stairs, the warrior-witch could hear the frantic pleas of several people coming from one of the rooms, and she stealthily moved down the hallway, the katana in her hand poised to strike.

Carefully peering around the doorjamb of the room from which the voices had issued, she noted the positions of the two demons inside. A tall brunette with a dull-eyed expression had a young, partially-dressed blond guy pinned to the bed inside and was about to start feasting in him, while a short dumpy-looking sandy-haired vamp wearing his game face was enjoying menacing two mostly-undressed young women who were recoiling away from him in terror.

The faintest whisper of sound behind her caused Aki to drop to the floor as she simultaneously drove her left leg back in a powerful thrust kick into the stomach of her would-be assailant, doubling them over while also driving them backwards down the hallway. Instantly regaining her feet, she snapped the blessed blade forward in a short arc that cleaved her assailant in two, from the upper left shoulder to his lower right, the two parts individually starting to fall forward before transforming into a fine spray of dust scattered across the hall flooring.

Spinning on the ball of her foot, the redhead darted into the bedroom, catching the brunette looking up in confused surprise at the interruption of her meal while the male vampire grabbed hold of both women to prevent any escape attempts as he looked over his shoulder at the newcomer.

The shuriken that came spinning through the air to lodge itself in his right eye caused the vamp to scream and release the two girls as his hands reflexively grabbed at his injury. The brunette stared in numbed shock at the redhead's actions for a precious few seconds before she released her prey and began moving towards their assailant, and the time wasted gave Aki more than sufficient opportunity to glide across the floor and jab her sword through the monster's heart before turning back to confront the bleeding demon leaping at her.

Unfortunately, his recovery was just a bit faster than she had anticipated.

His left hand knocked her sword from her grasp and his right encircled her throat as he drove her backwards, slamming her lower back against the footboard of the bed and knocking her completely off-balance. They tumbled together to the floor as Aki struggled to hold his free hand still with both of hers and prevent him from disemboweling her while she fought for her breath, the impact against the floor having knocked her wind from her.

As she desperately fought the raging demon's attempts to either choke her or claw her open, Aki suddenly found herself fighting against the air and trying not to sneeze as a large handful of dust tickled her nose.

Looking up, she found the blond-haired youth who had been pinned to the bed by the brunette vampire gazing at her, a look of combined concern and admiration on his face and her katana in his hands. The two still mostly-naked girls stood off to the side, looks of shock and disbelief on their faces as they stared at the other two occupants who had apparently just turned two deformed and seriously disturbed people into a sprinkling of dust.

"Our most sincere thanks for your timely rescue, gracious lady," the youth smiled at her as he extended his hand to help her rise. "If not for your most wondrous efforts, these lovely angels and myself would have found ourselves dining with those nightmarish creatures, served up as the main course, no doubt."

"And I must thank you for your efforts on my behalf, sir," the Daughter of the Dragon politely replied as she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. "You saved me from serious injury or worse, and you have my thanks, in return. Should you ever require assistance, you have but to call for me. My name is Autumn."

Hearing a renewed chorus of screams coming from the grounds outside, echoed by the sound of gunshots, Aki retrieved her blade from the young man as she headed back into the hallway, pausing for a moment to ask, "I do not wish to appear rude, but I do not know your name, kind sir."

"My most humble apologies for my lack of manners, most beautiful lady," the blond smiled most charmingly as he bowed to her. "My name is de Marco. Don Juan de Marco. And I am humbled and most delighted to be at your service."


Carefully arranging the unconscious blonde on one of the empty couches in the rec room, Phoenix knelt beside her and murmured a minor healing spell as he placed his hand on the girl's temple, feeling the arcane energy accelerate her metabolism to mend the site of the injury. She would wake once her system had completed healing the damage she had sustained, feeling a bit hungry because of the energy her body had used to heal, perhaps, but aside from that, none the worse for wear. It usually took most people anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes for injuries like this one, and some strong feeling inside him didn't want to leave her alone while he tended to any remaining emergencies, so he looked around for a suitable replacement to guard the unconscious girl.

Taking a brief moment to consider his own situation as he gazed around the room, he wondered about the relationship between the true owner of this body and the seemingly delicate blonde lying here before him. The surge of rage and hatred he had felt upon seeing the blond vampire attacking her was a definite indication that there was some sort of emotional attachment between the two; whether it was a romantic bond, or more akin to a sibling connection he couldn't be sure, but there was most certainly a tie between them that couldn't be broken easily, if at all.

As he moved to grab hold of a nearby brunette wearing some sort of slave girl costume to watch over the unconscious girl, he was slightly surprised to see the girl open her eyes after less than a minute had passed.

"Who are you, and what happened to me?" the girl - no, the woman - demanded, her brow furrowed after a quick look around the room, rapidly taking in the virtually deserted rec room and the milling chaos beyond it.

"My name is John Phoenix, and there's nothing to worry about, miss," the demon hunter reassured her. "You're perfectly safe now; the person who tried to hurt you is no longer anywhere around and won't be able to threaten you, again.

"You were attacked by a rather violent and somewhat sociopathic partygoer, and I just happened to be wandering by and managed to drive your assailant away," he continued, his tone calm and reassuring even as he periodically glanced around the room, keeping up a surveillance watch on any- and everyone in the area.

Gin took a moment to check out the dark-haired warrior who was kneeling next to her as she lay on the couch, and consider whether this guy could possibly be the one she had been told to look for by the Englishman she had spoken with over the phone.

Tall, fairly muscular build, an intense expression in the dark brown eyes, dressed all in black, fairly bristling with weapons, including a nasty-looking big-ass sword in a scabbard on his back, and quite good looking, too, actually, she decided as she looked him over carefully, although that wasn't exactly the word that this Giles fellow she had spoken to earlier had used when describing the young man she needed to locate.

< If I really were sixteen again, > she reflected, < I think I'd be wanting to get to know you a lot better, Mr. Tall, Dark and Mysterious, > she mused to herself with a small grin.

Added to everything else was the fact that she had felt a unmistakable sense of total trust in this stranger the moment she had looked at him, a feeling that she could rely on him through whatever circumstances might occur. 'A hand to pull you out of Hell,' as her father was wont to say.

Considering the total weirdness that had plagued her night so far, this guy could very well be the same one she was supposed to find. And if she was right about his identity, then all that remained for her to do was find a redheaded computer nerd named Willow, who apparently was dressed as some sort of ninja for the night, and persuade the two of them to accompany her, a complete stranger, to the local high school and meet with some other people they probably wouldn't recognize, in order to try to resolve whatever situation was responsible for tonight's - unusual - occurrences.

< Sure, Gin, it's gonna be a piece of cake, > she told herself. < Find two people you don't know and have never met, and talk them into leaving with another complete stranger to try to resolve a problem they probably don't even realize exists. It'll be a regular walk in the park. >

"By any chance would you know anyone named Alexander Harris?" she ventured cautiously, looking up her apparent rescuer, and was a bit surprised when her question brought a wry smile to his face.

"The answer to that would be both 'yes' and 'no'," he told her. "Would you mind telling me exactly why you're asking about him?"

"Well, this is probably going to sound completely insane," Gin began, as she tried to stick to a fairly close approximation of the truth, without giving the man before her cause to think she was hallucinating, "but I've been informed by a fairly reliable source that some extremely strange things have been happening tonight, which have affected people's memories and are probably causing them to believe that they're someone other than they really are."

"So, do you believe that it's possible that you might actually be someone other than who you believe yourself to be?," the brunet interrupted her. "Someone who completely different, mentally and physically, than the person you know yourself to be?"

Surprised by his statement, Gin pulled herself up on the couch as she regarded her unknown companion with a mixture of surprise, wonder, disbelief and suspicion.

"What made you ask that?" she demanded.

"The fact that I realized a short while ago, that this isn't really my own body," the brunet replied, a bit too calmly for Gin's piece of mind.

"The last memory I have before I found myself here, was of being caught in an explosion that destroyed a - terrorist's base," Phoenix informed her, shading the actual facts of the situation slightly. If this girl wasn't already aware of the less visible aspects of the world, like so many other people, he didn't intend to confront her with their existence unless he absolutely had to do so.

< It's going to be difficult enough dealing with this situation as it is, > he thought to himself, < without complicating it further with a possible case of hysterics from someone learning about the Dark for the first time. >

"In addition to this body lacking a number of distinctive scars and other - souvenirs - that I've earned over the course of a few years," he added, "I also found myself in possession of a wallet indicating that I'm apparently a teenager named Alexander L. Harris, and not the person I believe myself to be."

Seeing the blonde's lack of understanding of his last comment, Phoenix noted, "Most people in my line of work don't usually carry any form of identification when we're working," and saw the girl nod with comprehension as several facts seemed to click in her mind as she took another look at all of the various weapons he was carrying.

"The last memory I have before finding myself here is sitting at my desk going over the details of a burglary report one of our clients had made," Gin confided, looking up at the brunet.

"I'm an art appraiser and investigator for an insurance company. I'm also a couple years older than I seem to be right now," she added, as she got to her feet, "as well as definitely *not* being your stereotypical California cheerleader.

"I've also got some questions for you," she said. "One, do you have any idea who or what could be responsible for whatever it is that's happened? And, two, how come you're acting so calm about this whole - incident?"

"For your first question, I have to say, no, not at the moment," he smiled, admiring the way the woman remained calm and composed in the midst of the current upheaval.

"And as for the second, I've been in even stranger situations," he admitted.

A chorus of screams accompanied by the sound of automatic weapons fire from the grounds outside distracted their attention, and they rushed to the windows to see what was happening.

A chalk-white skinned man with ruby red lips and a shock of electric green hair was standing on the front lawn, a Kalashnikov dangling loosely in his left hand as he stood over the bullet-ridden body of someone dressed in a dark grey body stocking and black cape and mask, the cowl on his head sporting two elongated ears. As Gin looked on in horror, he fired several more times into his victim, laughing insanely as the man's body shook with the impact of the slugs tearing into it.

A slight whisper of sound to her side made her turn, to see Phoenix, or Harris, if that's who he really was, heading outside at top speed. Following his reaction, Gin was making her way through the front doors as she caught sight of him headed directly towards the gunman, darting back and forth in a broken-field pattern as the lunatic sprayed intermittent bursts at him.

The insurance investigator gasped as a wave of horror and fear coursed through her as she witnessed Phoenix/Harris' body shudder momentarily when his target's gunfire finally caught him, an instant before the agent slammed into him and drove him into the ground.

< No! Not him! > she felt a part of her scream in semi-panic at the sight of the brunet being shot.

The brunet's fist impacted against the ivory-skinned gunman's jaw like a piledriver against a post, knocking him unconscious, and by the time Gin had made her way through the panicked crowd, the agent had already torn strips from the gunman's clothes and secured him against any further offensive actions.

"You should lie down, you've been shot," Gin ordered, noting at least two bullet holes in Phoenix/Harris' shirt, as she dropped to her knees next to him as he crouched over the blood splattered costumed body of the gunman's victim, examining his wounds and muttering in a low voice.

"Quiet and let me concentrate! I'm trying to stabilize him," he snapped at her, never taking his eyes off the bloody wounds decorating the man on the ground.

As Gin watched in astonishment, the blood pouring from the wounds slowed and began clotting even as she watched, the faintest shimmer of light seeming to dance over the injuries in pace with the brunet's words. After almost a minute had passed, Phoenix/ Harris sat back on his heels and let out a low sigh.

"That's the best I can do for now," he said, as his hands fumbled at his belt and he pulled out a cell phone. "He should stable long enough to get him to a hospital."

"Let me take care of that," Gin admonished him, as she pulled the phone from his hand and tried to push him to the ground. "You've been shot, you know. Take care of yourself before you bleed to death," she told him. For some reason, her stomach had started churning wildly at the idea of him being injured.

As he pulled aside his shirt to examine the wounds, wondering about the rapidly diminishing amount and degree of pain he was feeling from his injuries, Phoenix was astonished to see the entry holes the bullets had made visibly growing smaller. As he watched in disbelief, the holes closed up, one by one, and the slugs that had torn their way through him were ejected as his skin healed over, leaving an unbroken expanse of flesh without any indication of there ever having been any damage at all.

Looking up, he found Gin staring at him, her face a mixture of amazement and disbelief to match his own as she looked up to meet his eyes.

"Son of a..."


Ripley stared as a horde of screaming people rushed from inside the building, unable to make sense of what exactly was happening from their babble, or what it was they were fleeing.

< Please, don't let it be the xenomorphs again, > she silently prayed to anything that might possibly be listening to the desperate prayers of someone who no longer really believed in the existence of any type of benevolent deities.

Malevolent bastards, though?

She was quite certain that there were probably whole pantheon of them out there, somewhere.

There would have to be, since she desperately wanted to believe that no one being could be vicious and malicious enough to develop a creature like those monsters she had been forced to deal with.

In any event, though, that was something to ponder another day. Right now, she needed to determine exactly what it was that was causing the panic here and, if it was those eternally damned parasites, she needed to make sure that the nest and all of the creatures it had produced were eliminated.

Completely and totally wiped from existence.

There was absolutely no chance in hell that she was going to let any trace of those fuckers remain for some other corporate or military asshole to stumble over and decide that they made the perfect offensive weapon to clear out their enemy's homeland or planet.

Any trace of their existence *was* going to be destroyed, even if she had to drop a tactical nuke on the site to do so.

Readying the rail gun she had found herself carrying, instead of her trusted Pulse Rifle, she quickly but cautiously made her way across the porch to the doors through which the crowd was streaming. Before she got there, though, she was distracted by a short, cut-off scream issuing from the side yard of the house.

Stepping off the porch, the brunette headed to where she thought the scream had come from, to find another of the deformed, yellow-eyed creatures like the one who had attacked her assaulting another young woman. It looked like he had his teeth fastened in the smaller blonde's throat, and the girl's struggles were weakening even as she watched.

"Yo, bloodsucker!" the tall brunette called, as she raised her rifle to her shoulder and waited for his reaction.

< Yep, just as stupid as I'd hoped, > she smiled to herself as the vampire lifted his head to look over at her, and she squeezed the trigger once the red dot was centered between his eybrows and blew its head off. The girl the creature had been feeding on dropped limply to the ground.

She frowned, puzzled, when this creature's body turned to dust, too, just like the other one who had attacked her a few moments earlier.

< What could cause that? Some sort of coherent energy field collapse, that had been holding the thing together? > she wondered to herself as she examined the girl's bleeding neck.

Neither puncture wound seemed very deep, and they looked as though they were already beginning to coagulate, so the ex-warrant officer helped the rather groggy girl to her feet, then urged her to find her way to some safer location, before turning back to the frat house.

The earlier furor seemed to have died down by this point in time, but she continued to move carefully as she approached the well-lit building.

A sudden flurry of what sounded like gunshots came from around the front of the house, but before she could head in that direction, Ripley was suddenly confronted by some sort of human/lizard hybrid. The creature was nearly two meters tall, and was apparently wearing only a pair of shorts. Its visible skin was a greenish-brown in color and had a pebbled texture, reminding her of the covering of some of the native species of lizard that she had seen in a zoo she had visited the last time the Nostromo had called at Earth. As the hybrid approached her, its mouth opened in what could charitably called a smile, revealing a very large number of sharp teeth.

Based on everything that had already happened tonight, Ripley wasn't about to bet that the creature was going to welcome her with open arms, although the expression on its face made her think that it was possibly considering inviting her out for dinner - only with herself as the main course.

"Hey, gorgeous," she heard it croak in a voice that reminded her of rusty hinges. " Want to join me for dinner?"

< What is it about me that attracts all the weird things? > she asked herself, as she raised the rifle and pointed it at the creature's head.

"One more step, and the owners of this place will be washing your brains off their wall," she cautioned the creature. "You don't get a second warning."

With what was a clearly disbelieving smile, the creature took a step forward, and Ripley's finger tightened on the trigger.


Aki came down the back stairway like breath of wind through a night's sky, present but unseen, and slipped out through the back door, intending to flank any possible trouble-makers that were present. She was actually almost hoping that there was, indeed, some criminal or supernatural menace lying in wait ahead, because she was definitely in the mood to kick someone's or something's ass!

She was becoming more than a little upset at the way the evening was progressing; not only had some truly arrogant, foolish and/or stupid magic-using poser pulled her into a crazy situation that was rapidly deteriorating, there was also a distinct possibility that she, in fact, wasn't who she knew herself to be!

She snorted at herself at that last thought. Possibility, hell! She knew for certain now - she wasn't Tanaka Akiko!

The glimpse of red hair, green eyes and the pale, lightly freckled complexion she had caught in the mirror upstairs as she had fought the kyuuketsuis was more than sufficient confirmation that she was not the woman she had believed herself to be.

Who she actually was, she had no idea, at present, but that was something to concern herself about at a later time. Right now, there were people in danger, and her duty was clear: help the weak and helpless, in any way necessary.

She may not truly be the brown-eyed, black-haired Tanaka Akiko of pure Japanese ancestry that she had believed herself to be, but she was, most certainly, still a Daughter of the Dragon, and she could no more shirk her obligations than she could fly to the moon unaided!

As she rounded the corner of the house, she came upon a massive lizard/human hybrid of some sort who seemed intent on getting close to a tall brunette who was currently holding a well worn, lethal-looking rifle with an air of casual competence.

While Aki could well understand the creature's wish to get closer (the woman was quite striking, and carried with her an aura of both danger and a smoking, sultry magnetism), she could also understand the brunette's obvious reluctance to allow something as unfamiliar and possibly hostile as this being within arm's reach.

Hearing the lizard-man's comment about dinner, with its clearly intentional double-entendre, she shook her head at the almost palpable macho stupidity being displayed by the individual before her. Listening to the woman warning him about approaching her any closer, she noted how her body language made it immediately evident to anyone with a handful of common sense that she was not bluffing.

Which only meant that the being still attempting to stalk her was an idiot.

Only the fact that she could see the mottled and haphazard fusion of two auras indicating that this was not the creature's true form made her take action to save this fool from the well-deserved reward he would be receiving in just an instant.

Darting forward, she swept the lizard man's legs out from under and then slammed a palm strike against the nerve cluster at the base of his neck as she directed her chi to disrupt the neural flow there, rendering the buffoon unconscious before he even hit the ground.

As the scaly form dropped to the ground with all the grace of a sack of potatoes, Aki looked over at the woman peering down the rifle's sights at her and calmly waited for her to speak.

"Friend of yours?" the brunette asked, easing the pressure off the trigger slightly and lowering the barrel the least bit towards the ground.

"Never met him before, to the best of my knowledge," the redhead noted. "Although considering the way things have been going so far tonight, he could be my best friend and I wouldn't know."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ripley demanded.

"Let me ask you a question first," the smaller woman replied. "Did you suddenly find yourself here a short while ago, without any idea of where you were or how you might have come to arrive here?"

Aki noted the brunette's hand unconsciously clenching around the rifle's handgrip and reflexively raising the rifle to point it directly at her as she asked her question, so she continued speaking quietly and reassuringly.

"It appears that there has been some sort of alteration of reality in the local area, and the three of us," gesturing towards the two of them and the lizard man on the ground, "as well as an unknown number of other individuals, both inside and outside the house, have all been affected by it.

"Until just a few moments ago, I had believed myself to be of pure Japanese ancestry and upbringing," she said calmly as she slowly reached up to pull back her hood and pull down her mask, to reveal her quite clearly European features to the woman. "As you can see, it is quite obvious that I am not."

Ripley looked at the slim redhead who had so effectively handled the lizard man hybrid just a moment ago (barehanded, no less!) and considered her words.

The woman had accurately described the circumstances of Ripley's sudden appearance here, wherever the hell 'here' might be, and she had taken down an apparent hostile who looked to be something more than just a crème-puff in a matter of seconds, in an almost distracted manner.

While that certainly didn't necessarily mean she was one of the good guys, she also had an air about her that strongly reminded her of Annalee Call, which was, surprisingly, a point in her favor. Quiet, intense, highly intelligent. Much to her own amazement, she and the deceptively fragile-seeming android had turned out to have a great deal in common, especially when you remembered that neither one of them was human.

Ripley was about to reply, when the world around her suddenly seemed to start spinning and everything went black.


Aki was watching the brunette closely, and noted that the woman seemed to believe her explanation, when suddenly a wave of darkness overtook her, and she felt herself falling to the ground.


Gin was staring into Phoenix/Harris's chocolate brown eyes when she suddenly felt herself spinning down into a chasm of confusion, before everything suddenly went black.


Phoenix was staring into the blonde's - Gin's - incredulous and disbelieving eyes when unconsciousness unexpectedly claimed him and he felt himself falling to the ground.


All across the town, partygoers and Halloween-ers dropped to the ground or the floors of whatever buildings they were currently in as the shockwave of the Chaos spell's disruption surged through Sunnydale's neighborhoods, transforming the victims of Ethan Rayne's malicious humor back to their normal forms and personalities.


Outside the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house, Buffy and Xander stared at each other, momentarily shocked into immobility as their true personalities finally resumed control of their bodies.

"Buffy? Is that really you?" Xander asked, hesitantly reaching out to carefully touch the Slayer's face. The memories of the evening's earlier goings-on were still clear and resonant in his mind, especially those of the bleached-blond vampire assaulting his friend.

"Xan? Are you okay?" Buffy asked, her eyes locked with his for a moment, before dropping to his chest and joining her hands as she pulled at his shirt to reveal an expanse of muscular, but unmarred flesh.

"Whoa, Buff! Hold up there a minute!" Xander immediately pulled back from the blonde's questing hands. "Right now, you're only courting misdemeanor sexual assault with your hands where they are - keep it up and you'll be looking at felony charges! Unless, of course, you've got a twenty dollar bill in your hand," he added with a small grin.

"I'm just making sure you're all right, you doofus!" Buffy snapped in a mixture of worry and annoyance, while a not-small part of her sighed with relief that he appeared unhurt. "You just got shot several times a couple minutes ago, remember?"

"Somehow, I doubt you'd be all that appreciative if our situations were reversed, and my hands were all over you, like that," the brunet muttered, as he glanced down to assure himself that there really weren't any holes in him from which blood was freely flowing.

"Oh, I'm not completely sure that you'd be right about that," Buffy replied with a small smile, a faint blush coloring her face as she wondered to herself exactly what had compelled her to say that.

The stunned expression on Xander's face when he heard her answer, though, was most definitely a Kodak moment, and well worth the semi-embarrassment factor, she decided, before she pushed herself to her feet and began looking around for Willow.

Gin's memories still lingered in her mind, and their totally impartial evaluation of her best male friend's dating potential was making her question herself as to exactly why she had never really looked at him in that light before. That, however, was something for her to mull over when she had a lot more free time to do so. Right now, they needed to locate Willow and make sure she was okay.

"Come on, Xand! The way things were going earlier, she could be in serious trouble," Buffy pointed out, while trusting that her friend's instincts to protect the redhead would distract him from an in-depth analysis of what she had just said.

"Yeah, you're right, Buff! We need to find her fast," he agreed, fluidly rising to his feet and casting a searching look around the ground surrounding them. "You go look that way, and I'll check out over here," he ordered her, an undeniable air of command around him as he spoke.

Watching the fluid effortless way he moved off to search for their missing friend, Buffy also distractedly noted as she moved to check out her section of the grounds that the weapons Xander was carrying looked as though they were still real.

Yet another thing she should probably ask Giles to check about, once she made sure that all of her friends were safe and healthy


Sunnydale high school library Saturday, November 1 10:17 am

"And I can still remember everything there is to know about this woman's life, Giles, just like if I had actually lived it," Buffy stated as she sat next to Willow at the conference table and finished reiterating the events of the previous night.

"Not to mention that all of the things Gin was carrying with her are still here, too!" she informed her Watcher and Ms. Calendar as she opened up the black knapsack she had been carrying the night before and carefully removed and then delicately unwrapped two pieces of jewelry that glistened in the sunlight streaming through the windows, then added a half-dozen rings and necklaces that elicited small gasps of appreciation from Willow and Jenny, and a low-voiced "Good Heavens!" from Giles.

"According to Gin's memories, these two big pieces here are of genuine Ming dynasty origin, and are probably worth upwards of four hundred thousand dollars, based on their historical value alone," the Slayer stated, "and these other pieces, together, are worth just as much as those two things."

Picking up a small leather case that lay to one side of the jewelry, Buffy opened it to reveal a set of obviously high-quality picks and other tools intended to help their user bypass any locks they might come across.

"Anyone want to take three guesses what these things are used for?" she said, offering the kit to Giles for evaluation.

"Now what am I supposed to do, Giles?" she demanded, turning to her surrogate father for direction. "I still have all these memories in my head of a woman who's a cat burglar/insurance investigator, who spoke four languages fluently and who's almost twice my age, and it doesn't look like they're going away any time soon!"

"I - I'm not at all certain what we can, uhm, do about these matters," Giles answered her, his forehead furrowed with concern.

"Am I to understand that you, too, still have access to the memories of the person you became last night, Willow?" he asked, turning to face the redheaded hacker, while actually noticing for the first time uncharacteristic way the young woman was dressed.

In lieu of her usual frumpy clothing that did absolutely nothing to enhance her figure, Willow was dressed in a pair of form fitting black jeans, a black tee shirt topped with a forest green blouse and black hiking boots, with her long red hair pulled up into a bun and held in place with several long skewers. Combined with the confidence and self-assurance with which she moved, it almost seemed as if the Willow they had known had been replaced with a doppelganger possessing all of the redhead's best traits and none of her limitations.

Without saying a word, Willow slid to her feet, displaying a litheness and agility at odds with the young woman who had been helping support Buffy in her calling for the past several months, her hand going to her hair as if to adjust it.

Then her hand snapped down sharply, and the sudden dull thunk! of something hitting the small cork target that hung on the inside wall of his office caused him to turn and look, to discover one of the six inch long pins that had been holding her hair in place quivering in the center of the target's x-ring, some fifty feet from where she stood.

"That's just one of a number of things I gained last night, Giles," she smiled as she turned to look at him. "I can also speak, read and write German, French, Dutch, Japanese, and the Mandarin, Hakka and Cantonese Chinese dialects. It seems 'Autumn' possessed an extremely wide range of skills," she added, as she returned to her seat next to Buffy. "We can discuss some of her more - esoteric - abilities later, if you don't mind. Okay?"

Giles' distracted "Most certainly," mumbled as he looked over the now enhanced computer hacker, indicated that his current thoughts were far from the academic building in which they were all sitting.

"All of these skills you two have gained are in addition to any you already possessed, right?" Jenny asked. "I mean, it doesn't appear as though you've lost anything as a result of last night's activities, correct?"

Both girls nodded their answers to her question, and a thoughtful silence filled the room as the four of them pondered all of the possible repercussions of Ethan Rayne's malicious mischief.

Their contemplations were interrupted as the doors to the library abruptly swung open and a rather loud and indignant "All right, what's going on around here?" served to announce the arrival of an obviously upset and incensed Cordelia Chase. The brunette's sudden and completely unanticipated arrival was ample cause for the library's various inhabitants to immediately give each other questioning looks as they wondered at her totally out-of-character appearance here.

"Is there something can I help you with, Cordelia?" Giles asked shortly as he rose to his feet and tried to head off the clearly distraught young woman before she got to her obvious target, Buffy.

"Yes, you can undo whatever kind of freakazoid thing you weirdoes did last night and turn me back into me!" the head cheerleader demanded irately. "Just because I helped you guys out a couple of times doesn't mean that I want to join your circus and be one of your fellow freaks!"

"And just what is it, exactly, that you are referring to, Cordelia?" Giles asked, looking the tall brunette over with a concerned eye, examining her for any overt changes that the girl might have been referring to.

"Eww, you shouldn't be checking me out, Giles! You're supposed to be the mature adult here, not some perv giving me the eye, you know!" the brunette glared at him, eliciting a slight chuckle from Jenny and grins from Buffy and Willow.

"I was not 'checking you out,' as you so eloquently phrased it, Cordelia," the librarian informed her as he returned her glare with one of equal ferocity, seasoned with a dash of righteous indignation. "I was attempting to determine what the problem you were referring to when you entered here might be.

"Since you are not exhibiting any noticeable physical alterations," he continued, "I would hazard that you are therefore referring to some form of alteration of your memories that apparently occurred last night, at the behest of a former - acquaintance of mine. You, apparently, were just one of a significant number of Sunnydale residents who affected by the spell he cast last night. I can assure you, however, that the transformation you experienced was a purely transitory phenomenon, and that you need not worry about any lingering effects.

"In fact," the Slayer's Watcher went on, "after having spoken with a number of people who had been transformed into their costumed personas, I feel safe in telling you that, aside from two or three notable exceptions, everyone changed by the spell has returned to their normal, mundane state, and I would expect that any memories you might still be able to recall will fade completely within the next day or so."

Giles smiled at the head cheerleader in what he hoped was a reassuring manner as he concluded his explanation, satisfied that he had addressed all of her concerns in a thorough, yet concise, fashion. He was more than a bit distressed then, when Cordelia looked at him and practically shrieked at him.

"Giles, pay attention! That's exactly what I've been trying to tell you!" she half-screamed, a frantic expression on her exquisite features. "I didn't change back! I'm still part Ellen Ripley! I'm not human! I'm a freak!"

"Wha- what do you mean by that, Cordelia?" Jenny asked as the three Scoobies present gawked at her, dumbstruck at her statement.

Moving in an extremely controlled manner that practically screamed out her anxiety and upset to Giles and Jenny's concerned eyes, Cordy stalked over to the steel cage in which the more dangerous mystical tomes Giles possessed were kept, and grabbed a short length of half-inch steel pipe that was left over from the cage's construction.

Turning to face her audience, she grabbed it at each end and easily bent it into a pretzel shape, which she then tossed across the table to Buffy.

"Does that give you guys a clue?" she demanded, before collapsing into a chair and beginning to weep inconsolably, as the girls and Giles all looked at her with stunned confusion.


A rather somber and subdued Xander Harris, wearing jeans and an uncharacteristically subdued navy tee shirt under a denim work shirt, walked into the library to discover what he would, on any previous day, have considered incontrovertible proof that he was either hallucinating or that he had been transported to a neighboring parallel dimension: his two best friends were trying to comfort a sobbing and distraught Cordelia Chase, while Giles and Jenny Calendar conferred in the background, all four of his compatriots in Slaying casting worried looks at the semi-hysterical brunette.

"Sorry I'm late, guys," he said as he approached, "and why do I have the feeling that Cordy's upset over something other than the fact that her favorite nail polish has been sold out and they won't have replacement stock in until Wednesday?"

Seeing the semi-glares both Willow and Buffy sent his way immediately let him know that the situation was serious enough that his admittedly sometimes sophomoric sense of humor was out of place at this moment, so he instantly shifted into comforting-and-caring mode, while his Phoenix-aspect began evaluating the likely possibilities for the group's obvious disconcertment.

"What's going on?" he asked, his eyes flicking over to Giles for answers.

"It seems that Cordelia, uhm, did not, ah, return to her previous, ah, normal state, once the spell responsible for the various transformations was broken," he haltingly informed the younger man. "She appears to still retain all of her memories of the, uhm, the character whose identity she had selected, as well as, uhm..." the Watcher's voice trailed off as he hesitated in detailing the additional facets of the movie persona that had remained after the spell's cessation.

"As well as all of the character's hybrid attributes," Xander quietly completed Giles' unspoken sentence, eliciting a small cry of anguish from Cordy upon hearing his words and additional simultaneous narrow-eyed frowns from Buffy and Willow, which he ignored as he walked over and dropped down into a crouch before the weeping high school diva.

"Hey, Cordy," he said gently, as he reached out a hand and carefully lifted her chin from her hands, "can you look at me for a minute?"

When the brunette hesitantly looked up, her eyes red and swollen from crying, he gave he a reassuring smile and said, "I need to ask you to do me a favor for a minute. Please?"

Shushing his two friends' incipient protests with a quick shake of his head before they could really begin, he continued speaking to the distressed girl staring at him questioningly while Giles and Jenny watched the two of them with great interest.

"I need you to come over here and just sit back and relax for a minute, okay?" he told her, as he carefully pulled her up and led her over to one of the other chairs.

"Just close your eyes and take a couple deep breaths and try to relax," he instructed her as she sat down. "I'm not gonna do anything mean or bad to you, Cordy," he told her. "I swear that to you on Jesse's memory. Okay?"

Hearing him invoke the name of his deceased best friend apparently reassured the uncertain head cheerleader somewhat, because she gave him a small hesitant smile and nodded her head, before sitting back and closing her eyes as requested.

Xander then quietly murmured a short phrase as his right hand sketched an outline of the quiescent brunette, and Buffy and Willow both cut short exclamations as a faint glow surrounded Cordelia in response to the male Scooby's incantations.

After a scant few seconds, the glow winked out, leaving Xander staring down at Cordy with a somber, almost solemn expression on his face.

"What did you just do, Xander?" Giles asked after a moment's pause during which the no-participant's in the spell simply watched and waited.

"A simple diagnostic spell, Giles," he replied absently, as he continued to stare at the brunette, who by this time was staring up at him questioningly.

"We need to use your office for a couple minutes," he informed the school's librarian, as he reached out to help Cordy up. "And it's private," he added in a tone of voice that literally dripped of command, before anyone could say anything.

The four assorted demon-fighters watched curiously as Xander led a hesitant Cordelia into Giles' office and closed the door behind them. Buffy's acute hearing enabled her to hear Xander mutter a short phrase in a language she didn't recognize before all sounds issuing from inside the room simply stopped.

After several minutes had passed, the office door opened and Xander walked out, with the sounds of Cordelia's weeping in the background evident to all.

"What's going on, Xander?" Giles quietly demanded, holding up his hand to quiet Buffy and Willow even before they could open their mouths to speak, as the tall brunet dropped gracelessly into one of the chairs surrounding the conference table.

"What exactly did you determine is wrong with Cordelia, and what do we need to do to correct it? And how and where did you learn how to cast diagnostic spells, as you indicated you were doing earlier?" he added.

"All right, I'm going to address all of your questions in order, Giles," Xander replied, his face wearing an expression of fatigue and misery that seemed extraordinarily out of place on his normally cheerful features.

"First off, I'm only telling you guys this because Cordy said it was okay to let you know what's going on," the tall brunet informed his listeners, "and that's because you'll need to know everything we do if you're going to help us figure out how to correct what happened to her.

"The diagnostic spell I used on Cordy indicated that she's not entirely human anymore," he announced quietly, not looking at any of his friends. "She's a hybrid now, combining her normal human attributes with some attributes of those - creatures - featured in the movie series. Because of that, she's a lot stronger, faster and much more resilient than a normal human being, her epidermis and skeletal structure are a lot tougher, and, this is a *major* point of importance here, people: her blood is highly corrosive, so if she gets cut an starts bleeding, everyone in her vicinity needs to be *extremely* careful, because she could do a lot of unintentional, incidental damage to anyone and anything that her blood touches," he cautioned the group.

"The main reason Cordy's still in there crying and not out here," he added quietly, still not looking directly at anyone and keeping his attention focused on one of the various school plaques hanging on the far wall of the room, "is because I just told her that, as things stand right now, she's sterile; she's never going to be able to have any children. Her reproductive system isn't functioning properly right now, and it never will, because some very significant differences in the genetic structure between humans and those creatures have screwed up her uterus. A lot."

Xander's flat declaration drew shocked gasps of dismay from the three women, and Giles' lips thinned into a tight line as he tried to consider the full impact of what the youth had just told them.

For a young woman just entering the prime of her life, as Cordelia was now doing, to learn that she would never, *could* never, even have the option of becoming a mother would be a truly devastating blow.

Looking across the table to the two girls he considered his daughters, he could see the horror reflected in their eyes as they considered their classmate's situation. Buffy, given her own station in life as the Slayer, had obviously given some consideration to the likelihood of her never being able to have children, and she seemed to be particularly horrified by the news.

"What happened? Who or what did that to her?" the small blonde demanded. "How do we fix it, and change things back?"

"As far as who's responsible goes, Buff," Xander answered her. "That would be me.

"I'm responsible for her being like this."

After a momentary silence, due primarily to shock at his answer, the questions came fast and furiously.


"What do you mean?"

"How is that possible?"

Xander waited for the shouting to die down before he began his explanation.

"My demon hunter persona's memories didn't fade away and disappear after you broke the spell last night, Giles," he said, turning to look over at Buffy and Willow, "and neither did either of yours, despite the fact that we all thought that's what would happen, right, guys? You remember pretty much every moment of every day that Gin Baker and Tanaka Akiko lived, just like you remember your lives as Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg, don't you?"

The completely certain tone of his voice when he spoke made it evident that he was making a statement, rather than asking a question, so both girls simply shook their heads in agreement.

"Once I made sure you guys got home safely, I went back to my parents' house, drew a protective circle on the floor of my bedroom, and began using some of the spells bouncing around in my head to examine myself, so I could try to figure out exactly what happened last night," he explained, as his companions stared at him intently, hanging on his every word.

"Phoenix's home is a very magic-rich one, guys," Xander began describing his alternate persona's homeland, "and his, my, power level really isn't that much greater than the average person there. I - I mean, he was a very accomplished spellcaster, though, and his knowledge of various spells is kind of enormous. Both his parents and his maternal grandparents were accomplished magicians, so he started receiving training as a sorcerer almost from the time he started walking. He knows - I mean, I know, - god, it's really difficult keeping all the memories straight, about which memories belong to which person - anyway, I used some really rather involved analytic spells to try to figure out exactly what happened to the three of us, when we didn't immediately revert back to our former selves."

Xander seemed to pause for a moment, as if to collect his thoughts, or to compose himself, before proceeding.

"I discovered some anomalous residual energy traces still evident on all of us," he told Buffy and Willow, before breaking out in a small grin and addressing his childhood friend in a quick parenthetical aside, "Boy, I bet you never thought you'd hear me using phrases like that, huh, Wills?"

The redhead momentarily broke out in a small grin to match his, and Xander then continued his monologue.

"Anyway, I found these very faint energy remnants on us, and I traced them back to their origin, and found several more of the same energy trails that originated from the same spot," he recounted his labors of the night before. "When I followed them back to see where they led, I found two of the trails led to Warren and his date from last night, April, and another one led to Cordy. All of the spells I used require a great deal of preparation and casting time, and that took up most of the night, so I didn't head over to the frat house until early this morning to see Warren. I figured it would be easier to talk to him in person about the weirdness than try to explain it over the phone.

"Anyway, when I finally did get over there, I found the police crawling all over the place. Apparently, Warren and April also changed into their costumes last night. Unfortunately for them, they were dressed as Romeo and Juliet. Some of the jocks found their bodies late last night, when they were coming back to the house from taking their dates home," he noted, eliciting more gasps from the girls and Jenny.

"To make a very long story short, I only found the energy traces on Warren and April's costumes, and the gizmos Warren cobbled together for us, guys; the dart thrower you wore, Wills; the climbing harness I asked him to make for you, Buff; the sword he worked on for me; and the rifle I let Cordy borrow for her costume. I haven't got the faintest idea of what Warren intended to do, but when we were changed into our costumes last night, the six of us apparently were changed permanently. Not that it did Warren or April much good," he opined.

"That's why I said that I'm responsible for Cordy being changed," he said, in the silence that followed his recitation. "If I hadn't lent her the rifle, she would've changed back to normal when the spell ended. Now, her life's been ruined, and it's my fault."

Turning to face his friends, Giles and Jenny, Xander allowed them to see the unshed tears glistening in his eyes.

"I'm gonna need as much help as I can get if I'm gonna find a way to change Cordy back, guys," he told them. "So if there's any books or scrolls or other things you can think of that you could point me towards, I'd really appreciate it, Giles, Ms. Calendar."

"Of course, you can count on us to help out, Xander," Giles immediately replied. "But you need to realize that you are completely wrong about any aspect of Cordelia's situation being your fault. You bear absolutely no responsibility for anything that happened last night."

"Rupert is right, Xander," Jenny firmly stated. "You've done absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. But I'll certainly help you two, however I can."

"So will we," Buffy announced quite firmly.

"You bet," Willow chimed in as well.

"They're right, Xander. It's not your fault. You're not responsible for anything that happened."

Cordelia's quiet voice surprised them all, and they turned to see her standing in the door of Giles' office, looking out at the group in general, and Xander in particular.

"All you did was lend me something I asked you for. If anybody's to blame, it's me," she said, her voice hoarse from crying. The brunette's eyes were red and swollen and her body language was practically screaming out her distress, but she was doing her best to project an air of calm as she spoke.

"Things could be a lot worse, you know," she said, addressing the group in general. "I don't really know exactly how, right now, but I'm pretty sure they could be."

"We *will* find a way to rectify your situation, Cordelia," Giles stated, watching carefully as she walked over to join the others around the table.

Xander had risen immediately upon hearing her voice, and he guided her into the chair next to his, then sat down and curled a supportive arm around her shoulders. Contrary to what would have been their normal reactions to seeing their friend comforting the brunette cheerleader, Buffy and Willow both immediately moved closer to the two brunettes and began speaking to Cordy in soft and reassuring tones, trying to set their classmate's mind more at ease with their promises of help in finding a solution to her dilemma.

Watching the adolescents whom he privately viewed as his own children do their best to comfort and console someone they would normally have taken pains to avoid like the plague on any normal school day, Giles was both surprised and gratified to hear Jenny murmur quietly in his ear as she stood next to him, observing the teenagers' interactions.

"You should be very proud of them, Rupert," she told him, as the two watched Xander somehow mange to make all three of the girls suddenly burst out laughing and move to swat him. "Their first impulses are always to help and comfort the injured, in any way they can. And I can think of nothing more worthy of praise and admiration than to be the mentor of such children, the person who helps nurture such instincts and helps them develop into the best individuals they are capable of becoming."

Standing there, seeing the four teenagers laughing and joking only a few short minutes after learning what anyone would view as extremely upsetting and disconcerting news, the Slayer's Watcher decided that perhaps things weren't really quite as bleak and despairing as the Council believed them to be.

And that these children, living here at the Mouth of Hell, wouldn't allow them to remain so, even if the Council should prove to be correct in their initial assessment... For once.