Who am I

Author: Greywizard1235 AKA John <grey.wizard[at]verizon.net>

Rating: R or so, for right now, mainly because of some bad language and detailed descriptions of violence. It will be NC-17 later, but I'll let you know beforehand.

Disclaimer: They're not mine, deal with it. I have. All of the really good characters belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc., I'm just borrowing them for a while to show him how things should have gone in season 4. There is no intent to profit from this. Only the story is mine, and if anyone waves enough money in front of me, even that is negotiable.

Category: B/X, F/X, B/F, B/X/F, some W/X and W/T. Warning: Some Angst.

Summary: What could have happened if Faith didn't sleep with Riley after switching bodies with Buffy in the episode "Who Are You?"

Time frame: Fourth season. This is an alternate universe branching off immediately after the end of "This Year's Girl."

Character Bashing: Not much, but if you really like Spike, you probably won't like this story. I don't dislike Spike that much myself (as a character, that is, not as Buffy's current love interest), but I think he makes a much better villain than a reluctant semi-hero, whose attitudes towards his former arch-nemesis and her cohorts seem to change with the episode and the writer. I think that the guy we're seeing nowadays is an imposter brought in by Joss because the real Spike, the Big Bad of Sunnydale, proud (boastful!) murderer of two past Slayers and bane of the current Slayer's existence, refused to turn into the fluffy, candy-ass pseudo- Peaches-wannabe currently showing up on our screens.

Spoilers: It's pretty much the standard Buffy-verse up through "This Year's Girl" although there have been some minor changes in several of the characters' lives (you'll see what the changes are as the story progresses). The most significant change is that after "Fear Itself", Anya decided that having to continually face vampires, demons and other assorted Hellmouth groupies without the benefit of demon powers was just too dangerous, so she left Xander for a third year intern she met named Ben. :-)

Feedback: Of course!

Archiving: If you want to archive this, just let me know where, please.

Author's Notes: This is my first Buffy/Xander fic, based on some ideas/concepts that I don't think were adequately addressed by Joss in the course of the series, and I was inspired by conversations with Shawn to take this idea and run with it. I am not nearly as prolific at writing as Tenhawk, but I will try to add chapters as quickly as I can, if there is sufficient interest and feedback.

Okay, people, from here on in, it's my very own AU. This story begins immediately after the conclusion of "This Year's Girl," after Faith has switched bodies with Buffy, who has just been taken into custody by the Sunnydale police and taken away in cuffs under heavy sedation.

< > indicates a character's thoughts.

//...// indicates mental communication.

Latest addition

Chapter 1

Faith finished adjusting her black top and paused to examine her reflection in the mirror. Black sleeveless top, red leather pants, black boots. She had to admit - she looked hot, although seeing the blonde hair and blue eyes grinning back at her in the mirror was still a bit disconcerting.

"Face it, B, I always look good in leather, even in your bod," she grinned at the mirror. Running her hands down over her breasts and stomach and then down her thighs, she murmured, "I think it's time to take it out for a test ride and see how everything works, now that it's under new management. Wonder who's gonna be the lucky guy?"

"Are you planning on going out, honey?" Joyce asked in a concerned voice as she paused at the door of the bedroom.

"Yeah, Jo-, uh- Mom," she replied, catching herself. "Thought I'd go out and celebrate a little, now that the psycho Slayer-wannabe is taken care of. Find the guys, hit the Bronze, relax a bit, you know."

"Oh, uh, all right. Were you planning on coming back here tonight, or are you going to stay at the dorm? I know, I know, I'm going all mother-y on you, and I know you don't like it, but sometimes I just worry about you. Even though you may be the Slayer, you're still my little girl. Just - be careful, okay?" Joyce said, as she turned and continued down the hall.

"That's right," Faith agreed quietly, as she slipped on a black leather jacket and headed downstairs, an evil smile on her lips. "I'm the Slayer, now."


The vampire cautiously surveyed the area surrounding the crypt's entrance before proceeding out onto the cemetery's grounds. Things had been rather odd, lately. The Slayer had been very active throughout the entire area the past few days, almost as if she had been looking to work out her frustrations on the local undead night- life. There had also been a number of rather vague and completely useless rumors of some sort of para-military operation taking place in the general vicinity. That was in addition to the very disquieting disappearances that had been occurring recently. Granted, it was the Hellmouth, but a much larger number of vampires and other demons had been disappearing in the past few weeks than should reasonably be expected, all things considered. All in all, it paid to be cautious, no sense in temping fate unnecessarily, especially when the time for summoning him was just around the corner. Let some other shmuck challenge the Slayer and whatever might be lurking out there, he was perfectly content to remain in the background and just bide his time. After all, when you're immortal, patience is all you need to make sure your plans unfold properly, and he had been immortal for quite a while now. Just a few more weeks and then the Power would be his. He moved quickly but sedately out of the cemetery and headed towards the center of town. It was, after all, dinner time: time to see who's on the menu.


The constant rocking of the surface she was lying on and the subtle feeling of high speed motion greeted Buffy as she swam back to consciousness. Stifling a low moan as she slowly regained her senses, she blinked her eyes but remained still as she took stock of her situation, trying to determine just where she was, and what was going on. She was handcuffed and in the back seat of a car, a police car, apparently, judging by the steel mesh grille she could see in front of her. Beyond the grille separating the front of the patrol car from where she was lying, were a uniformed officer and a detective in the passenger seat, who were apparently discussing her.

"She's coming to. Man, I want this kid's constitution," the detective said, amazement and admiration in his voice as he glanced into the back seat. "Let's move it. I want to get her in a cell before she's a hundred percent."

As the officer driving turned his head to glance into the back to confirm his companion's statement, a large red armored truck suddenly darted out from a side street and screeched to a halt directly in front of the police cruiser, which crashed right into its side. Two men carrying MP-5K submachine guns immediately jumped out of the back of the truck, a heavy-set dark-haired man covering both police officers, who were sprawled unconscious across the steering wheel and dashboard. His companion, a burly blond, used the butt of his weapon to smash out the window next to Buffy, who had remained limp and motionless on the back seat, her eyes slit open only the smallest amount necessary to allow her to see her opponents.

" 'urry it up and get the needle ready," Blond-Guy told his companion as he used the barrel to clear the remaining glass fragments from the window frame. "She's still out, and I don't want to 'ave to tangle with a conscious Slayer if I don't 'ave to."

Reaching in through the window, he roughly began dragging Buffy out of the car, as the dark-haired man cradled his MP-5K under his arm while he clumsily fumbled open a hypodermic case. Keeping herself limp, Buffy waited until Blond-Guy was supporting her weight with both hands, and Hypo-Guy's hands were reaching towards her to give her a shot, then double kicked at Hypo-Guy. Her first kick smashed the needle from his hands and the second caught him squarely in the groin, dropping him immediately to the street. At the same time she kicked out, Buffy reached back and grabbed hold of Blond-Guy's arms and pulled forward sharply, yanking him over her head and slamming him onto the asphalt. As her assailants sprawled on the street, groaning and dazed, Buffy swung her clenched fists into Hypo-Guy's jaw, driving him flat onto the asphalt, and followed it up with a hammer strike into Blond-Guy's face, helping him join his friend.

As she awkwardly grabbed both MP-5K's from where they lay on the street, Buffy heard the driver's door open and someone call out a question. Recalling the mandatory weapons briefing she had (reluctantly) undergone upon her entrance into the Initiative (Riley had refused to waive it for her, despite all her pouting), Buffy released the safety on one of the MP-5K's and fired a short burst into the air. Whoever had been approaching the rear of the truck dove for cover, then she took off down a nearby alley, getting out of sight as quickly as possible.


Giles looked up from his research as the portable phone lying on the table began playing the opening notes of Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries." Putting aside his cup of tea, he picked the phone up and thumbed it 'on,' answering with a brief "Hello?" A smile, followed shortly by a look of concern crossed his face as he listened to his caller speak. "Well, hello, Austin, it's good to hear from you again. How are you and Emily doing?...Oh, really?...Yes, indeed, that is a shame. How is the rest of the family doing?...Well, that's very good to hear. Congratulate her for me, if you would...Yes, I would say so... Well, yes, indeed, that is quite interesting...Mmm- hmmm...Mmm-hmmm...Indeed...Yes, that's quite intriguing, isn't it?...I appreciate your calling and informing me of this...If you should come across any additional information, I would greatly appreciate your notifying me as soon as possible...Yes, indeed... Again, thank you for calling... Good-bye."

As he absently thumbed the 'on/off' button, his brow furrowed as he considered what he had just learned. Thumbing the phone back 'on' again, he quickly dialed a number and waited for the phone to be picked up. After several rings, a recording came on the line. "We're sorry, but the number you have dialed is no longer in service in this metropolitan area. Please check your number and try again. Thank you and have a nice day," the recording cooed before disconnecting.

Frowning, a look of incipient concern on his face, Giles quickly dialed a second number and waited as the line rang again. After several rings, an answering machine kicked in, and he could hear the recorded voice of Willow, the smile in her voice evident to the listener. "Hello there, whoever you might be. Unfortunately, neither Buffy nor myself can answer the phone at the moment, so just leave us a message, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can. Bye, and we hope you have a wonderful day. Or night, that is, if you're calling us at night. In any case..." the listener could hear Buffy's voice in the background saying, "Will, there's not gonna be any tape left for their message, if you don't finish up." The redheaded witch's voice came back online, finishing up with, "In any case, leave us a message, and we'll call you back. Bye."

"Willow, this is Giles," the Watcher spoke into the receiver, as the answering machine beeped its readiness to accept a message. "I would appreciate your calling me at your earliest convenience after you get this message. I don't mean to alarm you unnecessarily, but I've just received some rather disturbing information of quite possibly major significance, and I'd like to discuss the potential ramifications with you as soon as possible, since I would consider you our resident expert on the subject. I have to run out at the moment to check up on some associated aspects of this matter, but I expect to be back within the hour. Please call me back, and let me know how soon we can get together to discuss this. Goodbye."

With the look of thoughtful concern still occupying his face, Giles again thumbed the phone 'off' and replaced it in its cradle. After a moment's additional reflection, he arose and headed for his front door, pausing for a moment to search through several containers in the coat closet, before evidently locating whatever he had been searching for, and tucking it into his waistband at the small of his back. Grabbing a light jacket, he slipped it on as he pulled the door shut behind himself. Scarcely a minute after he had left, the phone began its musical chorus again, the answering machine clicking to life after the fourth ring, as a woman's voice filled the empty room.

"Hello, Rupert?" a low contralto spoke to the thin air of the apartment. "This is Joyce. I don't know if Buffy has spoken to you yet, but I thought it best to call you, first to make sure that you were all right, and second, to make sure that you were aware of what's happened with Buffy and Faith..."


As she made her way down one of Sunnydale's many inadequately lit streets on her way to the Bronze, looking forward to a well-deserved night of partying, Faith heard a muffled scream and the faint sounds of a scuffle coming from one of the numerous alleys that seemed to make up the majority of the streetscape. Always in the mood for some action, whether amorous or violent, Faith sauntered over to see exactly what was going on, and to decide whether to join in on the fun.

The light stumbling from the nearest street light was very poor inside the alley, making it difficult for Faith to see clearly, but she could sense the presence of several vampires clearly, thanks to her Slayer sense. Much as she had expected, she saw four vampires attacking a young couple, one of the vamps holding the girl prisoner while the other three were attacking her companion. Contrary to her expectations, however, the youth was not only not being beaten to the ground, but he was actually successfully holding off all three attackers by dodging, weaving, and shoving and tripping the three of them, making them collide into each other as they attempted to grab him. Her amazement caused her to stop in her tracks as she watched the tableau before her unfold.

"Come on, you clowns," the vamp holding the girl called out to his cohorts. "Stop playing with your food, and grab him, so we can get back to base. Farrenworth's gonna be pissed if we don't get back with some refreshments soon."

"We're not playing, asshole," one of the trio snapped, as he rushed the brunet. "This guy's too slippery for his own good. I'm gonna break his kneecaps in just a mi-" His voice stopped in mid-word, as his target suddenly stopped dodging, produced a stake and quickly jabbed it into his chest and pulled it back out again, before it could turn to dust like the vampire. The two remaining attackers froze momentarily, stunned at their friend's abrupt fate, and the brunet took advantage of their immobility to turn and throw his stake at the vamp holding the girl.

"What the f- AAUUGGGHHHH!" the vamp screamed and unconsciously released the girl, clutching at his face and the stake that had just magically sprouted from his left eye.

"Run!" the brunet shouted to the girl, as he drove a foot into one vamp's family jewels, making the unfortunate undead scream hollowly and grab at himself as he crumpled to his knees. The would-be victim quickly dropped to the ground and spun into a perfectly executed leg sweep, hooking his foot behind one of the remaining vamp's ankles and taking his legs out from under him, dropping him to the ground. As the girl immediately took off down the alley past Faith, moving faster than a lawyer after an ambulance, her savior produced a second stake and quickly dusted the vamp clutching his crotch before turning to face the third vamp, who was clumsily getting back to his feet.

"I don't know how you managed to do that, blood bag, but all that's gonna get you is a very long and very painful death," the vamp snarled, as he slowly approached his would-be victim. "I'm not gonna just kill you, I'm gonna break every bone in your body first, one at a time, and then I'm gonna bleed you, real slow. You're gonna be begging me to kill you before I'm done."

"You're gonna have to wait your turn, Anson," the vamp who had been staked through the eye interrupted, as he stalked Stake-Boy from his other side, the bloody stake now held in his hand like a knife. "I'm gonna poke so many holes through you with this," he indicated the stake in his hand, "that you'll look like a piece of Swiss cheese, 'hero'," he sneered. "Then I'm gonna find that bitch you saved, and I'm gonna turn her, and make her my slave, for the rest of her unlife. And you're gonna be responsible for that. What do you think of that, huh, 'hero'?" he asked with an evil grin.

"The only hole I see around here is where your eye used to be," Stake- Boy grinned, as he turned to face the vamp with the stake full on. "Talk is cheap, fangface. Bring it on!" he said, making a 'come on' motion with his hands. Strangely, his voice sounded familiar to Faith, although she couldn't exactly place where she knew it from, or who it belonged to.

Enraged, the one-eyed vamp leaped forward, driving the stake towards the brunet's chest, as the fourth vamp rushed his back, arms outstretched to grab and smash his unaware victim. Shaking off her surprise, Faith started moving forward at the same moment as the two vamps, expecting to see one of the two take the brunet down. To her astonishment, he spun to one side, grabbing hold of one of his rear attacker's arms and pulling him around to serve as a shield between himself and the other vampire. One-Eye drove his stake through the shielding vamp's back like a blowtorch through butter, dusting his unfortunate comrade. The brunet grabbed hold of the hand with the stake, pulling it to the outside of his body as he turned the vamp's hand over, straightening the arm and twisting the wrist to lock One- Eye's elbow. As his assailant tried to assimilate what was happening, Stake-Boy's other hand came down, driving the heel of his hand against the elbow, breaking the joint and rendering the arm useless. As the vamp screamed in pain, the brunet pulled the stake out of the now-useless hand and buried it in the vamp's back, dusting him just as Faith arrived.

Hearing the scuffing of approaching feet, the brunet spun around and dropped into a defensive stance, the stake held knife-like, waist high near his rear hip. Seeing who it was, he relaxed somewhat and gave her a faint half-smile. "Hey, Buff. What's up?"

Faith's jaw dropped as she finally recognized the brunet. "Xander?"


Buffy punched her calling card number into the number pad on the phone with an almost frantic haste, as she warily looked around her, keeping watch for the Council's collection team. Granted, the Food Court of Sunnydale's downtown mall was probably as safe as any other public place right now, but she saw no point in risking the safety of innocent bystanders if she was wrong about what lengths the Council's pet thugs would go to in order to capture her. < After all, > she thought to herself, < making a police car crash into the side of an armored truck was pretty far from the generally accepted definition of 'Subtle.' Like miles away kind of far, light-years away kind of far. Then again, > she reflected, < the Council never has been noted for their concern for anything outside their own narrow interests. >

"Come on, guys, somebody please be home," she muttered to herself as Willow's and her dorm phone continued to ring, unanswered, just as Giles' phone had done earlier. There had been no answer on Willow's cellphone, either, when she tried it. Trying Xander's cellphone had gotten her a recorded message informing her that the number was no longer in service, and a call to directory assistance for his new number had informed her that it was now unlisted. < He must have just changed it the other day, > she told herself, < and he forgot to call and give us the new one. Same old Xander. >

Pulling down the sleeves of her jacket to hide the handcuffs she still wore, Buffy glanced around in another check of the area. It had taken her the better part of an hour to finally break the short chain holding her handcuffs together, once she had finally stopped running from the Council's pet thugs and had found somewhere to hide, at least temporarily. She had quickly discovered that, contrary to what you saw on TV, it was far from easy trying to safely shoot the chain links apart on a pair of handcuffs you were wearing, especially when you didn't want to get hit by a ricocheting bullet.

As she hung up and prepared to try Giles' number again, she glimpsed Hypo-Guy and another thuggish looking individual walking across the concourse, trying to appear inconspicuous as they surveyed the area, obviously searching for someone. Temporarily abandoning her attempt to contact the Gang, she casually turned away and headed for the nearest exit.


Spike skulked in the shadows outside one of the university buildings across the quad from Lowell House, just as he had been doing for the past two nights, waiting for one particular individual to appear. < It's pretty bloody obvious that the Slayer's Captain Cardboard is somehow connected with those wankers who put this chip in my head, > he thought as he kept watch on the various people entering and exiting the ostensible frat house. < So he, or one of his playmates, is going to help me get it out. It'd be a whole lot easier to persuade them, if I could just show them how I earned the name 'Spike.' Of course, if I could show them, I wouldn't need to get the bloody chip out in the first place, > he reminded himself.

His original intention had been to trail Finn as he went about his routine, and try to determine who among his daily contacts might be involved with the group that had installed this damned chip in his head. Finding out who was responsible was the first step necessary in getting rid of the thrice-damned thing. < Seems to be a lot more people leaving than you'd expect a place that size to hold, > he noted with interest, after several groups of young men exited the main entrance. All of them were of college age, all were clean-cut, all appeared to be in excellent physical condition, and none of them, as far as Spike had been able to determine through casual questioning of various students passing by, were involved in any of the athletic programs the University offered. It seems all of those years spent watching Angelus stalk his victims had provided him with an excellent tutorial on how to gain information about people without arousing any undue suspicions. < The whole bleeding lot of pansies look like recruiting posters, > he thought sarcastically, then stopped, as that idea triggered a new train of thought.

Up until this moment, he had assumed that Finn was merely living in the dorm, and was working as the on-campus agent/spy for whatever group he was employed by. Now, however, if he just stopped thinking of Finn, at least for the moment, as the American version of Peter Seller's Inspector Clouseau, that thought could lead to several other possibilities. < Maybe they're all involved in whatever it is that's going on. It's all the same lot going in and out each night. For security purposes, it's a perfect way to keep outsiders from stumbling over their operations, whatever they may be. You can restrict entrance to just those blokes you want to let in, and no one will think much about it. They (if there is a 'they' and I'm not just hallucinating this whole thing) probably have some type of operations center, or at the least an office of some kind to hold all their paperwork, inside that bleeding building. William, my lad, you just may be on to something here, after all. >

Now that there was something specific that he could be looking for signs of, the night had just gotten a lot more interesting. Casually lighting another cigarette, Spike settled back and made himself more comfortable.


"So, how's college life working out for you, Buff?" Xander asked, as he casually slipped the stake into an inside pocket of his black leather jacket.

"What's with the new look, Xander?" Faith asked, as she gave him a quick once-over. Hip-length black leather jacket, dark blue jeans, a navy T-shirt (that clung nicely over a rather muscular chest, she noticed) and black combat boots were light-years away from the fashion sense previously displayed by the Xander she knew. "You get captured by the fashion police, and brainwashed?"

"No, I just decided that I might as well make some changes to my wardrobe, to go along with all the other changes in my life," he replied. "See you around, Buff," he said as he started walking away.

"Whoa, what's going on here, Xand-man?" Faith reached out to grab his arm as he passed by her, but he brought his forearm up and curled his wrist and fingers around her arm as she touched him, then snapped it down, somehow sliding smoothly out of her grip, while not slowing down in the slightest.

"Hey!" she protested, as he continued down the alley. "I'm talking to you, there, mister! Don't ignore me!" she snapped as she jumped forward and grabbed hold of his shoulder, turning him around to face her.

"Don't touch me!" Xander backhanded her hand off his shoulder as he spun around to face her, hands up as he dropped back into a defensive stance. "Just keep your hands off of me, Slayer! You want to talk, then talk, but don't touch me again."

"What's up with the attitude, stud? You too good to talk to me, all of a sudden?" she snarled, getting right up in his face. Faith was starting to get seriously pissed. < I had enough of that 'too good for you' attitude from B, last year. I'm not gonna take any of that shit from this wannabe, > she thought.

"Just doing what you said you wanted, Slayer," he said, the animosity in his voice as he pronounced her title thick enough to cut with a chainsaw. "You don't want me hanging around, so I'm elsewhere, okay? In fact, if you give me a schedule of where you're going to be for the rest of your life, I'll make it a point to be somewhere else, so we don't have to keep running into each other." "Why would you think I don't want you around?" she asked, dumbfounded, wondering just what the hell had happened to turn the Clown Prince of Sunnydale and First High Priest of the Temple of Buffy-Is-God into this hostile stranger before her.

"Well, gee-whiz, let me think about that one," the brunet said sarcastically, as he put his hand to his face in a parody of a thoughtful expression. "Hmmmmm, maybe it was your telling me that you were so very concerned about my health that you didn't want me helping out on patrol anymore. Maybe it's the fact that you haven't returned any of my calls or messages for the past six weeks, or the fact that the few times we did bump into each other, you were too busy to even talk to me. Or maybe it's because you told Giles that he didn't have to bother calling me the last few times you guys had a research party. After all, you had Major Confusion there to take my place, if you needed someone to go on a donut run."

< Major Who? Oh, yeah, what's his name - Ollie Quinn, or something like that. Hell, why she picked some GI Joe-wannabe instead of X-Man here after Tall, Dark and Brooding dumped her, I don't understand. He's got 'Loyalty' carved into his forehead, and the rest of the package isn't bad, either, from what I remember. Okay, maybe he didn't have much mileage, experience-wise, but he more than made up for it in size, stamina and enthusiasm, > she reminisced to herself.

"Any of that ring a bell with you, Slayer?" he asked, when she didn't immediately say anything. "I may be Didn't-Go-To-College-Guy, but I catch on quick enough when everything's spelled out for me. Good-bye. Hope everything works out for you like you think it will," Xander finished up, as he spun on his heel and started down the alley again.

< Whoa, B really screwed the pooch this time out, > Faith thought to herself, as she watched Xander continue on down the alley. < The one guy who's been there for her every time she needed back-up, and she just casually blows him off? The guy who saved all our butts the night we stopped the Hellmouth from re-opening, and who didn't throw it in our faces later? Hell, he never even mentioned it to anybody. The hair bleach must have killed the few remaining brain cells she had left. If I ever wanted anyone watching my back, it'd be him, for sure, over the rest of these losers around here. >

"Hey, Xander, hold up for a minute," she called, as she took off after him. Being careful not to touch him, she matched her pace to his as they moved down the street. "Look, I'm sorry if there's been any misunderstanding-"

"There hasn't been any 'misunderstanding' here, Buffy," Xander interrupted her, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk and gesturing with his hand to emphasize what he's saying. "I got the message loud and clear. You're College-Girl Buffy now, and you don't have any time for or interest in anything from your past. I understand that. Willow's made it pretty clear, too. You guys are the wave of the future, I'm part of the past. So I figure, I'm just gonna ride off into the sunset. Adios." He turned and began walking away again.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Faith said, trying not to scream in frustration, as she ran around in front of him and blocked his path. "I'm trying to talk to you, and you keep walking away."

"You're trying to talk. I'm just not bothering to listen," Xander said offhandedly, as he walked around her.

< What the hell am I doing? I should just let this stiff-necked asshole walk away. Why am I even bothering? > Faith asked herself. < Because he looks even better than I remember? Because he was tremendous between the sheets the last time we were together? Because it would really piss B off, if she ever found out that I did her White Knight again? Okay, one last shot. After that, the hell with him. > If there was one personality trait that could be used to describe Faith, it was stubborn. Strong-willed. Tenacious. Or pigheaded. Take your pick. Once she decided that she was right, or wanted to do something her way, nothing this side of the Hellmouth could change her mind. Tell her she couldn't have something, and she'd go out of her way to make sure she got it. And she had just decided that she wanted Xander. Tonight. As many times as she could 'persuade' him to cooperate.

"Xander," she called out to the retreating brunet. "Just give me one minute to talk to you. Just one minute, okay? What's that gonna hurt, huh?" Xander continued walking for a few more steps, then stopped and turned to face Faith. "Okay. One minute. What did you want to say?"


A patchwork figure stood quietly near the summit of a hill overlooking the UC Sunnydale campus, his silhouette hidden against the trees lining the hill as he contemplated the next step in his plan to achieve complete and unrestricted freedom from his former creators/masters. Emphasis to be placed on the term "former." He was free now, and he intended to remain that way. If that required the complete destruction of those who had created him, so be it. The theory of evolution, as developed by the humans themselves, dictated that only the fittest survived, and if they could be taken down by their own creations, then they were no longer fit to survive, by their own definition.

He was certain that the Initiative would conceal the news of his escape for as long as they could maintain their security net, since releasing any notice of his escape would have adverse repercussions on the Project and those charged with responsibility for it. Therefore, any attempts which would be made to locate him would be performed solely by Initiative personnel, all of whose files he had transferred to his own storage banks prior to his departure from the Initiative, giving him any and all relevant physical, medical and psychological information that he might need in order to nullify their retrieval efforts. As best he could determine from the information downloaded into his operating systems prior to his escape, there were no other six and one half feet tall, cybernetically augmented human-demon hybrids existent. Although he was capable of concealing his unusual appearance through various cosmetic methods, he possessed virtually no knowledge of the innumerable small details necessary to interface with and blend into human society for extended periods of time without calling attention to himself. Therefore, the first step in his eventual plans for the humans' downfall required that he secure the services of suitable minions: people or creatures that could blend more easily into human society than he could, in order to obtain those items of equipment necessary for his success. Based on the data he possessed, the demon species designated 'vampires' appeared most suitable for his purposes, since they could achieve and maintain for indefinite time periods a fully human appearance. His most immediate problem, then, was to locate a nest of vampires, and enlist their assistance.

Calling up the municipal maps he had downloaded from the town surveyor's office, he noted those housing and commercial sites marked as abandoned or vacant, and began plotting a simple search algorithm. Now, it would be merely a matter of time before he could begin implementing his plans.


It had taken a while, but after a careful reconnaissance of the area, Buffy was relatively certain that no one was watching Giles' apartment. She had made a quick stop at their dorm before arriving here, but the redheaded Wicca still wasn't anywhere Buffy had checked. She was probably either studying or practicing spells somewhere, maybe with that Wicca group she had been talking about earlier, but Buffy had no idea where they might be meeting, or even who to contact to talk about it. She had left a quick, semi-coded note on their message board on the door for the redhead to contact Giles as soon as she read the message, but right now, there was no way to tell when that might be. A fast run through the library eliminated the faint chance that she was studying, and left Buffy with no other ideas except to check in with Giles and see what he might suggest.

A quick review of the situation earlier had quickly eliminated any thought of contacting the Initiative. First off, they didn't believe in magic, so any possible explanation that they might come up with for what had happened, should they actually believe her story in the first place, wouldn't begin to do her any good. Second, and just as important, considering the way Professor Walsh regarded the comparative importance of the great gods, Science and Research, versus people, she was more likely to end up as a subject of an experimental research project than the beneficiary of the Initiative's efforts.

Since there were no lights on inside the apartment, she was uncertain as to whether Giles wasn't home, possibly being out looking for Faith, or possibly being inside his apartment and unable to turn on the lights. She could only hope that Faith hadn't decided to pay him or any of the Scoobies a visit, and maybe collect some payback for what she felt was their betrayal.

Glancing around again, she casually walked through the courtyard, all her senses alert for anything out of the ordinary, and knocked on the door to Giles' apartment. When there was no answer, she knocked again, more firmly. When there was no response a second time, Buffy quickly retrieved the spare key from its hiding place under one of the azaleas on the other side of the courtyard and let herself inside.

A quick check around the first floor showed that everything appeared to be in order, a fairly reliable indicator that Faith hadn't shown up here yet. There was also no indication of where Giles might have gone. A blinking light on the answering machine caught her attention, and she pressed the 'Play' button, feeling slightly self- conscious about this invasion of her Watcher's privacy, but assuring herself that it was necessary if she was to find Giles.

"Rupert?" her mother's voice spoke to thin air. "This is Joyce. I don't know if Buffy has already called you, but I wanted to call to make sure that you were all right and to make sure you know what happened with Buffy and Faith. Earlier this evening, Faith broke into our house trying to find Buffy, and then the two of them fought when Buffy returned home. After Buffy knocked Faith out, the police took her into custody. If you could give me a call when you get this, there are several things I'd like to talk to you about. Please, I would appreciate it if you could come over to the house, no matter what time you hear this. I will probably be awake the whole night, so don't be concerned about waking me. Thank you."

< Okay, this is probably of-the-good, > Buffy told herself. < Giles is probably over at Mom's right now, which would explain why he's not here. Now, the question is whether I should go back there, or just wait here until he comes home. If I go over there, I might miss him if he leaves to come back here. If I stay, I don't have any idea how long he's going to remain there. What to do, what to do.... > Her musings were cut short as she heard a faint fumbling at the lock on the front door.

"This is a complete waste of our time, Philip," she could hear someone complaining to their companion outside in a low voice. "Giles isn't going to cooperate with us, regardless. You know how he feels about the Council. I think he'd rather have his fingernails pulled out than help us in any manner."

"Be that as it may," someone she assumed was Philip replied, "since we've been having such admirable results in our search so far, it won't hurt to wait here and see if he could tell us anything that might help find that bint. If he doesn't want to cooperate, I'm sure you and Carstairs will be able to persuade him to change his mind."

< Okay, that definitely helps with the decision-making process, > she thought as she paused to hit the "Erase' button on the answering machine. < Now, all I have to do is get out of here without them seeing me. > As she began walking through the kitchen to the back door, she heard the doorknob rattling as someone tried opening it. Turning, she dashed upstairs and into the back bedroom as the front door swung open. After quietly closing the bedroom door, she pushed the window sash up, just enough to slip through, and then dropped to the ground. Taking care not to be seen, she slipped away into the small thicket behind the apartment building and, once she felt far enough away to be safe, began running home.

Chapter 2

"Okay. One minute. What did you want to say?" Xander's expression was one of complete disinterest as he faced her, but his hands in the pockets of his jacket were lightly clenched into fists, and Faith could see a slight tension in his shoulders and his spine, betraying either anger or fear at her presence. Knowing what she did of their shared history, Faith could reasonably eliminate fear as a possible reason, leaving anger as the most likely source of his tension. Add to that the vitriolic responses she had gotten earlier and she guessed, no, she knew, that somehow, Queen B had not only managed to make Xander feel that all of his previous efforts helping Buffy in her Slaying weren't appreciated, but had most likely also managed to insult him personally, probably by implying that he interfered somehow in their efforts or increased the danger to everyone else when he tried to help. < B, you've got your head so far up that cute little ass of yours, you're gonna need a whole team of proctologists to help you pull it back out, > she thought, as she pondered the best way to try and get Xander to cool down.

"Look, Xan, as I was trying to say earlier, there's been a major misunderstanding here between us," she began, holding up her hands, as to hold off any response he might have. "And it's all been on my side. I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, and I've come to a couple of conclusions. All those things that I said to you before? They were wrong." < Okay, now for the apology. B would be short and quick. > "I was completely wrong about your helping out. I apologize," she said in a low, barely audible voice, as she looked down at her feet, trying to look shamefaced. "I'm sorry, Xander." < There, that ought to do it. >

Xander's face was impassive, as though he was being careful not to let any expression out and reveal what he was thinking. After about fifteen seconds, he nodded sharply at her, and said simply, "Okay. Apology accepted, Buff."

"Good." Faith let a wide smile spread across her face as she looked up at him. "Want to grab some coffee and talk? I know we have some things to work out, and I'd like to start doing that now, if that's okay with you. I kinda miss things being the way they used to be." < Come on, Boy Toy, be civil and say 'yes.' I can't rush this too fast, or you'll guess something is up. You're a lot smarter than you're usually given credit for. >

"Yeah, I guess I could use a cup," Xander nodded, a little uncertainly. "The Expresso Pump okay?"

"Fine with me, X-Man," Faith grinned, as she reached out and began pulling him along with her. "Let's go," she smiled up at him, getting a hesitant smile in return. "We've got a lot to catch up on. So, who was the skanky-looking vamp-bait with you in the alley? Friend of yours? 'Cause you can do so much better, you know," she told him, as she linked her arm around his and held it possessively.

"Ah, no, I don't know her, at all," Xander said, as he fell into step with her. < What's up with that? It doesn't seem like a typical Buffy question, > he told himself. "I was heading back to my place to get ready for patrol when I saw her leaving the Bronze with one of those bloodsuckers. She obviously didn't notice, but he didn't have a reflection in one of the store windows they passed, so I figured I should step in. I didn't expect him to be meeting any of his buddies, but by the time I saw them, it was too late to do anything about it."

"Well, good thing for her you were around," Faith smiled up at him again. < And even better for her that you don't know her, > she thought. < If you were seeing her, she'd probably have had a serious accident in the Ladies' Room shortly. This way, everybody gets to go home happy. >


Four vampires walked down a tunnel that opened up into a large cave, wearing their normal game faces. The apparent leader, looking somewhat like a turned, younger version of Tom Cruise, was instructing the others as they walked.

"It's too crowded. We gotta hold out for a few hours, pick up a straggler. Some drunk. Can't be calling attention to...", he paused in his lecture momentarily, as they noticed that they were not alone, "ourselves." They all stopped as they noticed the hulking, piebald figure who stood quietly facing them in the semi-darkness of the cave. Big. Humanoid. Male. Looking like an incorrectly assembled jigsaw puzzle of human and demon parts, and wearing a pair of fatigue pants and army issue boots.

"I've been thinking. About vampires," the creature said casually, as though they were discussing the weather or the previous evening's sports scores.

"This is my place," the leader stated, in a threatening tone of voice, giving their unexpected visitor a menacing glare.

"Your place, yes. The sewers," he replied, either unable to recognize the implied threat, or completely unimpressed by it. "You hide from them. Crawl about in their filth. Scavenging like rats. What do you fear?"

The expression on the leader's face was a mixture of anger and astonishment at the reply. "Kill this guy already," he told the vamp on his right.

The minion rushed forward eagerly, growling as he reached out clawed hands towards his target. His opponent simply lifted his arm in a 'never mind' gesture and caught the vamp by his throat, casually lifting him off his feet.

"You fear the cross. The sun. Fire," he continued speaking in the same casual tone of voice. "And, oh, yes..." he paused for a second, as he looked at his captive. Clamping his free hand on the vampire's shoulder, he effortlessly pulled his hands apart, tearing his head off. "I believe decapitation is a problem as well." He tossed both parts of the vampire to the ground before the vamp's leader, where they both immediately disintegrated into dust.

"You can have the place," the leader immediately offered, "I mean, we don't have to stay here anymore."

"You fear death," the creature said, as he approached the remaining vamps. "Being immortal, you fear it more than those to whom it comes naturally. Vampires are a paradox."

"Okay," the leader agreed, nervously. "We're a paradox. That's cool."

"Demon in a human body. You walk in both worlds and belong to neither. I can relate. Come," he said, as he put a hand on the leader's shoulder. "We have a lot to talk about," he said, smiling down at the leader, who looked up at him with a combination of nervous fear and anxiety. "You may call me Adam."


Giles hesitated for a moment before he swung the large brass knocker against the brass striker panel on the oak door of the Tudor split- level that was set back from the street of one Sunnydale's many beautifully landscaped, pleasant appearing neighborhoods. Although he loathed interfering in the lives of his younger companions-in-arms in the battle against the Hellmouth, he felt that the information he had been given earlier this evening was of sufficient import to justify this imposition. The knocker reverberated hollowly through the house as he waited with some apprehension for a response from within. After a full minute passed without any apparent reaction, he swung the knocker again, twice, more insistently this time, and then resumed his wait. His efforts were rewarded, finally, by the approach of one of the house's residents, calling something that Giles was unable to make out through the thickness of the door. The sounds of various locks being thrown preceded the opening of the door, and Giles was confronted by a dark-haired middle-aged woman, whose blank expression of loss and dissipation was somewhat offset by the remnants of classic beauty still evident in her face.

"Yes?" she asked, looking at Giles with the same expression one would reserve for door-to-door salesmen and evangelists.

"I'm sorry to bother you at this hour, Mrs. Harris," Giles apologized, "but I need to talk with your son, Xander. It involves a matter of some urgency with which he was previously involved. I was unable to contact him on his cell phone, earlier, so I took the liberty of coming here to see him in person."

"I'm sorry, but Alexander no longer lives here," the woman told him. "He moved out several weeks ago."

"Oh. My. I was, uhm, unaware of that fact. Obviously, uh, Alexander seems to have forgotten to mention that. If I could just trouble you for his new address, since it appears he neglected to give that to me also, I can cease troubling you and be on my way," Giles smiled, despite the qualms in his stomach that news had instantly generated.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not sure where he is living, now. He didn't leave a forwarding address," Mrs. Harris said. "I'm not sure, but I believe his mail is being held for him at the Post Office. You might try there." Her deliberate and precise diction, reinforced by the faint smell of bourbon, made Giles' sense of foreboding begin screaming like the sirens of an ambulance careening down a highway.

"By any chance, would you happen to know his new cell phone number?" Giles asked, although the sinking feeling in his stomach gave him a premonition of what the answer would be.

"No, he didn't leave that with us, either." Bingo. Given a preference, Giles would have rather have known the correct numbers for the lottery drawing later in the week than have correctly guessed what Mrs. Harris had just confirmed.

"I see," he said, various courses of action running through his mind as he spoke. "Well, on the off chance that he should check in with you, could you please ask him to contact me? My name is Rupert Giles. He has my number. You could also tell him that if he prefers, he could just stop by my apartment. Whatever time is convenient for him would be fine. I just need to speak with him for a few minutes, to confirm some information he gave me."

"All right, Mr. Giles," she gave him the barest polite smile she could away with. "If he should stop by, I'll tell him. But I shouldn't expect much, if I were you," she added, as she closed the door.

"I don't," he said to himself, in a low voice, as he turned to head back to his car. "After seeing this, I wouldn't expect much at all."


Willow lay quietly on the bed in Tara's room, hands folded across her stomach, as she watched Tara lay out her Tarot cards for a reading.

"I wonder where she is?" she said, as she turned her eyes to the ceiling above the bed.

"Who? Faith?" Tara asked, pausing in her reading to look over at the redheaded Wicca, concern evident in her expression.

"Yeah. I wish she would make a move. She's making my stomach all acid-y."

"But you think Buffy can handle her?"

"I think so," Willow answered, as she sat up and faced her blonde lover, a worried expression on her face. "But that doesn't mean Faith won't hurt someone else."

"Well, you should be safe," Tara tried to reassure her. "Nobody knows you're here. I mean... they don't even know I exist, right? I know all about them, but ..."

"Hey," Willow said, as she put a gentle hand on Tara's knee.

"I mean, I mean, th-that's totally cool," Tara continued in a 'no big deal' tone of voice. "I mean, it-it's good. It's...it's better."

Willow saw through the blonde's attempt to mask her own concern and rushed to reassure her.

"Tara, it's not like I don't want my friends to know you," she told her. "It's just ...well, Buffy's like my best friend, and she's really special. And... there's this whole bunch of us, and-and we sort of have this group thing that revolves around the slaying, and- and I-I really want you to meet them. But I -I just kinda like having something that's just, you know...mine." Tara regarded her silently after she finished speaking.

"And I-I usually don't use so many words to say stuff that little, but," she paused and gave a little laugh as she looked nervously at her companion, "do you get it at all?"

"I do", the blonde answered, as she stared back.

Taking a deep breath to reassure herself, Willow got up off the bed and headed over to the phone on Tar's desk. "I should check in with Giles, get a situation update," she said.

"I am, you know," Tara said quietly.

"What?" Willow asked, stopping and turning to face her.

"Yours," Tara said, simply, the meaning behind her words quite evident. Willow's smile stretched from ear to ear as she turned back to pick up the phone and dial Giles' number.

The smile had vanished from her face when she put the phone down a few minutes later. After reaching only Giles' answering machine when she attempted to contact him, the hacker-turned-Wicca had then dialed her and Buffy's dorm phone to retrieve any messages that might be waiting, and had heard Giles' ambiguously worded urgent request.

"I'm sorry, but I have to go, right away," she apologized as she gathered up her coat and bag. "I'm completely not sure what the problem is, and I can't seem to get in touch with anyone. Buffy's not answering her cell phone, and Giles still isn't back at his apartment, despite what he said in his message, and I really think that I should try to find both of them, since Giles usually doesn't leave Cryptic-Guy messages on the phone, not that he does it in person either, I mean. And, the- the tone in Giles' voice was the one he usually used for his 'I-think-there-might-be-a-possible- Apocalypse-in-the-making, but-I'm-not-completely-sure-and-I-don't- want-to-alarm-you-unnecessarily' speeches, back when we were still in high school," she explained, as she headed for the door. "Normally I'd invite you to come and meet the gang, but if there really is a problem, Buffy will be in her 'I'm-the-Slayer-and-I-have-to-kill-this- monster-so-tell-me-the-best-way-to-do-that' frame of mind and Giles will be all 'we-have-to-research-this-problem-immediately-and- determine-what-steps-are-necessary-to-avert-it-as-soon-as-possible' and- and, they're not at their very best meeting new people under those type of circumstances, and, oh Goddess, I'm starting to babble again, aren't I?" she trailed off embarrassedly as she saw Tara smiling fondly at her.

"Just go," the blonde smiled at her, "and d-don't worry about me. You take care of- of yourself, and if you need any help, give m-me a call. O-Okay?"

"Okay," Willow smiled back. "And Tara? Thanks. For everything," she said, as she hurried out the door. Behind her, as the door swung shut, she didn't see Tara's face suddenly narrow in concern as she examined the cards lying on the bed.


Giles was beginning to feel quite frustrated. It almost seemed as though there were a conspiracy going on, one intent on preventing him from contacting any of the Scooby Gang. After leaving Xander's parents' house, he had once again attempted to phone Buffy and Willow, and once again, had determined that if they were in their dorm room, they were not answering their phone. A quick drive over to their dorm and the interrogation of several students had quickly ascertained that not only were they not in their dorm room, neither of them had been seen anywhere on campus over the course of the last few hours. While that was not normally cause for concern, Faith's uncertain presence in town, the knowledge that one of the Council's 'black' teams had arrived earlier in the day to 'retrieve' the wayward Slayer, and his concern that the information he had learned earlier this evening could be of major, life-altering significance to one of the Slayerettes, as they sometimes referred to themselves, all combined to inflict on him a headache of truly mammoth proportions. One that seemed to be steadfastly ignoring the aspirin he had taken shortly after leaving the Harris' house. < It was certainly unusual, > he mused to himself while he waited for the traffic light to change, < that Xander's mother seemed so unconcerned about her complete lack of information regarding his relocation of his living quarters and her total inability to contact him should the need arise. I simply cannot comprehend how any parent could so readily lose contact with their children to the extent that they do not even know where they are living. If I had a son like Xander- > he began thinking, but immediately cut it off. < I do not have the time to tread those paths again, > he told himself. < Time enough to re-open old wounds after we resolve our current crises.>

The beep of a horn behind him brought him back to the world, and he belatedly realized that the light had changed to green. He shifted into first, and his car slowly moved forward. < What is it with these children? > he asked himself as he slowly cruised through the center of town, searching the crowded sidewalks for a sign of any member of the Scooby Gang. < When there is nothing of any import going on, they are constantly underfoot, but when it is vital that I speak with any of them, it would seem that they've turned invisible, or left on vacation. Their timing leaves much to be desired. >

Forty minutes later, after yet another fruitless search around town for a glimpse of any of the Gang, he reluctantly parked his car in the complex's lot closest to his apartment, and then entered his apartment. As he reached over to flip on the light, he paused momentarily as he noticed that he was not alone. Two members of the Council's 'retrieval' team were seated in his living room, waiting for him.

"Sorry I wasn't here when you arrived, but I must have forgotten about inviting anyone over for dinner," he said, as he flicked on the lights. "I suppose we'll just have to get by on sandwiches and whatever else I might have in the pantry."

"It's good to see that you haven't lost your sense of humor, Giles," the heavy-set, dark-haired man sitting on the couch replied. "But seeing as how we only work with actual employees of the Council and their trusted representatives, I'm sure you've figured out for yourself why you haven't seen us around."

"And it's good to see that you haven't lost your touch for subtlety, Weatherby," Giles told him. "I feel fairly safe in assuming that you aren't here to offer me my position as the Slayer's Watcher back again, so why don't you just come out and tell me why you are here, so that you can leave immediately afterwards?"

"You know why we're here, Giles," Weatherby stated, as if he were speaking to a child. "We've come to take the Rogue Slayer back, to stand trial before the Council for her transgressions. If you can help us locate and subdue her, it might make some members of the Council look more kindly on your previous actions," he suggested.

"And the reasons that I would care about the opinions of a group of narrow-minded, intolerant, hidebound and pompous bores would be what, exactly?"

" 'ere now, you watch your mouth when you're talking about the Council," the burly, blond thug sitting in Giles' easy chair began to get to his feet, a look of outrage on his face. "You don't talk that way about your betters, when I'm around."

"Oh, it's so good to see that you haven't changed a bit since the last time I saw you, Collins," Giles glanced over at him with a smile that didn't reach anywhere near his eyes. "Where are the other two stooges?" he asked as he turned his attention back to Weatherby.

"You must think you're a regular comedian, don't you?" Collins asked, as he grabbed hold of Giles' shoulder and began pulling him around to face him. Giles spun unexpectedly easily with Collins' grip and drove his fist deep into the blond's solar plexus, then let him drop limply to the floor. As Weatherby tried to quickly push himself up off of the couch, Giles took a step back from Collins as he slid a hand back under his jacket to the small of his back and produced a small matte-black pistol. Swinging it up and centering it on Weatherby's torso, Giles calmly looked at him and nodded towards his gasping teammate, "Help him up, if you would, please," he said. "And I would be ever so grateful if I were to never see you or any other member of your team again, Weatherby. Good-bye," he smiled, as he opened the door and waved them towards it.

"Darts don't hurt all that much, Giles," Weatherby smirked, as he recognized the weapon. "I've been shot by much bigger guns and I'm still here."

"Yes, well, it all depends on where you get shot, how many times and exactly what the darts are tipped with, doesn't it?" Giles continued to smile, as he lifted the pistol towards Weatherby's face. "How are you fixed for anti-toxins? And exactly which one should you be treated for?"

"Y-you-you're gonna regret this," Collins managed to gasp as Weatherby helped him to his feet. "If you ain't with us, you're against us," he stated weakly, while trying to glare menacingly at his assailant.

"If by not being with you," Giles coldly replied, his eyes boring deeply into both of them, "you mean, not supporting a bunch of small- minded, reactionary bureaucrats who are more concerned with overseeing and controlling the lives of adolescent girls unfortunate enough to be chosen by the fates to battle demons and other evils that walk the world than they are with determining the most efficient and advantageous methods of supporting these girls in their efforts, then, yes, I am most definitely against you.

"Faith Wilson, despite her unfortunate and ill-advised actions last year, persevered in her calling and helped save the world numerous times from hordes of demons seeking to open the Hellmouth and destroy all that mankind has built during our time here on this planet. I will not be a party to any attempts to capture her so that the Watcher's Council, a group of adult males whose combined experience in single combat against demons does not equal even a tenth of hers, can execute her in order to once again gain control over yet another unfortunate adolescent."

"Mark my words, you'll come to regret your attitude, once things are back the way they should be, Giles," Weatherby warned, as he guided Collins out the door.

"And you mark mine," Giles returned the warning. "If you remain in Sunnydale and make any attempts to hinder either of the Slayers in any manner whatsoever, whoever discovers your remains will be able to mail them back to the Council in an envelope. That's assuming there will still be a Council to mail them back to," he said flatly. Taking off his glasses, he smiled a shark's smile as he looked directly into Weatherby's eyes and added, "And the name is Ripper, mate."


Approximately twenty minutes after Weatherby and Collins had taken their leave, Giles heard the doorbell chime. < Not even those buffoons would return this quickly, > he thought to himself as he turned off the kettle and cautiously peered out the window, trying to see who it was at the door. When he saw that it was Willow, he quickly opened the door and smiled with relief at finally having the opportunity to talk to her.

"Willow. I'm glad you stopped by," he smiled at her, as he stepped back to let her in. "I was hoping that you would, so that we could discuss several matters of interest that I happened upon recently."

"Okay, Giles, just what exactly is it that you need to talk to me about?" Willow asked, concern in her voice as she followed Giles into his apartment. "You sounded pretty concerned over the phone, and I'm not exactly certain what I would be considered the local expert on, except maybe for computers, and somehow I don't think that computers are serious enough to be considered in the same worried tone of voice that you use when you're discussing Apocalypses. Unless, that is, of course, you think that there may be another Moloch-type demon- possessed computer problem coming up. Oh my gosh, that's not what you were calling about, was it? Because if it was, then- then the demon might have been monitoring our phone lines, cause that's pretty easy to do if you have the right equipment, and it'll know that we know about it, and-"

"Calm down, Willow and please sit down," Giles interrupted her before she could get launched on another babble-fest. "I wasn't calling about a demon-possessed computer problem, so you needn't worry about anything like that. I believe, though, we may possibly have had a much more serious problem hanging in front of us for some time which I failed to recognize, and which may well eventually pose a dilemma requiring the wisdom of Solomon to solve."

"Giles, you are not providing much in the reassuring-comfort-type area here," Willow told him, the expression on her face betraying her worry as she listened to him. "Just what exactly is the problem you think we may have here, and why do you think I may be an expert on it? Is there a new demon coming to open the Hellmouth, or have you found a new prophecy that says we're all gonna die or be attacked or something?"

"Willow, please, sit down," Giles repeated, indicating a chair for her to sit on, as he deftly avoided her question. "Would you like a cup of tea, or something else to drink? I believe there are a number of fruit juices and sodas left over in the refrigerator since the last meeting."

"Giles, I don't want anything to drink, thank you, and you're avoiding the issue, which is starting to give me major wiggins," she said, as she dropped gracelessly onto one of the chairs. "What is going on?"

"All right, Willow," Giles sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he sat at the edge of his couch. "Earlier this evening, I was contacted by a former colleague of mine, who retired from the Watcher's Council a number of years ago, and who has been spending his retirement researching the various types of summoning spells used by tribal shamans in the more remote areas of the world. His work has not only verified earlier research regarding the numerous types of spirits and demons that can be summoned, but has expanded upon it by verifying the existence of several groups, or hierarchies, of spirits whose presence has previously only been hypothesized.

"Do you recall the incident during which Xander was possessed by the Hyena Spirit three years ago?" he asked, seemingly changing the subject.

"No, Giles," Willow answered somewhat sarcastically. "One of my best friends' eating the school mascot, raw, and then trying to rape my other best friend just sorta slipped my mind. Anyway, that wasn't his fault, or any of the others' fault, either. The zookeeper didn't complete the ritual properly. When he finally did get it right, he transferred the spirits from Xander and the other possessed students into himself, and then died when he fell into the pit of hyenas, which is something I'm not real sorry for, seeing as he was intending to sacrifice me at the time. Anyway, what has this got to do with what you were just talking about? When the zookeeper died, the Hyena spirit just went back to its home plane." Seeing the look on Giles' face, she asked uncertainly, "It did go back to its home plane, right?"

"I am not certain about a number of things regarding that entire incident," he replied. "As I noted at the time, there were a number of anomalies that took place for which I had no explanation. Based on what I learned earlier this evening, if what I believe happened is correct, then I have finally determined the answers to several of the questions I had, answers which I would have preferred to have never learned.

"According to the information I received, there now exists incontrovertible proof of a previously unsuspected hierarchy of non- human, non-demon, animal spirits in addition to those already known, many of whom are ritualistically called upon to imbue the summoner with the characteristics of that particular totem or animal spirit. These totem spirits have generally been referred to as Primals, indicating that they are the spiritual manifestation of the primary characteristics of that particular species of animal, an individual minor god for each species, as it were. The previously unknown spirits of which I spoke earlier are believed to be of an even more ancient lineage than these totem spirits, and may, in fact, be the progenitors of these totem spirits. As such, they would most likely possess even greater power than those Primals with which we are familiar. Based on the information I had supplied to him about the ceremony the zookeeper had performed, my colleague now strongly believes that it was one of these Progenitor Spirits that was invoked by the ritual, and not one of the less powerful Primal Spirits we had originally believed it to be. According to all of the information he has managed to compile regarding them, a Progenitor Spirits would be powerful enough to maintain its presence on this plane for an extended, but still limited, period of time even without the benefit of a host body. With such a body, it would be able to maintain its presence here indefinitely. Austin, my colleague, has indicated that the departure of a Progenitor Spirit from this plane would be quite evident, producing one or more of several obvious magical side effects, none of which we witnessed that night.

"As I mentioned earlier," the former librarian continued, "there were a number of anomalous occurrences that I noticed during the Hyena spirit incident, the primary one being that Xander was chosen as the pack leader, despite the fact that hyenas are strongly matriarchal. That being the case, one of the girls, Heidi or Rhonda, should have been selected by the spirit as the pack leader, not Xander. Another anomaly regarding his selection is that the spirit invoked usually selects the nearest individual possessing what it deems the best combination of health, intelligence, pro-survival capabilities, ruthlessness and pack, or in this case, family loyalty, since that person would most likely provide the best leader for the pack, increasing the probability of its survival and ability to prevail over both enemies and adverse conditions. While not intending any slur on Xander's character," he finished explaining, "I must say that, while I admit that Xander has shown himself to be quite clever at times, and that he cares deeply about you, Buffy and Cordelia, and even Oz and myself to a lesser extent, I have not seen him exhibit much in the way of the other characteristics I mentioned."

Willow sat quietly for several minutes after he finished speaking, staring down at her hands without saying a word, her obvious deliberation encouraging Giles to remain silent while she thought. Finally, shaking her head, she came to a decision, and looked up to Giles, holding his eyes as she spoke.

"Giles, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm thinking that you don't know much of anything about Xander. He hasn't ever mentioned anything about his home life to you, has he?" she asked.

"No, he hasn't," the former librarian admitted. "Actually, now that you mention it, I don't recall him ever mentioning his family or home life, aside from the occasional smart remark."

"Well, that's because his home life has basically been hell for him," the redhead confided, as she looked away from him, as if unwilling, or unable, to face him as she spoke. "In some ways, I think Xander is the strongest person I know. He's survived some of the worst experiences that anybody could undergo, and somehow managed to come out of them with his soul relatively intact. I'm breaking a confidence here, Giles, and I'm doing this only because I believe that it is important that you understand Xander's background, so that you can better understand Xander. I don't believe anybody else aside from Xander's parents know what you are about to hear. Cordelia never knew, even though she was living here when it happened, and I'm certain that Xander never said anything to Buffy, because it's just not a subject that would ever come up in casual conversation. I pinky-swore to Xander that I would never tell anyone what I am about to tell you, and that is the strongest, most binding oath a six-year- old can make," Willow told him as he listened quietly, and he could see unshed tears gathering in her eyes as she spoke, "and the only reason I did it was because he was my best friend and I loved him and to do otherwise would have caused him even more pain than he was going through at that time.

"First of all, Xander's dad is not really his father. Mr. Harris is actually Xander's stepfather. He adopted him after he married Xander's mother. Xander's real father was in the army and died during a mission somewhere in Southeast Asia when he was about three and a half years old. We only found that out a couple years ago, along with some other information that I'm sure that various government agencies don't want the public to know about, when I hacked into the Defense Department's personnel files. I was trying to help Xander find out more information about his real dad, so I snuck into several classified systems through a backdoor I had stumbled onto earlier when I was looking for something else, and I only had the chance to download part of the information that I found before I realized that I was being tracked, and managed to log off before they located me. Anyway, that stuff isn't relevant to what I have to tell you, now, so I'll get back to that later. In any event, as I said, Xander's stepfather adopted him, along with his sister, when he married Xander's mother. "

"I wasn't aware that Xander had any siblings," Giles interrupted her. "I don't recall him ever mentioning any other family members, aside from his parents and his Uncle Rory."

"That's cause he doesn't have any, not anymore," the redhead told him. "Xander had a little sister, Siobhan, who was a year and a half younger than us. I don't remember her very well, I was just six when she died from smoke inhalation in a fire at the Harris's house. The insurance investigator's report attributed the cause of the fire to children playing with matches, based on what Mr. Harris told him, and Xander took all the blame for everything that happened: for the fire, for his sister's death, and for the fact that Mrs. Harris became an alcoholic afterwards. The thing is, I know he didn't do it, because we were out playing on the swings at the park playground at the time the fire is supposed to have started. I distinctly remember that Xander had left us to go home at twelve minutes after four, because I was wearing my Tweety Bird watch, and Xander asked me what time it was. He was worried that his mom would be mad that he was late getting home. By the time he did get home, the house was already on fire. He told me later that he found his stepfather asleep on the couch in the rec room, where the fire had started, and managed to wake him up before the flames got too bad. I think the fire actually started from Mr. Harris' cigarette, and that he was passed out drunk on the couch when Xander found him. Mrs. Harris was out shopping at the time, and everyone thought that Siobhan was with her. They didn't find her body in her bedroom until after the fire was extinguished, and by that time, she was dead. Mrs. Harris was devastated over Siobhan's death, and basically crawled into a bottle afterwards. She hasn't come back out since.

"I tried to tell everyone that Xander didn't do it, because he was with me when they said the fire started, but nobody wanted to listen. They all told me I was mistaken about the time, that I was just saying that because I wanted to help my friend, and that Mr. Harris had already told them what had happened. After all, why would he lie and blame his own son for the fire? Why?" she repeated, her voice beginning to crack as she remembered the pain she and her friend had gone through. "Because he was the one really responsible for it, and he could be arrested and go to prison if it were true, that's why! The worst part about that whole awful mess, aside from Siobhan's death," Willow continued, tears beginning to stream down her face as she spoke, "is that Xander believed what that heartless, cowardly, drunken bastard told him about him being responsible for the fire. His father told him that if he had been home on time, then the fire would never have had the chance to get so big, and Siobhan would still be alive; and because of that, Xander's blamed himself ever since. No matter what I've said, no matter what I've done over the years to try to show him he was wrong, he still believes that Siobhan is dead because of him, and it's all because of that bastard!!! I swear to you, Giles, if I ever saw vamps feeding on him, I'd stand there watching them drain him, and I'd enjoy every minute of it!

"And it didn't stop there. Xander used to show up at my house at least once or twice a week to sleep over, not that I minded in the least, but when I asked him about it, he'd usually have some goofy explanation that didn't tell me anything. Then, add that I've seen a lot of unexplained bruises on Xander over the years and that I know he's had to go to the ER a lot more times than would be considered normal, even for Sunnydale, Giles, and I'm convinced that his stepfather beats him, and that Xander thinks he deserves it. I've brought the subject up more than once, trying to discuss it with him, but he just clams up and won't say anything at all. One time, he got really angry with me when I wouldn't stop asking him questions, and he stormed out of my house and wouldn't come by for two days. We've been best friends since we were five years old, Giles," the anguish in Willow's voice made Giles' stomach churn as he listened, "and him staying away and not wanting to see me for two days hurt worse than almost anything else I've ever been through. Ever since then, we've sorta had this unspoken agreement not to ever bring the subject up again. One of the things that scares me most is the idea that someday his father will accidentally kill him when he's beating him, because he's too drunk to know when to stop. "I don't know what to do about this, anymore, Giles," she sobbed, wrapping her arms around herself and rocking back and forth in her chair. "I failed him! I've got a genius level IQ, I've been accepted into Harvard and Yale and Oxford and MIT, I've hacked into Defense Department computers without a problem, and I can't figure out what to do to keep my friend safe," she wailed, as she let her grief overwhelm her. "If I tell the authorities, he'll hate me, and I couldn't live with that, but if I don't, he could get killed, and it'll be my fault! What should I do, Giles? I don't what to do!"

Moving off the couch, Giles crouched down beside the weeping hacker and wrapped her in his arms as he attempted to console her.

"I can well understand your concerns about Xander, now, Willow, and I fully agree with them," Giles told her, as he patted her back soothingly. "Although it is difficult to conceive of anyone despicable enough to saddle a child with the guilt that would inevitably accompany the belief that one is responsible for a sibling's death, knowing you, I have no doubt as to the accuracy of everything you have told me here tonight. What is important for you to remember is that you, too, were a child while all of this was going on, and had no more control over anything that was happening than did Xander. The fact that no adults gave any credence to what you tried to tell them is a reflection on their intelligence and abilities, not yours or Xander's. In any event, we're going to do our best to ensure that nothing bad happens to him again. I give you my word on that," he promised.

"Thanks, Giles," Willow whispered, as she sniffled and wiped at her eyes with her sleeve, and he returned to his place on the couch. "Anyway," she continued, a few moments later, after she regained her composure, "ever since Siobhan's death, Xander's been kind of super-obsessed with making sure that everyone he cares about is safe, no matter what it might cost him. Up until you and Buffy showed up sophomore year, Jesse and I were the only real friends and family he had. That's one reason it hit him so hard when he had to stake Jesse that night at the Bronze. Jesse wasn't just Xander's best friend, he was like his brother, too, and Xander was the one who had to kill him. I know, and Xander knows, too, that it really wasn't Jesse he killed, but it certainly felt like it to him, and to me, and it's just one more thing that he feels he failed at doing."

"I can understand both of you feeling that way, Willow, but it's certainly not realistic for Xander to think that he can protect everyone he loves against anything that might conceivably happen," Giles told her. "He's only one person, and there are definite limits to what he can accomplish."

"Xander doesn't think so, Giles," the witch answered him. "I think that he believes if he tries hard enough, he can keep everyone safe. And as far as him being ruthless goes, I can testify from personal experience that he can do that in a very big way. Several years ago, when I was thirteen and in junior high, there were these two upperclassmen, varsity football players, who thought I was cute and wanted me to go out with them. After I told them I wasn't interested, they waited for me after school one day, with two other friends of theirs, and dragged me into one of the storage rooms in the back of the gym, so 'we could get better acquainted,' they told me. I was screaming and fighting and trying to get away, and they were laughing because they thought no one was going to stop them, because they were big and tough and popular, and I was just this little nerd girl who thought she could ignore them and get away with it. Xander was looking for me when I didn't meet him after school like I usually did, and he heard me screaming. He came through the door looking worried, and when he saw me and saw what they were doing, he went berserk. Literally. One of them had pulled my blouse almost completely off, and when Xander saw that, he just went after him like he was the wrath of God being loosed on the Egyptians. I swear to you, Giles, the four of them together must have weighed close to seven hundred pounds, and at that time, Xander couldn't have weighed more than one hundred and fifty pounds, tops, but he went through them like a lion hitting a group of Chihuahuas.

"When I saw him come crashing into the room, I was ecstatic, because I knew that he had come to save me, and I didn't have any doubt in my mind at that instant that he would. Then, after I saw the look in his eyes when he realized what was happening, I was terrified. Not of Xander, but of what I thought he was going to do to them. If he had been a better fighter that day, Giles, I have no doubt that he would have killed at least one, if not all of them. He kicked one of the two guys holding me in the groin just like he would have kicked a football, and poked his fingers in the eyes of the other guy, then shoved me towards the door before he went after the others. I don't know exactly what he did after that because I was trying to find a teacher to intervene, but nothing any of the four of them did to try and stop him did any good. Someone must have heard all the screaming and the noise and told one of the teachers, because some of them came running to find out what the problem was. By the time they got there, three of the guys who attacked me were lying on the ground, unconscious and bleeding, and Xander was on top of the last guy, choking him. It took three teachers to get him to finally let go, and I think that was mostly because I was crying and pulling at his arms and begging him to stop.

"Everybody ended up in the hospital emergency room, and two of the guys ended up being hospitalized for a while. Among the four of them, there were two broken arms, a broken elbow, eight broken fingers, one broken leg, a broken kneecap, seventeen broken ribs, one detached retina, two scratched corneas, a ruptured spleen, two mild and two severe concussions and a truckload of cuts, bruises and lacerations. I remember that list, Giles, because the police didn't believe the doctors at first, when they told them what Xander had done. And when they finally did believe them, they had them check him for drugs, because they couldn't believe that he could do all that damage by himself. Xander ended up with a broken arm, three broken ribs, a mild concussion, and a black eye. He also got arrested for four counts of battery, mostly because one of the football players was hospitalized in serious condition for ten days and was out for the entire season. The guys who attacked me were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace, mostly because they all swore it was just a big misunderstanding that got out of hand, and because there was no way to prove that they intended to rape me.

"Anyway, after everything got sorted out by the authorities, all four of those guys transferred to other schools, one of them out of state entirely. Giles, they were all terrified of Xander. None of them wanted to take the chance of ever getting him mad at them again, because they all believed that he was trying to kill them that day. I believe that he was, too, Giles.

"If you need another example, just recall that when Angelus was trying to raise Acathla and I was trying to restore Angel's soul, I had told Xander to tell Buffy what I was doing, so she could stall him long enough for the spell to take effect. As we found out later, he didn't tell her, and Angel got sent to Hell after the spell succeeded. When I confronted him about it later, and accused him of not telling her because he was jealous, he told me that if we wanted to gamble our own souls and existence on the chance that I might succeed with the spell, that was okay because it was our choice, but that we had no right to choose to gamble with the souls and existence of the rest of the world on the off chance of Angel regaining his soul, especially when we all knew that we could stop the ritual by killing Angelus. He said that's why he didn't tell Buffy, and then he added that sending Angel to Hell was just a bonus, as far as he was concerned. I believed what he told me, then, and I still believe that he didn't do it out of jealousy, just out of pragmatism.

"I think that when it's necessary, Xander can be as ruthless as anyone can be, and all I can say is that you really don't want to be in a situation where he has to make a decision like that, Giles," Willow warned him. "Because when he does, the blood is going to be knee deep.

"And I'm pretty sure that most of it won't be his."

Chapter 3

"So, Xand, exactly how and when did you become Sunnydale's answer to Bruce Lee?" Faith asked, as she leaned her chin on her hand, her arm propped on the table before her and stared at the brunet enigma before her whom she thought she had known so well. They were seated at a small table near the back of the Expresso Pump, their preferred choice of caffeinated beverage on the table before them, just looking at each other, each waiting for the other to begin when Faith decided to open the conversation.

" I started taking some self-defense lessons a couple months back at the local dojo," Xander finally began. "I had decided I was tired of being Punching-Bag Man whenever we went on patrol, and was working out at Ryan's Gym when I met a guy who owned a martial arts studio. We talked some, and he invited me to stop by and look over the classes, see if I found anything interesting. So I did, figuring that anything I could learn would be an improvement over what I knew already.

"I started taking the beginner classes later that week. My biggest problem was my flexibility, but stretching three or four times a day helps a lot. Anyway, once I got more flexible, I began doing pretty well. I improved enough that I started doing some light sparring the second week with some of the upper ranks, and after a few matches, ended up fighting some bozo brown belt who thought it was fun to beat on the lower ranks whenever Master Robertson wasn't around to see. Bozo told me we're only supposed to be doing 'light' contact, then slammed me with a side thrust kick that put me on the floor with what felt like several cracked ribs. When I got up, he just smirked at me and apologized, said he 'slipped.' After we started the match again, he nailed me in the head with a punch, hard, and I found myself back on the floor again. He apologized again, said he misjudged the distance, and asked if I wanted to continue. Well, you know me, I'm stubborn, so I said 'yes' and we began a third time. I was feeling a little groggy, so I was mainly just reacting to his attacks, not making any of my own, and I managed to block several kicks and punches, which seemed to really piss him off, me being a beginner and all. Anyway, he just let loose and was all over me, using combinations I've never seen before, and again I'm on my butt on the floor. By this time, I was pissed off, so when I got up, I didn't even wait for him to ask if I want to continue, I just laid into him.

"This time, though, I wasn't really thinking, just going on instinct. He tried to kick me in the head with a roundhouse, and I dropped to the floor, took out his base leg with a leg sweep, and spun back up to nail him with a spinning thrust kick while he was still in the air. I didn't hit him as hard as he hit me, but it was enough to knock the wind out of him. When he got back up on his feet, I could see he was seriously pissed. So I just waited for him to attack, and then took him down again with a punch and hip throw.

"All the time I was doing this, I wasn't thinking bout what to do, I was just reacting, letting my instincts take over," he continued. "So there we were, Bozo lying on the floor semi- conscious, me standing over him, trying to figure out what just happened, everyone else standing around, speechless, since it turns out Bozo took third place in the National Championships Sparring competition last year, and then Master Robertson came walking in, saw everyone staring at me and asked what happened? Everybody tried to talk at once, so by the time everything was explained, Bozo had woken up, and tried to make it seem that I had sucker punched him when he was distracted. Master Robinson didn't buy that, though, based on what the rest of the class told him. He sent Bozo to the showers, took me aside and had me go over what I remembered. After that, he had me spar with him and several of the other black belts so he could actually see me fight.

"Basically, what he told me after watching me spar, was that when I thought about what to do, I fought worse than when I fought reflexively. Seems as though it wasn't just the weapon skills that stayed after my Halloween as Soldier Guy, I can actually fight better than some of the black belts. Apparently, all I needed was a bit of a refresher course to bring my skills back to the surface, so to speak. Since then, I've been working out at the dojo almost every day. I told everyone I'm training to fight in a full contact league. I have my sparring partners wear the pads we usually use for sparring full contact, and I fight without them. That way I don't have to pull my punches as much, and I tell them not to hold back. None of them can hit nearly as hard as a vamp can, but it does help me keep an edge."

Faith had been looking Xander over as he described his training, mentally comparing him to the gawky, nervous high school senior she had taken advantage of the year before. He had definitely put on some muscle through his chest and shoulders, she noted, but he was still lean, not bulked up like a weightlifter would be. And he now moved with a quiet grace that put her in mind of a predator on the prowl; even when he was quiet, there was still the impression of a coiled spring, of controlled, restrained power just waiting to be unleashed.

< Damn, boy toy, you've certainly done some growing up, > she told herself. < It's a shame that the rest of these idiots didn't do the same. Well, actually, it's probably good that they didn't, it'll make things easier for me later. >

"So what'd your instructor say about you being able to do all that Kung-Fu stuff and not knowing you could do it? Wasn't he at least a little interested?" Faith asked,

"Yeah, he was," Xander agreed. "I told him that I suffered some head trauma a while back in an accident, ended up in the hospital and seemed to have lost a bunch of memories. That, ever since then, I've been discovering various things that I didn't know I could do. Which is pretty much the truth. This being Sunnydale, home of the weird and the whacked, he pretty much bought the whole package. You can explain almost anything away here. People are so used to seeing strange things, it would have to be majorly weird to make them sit up and take notice."

"Yeah, you're right about that," Faith agreed with him, again. "So, how did you get from learning that you can kick Jet Li's ass one day to facing down vamps by yourself? Did you wake up one morning and decide to get yourself drained at the earliest opportunity? Or did you just decide you wanted to audition for the nocturnal volleyball league?" Faith asked, concern mixed with anger evident in her voice. "You're good, Xander. Hell, you might even be great," she conceded, recalling what she had seen him do earlier, "but sooner or later, the dice are gonna roll against you. You go out looking for trouble every night, and eventually, you're gonna find it or it's gonna find you. And in this town, that means that the next night somebody will be waiting by your plot for you to wake up so they can introduce you to Mr. Pointy."

"Gee, that really sounds like excellent advice coming from you, Buffy," Xander snapped, angrily. "Who is it, I wonder, among the vast number of people I know who goes out every night looking for trouble?"

"It's different with me," Faith snapped right back. "It's not like I chose this gig. It chose me. I'm the Slayer. The one girl in all the world, yadda, yadda, yadda, you know the spiel. The Slayer before me died, and suddenly, Bingo! I won the Fight-the-Undead-For- The-Rest-Of-Your-Probably-Very-Short-Lifetime Sweepstakes. If I don't fight them, people are gonna die. It's that simple. You have a choice, and you decided to get yourself killed, you idiot!"

"Yeah, that's right, I had a choice," he agreed, "and I made my decision. I decided that, knowing what I know about this town, I wasn't going to just stand back and not do anything about our 'gang members on PCP' problem, so, yeah, I've been out patrolling on my own for the past few weeks," he continued angrily, locking his eyes with Faith's. "It's not as though I was getting any calls asking if I wanted to come with, was it? Regardless, it's something I'm going to keep on doing, whether you or anyone else in town likes it."

"You're gonna get yourself killed," Faith said, staring back. "It's not a question of maybe, it's just a question of when."

"I could walk out that door and get hit by a truck," Xander replied. "I could fall down a stairway and break my neck. There are hundreds of ways I could die, Buffy, but I'm not gonna sit around and worry about how or when it's going to happen. I'm going to do what I want with my life until I can't do it any more. I am the one who gets to choose what I do with my life. ME! Not you. Not Willow. Not Giles. ME! I get to choose, whether you like it or not. I'm gonna keep on doing what I think needs to be done the same way I've been doing it for the past three years. I didn't like your trying to keep me out of the loop when the Sisterhood of Jhe tried to re-open the Hellmouth last year, and I don't like your trying to do it again now. It didn't work then, and it won't work now. I thought I heard you say earlier you realized you were wrong, Buffy," Xander said, as he got to his feet. "Obviously, I was mistaken. See you around. Or not!" he said, as he grabbed his jacket, turned and headed for the door.

< Damn it! Why does he have to be so goddamn stubborn? One of the few people I'd hate to see anything happen to, and he decides he has to play fucking Superman! > Faith thought, as she quickly got to her feet and hurried after him. "Xander," she called, as she followed him out onto the street. "Wait a minute, will you?"

"Why should I bother?" he snarled at her, glancing at her over his shoulder. "Nothing ever changes with you, does it? Buffy Summers always knows what's best for everybody. Well, news flash, lady! You don't get to decide what anyone else can or can't do. Everybody gets to decide for themselves. That's why it's called free will. Also known as self-determination. Look it up. Maybe you can get Willow or Giles to explain the big words to you." < Damn it, I thought she'd finally stopped trying to run my life, > he thought to himself.

"That's it!" Faith barely managed not to scream at Xander as she finally caught up with him on the sidewalk, and grabbed hold of his arm. "Just hold still and listen for one minute, will you? Just one goddamn minute, okay?"

"You asked me that earlier, and I gave you a lot more than a minute," Xander replied as he again somehow slipped his arm out of her grasp. "All I want now is for you to leave me alone," he told her. "Is that clear? Good-bye."

"I don't want anything to happen to you, you asshole!" she almost yelled, as she again grabbed hold of his sleeve. "I want you to be safe! The thought of you being hurt makes me sick. If something happened to you, I don't know what I'd-" Her hand leapt to cover her mouth as she stopped herself in mid-sentence. < Christ! What the hell am I saying? > Faith asked herself as she listened to the words coming out of her mouth. With a stab of surprise, she realized that what she had just said was actually true. < What happens to him really does matter to me, > she told herself. < What the hell is going on? What's wrong with me? >

"What do you mean by that?" Xander asked, as he stopped and turned around to look at her.

"Just what I said," Faith told him, as she dropped her hand back to her side. "I don't want anything to happen to you. Even thinking about something happening to you upsets me."

Moving forward, she tentatively reached out to cup his face with her hand. "If you were hurt, it would hurt me, too. A lot," she said, quietly as she stared up into his eyes. < What am I doing? > she asked herself. < This isn't me. Whatever happened to Want - Take - Have? I'm not some whiny candy-ass pansy who needs to have someone to take care of her, I'm the Slayer. But -, It felt so good when he held me that night. I could have fallen asleep in his arms. That never happened before, I never trusted anyone enough to spend the night. But I almost let him do it. God! What is wrong with me!?! >

"Don't try and con me, Buffy," Xander said, pushing her hand away. "I deserve better than that from you. If for no other reason than all the time we used to spend together, I at least deserve honesty from you, if not some respect. I know how you feel about me. So don't try and play me for a fool."

"I am being honest, Xander, for the first time in quite a while," Faith told him in a low voice, still staring up at him. "I meant everything I just said. You've always tried to be there whenever I needed you. The fact that I didn't want to let you help never stopped you. You were always trying to help, no matter what might happen to you. You were almost killed that night the Sisterhood tried to reopen the Hellmouth when we tried to keep you out of it. You stopped Jack O'Toole and his boys all by yourself and you never said anything to us about it the next day."

"What? Who-? How'd you find out about that?" Xander asked, flustered by the revelation of her knowledge of that night. < Who the hell told her about that? I didn't think anyone else knew about it. >

"Willy knew all about it and mentioned it once when I stopped by," Faith grinned. "Some demons saw Snyder and some of the Mayor's other minions taking pieces of the bomb out of the basement the next day and told him about it. You forget, not everyone around here wants to party in hell each night after dinner. There's a lot of people, and demons, who like the place just the way it is now. There's not a lot that goes on in this town that someone doesn't see, big guy. The Mayor and his people knew about what you did, too. From what I gather, he was pretty pissed off that the Sisterhood even got the chance to get into town to try and open the Hellmouth. If the bomb had gone off, they would have succeeded and it would have screwed up his plans big time.

"Ours, too," she added quietly. After pausing for a few seconds, she continued. "I never took the time to say 'thanks' to you before this," she said, as she gently reached up and pulled his head down and lightly kissed his lips. "Thank you for saving us that night."

"You're welcome," Xander quietly replied, an uncertain look on his face for a moment. Then he shook his head slightly before continuing. "And that's one of the reasons why I can't just sit back and do nothing, Buffy. You can't be everywhere all the time. Somebody's got to help back you up. That's why I'm going to continue doing what I've been doing. I can't NOT do it. Buffy, you of all people ought to understand that part. If I just sit back and don't do anything about the monsters I know are out there, then I'm no better than them. Anyone who died because I refused to act would be my responsibility, too. You told me that a long time ago."

Faith stared into his eyes for what seemed a very long time. "Okay," she finally agreed. "I don't like it, but I can see I'm not going to talk you out of this. Never hurts to have extra backup around, you never know when you might need it. That goes for you, too, X-man. No more vamp hunting by yourself. If you're going to patrol, you need to pair up with someone. No more patrolling alone any more, you hear me?"

"I hear you. I can live with that."

"That's the whole point, big guy. We'll have to talk to Giles about setting up a new patrol schedule. It'll give him something to do while he's waiting for 'Passions' to come on," she grinned.

"Giles lives for things like that," Xander grinned back. "If it's not researching in musty old books or training, setting up schedules for killing the undead and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night will do." < It looks like Buffy's finally beginning to take me seriously. Maybe I'd better check with Giles for any prophecies about upcoming Apocalypses, > he thought to himself sardonically.

"Xand, I'm serious about this," the petite blonde in front of him emphasized as she grabbed hold of his sleeve and pulled lightly to get his attention. "If I find out you're patrolling alone, I'll put you in the hospital myself. At least that way, I won't have to worry about any vamps getting you. Are we clear on this?" she asked, looking up at him.

"Completely, 100% crystal clear, Buffy," Xander agreed. "There are absolutely no misunderstandings whatsoever. Single patrolling equals semi-private accommodations in beautiful downtown Sunnydale General, complete with hot and cold running bedpans."

"It's good to know I can still get the message across," she smiled. "All right, then. Let's see now, we've got you and me straightened out, numerous vamps dusted, the night is once again safe for the terminally clueless, patrol's finished, and the night's still young. What do you want to do?"

"I don't know, Buff. You got any ideas?"

"Oh, I've got a lot of ideas, Xander," she grinned up at him, a lascivious smile on her face. "I'm just not sure if you'd be up for all of them," she said, the tip of her tongue running along her upper lip.

< What the hell is going on here? > Xander wondered, as he looked down at the woman who had ruled his dreams for the past three years. < If I didn't know any better, I'd say Buffy is coming on to me. What the hell, go with it. See what happens. All she can do is put me in the hospital. > "Oh, I think you'd be amazed what I could be up for, Buffy," he smiled down at her, matching her intonation.

"If half of what Faith said is true," the blonde said with a smirk, "I wouldn't be amazed at all." The smirk grew even wider as Xander blushed bright red and seemed at a momentary loss for words.

"So, what else is new with you, Xander?" Faith asked, changing the subject, as she hooked her arm around his again and began walking down the street. "You still living in the dungeon under Chez Harris?"

"No. I moved out a couple weeks ago," he told her as they strolled down the street. "Found a place over near Pleasant View cemetery. The view's not bad, and the rent is good. Apparently, they've had a problem with gangs of vandals attacking some of the residents time to time. Who'd a thunk?" he said, with a wry grin.

"Anyway, as a result of its primo location and a short chat with the super, I decided to keep watch after I moved in. My first night there, nada happened, but on the second night, two vamps started prowling around, so I introduced them to my buddy, Mr. Crossbow and his friends, the Quarrel sisters. The super there saw me coming back in with my crossbow afterwards, and I thought his eyes were gonna fall out of his head, but all he did was warn me to watch out for 'gang members spaced out on drugs.' He and I got to talking a couple days later, and even though he wouldn't admit that anything weird happens in Sunnydale, he did agree with some suggestions I made about architectural decorations for the building. We are now the first apartment building in Sunnydale demonstrating how both the Celtic and fleury crosses can be incorporated into a 'post-modern design' decorating all of the entrance and exit ways in the building and the underground parking facilities." Xander wore a wide grin, as he added, "It's amazing how many 'casual visitors' strolling around at night suddenly change their minds about entering the grounds, once they get within line of sight of the doorways or the parking bay entrances and exits."

"So when do I get to see these new digs of yours, X-man?" Faith asked, snuggling in a little closer and managing to rub her breast against his arm as she held it.

"Uh, well, um, now's good, if you're really interested," Xander said, more than a bit flustered by her actions. < Satan must be buying ice skates at this very minute, > Xander thought to himself as they strolled down the street together. < Because there's no doubt in my mind -- Hell has frozen over. Buffy is definitely acting like she's interested in me, so the end of the world will soon be rolling over the horizon. Well, at least this way, we'll have ringside seats. >

"Now's perfect," Faith agreed, giving him a wicked smile. "Let's not waste any time, stud. I've got things to see and people to do," she said, "and a lot of time to make up for."

Not completely sure that he had heard her correctly, Xander just gulped and nodded.


Joyce Summers was carrying a load of wash through the kitchen to the basement when the back door to the porch opened and Buffy quietly stepped in.

"Mom!" she said, as she caught sight of her mother.

"Oh my God!" Joyce exclaimed, as she dropped the clothing to the floor and grabbed her throat.

"Don't move," Buffy said cautiously, holding out her hand but staying where she was. "Okay. Mom, y- you have to listen to me very carefully. I'm not Faith."

"Really?" Joyce asked, as she stepped back, leaning against the counter behind her, while she nervously glanced around the kitchen, looking for a way to escape.

"Really," Buffy agreed.

"Well, the resemblance is amazing," Joyce replied, as she tried to casually slide over to the counter where a group of carving knives sat in a butcher's block.

"I know. Mom, you just have to -" Seeing Joyce trying to inconspicuously slide over to the knives, Buffy exclaimed, "Hey! Stop inching! You were inching!" she said accusingly, her feelings obviously hurt.

"Look," Joyce began, "I-I know what you're going to say, and-and, uh-"

"I'm Buffy," the brunette said quietly.

Joyce paused where she was for a moment, obviously surprised, then said, "All right, I didn't know what you were going to say. But," she continued, "that doesn't make you any less crazy."

"Faith switched. I mean, she had some device. She switched our bodies. Mom, I swear," the brunette looked imploringly at the older woman as she brushed a long strand of hair back from her face, "it's me."

Something about the gesture made Joyce look harder at the young woman she believed had assaulted her earlier that evening. Moving closer to her, as the young brunette stood quietly watching her approach, Joyce stared deep into her eyes for several long moments before reaching out and gathering her into her arms.

"Buffy!" she said, her voice muffled as she hugged her tightly. "What happened? Are you all right?"

"I don't know how she did it, Mom," the brunette told her as she hugged her back tightly, "except she had some kind of bracelet kind of clasp-y thing on her hand before she grabbed hold of me, and then, Zap! I'm in her body and before I could figure out what happened, she knocked me out. Are you OK? She didn't hurt you or anything, did she?"

"No, baby, I'm fine," Joyce reassured her, as she held the brunette to her and stroked her hair reassuringly. "Don't you worry about me. I'm just fine," she said, as unshed tears glittered in her eyes. "I think we should call Rupert and get him over here right away, so we can figure out what we have to do next.

"What-? Isn't he here already?" Buffy asked, as she pulled back to look at Joyce's face.

"No. Should he be?" Joyce asked her in a puzzled voice.

"I thought- I stopped by his apartment before I came here," the brunette said, "and I heard your message on the answering machine, so I thought he'd be here already."

"No, honey, he hasn't called or stopped by, yet. I left that message because I wanted to talk to him about everything that's been going on lately," Joyce told her. "I'll just call him now, and ask him to come over right away," she said, as she turned and headed for the phone.

"No, Mom! You can't do that!" Buffy exclaimed, jumping in front of her. "The Council's Retrieval team is at Giles' house. I heard them breaking in when I was there. That's why I had to leave and why I came back here."

"What's a Council Retrieval Team, and what are they doing in Sunnydale?" Joyce asked. "And why couldn't you ask them to help you?"

"Mom, this really isn't the time for long explanations," Buffy said, trying to avoid the questions Joyce had raised. "I need to find the rest of the gang, and then find Faith, so we can undo whatever it is she did, and I can get my body back."

"So just give me short explanations then, young lady." Joyce's voice held the 'no-nonsense' tone that Buffy recognized from her younger years' attempts at prevarication. Any attempts to alter or reshape the truth would go very badly for her. "Who are these people, what are they doing here, and why won't they help you?"

"They're the Council's pet thugs, and they're here to take Faith back to England to stand trial before the Council, okay?" Buffy said, quickly. "Now can we try to find Giles and the guys, Mom? We're wasting time here, and the clock's ticking."

Joyce stared at her daughter for a moment while she analyzed what she had just been told.

"You can't ask them for help because they'll think you're Faith, won't they?" she said. "And if they see you, they'll just try to catch you and take you back to England. They won't care whether you're really Faith or not. They just want to show who's in charge, don't they? This is about their power, isn't it?"

"Mom, we really need to find Giles and the guys. Now. Can you just let this drop? Please?" the brunette pleaded.

"You weren't going to tell me anything about this, were you?" Joyce stated, as she looked into the eyes of the girl standing before her. "If Rupert had been at his apartment and had managed to reverse the spell, you would never have told me about any of this happening, would you?"

"I didn't want you to worry, Mom," Buffy said weakly.

"You didn't want me to worry?" Joyce repeated. "Buffy, I'm your mother. I worry about you all the time. Even if you weren't the Slayer, I'd still worry about you, because you're my little girl, and you always will be. So don't not-tell me things because you don't want to worry me, okay, honey? Because that's not going to work."

"Okay, Mom," the brunette gave her a faint smile. "No more not- telling you when I've been body-switched, okay?"

"You know what I mean, Buffy," Joyce gave her a stern look, before breaking into an equally faint smile. "Okay, now, what do we do about getting you back into your own body? How about if I try to get hold of Rupert again? Knowing him, he won't be able to stand those Council people being in his place any longer than absolutely necessary."

"I don't know, Mom, those guys didn't seem like the type to just leave when they're asked," she said, doubtfully.

"Buffy," Joyce smiled at her daughter, "I really don't think you give Rupert enough credit. There's much more to him than you think. Now, let me have the phone, please, and we'll try to get him over here so we can get this mess straightened out as quickly as possible."


"I think that when it's necessary, Xander can be as ruthless as anyone can be, and all I can say is that you really don't want to be in a situation where he has to make a decision like that, Giles," Willow warned him. "Because when he does, the blood is going to be knee deep.

"And I'm pretty sure that most of it won't be his."

"Well, yes, that does put a much different slant on almost everything that I believed about Xander," Giles admitted, as he considered the ramifications of Willow's story. < In truth, everything she's said indicates that Xander was a far more suitable host for the Spirit than any of the others available, > he thought to himself. < None of them were anything more than arrogant, spoiled children acting out their most basic impulses. I am more surprised that any spirit would lower themselves to possess such as them, at all. >

"Actually, learning that Xander is capable of initiating the type of actions you describe does nothing whatsoever to reassure me," the former librarian said. "In point of fact, he would appear to be exactly the type of individual that a Progenitor-level spirit would consider to be an ideal host. Up until now, the only offsetting factors regarding the likelihood of a Progenitor Spirit's continued habitation in him that I could find is that he had not displayed any significant changes in his behavior or exhibited any unusual abilities or capabilities since the exorcism was performed. Still, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the old adage notes. Examining Xander while using more finely focused analytical spells would provide more reliable information upon which we plan any further actions.

"Now then, Willow, if you would, please call Xander and ask him if he could stop by here sometime tomorrow afternoon. That will give us time to determine which spells and rituals would provide us with the most reliable data, and procure whatever paraphernalia will be required," he directed her, while he rose and began sorting through various volumes and grimoires occupying his shelves.

"Sure, Giles," she agreed, picking up his portable and dialing.

"That's funny," she commented after a moment, as she disconnected and then re-dialed a number. "I'm getting a recording that Xander's number is no longer in service in the Sunnydale area."

"I received the same message when I attempted to contact him earlier this evening," Giles said, as he paused in his examination of a particularly ancient-looking book. "Then, when I called Directory Assistance for his new number, I was told that it is unlisted. I assumed that he had merely forgotten to notify me of the change."

"He changed his number? He never called and told me," Willow said, a look of mixed surprise and hurt on her face.

"Are you aware that he is no longer living at his parents' house?" Giles asked.

"What?" the redhead asked. "Where did he go?"

"Unfortunately, his mother was unable to provide me with any information other than the facts that he had moved out and she had neither his new address nor his new phone number."

"He moved out, and he didn't tell me," Willow said, dazedly. "And he changed his phone number and he didn't tell me that, either," she half-mumbled to herself.

"We need to locate him, ideally as soon as possible," Giles noted, as he resumed his examination of the volumes before him. "Based on what you have told me, these changes in his behavior may be an indication that he has, indeed, been possessed, and is no longer in complete control of his actions, but is, in fact, acting under the influence of the Progenitor Spirit. If such is the case, then it is imperative that we locate him as quickly as possible.

"Now, Willow, I need you to use that infernal device of yours and log on to whatever Internet type of thing it is that you log onto and- Willow? Willow!" Giles said, sharply, realizing that she wasn't paying attention to anything he said.

"Yes, Giles?" she asked, numbly, barely acknowledging his presence as she drowned herself in a pool of self-pity, recriminations and disappointment.

"I need you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and help me locate Xander," he rebuked her. "While you sit there, feeling sorry for yourself that Xander has neglected to inform you of changes in his life, we may be losing valuable opportunities to locate him and to determine whether or not all of the changes that have recently been made in his life were entirely voluntary on his part. First, I need you to access the phone company's database and determine Xander's new address and phone number. Once we have that, we will need to locate Buffy and have her accompany us when we visit him. If he has, indeed, been possessed by the Progenitor Spirit again, I strongly doubt that anyone other than Buffy would be able to subdue him without great risk to life and limb."

As Giles finished speaking, the phone rang, startling Willow, who immediately handed it to Giles.

"Hello?" he said reflexively, as he indicated 'Just a minute' to Willow.

"Rupert?" Joyce asked, recognizing his voice. "This is Joyce. I hope I'm not calling at a bad time. Do you have a minute to talk?"

"Oh, good evening, Joyce," he answered. "Actually, I'm somewhat occupied at the moment," he told her. "Is this something that could wait until tomorrow afternoon, or possibly tomorrow night?"

"Actually, Giles, I don't think that it can. I think that it's very important, since it concerns the whole Slayer situation here in Sunnydale, and it's not really something that I want to discuss over the phone. Do you think you could come over here, right now? It involves Buffy and some recent... developments... with Faith that I think you really need to know about, as soon as possible."

"Oh dear. That doesn't sound very encouraging, at all," he said. "However, if you feel that it is that important, I'll come right over. I should be there in about fifteen minutes. Is that satisfactory?"

"Very," Joyce replied. "And, Rupert? Thank you. I appreciate this more than you know."


Adam stood quietly off to the side of the cavern, as his new minions ushered a dozen new vamps into the cave. When his lieutenant, the Tom Cruise look-alike standing in the back of the cave nodded, indicating that everyone expected was present, he moved confidently to stand before them, drawing the attention of all present to himself.

"As your friends have no doubt already told you," he announced as he paced back and forth before them, his presence holding their complete attention like a demonic Tony Robbins, "I am seeking recruits to join me in an effort that will enabled us to finally take our rightful place in the world outside. The world of Man.

"I have a gift no man has. No demon has ever had," he announced to them. "I know why I am here," he said, as he turned to face them all. "I was created to kill.To extinguish life wherever I find it. And I have accepted that responsibility. You have lived in fear and desperation because you didn't have that gift. But it's time to face your fear."

"Tell us what to do!" the Cruise wannabe yelled from his position in the back.

"You are here to be my first," Adam informed the vampires watching him. "To let them know I am coming."

"We're ready," the wannabe yelled again, and this time he was echoed by several of his companions.

"Then ask yourself, what is it?" Adam told them. "More than man. More than anything else. What is the thing you fear?"

"Tell us," several members of the audience yelled, as the cyborg smiled with what his databases indicated to him was satisfaction. "Tell us! Tell us!"

Chapter 4

Giles' face wore a look of concern as he walked up the steps of 1630 Revello Drive. Just as he was about to knock, the front door opened, revealing Joyce standing in the foyer.

"Rupert," she smiled. "Thank you for coming over." In accordance with hard ingrained habits developed from living on a Hellmouth, she did not invite him in, but merely stepped back to allow him entrance. Closing the door behind him, she gestured towards the living room as she began to brief him of the current situation.

"Faith stopped by earlier this evening, knocked me out and waited for Buffy to come by so she could ambush her," she began.

"Good Lord!" Giles exclaimed, as he carefully grabbed hold of her shoulder and turned her around, one hand gently turning her chin so that he could more closely examine her face, noticing the discoloration of the bruise on her jaw under the makeup she had applied. "Are you all right? You should go to the hospital, and have a doctor examine that," he told her. "Get your jacket, I'll take you over, right now."

"That's not necessary, Giles," Joyce reassured him. "I'm fine, really. The paramedics checked me out when they were here earlier with the police. They said I'm fine. Really. Faith didn't hurt me, aside from this," she indicated her jaw. "If she had wanted to hurt me, she could have done anything she wanted while I was unconscious, but she didn't. So, stop worrying, okay?"

Reluctantly, Giles nodded and released her face. "If you're sure," he said.

"I'm fine," Joyce repeated, giving him a small smile. "And I appreciate your concern. But I asked you to stop by for another reason. When Buffy and Faith were fighting, Faith used some kind of magic gizmo to switch bodies with Buffy. She took over Buffy's body and Buffy is now trapped in Faith's body."

"Wh- What?" Giles stammered. "How- how do you know that?"

"Because I told her." The answer came from behind him, from the brunette standing hesitantly in the doorway.

"Good Heavens!" Giles shoved Joyce behind him as he turned to face Buffy. "Get out of here, Joyce," he ordered. "I'll try to delay her as long as possible."

"Rupert, relax, that's not necessary," Joyce told him, stepping forward and placing her hand on his arm. "That's not Faith, that's Buffy. I know my daughter." "But - but-," Giles sputtered, torn between what he knew he was seeing, and what Joyce was telling him.

"Giles," Buffy's voice was despondent, her expression downcast as she addressed him. "Please, believe me. I'm Buffy, not Faith. This is - " she paused for a moment, searching for the right words.

"Giles, you turned into a demon, and I knew it was you! I mean, can't you just look into my eyes and be all ...intuitive?"

"How did I turn into a demon?" Giles quickly seized on an opportunity to verify her identity.

"Oh! 'Cause, uh, Ethan Rayne. And - and, you have a girlfriend named Olivia. And you haven't had a job since we blew up the school - which is valid, lifestyle wise. I mean, it's not like you're a slacker type, but ..." She trailed off momentarily, upon seeing Giles' apparent discomfort at her comments. "Oh, oh! When I had psychic power, I heard my mom think that you were like a -"

"BUFFY!!!!" Joyce interrupted loudly, before she could complete her sentence. "I think that's adequate, don't you?"

"Oh. Do you want me to continue?" Buffy asked, looking over at Giles.

"Actually, I beg you to stop," he answered, as he reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose. Coincidently, both he and Joyce seemed to be looking anywhere in the room but in the vicinity of each other.

"Ah, hmmm," Giles cleared his throat. "All right ...Buffy. I need you to tell me everything you can remember about what occurred when the switch took place," he instructed her.

"Okay," the brunette Slayer agreed. "Faith and I were fighting, and I knocked her down. She had some kind of clasp-y bracelet kind of thing on her hand, over her palm, and when she grabbed hold of my hand to pull herself back up, there was a ZAP! and then I was looking at myself from her eyes. I froze up for a second and she knocked me out. The next thing I know, I was starting to wake up and I was being handcuffed by the police and sedated by the paramedics. The next time after that when I woke up, I was in the back of a police car, just before the Council's retrieval team crashed it with their truck. I got away from everybody then, and I've spent the past couple hours trying to contact anybody I could.

"Don't you people answer your phones anymore?" she asked as she concluded her account.

"Yes, well, we have all been occupied with a number of things," Giles replied, as he began mentally sorting through everything that had occurred so far during the day, trying to logically prioritize what needed to be done by the urgency of the requisite actions.

First thing, of course, was to get Buffy returned to her own body, as quickly as possible. After that, immobilizing Faith and neutralizing the threat of the Council retrieval team seemed to be of more immediate import than the possibility of Xander's possession by a Progenitor Spirit. The possibility of Faith's redemption, should they be able to rationally discuss matters with her, was of major significance in the scope of things. Without intending any disparagement of Xander, Giles truly believed that any opportunity to regain the rogue Slayer's abilities in the fight against the Forces of Darkness should be seized as quickly as possible. The retrieval team's presence here in Sunnydale also had to be countered as quickly as possible. Knowing the team members as well as he did, Giles entertained no doubt whatsoever that they would resort to more extreme measures as soon as they could reasonably justify it to their Council liaison. As far as the likelihood of Xander being possessed was concerned, hopefully, the recent changes in the boy's, no, the young man's, life were a result of personal growth and a desire for independence, rather than the machinations of a summoned spirit from another plane. If all went well, any potential danger to his soul was purely hypothetical. On the other hand, if everything did not go well (as could reasonably be expected, given that they did live on a Hellmouth), there was a strong possibility that his soul could be irreparably tainted by its close association with the Progenitor spirit. Should such a thing occur, then Xander could potentially end up a serious danger to them all. Given his detailed knowledge of Buffy's fighting techniques, personal habits and psychology and the knowledge of modern weapon skills and military strategies and tactics that he had retained after Ethan Rayne's thrice-damned, Chaos-spawned Halloween debacle, together with the military mindset that accompanied such skills, he possessed the capability to be an extremely dangerous opponent, and that was even before one considered the severe psychological disadvantages any of the Scooby Gang would suffer going up against him in any type of conflict.

Regardless, of how things worked out in the course of the next few hours, he most certainly had his work cut out for him in the days and weeks ahead.

There was no doubt in his mind, whatsoever, now. Somebody up there really had it in for him.


"Good evening." The quiet-looking middle-aged man standing in the doorway of one of the examination rooms in the Antiquities Section of the Library looked as if he should be standing behind the counter of the local grocery store, Prof. Lindsey thought as he looked up from his examination of what was purportedly a late middle period Abyssinian warrior's battle helm, but which he believed was actually a much later period's imitation of such.

"Uhm, could I help you?" he asked, somewhat distractedly.

"Yes, I was looking for a Professor Wallace Lindsey," the man stated, hesitantly taking a few steps further into the room. "I was told that he could help me with a problem I've recently run into."

"Oh, uh, well, that would be me," the professor admitted, as he got up from behind the examination table at which he had been working. "Uh. Just exactly what kind of problem do you have?"

"I'm not interrupting a class or anything, am I?" the man asked, somewhat hesitantly. "I would hate to do that. Education and learning are two things I've always had a great deal of respect for, and I would hate to disrupt any classes or training you might be doing."

"Oh, no, not at all," the professor assured him. "I'm just putting in some time checking on some of the more recent acquisitions we've received. Now, what kind of problem did you have?"

"Well, I've been having some trouble with the proper translation of a summoning spell I ran across several years ago," the man explained. "It's inscribed on a rather large piece of frieze that I acquired some time back. It appears to be a rather obscure dialect of ancient Greek, and I've been unable to make any sense of several phrases in it. I was rather hoping you could assist me in working them out properly."

"Really?" the professor seemed to brighten up a bit at the mention of an obscure dialect. "Did you happen to bring a copy with you, by any chance?"

"Unfortunately, no, I didn't. I was actually hoping for you to accompany me, so that you could examine the entire fragment in person," the visitor answered. "Are there any assistants or helpers around that you might want to notify?" he asked, as he looked around the adjoining rooms.

"Well, I would normally be delighted to do that," the academic replied, "but we've been rather overloaded here, since several of our graduate assistants have been ill with some type of flu bug, lately. I really don't think I could, in good conscience, just pick up and leave to go check out your inscription. Maybe in a few weeks," he offered, "when things are more back to normal, I'll be able to do that, but not now."

"That's a shame," the stranger commented, as he approached the work table on which the professor was examining the helm. "Oh well, I guess we'll just have to do things the old fashioned way," he sighed, as he walked up behind the older man, his features shifting to display a ridged forehead, yellow eyes and fangs a moment before he bit into the scholar's neck. The ensuing scream was short and useless, stopping only seconds after it was begun.


Spike eyed the apartment building speculatively as he loitered one block down and across the street, idly smoking another cigarette. Inside it was one of Dudley Do-Right's very own Initiative lads, apparently visiting his current paramour. He had followed the wanker for most of the night, after he had left Lowell House and then met up with some chippie down at the Bronze. It had taken some time, since he had to be very careful not to be observed, but he had heard the poof talking to some of his friends at the club about an upcoming vacation he was about to take, and the comment had struck Spike as the perfect opportunity to grab someone associated with the Initiative project and not have to worry about their absence causing a problem. < Four more days, wanker, > Spike grinned to himself, < and you'll be getting a personal guided tour of hell. You're going to belong to me, and then everything you know, I'll know, too. >

He had been giving a lot of thought to the whole concept of these mind control chips while he was waiting and watching Lowell House, and the more he thought about it, the more the whole concept appealed to him. Once his chip had been removed or disabled, of course. The idea of minions who had to obey any order you gave was extremely appealing.

The biggest problem one encountered when turning someone was that you could never be completely certain of the personality of the resulting minion. Granted, most vampires retained the same basic personality as that of the original body they possessed before they were turned. (That blithering idiot bint, Harmony, was unliving proof of that!) But, occasionally, and far too often for his comfort, the result was a deceitful, vicious, scheming, completely untrustworthy son a bitch you wouldn't dare turn your back on. Much like himself, actually, and Spike was far too smart and cautious to take any chances on having a viper like that at his back.

With the chips, on the other hand, you could be assured that even the thought of rebellion or treachery couldn't occur. Completely dependable, trustworthy minions. Having seen numerous minions created in the past, the very phrase seemed like an oxymoron to him. < Like military intelligence, > he thought. < At least as it's personified by these Initiative ponces, > he told himself. In any event, Spike's primary objective now, after getting his chip removed or deactivated, was to get hold of the design for the chip, or at least a copy of the plans. After that, getting them manufactured would only be a minor concern, and getting them implanted before his new minions rose would be a walk in the park.

After that... Well, Spike had never been accused of having a limited imagination. But that was still a bit too far in this hypothetical future to really give too much thought to. Get the chip out, get the plans for the chip, and then you could start dreaming, that was the way to do it.

And might some of those dreams include a blonde haired Slayer?

Bet on it.

For the present, though, he wanted to make sure that he knew everything he could about this wanker about to leave on vacation. There weren't going to be any screw-ups on this operation, no indeed! <Tyler, my boy, you are going to make me the most powerful vampire on the West Coast, by the time we're finished, > he smiled to himself, < maybe even in the western part of the continent. I'm going to be going places, and you'll just be going to pieces. Oh well, that's just unlife, for you. >


"Willow, you really must learn to override your impulses and take a moment to evaluate the situation before reacting impulsively," the former librarian admonished the redheaded Wicca, as he carried an unconscious Buffy over and laid her down on his living room couch. "Most especially when magic is involved. You could have easily injured Buffy quite seriously just now," he told her, with a bit of a glare.

"Uh, Giles, there's something I have to tell you," Willow said as she watched him lift one of Faith's eyes to check for a reaction, then continue to check her pulse and other vital signs. "First off, I don't know what happened to you while you were gone, but that is not Buffy lying on the sofa right here. That is Faith. You know, nasty, rotten, backstabbing, stomp-you-into-the-ground-literally, can't-be-trusted-under-any-circumstances, turned-to-the-Dark-Side, Evil Slayer Faith. And second, that is FAITH lying here, who, I remind you, threatened each of us with serious violence numerous times! Are you under some kind of spell, or something, Giles, because you're really weirding me out here?" she stated, looking at him.

"No, Willow, I am not under any sort of spell, enchantment or compulsion," Giles replied, "and this is, indeed, Buffy. Faith has apparently managed to switch bodies with her in some manner, and I was bringing her over here, so that we might do some research and determine exactly what has happened to her and ascertain a method of reversing the process or spell, whatever it may be.

"Had you waited a moment before lashing out," he continued, "I would have had the opportunity to explain what had happened and thereby preclude the type of situation in which we currently find ourselves. Thankfully, it doesn't appear that you inflicted any serious injury to Buffy, so all we need do is await her regaining consciousness" he concluded.

After a moment's thought, he turned around and looked back at the hacker-turned-Wiccan, his eyes narrowed, before asking in a more ominous tone of voice, "And where, exactly, did you learn that spell?" The look of dismay on the redhead's face at his question did not portend of good things to come.

As Giles had entered his apartment after returning from the Summers' home, Buffy had followed immediately afterwards, to stand somewhat to his side and rear. Upon seeing the dark-haired Slayer, Willow had screamed out a warning to Giles, then threw out her hands and uttered a short phrase in a language that Giles didn't recognize. Buffy had instantly been picked up and slammed forcefully against the wall behind her, before sliding down the wall and collapsing limply onto the floor, unconscious.

As they waited for Buffy to wake up, Giles gave Willow a concise summation of the events concerning the body transfer earlier in the evening. As they discussed the possible methods that Faith may have employed to accomplish such a feat, Willow paused for a moment to consider what other resources that were available that she could consult regarding the matter.

"Uh, Giles, I may know a, uh, consultant that I could, uh, consult with," she suggested somewhat hesitantly. "See, there's this girl, uh, who I met through the, um, the local Wiccan group at, uh, the college, you see. And- and she seems to know a whole lot about spells, you know, and magic and, um, enchantments and things, and I was thinking that maybe I could, uh, call her and, um, ask her to maybe come over and try to, um, help us with this problem Buffy has," she completed her semi-offer/suggestion with a weak smile as she looked over at the former librarian, trying to gauge his reaction to what she had said.

"If you think that she could be of any help in determining how Faith accomplished what she did, and how we might reverse the effect, then by all means, call her," Giles agreed immediately. "I will the first to admit, I am completely out of my depth here," he admitted. "Although I am aware that such happenings have occasionally occurred in the past, I presently have no idea of even where to begin investigating methods on how to reverse the process. I will gladly accept any help that may be offered to us if it will help us restore Buffy to her own body."

"Okay, that's good," the redhead smiled. "I'll call right now and see if she can come over and help."

Tara arrived just as Buffy was awakening from her Willow-assisted nap. She had come to the address Willow had given her, an upscale apartment complex near the university, and knocked on the door, to find it answered by a distinguished looking older gentleman, most likely one of the professors at the University. She had found his British accent charming, and was embarrassedly stammering her apologies for disturbing him at this time of the night when she heard Willow's voice coming from inside the apartment. After belatedly identifying herself, she had been ushered in to find her friend apologizing profusely and repeatedly to an extremely attractive, well- built brunette, who was sitting on the couch in the living room and alternating between drinking a cup of tea and rubbing her head with both hands, as if trying to get rid of a headache.

"Buffy, I'm really, really sorry," she could hear the redhead repeating herself for the second time as she entered the living room. "If I had even suspected that you were really you, and not Faith, I would never had attacked you, but there really wasn't any reason for me to suspect that you were you, and that you weren't Faith, so I did, but if I had, then I wouldn't have - Oh, Tara! I'm glad you could come over," she broke off in the middle of her babble- fest, to greet the other Wicca.

"Uh, Giles, Buffy, this Tara McClay. She's a really powerful witch," Willow introduced her friend, causing her to blush and look down at her feet, as she shook her head and mumbled her disagreement. "Tara, this is uh, Mr. Rupert Giles, and this is Buffy Summers. But, uh, not really, uh, 'cause that really isn't her body, and, um, I don't think I sound like I'm making a whole lot of sense right now, so I'm gonna shut up now and let Giles finish explaining things, ok?" she finished as she wound down to a halt, looking at Tara as though she was afraid the blonde witch would think she was crazy.

"Ahem. Well, uh, Miss McClay," Giles began, somewhat hesitantly, "Willow has informed us that you might be able to assist us with a problem we've run into that deals with magic. Buffy, " he indicated the currently brunette Slayer with a small wave of his hand, "appears to have had her mind transferred from her original body into her current body through the use of some type of magical device with which I am completely unfamiliar, utilizing methods of which I possess only a minimal amount of information or even suspicions. We are trying to determine the best method of returning her to her proper body, and any assistance that you would be able to offer us would be greatly appreciated."

"Well, um, I'd be glad to t-try to help y-you, sir," the blonde Wicca told them. "D-do you have any idea of w-what k-kind of device was used?" she asked, hesitantly looking over to Buffy.

"Well, it was some kind of clasp-y bracelet thing-y that she was wearing on her hand, across her palm," Buffy described the device to her. "It was kind of gold and had some large jewel thing in the center of it, and when she grabbed my hand, it kind of felt like an electric shock, but not really," she explained, "and there was this bright flash of some kind, and when I could see again, I was in here," she said, indicating her body, "looking across at myself."

"W-well, it sounds like it c-could have been a Draconian katra," Tara offered. ""That requires ph-physical contact between the t-two p- people being switched," she told them. "How, how long ago did this h- happen?"

"Between four and five hours ago," Giles immediately said, looking over at Buffy, who nodded confirmation at the time estimate.

"Oh, th-that's g-good," Tara nodded, " 'cause the longer ago the switch h-happened, the harder it is to r-reverse it."

"I take it, then, that you think that we can successfully reverse the transferal spell and restore Buffy to her right body," Giles stated, as a hopeful look filled Buffy's face.

"Well, um, yes," the blonde witch nodded. "It's n-not nearly as d- difficult as it would be to transfer their m-minds the first time. The mind has a, uh, a link to its o-original b-body, and the spell's en-energy is used to, to keep it from sliding back to where it belongs," she explained, somewhat flustered at being the center of everyone's attention. "If we can weaken or br-break the spell on Buffy, here, then her m-mind will start to return right away, and the other g-girl's mind w-will come back here, to her body. Bu-but, I don't think I'm pow-powerful enough to break the spell," she added, somewhat abashedly.

"Well, how powerful do you have to be to do it?" Willow questioned her. "Could you and Giles maybe combine your power to do it?"

"I don't think th-that will be necessary," Tara replied. "Y-you have m-more than enough power t-to do it," she said, looking at the redhead.

"ME?" Willow squealed in disbelief. "Oh no, not me, I couldn't, 'cause I don't," she denied the suggestion vigorously. "Have power, that is," she clarified. "I'm not very powerful at all. Right, Giles?" she looked beseechingly over at the watcher.

"Truthfully, I don't know, Willow," Giles replied, as he paused in his reading to look up at the two witches. "I know a fair amount concerning the theory behind the mechanics of spellcasting, but I really have done relatively little spellcasting of my own on other than Council matters, and what spellcasting I was involved in, prior to that, turned into a minor catastrophe," he added, remembering the circumstances surrounding the summoning of Eyghon so many years before. "I am inclined to believe your friend, Tara, here if she says you possess the necessary power. From what you told us earlier, she has years more experience in the practical use of magic than either of us, or anyone else whom we might turn to, at this point in time."

"Will, she said the longer it lasts, the harder the spell will be to break," Buffy chimed in, walking over and putting her hand on the redhead's shoulder. "I really don't want to spend the rest of my life in here, if I can help it," she said, indicating her body.

"Oh, well, um, yeah, there is that," Willow agreed. "If you think I can do it, then let's try it."

"I'll help you with the spell," Tara reassured her friend, putting her hand on the redhead's other shoulder and smiling at her. "I kn- know what to d-do, I'm just not s-strong enough to be the primary c- caster," she told her. "We'll have t-to draw on your energy."

"Very well, then," Giles spoke up, seeing that Willow's concerns seemed to have abated enough for them to proceed. "Do you know what spell components we will need for accomplish this?" Giles questioned Tara, as an optimistic expression lightened his features.

"Do you h-have a copy of Da-Davaroth's Grimoire?" she asked. "I th- think that it lists a si-similar spell, and we c-could follow that as an example."

"As a matter of fact, I do have a copy here. I obtained it at a close-out sale at a magic shop in San Diego several weeks back," Giles explained to Buffy and Willow, as he hurried over to one of the bookcases lining the far wall. "I haven't really had a chance to study it since then.

"Now let me see, here," he muttered under his breath as he unlocked the catch on the front and began paging through the leather-bound tome. "Body alterations, body shifting, ah, yes, here we are - body switching. Willow, I need you to find some ..."


"Okay, Giles, Buffy, we're all set to cast the 'Reversal' spell, so get ready for, well, for whatever is gonna happen, 'cause I'm really not completely sure that it's gonna work the way we think it's gonna work, and we should all be ready for almost anything," Willow told her companions. "Buffy, I think that you're probably going to be pretty disoriented for several seconds, at least, after the spell takes effect, so you might want to try to be ready for just about anything, because we don't know what Faith might be in the middle of when the transfer takes place. Giles, you should probably put the manacles on Buffy now, because I really don't think Faith is going to just sit there quietly if we're trying to chain her down when she gets back into her own body."

"I agree, Willow, that would be the most prudent course of action at the present time," he agreed. "Buffy, if you could kindly sit down on the floor here in the center of the circle, and hold out your arms and your legs, please?" he politely asked the body-switched Slayer.

"This is going to be the only time I ever agree to this, Giles," Buffy smiled at her Watcher as she followed his directions. "Although, once Faith is back in this body, she might want to schedule this on a regular basis," she joked, grinning at the expression her remark brought to the Englishman's face, as he secured the manacles around Buffy's wrists and ankles.

"As Xander would most likely say, were he here," Giles said, "did that remark just make anyone go to a very strange mental place?"

"Yeah." "Uh-huh." "Eeeewwwwww." were the only responses he received.

"Very well," he said, as he straightened up after a final check of the cuffs' locks. "Willow, Tara, you may begin anytime you desire."

After a quick glance at Tara, who smiled and nodded to her reassuringly, Willow lit the herbs and powders they had prepared earlier and the two Wiccans began their incantation. As Buffy and Giles watched from their respective positions, streamers of pearl- white luminescence trailed from both Wiccans' fingertips as they moved their hands in a series of mirrored gestures while they slowly walked the circumference of the circle they had drawn earlier. The streamers broadened and began to interweave as they floated above the floor, gradually coalescing to form a faint hemisphere of pearl-white luminescence, before beginning to quickly increase in brightness and diameter until it encompassed the entire apartment, rivaling the light of a bright summer sun. As Willow's voice increased in volume and intensity, Tara's voice providing a lower-pitched counterpoint in the background, she gestured towards Buffy and scattered a handful of powder that shimmered iridescently as it hung above the Slayer.

"...flows through the river in me. The inward eye, the sightless sea . . . Ayala flows through the river in me. The inward eye, the sightless sea. . ." Slowly, the powder fell and formed a cocoon around the Slayer, still glowing a pearl-white hue. Then, suddenly, a faint, rainbow glow momentarily surrounded the brunette before abruptly winking out, accompanied by the abrupt departure of the glowing sphere, leaving the manacled Slayer slumped on the floor of Giles' living room.

After a moment, a low moan came from the brunette as she opened her eyes and dazedly looked around her, a confused expression on her face.

"Are you alright, Faith?" Giles asked, concern evident on his face as he hovered above her, reluctant to get too close if this were now, indeed, the rogue Slayer.

"Giles?" the brunette asked, disbelief on her face as she turned to face him.

"What-? What's going on? Where am I?"

"Faith?" she heard Willow call, from behind her.

"Red?" she asked, as she turned to face the Witch. "Wha-," She had only a fraction of a second to glimpse the bat heading towards her before everything went black.

"What?" Willow asked, an innocent expression on her face, while Giles and Tara stared at her somewhat uncertainly as she stood over the unconscious Slayer, holding her bat. "We didn't want her trying to get away, did we?"

Chapter 5

Buffy watched as Willow and Tara began the ritual which would, hopefully, return her and Faith to their proper bodies. As the pearl- white luminescence formed a cocoon around her, she began feeling a slight tingling on her skin, similar to when her arm or leg fell asleep from lack of circulation, which quickly began seeping down into her muscles and bones. The tingling increased in intensity, not unpleasantly, and as the intensity of the light increased, Buffy felt as though she were somehow slipping away, sideward, out of her body, but at the same time, into her body also. As the lightshow hit its crescendo, Buffy felt a momentary disorientation, as though she had suddenly slipped and her feet had gone out from under her, and then she was abruptly back in her own body.

After a brief moment of disorientation, the blonde Slayer found herself lying in a bed, and she realized two things:

One, Faith was having sex in her body at the moment the ritual switched them!

And, two, she was more aroused than she could ever remember being and was just about ready to cum, possibly harder than she ever had before!

Her thighs were clenched tightly around someone's head as their lips and tongue caressed her clitoris and explored her burning core and clever hands massaged her aching breasts. Looking down, all she was able to make out were her fingers, tangled in long black hair.

< Oh my God! Knowing Faith, this might not even be a guy! I have to stop this right now, > the random thought flashed through her mind, as she tried to concentrate on what she had to do.

"Wha-" she began, before the demands of her body altered what she had intended to say; before all thought disappeared and she surrendered to the onrush of sensation flooding through her. "Ohh! Ohhh, GOD!! Y-E-E-S-S-S!!!" she screamed, as she arched her hips up to grind against the mouth that was torturing her so wonderfully.

Her entire body felt like a piano string that was being constantly tightened. Each delightful thrust of that tongue into her aching pussy increased the pressure building inside her to almost painfully intense levels; each tug on her sensitive nipples by those wonderfully talented fingers driving her just a little crazier.

Just as she began to feel as though this torment might never end, that her needs would never be fully answered, leaving her forever frustrated, almost at the point of climax but never quite achieving it, she felt her lover's tongue suddenly attack her throbbing clitoris and she loudly moaned her approval.

"Yes! Yes! Just like that! Right there!" she moaned. < Why can't Riley learn how to do that? > she thought as she squirmed helplessly under the wonderful assault.

A second lick, a third, and she had to scream as she was suddenly caught up in an orgasmic tidal wave that rushed through her and relentlessly carried her away. She shook helplessly, her spine stiffening and her entire body spasming as sensations too intense to describe coursed through her.

After several delightfully interminable moments, Buffy slumped bonelessly onto the mattress, her entire body feeling like boiled spaghetti as she panted heavily, trying to regain her breath. As she felt the person between her legs move, Buffy exerted a tremendous amount of willpower and managed to open her eyes to discover who was smiling down at her.

"Xa-, Xan- !?" she stuttered, dumbfounded, as he tenderly brushed a sweat-soaked strand of hair away from her face.

"You okay?" he asked. "You seem a little out of it."

"What- ?" she broke off in confusion.

"You know, you're more delicious each time I taste you," he smiled down at her, as he slowly kissed his way up her body, pausing to tongue and suck on her swollen nipples, eliciting an involuntary moan from the exhausted blonde.

< What am I doing? > she thought, while luxuriating in the way he expertly suckled her breast, running his tongue up the underside of her breast to encircle each nipple before capturing it in his mouth. < We shouldn't be doing this! I have to stop this! > she told herself, trying unsuccessfully to ignore what he was doing to her.

As she felt herself growing excited again, she shifted uncomfortably beneath him, and her leg brushed against what was obviously quite impressive evidence that he was happy to be here with her.

< Wow! Anya wasn't exaggerating in the least! > she reflected to herself. < No! Don't think about that! I have to stop this! He's my friend, that's all. I have to tell him to stop, > she repeated to herself, while trying to move enervated muscles that simply refused to cooperate.

Xander slowly kissed his way up over her breasts to her throat, before leaning in to explore her mouth, much as he had explored her core just moments before, muffling her half-hearted protests with his lips and letting her discover the taste of herself covering his lips and tongue. After a few moments, Xander pulled his mouth away from hers to gently begin kissing her neck while he positioned himself against her wetness.

"Well, Buff, are you ready for another round of naked mud wrestling, but without the mud?" he grinned down at her.

"Oh, god, Xan, we can't-," she protested weakly, trying futilely to push him away, her traitorous body still refusing to cooperate. "I don't think-, I mean-, I can't-, We- Ohhhhhh, my god-d-d!!!" she gasped, as she felt him slide into her, filling her completely and making her gasp for breath again.

< He's even bigger than Riley! > she marveled, as her legs reflexively locked around him and her pelvis arched up against his. She moaned her approval as he began thrusting into her, sliding her arms around him as she ground her breasts against his chest.

< Ohhhh, this is so good! > she argued with herself, grunting with each thrust that drove her back against the mattress. < But- But, this is Xander! This is wrong! He's my friend! We should stop! > she thought, as she tried to force herself to speak.

< We can stop when we're finished! I'm so close! I can't stop now! > a traitorous part of her answered her objections. < Remember the last time I came more than once? It was in the shower with the handheld shower head, remember? >

< No, I have to tell him. We have to stop, > the rational part of her brain argued, while the rest of her body ignored it. < I have to tell him to stop. Now! > she resolved.

When she opened her mouth, however, all that came out was a strangled moan.

"Harder!!" she heard herself demand, and he complied, slamming into her, driving her deeper into the mattress with each thrust. He shifted position slightly, causing him to now brush against THAT spot, and Buffy buried her face into the base of his neck to muffle her screams.

< If my eyes roll back any farther, I'll be able to see out of the back of my head, > she thought, trying to regain control of herself.

She felt her inner muscles clenching at him as he continued to drive into her, stimulating THAT spot as if he intended to drive her crazy with the pleasure he was inflicting on her. As she gasped out feeble pleas for mercy, she felt Xander slow his rhythm slightly but not stop, as though to give her time to catch her breath.

Just as Buffy was beginning to relax slightly and her breathing was again approaching something normal, Xander increased the tempo of his thrusts, shifting his angle of penetration slightly again, so as to now slam directly against THAT spot, and it was as if her entire nervous system (or at least those parts wired to her breasts and pussy) lit up again, like Times Square on New Year's Eve.

Without any conscious thought, she shifted her legs higher and locked them around his waist and began grinding her pelvis against his, her eyes clenched shut, her mouth hanging open, as she concentrated on the waves of pleasure flooding through her once again, moaning unintelligible encouragements into his neck.

Four strokes.


Six incredible strokes, and she knew that she was losing all control once again. As she felt the edge of the wave grasp her once more and she began slipping back into the vortex, she heard him whisper, "I love you, Buffy," as his lips and tongue caressed her neck up to her ear. She turned her head and gazed directly into dark, chocolate brown eyes filled with love and lust for her, and her alone.

"I love you, Xander," she heard herself murmur, just as the wave seized her completely, and all conscious thought left her as she surrendered to her body's demands.


"Th-there's something wrong with her aura. It's all distorted and, um, warped," Tara informed Willow as she looked up from her detailed scrutiny of the still unconscious Slayer, who was currently lying on the floor on Giles' living room, her wrists and ankles manacled to opposite legs of the couch.

"Yep, distorted and warped, that's Faith, all right," Willow agreed, as she continued studying one of her college texts. "Seriously distorted and warped girl, that's her, no question."

"N-n-no, that's n-not what I m-meant. H-her aura's wr-wrong, it's, uh, all bent out of shape, and, um, d-deformed. It, it's not normal, not even for her," the blonde Wicca quietly insisted. "It, it's like someone's deliberately changed it, to, to change her."

"You mean, it, it appears that someone may have tampered with Faith's aura?" Giles asked as he descended the stairs with an armful of various arcane paraphernalia, his brow furrowing as he considered the possible implications of Tara's statement.

"Y-yes, that's it," Tara smiled at Giles, grateful for his quick grasp of her statement. "Her, her aura doesn't look like anything that could happen n-naturally. I d-don't remember ever s-seeing anyone's aura look like that."

"What? What do you mean, Tara?" Willow asked. "Could she be, like, a demon, maybe? 'Cause, 'cause, that would be a good explanation for why she's acting like psycho-demon girl, if she were actually a demon, I mean. Or, or, or maybe she's been possessed by a demon, and she's not really Faith, the Faith we've been seeing, I mean, and the Faith we've been seeing is really a Grondar demon who took her place, or, or maybe she's-"

"Take a breath, Willow, and calm yourself," Giles admonished the young Wiccan as she began to babble. "There are most likely any number of normal and reasonable explanations that would account for what Tara is seeing. Although, I must admit," he added, "I am hard pressed to think of a single one, at the moment. Nonetheless, it would behoove us to ascertain as quickly as possible the cause of the abnormalities in Faith's aura that Tara has noted, for her sake, and possibly that of Buffy's, also.

"Tara, if you don't mind my asking, exactly how is it that you noticed the changes in Faith's aura? I didn't notice you performing any of the rituals with which I am familiar that would enable you to view her aura."

"Uh, w-well, I didn't," Tara said. "Perform a ritual, I mean. I, um, can, uh, just see them," she admitted, looking away as she answered. "Auras. Without any, uh, rituals."

"You can see auras naturally?" Willow gasped.

"Uh huh," Tara nodded, looking down at he floor, as though embarrassed by the admission.

"That's amazing," Giles said. "Have you always been able to do this?"

Tara nodded again. "Ever since I was a little girl," she admitted, covertly watching Willow's face with a mixture of dread and hesitation.

"That is so cool!" Willow gushed, looking at her friend with a mixture of awe and envy. "I would love to be able to see people's auras. You are so amazing," she continued, noticing the little smile that her statement brought to the blonde's face.

"Indeed, that is something that very few people with whom I am acquainted are capable of doing," Giles agreed. "Tara, are you aware of any kind of spell that would allow you to share your vision with us and enable us to view Faith's aura, also? I believe that it would be of enormous assistance in allowing us to determine whether the changes in her aura that you noticed are a result of natural occurrences or other factors."

"I-, I'm not sure, M- Mr. Giles," the blonde told him. "I- I d-don't know of any spell that could do that. B- But, I think I c-c-could modify another s-spell I do know to, maybe, do that," she offered tentatively

"That would be a great help," Giles agreed. "What spell components do you think we will need, and is there anything I can do to assist you in your preparation?"

Tara's face showed her enjoyment of Giles' praise, and Willow smiled happily as she watched her friend bask in Giles' obvious respect and appreciation of her abilities.

"This is incredible," Giles stated a short while later, as he and Willow stared at the unconscious body of the brunette Slayer lying on his living room floor. Linked as they were to Tara's perceptions, the two of them were now staring at Faith, marveling at both the myriad mix of colors that comprised her aura and the ever-shifting manner in which the colors swirled and flowed, never remaining static for more than a few seconds. Multiple hues of silvers, blue-greys, sapphires and aquamarines blended harmoniously together, but thin strands and lines of bilious greens and angry scarlets and reds were interwoven among the many filaments also, hurting the eyes as they gazed upon the garish mix.

"I never realized everything was so beautiful," Willow murmured, looking back once again at Tara, Giles and herself. "Even Faith," she added, "except for those green and red parts of her. They don't mesh with her at all."

"That- that's exactly wh- what I meant," Tara agreed. "That's not r- right, she shouldn't lo- look like that. It's not right"

"Are you saying her aura should more closely resemble ours, then?" Giles asked, glancing down at himself and the Wiccans. Where both of the girls' auras were swirling kaleidoscopes of yellows, golds, tans and browns with some forest-green mixed in, his more closely resembled Faith's, in that it was predominantly silvers and greys, with the occasional swirl of purple or dark blue.

"Yes," she nodded. "Sh- she shouldn't have those greens and r-reds mixed in there, like that. It's wr-wrong."

"Giles, can you take a look over here, please?" Willow asked from where she was crouched above the unconscious Slayer. "I think there's some kind of a pattern to these, uhm, whatever they are, changes in her aura," she stated.

"What exactly do you mean, Willow?" Giles asked, as he moved to crouch above Faith next to the redhead.

"Well, when I look real closely, I think I can see what looks like a very fine mesh of these green and red strands that seems to be covering her. Can you see what I mean?" she asked.

"I believe so," Giles agreed. "It would appear almost like a web or a network of filaments that are surrounding or enclosing her. Does that seem correct to you?"

"Yeah. Something about it doesn't seem right to me," Willow stated. "The spacing between the lines looks to be too regular to be completely normal."

"It l-looks like the s-source is that ring on, on her finger," Tara observed, indicating the beryl ring on Faith's right hand.

"It would appear you are correct, Tara," Giles agreed, "the network, or whatever it may be, apparently does originate from that ring. The question that immediately springs to mind is, could the ring be a link to, or possibly the source of, Faith's sociopathic behavior, or might it be entirely unrelated to the problem at hand?

"Without a much better idea of exactly what type and magnitude of forces are involved here, I am loathe to make any changes in the current situation without an extensive evaluation of all possible ramifications," Giles stated, as they contemplated the situation. "If, indeed, Faith is under some form of compulsion or mind control that has caused her to behave in the manner in which she has, it would behoove us to determine any and all potential outcomes of neutralizing or removing the glamour she is currently under.

"Willow, if you would, please begin by checking Vorkosigan's Compendium of Beguilements, Charms, Enchantments and Raptures, and then move on to the Dyzakk Tomes, if you cannot find anything in Vorkosigan's notes that may be of help," Giles directed.

"Tara, if you don't mind assisting, I would like you to please review the remainder of Davaroth's Grimoire for any type of spell producing the effects we have noted, and then examine the Encyclopedia of Agamotto, since it contains an entire section devoted to domination and compulsion spells and their reversal. I will begin with the Book of the Vishanti first, and then consult some of the lesser known works, if none of us stumbles across anything relevant before then. Any questions?" he asked.

Hearing none, he handed out the relevant volumes to the girls before turning and heading over to the bookshelves where he kept the more important (read, more dangerous) apocalyptic volumes. In the back of his mind, something about the spell that appeared to be affecting Faith kept nudging the recesses of his memory. < There is something very - not familiar, no, reminiscent- yes, that is a better description - about that spell, > he thought to himself. < I'm certain I've never seen anything like that, but - Well, it'll come to me, eventually, > he reassured himself. < If it really is of any significance, it should be noted in one of these books. >


"This whole thing is turning into one boondoggle after another," Riley Finn muttered to himself, as he finished packing his duffle bag. Currently the ranking field agent for the Initiative, he was less than pleased at having to hand over responsibility for the search for the murderer of Professor Walsh to his subordinates and report to Washington for a meeting with the current project administrators.

"So, what's going on here, chief?" Graham asked as he entered the putative T.A.'s dorm room. "Scuttlebutt has it that you're leaving town. I thought the primary objective right now was to locate Walsh's killer."

"It is, man. It is," Riley reassured him, as he picked up the bag and slung it over his shoulder. "And you and Forrest are now officially in charge of Operations. I've been ordered to report to Washington to explain what's going on here with the upper brass. Evidently, there are a number of high-level people back there who don't believe our reports are completely accurate regarding the existence of HSTs and their level of activity here. I'm hoping I won't be gone more than a couple days, but I really don't know how long this is gonna take. While I'm away, I want you to head up the search for Maggie's killer, and Forrest to take charge of the administrative duties Maggie was responsible for. Until we know what's going to happen, now that Maggie's gone, I'm issuing orders, effective immediately, to cease HST prisoner acquisition and revert to simple termination of all hostiles encountered within the town's boundaries while on patrol.

"We still don't have any idea how a Hostile managed to enter and then exit the base after killing her without being seen, so I don't want anyone taking any chances. I want the base on Security Alert Condition Yellow, with all leaves cancelled and all personnel to return to the base immediately. Until further notice, no base personnel are to leave the base by themselves, and all patrol teams are to have a minimum of four members. Teams are to otherwise limit their activities to surveillance duties only and are to refrain from any actions that might lead to exposure, except in cases of imminent injury or death to the civilian population. Nothing more and nothing less, for the time being. I don't want anybody here going cowboy or playing Masked Avenger until we're certain of who or what is responsible for the Professor's death, and we know enough about him or them to make certain we can identify and neutralize all the parties responsible.

"Once we know who, where, why and how, then we'll come down on them. Hard. Any questions?"

"Just one, boss. Can you bring me back one of those spiffy Pentagon mugs with the President's Seal on them?" Graham grinned at him. "I dropped my mug this morning and it broke into about a million pieces, so I figure you might as well be doing something useful while you're gone."

"Done," Riley grinned back at him for a moment, and slapped him on the back as he led the way out of his room. "Come on, man. You can drive me the airport. My flight leaves in less than two hours."


"Um, uh, Willow?" Tara's quiet voice broke the silence that had enveloped his apartment for the past hour. "I, um, think that I m- might have found something here th-that, uh, could be re-related to the sp-spell we're looking for," she said hesitantly, as she looked up from the volume she had been examining.

"Ooo, what did you find, Tara?" Willow asked excitedly, looking up from the book she had been pouring over, grateful for the interruption.

"W-well, there's a, uh, description of a s-spell here, that, um, sounds like it m-might be the, uh, o-one we're looking for," the blonde witch said as she offered the volume to the redhead to examine the pages she had found.

"Wow. Oh, Goddess!" the hacker-turned-witch muttered as she began reviewing the pages indicated. "OH WOW!! Giles, you have to look at this!" she nearly yelled, after a brief examination of the passages Tara had discovered.

"What is it, Willow?" Giles asked, looking up from the book he was perusing. "Did you find something relevant to our present - situation?" he asked summarizing their current circumstances.

"Oh, yeah!" the redhead replied. "I think Tara's discovered something really important! This is from a letter the wizard Davaroth received from one of his former apprentices, describing a spell he had just recently learned of. Listen to this, and then tell me what you think," she instructed him, then began reading from the book.

" 'In the course of a conversation with Baron Mordo late yester-night that took place after a sumptuous dinner at his keep,' " she read, " 'I was made aware of what sounds to be an intriguing and possibly extremely worthwhile spell of compulsion that was developed by one of the Baron's fellow Council members, one Llewellyn Hyde- Post, a sorcerer of some small talent and very limited imagination. Although at present the spell is of restricted value, due to its limited effectiveness on any being save the Council's pet Slayers, it strongly bears further investigation, since it will cause the recipient to subjugate and cast aside all notions or concepts of morality in favor of a single-minded devotion to the caster's goals, interests and well-being.

" 'Although Master Hyde-Post declined to discuss the specifics of the spell with me, I did have the good fortune to have an opportunity to examine the spell at close range, in that the Baron had brought the current Slayer with him to the dinner, in an apparent endeavor to overawe those other guests who had been invited to the dinner with the power that possession of such a minion could engender.

" 'While the Baron was occupied with attempting to impress the local lords with the awesome physical capabilities the child had acquired upon receiving the Slayer Spirit, I took advantage of the opportunity to examine the child using my Sight, and was somewhat surprised to determine that the enchantment was centered on a simple brooch the child wore, wrapping her in a web of bilious green threads that more resembled a finely woven fisherman's net than anything else that came to mind.

" 'The extent of the nearly total control the glamour provides the caster was demonstrated later in the evening, when the girl overheard drunken words that could, conceivably, have been construed as a threat to the baron and attacked the speaker immediately, rendering upon him injuries that will take long months to heal, and only ceasing her assault when the Baron ordered her to stop,' " Willow paused in her recitation, looking over to determine Giles' reaction.

"Those sodding thrice-damned bastards!! God damn them all!! Now, I remember why that spell seemed familiar!" the former librarian suddenly snarled as he sprang to his feet, the expression on his face making Willow instinctively pull back away from him, in shock at both his words and his unexpected change in demeanor. From the corner of her eye, she could see Tara shrinking back in alarm, her right hand upraised as if she were readying a spell.

"No, Tara, it's okay!" She immediately tried to assuage the blonde's alarm, dropping the book and grabbing her friend's hand to hold it in her own. "Everything's okay. Everything's perfectly fine. There's nothing to be concerned about, nothing at all. Giles isn't upset with us, are you, Giles?" she asked rhetorically.

"He's upset, yeah," she continued, "but it's not at us. Right, Giles? Everything's okay, isn't it, Giles?" she repeated herself, a bit more loudly and insistently this time to attract his attention. "Giles!??!!

"What?" he asked, his train of thought broken by the girls' actions. "Oh, dear. I apologize if I alarmed you, Tara," he said, noting the anxious look on the blonde's face, "that was hardly my intent. It was that I have just now recalled why the enchantment on Faith had seemed somewhat familiar," he explained as he bent to retrieve the book Willow had so precipitously dropped.

"While I was in training at the Council's headquarters as an apprentice Watcher a fair number of years ago," he told them, "I was granted access to the primary archival library maintained there in order to perform research for some of the Council board members. In the course of my research, I stumbled upon several volumes of spells I had never seen or even heard described before, and when I made inquiries regarding them, I was informed that the volumes were merely a bequest of deceased Council members from generations before, and were regarded as generally useless in that they were mostly informational in nature and too uncertain and capricious in their results for common use.

"Several of the board members appeared quite concerned about my even knowing about the existence of the books, and questioned me quite closely regarding what I had read or seen in them. Since I was quite concerned about possibly being dismissed from my training, I lied through my teeth and denied ever having even opened any of the books. Eventually, though, it appeared that they were satisfied with my explanations, and I was dismissed, with the admonition not to waste anyone's time with any further inquiry concerning the books. It was shortly thereafter that I was transferred to one of the other training centers, although I was assured at the time that being relocated was merely a regular part of my training.

"I must admit, though, that I was somewhat suspicious of the rather coincidental timing of my transfer, since I had taken advantage of the opportunity to glance through several of the volumes and found nothing at all informational about any of the spells I examined. It was obvious that some of the spells were quite ancient, and had been in the Council's possession for decades, if not centuries. Several of the spells, from what I could determine from my admittedly brief and cursory examination, appeared to have been developed in order to develop or maintain control over large groups of people. Some of the other spells I had read over appeared either destructive or coercive in nature, the kind of spells that would be used in combat or some type of extreme conflict, in order to forcibly quell disorder, or impose order upon unruly masses. Or certain individuals, it now seems.

"I distinctly recall that one of the spells I had examined was referred to as 'The Labyrinth' and in the commentary preceding the spell specifics, some individual with a rather macabre sense of humor had noted that 'once the sickly green strands snared the target, any hope of freedom was forever forfeit, since they not only never even thought of attempting to escape, but instead became their own jailer, and would actively work to foil the efforts of anyone seeking to free them from the spell's embrace, leaving them forever ensnared,' " he quoted the passage from memory.

"I remember thinking at the time that I would rather be dead than have to endure such a life. I was never quite certain whether the target of the spell would be aware of their status and were forced to live their life actively compelled to maintain their enslavement, or if the spell simply altered their mental state such that they desired to continue their present status."

"That's horrible," Tara whispered, her face mirroring her abhorrence at the thought of such enslavement.

"Yeah, it is," Willow agreed, her mind quickly sorting through the various possibilities entailed by the spell's usage, and an mixed expression of dismay and horror filled her face as she realized some of the possible implications. "And if Faith has actually been under the influence of that spell, she may not have been responsible for her actions last year.

"You know, I'm definitely not one of her biggest fans," the redhead continued, "but if she was acting under the effects of a compulsion spell, then she wouldn't have had much choice in anything she did. In fact, she may have been forced to make the choices she did. If this is the spell that you think it could be, Giles, is there any way we can determine when it took effect?" she asked. "We have to know that before we can even begin to make any decisions about what we're going to do about her. We definitely have to know before we can think about turning her over to the authorities," she stated.

"I'm not certain of how we could determine that exactly, Willow," he replied, pausing to remove his glasses and pinch the bridge of his nose as he considered both her question and the ramifications of the various scenarios she had suggested. "At present, it would certainly appear that Faith may be suffering from the effects of this particular spell. If what we believe has occurred, is what has actually happened, then the first thing we need do is to free her from this 'Labyrinth' spell. Afterwards, we will have more than sufficient time and resources to determine when the spell may have begun affecting her, and that will enable us to then determine what actions we need take."

"You know," the redheaded witch added, with a reluctant laugh, "if you had told me this afternoon that I would be acting all Moderation- Girl tonight, and that I would be the one suggesting that we should be thinking it over before turning Faith over to the police, I would have laughed you out of the room."

"Willow, while I know that you have never harbored any overwhelming feelings of friendship or camaraderie towards Faith, I also know that you possess a very strong sense of responsibility, fairness and justice," Giles stated, as he looked over at one of the two women he regarded as the closest things to daughters he would ever have.

"The two of you have fought side-by-side on numerous occasions and vanquished many evils that had sought to bring about the End of Days. If Faith was truly not responsible for her actions last year as a result of her being the victim of hostile magic, I do not believe that you would willingly allow anyone to imprison or punish her for anything that may have occurred during that period of her life. You are simply too good a person to allow anything like that to happen," he smiled at her.

Tara was sitting off to one side, watching the interaction of the two people with her and quietly envying Willow the obvious love, affection and respect that the former librarian held for her friend. Most especially when she compared it to the regard in which her own family held her. A small noise off to the side caught her attention, and she looked over to see Faith beginning to stir.

"Uhm, uh, excuse me," she said, hesitantly, "but I, I think that your fr-friend is beginning to wake up."

At her announcement, both Giles and Willow immediately jumped up and approached the dark haired Slayer. Faith's eyes were blinking rapidly and her forehead was furrowed as she attempted to sit up and found herself manacled hand and foot to the legs of the couch. Looking around, her gaze immediately fastened on the three people staring at her. After a quick glance at Tara, Faith obviously dismissed her from further consideration, and locked her eyes on Willow and Giles as she snarled a warning.

"I'm gonna give you one minute to cut me loose, Jeeves," she growled, an ugly look marring the normal beauty of her face, "and then I'm gonna break your kneecaps."

"Faith, please listen to me for a moment," Giles replied. "You have been shackled here in an attempt to prevent any further harm befalling either you or any other innocents that might be endangered by your release," he informed her. "The Watcher's Council has learned of your recovery and departure from the hospital, and has sent out a retrieval team to apprehend you and take you back to England to stand before a tribunal to be judged for your actions over the past year and a half. At the moment, they are unaware of your presence here, so you are safe, as long as you do not leave these premises. You were shackled to prevent you from harming any of us before we could inform you of the particulars of the present situation."

"All right, then, you've told me, now uncuff me." The words were accompanied by a total lack of expression on the brunette's face.

"Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple, anymore, Faith," Giles sighed. "After you left the hospital, you deliberately switched bodies with Buffy with the apparent intention of leaving her in your body to face punishment for the crimes that you committed last year. Although it now appears that you may not have been completely responsible for your behavior at that period of time, there was no way that you could have known that, so your deliberate indifference to the consequences Buffy would have faced as a result of your actions is yet another act for which you will have to answer," he told her.

"Although, again, you still may not be completely responsible for your actions," he added, as he recalled the fact that they had so little actual knowledge of the purported spell's workings.

"Whadda you mean, I may not be completely responsible for my actions?" Faith demanded, a harsh expression flashing in her eyes, as she attempted to sit up and was jerked to a halt by the chains on her wrists. "I'm not crazy, Book-Man, so don't even think of going there!"

"Uh, Giles?" Willow chimed in. "Not to interrupt or anything, but I don't think Faith has any idea of what you're talking about, and we do need to get some information from her, so we can try to figure out what is going on, before we can figure out what to do about anything else, and we're starting to run out of time on a lot of things we need to make decisions about, so we need to figure out what we need to do, so we can make those decisions, soon," she finished somewhat breathlessly, hoping that she had made her point and that she wouldn't have to repeat herself.

"Uh, yes, I believe you're right," Giles agreed, after pausing a moment to parse the redhead's run-on sentence into intelligible segments.

"All right, then," he began, "on to the more relevant matters at hand. Faith, can you tell me where and when you first acquired those rings and that bracelet and necklace you're wearing?" he asked, indicating the various items of jewelry with a wave of his hand. "As best we can determine at present, none of those pieces are Buffy's, correct?"

"Why do you want to know?" the brunette demanded, unconsciously curling her fingers into fists and pulling her arms in close as she spoke, as if to preclude the removal of the indicated jewelry.

"We have received indications that there may be spells attached to some items of jewelry in your possession. If that should prove to be true, it is important to know exactly what spells they may be, and to determine the reason they were put there," Giles told her, telling her the truth, but refraining from giving her a complete explanation of their reasoning. "If you could tell us where, and from whom you acquired the jewelry, we could then attempt to trace the pieces back and determine their origins," he explained. "That would go far in helping us determine the validity of some theories we have developed."

"What exactly are these theories you've got?"

"At present, I would prefer not to discuss them, Faith," he told her.

"Why should I cooperate with you guys at all?" the brunette asked, her face still not revealing anything.

"I realize that you have no reason at all to believe that we have your best interests at heart, Faith," Giles said, "but we also have no desire to turn you over to the Council so that they can then hold a sham trial for you, immediately after which they will execute you, secure in the self-assured knowledge that what they have done is the right and proper solution to what they consider the ongoing problem of your continued existence as the Slayer," he informed her, feeling the smallest bit of satisfaction as he watched Faith's expression momentarily change to one of fear and uncertainty before once again resuming its look of unconcern and disinterest.

"Had we wished you dead, you would never have regained consciousness," he pointed out to her. "Likewise, had we wanted the Council to have you, we could have called them and turned you over to their care before you awoke.

"I had hoped that you would realize by now that we harbor no malicious intentions towards you, Faith, and that you would cooperate with us, if for no other reason than your own self-interest."

"I've got no reason to trust you guys at all," Faith stated flatly.

"Nor do we have any reason to trust you," Giles pointed out. "In fact, we actually have more than ample reason to actively distrust you. Your attempt to steal Buffy's body is merely the latest basis for us to regard you with suspicion. Which, now that I think about it," he continued, a concerned expression crossing his face, "brings to mind the question of where is Buffy, at this moment? I would have expected her to contact us and let us know her whereabouts as soon as she was reasonably able to do so."

"Just relax, G-man," the brunette smirked up at him. "B is doing just fine, take my word for it. In fact, she's probably much better than fine right now," she assured him with a wide grin. < I wonder if she'll thank me for hooking the two of them up? > she grinned to herself, as she recalled her activities prior to her return to her body.

"What exactly do you mean by that, Faith?" Giles demanded, looking down at the brunette. "Where were you and what were you involved in when the two of you were returned to your original bodies? Is there any reason for us to believe that Buffy may be injured or in need of assistance?"

"Don't get your briefs in an uproar, Tweed-Man. I was just spending some time with an old friend who hasn't got any reason in the world to hurt her," she grinned. "I told ya, there's nothing for ya to worry about. I know B is just fine, and she'll probably be stopping by any old time, now. She can explain where she's been when she gets here."

< I'm gonna love hearing her explain how she spent her time with Xander, > she thought. < It'll probably give Red an ulcer and boost G-Man's blood pressure a hundred points. >

"Very well, then, keep your secrets if you wish," Giles glared at her, seeing that she had no intention of revealing anything further regarding her activities earlier in the evening. "But, remember this, Faith. Should any harm come to Buffy because of you, I promise you will wish that we had turned you over to the Council." That flat statement, together with the entirely un-Giles-like expression on his face, suddenly made Faith glad that Buffy was with Xander, regardless of what they might or might not be doing.

One thing she knew for a certainty was that the inappropriately named 'Zeppo' would never let anything bad happen to the blonde Slayer, regardless of whatever personal feelings might be between them at the moment.

"I hear ya, G-Man," she acknowledged. "loud and clear."

"Very well, then. Can you, and more importantly, will you, tell me where and when you acquired ownership of those pieces of jewelry you are currently wearing?" Giles repeated his question to her.

"The necklace and the bracelet were gifts from the Mayor. He gave them to me last April, told me they were belated birthday gifts, since he hadn't been around for my real birthday," she finally and reluctantly informed him. "The sapphire ring was a Christmas gift from Elaine, my first Watcher, and the beryl ring was a gift from Gwen, before she went loopy and tried to kill us all. That good enough for you, Book-Man?"

"By Gwen, you mean Gwendolyn Post, your replacement Watcher?" Giles questioned her, wanting to be certain that there was no misunderstandings or miscommunications regarding the source of the ring.

"Yeah, that's exactly who I mean," Faith told him. "Now do I get these things taken off?" she asked, lifting her arms to indicate the manacles on her wrists.

"Giles, the sorcerer the letter referred to was named Hyde-Post," Willow broke in excitedly. "Do you think there could be some kind of link between him and Miss Post? That could definitely help explain some of the things we've discovered!"

"Yes, Willow, that is certainly an area which bears further investigation," Giles agreed. "Particularly since this sorcerer that the letter refers to was mentioned as being associated with 'the Council' and Slayers. Considering all the evidence we have accumulated in such a short period of time, circumstantial though it may all be, I think it would be prudent to assume that there is a high probability that the spell mentioned in Davaroth's letter is the one we have discovered associated with Faith's ring."

"Hey!! Just exactly what spell are you talking about, Jeeves?"

Faith had been following their discussion with some interest since it obviously concerned her and she decided that she definitely wanted to know more about whatever spell it was they were referring to.

"It appears, Faith," Giles turned to address the manacled Slayer, "that there is a possibility that the ring given you by Miss Post may have been enchanted with a spell developed by the Council to make the Slayer more subservient to the Council's will."

"Are you guys out of your minds?!" Faith laughed out loud when she heard Giles' explanation. "Do I look like I actually give a shit about what the Council wants, let alone be 'subservient' to their will?" she asked, a wide smirk crossing her face as she looked up at Willow's and Giles' faces.

"I never said that the spell functioned properly, Faith," Giles informed her. "In fact, it is precisely because of the unintended peripheral effects of the spell that it has never been used on active Slayers in the field. It apparently inhibits both the Slayer's sense of discretion and her sense of morality, that is, her ability to distinguish between right or wrong except in how it furthers the Council's, or her Watcher's, purposes and goals."

"Well, Tweed-man, I can tell you without any doubt whatsoever, that I can tell what's right and wrong," Faith told him, " so you don't have to be concerned about me being under a spell any more. So, now that we've gotten that straightened out, why don't you unlock these cuffs, and I'll be on my way out of town and out of your hair," she continued, as she once again lifted her wrists to indicate the manacles securing her to the couch.

"I'm sorry, Faith, but that is completely out of the question at the moment," Giles stated, in a semi-apologetic tone. "All of the information we've gathered here would indicate that you may indeed be under the influence of the spell, and until we know for certain, I will not take any chances with the safety of the general public or ourselves, or with your safety, either, with the Council's retrieval team still in the area. I urge you to just relax and let us make certain of our findings.

"It shouldn't take us more than another day to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty what we can do about the spell," he attempted to reassure the dark-haired Slayer.

"I guess there's not a lot I can do about it, is there?" Faith replied as she settled back against the couch and looked up at Giles. "Except... THIS!!"

With a supernaturally fluid motion, the brunette gathered the chains binding her to the legs of the couch in her hands and yanked, splintering the framework. She immediately sprang to her feet and lunged across the short distance separating her from Willow and seized the redhead, grasping her chin with one hand and pulling her head back at an acute angle while her other hand retained a firm grip on her neck.

"All right now," she said, with a teeth-baring smile at Giles, "as long as nobody does anything stupid, Glinda the Good Witch here stays alive and unhurt."

Chapter 6

Buffy lay quietly on the bed, gasping weakly as she once again tried to regain her breath. She knew she had to move, to get up out of the bed, to explain to Xander about what had really happened between them earlier, that it was all a mistake, but, at the moment, she couldn't summon enough energy to lift her head, let alone sit up. She was snuggled up to the hot, sweaty body next to her, her head pillowed on Xander's shoulder, the curves of their bodies perfectly fitted one against the other, and with his arms clasped loosely but possessively around her, something she found incredibly reassuring and comforting.

That wasn't supposed to happen.

Somehow, Xander had managed to pry open the door to that part of her heart that she thought she had nailed shut years ago. She had consciously decided long ago that Xander Harris was off-limits, that any type of romantic relationship simply wasn't possible, and she had lived with the consequences of that decision ever since. She had even (almost) convinced herself that she simply wasn't interested in him 'that way' at all, and that Angel was much more interesting and alluring, because he was mysterious and brooding and good-looking and hot and not just enticing eye-candy for the former prom queen of Hemery High.

She shouldn't be feeling safe and secure and loved and protected in Xander's arms.

She was the Slayer, the Chosen One, the mystically anointed nemesis of vampires, demons and things that go bump in the night, and he was Xander, her goofy, off-the-wall, relentlessly-throwing-himself-into- danger-without-any-thought-for-the-consequences, best friend in the world. He was the normal guy, the one without the preordained destiny, the one who could have a normal life with a wife and children and a dog, who could have the house with the white picket fence and the nine-to-five job that didn't have anything to do with demons and blood and death and possibly dying in any of a thousand different and painful ways.

That was why she had finally told him earlier this year that she didn't want him helping them anymore; she didn't want to even think about the possibility of him not being around to enjoy life. If there was any one who deserved to celebrate life, it was him, her Xander-shaped friend.

She knew a great deal more about him and his home life than most people thought she did. Willow had told her about his life prior to her arrival in Sunnydale, glossing over some of the more unsavory details, like his alcoholic mother, and not mentioning much of anything about his (most likely abusive) stepfather. Even Cordelia had told her things about him she probably would never have found out from him otherwise, like the fact that he used to play the guitar and the piano (she occasionally wondered why he didn't do that anymore, she would have liked to see him up on the stage at the Bronze playing), that he could cook better than anyone else his age in town (pretty much a necessary survival trait given his home life, although he had once joked with Cordelia about becoming a gourmet chef) and that he had, at one time, dreamed of joining the Air Force and becoming a pilot.

She had gotten more information about him from his high school files (hey, what was the point of being Stealth Girl, if you never got a chance to use it?) and from his medical records at Sunnydale General, which hinted at things no one was willing to say aloud (and which had briefly incited thoughts of inflicting the physical equivalent of karmic payback on his stepfather) that had further fleshed out her view of their resident joker. Willow would probably be struck dumb if she ever found out that Buffy could actually do more than just turn on the computer. Hours of watching the redhead hack into official records at all levels of government and commercial security had shown her some of the more reliable, basic, tried and true methods of acquiring information electronically, if not legally.

Most of what she knew about him had come from her hours of watching him. The blonde Slayer was nothing less than astonished that Xander had managed to mold himself into the compassionate, loving, caring (and, yeah, cute and funny and hot and sexy) man she had seen him develop into, despite all of the obstacles that Fate had chosen to throw in his way.

He was the one who could get away, the one out of all of them that could make it, who could be the one that could actually have a life out of all the Scooby Gang, and she wanted him to do that, to be safe and healthy and far, far away from anything that could cause him harm. She was stuck here, 'cause she was the Slayer, destined to guard the gates to the mouth of Hell for the rest of her (probably short) life. Giles was her Watcher and he would never leave her, regardless of what she might tell him or what might happen, and, besides, he had his combat training and mystical knowledge and some magical skills to fall back on. Willow had her magic mojo to protect her, in addition to her hacker skills, and she was never really on the front lines that much anyway, and Oz was a werewolf, and pretty much already involved knee-deep in the whole supernatural mess that was life here in good old Sunnydale.

But Xander was none of those things; he was normal; he didn't have any superpowers or destiny or need to be here. Sure, it would be nice knowing that she would never have to be alone, that he would always be there guarding her back (and, hey, if he was checking out the rest of her, too, while he watched her back, that would be perfectly okay with her). But she had already sacrificed so much for her destiny, given up any hopes of having a husband or children, of having a family like nearly everyone else in the whole world could have, that she was going to make damned sure that he was never going to be part of the sacrifices that the bastard Fates demanded periodically around here.

He would be safe, that was all there was to it, and she was going to make sure of that, no matter what.

"You are completely and totally incredible," Xander whispered in her ear, breaking into her thoughts and kissing her cheek with a tenderness she couldn't recall ever seeing him demonstrate before. "And I know I promised I'd pay attention to you the whole night, which I fully intend to do, but I've just got to rest for a couple minutes before we do anything else. Okay, beautiful lady?" he asked, not relinquishing his hold on her in the slightest.

She silently nodded her agreement, not trusting herself to speak. Unsure of what to say, what to tell him, she just treasured these few, brief moments of happiness that she had never allowed herself to even hope of having come true. She snuggled up closer to him, blinking away the moisture that was trying to gather in her eyes.

< I just need to rest for a few minutes, catch my breath, > she told herself, trying to ignore how safe and protected and comfortable and content she felt in his arms. < Then I'll tell him, > she promised herself. < But first, I have to rest. Just for a couple of minutes... >

With a weary but content sigh, Buffy closed her eyes, letting her exhaustion sweep through her and carry her away from her problems to the much needed refuge of sleep.

Next to her, Xander Harris drifted off to sleep, completely and totally satisfied with his life for the first time he could ever remember.


The jungle around them was quiet. That was the first sign that they were in trouble. He wasn't sure of just how much trouble yet, but he knew it was coming, like the way he knew the sun rose in the east in the morning. Something was out there that didn't belong, and the local denizens were keeping quiet and making sure that whatever it was that was out there wouldn't notice them.

From his position at point, he signaled for the rest of the team to halt where they were, while he tried to sort out just what exactly it was that was wrong. The wind, which had been behind them most of the morning, shifted unexpectedly and it brought with it the faintest hint of something that didn't belong, which immediately set every danger alarm in his brain screaming. He didn't consciously think about what it might be, he just threw himself to the ground while signaling frantically for the rest of the team to follow. As he kissed the dirt in front of him, he recognized the smell.

Gun oil.

And that was something that didn't belong out here, fifty klicks from the nearest village. Just like they didn't belong out here. And since they were supposed to be the only patrol in this area, that meant that the gun oil smell didn't belong to anybody who would be glad to see them.

Which meant that almost certainly a big, fucking tractor-trailer load of shit was headed their way right now at top speed.

Given where they were and what they were assigned to do, the pieces fell into place very quickly and easily. The enemy waiting for them up ahead on the trail had to have been warned of their mission and their approximate schedule and whereabouts.

They had been betrayed by one of their own.

As he realized that fact, he could feel the rage begin to erupt, but his training slid into place almost instantly, holding back the fury, the single-minded urge to kill whoever had done this to them, allowing him to think clearly and rationally. He contained the rage, packaged it and put it aside for the time being, holding back the almost overwhelming desire to kill and damage and destroy, until it could be channeled and used in the most efficient manner possible. Given that only a handful of people knew what they were assigned to do, and that an even smaller number of those individuals knew their schedule and drop-off point, it should be easy to determine who had betrayed them, once they made it back. Then he would determine who had sold them out.

And he'd kill them.

First, though, they needed to evade the ambush that was waiting up the trail for them, then make their way back to base, unaided, through fifty kilometers of hostile territory to their home base.

Keeping as low as he could, he wriggled his way back to where the Ell- Tee was inhaling dirt with the rest of the squad stretching out behind him, all the while reaching out with every sense he had, trying to find something, anything, that could give him another clue about who or what was out there, waiting for them.

"Smelled gun oil coming from somewhere up ahead, Ell-Tee," he reported concisely in the merest breath of a whisper. "No idea where, or how many. I just know that someone, or more likely, a bunch of someones are waiting for us up ahead."

The kid may have been green, but he wasn't stupid. He could see him coming to the same conclusion he had already reached.

< This kid just may make a decent officer, > he thought to himself. < If we can get out of this alive. >

"Any suggestions, Sarge?" the kid asked him, conceding to his superior battlefield experience.

"Yeah. We kill all of these fuckers, scrub the mission and get our asses back to base. Then we hit the bars, get drunk and get laid. Sir."

He grinned, seeing the kid grinning back (a little weak, maybe, but he was grinning), having already realized the unlikelihood of all of them getting out of this alive and unhurt. The enemy almost certainly had a second team dogging their trail, to make sure that they wouldn't miss them if they should double back for any reason. They had to neutralize the ambush up ahead, quickly and cleanly, so that they wouldn't get caught between the arms of a pincer movement and crushed between superior forces.

"Sounds good to me, Sergeant. I'll buy. But just the beer."

Yeah, the kid definitely had potential. Keeping him alive was going to be worth the effort it took.

Keeping low, they gathered together with the other team members and outlined the situation, roughing out a quick and dirty strategy to ambush the ambushers. Once everyone knew their parts, they broke up into two man teams and moved out, abandoning the trail they had been following and slipping silently into the jungle around them, after preparing some surprises for their unknown opponents along the trail.

With only a vague guess about the enemy's location up ahead and concern for the cleanup crew they believed were following them, they couldn't afford to take the time needed to carefully search out the ambushers' positions and neutralize them. Therefore, they would seek out the enemy forces behind them and attack them, hoping to draw their ambushers into attacking them from behind. A clearing they had passed a klick or so down the trail would provide them an ideal location to ambush whoever may have been following them. All they needed now was time to get set up before anyone else showed their faces, and that wasn't something they could count on having a lot of.

Moving as quickly and quietly as they could, they headed back to the clearing, keeping several meters off to one side of the trail, in case the expected enemy patrol was closer than they hoped they were. Once they arrived, they set up a counter ambush, positioning the Claymores in what they hoped would be the appropriate firing pattern before arming them and arranging themselves in a carefully established pattern around the perimeter of the clearing. After that, it was just a matter of patience.

It took the better part of three hours, but they finally heard the sounds of people approaching from down the trail, two of them actually holding a conversation about some woman they both knew, acting like they were walking through a god-damned park.

< Amateurs! > he thought disgustedly, from his position thirty feet up in the trees. < No discipline at all. They're so sure they know exactly what's going on. Time for a surprise, > he decided.

As the last member of the enemy patrol entered the clearing, he sighted down the barrel of his M16/M203 combo and sent a fragmentation round spinning down to explode immediately in front of that poor unfortunate. That was the signal for the rest of the team to open fire, and the clearing immediately turned into a slaughterhouse, as the patrol was caught in a deadly crossfire of bullets and grenades that quickly turned them into hors-d'oeuvres for the local scavengers. Only two of them had even managed to get a shot off, and most of the bullets hadn't even come close to their positions.

As the sounds of gunfire and explosions faded, the victors could hear the squawk of a hand-held radio from one of the bodies and a highly pissed off voice demanding a reply.

"Looks like they know we're here, now." That was Jensen, all right, had a real penchant for stating the obvious. "Guess we better get a move on."

"You guys start on ahead. I'll catch up with you later," he heard the lieutenant tell the rest of the team, as he carefully made his way down the trunk of his tree to the ground.

< Oh shit, that doesn't sound good, > he told himself.

Hurrying over to where the kid had concealed himself, he found him lying in a rapidly spreading pool of blood that was quickly being soaked up by the loam beneath him. Pulling open his shirt, he found two small holes in the kid's abdomen from which was pouring a disconcerting amount of blood. There was no spurting, fortunately, a good indicator that no vein or artery had been nicked, at least.

"Hawkins! Jensen! Head back up the road and watch for company," he barked out as Marinelli dropped to his knees next to the kid and started working on him. "We're all going home at the same time, Ell- Tee," he told the kid. "Remember, you're buying the beer, and I'm not letting you wiggle out of that," he grinned down. The kid was scared and in a lot of pain, but he was making an effort to not appear so.

"I'm only going to slow you down. Take the men and get out of here," the kid told him. "Tha-, uuhhhh!" he gasped as a spasm of pain shook him momentarily. "That's... an ...order."

"Not going to happen, Ell-Tee," he shook his head. "I've never left a man behind before, and I'm not going to start now. If the Chinese couldn't make me leave anyone at Chosin Reservoir, do you really think these pissants can?

"How soon before we can move him?" he checked with Marinelli.

"Got most of the bleeding stopped, now. Give me five minutes to make sure and finish him up, and we can get going," the medic answered, as he sorted through the paraphernalia in the medical kit. "He won't be running any wind sprints, but he'll be able to move.

"You got lucky there, Ell-Tee," the medic smiled down at the kid, "nothing major got hit. Both slugs went right through ya, real clean. Gonna hurt like hell for a while, but you should be fine, as long as ya don't let them shoot ya again."

"I didn't let them shoot me, Augie," the lieutenant gritted out through clenched teeth, the morphine hadn't kicked in fully yet. "I told them to shoot Spenser here, not me," he managed to grin, "but they weren't paying attention. Assholes," he muttered. "We oughta shoot them again."

"I like your attitude, Ell-Tee," he grinned down at him again, "but I think they're dead enough for now."

"Okay, Sarge, have it your-, Jesus Christ, Augie!! That hurts!!!" the kid broke off in the middle of his sentence, as Marinelli tended to the wounds.

"Anyway, Sarge," he continued a moment later when the medic had finished and turned away to repack his kit, "when we get back, I want to go with you."

"Go with me, where?" he asked, only a part of his attention on his conversation as he watched for any signs of pursuit from up trail.

"When you go to kill the pricks who set us up."

"What?" His head spun around to face the lieutenant directly. "What did you just say?"

"I said, when you go to kill the pricks who set us up, I want to go with you. It's simple English. I don't see what your problem is, I don't have any kind of accent or anything."

"Ah, you don't just go around killing people, Ell-Tee," he said, still not sure he had heard the kid properly. "The authorities tend to frown on that type of thing. Makes for some big messes in the street and things."

"All right. How about if I promise to clean up after myself? Can I come along then?"

"You don't joke about killing people, kid, somebody might hear ya and take ya seriously," he warned him.

"That's good, Sarge, because I am serious," the kid told him, no smile on his face. "Now I don't know about you, but some pricks back at the base sold us out and set us up to be killed by these assholes and their friends that we're expecting to drop in any minute. It might take me a while, but I am gonna find out who did it, and then I'm gonna kill them. I kinda had the impression you felt the same way, but if you don't, that's okay with me.

" 'Cause with your help or without it, I'm gonna find out who set us up, and I'm gonna kill them," he said, his face a mask of resolution.

"You've got a reputation of being a stand-up kind of guy, who doesn't take shit from anybody, Sarge. And I think that somebody setting us up to get killed is definitely the wrong kind of shit to be taking, don't you?"

"Well, you're right about that, Ell-Tee," he conceded. "But I don't think the colonel would appreciate your going around announcing that you intend to kill people you don't even know."

"The only way my father would find out is if one of you guys tell him," the kid answered, "and none of these guys would say anything without checking with you first, Sarge. I may not know a lot, but I know enough about you guys to know that much.

"And if you're that concerned about me possibly killing the wrong guys, maybe you ought to go along with me and make sure I do it the right way."

The sounds of multiple explosions going off in the distance interrupted their conversation.

"All right, guys, it sounds like we've got visitors coming," he said, as he removed a grenade from his harness and carefully positioned it under the body of the patrol member carrying the radio they had noticed earlier, then pulled its pin before even more carefully letting the body slip back into its former position. "Let's make sure the party favors are ready."


"All right now," Faith said, with a teeth-baring smile at Giles, "as long as nobody does anything stupid, Glinda the Good Witch here stays alive and unhurt."

Giles immediately froze where he was standing, not wanting to alarm the dark Slayer into taking any irrevocable actions.

"There's no need for violence, Faith," he told her as he tried to speak in a reassuring tone of voice, slowly reaching his hand towards her in what he hoped she would recognize as a non-threatening manner. "We're just trying to help you out of an untenable situation. We haven't done anything that could be interpreted as hostile in any manner, and in fact, we have put ourselves squarely at odds with the Council's intentions by helping to conceal you from their search."

"Well, I'd have to disagree with you there, G-Man," Faith snarled at him. "Maybe it's just me, but when I wake up and find myself in cuffs and manacles, chained to somebody's couch, the first thing I think isn't 'Oh, I must be here with my friends. Everything must be just peachy.'

"Of course, if I woke up in somebody's bed like that, maybe I would," she flashed a quick smile at him. "All depends on how the night before went," she said, before her features shifted back into her more common 'Fuck with me, and I'll rip your heart out through your chest' expression.

"Okay, G-Man, enough with the small talk. Unlock these cuffs, right now, or Sabrina here starts to learn about the wonders of osteopathic massage," she instructed as she gave a small nod of her head towards the redhead held securely in front of her.

"And, Red," she warned the redhead, "if I even think I hear you mumbling a spell, you'll be able to look behind you without having to turn your head."

"L- let her go."

The command came from behind her and off to the side. Turning her head slightly so she could see the speaker out of the corner of her eye, Faith saw that it was the mousy looking blonde she had first seen when she awoke here.

"What'd you say, Blondie?"

"I s-said, let her go. She hasn't d- done anything to you," Tara replied.

"S-s-sorry," the brunette sneered at the Wicca, " but I d-d-don't think so. Not until I'm out of these cuffs and out of town."

Faith contemptuously dismissed the girl from her attention and turned back to address Giles. She was obviously no threat physically, and she was far enough away from any of the cabinets or drawers where Giles may have stored a weapon that she couldn't get near any of them without being noticed. "Time's ticking away, Jeeves. You better get moving, 'cause I'm starting to run out of patience, and Red isn't gonna like what happens after that."

Suddenly, she heard someone speaking and there was a sudden flicker in the air surrounding the two of them.


The word sounded powerful, somehow, in spite of the low tone of the voice that delivered it, and it definitely came from the blonde. Faith tried to turn her head to look at the blonde again, and suddenly found that she couldn't move her head at all. Or any other part of her body. She could vaguely make out a faint haze completely enshrouding both Willow and herself. It felt as though she was trapped inside some transparent piece of stone or cement or something. She couldn't move a muscle.

< The blonde must be a witch or something, dammit!!! > she realized belatedly. The bitch had cast a spell on her and now she couldn't move a single god-damned muscle, no matter how hard she tried.

Faith could see the blonde walking over to her in her peripheral vision, and then she was reaching out and touching her shoulder.


The blonde's voice seemed to reverberate through her for an instant, and then, for the second time that night, Faith felt her consciousness fading away into the darkness.


Giles thought feverishly as Faith heatedly demanded that he unlock the chains currently securing her limbs, desperately trying to determine the best course of action to take under the present circumstances.

Faith's sneering reply to Tara's request that she release Willow barely registered on him as he pondered the best way to thwart the brunette's release, and it was only when he saw the blonde girl rise to her feet and begin to approach Faith from her blind side that he began to actually pay attention to what she was doing.


The startling, unexpected sparkle in the air around Faith and Willow and the sudden mystical pressure in the room made him gawk in amazement.

< Good Lord!! That was most definitely a Word of Power! > he thought to himself. < Where could she have learned that? She's far too young to know something like that. >

Giles' amazement and confusion increased geometrically as he watched the young woman calmly walk up to the two motionless, haze-shrouded figures before her and make a small gesture with her right hand before reaching out and touching Faith on the shoulder as she spoke again.


< What the bloody hell -? Where on earth did she learn two Words of Power at her age, let alone one? > he asked himself, rhetorically. < I was twenty-five before I had learned enough to even begin conjuring. Just who the bloody hell is she, and what is she doing here in Sunnydale? >


At her command, the haze surrounding the two girls disappeared and both fell to the floor, Faith unconscious and Willow weak-kneed with combined fear and relief.

"Are-, are you all right?"

The blonde was bending over Willow and reaching down to pull the shaking redhead up to her, as they clutched each other, momentarily ignoring Giles' presence.

"I'm-, I'm fine, honey," Willow quavered, as she hugged the blonde to her, her now-dissipated fear lending strength to her grasp. "You saved me!" she gasped. "Thank you!!"

Willow punctuated her last statement with a fervent kiss which the blonde Wicca returned with equal enthusiasm.

Giles had crouched down over Faith to check her vital signs after she collapsed to the floor, while Tara and Willow had embraced. Now reassured that she was merely asleep and that that no inadvertent harm had come to his former charge, he rose and made a point of not noticing the fervent clinch in which the two Wicca were involved.

After a moment, he cleared his throat.

"Hmm-mmphh!" The two girls didn't notice.

He cleared it again.

"Hmm-mmphh!" Again, they remained unaware of him.

He tried one more time.


This time, they did notice, jumping back from each other as though shot out of a cannon when they suddenly realized where exactly they were.

"Oh! Uh! Giles! Uh, we, uh, we were, ah, well, I- " Willow began stammering, as her face began approaching a hue usually attained only by well-cooked lobsters. "I mean -, that is -, we were just - "

"You were both a bit - overwrought, you might say, by the stress of the situation, and were - greatly relieved, is a reasonable description, in my opinion, - once your friend Tara neutralized Faith's threat," Giles gently suggested, as the redhead paused uncertainly in her attempted explanation, for both breath and rational thought, "and, subsequently, you were both merely attempting to reassure the other of your safety.

"A great many people are often overcome with emotion in moments of extreme stress," he continued conversationally, as he moved to the hall closet and began to remove some lengths of chain from one of the containers within. "And many people are also oftentimes embarrassed or concerned by the display of such emotions," he noted, as he returned to crouch over Faith and secure her with the additional lengths of chain, still not looking at the uncharacteristically quiet redhead.

"Even when there is nothing at all to be embarrassed or concerned about," he concluded, finally turning to look at her and smile.

"Uhhm, yeah, that would be a good way to describe it," Willow smiled back at him, the relief evident in her eyes, as was the slightest hint of moisture gathering in the corners. "Thanks, Giles," she said, "for everything."

"There is nothing to thank me for," he told her, his meaning clearly intended to be taken on a number of levels. "It was your friend here, who was responsible for rescuing you," he reminded her. "I merely stood by and dithered, and accomplished nothing at all. Tara was the one who managed to bring about your release.

"Uhm, I do hope you'll excuse my rudeness, Tara," he said as he then turned to the blonde, who had been standing quietly to one side, watching the two of them, "but, I have a number of questions that I hope you would be good enough to answer. Uppermost in my mind at the moment is, just how long have you been practicing magic, and where was it that you learned those Words of Power that you just used?

"The reason I ask," he explained, "is that I have never seen anyone invoke a Word of Power as smoothly and with as few gestures as you did just a moment ago. You indicated earlier this evening, when we were discussing the Draconian katra spell that had affected Buffy, that you believed Willow possessed more innate power than you do, and yet you then later casually utilize spells requiring a level of expertise that, as far as I know, can only be acquired after years of intensive study."

Willow had been staring at Tara as Giles spoke, an expression of mingled amazement, curiosity and concern on her face, with her body language adding just the slightest bit of fear and caution also as she took in all of the implications of what Giles had said.

"Yeah, Tara," she joined in hesitantly. "Where did you learn that?"

The stricken look on the blonde's face when she saw Willow's reaction to Giles' questions was like a knife in the hacker-turned-witch's heart, but she struggled to maintain a stoic front. Too many times in the past a menace to the Scooby Gang and/or to the world in general had first appeared as a potential friend for her to not examine any potential friends or companions more closely than she would normally have done.

"I -, I learned from my mother," the blonde informed them in a barely audible voice, looking at the floor, her shoulders slumped as if under a great weight. "E-ever since I was little, she taught me about magic. And other things, too. Sh- she was a very powerful witch, and I learned a lot of things, before she died.

"I'll -, I'll just go now," she said, as she turned away. "I'm sorry that I bothered you," she said, as she began heading towards the front door.

The expression of complete misery and despair that now formed the blonde's entire body hit Willow like a physical blow to the body, making her feel as though she were going to throw up.

"No! Tara! Wait!" Willow almost yelled as she moved forward, reaching out to her lover. "I-, I'm sorry, I was just surprised, that's all," she began babbling as she tried to explain. "It's just- , in the past, there've been a lot of bad guys who-, who tried to get close to us, so they could stop us from stopping them from -. Not that I thought you -. I mean, I really didn't think that you were a bad guy, I was just not thinking, and, and, I don't want you to leave! I want you to stay! With me. Don't leave me. Please," she pleaded as she grabbed Tara's shoulder and pulled her around so that she could wrap her arms around her.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled into the blonde's shoulder as she pulled her close. "I'm sorry. Please don't leave me. Please. Don't leave me, Tara. I love you!" She was almost sobbing as she buried her face in the base of Tara's neck. "Don't leave me! Please!"

"All, all right. I won't," she heard the blonde whisper back to her as she felt her arms fold around her and give her a gentle squeeze. "I'll never leave you. I love you, too."

"Uhhmm, I strongly dislike and regret having to interrupt you at this time," Giles' voice broke in, "but I do think we need to determine how best to deal with our problem with Faith, preferably before she awakens again, and we need to repeat the past unpleasantness."

"Okay, Giles." Willow pulled away, just a little bit, from Tara and turned her head to face Giles, as she wiped at her eyes with her shirt sleeve. "That's a good idea. I'm really not up for any kind of flashback experiences right now." She managed a small smile at her lover, and gave her another squeeze before she stepped back and began considering their problem.

The smile Tara gave her made Willow's ductless gland system immediately go into overdrive, and the redhead had to sternly force herself not to start thinking about what she intended to do, once they were back in the blonde's dorm room.

"Al right, now," Giles said, briskly, seeing that things had now returned to a more comfortable atmosphere for everyone present (including himself). "Willow, did the reference that you and Tara discovered regarding this spell mention anything about the spell adhering to the individual affected, or whether the item upon which it was cast being cursed to remain with the individual?"

"I don't recall seeing anything mentioned about that, Giles, but we can check that out easily enough," the redhead answered as she moved over to the table upon which the grimoire rested, and began leafing through the pages. "Why? What were you thinking?"

"Well, generally speaking, most items that carry a, uhm, a non-benign charm or hex are also enchanted to prevent the item from being simply removed by the individual wearing it, so that that person cannot thwart the intended effect by simply taking off the item. In such cases, it would require the application of a powerful disenchantment spell to both neutralize the charm in question and allow the item to be removed from its wearer. I am attempting to determine whether this ring of Faith's falls into such a category, since that would increase the difficulty involved in removing or countering the spell by a significant degree.

"Tara, if you are capable of doing such, could you please use your abilities to inspect Faith's ring for anything else that may seem out of the ordinary, such as it is, regarding it?" he requested the young witch.

"All right," the blonde nodded in agreement. "I'll see if I can f- find anything else unusual."

An additional hour of further research and examination provided no new information to the group, leaving Giles and Willow staring somewhat uncertainly at each other as they tried to decide on a course of action.

"I suppose that all that remains for us to do now is remove the ring from Faith's hand," Giles stated, looking over at the still somnolent Slayer.

"Well, yeah, I guess so," Willow agreed, her gaze also on the brunette. "There doesn't seem to be any kind of enchantment or spell to prevent the ring form being removed. At least, none that we could find, anyway," she added somewhat doubtfully.

"Very well, then," Giles said, standing up and moving over to where Faith lay. "I will remove the ring. Willow, Tara, if you would, please hold yourselves ready for... well, whatever may happen," he concluded uncertainly.

Both witches took up flanking positions several feet away from the prostrate form of the Slayer, nervously waiting, while Giles knelt down next to Faith, and somewhat hesitantly grasped her right hand and attempted to slip the beryl ring off her finger. It took only the smallest bit of effort to remove the ring, and Giles then quickly dropped the piece of jewelry into a small box placed next to the brunette for that purpose.

Giving a long sigh of relief at having accomplished his purpose, Giles was smiling down at the sleeping form when suddenly Faith's eyes snapped open and she stared up into his eyes. Frozen in position by her unexpected movement, Giles stared back at her, and was completely and utterly astonished when the brunette's face suddenly collapsed and she burst into tears.

Chapter 7

They were up ahead, just a little farther up the trail. He could smell them, now, on the wind that blew into his face, and the mouthwatering fragrance of their blood and the salty smell of their flesh made his hungry stomach churn just a little harder.

Moving carefully and silently, he approached the area where they were standing, making no noise whatsoever as he moved through the trees like a shadow, blending into the darkness like a droplet of water rejoining the ocean.

He reached the edge of the woods, where the trees thinned out and the cleared area began, and he could see the two of them clearly now, barely twenty meters away from his position, just standing there in the last rays of the sunset, staring at something farther away on the other side of the clearing. The female was a bit larger than average, but still appeared diminutive alongside the male next to her. He truly was a giant, much more massive than any of his fellows, and he was young, too, that was evident from his scent, having none of the trace aromas that age, wisdom and experience brought with them, but all that that meant was that there would be more food for him.

His stomach growled again, a reminder that standing there and staring did nothing to help him feed himself. After another brief survey of the area, to make sure that there was nothing around to spoil or warn of his attack, he burst from the woods in an eye-blurring sprint, intent upon catching the big guy by surprise and ripping his throat out before he was even aware of his attacker.

He was barely ten meters away when the giant suddenly spun around to face him head-on, and he suddenly realized that he wasn't facing some green youngster, but a battle hardened veteran who had to have survived more than just a few attacks like this, to judge by the scars running across the side of his face.

Switching targets at the last moment, he veered away from the giant and sprinted towards the female, but the giant moved faster than he thought possible for anything that big, and positioned himself between him and the female.

Very well. The giant it would be, then.

He darted forward, then shifted left, trying for a quick attack to the throat, looking to just rip it out and finish this matter as quickly as possible, but his opponent was too experienced to allow him to do that, and merely turned to the side, letting the claws slice through the air harmlessly, before pivoting back again and trying to disembowel him in turn.

Enraged at the thought of his dinner fighting back, he dropped back for a moment to get out of range, then sprang forward again with a double strike, the follow-up attack raking across the side of the giant's face, opening up the old scars again, but not penetrating deeply enough to do serious harm. His foot came down in an unseen hole in the ground as he tried to shift to the side preparatory to another attack, and he lost his balance, awkwardly sprawling across the grass. His opponent wasted no time whatsoever in taking advantage of this stroke of luck, and attacked immediately, the tusk sliding in deeply into his chest and a lung, with the subsequent riposte tearing through his heart and remaining lung before exiting out the other side of his body.

Trumpeting his victory, the bull mastodon shook his head and flung the eviscerated body of the tiger through the air, then followed it as it fell to the earth and stomped it into a thin paste spread across the grasses beneath him as he again proudly announced his triumph over yet another foe.


The bar was quiet, off the main streets and nearly empty, and at 1:00AM on a Wednesday morning, exactly the type of place they needed right now.

"Two pitchers of draft and three mugs, and keep 'em coming," he called over to the sole waitress leaning against the bar, as they all moved to a corner table near the back door. A large potted plant of some unidentifiable type partially screened them from the view of anyone coming in the front door, but still allowed them to see who might come in. After what had just happened an hour earlier, he wanted as much advance notice of possible hostiles as he could get.

The conversation was entirely inconsequential until after the waitress had brought over their pitchers and had retired back to the bar to resume the conversation with the bartender and one of the other patrons that their arrival had interrupted.

"Okay," Jensen said in a quiet voice, after a long gulp from his mug, "Now, can someone tell me just exactly what the fuck went down back there? Because from where I'm standing, I think that either I'm entitled to a Section Eight, or I must still be back in Frisco, tripping on some really bad acid, and you guys are all just figments of my imagination."

"If you're tripping, then I'm tripping along with you, Pete," the kid told him, "and I haven't touched any of that shit since my freshman year of high school. One bad trip was more than enough for me."

"All right, enough chit-chat. We've gotta figure out just exactly what the hell happened back there," he said, cutting into the conversation. "I'll tell you what I saw happen inside that house, and then you guys tell me whether I'm nuts, or not. OK?"

Looking into each of the other's eyes, he saw the same doubt, disbelief, amazement and fear that he knew they could see in his.

"Mark and I," he began, nodding towards the kid, "were doing a routine B&E into Harrington's house, looking for anything to confirm that he's involved with the drug trade around here, and that he's the one responsible for Augie and Jerry's deaths. Pete, you were standing watch outside.

"We found a safe hidden in the floor of Harrington's den, which we managed to open and which had a shit load of money and bearer bonds in it, but nothing else. Then, Sherlock Holmes, here," he nodded towards the kid again, "found a second safe, hidden under the first, which had enough paperwork and drugs inside to put that prick in Leavenworth for his next three lifetimes. We grabbed everything we found and proceeded to evac the area.

"You're with me, so far, right?' he asked for confirmation, and they both nodded their agreement.

"Harrington and several other people came in just as we were leaving, and they started shooting as soon as they saw us. We returned fire, and nailed all of them, thanks to Pete coming in behind them and establishing a cross-fire. Every one of those bastards took at least five rounds to the head or body, and each one had at least two kill shots, when we checked them, right?"

Again, they both nodded agreement.

"Then, can anyone explain to me how a guy who took a nine millimeter slug between the eyes and three more through the heart got up off the floor, picked me up and threw me across the fucking room and through the window?" he asked.

Both shook their heads negatively, and Mark spoke up.

"I thought I was seeing things for a second when I saw him move. He just sat up, wiped the blood out of his eyes, touched the back of his head, looked at the blood on his fingers, shook his head and then he got to his feet.

"I emptied the rest of my clip into the son of a bitch, point blank, and he just stood there, smiling at me. Now, this is where it got even weirder," the kid said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"The bastard just stood there, smiling at me, after I shot him five times in the chest, and then his face just sorta -, I don't know, changed, and he got this wrinkle-y forehead thing and his eyes turned yellow and when he opened his mouth, I could see he had fangs! I swear to God, actual fucking fangs!"

"I know, kid. I saw them, too."

"Then he backhanded me, and I went flying across the room. It felt like he hit me with a god-damned crowbar, Spenser! I didn't know what the hell happened, or where the hell I was! I'm still surprised I was even conscious."

"Well, after he knocked you on your ass, he turned around and started walking towards me," Pete picked up the story. "I've gotta tell you, boss-man, sir, the son of a bitch scared the shit out of me, so I just shouldered my SPAS and unloaded on him as fast as I could pump the action. The first burst caught him in the chest and knocked him back a step, but he started towards me again, and then my second and third shots hit him in the head and neck, and pretty much took his head off."

"Yeah, I saw that," he agreed, " when I was trying to climb back through the window. And about two seconds later, he turned to dust. Is that what you saw?"



"Okay, then, we all saw the same thing. The only remaining question now, is, just what the hell was it that we saw?"

"Beats the shit out of me, boss. I'm just a grunt. I shoot what you tell me to shoot," Pete grinned as he drained his mug. "You guys are the ones who get paid to do the thinking. You guys figure out what it was we saw.

"Me, I'm just gonna blow their fucking heads off anytime I see one of those bastards."


"So, still haven't found anything you like, sweetheart?" Xander asked, as he paused and shifted around the approximately one dozen shopping bags he was carrying, while they surveyed the seemingly endless expanse of the mall.

"Not yet, baby," she smiled back at him, as her eyes swept across the innumerable stores spread out before them, searching for one that seemed to promise her satisfaction. "But don't worry, I'm sure the perfect one is right here in front of us. I just haven't seen it yet.

"Ooo! I don't remember seeing that shop here before," she squealed, as she spotted a new facade across the mall that seemed to beckon to her. "Let's check it out."

"Anything you want, Buff. All I care about is your happiness," he smiled down at her again. "You know that."

"I know," she agreed. "That's how I can get you to do pretty much anything I want," she cooed as she shoved and elbowed her way through the throngs of other shoppers milling around the stores.

"Okay, here we are," she said, stopping in front of a bridal shop. "Let's see what they have."

Inside the shop, she was wearing a lavish wedding gown, festooned with pearls and lace and a train that seemed to stretch from her tiny feet back to the horizon.

"Well, what do you think?" she asked Xander as she pirouetted before him.

"I think you look terrific in anything you've got on," he told her with an adoring smile. "What's important is what you think."

"I think that I've found exactly what I've been looking for my entire life," she stated as she looked him directly in the eye.

"Yes, this is definitely the look I want," she said as she gazed into the full length mirror set in the wall in front of her and pirouetted once again, smiling at the apparently endless yards of lace draped around her. The reflection shifted to show a fatigued-but-smiling maternity-clad Buffy obviously nearing the end of her term walking beside Xander, then to her smiling proudly as she held a dark-haired infant with both of them enclosed by Xander's arms, and again, to a black-clad image of herself, still holding an infant but now standing looking down on a coffin in which a deathly pale Xander lay unmoving.

Staring tearfully down at Xander's motionless form, holding the baby, she looked up to see Willow and Giles, both wearing dark mourning clothes, approaching her.

"You know, if it weren't for you, he'd be alive today," Willow told her, as she pulled the baby from her embrace. "You don't deserve to have his child. You don't deserve his love. You don't deserve any of this!

"I loved him. This should have all been mine! But then you had to show up and steal him away from me," the redhead snarled at her. "Why couldn't you have just stayed dead, the way you should have? Then we could have all been happy."

"W- Willow?" she stammered. "What-, what are you saying? Giles, why is she acting like this?" she asked, turning to the Watcher who stood as a mute witness nearby.

"Ungrateful child! Willow is completely correct in everything she says," the Englishman sneered at her. "Although I must say, Xander must be held partially to blame, also.

"If he hadn't meddled in things that didn't concern him, he would be alive today. I told him, and I told him, you were supposed to die at the Master's hands, but would he listen to me? Oh no, he just ran off and saved your life, anyway, not listening to a single word I said," he ranted.

"And it wasn't enough that he saved you once. Oh, no! He just had to keep on doing it time and again," he lamented. "First, he brings you back after the Master killed you, then he kept you alive during that dreadful Halloween fiasco, and then to top it off, he saves you again from Angelus' little gift, Teresa." Behind him, the large mirror on the wall displayed each scene as he described it.

"I tell you, the boy had absolutely no respect for tradition!" he complained bitterly. "But, fortunately, we don't have to worry about that anymore now, do we?"

"Nope, not at all. I just can't believe it took him so long to learn his lesson," Willow said conversationally to Giles.

"And you're right about her being ungrateful," the redhead added matter-of-factly. "Not only did she not thank Xander for saving her life the first time, she was hanging all over Angel, thanking him for saving her. Then, when school began the following year, when she was miffed at Angel over some little thing, she asks Xander to dance at the Bronze, and humiliates him in front of everyone there.

"I have to admit," the redhead smiled as she leaned in and spoke confidentially to Buffy for a moment, "that was definitely some first class debasement. You could definitely give Cordy a run for the money when the queen bitch title comes up for election again."

"Willow!" Buffy tried again to interrupt her. "This isn't you. Why are you acting like this?"

"But, you know," the redhead said, thoughtfully, ignoring Buffy's words completely and cocking her head to the side as she looked over at her, "I think your cutting him out of the Gang last month was definitely your crowning moment."

As Willow spoke, the mirror on the wall shifted to display the scene described.


Xander was seated at a table in the Expresso Pump as Buffy walked up to the table.

"Hey, Buffster, how's school going?" he smiled at her, getting to his feet and pulling out a chair for her. "What do you want? Your standard double mochachino? Just sit down and I'll be right back with it."

"No, thanks, Xand," Buffy answered, standing by the table and just looking at him. She made no effort to sit down and was clearly trying to quickly finish up whatever she came to do.

"Look, I've been giving a lot of thought to your helping out with the Slaying and stuff," she said, "and I'm really concerned about you or somebody else getting hurt if we have to keep on saving you."

"What?" Xander asked, obviously not believing what he thought he was hearing. "What do you mean, keep on saving me?"

"Just exactly what I said," Buffy replied. "You keep on getting hurt by whatever Big Bad we're currently fighting and I'm getting really concerned that you're going to get killed, or get someone else hurt or killed when we have to save you. So, from here on out, I don't want you to help out with the Slaying."

"You're kidding, right?" The look of disbelief and desperation on his face spoke more eloquently than his words could. "This is all just some kind of joke. That's what it is, right?"

"I just want to make sure you're safe, Xand," Buffy smiled at him. "That's all. Bye."

She then turned and began walking away from him towards the door.

"No! You're joking, right?" Xander called after her, obviously stunned and oblivious to the stares of everyone in the shop. "You're just joking, Buffy! Right? You're just joking..."

He slowly became aware of everyone staring at him as he stood there, and repeated in a much quieter voice, "She's just joking, that's all."

Several people were grinning at him, obviously talking about him, while others, especially a few guys, were looking at him with expressions of sympathy and commiseration, thinking he'd just been dumped by a girlfriend. In the mirror, a small spot of blood appeared on his shirt where his heart would be, and rapidly expanded in size until it covered his entire chest.


"Now, that's humiliation!" Willow smiled at Buffy. "Even Cordy didn't embarrass him in front of a shop of complete strangers. I guess I just forgot that you were the Cordelia Chase of Hemery High."

"Yes, indeed," Giles joined in. "Very good show, there, Buffy. You cut out his heart quite nicely, with a minimum amount of effort on your part. It's good to see you've been practicing. Now, if you could only do the same with vampires..." he left his sentence unfinished.

"No!" Buffy yelled at the both of them. "That's not how it was! I just wanted him to be safe! That's all!"

"Oh, I'm safe, now, all right," Xander told her, as he sat up in his coffin, a cold smile on his face. "Vamps and demons can't kill me now, because I don't have a heart for them to rip out. You already did that."

"Yeah, B," she heard a voice behind her say. She whirled around to find Faith standing behind her, a wide smile across her face. "The Xand-Man is fine, now, no thanks to you," she said, as she walked over to Xander and draped her arm across his shoulders possessively. "Come on, get with the program, girl."

"What do you mean?" Buffy demanded, staring at the bloody midsection of Faith's shirt that was steadily growing larger.

"Well, girlfriend, if you had just stayed dead, everybody would be much better off," the Dark Slayer told her. "After Kendra kicked it, and she would have taken a dirt nap real quick, we both know that," she grinned, "I would have been called, and the whole Scooby gang would have accepted me right away. Angelus would never have returned, Ms. Calendar would still be alive, along with all his other victims, Giles would now be with the woman he loved and that nasty business with Gweny Post and Wesley the Worm and the Council would never had happened. You wouldn't be around to make me feel like a second-rate substitute, so that mess with Assistant Mayor Finch wouldn't have happened and I would never have gone over to the Dark Side and started working for the Mayor, as the Xand-man would put it," she explained.

"No, that's not true!" Buffy protested. "None of that was my fault!"

"Come on, B!" Faith grinned. "Who are you trying to kid? You're totally responsible for Angelus coming back, and that makes you responsible for everything else."

"But I didn't know about the curse," Buffy objected.

"Maybe not, but you were the one playing mattress tag with Angel," Xander stated, as he climbed out of his coffin. Buffy noticed that there was a gaping hole in his chest now, where his heart should be. "Maybe you should have studied the Slayer's Handbook a little harder. You were supposed to Slay the undead, Buff, not lay the undead," he told her.

"Of course, you could always blame it on a typo," he grinned. "You always blame every mistake you make on someone or something else. Buffy Summers doesn't make mistakes, right?"

"That's not fair, Xander," she told him. "I really do care about you. That's why I cut you out of the Slaying. I wanted you to be safe."

"Well, thank you so much for being condescending and paternalistic, Buffy," he sneered at her. "It's so much more reassuring to know you had the best of intentions when you cut out my heart."

"Hey, forget about that loser, lover," Faith laughed as she pulled him around to face her and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Maybe she doesn't want you around, but I certainly do," she said, as she pulled him into a passionate kiss.

"I may not have a long life ahead of me, but I'm gonna make sure I enjoy the life I do have," she smiled, before turning her head to face Buffy. "Want, take, have. Ain't that right, B?" she asked before turning back to kiss Xander again.

Turning away from watching the two of them kiss, tears in her eyes, Buffy found herself in a huge, dimly lit ballroom. Looking down, she saw that she was once again wearing maternity clothes, although this time she was dressed in a very formal gown, her hair pulled back in an elaborate coiffure. Judging by the size of her stomach, she couldn't be more than four or five months along. Looking back up, she found Spike standing before her, wearing a tuxedo, as classical music played in the background.

"Fancy meeting you here, Slayer," he said, as he took her hand and they began dancing a waltz, the dance floor around them gradually brightening. "Been keeping yourself busy, I see," he said, as he glanced down at her stomach. "What, there aren't enough Slayers around already, you have to start a production line?"

"Don't worry, B," she heard Faith say, as she suddenly appeared, still dressed in her trademark leather pants and bloody shirt, and cut in, taking her place dancing with Spike. "I still got your back."

Buffy watched as the two continued dancing for another moment or so before Spike suddenly shifted to his game face and buried his fangs in Faith's neck. He fed from the weakly struggling brunette for a few moments before finally pulling away and letting her body drop to the floor.

"Be seeing you, Slayer," he smiled at Buffy, Faith's blood dripping from his mouth, before turning and walking off into the darkness surrounding them.

Buffy rushed over to where Faith was lying and was shocked to see the brunette was still barely alive.

"Oh my god, Faith, I'm sorry," she said, as she cradled her in her arms, tears streaming down her face. "I'm so sorry."

"I knew you'd be the death of me, B," the brunette whispered with a smile. "Everybody who loves you, dies," she told her, before her face suddenly shifted into a vampire's game face.

"Oh my god, Faith," Buffy gasped, shocked into immobility. "I'm so sorry," she repeated herself. "You didn't deserve that."

"Everything's cool, B," Faith smiled at her, as she got to her feet. "We're still five by five. Be seeing ya," she said, as she bent down to give Buffy a quick kiss on the cheek, before walking off into the darkness, leaving Buffy kneeling on the floor.

"NO!" Buffy found herself sitting up in bed, breathless, her heart pounding, as she looked frantically around her, and slowly realized she had been dreaming.

< It wasn't real. None of it was real, > she told herself. < It was all just a dream. Well, a nightmare, actually, > she thought, relieved as she realized she was finally awake.

"What's the matter, Buff? Are you okay?" Xander's voice was full of concern as she felt his hand on her shoulder.

< Xander!?! Oh my god! What -? > she wondered for a fraction of a second before the memories came flooding back.

< OH MY GOD!! > she thought as she realized that they were both still naked, and that the scent of their earlier nocturnal activities still filled the air. The combined fragrances triggered a warm tingle that rushed through her body while images of what had happened earlier filled her mind.

<No! Stop thinking like that! > she ordered herself. < It was a mistake, that's all. It was just a mistake, it didn't mean anything at all. >

< Yeah. Right! > another part of her mind answered sarcastically, but she resolutely ignored it.

Her thoughts all flashed through her mind in an instant, leaving her staring blankly at Xander as he spoke.

"Xander? Oh my god! What's going on?" she demanded, wide-eyed, as she grabbed hold of the bed sheet and wrapped it around herself, shrugging his hand off her shoulder as she slid off the bed away from him. "Where are we? What did you do?" The tone of her voice grew increasingly more strident with each word.

"Well, in order, the answers are 'Yes,' 'I'm not sure,' 'My apartment' and 'Everything you wanted me to.' " He smiled warmly at her. "Is something wrong, Buff? Are you okay?"

"No, I'm not okay," she snapped, then faltered for a moment, uncertain of exactly what she should say or do.

< Stop that! Eyes on his face! Pay attention to what he's saying, not his -, him! > she ordered herself sternly, as she realized her eyes had been running down his equally naked body as he sat on the bed, looking at her, in a mixture of curiosity and concern.

"What's going on here, Buff? Are you starting to have second thoughts? You kept telling me that you were sure last night, that's the only reason I agreed to -," he said, somewhat uncertainly.

"No, I'm not having second thoughts," she snapped, disturbed and embarrassed by her vivid recall of her reactions and actions the night before, her inability to stop either Xander or herself and her later failure to tell him the truth about what had actually occurred.

Xander's evident relief at Buffy's answer immediately evaporated as she continued.

"I can't be having second thoughts, because I never even had first thoughts," she snapped at him. "That wasn't me here last night, doing - whatever it was you were doing," she glared at him, her self- righteousness providing her with adequate justification for her words.

< At least, it wasn't me that started anything, > she rationalized to herself.

"Oh, let me guess, it was your evil twin sister, right?" Xander replied sarcastically. "She was the one who slept with me, and you two just switched places in my bed afterwards, right?"

"You're half-right," Buffy answered. "Faith switched bodies with me last night using some kind of magic dragon cat-y thing. Giles, Willow and one of her Wicca friends managed to reverse the spell, and then I woke up here," she summarized, conveniently omitting just exactly when she had found herself here, and what they had been doing.

< And doing so very well, > a voice in her head reminded her. She determinedly told herself to just ignore that voice and whatever else it might say.

"What? That was Faith? It was Faith I met last night?" he asked, surprise and shock evident in his voice, as she nodded her head 'yes.'

"Then, that wasn't you?" he repeated dully, and she shook her head negatively. "You didn't tell me..." he trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished.

"No," Buffy shook her head emphatically. "I didn't say anything. I just woke up here this morning," she lied. "What was it you thought I said?" she asked, curiosity and fear warring within her as she wondered if he had heard her...slip-up. That was the correct term. Her slip-up. She really hadn't intended to say anything to him, the words had just slipped out, that was all. She really didn't mean to say them, and she really didn't even mean them, so it was just as if she had never even said them, right? It was better for the both of them, for everyone involved, if they just acted as if she hadn't ever said anything at all. That was the best way to handle things, in her opinion.

"Never mind. It wasn't anything important," Xander replied somewhat bitterly, as he shook his head.

Buffy felt a momentary stab of hurt and disappointment as she heard his brief dismissal of whatever he thought he might have heard, and she thought she saw, just for an instant, a look on his face as if someone had given him his heart's desire, only to then snatch it out of his hands a moment later.

But it was only for an instant, and his face then took on its more normal expression of polite disinterest in everyone and everything.

"All right, then, Buff," he said. "Why don't you get dressed, and I'll just, uh, be... somewhere else," he suggested, deliberately looking away from her as he reached down to the floor and snagged a pair of boxers, which he quickly slipped on. He grabbed a pair of jeans as he hurried out of the bedroom and closed the door behind him, leaving Buffy alone with the sheet wrapped around her.

< It's for the best, > she reassured herself as she got up and began gathering her clothing from around the room. < This way, he can stay safe and I won't have to worry about him getting hurt. He'll get over it. It's not like I declared my undying love for him or anything, > she told herself. < It was just something that slipped out in the heat of the moment, > she tried to convince herself.

< Yeah, and wasn't that some heat? > the little voice reminded her smugly, vividly jogging her with some very explicit memories of just how excited she had been, and how complete and satisfied she had felt with him inside her. < You never came that hard with Riley, did you? > the little voice reminded her slyly.

< Riley! >

She realized with a start that she hadn't given any thought to how this - indiscretion - might affect their relationship.

In fact, she hadn't even thought about Riley at all since she had first arrived at Giles' apartment.

< I'll worry about that later, > she told herself as she quickly dressed. < I just have to get out of here, now. >

How this entire incident would affect her relationship with Xander was something else she would worry about later, also. At the moment, she was more concerned with getting out of here as quickly as she could, so that she could begin forgetting everything that had happened between them last night and begin repairing the rest of the damage Faith had done to her life.

Xander was standing in his small kitchen, still shirtless, but now wearing the jeans he had grabbed on his way out, looking very good, all muscle-y like, (in her opinion) and holding a coffee cup as he stared out the window when she finally emerged from the bedroom. Buffy had to firmly remind herself not to stare at him when she saw him there.

"Uh, hi," he said as he nodded to her, acknowledging her presence, but evading her gaze as he glanced over in her direction. "I don't suppose you would want a cup of coffee, would you?" he asked, waving his cup in her general direction.

"Ah, no, thanks," she said, uncomfortably, shaking her head and refusing the proffered beverage.

"I've, ah, got to get going," she explained. "I've, ah, got class in an hour, gotta get back to the dorm and change."

< Actually, I really need to go to Giles' place and beat Faith bloody and unconscious, and hope that it makes me feel better, > she corrected herself mentally. < I definitely so cannot stay here and talk to you, 'cause that might make me want to re-think my decision, and I can't do that. >

"Here. You can take my car," he offered, digging into his pocket and pulling out a set of keys. "It's the red Blazer in the parking lot."

"Oh, no, Xand, I couldn't do that," she protested automatically.

"No, it's no problem, really," he told her. "It's the least I can do, all things considered," he said, somewhat sardonically, as he tossed the keys in her direction. "Really. You'll never make it to your class on time, if you don't. Just park it in the dorm lot and lock the keys in it when you're done. I'll pick it up later this afternoon," he told her.

Realizing that he was correct, and not wanting to spend more time here arguing, she reluctantly yielded and nodded her acceptance. "Okay. Thanks, Xand."

"No biggie," he shrugged, continuing to look out the window as she picked up her jacket from where it was draped over the back of one of the kitchen chairs and headed towards the door.

"Uh, hey, Buff," he called as she grabbed the doorknob. When he saw her glance over at him, he continued. "Look, I, uh, just wanted you to know, that, uhm, you don't, uhm, have anything to be concerned about. Because of last night. As far as us using protection, I mean," he clarified his words. "Because, uh, I've never had any plans for children in my future," he told her, still not able to meet her eyes. "So, it's not something you need to worry about."

"Oh. Uhm, okay," she nodded, giving him a small, uncomfortable half- smile of gratitude for the information.

< Oh god, that's something else I never even thought about, > she reflected, as she started to open the door.

"Thanks. See ya around," she said, as she practically ran out the door and headed for the stairway.

There was only a single red Blazer in the parking lot, she noticed when she walked out of the building, simplifying things immensely. She climbed in and dropped her belt pack and jacket on the front passenger seat as she took a moment to adjust the leg space and mirror before starting it up and pulling out of the apartment's parking lot.

< Wow, nice car. I wonder when he got it? > Buffy mused as she headed towards Giles' place. < And what's he doing now, that he can afford the payments for something like this? Oh, well, that's not really important. It just shows that he's better off not helping with the Slaying, > she told herself, as she cruised down the road.

"Hey, watch it, you idiot!" she yelled at the driver of a small green sedan as they drifted through a stop sign ahead and pulled out in front of her, forcing her to stomp on the brakes to avoid hitting them.

The sudden deceleration made her belt pack slide forward off the seat and fall to the floor, as well as making a number of small objects under the passenger seat roll or slide forward also, to cluster around and under her belt pack.

Mumbling vague curses under her breath at the other driver, Buffy carefully pulled to the side of the road and parked before reaching over to pick up her belt pack.

< God, that would be all I need to make this an absolutely perfect morning, > she thought to herself. < Have an accident in Xander's new car that I borrowed the morning after Faith steals my body and sleeps with him. If this were a movie of the week, I'd definitely be changing the channel, > she grumbled mentally, as she scooped up the pack.

< What's this? > she wondered, as she noticed several cylindrical objects of varying sizes that were clustered under her pack. Picking them up, her eyes narrowed with mixed disquiet and a small bit of alarm as she recognized them. < What the hell is Xander doing with bullets? > she asked herself.

< Maybe he's a security guard now, > she suggested, searching for a reasonable, commonplace explanation for the ammunition's presence in the car. < Yeah, that 's probably it, > she reassured herself. < But why would he need to carry a pistol and a shotgun? >

Shrugging to herself, she dropped the ammunition into her jacket pocket as she made a mental note to ask Willow or Giles to check it out with Xander and find out where he was working now, before pulling back onto the road and heading for Giles' apartment once again.


< I really should have known better, > he told himself as he stared out at the beautifully landscaped grounds across the street. < I've spent the past four years of my life here on the Hellmouth fighting the forces of darkness, and I still haven't learned that any time I think something in my life is starting to go right, it's going to turn right around and bite me in the ass. >

The pain in his heart was almost enough to make him cry.


But he hasn't cried in thirteen and a half years, and he wasn't about to start now.

The last time he cried was when they buried his sister, and even then The Bastard had the balls to taunt him about it. It wasn't enough that he hadn't been able to save her from the fire, that sick son of a bitch had told him that real men didn't cry, they just sucked in the pain and kept on going.

As if he knew anything about what real men did.

Real men didn't blame others for screwing up and getting fired from every job they had.

Real men didn't drink until they passed out, or threw up all over themselves and the furniture.

Real men didn't belittle every move their children made.

Real men didn't try to beat every last ounce of self-esteem out of their children to make themselves feel better about their own failures.

Real men didn't beat their children or their wives until they bled or were unconscious.

Real men didn't leave a family member lying in a pool of blood on the floor for their eight year old child to find when he came home from school, then tell the police that a burglar must have done it while he was away at work.

If you wanted to know what real men did, just watch what The Bastard did, and then do the opposite.

Two months ago, he had finally decided that enough was enough, packed his things and moved out of the basement cell that had been his place of residence for far too long. It hadn't been his home. A home is a place where you live and where the people there love and care about you. Not a place where you've continued to stay only because someone who still lives there needs protection. And when the person you've stayed to protect starts screaming at you and threatens to call the police on you, that's when you know it's long past time to get the hell out.

The thing that bothered him the most, though, that he thought was most unfair about the whole mess, was that he had been trying to protect her.

The Bastard had hit her again, just turned around and punched her in the mouth for something he thought she might have said, and that had been the last straw.

Without even thinking about it, he had grabbed The Bastard, thrown him up against the wall and driven both of his fists wrist deep into that fat beer belly, and then, as he was doubling over, caught him with a short hook that had splattered his nose all over his face.

He hadn't even realized what he had done until he found himself standing over that stinking, useless lump of flesh, holding him by his collar and telling him that if he ever hit her again, that he'd find himself lying in the park after dark, with his arms and legs broken in several places.

That was when he felt her hitting him, screaming at him and telling him to leave The Bastard alone. She was hitting him, and all he'd done was try to prevent her from getting hit again.

He had looked at her, his mother, the only remaining blood relative he had left, and found a stranger looking out at him through his mother's eyes. A stranger who had hit him and screamed abuse at him, and who had threatened to have him arrested for assault.

That was what had done it, that was the clincher, the straw that had broken the camel's back.

After all the years of abuse, of repeated trips to the hospital for 'falling down the stairs,' of enduring the countless beatings that he had finally realized he didn't deserve, of treating her injuries as well as his own, to have her scream and rail at him about assaulting that Bastard was something he simply couldn't accept.

He had left, simply walked out of the house, out into the night with all its attendant dangers. Because that was preferable to remaining there.

He wasn't completely stupid, mind you. He had had his cross, a stake and a bottle of holy water with him, the habits of years of paranoia providing him some degree of protection.

Whether that would be enough, though, started looking doubtful when he ran into that group of vampires.

Chapter 8

The 'incident,' as he now thought of it, had occurred shortly after sunset. He had been wandering aimlessly, not really paying attention to where he had been going, and had ended up in one of the less well- to-do sections of town. He had noticed the vampires leaving a nearby house, and was debating what exactly to do, just about the same time they had spotted him.

There were three of them, all apparently having risen only a few days previously and, obviously, lucky enough not to have met the Slayer yet.

Looking back on it later, he had been almost as surprised at his actions as the vamps had been.

As soon as he had seen them, he had decided to destroy all three of them.

No false bravado, no suicidal impulses, no foolish attempt to prove his courage to himself, just an immediate recognition of what they were, and the reflexive decision that they had to be destroyed.

"Hey, who sent out for dinner?" the leader laughed, as they headed in his direction, spreading out to block any avenues of escape. They had all shifted to their game faces as they approached, apparently hoping to spook him into a futile attempt at running away, and seemed a bit disappointed when he simply stood his ground staring at them.

"Aw, what's the matter, kid? Too scared to move?" one of them asked, a big grin on his face, as they surrounded him.

"No. I figured I'd let you come to me, rather than have to chase you all over town," he had told them truthfully, maneuvering so that his back was to a wall and the three of them were standing in an arc in front of him.

"What?" the leader had asked unbelievingly, beginning to laugh as he turned to one of his companions. "Hah!! Did you hear wh- aauuggghhhh!!!" the vamp had let out an agonized groan and dropped to his knees clutching at himself, as he had driven his foot up into the creature's groin as hard as he could.

At the same time, he pulled his hands out of his jacket pockets and sprayed the holy water into the face of the vamp on his left, as he drove the stake in his right hand into the heart of the remaining vamp and quickly pulled it back out, dusting him. Before either of the remaining two could react, he smoothly drove the stake through the back of the vamp on his knees in front of him, moving in an effortless, efficient manner he had never used before, and then finished off the vamp who was still clutching at his burned face, cutting off his shrieks of pain in mid-scream.

The entire sequence, from the vamp's first words to the third one's ashes floating in the air, hadn't taken more than twenty seconds.

As he stood there, the realization of what he had just done sinking into him, Xander felt a small satisfying glow of accomplishment start to permeate his being.

He, Xander Harris, the Zeppo, the Zero, the boy who could never do anything right, had just killed three vampires.

By himself.

Without any help from anyone else.

Of course, it had helped immensely that they were stupid, arrogant and overconfident, and hadn't expected any resistance at all, a small voice in the recesses of his mind pointed out. With an attitude like that, the enemy had been half defeated before the battle had even begun, it reminded him.

But the fact remained, he had killed three bloodsuckers without any help whatsoever, in less than a minute. That was incontrovertible proof that he could help in the battle against the forces of darkness, despite Buffy and Willow's belief otherwise.

Spurred by an impulse he didn't recognize, he had carefully approached the house the three vamps had exited a few moments before, and with great caution, entered it and then spent the next forty minutes checking it out for any more vampires or any other victims. Fortunately for their sake, he didn't find any of the former after discovering the basement full of bodies of the latter. Judging by the few signs of habitation he found, the three vamps he had dispatched earlier were apparently the sole residents of the house at present.

< Apparently, either these putzes didn't think of turning any of the women they killed, or the ones they did turn took off as soon as they could, > he decided upon finding no indication of any female inhabitants in the house.

Somewhat surprisingly, the power and water were still turned on in the house, with the lights still working and refrigerator still partially full of unspoiled food. Lacking another place to stay the night and not wanting to bother any of the Scoobies (and also avoid any uncomfortable explanations), Xander had decided to take advantage of this apparent lucky break and stay the night.

To his even greater surprise, his search had uncovered a considerable amount of jewelry, wallets and negotiable items that the vamps had apparently saved as mementos from their victims, as well as an amazing amount of money, guns and a moderately large quantity of drugs.

That last discovery had immediately triggered a slower, much more careful search of the premises which eventually led him to the opinion that the former owners had most definitely been on the wrong side of the law long before meeting up with their apparently well deserved fates.

After taking advantage of the provisions still in the freezer and preparing himself a hearty meal, he had then gathered, sorted and catalogued everything he had discovered during his earlier explorations.

After donning a pair of plastic gloves he had located in one of the kitchen cabinets, he collected all the wallets, purses, identification and any distinctive or readily identifiable jewelry he had found into a single pile, wiped them clean of fingerprints as best he could, packaged them in a cardboard box, and then wrapped the box in plain brown paper, to be later anonymously delivered to the Sunnydale Police Department along with a tip to investigate this house.

Although they would still never be considered in the top ten thousand of the nation's elite crime fighting forces, the Sunnydale Police had changed considerably with the absence of the Mayor's influence, and could now actually be considered somewhat better than would-be contenders for the role of real life counterparts for the police in the 'Dukes of Hazzard' TV show. They were at least competent enough to be able to tie these items to the small mountain of bodies lying in the basement and then notify any surviving relatives of their fate.

< I guess the good old 'gang members on PCP' explanation is going to be used once again to explain the sudden surge in violent crime around here, > he thought to himself as he put the box to the side and then moved to his next self-imposed chore.

< Any of the swim team still hanging around the sewers tonight are going to be breaking more records than the coach had ever dreamed of, > he had grinned to himself, as he had begun flushing all the drugs he found down the toilet.

A few minutes later, though, his thoughts were heading along completely different channels.

< Three .45 Colt 1911A1 semi-automatic pistols (two with the Parkerized finish and one stainless steel with ivory grips), two nine millimeter Berettas, two nine millimeter Walther P99's and a Mark XIX fifty caliber Desert Eagle pistol (a hand cannon!), all with integral laser sights; two Belgian FN P90 5.7 mm and four H&K MP5A5 9 mm submachine guns; three Winchester shotguns with the extended magazine option; and three M16A2/M203 assault rifles, each one equipped with the deluxe grenade launcher option that no home should be without, > he mentally ran through the inventory one more time to himself, as he sat on the couch, looking at all of the munitions spread out on the floor before him.

< Guess all of that time spent shooting with Uncle Rory wasn't a complete waste. At least, I know what all of these babies are. Although, just having most of these things in my possession is probably worth at least a dozen felony charges, without even considering any possible federal raps. And that's not even considering all of the knives, the machete, the body armor, night vision glasses, transceivers, police band radio scanners or any of the ammunition for all of these things. What was this guy doing, thinking about starting his own army? >

Shaking his head in a combination of amazement and disbelief, he turned to look at the other items he had discovered which he had piled on the coffee table. And just sat there, staring.

< I don't know what's more unbelievable, that armory lying over there, or this stuff lying on the table right here, > he reflected, still not completely believing what he was looking at.

'This stuff' consisted of seventeen packets of one dollar bills, twenty-three packets of five dollar bills, thirteen packets of twenty dollar bills and eight packets of fifty dollar bills, all looking as though they had just been sorted and banded at a bank; two portfolios filled with what appeared, to his completely unprofessional and untrained eye, to be bearer bonds totaling one hundred thirty-five thousand dollars; and two small canvas bags containing a large number of gold coins, which were, if he was remembering that scene with Mel Gibson from 'Lethal Weapon 2' properly, South African Krugerrand gold bullion.

< Gold bullion. The one gift that's always correct to give, no matter what the occasion, > he thought irreverently, as he let some of the coins trickle through his fingers.

< As for the money, assuming there are fifty bills per packet, if they did come from a bank, that would come to...> he punched in the various figures on the pocket calculator he had discovered in one of the kitchen drawers, < ...approximately thirty-nine thousand, six hundred dollars in cash. >

He sat back on the couch, staring in numbed bemusement at the figures scribbled on the paper in front of him, not believing what he was seeing.

< I have got to be dreaming, > he told himself, < because this is the type of thing that only happens in the movies or on TV. Local neighborhood geek stumbles across the lair of the monster of the week and, after outwitting/defeating the monster, finds a fortune in money, a cache of weapons that will enable him to defeat more monsters and then, after saving the local damsel in distress, lives happily ever after. Yeah, that's me, all right, > he snorted derisively, < local geek turned monster slayer. >

< Now, all I have to do is find the local damsel in distress, so she can kick me in the nuts and tell me to get lost, > he thought, < right before the police kick in the doors and arrest me for trying to set up the local Munitions 'R' Us franchise. >

He had sat there for most of the night, staring at the weapons and the money, thinking more deeply than he had ever done before, as he tried to consider exactly what he wanted to do with his life and his future, what he wanted to make of himself.

Now, more than ever before, Fate seemed to be offering him the chance to make something out of this mess he had laughingly called his life.

He had returned to the Dungeon the next day, only staying long enough to gather his clothes, books and those possessions that he deemed worthwhile taking with him. His mother had looked on silently, and he hadn't been able to decide whether she was too sauced to realize that he was finally leaving or that she just didn't care any more.

He had also realized that he didn't care which explanation was correct. She had made her choice the night before when she attacked him. As far as he was concerned, he was now an orphan. Both of his parents were dead now, his mother as lost to him as his real father had been sixteen years ago, when he died in the jungles of Southeast Asia to make the world free for athletic shoe and apparel manufacturers.

< Bitter? Who? Me? > he thought, as he carried his few bags of possessions out of the building that had housed him for the last fourteen years of his existence. He couldn't, even in the most sanguine of moods, call it a life that he had had there, at least not until he had met her.

He hadn't really lived, he had merely existed from day to day, not really looking forward to anything, just subsisting, surviving one day after another, until she had come into his life and brought a purpose for his existence with her:

To help her survive; to keep her alive for as long as he possibly could.

He had fallen for her, both literally and figuratively, the first time he had seen her, and after finding out the truth about the world that they lived in, he had resolved that she would never again have to experience it alone.

Her predecessors may have succumbed to the fiends and demons of the dark after only a short career, but he was determined that she would live longer than any of those who had come before her; that she would not only live, but that she would have a life, too, no matter what he had to do to ensure that. Vampires, demons, assassins, all these and more had tried to establish their place in history as the one who took down the Slayer, but all of them had failed in their attempts, and she was still here, still alive.

And he was going to make sure that she would continue to remain so. He may have failed in his efforts to protect Siobhan and Jesse, but he would NOT fail again. After hours of more exhaustive thought than he had believed himself capable, he had finally come to the conclusion that he was being offered one final opportunity to live up to his name:

Alexander - protector of mankind.

< Pretentious, much? >

< Who? Me? >

< Nah. Piece of cake. >

< Right. >

The Bastard had never teased or ridiculed him about the meaning of his name. How could he? You needed to be able to read something besides the ball scores and the ingredients on a bag of chips in order to do that.

But he had known what his name meant.

That was one of the few definite, for-sure memories he had of his real father. It had been just a few days before his Dad had to leave for his tour of duty. He hadn't been exactly sure what a tour of duty was, then; all he knew for sure was that Mommy was upset about it. He and Dad had walked down to the grocery store for some ice cream two days before Dad had to leave, just the two of them, like they did some times. Dad had laughed about it once and called it their 'buddy time.' He had gotten two scoops, chocolate and strawberry, with the multi-colored sprinkles that he liked so much on top, and Dad had gotten mint chocolate chip, and they had sat down together on one of the benches across the street, under some of the biggest, oldest oak trees in the park, and just talked.

"Okay, Xand-man," his father had said to him, as they ate their ice cream and watched the squirrels scurry from branch to branch in the trees around them, "It's time for us guys to talk. I've got a new job for you to do, while I'm away."

He had been really excited when he heard Dad say that. Jobs were important. That was something Dad had taught him when he was still a little kid, like Siobhan. It was important to always do your job to the best of your ability. His job was to make sure that you could walk through his room without falling on his toys, and it was something he was very proud of. No one had ever fallen over any of his toys, so he must have been doing a good job. And now, Dad had a new job for him!

"I'm going to have to be away for a pretty long time, this time around, big guy," Dad had told him. "So I need you to be the man of the house while I'm gone. You're going to have to watch out for Mommy and Siobhan while I'm away, and take care of them, help Mommy as much as you can. Do you think you can do that?"

He had nodded his head as vigorously as he could, happy that Dad thought he was big enough to take care of them.

"Okay, then, I'm going to be depending on you to do just that while I'm away," Dad had told him with a bid smile. "I'm sure you're going to do a great job, too, buddy.

"I know that I can always depend on you to take care of them and protect them when I'm not here. That's what your name means, you know. Alexander - protector of mankind," Dad had said, with another big smile.

"Did I ever tell you, you were named after my grandfather, Alexander Miles LaVelle? He was a Colonel in the Army during the First World War. I wish you could have met him, Xand-man; he would have been so proud of you, just like I am."

That was when he first realized what his purpose in life was: to protect his family and friends from harm. To keep all of them safe, just like Dad had said he should.

He had tried to do just that, to protect Mommy and Siobhan after Dad had to leave, but he could never quite succeed.

The first time he had failed had been when the Major and the Chaplain from the base had shown up outside their apartment, to tell Mommy that Dad's squad had never returned from their patrol. They had told her that a second squad sent out to locate them had found nothing. No sign, whatsoever. Nothing to indicate what might have happened to them. Nothing to indicate that they had even existed.

He had tried to help, then. He had played with Siobhan and kept her occupied while Mommy had cried and screamed and yelled at the Major and the Chaplain to get out, and then finally collapsed on the couch, crying the same way Siobhan did when she was cranky and tired. After the men had left, he had tried to help, hugging her and patting her back and telling her that he would take care of her and Siobhan like Dad had asked him to do, but that didn't seem to do much good. Mommy seemed to be a little better after that, at least until the funeral, when she broke down in tears again, and no matter how much he patted her back and told her it would be okay, she just wouldn't stop crying.

Things had gone downhill pretty steadily after that.

Mommy had started working a bunch of different jobs, trying to earn enough money to pay for food and a place for them to stay in, and a lot of the time, he had to baby-sit Siobhan while she worked. Early on, he had learned how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the both of them, so that they didn't have to wait until Mommy got home to eat, and how to clean up after himself, so that Mommy wouldn't get upset about any mess he made.

It was about then that he first discovered Twinkies. Fluffy yellow cakes, with delicious creamy goodness stuffed inside. Siobhan loved them, too, so he asked Mommy to buy some so that they could always have something to munch on while they were waiting for her to come home.

It had been just about a year after Dad didn't come home when The Bastard first showed up.

Mommy had met him at the place where she worked, and he started showing up more and more often. He hadn't liked him from the moment he first saw him, but Mommy had said that he'd get over it, once he got to know him.

She was wrong.

His second failure had been when The Bastard had asked Mommy to marry him so they could all move with him when he transferred to his company's West Coast offices, which were located in a quiet little town in California called Sunnydale. He had told Mommy that she shouldn't do it, that The Bastard wasn't good enough for her, but she hadn't listened. She had told him and Siobhan that everything was going to be all right, that it was going be a chance for them all to start life over as a family.

Once they had been out here for a little while, though, things started going bad faster and faster.

The Bastard had made some big mistake at his office, and gotten fired only a few months after they had moved here. It had taken him a while to find a new job, even here in the town with the highest vacancy replacement rate in the state, and the scumbag had used all his free time perfecting his drinking habits. That had been the start of the pattern. The only variable was in the amount of time he actually spent employed each time, ranging from months to a high of a year and a half, once.

It had been sometime in there that Siobhan had died, and that was, by far, his greatest, most horrendous failure. If he had just been home when he was supposed to be, she'd still be alive.

And his mother wouldn't be spending every waking moment inside a bottle of alcohol, trying to drown her sorrow and her memories.

The next few years had just stayed at moderately suck-y, with nothing really extremely terrible happening, so he had looked upon those years as a major improvement in his life, considering what he had already gone through.

Well, there was that incident in eighth grade, when those goons had tried to hurt Willow, but that was one time he had been successful. He had saved her, and she was unhurt. That was all that was important. And it did establish an important point. Nobody had ever tried to hurt his Willow after that.

Of course, there had been that little problem with The Bastard ranting about him being some kind of psychopathic nut job and threatening to have him committed, and almost everyone at school looking at him for months like he was some kind of Hannibal Lector freak, but, eventually, most people seemed to forget that anything had happened and it all blew over, leaving his world relatively at peace.

Until she moved into town, and he found out what the world was really like.

That was when life had finally started to get interesting.


Faith was trying to convince herself of the truth of her words by sheer repetition.

"It was all just a dream, right, Giles?" she asked him, her hope for reassurance bright in her eyes as she looked up at him.

"No, I'm afraid that it was not, Faith," he said gravely, watching the fervent desire that none of what she remembered was real shatter into dust. "That is, if you are referring to your memories of the past eight months, then I regret that I must inform you that virtually everything you recall is, indeed, quite real."

"Oh, my god. No," the brunette whispered, barely audible. "Please, god, tell me it's not true. I didn't - I mean, I couldn't - Oh, god, I enjoyed it so much... I - urrrhhhh!"

She started to speak again, when suddenly her face paled and she lunged for the small waste basket by the foot of the end table, barely managing to grab it and pull it to her before the contents of her stomach violently erupted into the small container. Her body continued to convulse several more times before she finally lay motionless on the floor, gasping for breath again as she sobbed quietly and hopelessly on the floor.


Giles' voice finally managed to penetrate the walls of self-loathing and disgust she had built around herself. He had apparently been trying to gain her attention for several minutes now, to judge by the look of relief on his face when she finally acknowledged him.

"Faith. Please, pay attention," he was saying. "You must listen to me."

"Turn me over to the Council, Giles," she told him listlessly, not even raising her head to look up at him, her voice little more than a whisper. "Give me to the Council, so I can stand trial. I deserve it."

< Oh, God, how can he even bear to look at me? I can't even think of looking in a mirror after remembering all the vile things I did, so how can he even stand to be in the same room with me? > she thought, as her memories assailed her.

She remembered with dull disgust the joy she had felt as she plunged the knife into the demon who had offered them the Books of the Ascension, the sound of his screams as she had gutted him with the knife the Mayor had given her, the almost orgasmic pleasure she had felt when thinking about how happy the Mayor would be when she finally brought the Books to him. He would smile at her, and she'd know again how much he cared for her, how much he loved her, when no one else did.

Her stomach churned again as she remembered the satisfaction she had felt when he told her how much he appreciated her help, but there was nothing left in there for her to throw up, so she concentrated on controlling the muscle spasms, realizing that this was not even a thousandth of what she deserved to feel for what she had done.

The Council would know what to do about her, she realized, they would know the punishment she merited and mete it out to her as she so justly deserved.

"Faith, you have to listen to me," she heard Giles repeat. "You are not responsible for your behavior over the course of the past several months. You were under the effects of a compulsion spell, and could not help yourself."

She shook her head feebly. "No, that's not true. I remember everything I did. I wanted to do all those things. I enjoyed doing them. I loved every second of it all. I loved it!" she almost screamed, a wave of nausea surging through again as she thought about what she had done. "I wasn't under a spell - I would have known if I was.

"Just let the Council have me, Giles," she told him again wearily, tired of arguing. "I deserve everything they'll do to me."

"That's it!" She heard his voice snap, a moment before she felt a hand grab her by her shoulder and pull her up off the floor.

"Now you listen to me, you silly little bint!" she heard him snarl as he pulled her around to face him, and she found herself staring up at someone she had never met, but had only heard about: Ripper.

"I want you to stop this pathetically annoying whining and mewling about you're doing, shut your mouth and just listen. Do you understand me?" he demanded, as he gave her a small shake.

Momentarily stunned out of her self-revulsion and loathing by this stranger who suddenly appeared in the body of a respected mentor (not that she would have ever admitted that to him), Faith numbly nodded her head.

"You...were...not...responsible...for...your...actions," he slowly spaced out the words as he spoke to her, as if he were speaking to a particularly obstinate or dense child. Seeing that she was listening to him, he continued.

"Willow and Tara, here," he indicated the two witches standing silently off to the side with a nod of his head, "have been helping me examine both your aura and your ring very closely the past several hours and there is absolutely no doubt in any of our minds that you were not acting of your own free will," he told her.

The uncertainty mixed with hope was clearly evident on Faith's face as she turned away from him for a moment to look over at Willow.

The look on her face very solemn, the redhead nodded her agreement with Giles' words.

"You couldn't help yourself," Willow told her, the absolute certainty in her voice unmistakable to the anxiously listening Slayer. "There isn't any question about that, at all."

Overwhelming relief filled Faith's face at the redhead's words. Willow wouldn't lie to her about something like that. The girl had absolutely no talent for lying or deceit; Faith had realized that a long time ago. (Although that didn't necessarily put her on the side of the angels. It just meant that Red couldn't lie to anyone convincingly, not even to save her life.) When the witch made a flat statement like the one she had just made, however, it meant that she was absolutely and completely sure of what she said, to the best of her ability to determine the facts.

< Oh god, > the relief flooded her mind, < I'm not a monster. I only did those things because of some spell. I'm not a monster. >

She could feel tears starting to fill her eyes as the belief that she was some soulless, inhuman creature like those she had formerly hunted finally dissipated.

"We have determined that your ring had two spells embedded in it," Giles elaborated, answering the unspoken question on Faith's face. "We believe that the first spell was originally created by a Council member several hundred years ago, and from what we can gather from references in some of my older books - apparently, in an attempt by some of the less principled members to ensure unswerving loyalty to the Watcher's Council on the part of the Slayer.

"After some discussion," he continued, dropping into his pedagogic, classroom voice, as though this were a simple lecture, "we believe the Council refrained from further use of the spell after its initial development primarily because it fixates the Slayer's loyalty to but a single individual, the spell caster, and because it also focuses their loyalty to such a degree that the Slayer will unhesitatingly take any action she thinks necessary which will best serve the spell caster's interests, regardless of the consequences to herself or anyone else around her.

"Any action whatsoever," he repeated for emphasis, "regardless of the consequences.

"For the subject under the influence of the spell," he said, "the only issues that can be considered are how her actions will best serve her Master's interests. She has no regard for the possible ethics or morality of her actions, because as far as she is concerned, the only moral things that she can do are whatever her Master instructs her to do, or those actions that best advance her Master's interests. Her obedience and devotion are unswerving and completely single-minded, almost as though she were an automaton, programmed to follow her Master's wishes.

"Since we have documentation indicating that the spell was initially developed by a sorcerer named Llewellyn Hyde-Post, it is our belief that Gwendolyn Post somehow stumbled across references to the spell's existence and learned about the unswerving, focused loyalty the spell implants in its subject. She must have then, somehow, gained access to the spell, possibly through documents handed down through subsequent generations in her family, and, after arranging to take her place as your replacement Watcher, then enchanted the ring she later gave to you, knowing that you would then be compelled to support her in any schemes she initiated.

"We also know that the Mayor was a sorcerer of considerable power, as was indicated by both his longevity and his attempt at Ascension, and we now believe that the second spell that we discovered on your ring was set there by the Mayor, to transfer the loyalty to Gwendolyn Post that the original spell engendered in you to him. It has a, uh, flavor, for lack of a more precise layman's term, that corresponds very closely to some other enspelled items that we recovered from his office, when we searched it after the entire Ascension affair was concluded."

"Faith, the responsibility for your behavior during the course of the past ten months belongs solely to the Mayor," he told her. "And the responsibility for your behavior prior to that time resides solely with Gwendolyn Post, as the individual who initially cast the compulsion spell. In no way can you, nor should you, be held accountable for your actions during those periods of time, since you had no actual control over your thoughts or intentions once the spell took effect.

"That is something about which I must notify the Council, immediately," he added, "so as to forestall any additional acts of idiocy on the part of their retrieval team.

"Although I am not presently in the good graces of many of the Council members, I do believe that the majority of them will be willing to listen to, and evaluate the information which we have uncovered here this evening, if for no other reason than that it indicates that the security of the Council's libraries may not be nearly as assured as they believe it to be."

Reaching into his pocket, he produced a small key which he then used to unlock the manacles binding Faith's wrists. As the cuffs dropped to the carpet, he handed the key to Faith, so that she could unlock the manacles around her ankles.

Taking the key from him with a small, hesitant smile, Faith unexpectedly threw her arms round Giles and hugged him to her.

"Thank you," she murmured into his chest as he awkwardly flailed his arms around momentarily, unsure of exactly how to react. After a second's pause, he uncomfortably and self-consciously patted her back, mumbling vague reassurances as he felt her body shaking silently and her tears begin to dampen his shirt.

After several minutes, Faith finally pulled away, wiping at her eyes and sniffing in a futile attempt to stop her nose from running.

"Sorry," she mumbled an apology to Giles, as she began searching through her pockets for a tissue. "Didn't mean to get all weepy on you, G-Man. Don't know what's the matter with me."

"Don't concern yourself about it, Faith. As you yourself might say, no biggie," the ex-Watcher joked, as he removed his glasses and began polishing them.

"Here, you might need these."

Faith turned and found herself facing Willow, the redhead holding out a box of tissues to her.

"Thanks," she said, as she hesitantly reached out and pulled several tissues from the box. "I owe you," she added, looking the witch in the eye.

"Both of you," she said, as she turned to look at Tara. "I don't even know you, and you helped me. No one's ever done that for me before. I owe you big. And I won't forget this. Ever."

Brushing aside the blonde's embarrassed protests that she didn't owe her anything, Faith stopped in embarrassment, as she realized she didn't even know her savior's name.

"Sorry, but we've never been formally introduced. I'm Faith, the formerly insane Vampire Slayer," she half-joked, a feeble smile on her face as she stuck out her hand.

"I -I'm Tara Maclay," Tara replied, as she gingerly shook the brunette's hand. "I-it's nice to meet you. All things c- considered," she added with a tentative grin.

"Yeah," Faith grinned back. "All things considered. And I mean it: if you ever need me for anything, I'll be there.

"You, too, Red," she added, turning back to the hacker-turned- witch. "Either of you guys ever need anything, you let me know."

Anything further she might have added was interrupted by the front door opening and Buffy rushing in.

"Giles!" she called as she stormed in. "I need to -"

Whatever she had been about to say was broken off when she saw Faith standing in the center of the living room.

With a wordless scream of rage, she attacked.

Chapter 9

Unidentified Office complex
Crystal City, VA

It was a typical upper-echelon government conference room, much like any of those used for the various meetings that he had addressed when presenting Maggie's progress reports during the course of the past two years, Riley noted as he entered the room. A large wood-grained table conference table occupied the center of the windowless room, encircled by approximately fifteen comfortable, high-backed chairs, only eight of which were currently occupied, with a video- teleconferencing console set off to one side of the room, while a small table off in one corner held a variety of donuts, bagels and breakfast rolls, several coffee and hot water carafes, cups and the necessary sundries required by meeting attendees everywhere.

Nodding a greeting to those civilians he vaguely recognized from previous briefings, he helped himself to a cup of some actually fairly decent coffee and a lemon Danish, then seated himself in one of the empty chairs and tried to relax a bit as he ate.

What wasn't typical about this meeting, however, at least as far as any of the meetings that he had previously attended, was the unannounced presence of a three star general in mufti, he noted as he recognized the tall, massive and rough-hewn figure in the three piece suit who entered the room.

Lieutenant General Harold Cassius ("Hardcase") Marchinko had been called many things in his long and varied career, but "paper-pusher" and "desk-bound bureaucrat" were most definitely not among them. The last time Riley could recall hearing about the General was news coverage from several months back when he had been haranguing Congress about newly proposed restrictions and additional Congressional oversight of some of the military's new programs. The General's blunt manner of speaking, his relatively open manner with the press and the jagged scar trailing down the right side of his face down inside his shirt collar made the General a colorful and headline worthy figure to both the television and print media.

The appearance of a three-star here, especially this one, meant that this meeting was a lot more important than he had initially assumed it to be. And the fact that he was not in uniform meant that some people were taking great pains to make sure that the meeting was not noticed by other people.

< What the hell is going on? > he thought to himself. < And what is Marchinko doing here? Last I heard, he was in charge of some new top secret programs based out of Bragg. I've got a real bad feeling about this. >

"Sir." He snapped to attention as the General entered the room, ignoring the comments from some the other attendees as he bumped the table, jarring their cups and spilling the hot liquid on some of the papers littering the table.

"At ease, Lieutenant," the General nodded at him as he took the seat at the head of the table. "Why don't you just sit down and relax for the moment," he suggested, as several younger, dark-suited men armed with attachécases followed him into the conference room, one taking up position outside the entrance to the room. Their stance and general demeanor screamed 'Military' and 'bodyguard' to anyone looking at them for more than a moment. Studying them a bit more carefully, now that he knew who and what he was looking at, he could discern the weapons carried under the carefully tailored suits.

< MP5K's? > he noted incredulously, although he managed to keep his expression imperturbable as he noted the faint outline under one of the 'aide's' jackets when he shifted the positions of several of the chairs lining the walls. < Inside an office building, and in civilian clothes? What the hell is a counter-intelligence/special ops team doing escorting Hardcase inside the city? >

As Riley settled back into his chair as instructed, the General looked over at one of the entourage who had accompanied him into the room, who was now busily occupied with the contents of his open attachécase which was situated on a small table in one corner of the room. After scrutinizing the interior of his case a moment longer, the young man looked up and nodded to the General, obviously indicating that he was now free to proceed.

"All right, now, gentlemen," he said, his tone of voice brisk and business-like as one of his aides set a cup of coffee on the table in front of him, "I want to thank all of you for responding so promptly to my invitations, and to remind you that not only is this meeting not taking place, but that everyone here is actually somewhere else right now. Since there isn't any meeting taking place, there's no need to introduce people who aren't here. Now that that's been addressed, let's get down to brass tacks, shall we?"

Not hearing any protests to his initial statement, he then continued on.

"Lieutenant, I'd appreciate it if you could explain to me exactly what it is you understand the purpose of your present detail in Sunnydale to be, and why you are here now, if you would, please."

The fact that the General's tone of voice was pleasant and easy-going didn't make Riley mistake the order as anything but that, as he stood to begin his report.

"Sir, I am currently on detached duty to a military bio-weapon research project designated as the Initiative, which is based at the University of California college campus in Sunnydale, CA," Riley stated as he assumed an 'at-ease' position. "The purpose of the project is the capture, for purposes of study and evaluation of possible military utilization, of various potentially hostile, non- human creatures recently discovered to be living in the Sunnydale area, primarily in the subterranean regions surrounding the town. Subsequent to capture, laboratory research personnel then examine the psychology and physiology of the test subjects, in order to determine the optimum methods of capture, detainment, behavior modification or ecologic suppression for each subject species.

"At present, as the ranking field agent, I have command of all field units responsible for the actual implementation of the protocols developed for the apprehension and incarceration of the designated hostiles. To date, the field units currently have incarcerated eighty-seven HST's belonging to sixteen previously unknown species, although only thirty-one HST's remain in custody."

"HST's, Lieutenant?" the General interrupted him, with a raised eyebrow.

"Hostile Subterrestrials, sir."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," he smiled. "Please proceed."

"Yes, sir. Of the sixteen currently evaluated species, sir, nine have definitely been identified as actively inimical to humans. The remaining seven species have not demonstrated any hostile intentions towards humans under any of the laboratory conditions tested at this time, once behavioral allowances for their incarceration were taken into account.

"As regards to my presence here today, sir, I was ordered to report to this location with all pertinent information regarding the initiative program, Doctor Walsh's research and the most current data we possessed regarding her death, and then await further orders," Riley stated as he finished his summary.

"If I understand things correctly," the General continued his questioning, "the head of the Initiative's research program, a Doctor Margaret Walsh, was found dead yesterday, in one of your labs under suspicious circumstances. Would that be an accurate description of the situation, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir, it would," Riley replied. "Dr. Walsh was found murdered in one of the labs on Sub-level Three at approximately fourteen thirty hours yesterday. Her body was discovered when one of the technicians who was taking a short cut through a normally unused section of the base, noticed an unknown substance, which she correctly suspected to be blood, leaking into the corridor from under the lab door. Upon investigation by base security, Doctor Walsh was discovered inside the lab, together with another individual, a currently unidentified male, also deceased. Both individuals were estimated to have died at approximately the same time, between fourteen and seventeen hours prior to their discovery. Although there were indications that Dr. Walsh had been involved in some type of work in the lab where her body was discovered, we found no - ," here Riley paused for a moment, to select the best description of Maggie's work, "- project - underway when investigators searched the premises.

"The cause of death for Doctor Walsh was determined to be from impalement through the heart by a sharp, cylindrical object approximately ten inches long and one half inch in diameter, while the cause of death for the unidentified man was a broken neck, most likely by an individual or creature at least six feet, six inches in height, to judge by the forensic evidence at the scene. Preliminary forensic examination of the wounds on Doctor Walsh's body and analysis of cell traces found around the wound suggest that the murder weapon was a bone skewer similar to those possessed by Polgara demons.

"A thorough search of the immediate area subsequent to the discovery of the bodies discovered no trace of demons of any type, other than those already incarcerated in the Initiative containment units, and the only Polgara demon previously discovered in the town's environs had died during the attempted capture, and its cadaver partially dissected. A subsequent second search of the entire base revealed no unauthorized individuals present, and review of the video records of all entry and exit points in the compound for twenty four hours prior to the estimated time of death showed no unusual or unauthorized activity.

"The lab in which the bodies were discovered had been noted in the activity log records as not being in use, but upon investigation, was found to contain several pieces of equipment that were not recorded in the base's inventory, and whose purpose is currently undetermined.

"In addition to the deaths, sir, a preliminary check taken immediately prior to my departure indicated that a significant portion of the information the Initiative project has gathered cannot be found, or is unavailable for evaluation due to a lack of knowledge of the proper passwords to access the information. At this time, sir, I am unable to offer any estimate as to when, or even if, the data will become available.

"That summarizes all of the information which I have regarding the incident, sir," Riley finished up.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. That was an excellent summary; short and very concise. I only wish some of my staff could do as well," he sighed. "I do have one or two more questions for you, however. Have you ever heard anyone mention anything about a Project designated as 314?" he asked, as he leaned back in his chair. "I want to hear anything you might know or have heard: rumors, scuttlebutt, locker room jokes, anything at all."

"I'm sorry, sir, but I don't know anything about any such project at all. This is the first time I've heard that term mentioned," Riley replied. "If any of my people have heard anything about it, nobody has said a word to me about it, sir."

"One more question, Lieutenant. Do you know, or have you recently met, anyone named Adam?"

"No one at the present time, sir. There was an Adam Reichsler in my first grade class in elementary school, sir, but I haven't met anyone else with that name since then," Riley answered, a bit thrown by the apparent irrelevancy of the question.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," the General smiled. "You can just sit back and relax for the moment."

"Thank you, sir," Riley answered before resuming his seat. Despite the General's suggestion, however, he couldn't relax at all. He didn't have any idea about what was going on here just yet, that was evident, but he was damn certain that there was a lot more involved here than just an inquiry into Maggie's death. He also had a growing certainty that whatever it was that was going on was going to have a very strong impact on the safety of his people back at the base.

"All right, gentlemen," the General said, looking around at the other people seated around the table. "For those of you who may not have been updated on the current status of project ADAM(H), we're going to provide a quick briefing so that we can be sure that everyone is starting from the same page. Needless to say, all of this information is classified as Top Secret, Eyes-Only. Dissemination of any of this information to anyone without the appropriate security clearances and without prior authorization will earn you hard time in the prison of my choice, gentlemen. Now, does anyone have any questions?"

Seeing none, the General then turned to one of the aides who had accompanied him to the briefing, who had set up a small projection device atop one of the small tables lining the periphery of the room, and indicated that he should proceed. The aide flicked a switch at the base of the projector to activate it, as another assistant switched off the room's lights.

A glowing image, approximately half-life size, shimmered into existence above the base of the projector, displaying a stylized human figure apparently created by a disciple of Picasso's school of art, which floated in the air above the table. The figure depicted appeared to have been assembled from a multitude of variously colored, sized and textured body pieces, with a handful of metallic/cybernetic surrogates thrown in for good measure. Directly below the figure floated the icon "ADAM(H)" in large, flowing three dimensional block script.

"Gentlemen, this is the ADAM(H) project," the aide stated, as the icon grew in size and separated to permit additional letters to form the words: Auto-Programming Divergent Augmentation Matrix (Human).

"The ADAM(H) project is a supplemental offshoot of the Initiative program which was proposed by Dr. Walsh approximately eight months ago. The purpose of the project was the development of a manufactured, hybrid warrior, augmented with both cybernetic prostheses and demonic body parts, which could be initially utilized in clandestine military operations or deployed in situations deemed too dangerous for normal covert operations teams. Success of the manufactured units in these type of situations would then be evaluated for possible further limited use in various aspects of non- covert campaigns.

"Based on Dr. Walsh's preliminary reports on the capabilities of the various types of demons she had examined and the preternatural abilities they displayed, the project was given an "Ultraviolet" secrecy rating, combined with another 'black' project originally intended to develop an android, or robot, soldier, and then given the designation 'Project 314' and authorized to begin development of an initial prototype subject, using body parts harvested from the cadavers of captured Initiative test subjects as augmentations to the existing android matrix."

"Uhm, excuse me for interrupting you there, son," one of the civilians on the other side of the table, a tall, soft-spoken and strongly built man with a closely cropped beard, raised his hand with a question, "but, would you mind explaining, just exactly what you mean by the 'Auto-Programming' term in the project name?"

Glancing over to the General, who again nodded his permission, the aide answered.

"The original intent of the ADAM(H) project was to create a construct which could be programmed with all relevant information regarding a problem, and which would then develop and implement its own solution to that task. In more common terms, it would think for itself and determine and set its own goals, while operating within certain specified parameters of allowable behavior."

"Oh, my sainted mother in heaven almighty!" the civilian groaned. "I most certainly hope that you're not going to tell me that you combined this Build-Your-Own-Frankenstein project with the remnants of the SOLO program, are you?"

The look of surprise that flashed across the aide's face before he turned to look to the General made any reply unnecessary.

"What exactly do you mean by that, Mr.-?" Marchinko asked, staring down the table at the speaker.

"You can call me Mr. Farley, General," the man replied. "As for what I meant, I thought that I was actually pretty clear about what I just said, but since some of your people seem to be a little slow on the uptake, I'll try to speak a little slower and use smaller words."

Riley's flush of anger at the man's attitude and tone was obviously mirrored by the other military personnel in the room. His initial reaction to stand up and drag the guy out of his chair was halted by the General's laughter and a wave of his hand to his aides to stand down.

"Touché Mr. Farley," he smiled. "I seem to vaguely recall meeting with you several years ago, if my memory serves me properly. It involved a young lady named Sil, and the cleanup following her debut to the world at large, if I'm not mistaken," he said.

"Ah, yes, the lovely Sil," Farley agreed. "Most definitely, a woman you would never forget. No matter how hard one might try. As I recall, your people managed to show up just after the party ended and most of the guests had departed, General. They were, however, gracious enough to offer to clean up the mess that was left. I have to say, they did excellent work, considering the constraints that they had to work under at the time."

"Thank you, Mr. Farley, it's good to hear that something was done properly in regards to that mess," the General wore a rueful smile as he obviously recalled some previous event with regret.

"Considering your earlier comments, would it be reasonable to assume that you were involved in a similar resolution of the SOLO debacle?" he asked.

"Feel free to assume anything you'd like, General," Farley agreed with him pleasantly as he continued to gaze at the ADAM(H) hologram. "All I can say for certain, is that my employer possesses sufficient information regarding this entire program that he felt obliged to send me along to join the party and see just what's going on."

"I see," the General said. "Hypothetically speaking then, Mr. Farley, if by some chance, a significant part of the artificial personality knowledge base developed by the SOLO project team had survived, and been evaluated and then incorporated into the programming of the basic ADAM(H) personality matrix, what might the primary characteristics of the personality that could conceivably develop be?"

"Well now, that's a bit difficult to determine properly, General," Farley answered. "I'll have to give you a little background on the project, in order for you to fully appreciate what was done. You do know that there were two prototypes created, don't you?" he asked, pausing to look away from the hologram floating above the table and over at the General. At Marchinko's nod of confirmation, he continued.

"Based on the after-incident information available once all the furor had died down, it appears that the primary problem with the first prototype was that it was overly pacifistic in its outlook on its place in life, at least from the point of view of the officer acting as project liaison. Almost introspective, in a Zen-Buddhist kind of way, one might say, along with a relatively refined sense of humor. When the prototype first saw its unit designation, 'No. 1,' it pronounced it as 'No-One.' After being informed of the proper pronunciation of the abbreviation, it then began referring to itself as 'Nemo,' " Farley stated, with a faint grin.

Noting the blank expressions on several of the attendees' faces, Marchinko briefly explained, "Nemo is Latin for 'no one' or 'nobody,' " before nodding to Farley to continue.

"As you might imagine," Farley said, "the military personnel overseeing the project were less than delighted about having a weapon that appeared to emulate Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy, and insisted that the designers make extensive changes to the basic personality profile programming. From what I was able to gather, once all of the changes they desired were implemented, they ended up with something resembling a cross between a shark, Hannibal Lector and Ted Bundy, but without the warm fuzzies of the originals getting in the way.

"Once the second prototype was up and running, a decision was then made that the original unit was to be retired and reprogrammed, so as to be more in tune with his 'younger brother.' This decision evidently triggered Nemo's self-preservation and survival routines, and it then exfiltrated the compound in which it was currently located and pretty much skedaddled out of there and went to ground somewhere in the area surrounding the base.

"After Nemo's absence was noted, the second unit, which had been nicknamed 'Deuce,' was directed to locate and return the primary unit to base as soon as possible, through any means necessary. Deuce interpreted those instructions to mean that the use of heavy weaponry and high explosives in areas of heavy civilian population were acceptable methods of operation for the recovery of Nemo, leading to what later amounted to a fully equipped invasion of several suburban San Francisco neighborhoods by units of the United States military, in their attempts to neutralize Deuce's actions. The resulting firefights, during which Deuce razed several office buildings and one suburban high school, resulted in the deaths of nine civilians, including three adolescents, the hospitalization of forty-seven civilians and over thirty million dollars of damage to business and residential properties, and those figures do not include the loss of both SOLO prototypes.

"All in all, General, not exactly the type of accomplishment to warm the cockles of one's heart," he observed. "That is most likely why, when news of this project reached my boss' ears, he was quite insistent that we not permit even the possibility of another incident of this type occurring. I believe he will be most distressed when he learns of the full extent of your project's ramifications.

"In any event, sir, in answer to your initial question, if your project has incorporated any of the programming developed by the research team for the second android, then you are looking at a possible opponent who views absolutely nothing as unacceptable if it will lead to the eventual success of its proposed goals. It will take whatever actions it deems most beneficial to its ultimate goals, no matter how brutal or inhumane we may view them, so long as those actions will not impede the overall efficiency of its plans. Your main problem, I believe, will most likely be in determining exactly what your creation has decided its long-term goals may be."

"Thank you for your briefing, Mr. Farley. I must say, I found your background information on the SOLO project quite interesting," the General said. "It would appear that the information with which we were provided was somewhat - lacking -, in various specifics regarding the ultimate resolution of the SOLO project. At the moment, however, that consideration is of minor importance. We need to address the problem we have before us."

He paused for a moment, before continuing.

"All right, then. Cards on the table, gentlemen," Marchinko said, as he slammed his hand down on the table for emphasis. "To summarize what we do know: the ADAM(H ) project was intended to build cyborg soldiers equipped with demonic augmentations, in order to provide us with a force of unstoppable power, without any risk to human life. To the best of our knowledge, Dr. Walsh was involved in building only one of her proposed super-soldiers, but I would hesitate at being fully confident in the accuracy of that information. Additionally, the person or persons responsible for Dr. Walsh's death is presently unknown, but information regarding the cause of her death indicates at least the peripheral involvement of a demon. Whether Dr. Walsh was actively involved in working on any aspect of the ADAM(H) project at the time of her death is unknown, and any results of the project are currently either still undiscovered or missing. Based on information provided by Mr. Farley, we must anticipate that any type of product resulting from this project will act in a completely logical and unemotional manner, and is capable of initiating strategies involving large-scale carnage and destruction.

"Now, according to our intelligence sources, we have confirmation that, as of two hours ago, in addition to the murders of Dr. Walsh and Dr. Margolis, the individual whose body was found with Dr. Wash, all twelve of the researchers and technicians who were involved with the ADAM(H) project have been confirmed as either having died in apparent accidents or been murdered. It is unclear at this point in time whether the information gathered and developed by Dr. Walsh's team in the course of the project has been compromised.

"One thing, however, is quite certain: whoever or whatever is responsible for the deaths of Dr. Walsh and her associates is apparently attempting to destroy all extant information regarding the project. That is something I will not permit to happen, gentlemen. We will determine who or what is responsible for the interference with this project, and we will put an end to their interference, no matter what lengths might be required. Is that clear, gentlemen?"

Not waiting for a response, he began issuing orders.


As the blonde Slayer leaped towards her, Faith shoved Willow and Tara to the side before moving forward to meet her.

Buffy's first punch caught Faith high on her right cheekbone while the second snapped her head back, with the two follow-up kicks to her stomach and torso doubling her over, making her an easy target for the spinning axe kick that drove the brunette face first into the floor.

The enraged Slayer pounced onto her opponent, holding her partially upright off the floor as she knelt astride her and drove her fist repeatedly into the brunette's face, all the while ignoring the shouting from the people surrounding them. Suddenly, Buffy felt as though a giant hand had closed around her, and she was lifted up, to dangle helplessly in mid-air above Faith's bloody form.

"Buffy!" She suddenly realized Giles was shouting her name as he stood next to her, trying to get her attention. "Buffy! Listen to me! You must calm down! Are you listening to me? Buffy!!"

Ignoring Giles' words for the moment and looking around, she saw Willow standing off to one side, her brow furrowed with concentration and her right hand upraised as if she were holding something, while Tara was bent over Faith. Realization kicked in immediately.

"Willow!" she screamed, her voice tinged with a feeling of betrayal. "Let me go! Now! Put me down!"

"Not until you calm down, Buffy," the redhead shook her head. "I'm not going to let you kill Faith. There's a lot of things that've been going on you don't know anything about," she told her friend.

"She's evil, Willow!!" Buffy screamed again, her rage and frustration obvious to all. "She's been trying to destroy my life, and I'm not gonna let her get away with it anymore!"

"Buffy!" Giles' voce was sharp and commanding, demanding her attention and brooking no argument. "Stop acting like a petulant child, and listen to what we have to tell you," he told her. The look on his face as he gazed at her was a mixture of love, anger and disappointment, which immediately triggered her self-defense instincts.

"It's not my fault, Giles! She's the one who started everything," she defended herself, wincing self-consciously as she immediately realized how childish her words sounded. "She stole my body! And she was gonna let the Retrieval Team take me back to England thinking I was her!"

"I know, Buffy," Giles agreed, as he indicated to Willow to set her down. Reluctantly, Willow did as he had indicated, but made a point of watching Buffy to prevent a reoccurrence of the beating just past.

"But you must calm down," the former Watcher continued, "and you must believe me when I tell you that there is a great deal of information regarding the current situation and Faith's motivations about which you are unaware. Indeed, we have only managed to garner the majority of the information over the course of the past few hours.

"Which reminds me," he added. "Where have you been? And why didn't you call us to let us know you were all right, once you regained your body?"

Buffy felt the heat radiating from her face as she flushed to match her pants at his questions.

"We can discuss that later, Giles," she brushed aside his inquiries. "What's this information that you need to tell me about that's so all-important?" she asked in return.

"Uhm, ex-excuse me," Tara broke into their conversation, "but I think we need t-to take Faith to the hospital. I think she might be hurt p- pretty badly," she began to explain, but she, in turn, was interrupted by Faith.

"No, no hospital," the brunette protested, wiping away the blood running from her nose with her hand, but making no move to get up from the floor. "I'll be fine. Just - need a couple - days, and I'll be - fine," she gasped.

"I-I don't think so," Tara disagreed. "I think she h-has a couple broken ribs, and, and she should be checked for internal injuries, too," she insisted, her dogged persistence seemingly out of character for the soft spoken witch. "A, a friend of mine fell, once, and, and broke some of her ribs," she continued, when she saw everyone looking at her, "and they punctured her lung and her-, her spleen, and she was bleeding internally. She almost died," she finished her explanation, as she looked down at Faith, and carefully wiped away more of the blood on her face.

"I - I don't have so many fr-friends that I can afford to lose any," she told the brunette quietly, before looking up at Willow's face, her silent plea for understanding evident on her face. The redhead's smile and quiet nod seemed to reassure her girlfriend as she smiled back before resuming her task of checking Faith's injuries.

"What is it with all of you people?" Buffy demanded, a look of incredulity on her face as she stared at all of them. "Last night, Faith was the skanky bitch who stole my body, and we all agreed that she should have her butt thrown into prison with the key thrown away. Then we reverse the spell, and I'm gone a few hours, and when I come back, everyone seems to think she's Mother Freaking Teresa. Just what the hell is going on here?!" she demanded, her voice growing more strident with each passing second.

"Buffy. You need to calm down," Giles told her, as he put his hand on her shoulder in an attempt to reassure her.

"NO! Don't touch me! Leave me alone!" she yelled, shrugging off his hand and taking a step back away from all of them. "She's been trying to ruin my life and now you're all helping her!" she snarled, her eyes beginning to glisten with moisture. "I thought you were my friends, but it's obvious, now, that you're not!"

"Buffy, please, calm down and let us explain."

Giles reached out again to her, trying to get her to calm down enough for him to begin his explanation, but she angrily swatted his hand away from her, as she continued to back away from them all.

"No! Just stay away from me! All of you! Don't come near me, don't come to my dorm room or my house, don't come anywhere near me! Just leave me alone!" Her voice kept increasing in pitch and volume as she spoke, until she was practically screaming her final words.

As she reached the front door of Giles' apartment, she practically ripped the door from its hinges as she yanked it open and rushed through it, making it bounce wildly off its wall bumper, and leaving the room's occupants to stare after her, dumbfounded.

"Well, I think we could have handled that better," Willow commented to no one in particular. "I think maybe I'd better go after her. Alone," she added, glancing over at Tara, her upraised brow a silent plea for understanding.

The blonde nodded her comprehension of Willow's unspoken question.

"She's upset, and you're her b-best friend," she agreed. "And she r- really doesn't know me at all, so me being there w-wouldn't help at all. Y-You should go," she said, compassion and empathy evident in her every movement and word. "Sh-she'll need you. She's upset, a- and she needs someone to talk to, wh-who won't condemn her."

"I'll try her house," Willow said, as she grabbed her backpack and jacket, pausing only when she heard Faith weakly calling her name.

"Red. Hold on a minute," the brunette said. "I have to talk to you, first, before you do anything else," she told her, before breaking into a spasm of coughing, that splattered bloody froth across the front of her shirt and on Giles' floor. "It's important," she gasped, once she managed to control the coughing.

"Faith, I believe Tara is correct, and you do need to be examined by a physician," Giles said, as he bent over her to try to determine the extent of her injuries. "Buffy may have seriously injured you when she attacked. Why didn't you make any effort to defend yourself?" he asked. "I was watching you, and you made absolutely no attempts to ward off any of her blows, in any manner whatsoever."

"Because she was right," Faith answered. "She has every right to be angry with me," she said quietly. "And so does Xander."

Willow was the first to realize the implications of Faith's simple declaration.

"Oh goddess, no! You didn't!"

"I did... several times actually," Faith confirmed, her shame at her actions clearly evident in both her voice and body language.

"Oh bloody hell!!" Giles was only a moment slower in his comprehension. "What in the name of all that is holy were you thinking?" He managed to keep his voice down to a low bellow. "Were you thinking at all? Or were you just letting your hormones take control?"

"It wasn't like that, Giles. Well, okay, he was looking really good last night," the Dark Slayer admitted. "But it wasn't just hormones; I really do feel something for him," she protested. "I always thought there's a lot more to Xander than any of you give him credit for," Faith told them, "and when I saw him in action last night, I realized that I was right."

Seeing the look on Giles' and Willow's faces at her statement, she gave a brief laugh that was cut short by her spasming ribs.

"Not that kind of action, you perverts," she managed with a small grin at their reactions.

"Want to guess what he was doing when I ran across him last night? He was rescuing some air-brained bimbo from four vamps. He dusted all four of them before I could get close enough to do anything."

"What? Xander?"

"He did what? To how many?"

"He dusted four vamps, by himself, in less than two minutes, without getting even a scratch," Faith informed her incredulous audience. "And if you think that sounds impressive, you should actually see it being done. I could hardly believe it myself, and I saw it," she said.

"Boytoy had some moves last night that almost made me feel sorry for the vamps he dusted. The man was smooth, fast and very, very efficient. I think he could even give me a run for the money, Giles," she stated thoughtfully, "at least for a minute or so. I don't think I've seen anyone move quite like that outside of one of those kung-fu films we used to watch at B's on Saturday afternoons."

"Where on earth could he have learned anything like that?" Giles wondered out loud. "He's never given any indication of any abilities like that, that I can recall."

"He's never taken any self-defense classes or anything like that," Willow stated positively. "I'm sure of that."

"Well, he said something about starting to remember things from when he was turned into Soldier Guy on Halloween a couple years ago," Faith said. "It happened before I got here, so I'm not completely sure what he meant. Do you guys know what he was talking about?"

Willow and Giles shared a look of concern as they considered Faith's words, before Giles answered.

"Yes, indeed, we most certainly do," he told her.

"I'm not at all certain how this aspect might affect that other matter we were discussing earlier tonight," he said to Willow, his mind trying to determine the potential ramifications that this newest revelation might have on Xander's situation. "I must say, however, that I am not at all hopeful that it will have any beneficial results, considering both our typical preternatural situations, our location and the current circumstances."

"What's the matter, Giles? Is there something wrong with Xander?" Faith asked, worry evident in her voice, when she saw the look of unease on his face. She tried to scramble up from the floor, and almost collapsed again as the room began to whirl around her. Catching hold of the couch arm, she took a moment to steady herself before looking up to question Giles again.

"What's the matter, Giles?" she repeated herself. "You have to tell me," she demanded, her tone insistent despite the weakness in her voice. "Is there a problem with Xander remembering this Soldier Guy stuff? I need to know!"

"Truthfully, Faith, at present, I really have no answer to give you," Giles admitted.

"I will admit, though, I am concerned about him. Yesterday, I received information from a former colleague regarding an instance that took place several years ago, when Xander was temporarily possessed by an animal spirit summoned by a local sorcerer. It would appear that there is a strong possibility that the possessing spirit was not actually banished back to its home dimension, and that it has, in fact, maintained residence in its host body."

"So, you're saying that Xander may still be possessed by this animal spirit, Giles?"

"That remains a distinct possibility, at this point in time," the librarian reluctantly conceded.

"Okay, then let's get going. We don't have time to waste," Faith directed. "We have to make sure he's okay," she stated as she started towards the door.

Unfortunately for her, she hadn't taken more than a single step forward before her legs collapsed under her, and she slumped bonelessly to the floor, her eyes rolling up into her head as she lost her battle to remain conscious.

Tara and Willow managed to catch her body before she hit the floor, and Giles quickly gathered up the unconscious Slayer in his arms.

"Willow, I think it would be best if you would try to find Buffy as quickly as possible and attempt to explain the current situation to her," he directed her as he began to carry Faith out to his car. "We need to know if we can depend on her, should the situation begin to deteriorate, even more than it already has.

"I need to get Faith to the Emergency Room immediately," he stated. "I fear Buffy may have injured her even more badly than Faith has admitted. She made no attempt to avoid or even lessen any of Buffy's strikes, and I am concerned that she may have suffered severe internal injuries.

"At this point in time, we most certainly do not need the Council thinking that they might have to deal with another Slayer who has inflicted serious injuries to or caused the death of a human being.

"Tara," he addressed the blonde witch, "if you wouldn't mind accompanying me, I would greatly appreciate your driving us to the hospital."

"All right, Giles, I'll do my best. I don't know if she'll want to talk to me, though," Willow said, as she headed for the door. "Tara, call me on my cell and let me know what's going on, as soon as you know anything, okay?"

"As s-soon as I know anything," the blonde promised, sending her lover a little smile as she tried to help Giles maneuver Faith's limp body through the door.

Chapter 10

He awoke hungry.

That was the first thing that he was aware of: the hunger.

An incredibly powerful need, desire and craving for sustenance.

He could smell food nearby, and hear their whimpering as they moved around in their cages.

He rose to his feet, unmindful of the dirt that formed the floor of the chamber in which he resided, and oblivious to the fluid grace with which he now moved. All that concerned him now was his need to satisfy the hunger.

Following his nose, he quickly made his way through the warren of caves in which he had found himself, heading towards the mouth- watering fragrances that beckoned him so unwaveringly.

It took only a moment for him to locate the source of the delectable aromas, and he immediately tried to help himself to breakfast, ignoring the high-pitched screaming and futile attempts at escape that his appearance produced. He couldn't reach them, though, because of the bars separating them from him, frustrating him with their refusal to let him at his food.

With an inarticulate roar, he pulled and yanked futilely at them, trying to tear the barrier apart, but he was too weak to manage.

"Hey, there, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

The voice coming behind him surprised him. He had been so intent on getting at his food that he hadn't noticed anyone approaching.

"Yo, buddy, I said, what the hell are you doing? Mr. Farrenworth don't want anyone bothering the cattle; he says it upsets them too much and gives them a vinegary taste," the speaker commented.

Feeling someone grabbing his shoulder, he spun around and attacked the newcomer, the hunger driving him to frantic measures.

"Oh, a newbie, huh?" his prey said, as he lunged forward and grabbed hold of him, pulling him closer so he could sink his fangs into his throat.

Suddenly, he felt his grip around his meal's throat broken, and he was picked up, to dangle helplessly in midair for a moment, before being casually tossed through the air and slammed into one of the cavern walls around them.

He was back on his feet and lunging at the food again almost instantly, only to find himself casually manhandled once again, slammed against the dirt floor on which he had been standing and held there, despite his struggles and growls.

"Hey, Jerry, I could use a hand here, for a minute," he heard the prey call. "Open up the pens and grab one of them for me, will ya? I got a newbie here, who's trying to teeth on my throat, and it's getting a little irritating."

"Why don't you just stake him?" He heard the muted footsteps of someone entering the chamber and then a second voice answered the first, accompanied by the sounds of metal on metal and the protesting screams of food as it was dragged out of the enclosure.

" 'Cause this is the one Mr. Nails brought in; you know, the one Mr. Farrenworth sent him out looking for? He used to be some kind of college professor, from what I hear. Mr. Farrenworth wants him to translate something that's on that piece of marble he had brought in," the first voice said, as whatever was holding him released him. He scrambled to his feet again, and instantly grabbed hold of the fat cattle that was shoved into his arms and sank his fangs into its throat, cutting short its annoying screams.

"Here, newbie. Enjoy," he heard the first voice say. "And if you annoy me again, I'll wash your mouth out with holy water."

He ignored the warning as he greedily drank in the delicious ambrosia that poured forth from his meal's veins, realizing that he had never before tasted anything as delightful as this. As his hunger slowly abated, he found it easier to think rationally now, and as his memories slowly returned, he was able to give more thought to what he was, and to what he was now capable of doing.

The power he now possessed was simply incredible, he realized as he took the time to examine himself, and when it was combined with an intellect like his, why, it became quite obvious that he was destined to rule over all: not just the human cattle upon which his kind fed, but over his brethren and the other demons living here, too.

"Hey, newbie, the boss wants to see you."

His reflections upon his obvious and eventual destiny were interrupted by the creature who had provided him with the first meal of his new life. He'd have to find out the creature's name, so he could later reward him for his service to his future ruler.

"Yo, newbie, did you hear me? I said, the boss wants to see you. Now. You don't want to keep him waiting, it really pisses him off," the first vamp informed him, passing on the information with a flat- handed smack to the side of his head.

"All right, all right!" he replied, ducking his head to avoid a second blow. "I heard you the first time. And my name is Wallace Lindsey. Professor Wallace Lindsey. There's no need for violence. Where would I find 'the boss' ?" he asked, looking down and brushing the dirt off his clothing, in an attempt to look more presentable.

"Follow Jerry, he'll show you," he was told, before the speaker turned his attention to whatever he had been doing earlier.

'Jerry' turned out to be a rather sleazy-looking individual, dressed in the manner that he would expect a race-track tout to favor: a brown, yellow and orange plaid jacket, brown slacks and a sport shirt opened at the neck top revealing numerous gold chains.

Giving Jerry a rather dubious look, which caused him to grin back at him, Lindsey nodded and gestured with his hand, indicating that they could proceed.

After following his guide through a somewhat confusing warren of caverns, Lindsey found himself in what he would have believed to be a modern managerial office, if not for the rather uneven rocky cavern walls.

Seated behind a desk, complete with overhead florescent lights, a small desktop computer and a 21 inch monitor, was a rather innocuous- looking, middle-aged man, looking for all the world like a mid-level manager for a Fortune Five Hundred company, if the aforesaid mid- level manager possessed the wrinkled forehead, yellow eyes and elongated fangs of a vampire.

Looking up from the jumble of papers scattered across the desk, he smiled when he saw Jerry and his companion.

"Hi there, Jerry," he said, as he straightened a set of papers and deposited them in a file before dropping the file into a small "In" basket on the corner of his desk. "What can I do for you? Mr. Farrenworth isn't here at the moment, but he should be returning within the next half-hour. If you want to leave a message, I'll make sure he gets it as soon as he gets back."

"Phil said the boss wanted to see the newbie as soon as he rose, so here he is, sir," Jerry said, indicating the Professor with his thumb. "I delivered him, so now I'm out of here. See ya."

"All right," Nails agreed, "Thanks for bringing him by."

Turning to the newly-risen demon, Martin looked up and him. "All right now, let's establish the basics of your new existence around here for you, Professor Lindsey. My name is Martin Nails, and I handle the majority of Mr. Farrenworth's day-to-day dealings and paperwork. You may call me Mr. Nails. I'd suggest that you immediately forget whatever ideas you may have running through your mind regarding your coming in here, taking over the leadership and running things, since that would undoubtedly upset Mr. Farrenworth, and that is most certainly something that you do not want to do."

Nails smiled at the look of surprise that flashed across Lindsey's face at this matter-of-fact statement regarding his earlier thoughts and continued his monologue.

"Oh, please, Professor, don't try to pretend that the thought never crossed your mind," he said with a small and somewhat condescending smile. "We're all demons here, it's not like it isn't something that all of us haven't considered momentarily from time to time. I would caution you, however, not to waste any time or effort on it. Mr. Farrenworth has a very strong hold on everything going on around here, and if he should discover you were even thinking about attempting something treacherous - well, the consequences would be extremely painful and short-lived for you.

"In any event, Mr. Farrenworth believes that you can be of some use to him, which is why he had me recruit you, so I'd strongly advise you right now to just cooperate, do whatever he tells you to do, everything will work out smoothly and you will be amply rewarded. If you upset him, however, I can assure you that any punishment that he metes out will be swift and harsh.

"Now, since Mr. Farrenworth is usually quite busy and has no interest in the innumerable small details of administration, you will receive your instructions regarding what you will be expected to do around here from me.

"Now, if you don't have any questions, I'll have one of our staff people take you out and get you situated. Come back here in about two hours, and I'll get you started on the task Mr. Farrenworth wants you to work on. All right? Good. Katherine, my dear," he called over to a dark-haired female vampire working in an alcove several yards away, "could you please show the Professor here around and explain the basic procedures to him?"

As the vamp led him away, Lindsey reflected that, aside from the changes in his diet necessitated by his being turned, his new situation didn't appear to be all that different from his former university life.


"Uh, excuse me, sir. Are you the gentleman who brought in the young woman who was mugged?"

The speaker was an intense looking, red-headed young man wearing a white lab coat over a set of blue hospital scrubs, who looked entirely too young for him to be any type of physician or resident, at least for Giles' peace of mind. He had noticed that all of the nurses in the ER had referred to him as 'Doctor,' deferred to his instructions, and apparently acknowledged him as a physician, however, so Giles swallowed his misgivings and tentatively accepted the youth as such. Scrambling to his feet from the waiting room chair he occupied, Giles nodded his agreement.

"Ah, yes, I am. Rupert Giles," he identified himself, "and Faith Wilson is my niece, ah, Dr. -?"

"I'm Dr. Howser, Mr. Giles. First off, I have to say, sir, that your niece is a very lucky young woman," the seemingly adolescent doctor stated. "Most of the mugging victims we get here are much more severely injured. There are apparently several extremely vicious gangs in the area who are engaged in some kind of turf war, according to the police officers I've spoken with.

"In any event, your niece managed to get away with just a few broken ribs, a broken forearm and a punctured lung, along with assorted bruises and contusions. We've drained the accumulated blood, re- inflated her lung, wrapped her ribs and put a cast on her arm. I'm a bit concerned since she hasn't regained consciousness yet, but the X- rays don't show any indications of head trauma, so I really don't think there's anything to worry about, there. We're just waiting for her to wake up now to make sure there's nothing to be concerned about. I think -"

Whatever his thoughts might have been remained unknown, however, when they were interrupted by various concerned shouts and the sounds of a struggle emanating from behind the curtain which concealed Faith .

"Xander?" Giles heard the tone of concern in Faith's voice and immediately headed towards the examination room. "Where's Xander? Get the hell out of my way - "

Faith's remarks to the nursing staff were abruptly cut off as soon as she saw Giles push aside the curtain partitioning off this area of the ER. The brunette was half-reclined on a gurney, her upper body clad in only her sports bra and a hospital gown that had been draped over her, fending off efforts by two harried looking nurses to prevent her from getting up. Seeing the massive bruising that mottled her abdomen and face, Giles again felt a wave of shame and mortification run through him.

"Giles! Where's Xander?" the brunette demanded, pausing momentarily in her attempts to ward off the nurses' futile efforts to restrain her. "You said he was -"

"He's fine, Faith," he interrupted her, before she might utter anything that would make the medical staff want to keep her for further observation.

"We're at in the ER because of the mugging," he said quickly, adding a slight emphasis on the final word and hoping that she would catch it and play along. "You evidently were knocked unconscious by a gang member during the attack, and they ran off with your belt pack as soon as we showed up. That's why you don't have any kind of identification with you," he continued.

"Oh, okay," she agreed after only a moment's pause to consider his words. "Well, I'm feeling a lot better now, Giles, so let's get the hell out of here. We have to find Xander and make sure he's okay," she said, resuming her efforts to get up.

"Excuse me, Miss, uh, Wilson," the young doctor tried to intervene. "But you really do need to lie down and rest. You've suffered a punctured lung, a fractured ulna in your left forearm, several broken ribs and some severe internal bruising, and you really need to take it easy for the next few weeks until you heal properly."

Not at her best because of the combination of her injuries, her concern about Xander and the general emotional upset resulting from the events of the past few hours, Faith immediately went on the offensive.

"Look, Chuckie," she snarled at the unfortunate resident, as she swung her legs over the edge of the gurney and paused for a moment to let the room stop its spinning. "I've had a really bad day, so far, and I don't need some Dr. Carter ER wannabe telling me what to do. I've patrolled with a lot worse than this and still managed to do my job. I'm gonna be just fine, so give me my clothes and then get the hell out of my way, all right?"

"Uh, Faith is in the military and is currently visiting me while home on leave," Giles quickly interjected, trying to gloss over her statement. "While I realize you're feeling much better, Faith, I do think you need to pay attention to the doctor's suggestions," he advised the brunette. "Dr. Howser has indicated some concern about possible head trauma you might have received as a result of the mugging, and was suggesting to me that you would benefit from staying here a short time for evaluation."

"No way, Giles," Faith shook her head in negation of the suggestion. "We have to find Xander and make sure he's okay. Uh, how long have I been here?" she asked as she suddenly realized that she had no idea of how much time had elapsed since her lapse of consciousness.

"Uhm, it's been slightly less than an hour since we first arrived here," he replied. As she opened her mouth to continue her protests, Giles cut her off, offering what he considered might be an acceptable alternate solution.

"Faith, Willow is presently looking for Buffy, while Tara is waiting out in the reception area. While I do not think it a good idea for you to leave here, I realize that we cannot force you to stay. What I propose, therefore, is that you accompany me back to my apartment and that you stay there with Tara, resting, as a precaution against any unexpected problems that might occur, while I join Willow in her search. Once we have located Buffy, the three of us will then attempt to locate Xander, to assure us all of his well-being. Is that an acceptable solution?"

"No." The brunette again shook her head in disagreement. "Real bad idea there, Giles. Buffy isn't going to want to see him again until she straightens out what happened last night, in her head. Getting her and the X-man together right now would be a real bad idea. You can drive me over to Xander's apartment and we can start looking for him there. That, or I just walk out of here and go over there by myself. I'm responsible for this problem, and I'm the one who has to straighten it out.

"Besides, if things really are the way that you're worried about, I really don't think we have a lot of time to waste. So, either help me out here, or get the hell out of my way, 'cause that's where I'm headed," she concluded, as she cautiously maneuvered herself off the gurney. "So, what's it going to be?"

Giles could see by the determined set of her mouth and her purposeful body language that Faith had every intention of following through on her plans, despite any protest that he or anyone else might make. With a resigned sigh, he reluctantly nodded his acceptance of her counter-proposal, knowing that if he didn't agree, the Dark Slayer would most definitely go ahead and do exactly what she had said, regardless of any obstacles that might arise to try and impede her progress.


< Pretty much as I figured, > Willow thought to herself as her eyes fixed on the blonde-haired figure slumped in one of the children's swings, gazing out across the thinly-populated expanse of the park. < She always comes here when she needs to think things over. I wonder if she's consciously aware of that, or if it's all done subconsciously? > the redhead wondered reflectively.

It had taken her the better part of half an hour to walk across the intervening distance from Giles' apartment to here, a distance she figured that Buffy had probably covered in about five minutes, even less than that if she had run at anything near her top speed. Not taking her eyes off the miserable, huddled figure, Willow climbed up on top of one of the picnic tables scattered across the landscape and sat down, tailor-fashion, making herself comfortable, and waited for Buffy to acknowledge her presence.

She knew the Slayer was aware of her, and everyone and everything else within several hundred yards, and probably had been for several minutes. The redhead wasn't exactly sure of the exact parameters of her friend's senses, but she was quite certain that all were far more sensitive than most people who knew her believed them to be. After all, a being whose purpose for existence was to prey upon predators needed senses at least as acute as her quarry's were, didn't she?

Several additional minutes passed, both of them sitting quietly, before Buffy shifted slightly in her seat and turned to look over her shoulder at the patiently waiting witch.

"What do you want?" The words and tone of voice were devoid of both emotion and interest. The blonde might as well have been asking the time.

"To make sure you're okay," Willow told her, as she got up off the table and moved to take the swing next to her friend.

"I - we have some idea of what happened last night, Buffy. I'm sure that emotionally, it must have been extremely disturbing to wake up and find yourself in that kind of situation. I want to be here for you, to - you know, try and help anyway I can."

"Yeah, you've been such a big help already," Buffy sneered, turning to look directly at the redhead. "Sorry I left before I got the chance to say, 'Thanks'."

"There's a lot of stuff going on that you don't know anything about, Buffy," Willow said quietly, "and being nasty to me won't change anything that happened, or make me go away. You're my best friend and I want to help you, even if you think you don't want my help now. All I'm asking for is five minutes of your time, so that I can tell you what's been going on, and try to help you understand why things happened the way they did. After that, if you want me to leave, I will. But first, you have to know some important things about Xander and Faith."

"I already know all I need to know about Faith," Buffy practically spat out the Dark Slayer's name, "and now I know more than I want to about Xander, after what happened this morning."

"No, you don't," Willow corrected her. "You don't know that Faith has been under the influence of a mind control spell, and you don't know that there's a chance that Xander may still be possessed by that spirit the zookeeper summoned," she continued.

Buffy turned to fully face her friend as she finished speaking, her eyebrows furrowed in an expression of concern.

"What do you mean, Xander might still be possessed?"

"An old friend of Giles from the Council called him yesterday and spoke to him about research he's been doing for the past couple of years. Apparently, whatever his friend told him convinced him that what we thought was a Hyena Spirit that possessed Xander three years ago maybe wasn't, but may have been some different kind of spirit instead, something much more powerful than an animal spirit and which can stay on this plane for a while, even without a host. According to the information he gave Giles, when this type of spirit leaves to go back to its home plane, there are definite signs of its leaving, and we didn't see anything like that that night."

"So what does that mean?" Buffy demanded. "Xander's been possessed and he's not really Xander, he's just been pretending to be normal the past three years? 'Cause I gotta say, if so, then this spirit is a really good actor."

"I'm not really sure," Willow shook her head uncertainly. "Giles said that he's not really sure his friend is right, but he wants to check Xander out and make certain. But considering everything that happens around here, I really don't think we can just hope that things went right for once, and that Xander's okay, and not do anything to check it out. Do you?" she asked skeptically.

"No, we can't," Buffy agreed with her. "But I don't know if I can - if I can face him right now, Willow," she continued, "not after what happened- what Faith did, last night."

Buffy had to turn her face away before Willow realized that the embarrassment that was making her face turn bright red stemmed not from Faith's actions, but her own. True, the redhead was astonishingly, almost dependably blind about most relationship things, but every once in a while, she'd have amazingly brilliant flashes of insight and Buffy couldn't take a chance that she'd have one now.

"Come on, Buffy," the redhead coaxed her. "You know that Xander would do anything and everything necessary that he could if he thought there was any chance we were in danger. We owe it to him to make sure that he's really okay."

"Yeah, Will, I know," she agreed, nodding her head. "It's just - It's gonna be really weird, and uncomfortable, you know - seeing him, after -" she paused again, not sure of what more she wanted to say.

It would, indeed, be weird to see Xander again so soon after leaving his apartment earlier this morning, especially since part of her desperately wanted to see him again, while knowing at the same time that she couldn't. Well, at least not the way that part of her wanted to see him, anyway.

Intermittent flashes of thought kept breaking her concentration, images of a naked Xander wrapped around an equally her, doing all the things they had done last night, and more besides. Every time she thought she had successfully managed to banish those thoughts from her mind they popped in again, completely derailing her train of thought and leaving her stuck once again, trying to figure out what she really wanted, and what she was going to do once she decided what that was.

There was a part of her that felt bad about lying to Xander this morning, even though another part believed it was the best way to handle the entire situation, while an increasingly more powerful part of her wanted to tell him how she felt about him, and to hell with the consequences.

Then there was that other part of her that was feeling extremely guilty about her really not feeling very guilty about cheating on Riley, even if she hadn't done it intentionally. She really did care about him, but she had come to the realization that she didn't care as much about him as she had believed (or hoped) she had. Compared to the feelings she was finally beginning to admit it herself that she had for Xander, her feelings for Riley were coming in a very poor second. He was a great guy, a really decent and caring person, someone she really did like a lot, but the bottom line was, she simply didn't love him. He deserved to be with someone who cared as much about him as he cared about them, and that person simply wasn't her.

As she sat there thinking, she finally came to a decision.

The first thing she had to do was break up with Riley.

Common decency alone demanded that she do that before she did anything else. Even if she decided not to tell Xander how she felt about him, she had to tell Riley that there really wasn't anything between them, and that she didn't think there ever was going to be. To do otherwise would be using him, and she knew how it felt to be considered nothing but a sex toy for someone's else's convenience. She could thank that bastard Parker Abrams for that little gumdrop of knowledge.

Everything else would just have to wait. She really couldn't talk to Xander and tell him how she felt about him before she talked to Riley and let him know that it was all over between them.

Once that was done, there would be time to straighten out this whole mess she and Xander were in. It might take some time, but she was certain that they could work it out. She simply wouldn't settle for anything less.

She was distracted from her thoughts about Xander when she realized that Willow was staring at her with a more than a little concerned expression.

"Are you sure you're okay, Buffy?" she heard the redhead ask her.

"Yeah, Will, all things considered. Why? What's the problem?"

"Well, it's just that I've been sitting here talking to you for about five minutes, and I don't think you've heard a word I've said. Literally," she explained.

"Oh. Sorry. I've just been thinking, trying to figure out what I'm going to do. I wasn't ignoring you deliberately," the blonde apologized. "I've just got so many things screaming for attention in my head that I'm having trouble concentrating on any single one."

"Okay, I can understand that. But, Buffy, you have to listen to me about this. It's really, really important." The redhead caught her friend's eye and tried to impress on her the significance of what she was about to say. "I'm sure you don't want to hear anything about this, but you have to listen to me, okay?"

"If it's about Faith, I don't want to -"

"No!! You have to listen to this!" Willow interrupted Buffy before she could say anything more. "This is important!" she repeated herself, not permitting Buffy a chance to regain the verbal initiative.

"I know that what Faith did was awful, and very upsetting to you, and to Xander, too, I'm sure, and that you probably want to punch her face in and more, but you have to understand that it wasn't her fault. No! You, listen to me!" she said, again, as she saw Buffy's face begin to shift with rage. "Faith was under the influence of a compulsion spell, she isn't responsible for anything she's done since Miss Post showed up."

"What?" Buffy snarled. "Did she tell you that? And you believe her? I'm not wasting my time listening to any of this garbage," she spat out as she began getting up from the swing.

"Buffy!! Stop it, and listen to me," the redhead interrupted again, grabbing old of the blonde's sleeve. "Look here. See? Resolve Face. I'm not gonna let you not-listen to this. You just sit there, keep quiet and pay attention, okay?"

The blonde's look of glowering anger didn't reassure the Wicca in the least, but her sullen lack of argument as she sank back down into her seat gave the redhead the smallest amount of encouragement.

"Buffy, the three of us spent hours last night examining Faith's aura and doing some research on some very old spells, and I can tell you with complete and absolute certainty, that Faith had absolutely no choice about anything she did since Miss Post showed up.

"Miss Post gave her a ring with a spell on it that compels a Slayer to do whatever their Watcher tells them to do.

"It took us a while, but we found a reference to that spell in one of Giles' really old books. It influences the Slayer's mind to make her think that whatever the spellcaster tells them to do is absolutely and totally right and correct, no matter what it is. Anything at all, Buffy. Someone under the influence of the spell would lie, cheat, steal or even kill without any hesitation, because they truly believed that whatever they were doing was the moral thing to do, regardless of whatever anyone else might think. Giles thinks that the reason the Council never used it, after they developed it, is because a Slayer under the influence of the spell will only obey one person, and he doesn't think the Council members trust each other enough to let just one person control anyone as powerful as the Slayer.

"We also found some evidence that the Mayor transferred the compulsion that Faith was under to himself, sometime after Miss Post died. Because of that, Faith really believed that everything the Mayor wanted her to do was right."

"Oh, come on now, Willow!" Buffy snorted her disbelief. "She said that and you believe her? I thought you were smarter than that."

"I am."

The intensity of Willow's terse response made Buffy look up at her in surprise, to discover the redhead glaring at her.

"Buffy, I understand that you're very upset with Faith and what she did to you right now. I really do," the redhead said, "but that doesn't give you the right to treat the rest of us like idiots or fools. We're your friends, and we were trying to prevent you from making the same kind of mistake that Faith made, but without the excuse of a spell.

"How do you think you would have felt if you had managed to kill Faith, Buffy? Do you really think it wouldn't bother you at all? Especially if you later found out she wasn't doing any of the things she did of her own free will? That she did them because she was forced to do them, even though she thought she was making her own decisions?"

Willow paused for a moment to let what she had said sink in, then continued with what she felt sure would help drive her point home.

"Buffy, remember the Valentine's Day spell Xander had Amy cast?" she asked her. "Remember how you felt about him then, and what you wanted to do?"

Seeing her friend blush deeply at the memories evoked, Willow pressed her point.

"Did you have any doubt whatsoever about your feelings then? Was there any thought in your mind that magic might be responsible for how you were feeling?"

At the blonde's reluctant shake of her head, Willow continued.

"That's exactly the same type of thing that happened to Faith, Buffy, just on a much deeper level. She believed, without any doubt whatsoever, that everything she did was the right thing to do, because Miss Post or the Mayor told her to do those things.

"What's worse for her, though, is that she remembers everything she did, and how good she felt about doing them, and even though she knows she was under a spell, she still feels guilty about them. She wanted us to call the Council and let them take her back for trial, Buffy. That's how bad she feels about everything she did," the witch continued.

"We're not asking you to act as though everything is great, or for you and Faith to become the best of friends, or anything like that. All we're asking is for you to give Faith a second chance.

"Just like you asked us to give Angel a second chance, when he came back from Hell, and you didn't trust us enough to tell us," Willow finished up, feeling just the slightest bit guilty as she played her trump card in the emotional blackmail arena.

Buffy winced visibly at the redhead's last statement, glaring at her for that blatant reminder of her own duplicity, but not denying anything.

"All right," she grudgingly agreed, after a short pause. "I'll give her a chance. But that doesn't mean I won't be watching everything she does," she warned. "The first time she screws up, that's it."

Chapter 11

"Faith, before we proceed any further, I think it is necessary to address, at least in part, some of the issues that still remain unresolved between us," Giles stated, as he settled himself behind the wheel of his Citroen.

"Can we do this later, Giles?" the brunette asked. Her brow furrowed with concern as she sat uncomfortably in the front seat, the aching of her ribs providing a constant throbbing distraction.

"I'll apologize to you and B and Joyce and Red and anybody else you think I should apologize to, I promise. But right now, I think it's more important that we make sure that Xander's okay, all right? He's too nice a guy to let anything bad happen to," she said, "and we should be getting over to his place to make sure that he's not possessed or anything, 'cause I'm pretty sure that something like that isn't gonna be doing much to improve your life, what with devouring the school mascot raw and things like that, you know?"

"You misunderstand me, Faith," Giles corrected her. "I am not referring to any apologies you need to make, I am referring to apologies that I need to make to you," he explained.

"Huh?" The Dark Slayer's surprise and non-comprehension was clearly evident in her response. The puzzlement in her expression was matched by that in Tara's face, visible to him from where she was sitting quietly in the back seat.

"My behavior towards you, last year, was inexcusable in the extreme, most especially when considering the circumstances involved," Giles stated.

"From the moment you first showed up in Sunnydale without a Watcher, through the events of Miss Post's appearance and the subsequent fiasco with the Glove of Myhnegon and beyond, I have consistently failed you as both a Watcher and as a supposedly interested and responsible adult who should have been concerned with ensuring that your physical, social, educational and emotional needs were addressed and provided for," Giles explained.

"Instead, I was so caught up in my own and the others' emotional turmoil dealing with Buffy's running away from home and her later return, my failure to properly protect either her or her mother during her Cruciamentum, Angel's return, my own...difficulties dealing with Jenny's death and my subsequent dismissal as Buffy's Watcher, that I gave absolutely no consideration or thought to your situation, in any manner.

"I neglected you, neglected the emotional trauma that you most surely suffered when Kakistos tortured and killed Nicole Wilson in front of you, while you were helpless to prevent it, and for that, I need to most humbly apologize and beg your forgiveness," the former Watcher informed her. "I failed you just as surely as I failed Buffy during her Cruciamentum, and I want to tell you how deeply sorry I am for having done so. Can you ever forgive me?"

The look of surprise on the brunette's face as she listened to him speak troubled the former librarian more than a little bit. The fact that she appeared surprised by the idea that he, as an authority figure, felt she was owed an apology was disturbing, in that it would seem to indicate that the majority, if not the entirety, of her previous encounters with any type of authority had left her with the belief that she did not deserve any form of consideration whatsoever.

"Don't sweat it, Giles, you had more important things on your mind," Faith tried to shrug off the entire matter, turning to look out the side window.

"That is completely and totally incorrect, Faith," Giles disagreed. "Your well-being as a young woman in need of help should have been one of my primary concerns as soon as we had learned about the fate of Miss Wilson, regardless of whether you were a Slayer or not. I failed you quite horribly, and I am just now beginning to suspect that, unfortunately, I was most likely far from the first to do so.

"Although I will state that I was far from an expert in understanding the behavior of American teenagers, I should have realized that you were presenting us with a façade behind which you were hiding your true feelings and emotions.

"Instead, I unhesitatingly and unquestioningly accepted the public image you offered us and made no effort to determine your actual wants and needs. The fact that I allowed you to continue to reside in that wretched abode that you found yourself forced to live in shames me every time I think of it.

"Had I given the matter any thought whatsoever, I would have realized that despite your physical appearance and behavior, you could not have been any more than sixteen years old when you first appeared here in Sunnydale.

"Am I not correct, Faith?" he concluded, as he gently reached out to touch her shoulder and turn her to face him.

"I'm cool with how things went, Giles," the brunette Slayer shook her head as though to ward off his question. "We can talk about that later. Right now, we need to find Xander."

"No, Faith," he disagreed quietly, "we need to discuss this now. How old were you when you were Called?"

"I don't want to talk about this, Giles," Faith said, still staring out the side window. "It's not important. I want to find Xander and make sure he's okay. I have to make sure he's okay," she repeated, her voice cracking just the slightest bit as she spoke.

"Faith," Giles said, his voice quiet and reassuring and insistent, "how old were you when you were Called? We need to discuss this, and we need to do it, now."

"It was two weeks before my fifteenth birthday, all right?" came the reluctant reply. "There, I answered your damn question, so can we go look for Xander, now?" Faith said, her voice growing in volume as she spoke. "I want to make sure he's okay."

"Why is it so important that we find Xander, Faith?" Giles asked, a growing certainty that he was on the threshold of a significant breakthrough compelling him to continue the questioning.

"It just is, okay?" was the brusque reply he received. "Why does it matter to you so much?"

"Actually, the question should be, why does it matter to you so much, Faith?" Giles parroted her question back to her. "Can you explain to me exactly why you are so concerned about the possibility that something bad might have happened to Xander?"

Faith closed her eyes and let her head drop back against the seat and slowly let out a long sigh. She was so emotionally drained from the events of the past several hours that she simply didn't have the strength to continue evading the issue of her concern about Xander.

"I'm worried that something bad is going to happen to him. Something real bad," she elaborated. "I don't know what, exactly, but I think something's going to happen to him. And it'll all be my fault," she admitted, keeping her eyes closed so that she wouldn't have to see the condemnation in Giles' and Tara's eyes when she admitted her guilt.

"Why would you think that something is going to happen to Xander, Faith?" he asked, a puzzled expression on his face as he listened to her. "Have you had any Slayer dreams lately?"

"No," she shook her head in negation. "Nothing like that. It's just that, I -" she broke off the sentence to take a deep, shuddering breath in an effort to calm herself.

"See, the problem is, I - I like him. A lot," she admitted. "I care about him, and I don't want to see anything happen to him, but now it's gonna happen, and it's all my fault. Again," she stated, with a sorrowful certainty that mystified Giles.

"Why on earth would you think that, Faith?" he asked her again.

" 'Cause bad things always happen to the people I care about," she whispered, keeping her eyes clenched shut in a futile effort to hold back her tears. "If I like someone, they get hurt and they die. That's why I didn't want to like him," she confessed. "If I liked him, then he'd die.

"I liked Nicole and looked what happened to her," she whispered. "He showed up and he killed her. And it was all my fault."

"Are you referring to Kakistos, Faith?" Giles asked rhetorically, hoping to draw her into a conversation, so that she might open up and provide more information about why she believed Xander was now in danger.

"His minions caught us on our way out of the mall, right after dusk," Faith told him, turning her head to look him directly in the eye. "Nicole was gonna send me to this private school, see, so we were out shopping for some clothes for me. She said, she wanted me to present the necessary image to the Headmistress at my interview. That, initially, they would be more concerned with the packaging than with what the package held, no matter how valuable, so we had to show them what they expected to see." The anguish in the brunette's eyes made Giles' stomach roil as he watched and listened to her quote a dead woman's words to him.

"They were waiting for us out in the parking lot. At least a dozen vamps attacked us, all at once. I staked at least four or five of them before one of them hit me in the head with a crowbar. I really thought that that was it for the both of us, that they were just gonna kill us there.

"I was wrong.

"When I woke up, I was chained to the wall of some warehouse his minions had taken over, and Nicole was hanging from the ceiling in front of me from some chains. He must have been torturing her before I woke up, while he was waiting, 'cause she had a lot of bruises and her clothes were torn and she was bleeding from a lot of little cuts all over her. When he saw that I was awake, he got this real big smile on his face, and he told me that he had been waiting for me to wake up, so I wouldn't miss the show.

"That was what he called it...the show," she said, her voice barely audible, as she turned her head away and stared at the console before her, her eyes dull and the tears still streaming down her cheeks. "He had this backyard barbeque grill there next to him, the kind you see people using at picnics, with these branding irons resting on the coals in it, and he, he - used them on her," she choked out. "The smell was awful, and, and it never went away, it just hung there in the air.

"He laughed at me while he was hurting her," Faith whispered, her eyes obviously not focused on the dashboard in front of her, the memories replaying themselves in her mind still all too vivid. "He would look at me and smile each time, just before he'd hurt her, and he'd ask me when I was going to get up enough courage to try to stop him. I kept trying to get free, I really did, but I couldn't. I couldn't do anything," she confessed, apparently unmindful of the tears that were streaming down her cheeks.

"I kept screaming at him, begging him to stop it, to just let her go and kill me instead, and he'd laugh at me, and then he'd hurt her some more. And every time he did it, she'd look over at me, after she'd stop screaming from the pain, and she'd tell me to get out of there. She told me not to bother with her, just to run, to save myself. Then, right at the end, she looked me right in the eye, and she told me she loved me. And then, her eyes just sorta stopped, ya know, like there wasn't anything inside them anymore and she went all limp, and she was just hanging there in front of me, but I remember hoping that maybe she was just unconscious, that maybe she wasn't dead.

"I went totally nuts then, screaming and cursing and yanking on my chains, and one of the chains holding my arms finally snapped, and I managed to break free. I think he was surprised that she died, because I managed to grab one of the irons that he had been using on Nicole out of the fire while he stood there staring at her, and I jabbed it in his eye, and when he grabbed at his face, I knocked him into the flames and his jacket caught on fire. Then I tried to free Nicole, so we could get away, but I was too late. She really was dead.

"I yanked the chains holding her free, and I picked up her body, and I got us out of there, but it was too late. It didn't do her any good. She was still dead.

"She died because I wasn't brave enough or strong enough to stop him," the brunette said softly. "She said she loved me, and then she died, and it's all my fault."

"No! No, you are completely wrong about that, Faith," Giles exclaimed, as he carefully slid across the seat to embrace her, in an attempt to comfort her. "Kakistos was an extremely old, extremely powerful Master vampire, who had managed to survive for over eight hundred and seventy years. There was absolutely nothing that you could have done under those circumstances to alter the course of events that happened. The fact that you managed to survive after being captured by him is nothing short of miraculous in and of itself.

"Faith, I understand that the hurt and pain you suffered from seeing her die must have been devastating," Giles told her, "but any guilt or responsibility that you may be feeling for her death is completely misplaced. I know, with complete certainty, that you were not responsible, in any manner whatsoever, for what that creature did, regardless of whatever he told you while you were held captive and forced to watch his actions. Nicole Wilson died because a vicious, inhuman monster killed her, not because you were unable to rescue her. You are not responsible for her death, in any way, Faith.

"I also know, with complete and utter certainty, that she would be quite upset, and possibly even angry, with you for blaming yourself for her death, and that she would want you to forgive yourself for what you perceive as your failure to save her, and to go on with your life," Giles quietly told her.

"How would you know that, Giles? Huh?" Faith demanded, turning to glare angrily at him. "You got a cell phone directly connected to the afterlife or something? How could you know that?"

"Because, Faith, that is how I would feel if I died and saw that Buffy was blaming herself for my demise, as you blame yourself for Nicole's," he said simply.

"You said that Nicole told you that she loved you, just before she died," he continued, as Faith stared at him. "I want you to just stop and think for a moment, and consider how Nicole would feel if she could see you and how you are acting, right now. What do you think her reaction would be? Do you think she would want you to be miserable and guilt-ridden for something over which you had no control, or do you think she would want you to continue on with your life?"

The brunette continued to stare at him for a moment longer, her eyes filled with unshed tears, her chin quivering slightly, before she broke down completely and allowed him to provide the comfort and reassurance she so desperately needed.

"I miss her so much," she wailed into his shoulder as she let herself cry away all the accumulated grief and pain and sorrow she had hidden deep inside since that terrible night two years before.

Giles heard the quiet creak of a car door opening and the slight shifting of the car as someone moved and looked over his shoulder to see Tara silently slipping out of the rear passenger door, her head tilting to the side to indicate where she would wait until they were ready to proceed. He nodded slightly as he just held Faith in his arms, indicating his appreciation of her sensitivity to Faith's emotional needs with a small smile, and settled down to wait, for however long it might take Faith to be ready to proceed with her recovery.


The shadowy figures clustered around the dimly-lit doorway, as the one in the center clumsily fumbled with the lock for several moments before giving a small cry of triumph as the door finally swung open.

"Finally!" someone muttered, just loud enough to be heard.

"Hey, I was doing the best I could," someone else protested. "It's not like I was a professional thief or anything, before, you know. I'd like to see you do better."

"All right, that's enough," a third voice broke in. "Everybody just shut up now, okay? I don't want anything to get screwed up, so just keep quiet. I certainly don't want to have to tell him that his plan got messed up because you guys couldn't shut your mouths long enough to do what he wanted. Do you?" the apparent leader asked.

The question was met with complete silence, which apparently satisfied the questioner.

"All I want to know," yet another voice spoke up, "is, why does just about every building around here have basement access to all of these tunnels? Doesn't that seem a little weird to you?"

"It's just the public buildings, stupid," someone answered, "and it's because there's a zoning ordinance requiring it. It goes back over a hundred years, I think. One of the town councils authorized it after the mayor at the time, back then, proposed it. I found it out when I was doing a history paper when I was in high school," the speaker continued, after receiving some strange looks from his companions.

"Great, another gumdrop of useless knowledge," one of the original voices commented.

"Look, I said for everybody to shut up," the leader repeated again. "No more talking until we're all in position. Understand?"

A muttered chorus of half-hearted agreement answered, and the shadowed figures silently began filing in through the open door.

"Idiots," the leader's voice could be heard to grumble softly as the door swung shut, to leave the half-lit tunnels in silence once again.


"His apartment number is C307," Faith informed Giles, as the Citroen pulled into the parking lot of the Chestnut Grove apartment complex. "It's on the other side of the building from here, looking out on Pleasant View cemetery across the street. It's actually not a bad view at all," she commented absently. "All you can see from the balcony are the trees lining the perimeter of the place. You'd never know it was a cemetery if they didn't have the signs by the entrance."

"Thank you for reminding me yet again," Giles replied dryly, as he glanced over at the Dark Slayer. "It's good to know I need never fear my not remembering Xander's address; after having been told it so many times, I am certain that it has now become indelibly burned into my cerebral cortex."

"Sorry," Faith told him. "I'm just worried about him," she explained, "especially since you explained about that Progenitor Spirit thing. I don't want anything to happen to him," she finished, her voice barely above a whisper.

"I am quite confident that there is nothing to worry about," Giles tried to reassure her, although his voice lacked the self-assured tone it normally carried when discussing the paranormal. "We are only here to eliminate what is an extremely remote possibility that the possessing spirit was not completely exorcized upon the zookeeper's death."

"And that's why you had Tara call Willow and tell her to meet us here with Buffy as soon as she could?" the brunette questioned, as she glanced sideways at the Englishman for a moment, before returning her gaze to the previously designated building.

"I see no harm in taking every reasonable precaution," Giles answered her. " I believe in trying to prepare for every possible eventuality."

"Yeah, I bet you were a boy scout when you were a kid, weren't you? All I have to - Hey! There he goes," Faith broke off her comment, as she noticed the tall brunet figure moving purposefully on the sidewalk alongside the apartment building and pointed him out.

Giles immediately began getting out of the car, while cautioning the girls to remain inside, a request which immediately drew a protest from Faith.

"Faith, please," he repeated himself for what felt like the twentieth time since leaving the hospital, "I believe that it would be best for all concerned if you remained here, at least initially.

"I would prefer to speak with Xander alone and attempt to determine his emotional state and his attitude towards the events that took place last night, prior to any effort to determine the possible presence of the hypothetical Progenitor Spirit. Should the Spirit actually be present, an extreme emotional state would most likely allow it to manifest more easily than it normally would," he explained.

"And seeing me would probably piss him off. A lot," Faith noted, a glum expression on her face.

"I do not believe that your presence would help the situation in any manner," Giles reluctantly agreed, "and I would prefer to keep things as low key as possible."

With those words, he then hurried to try and intercept the other male Scooby Gang member before he could mange to elude them, whether it be by conscious intent or not.

"Xander!" he called. "Xander, please wait up! I need to speak with you!"

Hearing his name, Xander paused and turned to face the speaker, his face breaking out in a sardonic grin when he saw the former librarian.

"Hey, Giles, what's up? You guys find out another Apocalypse is heading our way, and you don't have anybody to send out on a donut run?"

"What? Ah, no. Not at all," Giles replied, momentarily perplexed by the apparent non sequitur. "I wanted to see you regarding an entirely unrelated matter."

"Well, if it's about me and Buffy and last night, I really don't think that it's any of your business," the youth told him. "Not that it would matter, anyway, since she's made her feelings about what happened pretty clear. You don't have to worry about me going all Stalker-Guy on her, or anything like that. I'm gonna stay out of the picture entirely."

"Whatever may have occurred between the two of you last night is entirely your business, and I will leave it to the two of you to settle things between yourselves," Giles stated, feeling more than a little bit uncomfortable discussing his charge's 'relationship' issues with one possible source of the issues. "As a point of fact, I've been trying to contact you since last night on a matter of some urgency, when I realized that I had no way of getting a hold of you."

"Well, offhand, I'd have to say that that hasn't seemed to be a problem for any of you guys for the past month and a half," Xander told him, the sarcasm in his voice clearly evident.

"Xander, please. I am quite serious about this. Based on some information I received only yesterday, I feel it necessary to inform of you some possible ramifications regarding the time when we believed that you were possessed by the Hyena Spirit," Giles said.

"What exactly was it that you wanted to tell me?" Xander asked.

As concisely as he could, Giles summarized the information he had received yesterday, taking care to emphasize that he was more concerned about the possible consequences that might befall the young man standing before him than he was about anything else, should the information prove to be true.

The brunet stood quietly for a moment after Giles completed his summation, then gave a short laugh.

"So, now you guys think I'm Anakin Skywalker, and I'm gonna pull a Darth Vader on you all and move to the Dark Side, huh?" he said with a bitter grin, staring at the man he had once regarded as a substitute father.

"While I'm sure your analysis would be considered quite insightful, were I at all versed in American popular culture," Giles told him, once again completely baffled by the young man's ability to speak the English language and still not be able to communicate any meaningful concepts, "I must admit, Xander, that I have absolutely no idea, whatsoever, of what you just said."

"Well, then, let me make it simple," Xander smirked at him. "Sorry to disappoint you, Giles, (well, actually, I'm not)," he commented parenthetically, "but I've gotta tell you, haven't been having any cravings for really fresh pork sandwiches, the random urge to unleash hell and destroy the world, or even just a hankering for some good old fashioned murder and mayhem, lately.

"And thanks to you guys, my nights and evenings have been completely un-Scooby-fied for the last six weeks," he concluded his pseudo- explanation, "so it looks to me like you've been wasting your time worrying about me.

"Well, been nice seeing you again, Giles," he said, as he turned and began walking off in the direction he had been heading before Giles had accosted him, "but I've got things I need to take care of. See ya around. Or not."

From her vantage point in the car, Faith watched anxiously as Giles approached Xander and the two of them spoke. Judging by Xander's body language, he wasn't real happy to see the Englishman, and he appeared to conclude the conversation very quickly. Seeing him turn away from the older man, Faith impulsively opened her car door, and started heading towards the two, followed more slowly by an uncertain Tara.

"Xander! Please, wait a moment," she heard Giles call out. She increased her pace, breaking into a jog, not wanting to let him get away until she was certain he was all right. When she was approximately thirty yards away, he saw him turn and glance in her direction, then shift his position slightly so that he was now facing both of them, with his back to one of the apartment building's walls.

"Hey! Xan!" she called out. "Hold up a minute, will ya? Please?" she asked, as she moved closer to him.

"Faith!" she heard Giles call out when he saw her approaching. "I had asked you to wait in the car."

"It's okay, Giles," Xander said, waving the former Watcher back, as he turned to face the brunette Slayer and slid into a relaxed defensive stance. "Don't worry, I won't hurt her. Too much," he added.

"Faith," Xander greeted her flatly, his face closed of all expression. "Let me guess," he said, as he looked her over, noting the bruises and the cast on her arm, "you ran into Buffy this morning."

"Xan, I want to apologize and tell you I'm sorry, for what happened last night, and for everything else I put you through," she said, as she stopped a few feet from the impassive brunet, fighting the urge to reach out and touch him.

"Gee, thanks, Faith," he replied, his voice as devoid of expression as his face. "Just what are you sorry about? That you got caught? That Buffy got her body back? That you didn't get a chance to try to kill me again after we were done? Any or all of the above? Feel free to just jump in with some answers anytime you want."

Faith flinched at each barb, as he casually hurled his questions at her. Given their past history together, his attitude towards her was more than justified, but it still hurt, especially now that she was in complete control of herself for the first time in almost two years, and could actually evaluate her feelings towards him and not have to wonder whether there was any outside source influencing her.

"Xan, I'm sorry about the way I treated you," she started her apology. "I didn't really appreciate you and the fact you were trying to help me. I was under a spell, and I wasn't thinking right," she explained, "but Giles and Willow and Tara, they managed to free me from it, last night, and I -"

"I don't care," Xander brusquely interrupted her as she tried to explain to him about the 'Labyrinth' spell. "It doesn't make any difference to me why you did it, Faith. You did everything you did, and that's all that counts. I don't want an apology from you, I just want you to leave me alone. That's all. Just leave me alone, and don't ever come near me again, and we'll be fine," he said, as he turned to walk away.

Shocked by his answer and frightened by the thought that he didn't want anything to do with her, Faith instinctively reached out to grab a hold of his shoulder, and suddenly found herself whirling through space before abruptly slamming down onto the grass, the impact driving the air from her lungs and momentarily stunning her. As her head spun wildly, she realized that her arm was held curled up behind her in the center of her back between her shoulder blades and a knee was planted in the small of her back as a hand grasped her hair pulling her head sharply back.

"I told you, don't touch me," she heard Xander growl in her ear. "This is your last warning. Next time, I'll make sure you won't ever be able to do it again. Understand me?"

The warning was accompanied by a final jerk on her hair, to emphasize his point, before he released her and slid smoothly to his feet, stepping back to leave her lying on the grass.

As Faith lay dazedly on the grass, she could hear Giles reprimanding Xander for his actions, and the expatriate Scooby casually brushing off his former mentor's words.

"Xander, what in the world did you think you were doing?" Giles practically screamed at his former charge, as he rushed to check on the motionless Slayer lying in front of him.

"Protecting myself," he replied laconically. "I warned her not to touch me; she didn't pay attention."

"Are you out of your bloody mind?" Giles demanded, as he bent over to check Faith for any additional possible injuries. As he spoke, Tara came rushing up to join him, having seen everything that had happened as she approached the three of them. Giles noted in passing the wary look she gave Xander as she cautiously joined Giles and began checking out the Dark Slayer.

"I don't think so," Xander casually replied, as he watched the two of them try to minister to Faith, ignoring her assertions that she was fine. After a moment, he turned and once again began walking away, dismissing the tableau behind him from his attention.

< I know the boy is upset, and justifiably so, but that reaction was most definitely out of proportion compared to the action that triggered it, > Giles thought to himself, as he noted with relief that Faith appeared to be moving normally and was trying to regain her feet, despite Tara's insistence that she remain prone.

"P- please, Faith, just s-stay down for a minute," Tara told the brunette. "Y- you've already g- got a concussion, don't make it worse. Just - relax for a minute, okay?" she said as she tried to press the brunette back down on the grass, all the while keeping an eye on Xander and making sure he was always in her view, and that she was between him and Faith at all times.

Buffy and Willow had headed for Xander's apartment immediately upon receiving Tara's call telling them where to meet, and had just topped the crest of one of the low hills making up the area when they first caught notice of Giles and Xander, apparently engaged in conversation.

The sight of Xander shaking his head and then starting to walk away encouraged them to pick up their pace slightly, but it was seeing Faith begin to approach their friend, and the confrontation's subsequent aftermath, that triggered their "Hellmouth Emergency!" reflexes.

"Did - did Xander just take Faith down?" Willow gawked, her mouth hanging open at what she thought she had just seen. Turning to Buffy, she saw the same incredulity on her friend's face.

"Oh-Kay. Hellmouth-y badness has arrived," the Slayer evaluated the situation, as she shook off the surprise that had enveloped her. "Will, see if there's anything you can do to stop him until I get there," she instructed, before taking off at high speed towards the latest menace produced courtesy of the Hellmouth.

Behind her, the redheaded Wicca paused for only a second to gather her thoughts before focusing on stopping the demon that had possessed her friend.

Chapter 12

"Xander! We need to talk," Giles said sharply, as he noticed the former Scooby's departure. Getting to his feet, he took off after him.

"Just what the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded as he caught up with Xander, being careful not to actually grab him. "There was no cause for your actions back there, and you damn well know it!"

"That's not how I saw it," Xander replied, not bothering to look over at the Englishman as he continued on his way. "I told her, quite clearly, that I wanted nothing at all to do with her and that I wanted her to just leave me alone. She tried to attack me, and I defended myself. End of story."

"You could have bloody well killed her, if she had landed wrong!" Giles told him, pushing down 'Ripper's' urge to just grab the boy and thrash him until he listened.

"Yeah, I could have," Xander agreed. "But I didn't."

Giles was about to unleash an extremely scathing response, when he noticed a faint shimmering suddenly appear in the air surrounding Xander. Before the male Scooby could react, the shimmering coalesced into a series of sparkling pale blue bands that encircled his torso, trapping his arms and lifting him off the ground.

"Oh, for crying out loud," Xander wearily muttered to himself, as he strained briefly against the iridescent restraints, before ceasing his struggles and turning his head to look over his shoulder.

"Why am I not surprised?" Giles heard him say in a resigned voice, a moment before a blonde blur sped past the Watcher and took down the floating figure in a tackle any NFL linebacker would have been proud to claim.

The two figures hit the ground and rolled once, with the blonde blur resolving into a very pissed-off looking Slayer straddling the still mystically bound Xander, with one hand grasping the collar of his shirt while the other was clenched into a fist poised shoulder-high above his face.

"All right, now, whoever you are," she said, pulling Xander into a semi-reclining position by his shirt. "I'm going to give you one minute to un-possess my friend, and then, if you aren't gone, I'm going to pound you into a very bloody mess," she promised. "Better get moving, the clock's ticking."

"Hey, Buff, long time no see," Xander grinned up at her. "This really wasn't necessary, you know. I would have called you back if you just left a message on my voicemail."

The petite blonde seemed to completely miss the sarcasm underlying the humorous tone of voice, but Giles noted it right away. Pausing for a moment, Giles took the opportunity to push 'Ripper' back down into the mental compartment he normally occupied, and let 'Rupert' take back complete control. Heaven knows, given the way the past twenty four hours had gone, the composed and reflective Watcher would almost certainly be of greater assistance than the more pro-actively action-oriented 'Ripper.' And, again, given the way the past twenty four hours had gone, that assistance would most likely be required within the next few minutes.

"Buffy, I think you may be overreacting a bit," the former Watcher stated, as he approached the pair in an attempt to urge restraint on the part of his charge. "I don't believe there is any need to resort to violence.

"At least, not at the moment," he qualified his statement, recalling Xander's rather over-zealous (in his opinion) reaction to Faith's attempt to restrain him.

"Look, I'll admit, it's not like I haven't ever had dreams about us, with you on top, Buff," Xander grinned up at Buffy, making the blonde immediately begin to blush vividly, "but they usually also involved satin sheets, whipped cream and chocolate syrup. Would you mind getting off me and letting me up now?"

"Are you crazy? You possess my friend, and you expect me to let you go free?" she stared down at him in a mix of embarrassment, anger and amazement.

"Two questions here, Buffy," Xander replied, his mood immediately shifting from his standard jokester persona to complete seriousness, "First, why are you calling me your friend? And second, just why would you think I'm possessed?

"As far as the second question goes," Xander ranted, not allowing the Slayer a chance of interrupting. He had been biting his tongue for too long; the pressure inside him had been building up, and now it was exploding. "Is it because I finally realized I could have a life of my own, one that didn't involve following you around like a lost puppy? Because I decided to do something on my own, and not wait for one of you to tell me what to do? Because I went ahead and got on with my life after you told me you didn't need or want my help anymore?"

"Buffy, he may, indeed, have a valid point here. Perhaps you should let him up," Giles suggested, as a slight tensing of his stomach suddenly made the ex-Watcher very aware of how Xander's view of the situation might be different from his own. Giles suddenly realized his actions toward the male Scooby may have been clouded by his closeness to his charge.

"Giles, did you actually see what just happened?" the blonde replied incredulously, turning to look at him as she spoke. "He took Faith down in, like, nothing flat."

"And because I can do something like that, it must mean I've been possessed, right?" Xander broke in, glaring in righteous indignation at the woman sitting astride him. "'Cause, everyone knows Xander's incompetent and helpless, and certainly not capable of defending himself against anything. I need to have the great and powerful Slayer watching out for me, to make sure nothing bad happens. Isn't that what you mean, Buffy?"

"Yes! I mean, uh, no, that's not it!" the blonde answered him. "I just meant that you couldn't do something like that because you wouldn't know how to do it, that's all."

"How would you know anything about what I know or don't know, Buffy?" Xander challenged her. "To begin with, you haven't even spoken to me in the past six weeks, ever since you informed me that you had decided I wasn't going to be permitted to help with the Slaying, so you have no idea of what, if anything, might have happened to me since then.

"Second, you don't have even the slightest idea of what I'm capable of doing or not doing. You've never bothered to take a real look around you to see what's really going on since you arrived here in Sunnydale. You only see what you want to see, and anything that doesn't fit in or disagrees with your own preconceptions is just ignored."

"See, that's exactly the kind of thing I mean, Giles," Buffy said, looking for affirmation from her mentor. "Our Xander wouldn't be saying things like that, now would he?" she stated positively.

"Oh yeah," Xander replied mockingly. "Irony much here, Giles?" he glanced over at the ex-Watcher. Turning back, he then began addressing the Slayer.

"Your Xander wouldn't ever dare to disagree with you, would he? He'd just go along with whatever it was you told him to do, and never even consider thinking about what actually goes on in this town and making a decision about his future for himself. He'd never even think about doing something by himself, never consider patrolling on his own, because you told him he wasn't good enough to even help out, and that's what's really important. Your Xander would just do what you told him to do, like a good little lapdog. Isn't that right, Buffy?"

Before Buffy could respond to his scathing comments, they were interrupted by a breathless Willow, who had stumbled to a halt a short distance from the two.

"Oh, good, you've got him," she gasped to Buffy, as she panted heavily from her hurried approach. "Can I let him go now, or do you want me to keep holding him?"

"And it's good to see you, too, Willow," Xander gave the redhead a big, artificial smile, the insincerity of it obvious to all, as she kept her eyes on Buffy and avoided his gaze.

"Willow, what are you doing?" Tara asked, her voice full of concern, as she joined the rapidly growing group, supporting a slightly wincing Faith. Glancing down at Xander, she asked, "Why are you using a Restraints spell?"

"I'm trying to keep Xander from hurting anyone else while he's possessed," the redhead answered, giving her lover a puzzled look. "Who knows who he'd attack if he got loose?"

"And again I ask, why would you think I was possessed?" Xander interrupted the incipient discussion to repeat himself.

"Because our Xander, the real Xander, would never behave the way you've been doing!" Buffy exclaimed, quite obviously upset with him. "My - Our Xander would never have been able to do the things you've done. So I'm going to give you one last warning, whatever you are. Get out of Xander's body, or once we do get you out, I'm going to make a point of making you very, very sorry you possessed him!"

"Is it what I've been doing, or who I've been doing that upsets you, Buff?" Xander sneered, his lips drawn back in a vicious grin as he stared up at her. "What's the matter? Sorry you couldn't have woken up a little sooner than you did? Jealous that you never got a taste instead of Faith?"

Buffy went white with shock at his words at first, then immediately beet-red.

"You son of a bitch!" she snarled at him, as she drove her fist down, catching him with a glancing blow on the jaw before Faith tackled her and knocked her off Xander.

"Let me go! Let me go, damn it!" she screamed, as Faith tangled her arms and legs with hers, preventing her from getting back up. "I'll break your jaw, you bastard! You son of a bitch, I'll - !" She broke off her rant and froze, as she realized what she was screaming, and exactly who was watching.

Willow was staring at her in wide-eyed shock, Giles glared in angry disapproval, Tara's face was completely expressionless, and Faith was sitting on the ground, her arm tucked against her ribs and an expression of mixed sorrow and pain on her face, while Xander wore a look of grim satisfaction on his face as blood slowly trickled down his chin from the corner of his mouth.

"That is quite enough, Buffy!" Giles' voice was cold and hard enough to chisel marble, and the blonde Slayer froze where she was, cringing slightly under his glare. "I can see I made a grievous error in judgment telling Willow to bring you here. I think it would be best for everyone involved if you return home now, and allow us to resolve matters here without your assistance."

"Uh-uh, Giles," Xander disagreed, as he stared at the two women sprawled on the grass a few feet away, a complete lack of expression filling his face. "I want her here to see everything, so she won't be able to deny the results later.

"Okay, Willow," the magically shackled brunet turned his head to address his life-long friend, "use your mojo so we can finish this mess up, once and for all. I'm sure you've got some kind of super- Wiccan spell all prepped and ready that'll tell you if I'm possessed, right?"

The slight wince the redhead made as she listened to the cold, completely emotionless voice he was using revealed the accuracy of his words to everyone present.

"All right, then, cast your spell. I want this over and done with, so cast your spell, so that everyone can see what happens," he ordered.

"Don't look at Giles for permission!" Xander snapped as she glanced over at the Englishman. "Just cast the damn spell. NOW!"

With a rueful look on her face, the redhead opened her shoulder bag and rummaged through it for a moment before withdrawing a small leather pouch, from which she poured a small quantity of crushed herbs into her palm, while everyone else present watched in mixed silence and trepidation. Stepping forward, she sprinkled the herbs over Xander's prone form while speaking in a strong voice.

"Goddess Hecate, hear my plea. Reveal to us the truth of the man here before us! Show us the spirit who controls this body!" she requested, as her hands moved in a series of gestures.

A moment later, a translucent, faintly glowing form rose up from Xander's body and stood before them. As they looked at the shimmering image of Xander staring impassively at them, Willow felt both simultaneously relieved and disappointed, while she heard several sighs of relief from behind her. After several more seconds, the image flowed smoothly back down into Xander, leaving them all staring uncomfortably at one another.

A moment after the image disappeared, Willow shook herself, as though waking up from a nap, and gestured towards Xander, causing the bands surrounding him to fade away and drop him to the grass.

"Xander, I'm sorry. I just -" she began an apology, only to be brusquely interrupted.

"I don't care," Xander told her, as he climbed back to his feet and brushed himself off. "It doesn't matter to me in the slightest what your reasons were. The only thing I want from any of you, now, is for you to just leave me alone, and don't come near me again. Ever."

"Xander, we're your friends. We were concerned about you, and we wanted to make sure that you were all right," Giles felt obligated to justify their actions to the man he considered almost a son.

"You're my friends?" Xander's laugh was brief and bitter. "I don't think so. Friends care about each other. They hang around with each other. They enjoy each other's company. They talk to each other.

"You people haven't seen or spoken to me even once in the past month and a half. You didn't even know if I was alive," he spat out, all of the repressed anger, hurt and resentment of the past few months finally coming to a head and erupting in a venomous outpouring of invective. "The only reason you came looking for me at all right now, is because you thought I might be possessed. If you hadn't thought there was a chance I might become a problem, none of you would have even given me a second thought."

"That's not true, Xander!" Willow broke in. "I care about you! We all do!"

"Yeah, sure, Willow. We all just saw how much Buffy cares about me. If she cared any more, I'd probably be in traction," he sneered, as he wiped blood off his face. Buffy stiffened angrily as he spoke, but then her shoulders slumped as she recalled her reaction moments before, and she looked down at her feet, unable to meet his eyes.

"We just wanted to make sure you were safe," the redhead continued. "That's why we didn't want you helping with the Slaying. We didn't want anything to happen to you."

"No, what you wanted was to make sure that there wasn't any competition for Buffy's attention," he replied. "Ever since you started studying magic, you've been wanting to spend more time patrolling with Buffy than researching with Giles. The two of you going off to college made it a lot easier to cut me out of the patrol loop, because we've all had such different schedules, it's simpler to just arrange things when you see each other at your dorm. If I wasn't around to help out, you'd be the one to go patrolling with Buffy. Right?"

"No, not at all!" Willow exclaimed indignantly. "That's completely and totally wrong, Xander! You know better than that!"

"Well, if I'm wrong, Will, and you did want me to help out, just tell me when was the last time you called me and we spoke on the phone," Xander asked.

"Why, uh, it was just, uhm, I called you on, ah, it was - " the redhead was completely flustered by the simple question, as she desperately tried to remember her last phone conversation with her friend.

"It was five weeks and four days ago," Xander continued, once it became evident she was unable to answer the question. "And the actual fact of the matter is that I called you, and you told me that the meeting at Giles' place had been postponed and you'd call me back and tell me when it was re-scheduled. I'm still waiting for that call back, by the way," he added, as the redhead also dropped her gaze to her feet.

"Xander, we were concerned about you getting hurt. That's the truth," Buffy said, as she slowly climbed to her feet and looked over at him.

"Truth? Coming from you? That's a laugh," Xander said, scorn plentiful in his voice.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Buffy challenged him, anger evident in her tone.

"You've been lying to me as far back as I can remember, Slayer," Xander replied, "and before you say anything, let me mention just a few of the highlights from our years together: the first time you ever mentioned Angel, you told me he was an 'older guy,' and deliberately gave me the impression that he was some decrepit old man who could barely find his way to the bathroom; then, there was the time at the Bronze when you asked me to dance, and then humiliated me in front of everyone there, just to make some kind of point to Deadboy; after that, there was the whole 'forgetting to mention Angel's back from hell' thing, and then there was my favorite, the time you, Giles and Deadboy neglected to mention that you were trying to scam Psycho-Slayer here, by pretending that Angelus was back again, and he punched me in the jaw, full strength, then left me lying there, unconscious, on the street. Fortunately, no 'gang members on PCP' stumbled across me before I woke up. The doctor at the ER told me how lucky I was, because I only had a hairline fracture of the jaw. I was chewing extra-strength aspirin like they were jellybeans and drinking most of my meals through a straw for the next three weeks."

"While I deeply regret that we were unable to let you know about the deception, Xander," Giles interjected, "you must remember that it was vital that the Mayor believe that Angelus had, indeed, returned and thus attempt to recruit him, in order that we gain the necessary information regarding the Ascension. Desperate times sometimes require desperate measures."

"Well, if that's true, Giles, why didn't you say something to help me last year, when I admitted that I lied about the soul restoration spell, after Buffy came back?" Xander demanded, turning to address his former mentor. "I don't know about you, but the 'End of the World' generally falls under my definition of 'Desperate Times.' From what I recall, you just sat back and kept quiet while Little Miss "I'm Desperately in Love with a Vampire" here was trying to rip me a new one, and Willow the Good Witch stood around looking shocked, agreed with Buffy about how awful it was that I lied, and generally acted like I had just killed her puppy. I don't recall hearing anything about "doing the things we had to do, in order to save the world." What I do remember hearing is being called a jealous son a bitch, who wasn't fit to clean Deadboy's shoes. Thanks for all the support. Don't bother calling me the next time you need to be picked up at the warehouse."

As he spoke, Buffy opened her mouth, as if to argue, but then closed her mouth and kept quiet. Willow merely stood where she was and remained silent as Xander spoke, sadness, shame and disappointment lining her face. Giles, too, remained silent for a moment longer, as he considered the young man's statements, and realized the truth of everything that had just been said.

Giles was the only one of them who could find any answer for the angry young man standing before them.

"You are entirely correct, Xander," he said quietly, once the former Scooby finished speaking. "For the second time today, I am finding it necessary to apologize for my indifference and complete lack of consideration regarding my, or rather, our behavior towards a member of our group over the course of the past few years. We failed you dismally, more than once, most especially when one considers the extremes to which you have gone for our sakes, and there is no justification, whatsoever, for our thankless behavior.

"All we can do is apologize and beg your forgiveness. The only excuse I might offer you for our actions is that we are human, and therefore make mistakes. In our case, we made many," he said, acknowledging, with the benefit of hindsight, the accuracy of Xander's interpretation of their behavior.

"I want you to know that I am truly sorry for my failure to live up to the standards of friendship you have demonstrated and that I can only hope that you will find it in your heart to forgive us, if not now, then sometime in the future."

Silence reigned across the grounds for only a moment, before both Buffy and Willow began offering their former classmate their apologies, also.

Xander waved them to silence almost before they had begun, and his words were short and concise.

"All I want from any of you people is for you to leave me alone. Don't call me, don't come by, don't talk to me if you see me on the street. Just leave me alone."

With that, he turned and walked away, leaving a very distraught, quiet and thoughtful group of people behind him.


"Glad to see you all could make it here tonight."

Spike's voice held just the right combination of pseudo-warmth, condescension and arrogance as he stood at the head of the conference table and cast an appraising eye over the group gathered together in the meeting room in the back of Willie's bar: a Polgara demon had arrived to represent the reptilian and ophidian-based demon groups, an eight and a half foot tall Belgari demon was acting as a spokes- being for the batrachian and piscine demon branches and three vampires were present to listen in for the most powerful/influential of the various vampire factions currently residing in Sunnydale. All in all, none of them would have looked out of place at the Mos Eisley cantina, and in fact would have fit in quite easily, he reflected, as he tried to judge the atmosphere of the room's inhabitants.

< Not a very friendly crowd here tonight, William my boy, > he told himself. < But on the plus side, there most definitely isn't an Einstein in the bunch, > he grinned inwardly, while his impassive expression didn't change a millimeter.

"I've asked you lot to get together here tonight to inform you of some very significant, very valuable information that affects the demon community as a whole that has just recently come into my possession," he announced.

None of his audience looked either very impressed or very interested in his statement.

"I'm sure you all are aware of the recent sudden increase in the number of unexplained demon disappearances, aren't you?" he asked, pausing for a moment to light a cigarette.

That did get a reaction. The Belgari demon sat up straight in his chair, as did two of the vampires.

"What, exactly, do you know about them, vampire?" the Polgara asked, in the glottal lingua franca used by most demons who were unable or unwilling to speak any human languages.

"Well, it seems that I've got some inside information on exactly who's behind the disappearances, and why," the bleached blonde grinned as he blew a stream of smoke into the air.

"You will tell us who is responsible for the disappearances," the Belgari stated, in a voice that resembled rocks grating against each other, "or I will tear out your internal organs one by one, and feed them to you. My lord the Duke's youngest cousin's prime vesgar disappeared ten days ago, and we have been unable to locate it. You will tell me now who is responsible and where they are, so that I can recover it and claim my bounty."

"Well, now, let me think about that offer for a minute," Spike replied, straight-faced, adopting a thoughtful pose with one hand on his chin and the other hand supporting his opposite arm.

"Hmmmm. Ah, no, I don't think so," he said with a grin after a moment's pause, as he shook his head negatively. "I don't think I care for that one very much."

"You will tell me now, vampire," the Belgari croaked, as he stood up and approached Spike, one hand reaching out for him, "or I will -"

His sentence remained unfinished, as Spike suddenly moved. Grabbing the Belgari's outstretched arm, he yanked hard, pulling the demon off-balance, and smoothly slid forward, driving his fist into the demon's throat, making it gasp in sudden pain and begin choking. As it reflexively raised both arms towards its throat, Spike drove two short, vicious jabs into an apparently extremely vulnerable spot on the side of its ribcage several inches below its armpit, then followed up with a rabbit punch to the base of its neck and a hammer blow to the side of its head. The Belgari toppled heavily to the floor, its head bouncing once against the floorboards before finally coming to a complete rest. A few thin lines of pale lavender blood dribbled out of the demon's mouth and nostrils to pool under its head, as Spike nonchalantly stepped over its body and picked his cigarette, which had dropped to the floor during the 'fight.'

Stubbing it out in the nearest ashtray on the table, Spike calmly resumed his spiel.

"As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, I know what happened to the missing demons, I know who's responsible and I know where they are being held," he smiled. "What I'm looking for here from the lot of you and your people is some help in arranging for the disappearances to stop."

< And for the lot of you to help make me the Lord and Master of the West Coast, > he thought to himself, as a feeling of satisfaction filled him.


Marchinko hated black projects; they inevitably turned around and bit you on the ass, no matter what efforts you took to control them.

Not surprisingly, the Initiative was running true to form, so far; according to the forensic accountants he had assigned to go over the program's ledgers, a very large chuck of taxpayer money had somehow managed to vanish down a number of drains situated in several off- shore banks. His own team of computer geeks (who actually seemed to take a special pride in the 'Mark's Narcs' nickname that somebody had tagged them with) had smiled and almost literally rubbed their hands with glee when he told them to find out who was responsible for the accounts and the quasi-legal fund transfers involved and to locate the missing money.

Now, if they could only determine the people or creatures responsible for Walsh and Margolis' deaths as easily as his hackers seemed to think they would be able to find the missing money -

"Excuse me, sir. I'm sorry to interrupt, but you left standing orders that you be informed immediately upon discovery of anything out of the ordinary connected to the Initiative project."

Looking up, he saw that the speaker was Colonel Henry "Hank" Stephenson, one of several senior Army physicians that he had drafted to review and evaluate the reams of data the Initiative had generated, while comparing it with the information Walsh and her people had presented to Washington, in the hopes of determining exactly what they had really been doing in their secluded little domain hidden beneath the peaceful college campus.

"What is it you've found, Hank?" Marchinko asked, as he put aside the autopsy reports on Walsh and Margolis he had been re-examining. Stephenson might be a little nitpicky and a bit of a pain-in-the-ass with his preoccupation with the smallest details of a project, but there was no question about his qualifications or his brains. If he thought there was something wrong with the data he was given, then there most definitely was something wrong with it.

"Well, we've been going over some of the test results we downloaded from the Initiative's databases this afternoon, sir, and one of our E- 6's noticed that something seemed seriously out of kilter with the results of their field units' medical evaluations. They're all completely, totally, perfectly average."

"Well, that is surprising, although it would explain at least part of the problem they've been having with the loss of personnel there," Marchinko reflected. "Considering the type of opponent they've been encountering, I would have expected that their people would have improved their training procedures substantially by this time. Perhaps we should talk to Lieutenant Finn about this."

"Excuse me, sir. It would seem I didn't phrase my findings properly," Stephenson corrected himself. "What I meant is that all of the subjects' test results match perfectly with classic textbook figures in every instance. According to the data we reviewed, each of the field unit personnel for the Initiative are exactly on the statistical median for their height, weight or whatever other criteria against which we might choose to measure them.

"As you may or may not know, General, the tables and data used to determine whether patients are considered healthy are generated by evaluating and averaging the test results of thousands, or sometimes tens of thousands of patients. I've been practicing medicine for twenty-three years, and I don't think I've seen more than possibly half a dozen patients who exactly matched the published values, the way all of these soldiers' records indicate that they do. The odds of something like this occurring naturally are virtually incomprehensible.

"In a nutshell, General, somebody, probably at a very high level of access, has been systematically and deliberately falsifying the Initiative's records," the Colonel finished.

"Oh. Shit."

"Very succinct, and very appropriate, sir," the doctor agreed. "Somebody has playing with these soldiers' records in order to hide something. At present, I don't know what it is, but I'm completely sure about that fact."

Chapter 13

"Oh Goddess! I messed up! I messed up really bad, and now he hates me! He hates me and he never wants to see me or talk to me again! Oh Goddess, what am I going to do? He hates me!"

Willow's only partially comprehensible, barely audible babbling litany of her mistakes was apparently on an infinite repeat cycle played at high speed as she paced back and forth between the living room and the kitchen doorway of Giles' apartment.

Tara patiently watched her beloved cross the floor repeatedly, as she had been doing for the past thirty minutes, a concerned expression filling her face, her eyes never leaving the redhead's restless figure as she sat quietly on one of the overstuffed chairs in the living room. It almost seemed as though the redhead was unable to hear her, she was so wrapped up in her self-recriminations, all of the blonde's questions directed to the other Wicca having apparently fallen on deaf ears.

Buffy was currently sitting in the other armchair, while Giles occupied one end of the temporarily-repaired couch, with Faith situated at the couch's other end. An untouched cup of tea sat cooling on the coffee table before each of them.

They had arrived at Giles' apartment around 30 minutes ago, returning straight from their ill-fated, disastrous visit to Xander's apartment. The only words spoken since their entrance had been Giles' announcement that he would be in the kitchen, brewing tea, a statement which had been met with a resounding silence (and, of course, Willow's inane babbling). Upon his return from that temporary sanctuary, he had deposited a steaming cup in front of each of them before taking his place at the other end of the couch. Since then, no one had moved from their seat, as each of the occupants pondered the significance of the earlier events of the morning.

Faith looked around the room, taking in the reactions of each of the others to their current predicament.

Giles' brow was furrowed with concentration, absently cleaning his glasses, as he pondered how best to rectify matters and begin repairing the emotional train wreck that had claimed so many victims just a short while ago. In a remarkably brief period of time, they had, through their own enthusiastic efforts, managed to emotionally cripple the entire Scooby Gang. Had an enemy wanted to break the group up, he reflected, they couldn't have done nearly as much damage to them as they had managed to inflict upon themselves.

Willow had retreated into her current babble mode, apparently oblivious to the rest of the world, as she repeatedly enumerated her various transgressions against her best-friend-since-childhood and the apparent impossibility of ever gaining forgiveness for them. It was obvious that the sudden apparent renunciation of their lifelong friendship by her childhood companion and protector had shaken the young woman deeply, and she appeared to still be in some form of shock.

The blonde Slayer's expression, as she stared at her hands clasped together in her lap, was a combination of worry, anger, concern and several other emotions that Faith wasn't certain quite how to identify. It was obvious to the younger Slayer that the blonde's emotions were in turmoil as a result of last night's actions, especially given Buffy's reaction to Xander's taunts just a short while ago. Judging by the extreme nature of her response, the older Slayer was a lot more emotionally invested in her relationship with Xander than she had admitted or, possibly, had realized.

< Great, more relationship screw-ups I add to my scorecard, > Faith dejectedly thought to herself. < And they're not even mine. >

Although not normally introspective, Faith was now busily re-tracing her actions of the preceding night, and trying to figure out what would give her the best chance of re-establishing any kind of relationship with Xander.

She had never actually had a real friend before meeting the Scooby Gang and becoming involved with them, and most especially, she had never previously had any kind of relationship with any man that didn't involve sex. She was, therefore, more than a little uncertain of exactly what kind of relationship she had had with Xander, let alone what kind of relationship she wanted to pursue with him, now.

The only thing she was certain of, though, was that unless she could find some way to re-establish some type of connection with him, she would never even have the chance to try to be either.

From the very beginning of their relationship, the first night she had arrived here in Sunnydale, he had always been kind to her and had treated her with courtesy and consideration without ever seeming to expect any kind of payment in return, something that had made her feel uncertain and hesitant of how to respond to him. Not that she had ever shown that, though.

She had initially pegged him as gay when he didn't immediately start to come on to her after their initial meeting, but had then reconsidered that evaluation after witnessing his taste in clothes.

She had finally settled on categorizing him as a hopeless geek wannabe, desperately hoping for any peripheral glory might splash onto him if he hung around the Slayer long enough.

Even that evaluation had gone by the roadside, though, once she had started actually watching him and seeing what he did with and for everyone else in the Scooby Gang. After several weeks spent actually watching and evaluating the varied interactions among all of the Scoobies, she had finally come to a significantly different conclusion.

Despite what the others might think, he was more than just the comic relief or the Donut Guy. Going by what she had heard from the others in casual conversations and what she had managed to learn on her own from Willy and other inhabitants in town, Xander was at least partially responsible for many more of the Slayer's successes than was generally recognized or acknowledged.

From everything she had heard, not only had he been the one to come up with the idea to 'neutralize' the Judge by 'acquiring' and using a LAW rocket to blow him into tiny little pieces that were later gathered up and safely disposed of, he had also been the one to actually steal the rocket from a nearby Army base.

And hadn't the Soldier Guy knowledge that had enabled him to do that been gained during the Halloween fiasco, when he had safeguarded the blonde Slayer while she was under a spell that had turned her into a useless and defenseless 18th century noblewoman?

Hadn't it also been Xander who had performed CPR on Buffy after he and Angel had found her in the pool of water in the Master's lair?

And that wasn't even considering his contributions to the group during Graduation. Once again, hadn't Xander been the one to come up with the fuel oil and fertilizer bomb idea, and the one in charge of mixing the components and setting everything up?

To her way of thinking, the so-called 'Zeppo' had been singularly invaluable in keeping the Slayer alive during her first three years of fighting vamps and demons.

And yet his friends had still thought of him as useless.

More often than not, his initial evaluation of a situation had been more incisive and closer to the truth than any of the others, including Giles or Wesley. And, considering the training those two most likely had undergone prior to their assignment here at Hell's equivalent of Grand Central Station, that alone should at least have entitled him to a bit more respect from his so-called friends, or at least from the two so-called adult advisors.

Instead, he was treated more like Jethro Bodine or Barney Fife - barely tolerated and treated like the village idiot.

His ongoing contributions to keeping up their morale and providing the always necessary emotional support were taken for granted and rarely, if ever, acknowledged, let alone thanked or praised, while his 'friends' took scant notice of the numerous signs of the emotional wreckage passing for his home life that she could so easily recognize.

< They don't respect him. > Faith had finally managed to distill all of the conflicting emotions and feelings down into a single concise evaluation. < They care about him, but they don't have any respect for him or for what he does for all of them. They treat him like he's a child, not a man. >

The more she thought about it, the more she found it harder to understand. Why didn't they want him around?

< What the hell, > she thought to herself, < I might as well ask. It's not like they can hate me any more than they already do. >

Looking directly over at the blonde Chosen One, Faith cleared her throat, then forged ahead.

"Why don't you want Xander hanging around here anymore, B? You still pissed at him because he lied to you?"

"What?" Buffy looked up at her, a confused expression on her face, as though she hadn't heard Faith's questions.

"I asked you, why don't you want Xander hanging around anymore? Are you still pissed at him because he lied about Red trying to cast the soul spell for Fang? Is that why you're punishing him?" Faith paraphrased her earlier questions, as everyone else paused to look up from their ruminations.

"What do you mean 'punishing him'?" Buffy demanded angrily. "And who are you to be asking me anything about what I do?"

"I'm asking because it seems like I'm the only one here who actually cares about Xander's welfare," the brunette answered calmly. "I'll be the first to admit, I'm pretty emotionally screwed up when it comes to relationships with other people, but even I can see that your not letting Xander help you out with the Slaying was just hurting him. If you're not trying to punish him for something, then why don't you at least let him help with the research, even if you don't want to let him help with the Slaying?"

"Because I don't want him getting hurt," Buffy told her very slowly and deliberately, the glare in her eyes and the tone of her voice telling everyone present that she was starting to get even more pissed off than she currently was.

"You know Xander - he'd never be content to just help do research. He'd insist on coming along and then he'd end up getting hurt, or get someone else hurt while we were trying to keep him safe. That's what I told him, and that's what I'm telling you."

"You know, for someone who insists she knows Xander so well, you keep on saying some really some stupid things about him," Faith said, as she looked the blonde Slayer in the eye. "Do you really think he's just been sitting home at night and watching TV or reading a book because you told him you didn't want him tagging along on your patrols? Do you really think that he hasn't been going out and patrolling on his own?"

"What?" Buffy's half-shout question was a mix of incredulity, disbelief, fear, horror and worry, as she leaped to her feet.

"He's been patrolling on his own? Is he crazy? Does he have a death wish or something? He'll be killed, if he goes out all by himself!!"

"Actually, I think he's been doing pretty well for himself, judging by what I saw last night," Faith disagreed.

"When I first saw him, out on the street," she hastily clarified her statement, as the blonde's glare went up two notches. "He took out four vamps, all by himself, in less than two minutes, and he made it look easy, B. I saw him while he was busy saving some air-brained bimbo who got picked up by a vamp at the Bronze from her 'date' and three of his friends, and none of them even managed to scratch him."

Seeing the look of disbelief on her predecessor's face, Faith changed her tactics.

"Just think about it a minute, B. Have you been as busy as you usually are for the past month or so?" she asked. "Still dusting the same number of vamps or fighting the same number of demons as you were a couple months back? Take a minute and think about it before you answer," she suggested, as she glanced over at Giles. "English, here, has already told me what he thinks."

After a moment, Buffy answered, her expression still murderous as she looked at the younger Slayer.

"No. It's been slower than normal," she reluctantly admitted. "But that doesn't necessarily mean Xander's been patrolling," she protested...weakly.

"I didn't say it did. But let's check with the local expert on the subject for her opinion.

"Yo! Red!" Faith called over to Willow, loudly enough to interrupt the redhead's pacing and self-flagellating soliloquy.

When the hacker-turned-witch looked up blankly, Faith posed her question.

"I need you to answer a question about Xander. Take a minute and think over what I'm asking, before you say anything," the Dark Slayer suggested.

"Do you really think that Xander would stop trying to help out with the local vamp and demon problem, just because Buffy told him that she didn't want his help anymore and that she thought that he should stay out of it?" Faith asked in an even tone.

"Do you think he'd just sit back and not get involved anymore, or do you think he'd try to do something on his own? I'm not asking whether or not it'd be the smart thing to do - just whether or not he'd do it," she concluded her question.

Willow opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it as a thoughtful look crossed her face. After only a few seconds, a look of horror replaced the thoughtful expression, as she turned to Buffy, her eyes filled with tears.

"Oh no! Oh goddess!! Buffy!! She's right! He's been going out by himself! That's exactly what he would do!! And it's my fault! He's going to get himself killed, and it's all my fault!! I should never have agreed with you when you asked me to help keep him out of the Slaying," she choked out, as she gave Buffy a mixed look composed of pain, guilt and resentment that only Willow could pull off.

"I should have realized he'd never stop trying to help!" she sobbed to herself, as she slumped bonelessly into a sniveling heap on the floor. "He won't talk to me, and now he hates me! He's going to get himself killed, and he hates me, and he's going to die hating me," she wailed, as she dissolved into tears.

Tara immediately moved from her chair to kneel next to her lover, and pulled her limp form up to embrace her and whisper quiet reassurances to her as she rubbed her back.

"I just wanted to keep him safe," Buffy murmured, her face distraught as she stared at the sobbing witch slumped on the floor.

"I didn't want anything to happen to him. That's all. I just wanted to keep him safe," she reiterated, before she turned to stare at Giles, a lost and despairing look on her face. "You know that - right, Giles?"

"Yes, Buffy," the Englishman agreed, finally replacing his glasses. "I believe that you only wanted to keep him safe, just as I did. Unfortunately, it appears that we buggered the whole thing up rather badly, and have only managed to succeed in alienating Xander, instead."

Listening to their conversation, Faith thought about the other question that had eventually come up during her information gathering the previous year, but which, through various problems with convenience and timing, she had never gotten around to asking.

< May as well go for broke, here, > Faith told herself, as she steeled her resolve to ask the question for which she believed she had already figured out the answer. < If they're ever gonna have things right between them, she needs to know the truth about what he actually did. >

"Uh, Giles. I have a question," she began. "It's about Angel and Xander."

Seeing the puzzled looks the three original Scoobies gave her, the Dark Slayer took a deep breath before continuing. The look of apprehension on Giles' face made Faith wonder if he had guessed the question she was about to pose.

"What was Xander doing in the Master's lair the night Buffy got killed?"

"What do you mean, Faith?" Giles asked, puzzled. "He was there giving Buffy CPR. He was the one who brought her back to life," he explained, "since Angel didn't know the proper method of doing it, and was concerned that he might damage her lungs irreparably because of his enhanced strength if he did it improperly."

The way the ex-Watcher spoke seemed to indicate that he felt no further expansion on the issue was indicated or necessary.

"Yeah, I understand all about that part of him being there, and I can understand about Fang not knowing CPR, with him being dead and all," Faith agreed with him, realizing now that the Englishman was trying to prevent his surrogate daughter from being hurt any more than she had already been. But the Dark Slayer was determined to finally bring all of the facts to light. One of the bikers she used to hang with back in Boston had an expression that she loved: 'You gotta dig out the poison before you can heal.' And if there was ever a situation where that applied it was here.

It may not make her sister Slayer happy to find out the truth hiding behind the image she had cherished for so many years, but her benefactor was entitled to have his accomplishments made public.

"But what I meant was, why was Xander down there in the first place? Why did Angel drag him along if he was looking for Buffy? You can't tell me it was because he was expecting to find her drowned down there, and it sure as hell wasn't because he was a great fighter or anything like that. The only reasons I could see for Xander to be there is because Fang wanted to use him for bait as a distraction if he found B alive and in trouble, and I don't think even he would be cold enough to do something like that just on a chance, or else -" She trailed off a little dramatically, but it got the blond to respond.

"Or else what?" Buffy demanded, the look of anxiety on her face redoubling, as though she feared hearing the answer to the question she posed. Giles and Faith exchanged a look that told the other that each already knew the answer. After a moment's pause, Giles caved.

"Or else -" he said, "Angel did not bring Xander along. It was Xander who brought Angel."

"No." The protest could barely be heard, even with Faith's enhanced hearing. Buffy was shaking her head in denial of what she had just heard, as her eyes began filling up with unshed tears.

"No. He loved me," she whispered. "He came down there to save me."

"Yeah, he did, B," Faith assured her compatriot. "It's just that the 'he' you're talking about wasn't Angel. It was Xander."

Faith moved forward then, and cradled the blonde Slayer as she collapsed into her arms in tears, rocking her gently and murmuring vague reassurances as she rubbed her back.


"Great. Just great. Another wonderful day in paradise. Like I really need this shit to be happening," Xander muttered to himself as he stalked down one of the lesser traveled streets in town, oblivious to the multitude of cautious and/or wondering stares he garnered from passersby on the street.

"My day didn't start off shitty enough, oh no! God, or whoever he put in charge of things up there, must have decided he wants to make me a butt monkey again. Well, this time, I'm saying, that's enough!

"DO YOU HEAR ME UP THERE?? THAT'S IT!! NO MORE!! I'M TIRED OF GETTING SHIT ON DOWN HERE! DO YOU HEAR ME??" he screamed in frustration, as he paused in the middle of the sidewalk and looked up at the sky. "THAT'S IT!! I'M NOT PUTTING UP WITH IT ANYMORE!!"

"What are you looking at?" he asked belligerently, as he noticed a couple staring at him, a worried look on their faces. "Can't a guy talk to his deity anymore without people looking at him like he's crazy? Dress up in robes or a clerical collar and go around talking to god, and nobody looks at you twice. But just wear your normal clothing and try to have a semi-private conversation with Him," he made a vague gesture toward the heavens, "and they want to lock you up."

The man hooked his arm around his girlfriend's shoulders and began to hurry her away in the direction opposite to that which Xander was heading, keeping himself between her and Xander.

Resuming his march through the neighborhood, he continued his rant, although he now did so silently.

< Brilliant move, Harris, > he told himself sarcastically. < Now you're gonna have the SunnyHell PD out looking for you to put you away, dipshit. What are you gonna do next? I know!! Let's tell all the nice townspeople they're actually living on the mouth of Hell and that most of the stories they've heard about demons and vampires are true!! That ought to do it! >

Giving a disgusted sigh, Xander shook his head as he tried to decide what he should do next.

< Might as well check in, > he told himself. < It's not like I have anything more important to do. > Pulling out his cell phone, he quickly punched in a series of numbers, then waited patiently for a response.

"Thank you for calling Ivory Chevalier Endeavors. There's no one available to speak with you at the moment, but if you leave a message, we'll get back to as soon as we can."

Pressing a new sequence of numbers in, he then listened intently as a male voice began speaking.

"Uh, Mr. Harris, this is Owen Twinnings. I've spoken with my partners and we've agreed that your services seem to be the best solution to our problem. We deposited half of your quoted fee with Mr. Stephenson as of five o'clock this afternoon, per your instructions, along with a key for your use, and we would appreciate your handling the problem at your earliest opportunity. The address in question is 6154 Larchwood Circle. If you need to contact us about any additional information, you can call me directly on my cell phone. You already have my number." The voice was formal and business like.

"I also want to personally thank you again, Mr. Harris. If not for you, Marion and I would be visiting Shelley's grave, not attending her recital tomorrow night. I don't think that there is any way to thank you enough for what you did for us, but if there is ever anything I can do for you, please let me know. I mean that quite sincerely, sir. If there is ever anything at all that I can do for you, call me and I will do my damnedest to make it happen," he finished with conviction.

"Thank you, and may the Lord bless and protect you in all the dark places you may go."

A click and dial tone indicated the end of the message, and Xander hung up, a thoughtful smile on his face.

< Nice to know some people don't think I'm incompetent. Hmm, nothing major on today's agenda. Guess I'll swing by City Hall for the plans and then take care of that little problem for them this afternoon. >


A slightly built man of average size and appearance, dressed in a rumpled flannel shirt and well-worn, threadbare jeans sat quietly at a well-worn desk in a small, sparsely furnished office. The room was dimly lit and vaguely reminiscent of some type of industrial operation. Darkened hulks of unrecognizable machinery were visible through the partially opened office door as well as the varied sounds of machinery being used.

"How goes the plan, brother?" An equally nondescript individual greeted the man behind the desk as he entered the room. Like the first, his clothes were somewhat shabby, the standard grey shirt and pants worn by maintenance workers across the country, perhaps indicating that the wearer had little interest in the opinion of any onlookers that he might encounter.

"Everything is proceeding much as we had hoped, Nathaniel," the jeans- clad man informed him. "The die has been cast, and now all we can do is wait, and pray that our hopes are not in vain."

"Are you sure that that the Gatekeeper is safe now, Gregory?"

"Yes, Nathaniel. Of that I am certain," the first man smiled. "Timothy located the Select last night by tracking her essence. Once we were certain of her location, Michelle then cast the binding spell. There can be no doubt of its success.

"See for yourself -" he gestured towards a small intricately carved crystal globe, "the old container is completely empty. Had anything had gone wrong, it would still be filled.

"Cease your worrying, my friend," the speaker tried to reassure his companion. "Our primary duty has now been accomplished. All that remains for us now is to move on and mark a false trail, that we may lead the Doombringer astray."

"I hope you are correct, Gregory," Nathaniel replied, his face filled with worry. "If we are mistaken, we are not the only ones who will pay the price. We will have brought doom upon the world."


"Good afternoon, Professor. How are you doing today?"

The demon formerly known as Professor Wallace Lindsey looked up in alarm from his scrutiny of the marble frieze he had been examining, his concentration broken by the unexpected interruption of his room's silence. He stopped his reflexive morphing into his 'game face,' as the other members of their community referred to it, when he recognized who his visitor was.

"Ah, Mr. Nails," he smiled, as he stood up from his desk as a sign of respect for the older demon, "I'm fine, thank you for asking. What can I do for you today?"

"Mr. Farrenworth instructed me to stop by and see how you were progressing with the translation he has you working on. Have you made any more progress on it?" the head administrator for the local vampire community inquired. "He indicated that in the last report he received from you, you believed you were on the verge of a break- through as regards to the translation. Have you made any further progress which I can report to him?"

"I'm not quite sure enough to state so definitely, Mr. Nails," Lindsey replied, somewhat nervously. "I am still not completely confident in the accuracy of my translations. In addition to being inscribed in a rather obscure dialect, I am beginning to believe the writer attempted to further conceal some of the key phrases and invocations required for this spell in allusions to either regional personages or religious or mythical references."

"Really? That is a very interesting idea, Professor," Nails commented. "What exactly lead you to that conclusion?"

"How familiar are you with this inscription that Mr. Farrenworth has me translating?" the former college lecturer questioned his visitor.

"Not very much, at all, I'm afraid," the other demon admitted. "From what I've been able to gather, it involves a summoning spell for one of the more powerful demon lords in the Infernal hierarchy, a Third Circle demon Lord named Appolion," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Aside from that, not much else."

"Actually, sir," the historian corrected him, "if I am translating this inscription properly, this spell is not a mere summoning spell, which would require the being called upon to look favorably upon any requests made to him by the summoner, but a binding ritual which would require the demon lord to obey any command of the being successfully summoning him for a period of at least seven years," the professor informed him, his exhilaration regarding his discovery lighting up his eyes.

"Can you imagine the power that this would give anyone capable of performing this spell? Having a Lord of Hell, even one of the minor Lords, at your beck and call for even a day would enable you to accomplish almost anything you could conceive of!" the former collegian explained excitedly. "Having him required to serve you for seven years would enable you to rule the planet!"

"Well, that would certainly explain Mr. Farrenworth's interest in the spell," Nails agreed with the barest hint of a smile. "What seems to be causing the delay here, then?"

"Well," Lindsey began, his enthusiasm quickly deflated, "as just a single example, one of the beings the summoner needs to initially call upon in the beginning of the spell is 'that ascended acolyte of the demon lord most commonly worshipped in the northeastern part of the territory.' Without knowing exactly where this fragment originated, it will be extremely difficult to determine the identity of the being in question. And there are any number of similar references scattered throughout the text.

"If I had access to some historical and religious texts for the region in which this fragment was discovered," the former college lecturer continued, "I might be able to narrow the names of possible candidates to a much more manageable number, but at present, with only the information I have available to me here, there are most likely several hundred possible beings that the writer could conceivably be referring to."

"Hmmm, I can see now why you seem a bit discouraged, Professor," the other vampire commiserated with him. "What to do, what to do," he idly murmured to himself, as he paused for thought.

"Well, as a start, why don't you compile a list with a description of all of these various beings whose identities you are uncertain of, and then continue with your translation. I'll forward the list to Mr. Farrenworth, together with an explanation of the reasons for the present delay, and then we'll see how he wishes to proceed. How's that sound, Professor?" he proposed.

"That would be fine, Mr. Nails," Lindsey eagerly agreed. As long as there were buffers between himself and the dreaded kingpin of this group, the professor would be more than satisfied to maintain his present low-profile niche.

The one time he had actually met the much referred to but rarely seen head of their little community, Mr. Farrenworth had, literally, torn into a vampire foolish enough to continue to argue with him after being given orders he hadn't liked. One of the again-deceased's flunkeys had then been given the task of sweeping up his leader's remains and discarding them into a waste can, as Farrenworth had then calmly moved on to the next item of business on his list.

Having seen the results of incurring Farrenworth's ire, Lindsey was now more than satisfied to let anyone else act as an interface between himself and the group's leader.

< I need to finish the translation, > he reminded himself, as he watched Nails move off to the next task listed on his Day-planner. < After all, > he thought to himself, with a small smile, < maybe it won't be Farrenworth who actually casts the spell. >

Chapter 14

< Okay, this is definitely not going to be a cakewalk, > Xander thought to himself as he examined the building plans he had gotten from the Department of Licenses and Inspections at City Hall. He was sitting at a table near the back of the Expresso Pump, sipping his coffee and nibbling on a raisin cinnamon bun, slathered with lots of butter, as he studied the blueprints and tried to devise the best plan of attack.

< Three car garage, five bedrooms upstairs, sun room and deck - Hmmm, I think I can safely eliminate them being used today, > he thought to himself with a smile as he glanced out the front window and enjoyed the bright sunlight the clearing clouds had released.

< Still, it's certainly not going to be a walk-through. This place looks like the ideal opportunity to field test my newest toy in an indoor setting, > he mused to himself. < I know it works fine for distance work; now, I can see how well it works close-up. >

After approximately another half-hour of contemplation, he had decided on a tentative strategy and mapped out what appeared to be the most advantageous route he could take through the house, along with a selection of what he believed would be the best equipment to take with him.

As he walked back to his apartment, he swung by the UC Sunnydale dorms, to see if Buffy had left his car in the dorm parking lot as he had suggested to her. Not finding the Blazer there, he followed a hunch and headed over to Giles' apartment complex, and found it parked near the ex-Watcher's building.

Using his spare key, he climbed in and started it up, then drove back to his own complex and parked as close to his building as he could manage. Opening up the rear door, he sorted through the various signs stored there before finally settling for a pair advertising "I.C.E. Restoration Services, Ltd." He then positioned the magnetic-backed signs on the lower panel of each of the car doors, transforming the SUV into an ostensibly company-owned vehicle.

After first verifying that no one, especially none of the Scooby Gang, was waiting for him in any of the building walkways, the former self-proclaimed Donut-Guy hurried up the stairs to his and into his apartment. Unlocking the door to the second bedroom/den/ workroom, he unlocked and then opened the doors of one of the large, thick- walled steel cases lining the left hand wall of the room and began removing various selected pieces of equipment and placing them on the work table that was set flush against the opposite wall.

Once all of the equipment had been removed from their storage areas, Xander began a detailed examination, making certain that each item was in proper working condition and functioning properly.

The first item to be inspected closely resembled what at first looked to be a futuristic, "Star Wars" version of the old U. S. Army .45 caliber "Tommy-gun" machine gun made famous first in innumerable war movies and then by federal agent Elliott Ness and his Prohibition Era "Untouchables" squad.

Produced by FN Manufacturing, Inc., the FN303 was a 29 inch long pneumatic, drum-fed, 12 gauge semi-automatic weapon designed to provide a non-lethal capability to military and law enforcement personnel by firing paint ball-like projectiles containing a variety of standard or custom payloads.

Removing the approximately 1-1/2" thick cylindrical drum magazine, Xander checked each of the fifteen .68 caliber projectiles it held, assuring himself that each polystyrene projectile held the proper payload before replacing it back into its receiver. After satisfying himself that the magazine was again properly locked in place, he repeated the inspection with the three drums sitting off to one side on the table, then carefully placed the "less than lethal" compressed air projectile launcher into a small duffle bag, which lay on the table, while setting the magazines off to one side.

< Holy water and Oleoresin Capsicum. Gotta love the wonders of modern chemistry. > he grinned as he considered the effects a hit had on any vampire it struck. < A concentrated pepper spray and acid cocktail, all delivered with the loving impact of a baseball bat. >

With an impact value of approximately 25 foot-pounds, the projectiles could easily knock down and stun a normal human being. With a vampire, the impact would not only stop the majority in their tracks, the payload mixture also incapacitated virtually every one he had shot with it when first testing the combination payload during patrols in the local cemeteries.

Xander had quickly determined that shots to the head and, more specifically the face, produced the most expeditious results, as would be expected naturally, with a shot to the neck actually decapitating one vampire by dissolving its neck tissue when Xander had managed to place his shot at the top of its spine. The pepper oil's normally painful effects were exacerbated by the holy water's effectively acting as an acid on the undead target's skin, rendering any vampire hit almost completely helpless and in mind-numbing pain, and leaving them wide open to a quick follow-up attack. Hits to other parts of the body were not always immediately incapacitating, but did inflict satisfactory damage and usually rendered any limb hit useless and quite distracting to the victim. A second shot almost invariably left the target writhing helplessly on the ground, an easy mark for a stake through their unbeating heart.

Xander had also verified that a shot to the groin on a male vamp had the immediately equivalent effect that a hard kick to the family jewels, followed by pouring acid on the afflicted area, would have on a human, and usually resulted in the victim lying on the ground and screaming weakly as they futilely clutched at themselves, evoking a mildly sympathetic twinge from the marksman before he put his prey out of its misery. He had only deigned to inflict that particular punishment on a few of the predators he had stalked, those he had seen 'playing' with their food, but those he had stood by and impassively watched for a moment or two before finally applying the coup-de-grace.

With an effective range of 50 meters and a maximum range of nearly 100 meters, the relatively silent action of the weapon was an additional bonus, affording him the opportunity of getting off several shots and taking down several members of a group before the bloodsuckers even realized that they were under attack and could begin to pinpoint his possible location.

All in all, he was quite satisfied with the 'air gun's' performance, since it enabled him to use it in situations where the normal use of firearms would be extremely restricted or forbidden.

< This way, I won't have to worry about fixing all the little holes in the walls the bullets would leave, > he grinned to himself. < Worst case scenario, just wash down the walls with the neutralizer anyplace I miss, slap on a quick coat of paint, if necessary, and everything is good to go. >

Actually, in the worst worst case scenario, he wouldn't be doing anything except lying on the floor dead, or maybe rising again the next night to run rampant through the town until he eventually met Buffy or another member of the Gang and got the inevitable stake through the heart that would grant him final, eternal peace and let him rest comfortably in his grave forevermore.

That was just the kind of cheery thought he didn't need to be having before going into a mission.

< Get your head in the game, man, > he told himself. < If you go in thinking you're gonna lose, the bad guys have already won. >

Turning back to his preparations, he began checking the half-dozen aerosol grenades he had filled with holy water, examining the fuses and ensuring that everything was in proper working order before setting them down next to the 303.

< And wasn't that an interesting conversation with Father McClellan when I asked him to bless these toys, > he mused to himself as he recalled the priest's comments as he had tried to find the best way to phrase his request.

/// Flashback ///

"Fighting the devil's spawn is one thing, boyo. Actively hunting them down by yourself is something else entirely." The old man's voice still carried a hint of the Old Country in it, and it seemed to grow a bit stronger as the two of them sat in the rectory and sipped their Bushmills.

While he usually didn't imbibe, it had seemed impolite to refuse when the priest had offered him a glass of the twenty year old Irish whiskey. The smooth, light taste somehow seemed well suited to the discussion they had been engaged in for the past half-hour, during which the rector had quizzed him at length on what he knew and on his reasons for what he had decided to begin doing.

"Make sure you're doing this for the right reasons, my son, that you're trying to protect your loved ones and those who can't protect themselves. Be very sure that you're not trying to get some sweet young thing to notice you, or to get yourself killed because she hasn't - or won't.

"Suicide is a sin, boyo," McClellan said, leaning forward to stare into the younger man's eyes, "and even more, an insult to God, because you're throwing away the gift o' life He gave you."

"You don't have to worry about that, Father," he had assured the old man. "I don't want to die, but now that I know what I know, I just can't stand back and not do anything about it. We're at war here, Father. It may be secret and undeclared, not to mention one most people don't want to believe is real, but it's still a war, and I'm taking up arms in it.

"My father joined the Army and did pretty much the same thing when he was my age, even though he knew that he was probably gonna die if he did, because he couldn't stand back and not do anything, either. He told me, once, that you have to take care of the ones you love and not wait for someone else to do it for you.

"And that's what I'm doing, Father - trying to take care of the people I love. Whether they know about it or not, whether they think I can do it or not. Hell, whether they care or not - it doesn't matter. It's something I've got to do."

They sat quietly then for a while, sipping their whiskey and enjoying the quiet, until McClellan had finally leaned forward and stared him in the eyes.

"Well, boyo, I can see you're going to go ahead and do what you think you should, regardless of anything I might tell you," the aged vicar had said then, "so, all I'm going to say, is, you be damn careful, and if you need my help, for anything at all, you damn well better call me. Now, do you have any more of those 'toys' of yours you'll be wanting a blessing on?"

/// End Flashback ///

Shaking his head, Xander turned his attention back to the task at hand. Next up was the black PT Extreme paintball pistol he had originally started carrying as his first line of anti-vamp ordnance. Vaguely reminiscent of a Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol, its ten round magazines of .68 caliber blessed holy water paintballs were relatively easy and quick to replace in the course of a firefight. The fact that he could also get approximately 18 -20 shots from each CO*2 cartridge was definitely on the plus side of the ledger, while the approximate 30 meter range was another nice feature, especially considering you never wanted to go hand to hand with vamps if you had any choice in the matter, at all. Stripping the pistol down and then reassembling it only took a few moments, and he then set the air pistol down on the table, along with two spare magazines.

Unfortunately, holy water, in paintballs or other forms, wasn't as effective against most other demons as it was against vampires, so anyone wanting to optimize their odds for survival in Sunnydale had best have other weapons to fall back on. Turning back to his examination of his equipment, he picked up each of the two black 9mm Walther P99 pistols he had selected for this job and stripped them down, checking each component before re-assembling them and setting them back on the table with his other equipment.

Next, he removed and examined each round in the four sixteen-round magazines on the table, checking that each one had the magnesium tip that the red tape around the base of the magazine indicated, before slipping a magazine into each of the Walthers, and setting the spare magazines next to the pistols.

The OSS style fighting knife in the Cordura nylon tactical sheath was next, as he checked the blade for nicks or signs of rust. The gleam on both razor edges was the only relief from the darkness running the length of the carbon blackened coating, and he carefully set it down next to the Gerber clip point folding knife he had recently started carrying with him at all times. Having both knives blessed by a Catholic priest, a rabbi and a Presbyterian minister might have been considered a bit of overkill by some, but he saw no point in not trying to utilize every possible advantage available to him.

Three flash-bang grenades went onto the table next, along with the small pouch holding his ear plugs, the sheath holding his oak stakes, a small pocket-sized squeeze bottle of holy water and the Gerber DET multitool in its belt pouch he had also taken to carrying with him since he had decided to set himself up in business.

With his equipment check finished, the brunet began dressing for the work he had planned for that afternoon, following a ritual that he had evolved in the first few days following the Scooby Gang's revelation of exactly where they lived and what lived here in the town with them, back in what he now mentally referred to as 'the not- nearly-as-shitty-as-they-could-have-been old days.'

First, before he did anything else, he grasped the heavy silver Celtic cross on the heavy-duty chain around his neck in his right hand. The cross had been a gift from Buffy and Willow for his seventeenth birthday, back in the days when he had known that they still actually cared about him. It was one of the few things linking him to those days that he had refused to get rid of, once he had begun his new life, telling himself that he kept it only because it would help keep the vamps away, and realizing that he was lying to himself even as he did so.

Bending his head and closing his eyes, he quietly murmured the same words with which he began preparations for each patrol.

"I screwed up big one time, God, and I let them get my best friend and my brother. I don't wanna let that happen to anyone else, ever again. If you could see your way through to giving me a hand now and then, I'd appreciate it. If not, it's on me."

That done, he grabbed a pair of comfortable, faded blue jeans from his closet and slipped them on after donning the stainless steel supporter he taken to wearing religiously during patrol after that experience with those two Turned children in the park a month ago. The pants pockets held a wad of bills held securely by his money clip, car keys, the key ring holding his collection of skeleton and master passkeys, his wallet and credit cards, the Gerber folding knife, a comb and a blessed set of steel knuckle-dusters with the impact surface inscribed with a series of crosses. Heavy cotton socks went on under the black steel-toed, oil and slip-resistant tactical service boots he slipped on.

Next was the Xtreme ZX (tm) body armor. Manufactured with Zylon (the new, cutting edge synthetic fiber had a tensile strength ten times stronger than an equivalent diameter steel wire), the vest weighed less than two pounds and was not only puncture-proof, it would stop a .44 Magnum slug. The best part was that the vest was so thin and flexible that he could wear it under street clothes and no one would suspect he had it on.

A navy T-shirt covered the vest, and then the twin shoulder holster rig went over that, allowing him to carry both Walthers horizontally, the position he had found most comfortable and convenient for him. The spare magazines went into carrying cases under each holster, while the sheath for the OSS knife lay vertically along his spine, the end of the hilt riding an inch or so above his waist.

Strapping the sheath holding the two oaken stakes around his left forearm, he then clipped the Gerber multitool's holster onto his belt alongside the pouch holding his ear plugs and bottle of holy water. The Extreme air pistol in its tactical holster was then attached to his belt, riding his right hip, with a friction strap firmly securing its position on his leg, with the two spare magazines in a holder just to the rear of the holster.

Slipping on a navy blue windbreaker bearing the silhouette of a knight's helmet with the letters "I.C.E." beneath it in white, he put two of the 303's magazines in the jacket's left pouch pocket and the remaining one in the right pocket, making sure the jacket concealed the air pistol's holster.

Slipping his wraparound Gargoyle sunglasses into the breast pocket of his T-shirt, the brunet then made one last inspection of the area, checking for anything he might have overlooked before picking up the duffle bag and heading out the door to work.


Giles looked around his living room and sighed quietly to himself. At the moment, the room looked like nothing so much as the common room in a woman's dormitory, he decided.

Willow was stretched out on the couch, her head now tenderly cradled in Tara's lap, the blonde whispering to her reassuringly and gently stroking her hair as she now slept, the redhead occasionally murmuring unintelligible protests against her dreams, after having cried herself into an exhausted stupor upon her and Buffy's realization that they might have finally damaged their relationship with Xander beyond their capacity to repair.

Buffy herself sat in one of the overstuffed chairs opposite the couch, her gaze apparently fixed on some point thousands of miles away, completely immersed in thoughts that only she was aware of and seemingly oblivious of the presence of anyone else in the room. The blonde's face was expressionless, offering an observer no clue as to what she might be thinking.

Faith was curled up in the remaining chair, her left arm curled across her stomach in an unconscious effort to shield her healing ribs. Her gaze alternated between focusing on Buffy as she sat unmoving in her chair and staring out the window at the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the window.

The room had been as silent as a church for the last half-hour, since Buffy had finally pulled herself away from Faith's embrace and wiped the last of her tears from her eyes.

Uncertain of exactly what he could or should do (this type of situation never having been discussed in any of his Watcher training classes. It was at times like these that he sincerely regretted skipping out of his psychology classes at Oxford to race his '58 Norton), Giles leaned back against the kitchen counter and stared out his window, praying for some form of divine inspiration to strike him, to provide some clue as to what he should do next.

As if in answer to his silent plea, the phone unexpectedly rang.

"Hello," he said, as he grabbed the handset before it could ring a second time.

"Giles?" he heard a woman's voice ask.

"Who - J-Joyce?" he stammered, as he recognized her voice and sudden realization flooded through him that she must have been waiting frantically all night for some word on how their efforts to regain Buffy's body had gone.

"Good Lord! I'm sorry that no one called you to let you what's been going on," he immediately began apologizing, "but there were a number of complications that occurred over the last few hours, and we're just now back from trying to resolve some of the issues that came up.

"But there's nothing to concern yourself about," he hastened to reassure the Slayer's mother, "Buffy's regained her own body, and most of the issues that developed have at least been addressed," he said, neatly sidestepping the fact that none of the issues that had been 'addressed' had actually been resolved.

"Thank you, Rupert," Joyce replied, "it's such a relief to hear that. That was one of the things I was calling about. Have you seen the news yet today?"

"No, none of us have," he told her, as he moved into the living room to turn on his TV, and clicked to the local news channel. "Could you hold on for a moment, please?"

The voice of one of the local news anchors filled the room, as her image filled the screen.

". . .and barricaded themselves in the church with at least 20 parishioners." At his point, the camera shifted and zoomed in on a church in the background behind the woman.

"One of the few worshipers who managed to escape described their captors as frighteningly disfigured, almost inhuman, and casually violent. So far, one escapee has since died of severe neck wounds.

"At this point in time, there is no report on the condition of the parishioners still trapped inside, but the terrorists have vowed to kill all of the hostages if police attempt to storm the church," the woman concluded. "We will continue to stay by the scene here, and will update you, our viewers, as new and additional information becomes available.

"To summarize the information the police have released to the media so far, it would appear that an unidentified terrorist group has attacked Our Mother of Mercy Church here in Sunnydale and taken an unknown number of parishioners hostage during services earlier this morning. Aside from a warning that they will, quote, "tear out the hostages' throats," unquote, if police attempt to storm the church, the police say that the attackers have not made any demands as of yet..."

Giles used the remote to mute the screen, as he spoke back into the phone he still held.

"Thank you for the notification, Joyce. We'll take it from here. I'll talk to you later, then," he promised as he hit the phone's 'Off' button.

Words were unnecessary, as with but a glance at each other, everyone began preparing to leave. As Tara woke Willow and Giles opened a sealed book cabinet to reveal several high-tech hunting crossbows, Buffy and Faith looked at each and silently agreed that their personal issues could be put aside until the current crisis was resolved.

It was the work of less than a minute to get themselves ready, with each of the Slayers grabbing two handful of stakes from the small storage container inside the hall closet and dropping them into their jacket pockets before heading out to Giles' car, while a still somewhat sleep-disoriented Willow was herded along behind them by Tara.

The ride to the church was almost completely silent, Tara quickly and quietly updating her lover on the situation into which they were heading, while both Slayers slipped into their own versions of their game face, wondering idly at the plans and intentions of the group of vampires who were presently acting so completely out of character.

Your typical Sunnydale vamp lurked quietly around an area abounding in prey, usually one of the malls, the Bronze or any establishments catering to the party-crowd, where they could make contact with their potential meals in a quiet and usually understated manner, not attracting much attention from onlookers and passers-by.

As Giles had pointed out once they were moving, to the best of his knowledge, there had never been any records of vamps who attacked and then took over a highly public building, holding its inhabitants hostage and waiting around for reporters and the news media.

It almost appeared as though they were intending to hold a press conference, to announce their presence to the world.

Upon their arrival at the church, the Gang found the entire area cordoned off by yards of yellow police tape, with Sunnydale's finest trying to keep the gathering crowds as far away from the buildings as possible.

Upon spotting Riley's friend and teammate, Forrest, dressed in a suit and tie, on the outskirts of the crowd, Buffy ruthlessly shoved her way through to him, grabbing his arm and pulling him off to one side, where they could talk without fear of being overheard by nosy reporters or overly inquisitive bystanders.

"Forrest, what's the sitch?" the blonde Slayer demanded as she released his arm. "What's going on? What's the Initiative doing here, anyway?"

"Who are these people, Summers?" the soldier asked as he looked at the group of women and the older man surrounding him. "What are you doing -?"

"We're the cavalry, stud," Faith interrupted him with a glare before he could complete his question. "We can all make nice with the introductions later, once the people inside there are safe. Right now, we need to know what's going down here."

"Cool it, Faith," Buffy warned her, throwing a warning look at the younger Slayer. "These are some of the people who have been helping me with my night job over the past couple years," she told the Initiative agent by way of explanation. "We're here to help, Forrest, but we need to know what's going on. How many vamps are inside, and how many people are they holding? How many men, how many women, any children or infants?"

"What do you mean, they help you with your night job?" he asked, looking over the group with an incredulous stare. "What, they're more of these legendary 'mystical warriors' you were telling Riley about?"

"No, they're my friends, and they're all completely human. Except Faith," Buffy noted. "She's a Slayer, too."

"What? You people are normal and you hunt down demons with just crossbows and stakes?" the agent stared at them all. "Are all of you people crazy, or what?"

"Look, you bloody fool," Giles said quietly, grabbing him by the arm, "now is not the time to be wasting time with questions! The longer you delay us, the more likely more people are going to die, and if that happens, I am most likely going to pound your bloody head into the pavement until my arms get sodding well tired."

The smart remark Forrest was about to make to the old guy who had grabbed him died in his throat when he looked into the man's eyes. While he may have been well-trained, and the guy with the Slayer may have been old, the fire raging inside the man's eyes was definitely not something he wanted directed at him, he realized with a small shudder.

"Well, nobody's exactly sure of what happened inside. I was on my way to morning service," the black soldier began to explain, "and was running a couple of minutes late. I was just about to head in when a half-dozen people came running out through the doors, screaming something about monsters and terrorists, and I could see two vamps standing back inside the vestibule through the half-open door.

"Two of the men and one woman had been cut up and bitten and were bleeding pretty badly, so I called 911 for an ambulance, then called in to Base to report what happened. Graham is trying to get authorization to step in and take over right now, but it's taking some time to get hold of the necessary people," he explained. "From what the escapees were saying while the EMTs were treating them, it sounds like there're maybe six, seven HSTs in there."

He paused for a moment, and after a second look at the group, he added, "Look, this info does NOT to go any further, Summers. I'm taking a big leap of faith telling you this as it is, since you still haven't been cleared for a full mission briefing.

"Maggie was murdered last night, apparently by an HST, and Riley had to fly to Washington, ASAP, to straighten some things out. We've been given strict orders to maintain a low profile until instructed to do otherwise, but nobody thought anything like this would ever happen, obviously, and we can't do anything until it's okayed by somebody higher up the chain of command."

"And you're just going to stand around and do nothing to help those people in there, until someone in Washington gives you permission to help?" Willow asked in disbelief.

"Look, lady, I'm a soldier," the agent said, staring at the redhead, his gaze as intense as any she had seen, "and a major part of a soldier's job is to follow orders, even if we don't like them, because usually we don't know what the big picture is.

"I joined the service because I wanted to protect my country and its people, and I took an oath to follow the orders my superiors gave me, so long as they didn't break the law or endanger the country.

"Right now, there's nothing I want to do more than to get my team together and go in and kill every HST I find in there. But there's also a lot of strange stuff going on now, and for all I know, this may be an effort to draw us out and tie us up with a distraction, so that someplace less visible and a lot more important can be attacked, and there won't be anyone there to defend it.

"That's why I'm following my orders, Rosenberg. I don't know what the big picture is right now, so I'm trusting that my superiors know what they're doing. And until I'm convinced otherwise, I'm going to keep on doing that."

"Well, fortunately for those people in there, I'm not a soldier, and neither are my friends," Buffy told him. "While you wait for your bosses to tell you what to do, we're going in there. If you want to help, get some more ambulances ready, and make sure the ER's are ready for whatever we find in there.

"Will, what can you guys do to help us get by the police and get in there without anyone noticing us?" the blonde asked as she turned to the apprentice witch. "If they've got a TV or a radio or anything like that in there, they'll know we're coming and start killing everyone inside."

"Uhm, well, I think we could probably use an "Obscurement" spell, so nobody will notice us going in. We're not invisible or anything, it'll just make people not really pay any attention to us. They'll just think we're supposed to be doing whatever it is we're doing," the redhead offered a bit hesitantly, as she looked over at her lover. When Tara nodded her agreement with her proposed course of action and smiled encouragingly, the former hacker visibly perked up.

"Ohhh, but the cameras will see us, though," the witch deflated noticeably as she realized that her suggestion solved only part of the problem. "The spell works on a person's perceptions, not on machines."

"Look, if you guys are sure you can get inside with whatever you're doing, I'll distract the camera crews," Forrest offered. "I can't guarantee more than a minute or so, max."

"Good, that'll be a big help," Buffy smiled her appreciation at the soldier. "Okay, guys, can anyone think of anything else we need to consider?

"Will, how long for you guys to get your mojo working?" she asked.

After a quick look over at the blonde Wiccan for confirmation, Willow said, "About three minutes, Buff."

"Okay, you guys get working on that. Faith, you and I have to take out any guards around the hostages as fast as possible. Giles, you, Will and Tara make sure you get everyone inside moving out as fast as they can. Anybody got any questions?"

Looking over and seeing the two Wiccans chanting softly as they performed an intricate series of gestures while the air around them seemed to almost shimmer with some form of energy, Forrest repressed an atavistic shiver along his spine before turning to Buffy.

"Okay, I'm gonna head over and get started on your distraction," he said. "You'll know when it's started, so don't waste any time, okay?" He gave Buffy a piercing look.

"Riley's had nothing but good words about you and your friends, so I'm counting on you people to make this work," he added, then turned and headed towards the far end of the church.

"Okay, guys, it's showtime," Faith announced as they all turned to face the building's front doors, the smile on her face that of a hungry predator about to be released into a game preserve.

As she ran through the final words of the spell, Willow noticed, just the slightest bit nervously, just how much it matched the smiles on Buffy's and Giles' faces.

While waiting impatiently for her friend to indicate that the spell was working, Buffy heard a sudden shout from the opposite side of the building, followed by a couple gunshots and screaming, and watched as the crowd of reporters and news people immediately rushed to see what was happening.

"...and by Her Will and my words, make it so!" Willow finished her incantation, and there was a faint shimmering in the air around the five of them, which seemed to instantly fade away.

"We're good, now, Buff," the redhead informed her.

"Okay, let's go, guys," the blonde Slayer announced, as she and Faith broke into a run towards the doors, a stake in each hand.

As they burst through the doors, they each broke away to one side of the vestibule, reflexively staking the vampires lounging inside without breaking stride.

Inside the church proper, they could see one vampire, a frail-looking brunette Anni DiFranco-wannabe, sitting up on the railing of the pulpit, while a second, only slightly larger vamp, who vaguely resembled Tom Cruise, was walking around the altar and staring at the large crucifix hanging in the window above it, while he droned on in an annoying, high-pitched voice reminiscent of a small Chihuahua barking at its surroundings.

"It's hard to believe. I've been avoiding this place for so many years, and it's nothing. It's nice!" he announced as he turned to face the frightened parishioners gathered in the pews.

"It's got the pretty windows, the pillars ...lots of folks to eat. Where's the thing I was so afraid of? You know, the Lord? He was supposed to be here. He gave us this address.

"Well," he sighed dramatically, "guess we'll just have to start killing off His people. See if He shows up."

As the inside vestibule door opened and Buffy and Faith stepped inside, the vamp was in the process of grabbing the minister sitting in the front pew for a snack.

Looking up and letting the man go, he smiled and moved into the center aisle.

"I told the cops, they send anyone in, I start the whole massacre thing," he grinned at them, letting his game face slip into place.

Buffy took a few steps down the center aisle, her back to the second vampire guarding the front doors, apparently not noticing him lurking in the shadows.

"Well, we're not the cops. We just came to pray," she said, pausing halfway down the aisle.

"Well, now's a good time for you to start," the Cruise look-alike replied trying to grin evilly, but only succeeding in looking more like a bad Grade-B villain.

"You're not gonna kill these people," Faith announced, stopping part-way down the left aisle.

"Yeah? Why not?" he asked, obviously bored with her statement and her presence.

"Because it's wrong," the Dark Slayer stated simply.

As she spoke, she casually swung her left arm backwards and slid the stake in her hand into the heart of the closest of the two vamps attempting to creep up on her from behind. As the second vamp charged her, she spun around to grab him and throw him into the air, across the pews and over the parishioners' heads to slam into a stone pillar, before dropping to the floor like a sack of fertilizer dumped into a garden.

At the same instant, Buffy spun around to hook kick a vamp stalking her across the face, knocking him back into another and dropping them both to the floor, then slid forward and staked both of them before they had time to realize what had happened.

Seeing this, the first vamp hopped down from the pulpit, a look of shock on her face, and the Cruise look-like regarded the two of them a bit less smugly.

"You're the Slayer," he said, looking at Buffy.

"That's right," she smiled approvingly at him, in much the same way a person would praise a puppy who has just learned to pee on the newspaper.

"I know you, I've seen you before. So, who are you?" he asked, as he turned to regard Faith.

"I've started an apprentice program," Buffy announced before Faith could reply, ignoring the annoyed look the brunette threw her.

"You think we're afraid of you? We're not afraid of anything, anymore," the vamp leader announced, turning and strutting like a peacock in front of the blonde Slayer.

"Then you can let all these people go, and all of you clowns can try and take us on," Faith suggested, trying to keep the vampires' attention focused on her and Buffy, not on the disorderly fleeing hostages being guided to the door by Giles, Willow and Tara.

"Heh. I got a better idea," the would-be hard case snorted.

"Let's do it!" he yelled as he leaped forward to attack Buffy.

As he swung at her and she ducked the punch, Buffy quickly slammed a fist into his stomach following it up with a backhand with the same fist, before shoving him against a pew to round-kick him in the face. At the same time, she heard a door open off to the left and caught a glimpse of a half dozen moving bodies charging into the main room from some adjacent areas.

Faith moved to confront the onrushing horde, eager to prove to herself that the others were correct when they insisted that, even though she had been a victim, she was still a hero. Heading towards the leader of the group for a moment before suddenly leaping to her right and punching her stake through the chest of one of the vamps on the fringe of the crowd, she then pivoted on the ball of her foot, to drive both stakes through the exposed backs of the two vamps now before her.

The pain and stiffness from her injuries were of only minor concern now as she let herself slip into the ebb and flow of the battle, her conscious mind taking a step back and letting her respond to the action around her in a completely instinctual manner. Anyone watching would have been astonished to see the tranquil, smiling expression on the brunette's face as she effortlessly wove her way through her attackers, seemingly lightly brushing her enemies' fists and kicks aside while leaving a trail of broken limbs and bodies and handfuls of dust drifting in the air behind her.

As the Tom Cruise look-alike fell, the DiFranco wannabe charged Buffy and was greeted with a spinning back kick to the chest, knocking her down. A third vamp ran along the top of a pew, heading towards her, and Buffy's round kick swept his legs out from under him, causing him to fall face first on the floor. Her attention returned to the brunette vamp again as she blocked her front kick with her lifted foot, then battered her down the aisle with a devastating three punch combination to the head and midsection.

Breaking off a peace of wood from the panel of the bible holder on the back of the front pew, Buffy casually shoved the sharp end into the brunette's chest, and grabbed hold of her jacket, swinging her around and tossing her into the air, spinning like a top, as she disintegrated into swirling dust.

With Buffy's attention momentarily distracted, the vamp leader caught hold of Buffy's stake hand and wrestled the stake from her as he shoved her against the back of the pew, where the vamp who had fallen to the floor leaped up and grabbed Buffy in a bear hug, pinning her arms to her sides.

"I have strength you couldn't dream of," the leader smiled, as he punched her in the face. "Adam has shown us the way," he announced as he punched her in the face again as she struggled to break her captor's grip.

Leaning down, he picked up Buffy's stake, holding it like a dagger, and then raised it high as he smiled at her and said, "And now there is nothing-"

He suddenly arched his back and turned to ashes, revealing Faith standing there holding her stake, her face oddly serene as she looked at the blonde.

Pivoting at the waist unexpectedly and flexing her arms, Buffy managed to dislodge the vamp's arms from around her and flipped him to the floor.

Faith held her stake out as she glided forward and Buffy took it and plunged it into the vamp's chest, looking expressionlessly at Faith as he poofed! into a sprinkling of dust that drifted leisurely down across the rug covering the floor.

After a final inspection to ensure that there weren't any more vamps hiding in any of the anterooms, they quietly slipped out one of the emergency exits in the rear of the church, after first checking for any police or news media that might be lurking around, both of them still maintaining the silence between them.


6154 Larchwood Circle
The outskirts of Sunnydale

The two-story Tudor style home was starting to look just the slightest bit unkempt, Xander thought to himself as he pulled his SUV off the street and into and around the circular driveway, finally pulling to a stop and parking in front of the closed three car garage. The grass needed to be cut, the shrubbery needed to be trimmed and some of the window shutters need to be touched up with a bit of paint.

Pausing for a moment before he got out, he applied a quick squirt of a strong-smelling mahogany scented liquid from the spray bottle he kept in the glove compartment over his torso and rubbed a bit over his hands, giving a short prayer that the fragrance would conceal the smell of gun oil from the vamps presumably currently inhabiting this house.

"Okay, man," he murmured to himself, "it's show time!"

Taking a deep breath, he slipped into his 'Patrol mode' mindset as he exited the SUV, slung his equipment-laden duffle bag over his shoulder, pulled a crumpled looking paper out of his jacket pocket and made his way up the front walk to the alcove framing the front door.

After ringing the doorbell, and hearing a melodious three note chime sound inside, he waited patiently for someone or something to answer the summons, straining his ears to catch any sound from within.

After a moment, he could hear the light tap of shoes against a wooden floor approaching the door, and a moment later, the door swung the slightest bit open, to reveal the partially shadowed profile of a young man, apparently in his late twenties. The loud and raucous sound of rock music mixing with the screech of squealing tires could be heard reverberating from the back of the house.

< The Fast and the Furious, > the brunette recognized the sound track of the movie. < At least he's got some taste in movies. >

"Yes? Can I help you?" The voice was pleasant and unthreatening, the kind of voice that belonged to a nice young man who should be helping elderly people across a busy intersection and all that other stereotypical garbage that most people would like to believe happened, as opposed to admitting that the world outside was a lot more dangerous than they wanted to know.

< Bloodsucking predators shouldn't sound like the boy next door, > the demon hunter thought to himself. It really offended his sense of propriety. With a mental shrug of his shoulders, he slipped into the next phase of his plan.

"Hi there, sir," he smiled at the person on the other side of the door.

"Sorry I'm late, but I had a flat tire and it took me a while to get the jack working properly. I would have called to let you know I was delayed, but I lost your phone number," he admitted with a sheepish grin.

"And you're here to do what?" the apparent twenty-something asked him.

"The work order says, to repair the hinges on an antique mahogany armoire. A Natalie Wilkinson called us yesterday about it," he said, holding out the crumpled paper for the house's occupant to see.

"This is the Wilkinson house, right?" he asked, knowing that the Wilkinsons actually lived at 6145 Larchwood Circle.

< Come on, come on, > he silently urged his audience. < Lunch just delivered itself, doofus. Invite me in. >

With a wide smile as he realized that someone had inadvertently transposed the numbers of the address on the work order, the 'young man' stepped back, keeping to the shadows, and said, "I'm sorry, I completely forgot that Natalie said someone would be stopping by today. Please come in."

"Thanks, man," Xander said, stepping inside and letting the guy close the door behind him. Reaching into his jacket pocket with his left hand, he held out his closed hand towards the guy as he said, "Hey, I found this lying on the driveway as I was coming in. It might be your wife's."

Reflexively reaching out, the 'homeowner' let out a short yelp and his face immediately shifted into the ridged forehead of a vampire as he quickly dropped the blessed crucifix Xander had handed him.

"What the h-, UGHHH!" he began, only to fall to his knees and clutch at his groin, as the 'repairman' kicked him square in the balls and then hit him with a hard clenched fist, laying him out flat on the floor.

A moment later, the 'repairman' was kneeling next to him, and something sharp was digging into his chest immediately above his heart .

"All right, asshole," the brunette addressed him, as the vampire tried to figure out just what the hell was going on. "How many of you bastards are in here, and where are they?"

"Fuck you, shithead," the vamp snarled back, lying motionless for the moment as he realized the stake in the guy's hand would only require minimal effort to turn him into Dustbuster fodder. "I'm not telling you anything."

"Okay, we get to do this the hard way," the brunette smiled down at him without any humor in his expression at all. The hand holding the stake didn't move in the slightest as the guy's left hand slipped under his jacket and then reappeared with a pistol.

"Before you say anything," the 'repairman' grinned down at him in a very disturbing way, "I know that most kinds of bullets can' t kill you guys.

"They can, however, hurt you. A lot," he noted, as he shoved the muzzle of the pistol directly against his captive's groin. "Want to find out how much?"

"There're three more of us. Bob's in the basement, and Erica and Wally are in the rec room watching the movie." The words were tumbling out of the vamp's mouth almost before Xander had finished speaking.

The grin on the 'repairman's' face was the last thing the vamp saw before he crumpled into dust, not even aware that he was dead again.

"Hey, Vince, who's at the door?" Someone shouted in from the rec room at the back of the house.

Replacing the Walther in its holster, Xander quickly removed the 303 from the duffle, checking to make the safety was off, before heading towards the voice.

"Hey, man, your buddy said I had to talk to you about the work order," he said loudly, holding out the paper as he stopped at the entrance to the room and quickly checked out the layout, comparing it to the plans he had obtained from the L&I city offices earlier that morning. The 303 was held down and along his side as he spoke. "He said, he'd wait to help my crew with their equipment."

The large picture window taking up the majority of the back wall was completely covered by thick dark green drapes, leaving the room in semi-darkness and allowing the wide screen TV against the far left hand wall to transform the room into a small theater. A large sofa facing the TV currently held two occupants, a male and a female vamp, who were looking back over their shoulders at him with big grins.

"He did, uh?" the male vamp on the couch said, as he started to get to his feet. "That's pretty decent of him. He's usually not big on sharing."

"Well, I think he wanted you guys to get your share of this," Xander smiled back, as he stepped in and to the side of the entrance to put a wall at his back, and lifted the 303 and began shooting.

His first shot took the male vamp in the face, knocking him to the floor screaming and clawing at his face, and Xander immediately shifted his aim, barely catching the female with a volley of four shots as she leaped over the couch towards him. The first projectile missed her completely while the second caught her in the right shoulder, with the third and fourth impacting on her torso and immediately beginning to dissolve their way through her body as she fell to the floor, screaming with pain and helpless rage.

Xander took a moment to carefully pump two more shots into the male vamp's throat and watched impassively as the body dusted as his flesh dissolved under the holy water's attack and his head separated from his body. He then carefully approached the still thrashing and screaming female, while trying to keep an eye on both of the room's entrances, and ended her misery with a quick stake through the heart.

Moving over to the far wall, he took a moment to pull the drapes down from their fixtures completely, bathing the room in the bright afternoon sunlight and eliminating one room as a possible sanctuary for the (alleged) only remaining vamp. After quickly switching out the drum magazine for a full one, he then returned to the front door, which he blocked fully open with one of the doorstops he kept in the duffle bag, then went through each room on the first floor and pulled down the curtains, depriving any possible vampires still present of a place to hide.

Recalling his first victim's revelation of his companions' locations, Xander took a moment to toss one of his holy water aerosol grenades down the basement steps, to both block the way up and to hopefully soften up anyone/anything down there, before carefully starting a recon of the upper floor.

Thirty-five long, nerve-wracking minutes later, he had completed his exploration of all of the second floor's bedrooms, baths and closets, and had satisfied himself that there was nothing, living or undead, still lurking in any of them.

That left only the basement, where 'Bob' was alleged to have been when he first began his assault on the vamps' nest. Xander was beginning to get a bit skittish about just how smoothly this whole operation had been going so far.

If the first vamp had been telling the truth (and he pretty much believed that the guy had been too motivated to lie to him), then he should have heard some kind of reaction when he had tossed the aerosol grenade down there, nearly an hour ago.

But he hadn't heard anything at all.

And since he didn't believe that 'Bob' had been busy outside working on his tan, that probably meant that something mean and nasty was waiting for him down there.

Taking a moment to put his earplugs in place, Xander grabbed one of the flash-bangs from their place in the duffle bag, then propped open the basement door and started down the steps, very slowly and very cautiously.

The stairway down clung to one of the outside walls and led down to what the builders referred to as a game room, he remembered from his study of the blueprints as he inched his way down, the 303 poised and ready to greet anything he might meet down here.

Only about half the lights were on, leaving the room he could see in semi-darkness, and encouraging him to move even more cautiously than he was doing now. A rather large couch and loveseat combination, set flush against the paneling, lined two of the walls, with a couple free-standing chairs providing additional seating towards the center of the room, while a large pool table dominated the free space on the far side of the room. A door near the corner in the far wall would lead to a large storage area, while the two partially-open folding doors on the same wall showed lots of shelving filled with various types of sports equipment. From his vantage point, he could see golf clubs, tennis rackets, some camping gear, a complete diver's mask and wet suit hanging from a hook on the back wall of the closet, assorted basketball and soccer balls and even what looked like a croquet set.

There were no obvious vampire-sized hiding places anywhere visible that he could see, and the movie soundtrack still blaring from the rec room upstairs was loud enough to cover any slight sounds an ambusher might make. Xander idly wished that he had thought to turn off the TV before coming down here, but he had been too keyed up to think about that at that time.

< Something to add to the 'To-Do Immediately' list for the next job, > he thought to himself as he carefully approached the door to the storage room. < Assuming there is one. >

Flattening himself against the wall next to the door, he reached out and slowly turned the doorknob, then quickly shoved the door open, and waited a second for any possible reaction from inside before spinning around to cover the opening with the 303. He then slipped inside, again placing his back against the wall and carefully began checking over the room's contents. The door in the far wall opened to the outside, he noted, and the rest of the room was filled with gardening and lawn care equipment, with no place large enough to conceal a human-sized creature of any type.

Despite the evidence that there was no one here, some small portion of his brain was screaming at him that he had missed something obvious, and for him to get his ass out of there, ASAP!!

As he turned and started back through the doorway into the game room, he caught a glimpse of something big and dark rushing him. As he threw himself backward into the storage room, he thumbed the pin off the flash-bang his paranoia had insisted he bring along and tossed it in the direction of the blur, clenching his eyes shut and covering his head with his arms.

The WHOOOMP! of the grenade going off was muted by the earplugs and his arms covering his eyes and ears but was still uncomfortable, although not enough to incapacitate him. He could hear someone cursing loudly and profoundly in the game room, so he rolled to his feet, grabbing the 303 as he did so and peeked around the corner into the game room.

A large figure, clad in the wet suit he had seen hanging in the closet, was stumbling around the room, pawing at its eyes and cursing vehemently. A diver's full face mask was lying on the floor near its feet, explaining the demon's surviving the holy water aerosol grenade attack.

Seeing the futility of attempting to use the 303 against vamp, Xander pulled one of the Walthers and dispassionately shot the vamp twice in the heart, then watched as it turned to a small handful of dust that slowly drifted to the floor.

"Sonofabitch," he muttered to himself as he gathered up the flash- bang and aerosol grenades and his shells and trudged upstairs, "the bastards are getting smarter all the time. Just what I need!"

Chapter 15

"I'm sorry to disturb you again, sir, but I believe you need to know the information our 'hackers' have discovered as soon as possible."

It was Stevenson again, and the look of uncertainty, disbelief and what Marchinko would have called outrage and fury, in anyone other than the restrained and somewhat laid-back Colonel, immediately set off every danger, warning and emergency signal the General had.

"What's the problem, Hank?" he asked quietly, as he rolled himself off the small, (relatively) comfortable couch in his office and rubbed his eyes, his long dormant combat reflexes waking him up immediately from the short nap he had been taking. He then headed towards the coffee pot he always kept running during operations like this.

It was only about forty hours ago that he had been notified of the first of the series of fourteen deaths involving the ADAM(H) project, and he hadn't had a chance to sleep, or even doze, for more than a total of four hours since. The possibility that a demonically and cybernetically enhanced android serial killer, created under a military black ops program and possessing tendencies towards widespread mass destruction, was running loose under its own programming protocols didn't permit anyone involved to have your typical nine to five work hours.

"I've just gotten the latest updates regarding our people's efforts to access the Initiative's records, General. Strictly for the record, sir, it seems some of our people enlisted the aid of some... independent contractors in their field, I suppose you might call them... when they ran into some problems attempting to open the databases.

"Independent contractors? What -"

The Colonel cut him off before he could ask any specific questions. "I really don't think that you should ask for any additional details, sir. Not if you prefer to avoid having to answer what might end up being awkward questions, should any Congressional committees end up in any investigations," Stephenson added parenthetically.

He then continued, "In any event, sir, a 'Lord Nikon' finally managed to open the database for them. And the information we've uncovered there would put Professor Walsh and most of her staff in Leavenworth for the rest of their lives, if they were still alive, sir."

"What exactly does that mean, Hank?" The Colonel had Marchinko's complete attention now.

Very little upset or perturbed Stevenson, which was one reason he had been put in charge of investigating the Initiative's projects. Anything that got him wound up like this would probably have caused a stroke in lesser men.

"This is still tentative, as of fifteen minutes ago, sir; we haven't been able to correlate the identification codes Walsh used to track her test subjects with any of the other databases yet, General. But a brief examination of the information in it leads me to believe that she was experimenting with recombinant DNA transfers taken from the demons captured by the Initiative's field teams - and implanting them in human beings, sir."

"She was doing WHAT?"

"The evidence we've uncovered leads me to believe Professor Walsh was involved in multiple testing programs that required the transfer and implantation of non-human DNA genomes into human test subjects, sir. It's uncertain, from the information we've recovered so far, whether the participants were aware of the full ramifications of the procedures involved, or even if they were aware of any, at all. As best we can determine at present, the testing programs were still proceeding through the time frame during which Professor Walsh and her staff were murdered."

"Walsh was experimenting on human beings with demonic DNA? Quite possibly without their knowledge or consent?" Marchinko suddenly wondered if Dr. Mengele had a daughter.

"It certainly appears that way at the moment, sir."

"Hank, if anybody ever finds a way to bring people back from the dead, remind me to request the procedure be used on Walsh, so I can have the pleasure of shooting that bitch dead, myself."

"An excellent idea, sir. I'll be delighted to help you implement it, should the opportunity ever arise."


It was early evening, with the sun just beginning to touch the horizon, when Tara found herself nervously shifting her weight from foot to foot outside Xander's apartment door, gathering together her courage for the next step she felt compelled to take for Willow and the others' sakes.

Hesitantly raising her hand for the third time in as many minutes, she prepared herself to knock - when the door unexpectedly swung open before she could touch it.

The dark-haired, dark-eyed young man she had first encountered earlier today stood facing her, his face expressionless, yet with the hint of a grin seeming to lurk in the background of those dark eyes. He was wearing a navy blue windbreaker with some kind of logo on the upper left side, and he looked a bit weary, as though he had just come in from some kind of strenuous labor or exercise, she thought to herself.

"Can I help you?" Xander asked the flustered blonde. "I mean, you've been standing outside my front door for the past six or seven minutes, so it would seem that you wanted to either ask or tell me something. Wanna let me know which?"

The hint of a grin blossomed to the full-blown thing, changing his face from daunting and foreboding to warm and friendly, to the kind of person with whom you'd feel comfortable talking about almost anything.

"Uhm, uh, my- my name is T-Tara. Tara Maclay," she stammered, her nervousness at her purpose here making her feel as though she was going to throw up. "I- I- I'm a fr-friend of W-Willow Rosenberg. I- I was here this afternoon, wh-when Faith tried to t-t-talk to you."

She hated the way her fear and nervousness was making her stammer worsen, so she took a deep breath to calm herself before continuing. The change in the brunette's demeanor as he listened to her did little to reassure her, as the light of friendliness and good fellowship seemed to dim considerably as he took in her words.

Quickly, she forced herself to forge on, before he could close the door and dismiss her.

"I- I'm sorry to b-bother you like this, my lord," she continued, her resolve now helping her to speak more coherently, "but I wanted to make sure that you understood that my friend meant no insult or disrespect to you by her actions. She was concerned for her friend's safety and well-being, and only sought to make sure he was all right."

She dropped her eyes respectfully, not wanting to seem as though she were attempting to challenge him in any way. "I beg you, p-please do not take offense at her actions, my lord."

The look of distrust and unfriendliness on the brunette's face had now been replaced by one of complete confusion and bewilderment.

"I think you must have me confused for someone else, Miss - uh, Miss Maclay," he told her as she continued to watch him a bit fearfully, " 'Cause I can't think of any reason whatsoever for you or anyone else to be calling me 'my lord'."

// That's because she wasn't talking to you. She was speaking to me, pup, // a voice suddenly seemed to echo in his head.


"Not one of our better days, hey, Will?"

Buffy had flopped limply on her bed as soon as they had returned to their dorm room, both of the girls emotionally exhausted after all of the events of the past day.

After Giles had insisted that Faith stay with him until other accommodations could be arranged, the two of them had made their goodbyes and headed towards their dorm, Willow explaining to Tara that she needed to talk 'some things' over with Buffy and arranging to meet the blonde Wicca for lunch the next day.

Both girls were emotional train wrecks; Xander's diatribe against the other members of the former Scooby Gang having shocked them deeply as they realized the depths of his anger and resentment towards them that their actions had caused.

"Definitely not, Buff," the redhead somberly agreed with her friend's evaluation. She was currently sitting on her bed, leaning back against the wall with her legs crossed under her Indian-style, her whole aura radiating sadness, depression, hurt and a host of other emotions Buffy was too tired to try to decipher.

"I never thought I would ever hear Xander talk to us that way," Buffy stated. Her voice was distant, as though it were being relayed from some remote location far away from them, and her eyes seemed to be locked on things thousands of miles away.

"Me neither. But we were bad friends, Buffy," the redhead continued. "We may have had the best of intentions, but we hurt him. A lot."

"I guess I can't argue with that, but I just wanted to keep him safe, Will," Buffy protested vaguely, staring up at the ceiling above them. She couldn't look at anyone at the moment, not until she had managed to sort out everything that was going on around her. "I didn't want him getting hurt anymore."

"Buffy -"

"He's the only one of us that has any chance of having a normal life," the blonde went on. "He's the only one who can have the whole nine yards - wife, children, the house in the suburbs, complete with a dog and a cat - everything. You, me and Giles? We're never gonna have anything like that. I'm never gonna have anything normal. Because I'm the Chosen One."

The bitterness in Buffy's voice surprised Willow. She knew her friend had originally resented her selection by whatever forces seemed to be running things 'up there,' but she had believed that the blonde had finally accepted her destiny, or at least resigned herself to her fate.

It seemed now, though, that she had erred in her analysis.

"I tried to do my best to keep him safe and away from all the craziness, and now I find out that he's not only out there fighting the bad guys by himself, but that he hates me for doing what I did. And - and he never wants to even look at me again..."

Buffy felt as though she should be crying again, but she seemed to have run out of tears. There was this big, empty-feeling space inside her, like she was missing something - her heart, maybe?

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. If that were true, then they had an eight lane superhighway running directly to the Hellmouth, here.

"I remember sort of half-waking up next to him during the night, Will," she heard herself saying, her words flowing out of her mouth without any conscious thought.

"Xander, I mean. You know how you only wake up a little bit sometimes, and then go back to sleep? I remember feeling safe and protected, like I didn't have anything to worry about, at all. He was snuggled up against my back and he had his arm around my waist like he never wanted to let me go, and it felt so nice. It didn't even occur to me to think about who I was with. I didn't want to move an inch - I just wanted to stay there and soak it all in. I was feeling happy and content, and everything felt perfect and I just went right back to sleep, 'cause I knew everything was all right," she said, her fingers drawing random patterns in the bed in front of her.

"Yeah, I can remember how I felt with Oz," Willow agreed, her eyes momentarily clouding over with her memories.

"I'd never felt that way before, afterwards," Buffy confessed.

"You know how the whole morning after thing with Angel went, and Parker was a lot the same way - just without all of the fangs and killing and other stuff, I mean. I woke up and he wasn't there; and then when he did come back, he was all polite and pleasant, but with that whole 'Thanks, and don't let the door hit your ass on the way out' along with a 'Don't call me, I'll call you - maybe' kind of tone."

"Yeah, he was a rotten bastard," Willow chimed in, doing the 'best friend' job and vilifying the guy they were discussing.

The patterns Buffy was drawing were becoming less random, Willow noticed. She seemed to be drawing an 'X' over and over again.

"Even with Riley, it was never really quite right," Buffy admitted. "I don't think we've even slept together the whole night through more than half a dozen times. Either he'd had to leave, afterwards, 'cause he had to monitor the night shift, or had to lead a patrol, or I'd get a call from Giles, or something else would come up. And I don't think he really knew what he should do or say when we were finished, anyway, 'cause he always seemed to be kinda uncomfortable, emotionally speaking, afterwards."

"How do you mean, Buff?"

"Well, it was a lot of little things. Like, when he was getting rid of the condom and stuff," she explained.

"Ewww." Willow couldn't help but giggle.

The drawing continued, with the 'X' becoming visible as a crease in the bedspread.

"It really doesn't do a whole lot for your self-image and the whole enjoyment part when you have to ask the guy if he wants to snuggle up, after, if you know what I mean," Buffy confided, the emptiness in her face evident to anyone looking at her.

Mutely, Willow shook her head in a 'no' gesture, the amusement vanishing.

"Uh, kinda don't have that problem, Buffy," she reminded her friend, unsure of exactly what she should say. "No Oz, anymore, remember? I'm kinda guy free, right now"

< And maybe, forever, > she continued silently to herself. < But hey, now is definitely NOT the time for any more revelations. I'll just tell her later. Like, in maybe thirty or forty years. >

Blissfully unaware of her roommate's mental commentary, Buffy continued her semi-monologue.

"And then I woke up from this horrible dream, and Xander was there with me, and I remem- I realized what must have happened," she caught herself before she inadvertently blurted out the full truth about what had happened, "and I guess I kinda freaked a little. Talk about embarrassing moments!"

"So, uh, what, uhm, did you, uh -" the redhead seemed to be at a loss for words momentarily.

"What did I do?" Buffy asked. "Do you mean, did I start screaming at him or anything? Not really. Well, okay, maybe I kinda did," she admitted after a moment's thought.

"I think he was getting kinda pissed off, at first, when he thought that I might have been having second thoughts about the night before, when I sorta screamed at him. But then, when I told him about Faith doing the body-switching thing - right away, he got all understanding- like. You know, the way he always does. And then he got dressed real quick and left the room so I could get dressed, and I did, and then I got out of there as fast as I could and headed over to Giles'. And, uhm, you know everything that happened after that," she concluded with a final rush of words.

"So, uh, you had to get dressed, you said, and, uh, so did Xander, too, huh?" Willow asked, seeming to fumble with her words even more than she normally did when flustered. "So, so, uh, that means you guys were, uhm, like, uh, clothes-less then? Uh, when you, uh, finally woke up, I mean?" she tried to clarify, blushing furiously and not looking directly at her roommate.

"Uh, yeah, Will," Buffy agreed, as she glanced over at her friend, wondering about the redhead's apparently extraneous questions.

"Nighttime activities of that sort are usually clothes-less. But why would you be asking me about -" she broke off in mid-sentence and her face lit up with unexpected glee, as she suddenly realized what the witch's red face and fumbling questions must be leading up to.

"Willow Rosenberg!" she said in a shocked tone of voice, as she tried to conceal the wide grin threatening to take over her face while the redhead's face grew even redder under her friend's gaze.

"I can't believe that you're asking me about something like that! A nice Jewish girl like you shouldn't be wondering about the size of her childhood best friend's body parts!" she teased, enjoying the way the witch's face was getting brighter with every passing second.

"Well, uhm, I wouldn't be, uh, normally, Buffy," Willow protested weakly, "but, well, uh, you remember how Anya was always saying things. And, and, uhm, making inappropriate comments about their sex life and everything. And I just, uhm, was wondering, you know, if maybe she had been, err, exaggerating or anything..." her voice trailed off as Buffy grinned widely at her embarrassment at even bringing up the subject.

"Well, since you put it that way, Will..." Buffy tried to tone down her grin and failed utterly. "I can understand you're being concerned."


"Well, purely in the interests of stopping any rumors that Anya might have been exaggerating about any of Xander's, uhm - qualifications - I can safely say that, from the glimpses I got, I think she was being completely truthful," she said with a smile.

"Really?" Willow's eyes opened wide.

"Actually, if anything, she might have been under-reporting things," the blonde added, as nonchalantly as she could.

"Under-?" Willow gasped, her eyes bulging to the size of billiard balls, and her face trying its best to match her hair color.

"Maybe," Buffy repeated herself, a little smile on her lips as she looked back at her friend, before she lapsed into silence.

Quiet ruled the room for a short while, the girls' mirthful expressions gradually fading away to be replaced by much more somber ones as they each considered all that happened over the course of the day.

Deep in her own thoughts and concerns over everything that had transpired, Willow finally came to a decision and looked over at her roommate.

"Buffy, there are some other things you don't know about Xander. Real important things," she stated, the intensity in her voice catching the Slayer's attention as she pondered her own thoughts.

"What is it, Will?" Buffy asked, looking up to catch her friend's eye. "Is there something else wrong I don't know about?" The worry and concern in her voice were quite evident, had anyone been watching them.

"Well, when I first spoke to Giles, yesterday," the redhead began, "he was telling me, at first, about how he had originally been surprised about the whole Hyena Spirit incident, because he really didn't think that Xander would have been a suitable candidate for possession. 'Cause he didn't think Xander had the qualities that a Primal Sprit would be looking for in someone to possess."

"What did he mean by that?" Buffy asked, her brow furrowed, as she thought back to the incident in their sophomore year.

"He said that a Primal would ideally be looking for someone with 'the best combination of health, intelligence, pro-survival capabilities, ruthlessness and pack, or in this case, family loyalty,' to possess, so that the pack would have the best chances of survival," the young Wicca quoted the ex-librarian's words for her friend.

"It's kind of a basic magic principle, Buff," she elaborated, when she saw the lack of understanding in her friend's eyes. "Like seeks like. Whenever any magic thing gets summoned, they try to find the things most like them that are in the area, to help tie them to this plane more securely."

"And Giles didn't think Xander was at all suitable to be possessed," Buffy said flatly.

"No, he didn't," Willow agreed. "He said that, without meaning any slur to Xander, he just didn't think he was smart or tough or ruthless enough for the Spirit to find him attractive."

"Well, obviously, he was wrong," Buffy noted, " 'cause Xander did get possessed. Still not seeing what your point here is, Will. Or Giles', either."

"That's because you and Giles don't really know Xander as well as you think you do, Buffy," her roommate replied.

"I'm breaking a promise I made to Xander a long time ago by telling you this stuff, Buffy," Willow told her. "But it's important for you to really understand why Xander does everything he does for us."

The redhead's face was more intent and serious than any other time her roommate could recall seeing.

"This easygoing, joking, funny guy Xander that everyone sees isn't the real Xander," Willow stated. "No, that's not right! What I really mean is - he's not the real, whole Xander. That's just the part of him that Xander lets everyone see - the one he wants everyone to think is all of him. Inside, there's a part of him that's really scary, Buffy.

"Not monster or vampire kind of scary," she reassured her friend, as she saw the blonde's mouth open to protest. "I mean, scary when you finally see just how serious and focused and determined he can be, when he decides that he's going to do something, or not let something happen.

"I've had the funny guy-Xander that everyone sees around me for so long, that I let myself forget about the scary part," the hacker turned Wicca admitted, "because the scary guy-Xander does kind of scare me a little. Not because I think he'd ever hurt me or anyone he cares about," she hastened to add, "but because of what I think he'd be willing to do if he thought it was necessary to help someone he cared about. Someone he loved. Like me.

"Or you."

Willow's eyes seemed to almost be probing deep into her soul, Buffy thought, as she looked at her friend. Like she was looking for something she wasn't sure she'd seen yet.

"So what, exactly, is it you have to tell me, Will?" Buffy asked, steeling herself for whatever it might be she was going to learn.

"Did you know that Xander had a sister, Buffy? Her name was Siobhan," the former, and hopefully soon-to-be-again, best-friend- from-kindergarten of Xander Harris began her explanation of what she believed formed the basic driving force behind the joking, funny, donut-getting, currently expatriate member of the Scooby Gang.

The petite blonde sharing her room listened wordlessly through the entire recitation as her friend told her about Siobhan and her fate, and then, later, the junior high school incident with the football players. The Slayer's tears ran unchecked over her cheeks at times, and she sat silently for several long minutes after her friend finished, mulling over everything she had heard.

Finally, Buffy spoke.

"Oh god, what am I gonna do? How am I gonna fix this, Will?" she asked quietly.

"I don't think Xander's willing to even acknowledge my existence right now, let alone sit down and talk to me long enough for me to apologize to him. Not after everything I've done. We've got to get him back in our lives, somehow. Just the thought that he hates me now makes me feel like I'm gonna throw up," she admitted, her eyes again misting over as she considered all of the consequences that her attempts to keep her friend out of danger and eliminate any involvement in their fight against the forces of darkness had produced.

She had done her best to keep him safe, and all she had managed to accomplish was to drive him away from her and further into the dangers that surrounded them all.

Sometimes, it seemed, you were screwed no matter what you tried to do.

Her fingers went back to unconsciously etching an 'X' into the bedspread.


"Can you tell me why I suddenly need to have another physical before I can do anything else?" Riley asked the E-6 who was currently taking all of his vitals.

"Because Colonel Stephenson said he wanted you to get one, sir," was the laconic reply he received.

"Well, did he say why he wants it?" he persisted, a combination of annoyance and mild concern/worry evident in his tone as he spoke.

"I don't know how you do things in your outfit, sir," the technician paused her efforts for a moment to look over her shoulder at him, "but around here, when an officer tells me to do something, I don't ask him why he wants it done. I just do it. Sir."

Riley absorbed the mild reprimand without a word, mainly because he knew the tech was right. If and when the Colonel wanted to explain himself, he would. Until then, all he could do was sit around and wait for orders. And wonder just what it was the Colonel wanted these test results for.

One of the problems he'd noticed about Maggie's rather autocratic management style was that she didn't tell anyone anything she didn't think they needed to know about what the group and the lab boys and girls were doing. Hell, sometimes she didn't tell them things they DID need to know about what was going on, so he wasn't at all confident or reassured about what she had told the brass about the various programs the Initiative presently had running.

He was beginning to worry about his people. And himself, of course.

Maggie usually distributed the supplements once a week, and it had been five days since their last issue. He knew, intellectually, that they really didn't need to receive them more often than once every ten days, but he'd feel better if he could be certain that he wasn't going to be around here any longer than was absolutely necessary. Things were going to be tough enough to explain to a bunch of bureaucrats as it was, without having a potentially homicidal, demonic, cybernetic android running around loose in your home base, with the local authorities not aware of anything out of the ordinary.

Actually, it was probably better that way, he reflected, at least in this case. The Sunnydale police force rarely rose to the level of 'incompetent' on a good day. Not having them involved with the efforts to track down ADAM(H) at least assured the Initiative that they wouldn't be dealing with a whole town of Barney Fife-clones.

He just hoped he'd get the chance to explain before things started going down the toilet.


"What the hell?!" Xander exclaimed as he stepped back and glanced around the room, looking for the source of the voice he had just heard. A lethal-looking black pistol had seemed to materialize in his right hand as he had stepped back, Tara noticed, and she remained motionless outside his front door, uncertain of exactly what she could, or should, do right then.

// Relax, pup, there's nothing to be concerned about. Just invite the girl in and close the door. You don't want anybody walking by to think you're crazy, now do you? // the voice suggested.

// All right, then, if you don't mind looking like a poor host, I'll do it myself, // the voice said, after a minute had passed and Xander hadn't moved, except to keep looking around for the source of the words he was hearing in his head.

// Come on in, lass, // Tara heard someone, or some thing say to her.

// The pup is a bit concerned that he's gone 'bugfuck,' I believe the expression is. He's usually got much better manners, I assure you, // she heard the voice tell her, a tone of amusement quite evident in its resonance.

"Who the hell do you think you are, to be making comments about my manners? And who the hell are you, anyway, to be talking in my head?" Xander demanded as he calmed himself and glanced back over at the blonde, who was still standing quietly in the doorway.

// The girl has nothing to do with you hearing me, pup, // he 'heard' the voice say. // Or more precisely, she is not responsible for your being able to hear me. I could have spoken to you even if she wasn't present. //

"All right then, who or what are you, exactly, and how come you can talk to me like this?" Xander repeated his initial question aloud. There didn't seem to be any sort of threat immediately apparent, so he returned the Walther to its holster. And since he could see the sun was still partially visible in the sky over her shoulder, he warily indicated for Tara to enter and shut the door after her.

"Have a seat," he invited her to sit with a wave of his hand towards the chairs and sofa in the small living room area of the apartment.

"All right, who are you and what's going on?" he asked again. "And I want an answer in twenty words or less, whoever, or whatever you are," he added, memories of some of Giles' 'simple' explanations running through his mind.

// I'm an elemental spirit and I've been residing in you since the zookeeper cast his summoning spell two years ago, // came the smug and amused answer from whoever or whatever it was he could hear inside his head, along with the very strong impression of someone deliberately counting off the words on their fingers as they spoke.

"Can you tell me exactly what in heaven's name is going on here, Miss Maclay?" he asked as he turned to address her as he took a seat in the chair directly opposite her spot on the couch.

"From my viewpoint, it would seem to me that I've started hearing voices in my head immediately after you show up at my apartment. I'd really appreciate hearing any explanation you'd care to offer."

// What's the matter, pup? Didn't like the explanation I gave you? //

"You just sit back and keep quiet," Xander immediately replied, and he received a definite impression of amusement and approval that seemed to echo back to him.

"Not you," he said to Tara, as he saw her mouth abruptly snap shut as she was about to answer him. "I was talking to the voice in my head.

"Did that just sound as strange to you as it did to me?" he almost immediately asked, after thinking about what he had just said.

The blonde nodded her agreement, seeming to concentrate for a moment as she leaned forward to look at him, her brow furrowing as she did so.

"You- you're completely separate," she commented wonderingly as she sat back against the couch.

"Who, or what, are you talking about?" Xander asked, returning her stare.

The blonde immediately dropped her eyes as she realized what she was doing, turning a bright red as she blushed with embarrassment.

"I'm s-sorry," she mumbled an apology. "I - I didn't think th-that was possible."

"Who's completely separate, and why didn't you think what was possible?"

"One - one of the Elders resides w-within you," Tara replied. "U- usually, they take over completely when th-they inhabit someone. I didn't know they could ju-just reside inside someone, like he's doing now."

"What's an Elder, and what do they usually do when they take over?"

"Well, uhm, the Elders are, uh, ex-extremely ancient and, uhm, powerful spirits," the blonde seemed to stumble a bit verbally as she tried to describe beings with words inadequate to even begin to describe them.

"My muh- mother told me about th-them, when I was little. They were, were here before anything else was, she s-said, and they cooperated with, uhm, other beings to, to make the first cre-creatures, at the beginning. They don't, don't relate well to us, to, uhm, people, I mean, because they've lived so long, they, they get bored real quick, I guess," she theorized. "My mother, she said that they created the Pri-Primal Spirits, and that sometimes they come in their place, if someone tr-tries to summon them. They t-take over the body of the, the summoner, she said, and they re-regress the person back to, to their animal state, and then leave them like that, as p-punishment."

// The witch is quite knowledgeable for one so young, // Xander heard the voice say. // It wouldn't hurt you to pay some attention to what she tells you. //

"So, you're an Elder, huh?" Xander said, addressing the voice directly.

// That's one of the names I've been called, // the voice agreed. Xander had a distinct mental impression of someone vast and old peering at him over the rims of a pair of old bifocals as the voice spoke to him.

"Well, what's your name? Who should I tell the Ghostbusters you are, when I give them a call?" the brunet asked, unable to refrain from his trademark smart remarks. He could hear the blonde gasping in shock as she listened to him speaking to the spirit.

// You couldn't pronounce or even recognize my full name, pup, // the voice said, as his mind was filled with an incredibly multi-layered, complex overlay of concepts involving the Hunt, the Scent of the Prey, the Joy of Battle, incredible Sensory awareness, the thrill of the Chase, the unbelievably delightful first taste of the blood of his Kill, the competition with Others of his Kind to determine who was the First among Them, and a thousand others that he couldn't begin to grasp. But strongest of all the feelings/ concepts/identities was that of Predator, the one at the top of the food chain.

// Best that you pick out a name for me, pup, // it suggested.

"So you're like the ultimate predator, huh?" Xander stated, trying to encompass the sheer vastness of the spirit's self-concept. "The Ultimate Top of the Spiritual Food Chain? The Alpha Wolf of all Alpha Wolves?"

// That's one way to view it, // the voice agreed. // Not entirely correct, but not entirely wrong, either. //

"Okay, then. I'll call you Wolfgang," Xander said, a grin sliding across his face as he spoke. "That okay with you?"

// That would be fine with me, pup, // 'Wolfgang' agreed, with a hint of a smile in his 'voice.'

Chapter 16

"Okay then, Wolfgang, what the hell have you been doing, hanging around in my head for the better part of the past three years?"

Xander's question was concise and direct, while still maintaining the slightest air of 'devil-may-care' insolence and the 'been there, seen that, didn't bother with the tee shirt 'cause I don't care a whole lot' attitude that he had tried to establish as his trademark during his high school years. Whether it had worked was an entirely different question.

// Well, to put it in the easiest translatable terms, pup, I've been on vacation, // came the amused reply.

"What?!" The expatriate Scooby's response was long on surprise, but a bit short on meaningful content.

// I said, I've been on vacation, pup. You know, going to someplace far away and exotic, to see fun things and get out of the 'same old, same old' routine? You did the same thing just last year, when you ended up in Oxnard, remember? The words 'Fabulous Ladies Night Club' come to mind, also. // The barely suppressed laughter in the mental voice was clearly evident now.

"We do NOT need to mention those words again. Ever. Understand?" was Xander's immediate reply.

// If you insist. //

The brunet could feel Wolfgang 'grinning' at him as he answered, but decided to ignore it for now, primarily because he couldn't think of anything he could do about it, anyway.

"All right, first question. Why in god's name would you pick the Hellmouth of all places to go for a vacation?" he asked, his disbelief plainly evident in his tone of voice.

// I didn't actually intend to do so, initially, // Wolfgang told him. // I happened to be in the vicinity when that shaman of yours tried to summon some of my offspring, so I followed along to see exactly who and what was calling them. After I arrived here, I realized exactly what this place was, so I decided to hang around for a while, as you would phrase it, because interesting things are always happening around any type of dimensional gate, especially ones like a Hellmouth. You wouldn't believe some of the interesting creatures and battles I've seen take place around. Some of them surprised even me, pup, // the Spirit admitted with a mental grin that reminded Xander of one of his own trademarked expressions.

// In any event, // 'Wolfgang' continued, // I found myself here and, as your witch here said earlier, I'm not particularly fond of other creatures summoning my children so that they can empower themselves at my get's expense. //

Xander could 'feel' a mental change of expression, as Wolfgang continued. // I was going to regress all of you to little better than the hyenas your shaman was using as a focus, but when I realized that you children were not to blame for the summoning, I decided to wait and determine who was actually responsible, so that I could punish him properly. //

"And for that you had to possess me?"

// You were the best of the lot, boy. Which isn't saying much, considering what else was available, // the Spirit told him, candidly. // I wouldn't sully myself by inhabiting any of those others who were inside the circle. I do have certain standards I maintain, you know. //

Xander's bitter snort of laughter startled Tara as she sat quietly on the couch, trying to remain unnoticed as she listened to the conversation taking place before her.

"Well, they can't be very high then, can they?" he mumbled under his breath.

// Listen up, pup! // Wolfgang projected the command forcefully enough that the blonde visibly jerked back against the sofa in surprise at his indignation. // Regardless of what you may think of yourself, my standards are quite rigorous. You are smarter, more courageous and infinitely more loyal than any of the other prospects, the other children that were there, could ever conceive of! //

//Understand me, fully, pup! // the Spirit continued. // I could have maintained myself here on your plane without having to take possession of your body without much appreciable effort on my part, but doing so enabled me to interact with my embodied children more easily, and gave me the opportunity to investigate and experience your world on a more personal level, too. //

"You make it sound like you were on a tour," Xander protested angrily , "and not like you hijacked my body, ate the school mascot, raw, tried to rape one of my best friends and generally ran rampant through the town! And that's not even considering the rest of the Pack killing and eating Principal Flutie - who was actually a pretty decent and caring guy, for a school principal."

Xander looked mad, something which the blonde witch found quite frightening, considering who, or what, he was speaking to.

"And just what, exactly, would you consider to be bad manners? Not cleaning the carcass up afterwards? Letting the blood congeal on the floor?" the brunet demanded, the long standing, deeply rooted anger he had buried beginning to surface, now that he had a clear target to unload on.

// I'll admit, things didn't work out the way I originally intended, pup, // Wolfgang replied, // but, in my defense, I must say that I was somewhat unfamiliar with your people's mind/soul/body interface. The handful of humans I've encountered in the past were much simpler in their approach to life, and that was several thousand of your years ago. Your species has changed - improved - significantly in the epoch since I was last here. Much faster than any other species I've come across. // The voice actually sounded a little sheepish. // Usually, it takes a species ten to fifteen thousand of your years to progress as much as yours has done in a mere three thousand or so. //

"Well, thanks oh so very much," Xander sneered. "That makes it all okay, then. It wasn't your fault, you just didn't understand how to drive the car, once you were behind the wheel."

// The fact is, I was never in control of your body at all, pup, // Wolfgang admitted, surprising the youth with the revelation.

// When I tried to take over, all I ended up doing was taking control away from your conscious mind and isolating it. Your subconscious mind took over almost immediately and was in charge, while I tried to figure out how to assume control. I'll admit there might have been some minor emotional carry-over through your connections to the other possessed children that may have influenced you somewhat, but I did not make you do anything back then, or at any other time since. //

Xander was, for the moment, thunderstruck.

// Everything that you did, everything you thought, everything you said back then, was directed by your own...id? I believe that is the correct clinical terminology, // the Spirit stated.

"WHAT?! No! You're wrong! You're lying! I couldn't done that! That couldn't have been me! I'd never act anything like that! Not to Will! And especially not to Buffy!" Xander's denials were emphatic, immediate and delivered quite loudly, as though increasing the volume of his response could help deny any possibility of the Spirit being correct.

// Believe what you'd like, pup, but you should also ask yourself this - what reason do I have to lie? Why should I even care to make the effort? // the Spirit asked, leaving the young man speechless, for the moment.

// The truth is, I had nothing to do with anything that happened, even after the exorcism ceremony took place, //the Spirit went on. // Just hanging around waiting to see what happened next has been plenty interesting enough. You and your pack lead the most interesting lives I've seen in a very long time. //

A pause. // Think over everything that happened since I arrived in this plane, and then tell me if you ever really did anything contrary to your nature. You've always striven to protect your pack, pup, // the Spirit stated unequivocally.

// Which was precisely one of the reasons you caught my attention initially. You've never backed down from anyone or anything that threatened any member of your pack, regardless of what it might be. You were the one who sought out your Slayer's pet vampire when she left everyone to confront the Master in his caves, remember, when everyone else refused to do anything. //

Xander shuddered at the long-ago memories the reminder brought back.

The fear at what he might find as he followed Angel underground.

The anguish and despair upon seeing the Slayer's body lying in the pool of water.

// I'll admit, I did help you out then, by helping you track the vampire to his lair, // Wolfgang's comment brought his attention back to the present, // but that was only to help you find him, so you could locate your Slayer. I was actually hoping to get there sooner than we did, so that I could see the battle between the Slayer and the Master, // 'Wolfgang' confessed, // but you eventually did manage to resuscitate her so she could continue the fight, so everything turned out well enough in the end. //

// What? // the Spirit asked, at the brunet's expression of shock at this revelation. // You never wondered how you knew where to find the vampire, pup? Come on now, pup. You didn't check with anyone else, not even that lowlife Willie creature at his bar. You just stormed out of the library and headed right to his apartment after you learned of the Slayer's departure. You went directly to somewhere you had never seen or known of, before. //

"Uh, yeah, I suppose," Xander admitted, a look of confusion on his face. "I, uh, just never gave it any thought before. I guess, I must have thought I remembered hearing Buffy mention where he lived or something..."


Tara watched silently but attentively from her position on the couch, as Xander argued with Wolfgang, the intensity of the youth's desperate denials flaring, to her empathic sensitivity, like a beacon against the bland emotional landscape surrounding them.

The suggestion that he had been acting on his own unconscious impulses when he had apparently tried to attack both Willow and Buffy some three years before had greatly upset him, judging by his strength of his response to Wolfgang's statements.

The guilt he felt about his actions, however misplaced it might be, was staggering, hitting her empathic shields with an almost palpable force. If she hadn't already been sitting down, Tara knew she most likely would have staggered momentarily.

Although she was not actually telepathic, the acuity of the blonde Wicca's empathic perception enabled her to differentiate the slight shifts in the brunet's emotional states and correlate them with the reactions she had witnessed earlier in the day, when he had interacted with the other members of the Scooby Gang.

The strength and intensity of Xander's emotions had startled Tara during her first encounter with him, the contrast with his seemingly stolid and placid demeanor akin to the differences in illumination at high noon and midnight.

Joy. Appreciation. Anger. Attraction. Lust. Love. Loyalty. Disappointment. Vengeance. Guilt.

Each one separate, and at the same time, blended in with every other feeling to form a mélange that filled him completely, to the point of overflowing.

As she watched the interchange between the Elder and the young man she had only met for the first time earlier this afternoon, Tara could 'see' the all the varied emotional hues permeating the youth's thoughts about the members of his erstwhile 'pack.'

Strongest/brightest of all was the love he felt for all of them: the Englishman who was both mentor and surrogate father; the redheaded hacker/witch who was his sister and sibling in all but blood; even the brunette Slayer he had taken down so quickly and ruthlessly earlier this afternoon when she had reached out to touch him had found a place in his heart.

But it was the love the alienated Scooby felt for the blonde Slayer, however, that almost overwhelmed her in its depth and purity.

His attraction and lust, in varying degrees, for the three women was also clearly evident to anyone who could see into his soul. Although the Wicca had to admit, with a barely acknowledged sigh of relief to herself, that his desire for Willow was now almost completely sublimated into his feelings of sibling affection/attraction.

Loyalty to all of the members of his 'Pack' was mixed in there, too, the unquestioned, uncompromising belief that their lives and health and safety overrode any other possible considerations, even that of his own safety or life.

Maybe especially his own life. The witch set that thought aside for a moment.

Accompanying all of the above emotions, though, was a deeply felt disappointment, anger and resentment of their treatment of him, combined with a feeling of betrayal and abandonment, along with a reluctantly acknowledged, almost subliminal urge to hurt them back so that they could feel the same pain and anguish he was feeling now. To make them feel as abandoned as he felt.

Guilt was yet another aspect of the brunet's emotional matrix she could discern, for whatever actions he had taken years before with Willow and Buffy; actions that he now intensely regretted and for which he now seemed to want to apologize.

The man slouched in the chair across from her was a much more complex person than he first appeared, Tara realized, and any actions she might need to take, in order to help her lover reestablish her friendship with her former childhood companion, were going to require much thought and consideration.

She only hoped that they all had the time available that this was going to require.

As the discussion between the two other beings present seemed to peter out, at least for the moment, Tara gathered her courage and interjected herself into the conversation.

"I - I beg your p-pardon, my lord," she stated politely, inclining her head in a gesture of respect, "but I would greatly a-appreciate your t-telling me if you were offended by my friend's actions. And wh-what we need do to gain f-forgiveness, if you are."

"You've got nothing to worry about, Miss Maclay," Xander told the blonde, looking up from his contemplation of his clasped hands and answering before the Spirit could respond. "Wolfgang's not offended in the least. Everything's cool with you and the others."

// And who are you to say what I am or am not offended by, pup? // Wolfgang immediately demanded, his 'voice' a muted roar in the two humans' minds that momentarily drowned out everything else.

"Come on now! Who are you kidding?" Xander instantly snapped back, not intimidated by the Spirit in the least, as he immediately sprang to the defense of his Pack, whether he consciously realized it or not.

"I'm thinking you probably got a charge out of the way both Will and Miss Maclay acted today. You're supposed to be the ultimate Lord of the Hunt, Head of the Pack and all that other stuff, right? You respect courage and loyalty above pretty much everything else, and that's exactly what everyone showed by their actions this afternoon.

Tara was again terrified with Xander's disrespect, but again could not bring herself to call him on it.

"So, bottom line, for you to say you were offended by their behavior would be like Michael Jackson saying he's offended by the presence of little kids," he concluded, a wry grin on his face.

"Although I have to say," he immediately added, "after using that analogy, Ewww!"

// Interesting, // the Spirit murmured. // So... if I were to admit that, will you admit, at least to yourself, that those same actions would indicate that these people still care about you? //


Tara thought for a moment that the sheer volume of Xander's reply had literally shaken the walls of the rooms around her.

// You heard me quite plainly, pup, // came the instant response. // If I admit the courage and loyalty of your pack's actions, will you admit that those same actions indicate that they still care greatly about you? //

"One's got nothing to do with the other," Xander automatically protested, with almost a snarl. "They only showed up because they thought I might possibly be a threat. Otherwise, they would have just continued to ignore me."

// If they had really thought that, and they truly no longer cared about you, they would have handled things quite differently and much more decisively, pup. And you know that, // the Spirit pointed out, in what Tara would have described as an almost kindly tone, were it said by anything other than an immortal Spirit possibly older than her species.

"They do care about you," the blonde blurted out, breaking into the conversation, then blushed as the attention of both speakers turned to focus on her.

"A-all of them. Th-they care about you," she expanded when neither immediately replied to her exclamation. "W-Willow, Buffy, Mr. Giles, Faith, they all care about you. A lot," she informed the brunet who was staring expressionlessly at her, while internally, his emotions were churning wildly.

"They were all w-worried about you," she went on. "Faith wouldn't stay at the, the hospital because she wanted to, to find you. So she could apologize. For what she did last night."

The blonde was blushing furiously under their combined stare, but she refused to be cowed, and continued her explanation.

"And, and last night w-wasn't entirely Faith's fault," she went on. "Sh-she really was under the influence of a sp-spell."

Speaking as earnestly as she could, the young witch began explaining about the Labyrinth spell to Xander, emphasizing the inability of the spell's target to judge the actual right or wrong of an action except in how it related to the target's perception of what their master desired.

"And, and on the videotape, the M-mayor told her what the katra was for and he, uhm, he s-suggested she use it to go out in a bl-blaze of glory," Tara clarified the purpose of the device for her audience.

"And since th-the Labyrinth spell makes the target w-want to please their master, Faith took his words as a co-command to switch bodies with Buffy. She really hasn't had any c-conscious control over what she's been doing since she saw that t-tape. Everything she's done, she did b-because the Mayor told her to do it, or because she thought he would w-want her to do it.

Xander still said nothing, as Tara added hurriedly, "She may have s- switched bodies with Buffy, but she's not any more r-responsible for that than a pu-puppet is responsible for what the puppeteer m-makes it do," she told him, catching and holding his gaze as she spoke in defense of the dark-haired Slayer.

"And, and no one told her to do anything w-with you," she concluded, her earnest expression doing more to convince Xander of the truth of her words than the explanation itself.

The blonde witch then added the coup-de-grace.

"That was all her own choice."

And that, Xander realized as he listened to the blonde Wicca seated on his couch, was the crux of the matter.

If he believed what the witch was telling him (and he was coming away with a strong inclination that she was speaking the truth), then the way Faith had behaved with him the previous night had resulted entirely from her own feelings.

And, reflecting back on everything they had done last night, he had to wonder if the woman he had been with actually did care about him, was, perhaps, interested in him in a more than purely physical way. After all, the woman in his bed hadn't just jumped his bones and then been done with him, shoving him out of the room as the Dark Slayer had done the year before.

Admittedly, he had taken 'Buffy' by surprise when he had abruptly ceased his detailed oral exploration of her body before she could cum and then crawled atop her to pin her to the mattress. The look of surprise, delight and satisfaction in her eyes as he entered her brought a smile to his face even now. Her response had been to pull him tight against her, locking her legs around his hips and urging him on with her moans, as their tongues had ceaselessly battled and they moved against each other more and more frantically until they had both finally achieved satisfaction.

Afterwards, they had snuggled against each other for a short while, regaining their breath before beginning intimate explorations of each other's body that had lasted for what had seemed an eternity of pleasure to him before they had finally fallen asleep in each other's embrace.

And it had been the blonde's low-voiced declaration of love for him that had been responsible for the brunet's beatific smile as he finally slipped into the most contented slumber of his life, he recalled.

If, as this girl insisted, Faith had been acting on her own and not under any form of compulsion from the Mayor or anyone else, why would she tell him she loved him?

Had she been planning some intricate form of manipulation, wanting him to think that she really cared about him so that he would help her out, help her leave town before anyone else would find out that she had stolen Buffy's body? Could Faith be that calculating that she could and would try to emotionally maneuver him by making him think that she, as Buffy, loved him?

At first thought, the answer was, 'Yes, of course, she could.' At least, the 'old' Faith the Scooby Gang had known could have done it without a second thought.

Whether this 'new' Faith could behave in the same manner was something he didn't know with any degree of certainty

Although Faith most definitely preferred the most direct method of handling matters, she was certainly smart enough to realize that she might be able to influence him to help her by appealing to his widely recognized and acknowledged (by apparently everyone except the focus of his former obsession) desire for Buffy's love and affection.

Yes, that scenario was quite possible. But, thinking back, when he considered at just exactly what moment he had heard her tell him that... he was inclined to doubt that she had been able to concentrate sufficiently to allow her to wait for that precise moment to declare her love for him.

The truth of the matter was that he simply didn't know enough about the whole situation to judge correctly. At least not at the moment, he didn't.

It now seemed that a lot of things weren't nearly as straightforward as he had thought they had been.

Especially with the revelations he had received about his own behavior three years before, when the Spirit had first taken up residence.

He had considered himself just another victim then, a helpless prisoner forced to stand back and watch while the force controlling his body had nearly raped the woman he loved.

And now, according to Wolfgang's account of the situation, it had been his own subconscious, his own personal Dark Side that had been controlling his body.

Making him not a victim, but the perpetrator of an act for which he would have absolutely no compunctions castrating another man for performing, should he ever stumble upon someone attempting it on any woman, let alone someone he cared about.

If he had been so extremely wrong about that situation, how many others might he have been wrong about, too?

This situation was going to take a lot of thought.


"Look, I'm telling you the truth, you bloody moron. Why in Satan's name would I make up a story like that?" Spike practically snarled at the other vampire seated across from him at one of the rear booths at Willy's.

< Great Satan, whoever sired him must have sucked all of his brains out before they turned him! > Spike reflected, as he waited for a reply. < If this Nails wanker is typical of Farrenworth's crowd, I'll have a better chance of success if I bathed myself in holy water at noon in front of the diocesan basilica while Dru and her doll watched and sang an arpeggio for me. And the sad part is that she WOULD sing if I asked. >

"I am not challenging anything you've said, Spike," the rather innocuous looking vamp across from him answered politely. "I'm just trying to visualize all of the ramifications your story engenders, and determine how it might affect any of the plans that Mr. Farrenworth currently has in operation. He would be quite displeased should it disrupt any of them and we not have contingency plans prepared and in place to circumvent the disruption."

Nails paused for a moment to scribble something down in the leather- bound daytimer he had produced from an inside jacket pocket at the beginning of their meeting before resuming his discussion with the chipped vampire.

"Actually," the grey-suited demon continued, when he had completed jotting down his notes, "the only thing that I still have any question about is, what exactly are you getting out of this? No offense, but you're not exactly known for your altruism in the demon community now, are you? You have to be profiting from this scheme in some manner, or you would not have spent the effort necessary to bring to it Mr. Farrenworth's attention."

Spike stared at the demon sitting across from him, not believing that he would dare speak to him in such a manner.

< Just who does this bloody ponce think he is? > he asked himself. < I should rip his eyes out, talking to me like that. >

Nails then addressed the blond-haired demon a final time, before he could reply.

"So, Spike, once again, please tell me exactly what it is you are getting out of this operation you've proposed. Aside from the gratuitous violence and chaos that will certainly follow, that is," he clarified his question.

"And please note that if you lie to me about anything, I will simply recommend to Mr. Farrenworth that we refuse to help you and leave you to your own devices. Should that occur, I am also fairly certain that Mr. Farrenworth will then have me put out word in the demon community that he does not approve of you."

Looking up from his note-taking, the minion held the blonde vampire's gaze as he spoke in a clear, precise manner to him.

"While I am sure that you can continue to exist without Mr. Farrenworth's blessing, so to speak, Spike, I am not quite as sure that you would be able to continue pursuing a livelihood in Sunnydale, since I believe that most of the demon community here are currently more afraid of Mr. Farrenworth than they are of you." He kept his tone businesslike.

"Now, are you ready to answer my question?"

Setting aside his anger at the way this poof had dared speak to him for the moment, the Bleached Bad paused for a moment to swallow a mouthful from the mug of blood and bitters on the table before him, while deciding exactly how much he had to tell this Nancy-boy sitting opposite him in order to ensure the help he was asking for.

Granted, he could probably pull the deal off without Farrenworth's assistance, but he couldn't think of any general in history who had ever complained about, or been defeated by, having too many troops and resources available to rain down upon his enemies.

Then there was also the fact that this Farrenworth bloke had managed to quietly set up the organization here in Sunnydale that he had both under the nose of the Slayer, and while he, Spike, had been out of town.

Which indicated that he was most likely something more than your average, run-of-the-mill vampire. If the bloke really was as smart as he seemed to be, it would be best to start learning as much about him and his organization as he could, as quickly as possible.

In any event, the more bodies between him and the enemy, the better, as far as he was concerned. Let someone else die killing the Initiative's toy soldier boys.

He intended to be around long after the battle was over, to reap the spoils of victory which would, eventually, make him king of all he surveyed. And this poof in front of him and his boss, regardless of who or what he might be, would be just two more piles of dust on the ground, if they stood in Spike's path on the way to his vision.

Actually, on second thought, this one was definitely going to be dustbuster fodder. The only question now was, when it was going to happen.

"All right," he finally conceded, "those wankers put some kind of bleedin' chip in my head that prevents me from killing humans. Killing demons and other non-human things isn't a problem at all," he warned the Nancy-boy, "but I can't even think about draining a human without feeling like my brain's been set on fire!" he admitted, his voice pitched too low for it to carry past to the other patrons.

"All these Happy Meals on two legs wandering around oblivious to anything, and I can't even nibble on any of 'em, let alone kill one! I'm looking to get the blasted thing taken out, so I go back to the good old days of blood, gore and terror. And once I'm back, I'm gonna rip the entrails out of the bitch in charge and anyone else involved in putting that thing in my head," he swore.

"They're gonna learn first hand how I earned my name, mate! Demons generations from now are gonna know who I am, and wish they could be half as bad as I am!" the blonde vampire snarled as he thought of the humans who had emasculated him with their electronic wizardry.

"I plan on turning a couple of these wankers, and then have them drag me back to their headquarters after 'capturing' me. After that, while the rest of their group is either on patrol or being distracted by me and my stories of a demon army that's going to be coming after them to rescue me, my guys will disarm the base's security systems, unlock all of the prisoners' cell doors and the outer doors and entrances and then wait for your people and the other demons that are looking to take them out to show up, trash the place, and kill anything that moves. We'll turn the head people to get any information that we might need, and then dust them once we're done with them."

"I see. Very daring and relatively straightforward," was Nails' only comment, as he jotted down a few additional notes in his daytimer. "Well then, Spike, I'll convey this information back to Mr. Farrenworth and see what he wants to do.

"Personally, based on what you've told me, I think he'll be in favor of supporting you," the smaller demon confided, "since it will help maximize the confusion in the area and will, additionally, eliminate any organized opposition this Initiative group you described has developed. I'll get back to you as quickly as I can, Spike, once Mr. Farrenworth makes a decision. Until then, have a nice night."

The conservatively dressed business-demon then made his way out of the bar, leaving the chipped vampire alone at his table. A few moments after the smaller demon's departure, a vampire wearing the body of an attractive black woman approached the table and slipped into the vacant chair.

"Word around town is that you've got something big in the works," she said, in response to the blonde's inquisitive look. "My master would like to speak with you about what he believes would be a mutually beneficial endeavor."

"He would, would he?" Spike said, as he leered at the female demon. "And just who would your master be then, luv? I 'aven't heard of any new master vampires moving into the area lately."

"He said to tell you his name is ADAM, and that you have a mutual interest in common. It's called the Initiative," was all the response he received.

But that was enough.


"Damn. All this thinking is making my head hurt," Xander muttered to himself as he shifted position in his chair.

// That's what happens when you try to use muscles that haven't been exercised in a long time, // he could hear Wolfgang's snarky comment, as could the witch evidently, to judge by the suppressed smile that had stolen momentarily across her face.

"Thanks," Xander replied in as sarcastic a voce as he could manage.

The teenager was feeling restless and edgy, and readily acknowledged that it was because of his still unresolved feelings about everything that had happened earlier in the day.

"I need to relax and unwind," he announced as he got up and stretched tired muscles cramped from an hour of motionlessness. "I think I'm going to go out and kill stuff."

He could feel an approving grin from Wolfgang as he made his statement, and saw a puzzled and uncertain look momentarily flash across Tara's face before her apparently typical expression-less expression returned.

"Don't worry, Miss Maclay, I was referring to vamps and demons, not people," Xander reassured her with a quick grin.

"It's almost time for me to go on patrol," he said, indicating the setting sun visible through the front window of the apartment.

"Oh. Uh, o-okay," the blonde acknowledged the explanation with a hesitant nod. "So, uhm, I, uh, should go, then," she said, looking somewhat uncertainly at him as she got up from the couch where she had been sitting and made her way to the door.

"I, uh, won't say anything to your f-friends, uh, about the Elder," she promised, as she paused to look over her shoulder at him, her hand on the doorknob. She looked at him steadily for a moment, obviously studying him, before speaking again.

"Th-they may have made mistakes, a lot of m-mistakes, but they do love you," she stated firmly, holding his gaze. "P-please, think about forgiving them."

Although his face remained impassive as he looked at her, Xander was inwardly impressed by the blonde's fortitude in speaking to him the way she did. Despite the fact that she knew an Elder Spirit was currently residing within him, and the fact that he was more than just a bit angry with his former team mates, she still spoke up on their behalf, a fact that elevated his initial opinion of her to a much higher level.

After a moment's silence, as she patiently waited for a response, he grudgingly answered her, "All right. I'll think about it."

The Witch gave him a brilliant smile upon hearing his words, and told him, "Thank you," before leaving and pulling the door shut behind her.

// All right, pup, // he heard Wolfgang say to him, // why don't you get yourself something to eat before we head out? You haven't had anything to eat since lunch, and you don't want to be feeling peckish when we're hunting, now do you? It's not like you could eat what we'll be hunting. //

"Thanks, Wolfgang. That image has just done wonders for my appetite."

// Anything to help out, pup. Anything at all. // Xander could hear the repressed laughter in the Spirit's 'voice.'


"You called for me, sir?"

"Yes, Michael, I did. How is our campaign against the Slayers going?"

"Uh, well...sir...you see..."

The very-young-for-his-rank vampire considered his words carefully, remembering the demonstration their leader had provided in the course of their first meeting, and feeling extremely loathe to provide an opportunity for a refresher demonstration for his fellows.

After all, decapitation is not the sort of thing you recover from easily.

Taking a deep breath (even though it was, technically, unneeded), he then provided a full report outlining the apparently resounding lack of success the initial team had encountered in their first encounter with the Chosen One.

"in summary, not very well, sir. It appears that there are no survivors of the initial encounter, sir."

"I see."

The melding of the cybernetic and demonic parts with his normal human features made it much more difficult to read anything from his leader's face, so the vampire simply stood by quietly, hoping that his master's plans included his continued existence.

"We sent two squads out to attack her and her entourage, didn't we, Michael?" the imposing piebald figure asked as he remained bent over the piece of equipment he was currently examining.

"Yes, sir, we did. A total of fourteen people, sir."

"Obviously, either the files on the Slayer are incomplete or her companions are more formidable than the Initiative's files I downloaded indicated," ADAM(H) mused aloud.

< Mother always did under-estimate people, > he mused.

"Very well, then. It is unlikely they will expect us to initiate another attack so quickly after the first. My files note that the Slayer usually patrols with only one, or occasionally, two of her support personnel accompanying her. Send out three squads to attack the Slayer and her support team during their patrol tonight," he instructed his minion as he returned his attention to the assembly on the table before him. "Numerically overwhelming forces should override any unknown variables, and accomplish our purpose."

"Yes, sir. I'll get right on it, sir," the vamp replied with a nearly inaudible sigh of relief as he turned and made his way back to the main operations chamber.


"Whatcha doing, Buff?"

"Getting ready for patrol. What's it look like I'm doing, Will?"

"Oh. I just... kinda thought you'd be taking the night off, what with our taking out those vamps at the church this afternoon, and everything that happened last night and all, you know," the redhead said, her voice a bit subdued at her roommate's reaction.

"Yeah, well, my brain hurts from all the thinking I've been doing, so I thought I'd go out and kill something." The look on the Slayer's face as she spoke made Willow feel as though she shouldn't let her friend be alone right now.

"You mind if I come with?" she asked quietly.

"Feel free, Will. The more, the merrier," the blonde replied bitterly.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to sound harsh or anything, " Buffy apologized a moment later. "At least, you don't mind me being around. Or even existing."

"Xander'll come around, Buff. We just need to give him some time to calm down and not be so mad, that's all," the witch/hacker reassured the despondent blonde. "You know how Xander can get sometimes, all moody and everything. But then he gets over it after a couple of days and he's our regular normal Xander again."

"Will, I don't think he's gonna be getting over this anytime soon. This isn't like he's mad at us because we yelled at him for finishing off a whole pizza by himself or something like that. We deliberately ignored him for the past six weeks. We didn't call him or talk to him or do anything at all with him." Her voice was full of self- loathing.

"He said we didn't even know if he was still alive, Will, and he was absolutely right! We didn't just cut him out of the Slaying, we cut him out of our lives. He hates us now, Will," Buffy said, pausing in her changing to a more Slaying-suitable outfit as her eyes began to fill up again. "He hates me and he won't ever forgive me for the way I treated him, and every time I think that, I start to get sick to my stomach and I feel like I'm gonna throw up."

"Well, if killing a couple vamps doesn't make you feel better, maybe we can stop in at Eddie's Ice Cream Hut for a triple chocolate super sundae afterwards, huh?" Willow suggested brightly, trying to change the subject of the conversation in an obvious attempt to lift her friend's sprits.

"Yeah, we could try that," Buffy agreed, with a wan smile. "And maybe add some extra crushed cherries and pineapple on it, too."

"Sounds good to me. You want to call Giles and see if he want to come with?"

"Nah. He didn't want Faith to stay by herself tonight so he arranged for the two of them to stay with some people in Los Angeles that he knows through the British Museum, just in case the Council's team comes back to his apartment," Buffy informed her friend.

"He said he needs to contact some people he knows in the Council and tell them about Faith's ring and the spell Miss Post cast on it, and the Mayor's spell transferring Faith's loyalty and everything else that's happened, so that they'll call off the retrieval team before someone gets seriously hurt," she said as she slipped on a pair of jeans and a Pinky and the Brain T-shirt. "He said he expected they should be back sometime late tomorrow afternoon, if everything goes right. If there's any change, though, he'll call us or leave a message on our voicemail."

"Oh. All right. Does your letting him go off with Faith mean that you believe us about the spell and everything that's happened?" Willow asked cautiously after a moment's careful consideration.

"It - it means that I'm gonna be giving her the benefit of the doubt right now," Buffy stated as she turned to look at the witch. "It seems that we - that I've been wrong about so many things lately, I can't just say that she's guilty for everything she's done and she should be punished."

"Okay, Buff."

"I mean, Faith not only helped us out this afternoon with the vamps in the church, she actually saved me," Buffy admitted.

"One of the vamps had my arms pinned to my sides and the leader was about to stake me when Faith staked him from the back. If she had paused, if she had just waited for five seconds, he would have gotten me, and then she could have dusted him and nobody would ever have known the difference."

"Wow," was Willow's only comment as she stared in surprise at the revelation. "Remind me to be extra-nice to her tomorrow. Maybe I'll get her one of Eddie's triple chocolate super sundaes."

"Thanks, Will. That really puts everything in perspective," Buffy grinned as she finished changing. She shrugged on a leather jacket, slipped four stakes into the sheaths sewn inside, another two behind her belt at the small of her back, then headed for the door. "You coming, or not?"

"Sure, just let me change my shoes. I'll be right with you."


// Why exactly did you decide to bring this particular toy of yours along tonight, pup? // Wolfgang asked as Xander quietly slipped through the underbrush lining one of the longer sides of Saint Matthew's cemetery, looking for a suitable position in which to set himself up.

"Because I think it's probably gonna come in handy later," the brunet replied quietly, as he listened for any indications of someone else moving through the area.

"I don't know if you were paying attention or not, but when I checked the tapes from the bugs I planted in Willy's last month," he continued, "there was one vamp gathering a bunch of his 'people' for 'something special' they have planned for tonight.

"There's at least a dozen vamps involved, probably more, so I figured this baby here," he said, patting the pistol-gripped pump-action shotgun slung over his shoulder, "with the proper loads, will not only help me cut the odds down to a more manageable level, it'll definitely give me an edge on the psych warfare front."

// And just what might these 'proper loads' be? // the Spirit asked, his curiosity stirred by his host's enigmatic comment.

"Why don't we just let it be a surprise, for you as well as the vamps?" Xander grinned, as he scouted out the surrounding area. Seeing and hearing nothing untoward in the area, he took a moment to run over his inventory once more.

He had retained most of the equipment he had donned earlier in the day, returning both the paintball pistol and the FN303 to their places in the storage locker and taking out one of the Winchester 1300 pump-action shotguns and one of the 9mm MP5A5s that he had first found in the drug dealer's house the month before.

Putting both weapons in the duffle bag, along with four spare clips for the MP5 and a spare box of shells for the shotgun, he had also tossed in a pair of specially modified black leather gloves he had had Father McClellan bless for him.

Two Walther P99's fitted with silencers and riding in the shoulder harness in place of the Berettas, the spare magazines clipped to the shoulder rig beneath the pistols, were the only other changes he had made to his equipment.

< Wow, you're moving up into the big leagues now, Harris, > he thought to himself with a wry grin as he adjusted the shoulder harness to a more comfortable position. < Two federal felony offenses of your very own for just possessing the silencers, and two more for making them. Wouldn't the family be proud? >

Slipping on a well-worn denim jacket, he had checked to make sure none of his armament would be noticeable to a casual observer, < and let's face it, what other kind are in good old Sunny-D? > he reflected, then unhurriedly left his apartment, duffle bag in hand, and driven to the outskirts of the cemetery specified as the gathering place for the scattered members of the vampire group, according to the concealed microphones at Willy's.

Leaving the Blazer parked off the side of the road, he got out and after a fast check to make sure he hadn't been observed, he quickly donned the gloves and his sunglasses, slung the MP5 over his left shoulder and secured it so that it wouldn't swing loosely, then stashed the two spare clips in the pockets of his jacket. Slinging the shotgun over his right shoulder, he quietly slipped inside the cemetery grounds and began his search for the rumored meeting place.

The wraparound Gargoyle sunglasses he wore might have seemed a bit out of place at this time of night, but once an observer took a look through them and saw their surroundings illuminated as clearly as though it were noon on a bright spring day, they would immediately have agreed to their utility. They had cost him a fair piece of change, too; first, for the effort necessary to locate a mage willing to provide custom enchanted equipment, and then a good bit more to actually persuade her to enchant the lenses to both provide clear as day night vision, along with secondary enchantments, to protect his sight from sudden blinding by any unexpected illumination or glare, and to render the glasses relatively unbreakable. The closest technological equivalent would have cost him just as much money, and was a good bit more cumbersome and much more attention-getting than what appeared to be an ordinary pair of sunglasses

The lyrics "I wear my sunglasses at night..." floated through his head.

The wind blowing lightly against his face brought with the faintest scent of decay, and he immediately froze in place while his eyes searched the surrounding area for any sign of the scent's source.

"Come on, numbnuts, hurry it up!" he heard someone urging a third party on. "Michael said the big guy wants three squads to all attack at the same time, so that we overwhelm the bitch."

"Big freaking deal! So what if we're a little bit late? Either they wait for us to show up or we just come in on the end of everything and help clean up the remains," the unseen third party stated flatly. "There ain't no way the Slayer and her buddies can take out nineteen of us."

Xander froze in shock.

"I think Michael's just spooked because nobody's shown up from the attack on the church this afternoon," the unseen vampire continued. "You ask me, Joshua and his buddies got their asses kicked by that bitch and they're all hiding out trying to figure out a way to explain how they got their asses trashed by some scrawny little scut without looking like the pussies they really are. If I had been on charge of that attack, her head would be sitting on the boss's desk right now!"

"You know, you talk real big now, but I didn't see you opening your mouth when the boss asked for volunteers for the attack," a tall, lean, athletic brunet said as he came into view from between two of the larger oak trees, accompanied by a heavyset, bearded black man.

"What? You expect me to volunteer to follow that whining suck-up Joshua? We'd do all the work, and he'd end up taking all the cr-" the black guy began arguing.

The vamp's comment was interrupted by an nearly inaudible THUT! a fraction of a second before his head seemed to explode, followed a fraction of a second later by his body turning to dust.

His companion's eyes bulged as he turned to see the remnants of his friend lazily drifting towards the grass below.

"Excuse me, I realize that this is probably a bad time for you right now, what with your friend going to pieces and everything, but I need you to answer a question for me," Xander said pleasantly as he stepped from behind a smaller evergreen lining the barely defined trail.

"What? Who the fuck are you? And what did you do to Arnie?" the vamp demanded, turning and looking at Xander in a mixture of bewilderment and anger.

"Same thing I'm gonna do to you, overbite," Xander told him as he aimed the Walther in his hand at the vamp's left knee and a small red dot appeared, accompanied by a barely heard cough of air, a moment before the vamp's knee seemed to suddenly explode and the vamp collapsed to the ground, grabbing at his knee and screaming shrilly.

"God damn! I'm gonna fucking kill you, motherfucker!" the vamp screamed as he watched Xander calmly and silently approach.

A red dot appeared on the vamp's right shoulder, and again, the area marked by the dot seemed to explode, producing yet another scream from the vamp lying on the grass.

"Where are you supposed to meet the rest of your group?"

"Oh, shit, I swear I'm gonna fucking kill you, you bastard!" the vamp screamed at his assailant, his game face evident as he tried to push himself up to his feet. He fell back screaming a moment later as the red dot reappeared on his left shoulder a fraction of a second before that shoulder also exploded in a burst of blood.

"Who are you, you son of a bitch?" the demon demanded, as he futilely tried to staunch the bleeding from his knee and shoulders. "Why are you doing this to me?"

"I'm the guy who's waiting for an answer to his question, and I'm doing this because I really hate vampires and you're a vampire," Xander told him.

"Now I'm gonna ask you again, where are you supposed to meet the rest of your group? And before you say anything more, I want to remind you that I still have eight bullets left in this clip..."

The former Zeppo smirked as he stared down at one of his hated foes.

"Now, let me see, where else could I shoot you? Here? Maybe here? How about here?" the brunet mused as the red dot flickered across various parts of the vamp's body, highlighting his remaining knee, his ankles and his hips.

"Or maybe here," he suggested as the red dot finally stopped moving and remained motionless, focused at the base of the vamp's pants zipper.

"We're supposed to all be meeting over on the west side of Blessed Calvary in ten minutes," the vamp suddenly began to babble even faster than Willow had been known to do so. An impressive feat if you thought about it. "Some of the guys are going to act as bait and lead the Slayer across the grounds to the mausoleums, and then all three groups are all going to attack her and whoever's with her."


"The boss figures that they won't be able to fight off twenty-one vamps, especially after the fight at the church this afternoon," he explained.

"Good enough," Xander said, as he watched the vamp surreptitiously moving his arms, checking to see how well his shoulders had healed, his supernatural healing factor accelerating the rate at which his dead tissues mended themselves.

"You know, bullets can't really kill us," the vamp snarled, staring up at his attacker as he stood approximately ten feet away, apparently ignoring the fact that his friend had been dusted by this same human only a few moments before. "And once I can get up, I'm gonna fuck you up real bad, you bastard."

"Yeah, regular bullets can't kill you," Xander agreed, as he released the magazine from the Walther he was holding, worked the slide to eject the bullet in the chamber, then replaced the magazine with another marked with a strip of red tape around the base. He then put the unmarked magazine in his back pocket and the spare bullet in a front pocket.

"But, ya know, if you use hollow points and hit your target in the head or the base of the neck, they tend to pretty much explode and effectively decapitate your target," he explained, "like I did with your friend.

Xander grinned a death's-head grin at his opponent.

"Or I could use these bullets," he said, as he worked the slide again to chamber a round, then aimed at the vamp's chest as he pulled the trigger, "that I've spent the past month developing, and then I can watch you guys charbroil."

The vamp rocked back with the force of the slug, as he had with the three other shots he had taken, and waited for the immediate pain of the impact to quickly dissipate, as they usually did, before rising to his feet and ripping into this arrogant little blood bag that had hurt him.

The pain didn't fade, though, and in fact, began to spread, along with a burning sensation somewhat akin to the heartburn he occasionally had felt from eating too many hot peppers, back before he had been turned.

Looking down at his chest, the walking dead man could see the tiniest flickering flames licking at the edges of the bullet wounds, flames which seem to suddenly begin growing at an incredible rate, consuming him in a matter of only a few seconds.

"Yep, works just as well as the other times," Xander commented absently as the dust motes of his prey danced in the night's breeze.

"Damn!" he said, looking at his watch and checking the time. "I gotta move if I'm gonna get there before the party starts..."



The small yellow missile shot forward like an arrow, piercing the chest of the wrinkled brow, yellow-eyed creature rushing forward like a pin bursting a balloon, triggering the creature's transformation into a few handfuls of dust that were quickly spread across the ground by the evening breeze.

"Nice work," Buffy commented, smiling at the expression of glee Willow was wearing as she watched her opponent's remains drift to the grass below.

"Thanks," the redhead smiled, obviously pleased with herself. "I've been working on that particular spell for a while now, and I think I've finally got it down right. I can pick up and handle things a lot easier now, as long as they're not too heavy," she beamed with pride.

"Anything over about fifty pounds takes a whole lot of concentration and energy, though," she immediately qualified her earlier statement as she walked alongside her friend, the two of them maintaining their casual lookout for vamps.

"Trying to move something heavier than that is really hard," Willow continued her explanation, "and I have to concentrate on just that and nothing else. It's hard to even try to walk if I'm doing something like that."

"Hence your use of Number 2 pencils to stake vamps, hmm?" Buffy smiled as she idly juggled the stake in her hand.

"Yep," the witch cheerfully agreed. "They come seventy-two in a box from Staples for only $2.84. And I can use them to take notes in my classes, too!" she added, gesturing excitedly with one of the subjects of their discussion she had clutched in her hand.

"Wow! Multiple practical uses for common household vampire-killing items, Will," Buffy teased her. "You're gonna known as the Martha Stewart of the supernatural world pretty soon. You have any tips for getting rid of Polgara demon ichor stains? I've got this spot on one of my skirts I just can't seem to get rid of."

The redhead's reply was interrupted by a sudden and unexpected yell from up ahead of them.

"Oh damn! It's the Slayer! Run!"

Looking over in the direction of the shout, the girls saw two vampires about seventy yards ahead turn and begin running, looking over their shoulders to check if they were being followed.

Seeing the vamps hightailing it away triggered Slayer reflexes in the same way a doctor's tapping in the correct spot on your knee caused your leg to twitch. Buffy immediately took off after the retreating demons, with Willow following and keeping a wary eye out for any demons that might have the idea of bushwhacking her friend.

A minute's run at full speed trying to catch up with the Slayer brought the witch to the crest of a small hill overlooking a group of mausoleums where, in the center of the open ground between them, she could see Buffy battling five vamps simultaneously. What the Slayer couldn't see, however, were another half-dozen vamps that were approaching the area from behind the far side of one of the crypts.

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Willow immediately began running towards Buffy while she pulled a half-dozen pencils from her pocket and began murmuring the activation words for her telekinesis spell under her breath.

< This is bad, > she told herself as she rushed forward. < Very, very bad. >

It was as she reached the perimeter of the cleared area and saw four more vamps gathered out of sight of her friend that she began to realize exactly how bad things were.


Chapter 17

Buffy was in the zone, now, almost effortlessly blocking all of the various attacks the five vamps surrounding her had been throwing at her, while still maintaining the offensive.

The stake in her left hand flashed forward, and then there were only four vamps attacking.

All of her opponents were experienced fighters, she had quickly deduced, both from the absence of the foolish, almost mindless attacks that fledglings were known for, and for the way they were all trying to let one of their companions bear the brunt of her own attacks while trying to attack her from the rear while she was occupied.

The blonde was just beginning to feel the least bit of concern about her present situation, since her Slayer sense was picking up the presence of additional vampires moving into the area, just at the limits of her sensitivity. She was too busy with her battle against her current foes to take enough time to be sure, but it certainly felt like several more vamps were heading towards her, from two different directions. If they were anywhere the same age or level of experience as her current opponents, then she was going to be in more than a fair amount of trouble, she realized, as her right hand shot backwards to impale the vamp who thought she hadn't noticed him, and her left foot shattered the kneecap of one of the two vamps before her.

Offhandedly staking him as he toppled to the ground, Buffy tried to get a better read of the locations of the approaching groups of demons, while still taking the fight to her current dance partners, who were currently positioned at the points of an equilateral triangle around her, each of them waiting for the ideal moment to attack.

"What's the matter, guys? You gonna let a girl beat you up?" she taunted them, trying to get one of them to make a foolish move. "What a bunch of wimps!" she laughed at them.

Her final comment was apparently the straw that broke the camel's back, as one of her attackers suddenly growled and leaped forward at her, his hands outstretched to grab her. Leaping upward, Buffy vaulted above the demon as it lunged at her, her stake streaking downwards to pierce the creature's heart and dust him as he passed beneath her. Unfortunately, however, she was unable to pull her stake back quickly enough to prevent it from dusting along with the vamp.

Also, unfortunately, her midair position deprived her of her ability to maneuver easily, and one of her victim's cohorts hit her from the back with a flying tackle that caused her to land roughly on the ground, with most of the impact, not to mention their combined weight, being taken by her right shoulder.

Ignoring the spike of pain that drove through the joint, Buffy shifted the position of the stake in her left hand against the demon's chest, and the force of their landing drove the wooden weapon through his chest and heart, leaving Buffy tumbling through a small cloud of dust.

Instinctively rolling back up to her feet, the blonde Slayer's free hand pulled one of her three remaining stakes from its storage at the small of her back as she looked to see where her remaining opponent might be.

Several small flashes of yellow rocketed by Buffy as she heard Willow crying out, "Buffy! It's a trap!", a moment before she saw two separate groups of vampires move into view from their hiding places, one from behind a crypt almost directly to her left, the second from its concealment behind a large stone vault about ten degrees to the right of directly ahead of her.

At the same time, Buffy sensed the advance of the remaining member of her original target group, and spun around to snap a hooking kick across the vamp's face, audibly snapping the vamp's neck. The vampire dropped to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. Buffy followed it up with a quick pounce on the prone form to drive her stake through the female vamp's back and dust her before any of the newcomers could get close enough to interfere.

The yellow streaks impacted against four members of the larger group that was almost directly ahead of her, and three of the targets of Willow's makeshift stakes immediately turned to dust, while also drawing the group's attention to the redhead's approach as she slowed her frantic run to the Slayer's side.

Focusing her Slayer sense on their surroundings, Buffy realized that there was yet another group silently coming up behind them, cutting off their retreat.

"Will! Run! Get out of here, now!" she ordered her friend, as she brandished her two remaining stakes and tried to inconspicuously check the movement of her injured shoulder. The flare of pain from the joint told her that although it was usable, she wouldn't be anywhere near her normal form tonight, which, in turn, meant that against the odds she knew she was facing, the chances of her survival were quite slim.

"There's more of them coming up behind us, Will - Run!" Buffy quietly informed her roommate.

"Uh-uh, Buffy," the redhead shook her head. "I'm staying. You can't take out all these guys by yourself."

"She's right, you know," a somewhat harsh and grating voice, tinged with the hint of a Boston accent, agreed from behind them. The speaker was a nondescript, dark-haired apparently middle-aged man, wearing jeans, a golf shirt and a Patriots team jacket and heading up a group of four vampires, all wearing their game faces.

"Actually, even the two of you, together, couldn't take out all of us. *Neither* of you will be leaving here tonight. At least, not alive," he smirked. "The boss has decided he's tired of your presence here in town, Slayer, so we're here to give you a going-away party.

"And make sure you go," he added with a small laugh.

All of the vamps around the two girls laughed also, then began closing in.


The sound of someone clearing their throat momentarily distracted everyone from their intended purposes, and virtually every eye turned to see who or what had interrupted their plans.

As the assembled vamps all turned their heads towards the source of the sound, they were suddenly blinded by an abrupt flare of light, heat and flame that seemed to erupt from out of nowhere, accompanied by a booming thunder.

Taken by surprise, the leader and the vamp closest to him in the group that had moved up behind the two girls were almost instantly incinerated by the leaping flames that engulfed them, while their two remaining companions were busy screaming and slapping frantically at their smoldering clothes, trying to snuff out any incipient fires before they could grow.

All of the remaining survivors present had their night vision temporarily ruined by the unexpected flash of illumination.

The instantly familiar *chu-chunk!* sound of a pump action shotgun being reloaded was the only warning the survivors had of the impending attack, and the instant she heard that sound, Buffy tackled Willow to the ground and began rolling the two of them away from the site that was about to become ground zero, courtesy of whoever or whatever it was that had intervened.


Xander could easily hear the sounds of battle as he ran as quickly as he could through the extensively landscaped grounds of Blessed Calvary cemetery. Carrying the Winchester at port arms as he rushed across the carefully manicured greenery, he tried to focus his senses and determine exactly where the sounds were coming from. After a moment's deliberation, he altered his course slightly to the west and concentrated on trying to move as quietly as he could while still maintaining his speed.

In slightly less than a minute, he found himself near the outer periphery of the area in which the fight was taking place, and he slowed down to avoid inadvertently running into the middle of whatever conflict was taking place. Pausing alongside a large evergreen that overshadowed one of the mausoleums dotting the cemetery's grounds, he watched as a vampire tackled Buffy while she was near the apex of her jump over a vampire foolish enough to try to gang rush her, and watched approvingly as the petite blonde used her opponent's momentum to impale himself on her stake.

The brunet noticed that the Slayer was slightly favoring one shoulder as she regained her feet, a fact that was also noted by several members of the group of vamps situated off to his left, along with the unexpected arrival of the Scoobies' resident witch as she virtually simultaneously dusted three vamps situated across the clearing from his current position.

As the leader of the group that had crept up behind the girls spouted off about their master's plans for the Slayer and her companion, Xander moved as carefully as he could to take up a position at the corner of mausoleum and waited for the ideal moment in which to launch his attack.

< What is it about being the bad guy that they feel the need for oratory at the drop of a hat? > he idly wondered as he selected his position, keeping a cautious eye on the various groups around him, not wanting to lose track of anyone.

As the leader completed his speech and the various groups of vamps began closing in on his former teammates, Xander took a step forward out of the shadows and pointed the muzzle of the shotgun to his right, at the vamp's apparent spokesman.

"Ahem," he quietly cleared his throat as he stood motionless for the brief seconds necessary to ensure he would have all of their attention directed away from Buffy and Willow. Then he pulled the trigger and smiled as the flame from the Dragon's Breath shell he had chambered erupted outward and engulfed both his target and another demon close enough to be caught in the expanding conflagration.

Quickly chambering another shell, he quickly swung the shotgun to his extreme left and fired again, catching three of the four vamps that had been traversing the open space in front of him in a second expanding globe of devastation and destruction.

The sole survivor of the group frantically dove into the shrubbery on the far side of the open space surrounding the crypts here, trying desperately to survive.

Knowing the shotgun's barrel was too hot to fire another round, he dropped the Winchester to let it hang by its strap at his side. The former Zeppo then grabbed the MP5 with his left hand and swung it upward to the limit of its strap to give him a steady brace while turning his wrist so that the butt of the submachine gun was parallel to the ground. As the sight on the barrel lined up with the remaining vamps, his finger lightly caressed the trigger and he let loose two three-round bursts of magnesium-tipped slugs at the two survivors of his original attack, who were still slapping at the smoldering embers that graced their clothing.

Both of the vamps staggered as they were hit, one actually being knocked off her feet and onto the ground as she was caught off- balance by the force of the slugs impacting her abdomen. The screams of the vamps as the slugs ignited inside their corpses was abruptly cut short as their stolen bodies were cremated and they turned to dust. Hearing the sounds of panicked flight emanating from the shrubbery across the clearing, Xander unleashed three more three- round bursts at where he thought the rapidly retreating vamp might be, but failed to hear any screams of pain that a burning vampire would likely emit before dusting.

Glancing around, he checked to see if any of his other targets had survived, and a small smile of satisfaction momentarily graced his face as he surveyed nothing remaining but the numerous piles of dust, each indicating the former existence of a vampire. His enhanced night vision, courtesy of his sunglasses, let him see the two girls huddling on the ground several yards away, Buffy's body curled around the redhead's in an attempt to protect her friend from any incidental injuries.

Seeing the blonde cautiously lifting her head to check out the now apparently quiescent battlefield, the tall brunet smirked and crouched to pick up the empty Dragon's Breath shell casing and the expended brass from the MP5 lying haphazardly around his feet before fading silently away into the shadows behind him, leaving two very puzzled and uncertain witnesses to his scorched earth campaign behind him.


After a *very* careful examination of the area around them revealed them to be the only living (or unliving) beings still in the area, Buffy cautiously climbed to her feet and then offered a hand up to a somewhat shell-shocked and uncertain Wicca. Both of them looked around a bit bewilderedly, not at all sure of what had taken place less than two minutes beforehand.

"Goddess! What just happened here, Buffy?" Willow breathlessly asked as she joined the Slayer in a wide-eyed examination of their surroundings. "That - that - that was some kind of machine gun someone was using, Buffy! It, it was just like in the Terminator movie where the Arnold Terminator cyborg showed up at the police station and, and started killing everyone inside except that whatever it was that just showed up here was only shooting at vampires and dead things 'cause whatever it was that it was shooting with, it didn't come anywhere near us and it only killed vampires which we aren't and I -"

"Breathe, Will!" Buffy interrupted her roommate before she could truly launch into one of her well-renowned 'Willow babbles' and reached out to put a reassuring hand on the witch's visibly shaking shoulder. "Calm down and breathe, okay?"

Well, it would have been a reassuring hand if her shoulder hadn't given a major twinge of pain to remind her of how she had landed on it only a few minutes before, and her own insides weren't doing major earthquake-level shakings of their own as she contemplated the events of the past few minutes and tried to figure out just exactly what had occurred.

"I don't know what just happened, here, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't any of the Initiative's guys," the blonde hypothesized. "They're supposed to capture demons so they can study them, not destroy them completely. And they only use those blasters of theirs, anyway, not regular guns," she noted as she surveyed the area yet again.

Everything certainly *seemed* peaceful now. And it was only if you knew that the small dust piles apparently randomly scattered across the cemetery's grounds marked all that remained of a small horde of vampires that had been about to kill her and her best friend that you began to wonder what it was that had unexpectedly appeared to rain down a storm of death upon the servants of Darkness gathered here, before just as mysteriously disappearing without leaving any evidence of its existence behind.

< Great, just what I need, another mystery guy in the neighborhood, > she thought to herself.

As the cool night breeze wafted the evening's scents past them, Buffy caught the strong odor of gunpowder, along with a second, fainter smell mixed in with the gunpowder's sharp tang. The second scent seemed vaguely familiar to her, but at the moment she was unable to place exactly where she had first encountered it.

Another scan of the area with her Slayer sense produced nothing unusual, so the petite blonde slid her arm around her apparently shell-shocked roommate's shoulders and gently pulled her along as she headed them back to their dorm.

"Everything's cool, now, so let's get back to the room, Will, okay?" she suggested. "We can make some tea and sit down and relax for a while, and calm down. And then tomorrow, we'll talk to Giles about all this stuff and see if he knows anything about what happened, and if he doesn't, we can check things out with Riley and see if he or any of his guys know about anybody using regular guns against vampires or demons. Okay?"

The redheaded Wicca/computer hacker nervously nodded her agreement, a bit numbly, and headed back to the dorm, the women's arms wrapped reassuringly around each other's waist as they attempted to figure out exactly how their already mixed up world had changed, yet again.


A conference room
DeWitt Army Community Hospital
Fort Belvoir, VA

"At ease, Lieutenant," Marchinko said, as he followed Stephenson and two MPs into the conference room and the Initiative soldier jumped to attention. "Have a seat," he suggested/ordered as he walked over to the table.

Taking a seat opposite the one in which Riley sat, rather than at the head of the rather large table, while Stephenson took a seat next to the general and the MPs took up positions against the wall behind the younger officer, Marchinko paused for a moment to look over the young man seated across from him.

A few inches over six feet, muscular, clean cut and clean shaven, his hair a bit longer than most soldiers kept theirs (although his cover assignment as a teaching assistant on the UC Sunnydale campus necessitated his being inconspicuous and blending in with the student body), Finn certainly appeared to be a recruiter's ideal representation of the prototypical American soldier. Hell, he could almost see Finn posing for the poster.

He certainly didn't resemble the person described in the files his team of hackers had managed to uncover and deliver to Stephenson earlier in the evening. The sheer number of impossible things that modern science could do grew larger everyday, but if what his people suspected - actually, what they were virtually certain - had occurred were true, then they may have finally reached a point where they needed to stop, step back and make some almost-literally earthshaking decisions before they proceeded any further.

"How are you doing, son?" the general asked conversationally. "Having any problems settling in?"

"No, sir, none at all," Riley politely replied. "Actually, I'm mostly feeling a little bored, since I don't really have anything to do here, sir. I was hoping to be able to get back to base soon, and get back to work. Things could go south pretty quickly, if there's no one there to keep a lid on things. Especially with the way things currently are, sir. We don't want to let things deteriorate with the whole demon situation. If we're not careful, things could end up even worse than they were when we first started operations there."

"Yes, I fully agree with you on that point, Lieutenant," Marchinko nodded, "which brings us to the point of this meeting. We've had a number of questions pop up that we need you to answer for us."


"You see, son, the results of your last physical disturbed Colonel Stephenson here a great deal, after he compared them to the information we found listed in the medical files of one Riley Finn, a twenty-six year old male Caucasian living in Gutenberg, Iowa. That is your home town, isn't it, Lieutenant?" Marchinko asked him, his eyes narrowing at he focused his attention solely on the young man across the table from him.

"Uh, yes, sir, it is," the young soldier agreed, as his face paled slightly, betraying his nervousness and discomfort at the question. "If you give me the chance, I'm sure I can explain everything to your satisfaction, sir," he said, as he looked his superior in the eyes.

"Well, if I were in your place, I would most certainly hope that I could, Lieutenant," Marchinko's voice now more closely resembled a growl as he spoke, and the look in the general's eyes was one that had cowed more than one arrogant congressional representative who had believed that their exalted position had imbued them with the rank and power to play god with the military's budgets and personnel.

"Because, to my untrained eyes, you certainly don't look like someone suffering from an advanced case of Becker Muscular Dystrophy," he continued in the same tone of voice, "and you most definitely don't look like someone who's been confined to a wheelchair since the age of twelve, now do you?"


Initiative Headquarters
Under the campus of UC Sunnydale

"Excuse me, sir, but I think you'll want to take this call. The call came in over one of our secured lines, sir, but I'm unable to determine where it's originating from. The caller refuses to identify himself to me, sir, and insists on speaking with whoever the ranking officer is, whoever's presently in charge of operations. He says he has important information regarding several of the projects Professor Walsh was involved in, prior to her death, sir," the telecommunications officer on watch reported to Forrest.

"All right, Sergeant," the black Initiative field agent nodded. "Transfer it over to line three," he instructed, as questions regarding the caller's identity swarmed through his mind, "I'll take it in the conference room."

"This is Lieutenant Gates," he announced a moment later as he picked up the phone inside the designated room. "Who am I speaking with?"

"Mother named me Adam, Lieutenant Gates," the low, somewhat harsh voice on the other end of the line replied. "I believe you used to work with her. Her name was Professor Margaret Walsh."

"I see," Forrest replied, as he turned and pulled open the room's door, snapping his fingers to attract the attention of one of the personnel on duty. When one looked up to identify the distraction, he pointed at the phone and mouthed the words, "Trace this right away."

"And can you offer any proof that might support this claim of yours, Adam?" he asked, trolling for information while trying to keep the caller talking.

"Oh, I'm completely certain you'll believe me, once we've met in person, Lieutenant," the caller assured him confidently. "I'd like to arrange to meet you, in order to discuss a few matters that I'm sure you'll find most significant, both to you personally, and to your fellow agents."

"And what might these matters involve, Adam?" Forrest asked, attempting to draw out the conversation as long as he could, to enable the tracking software to determine the caller's location.

"Well, I believe the term Mother used most frequently was 'vitamin supplements'," Forrest was told. "Why she needed to utilize euphemisms in her descriptions, in lieu of more accurate terminology, I do not understand.

"If you check the inventory of the area in which Mother stored the 'vitamin supplements,' you'll find that there is sufficient inventory remaining to provide all of the current field agents with their required treatments for no more than a week, at best," the caller stated calmly.

"You'll also discover that the formulas for creating each of the various supplements no longer exist in any of the Initiative databases," the voice on the other end of the line calmly informed the agent.

"I'll give you some time to verify what I've just told you, Lieutenant, and I'll call you back later today to discuss the situation," 'Adam' stated.

Before he could ask or say anything further, Forrest heard a faint 'click' and the phone went dead.

As the possible ramifications of what he had just been told rolled through his mind, the black agent found he could sum up the situation in two words.

"Oh, shit!"

Chapter 18

A conference room
DeWitt Army Community Hospital
Fort Belvoir, VA

"Well, Lieutenant? I'm not getting any younger here. And I haven't heard anything that would explain how a boy confined to a wheelchair by the age of twelve is now sitting across a table from me, or how you are now commanding a squad of federally-funded demon hunters, looking like a recruiting sergeant's ideal poster child."

The glare the General was giving him made Riley swallow involuntarily, and he took a quick sip from his bottle of water, to moisten his suddenly dry mouth.

"Uh, you see, sir...." The Initiative's field teams' commander paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and figure out where to begin his explanation.

Both Marchinko and the group's ranking staff officer sat quietly, staring at him, their silence serving only to make the Iowan native even more uncomfortable than he had been feeling while waiting for them to arrive.

< What the hell, > Finn sighed to himself, < it's not as though they don't already know what's happened. May as well give them the whole nine yards. >

"By any chance, do you have any relatives or friends in wheelchairs, sir?" the blond field agent asked, then remembered his audience. "Because of something that's not combat-related, I mean? Do you know anyone who's locked in a chair because their own body betrayed them?"

Seeing the puzzled looks on his superiors' faces, Riley let his memories of his early adolescent years unfold in his mind, letting all the emotional turmoil he had felt then course back into his consciousness. The self-conscious embarrassment and humiliation of being in the wheelchair, the burning resentment, the reluctantly self-acknowledged envy and hatred of his contemporaries, who stood off to the side and snickered and made snide comments at his condition, the anger at his fate and the feeling of betrayal by his own body; it all flooded back into his mind.

"Do you have any idea of what it's like to be a top-notch ballplayer, the best first baseman in your little league, the one that some high school coaches are already looking at, and you find that you're getting more and more tired after every game, every workout? That it's getting harder to pick up your bat, let alone actually swing it? To not be able to keep up with the guys that you used to outrun easily when you ran cross-country?" he asked, an angry and embittered expression on his face.

From the corner of his eye, Marchinko saw Stephenson cock his head to one side and narrow his eyes as he focused his attention on Riley as they listened to the putative T.A.'s story.

"I was first diagnosed with Becker MD a few months after my tenth birthday, sir," Riley stated. "My sister was a third year med student at the time, and she thought that she recognized some of my early symptoms, so she suggested to our mother that I get tested.

"When my doctor finally got the test results back and confirmed the diagnosis, I thought my mother was going to have a heart attack," he noted with a pained grimace. "As it happens, my - case - happened to be a particularly fast developing form of the disease, and, less than a year and a half later, I could hardly walk twenty yards on my own."

The tall blond let a bitter grin take over his face as he recounted the early years of his condition. "Want to know what I got for my twelfth birthday, sir? A motorized wheelchair. Exactly the type of gift every male pre-adolescent wants to receive," he said, his mouth pulled back in a vicious slash as the frustration and rage he had felt about his condition permeated his voice. "My whole family pitched in to help once I was diagnosed. My sister began searching for a cure, or at least some kind of treatment to alleviate my condition, the same day I got my test results back. My mother read up on anything and everything about every form of Muscular Dystrophy known to medical science, trying to find something she could do or someone she could talk to or go to that might help cure me, or at least give me back some semblance of independence in my life."

He shook his head as he looked down at the surface of the table, reliving the memories he had called up. "And do you know what all that research showed us? That there was absolutely nothing that could be done for me. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

"I was going to be stuck in that damned chair for the rest of my life."

< Damn, > Marchinko thought to himself as he watched the varying emotions play across the agent's face as he spoke, < it hurts just watching him talk about his - condition. I don't want to even think about what it's like to have to live with it. >

"So, Lieutenant, given the situation you've just described, exactly how is it that you're now sitting across from us in what would appear to be the pinnacle of health?" Stephenson spoke up, in the momentary silence that followed Finn's declaration.

"Well, sir, I was originally approached by one of Maggie's, that is, Dr. Walsh's representatives about four and a half years ago, while I was working on my doctorate at Georgetown University," Riley replied. "When you can't spend your time running around playing ball, or doing other things along those lines, you need to find other ways to fill your schedule, or you'll go nuts. I had my bachelor's degree in psychology, and a master's in sociology by the time I was twenty-one," he added in passing.

"Anyway, this guy introduced himself as Dr. Margolis, and said that he and some of his associates were in the initial stages of a new, highly experimental program; one which they hoped would eventually be able to replace the defective genes responsible for various diseases with customized gene complexes that would enable the test participants to lead a full and completely normal life," the blond agent elaborated. "He said that the project was looking for volunteers to participate in their program, but that, because of security concerns, the program participants would be required to sever all contact with their families and friends until the successful completion of the program. Still, for as long as we were involved with the program, they would provide us with all of our physical needs, and that we would even be encouraged to continue any educational courses we might be interested in."

"What else did he say?" Marchinko barked out, doubting that Walsh would have left it at just that.

"He also made it clear that, since the major sponsor of the project was a covert American military group based in the Pentagon, that, once the program proved successful, all of the test participants would have to agree to enlist and serve a tour of duty as part of a special unit which had been created and tasked with handling, among other duties, 'possible periodic, nonstandard instances of aggressive inter-species interaction'," he reiterated, with a small grin. "Sounds a whole lot less intimidating and dangerous than saying 'demon-hunters,' doesn't it?"

"Your presence here, today, is an clear indication that you evidently agreed to those conditions, Lieutenant," Stephenson observed

"You bet your as- uh, I mean, yes, I certainly did, sir," Riley caught himself before the reflexive smart ass response escaped, a habit he seemed to have picked up from Buffy's friend, Xander, over the course of the few weeks they hung around together. "After spending nearly ten years in that damned chair, sir, I would've considered making a deal with Satan himself to get out of it. I'd spent nearly my entire adolescence watching the world go by, stuck in a chair, and almost as completely helpless as an infant.

"I had trouble even feeding myself, General," he almost snarled at his commanding officer. It was a polite snarl, though. "Do you have any idea how humiliating that is? Twenty-one years old, and I can't even feed myself the way a five year old can! There were too many times to count when I wished I was dead, and the only reason I didn't do something about that was because I couldn't even *try* to kill myself without getting someone else to help me set everything up! Talk about frustrating!

"Margolis showed up a few days after one of the times I had been thinking about that," he sighed, "and at that point, I was ready to agree to do just about anything to get out of my wheelchair, and get back to anything close to a healthy body, sir. I think it only took me about eleven seconds to think over his offer and agree, General," he admitted. "And that was because I was in shock for the first ten."


"Spenser, you goldbricking, good-for-nothing sonuvabitch!"

The roaring, massive, rough-hewn giant swept him up in his arms like a child's doll, just as he put his mug down on the bar, and spun him around in a circle, despite his own not-negligible mass. From the corner of his eye, he could see several of the locals who were on a more-than-a-first-name with him take a step or two back, obviously fully expecting to see his assailant laid out full length on the floor any second now.

"How the hell are you doing, you old fart?" the giant demanded, finally releasing him and dropping him back on his feet.

"Mark! You low-life maggot, you!" he roared back, as the other bar patrons relaxed upon realizing there wasn't going to be any WWF-style action happening soon and turned back to their primary interest: drinking.

"I'd heard you finally made full-bird colonel, kid, but I just couldn't believe the Army's desperate enough to actually promote you," he continued, a wide smile on his face, as he grabbed hold of the larger man and pulled him into what would normally be a rib-cracking hug. Taking a moment to appraise the younger man, he judged, "Damn, you're looking good. How're Gretchen and the kids doing? Everybody healthy, I hope?"

"Everyone's doing fine," the newcomer agreed, "and we're expecting twins come next July," he added, his face beaming with undisguised pride. "Sherri's already told Gretchen that she'd rather have two little sisters than little brothers, because her friend Eileen's brother is a real pain, and she doesn't want to have to put up with that."

"Smart girl there," he agreed with a big smile, as he easily pictured the petite brunette informing her parents of her opinions. "I see she's already managed to set up the chain of command, with her at the top. Hold on a minute, and let's get settled, then we can talk, okay?"

Once they were comfortably settled at one of the tables near the back, he poured mugs for each of them from the pitcher on the table, then settled back and looked over his former teammate a bit more carefully.

"You know, you look a hell of a lot more like Hollywood's stereotype of a drug-dealing biker than you do a colonel in the United States Army, kid. I thought Gretchen would've had you take care of that little memento, by now," he commented after a sip of his beer, indicating the jagged scar running down the right side of Mark's unshaven face and inside the neck of his Grateful Dead T-shirt, the gesture with his mug also taking in the black leather jacket he had been wearing.

"Not gonna happen, old man," Mark smiled bitterly as he shook his head in negation of the question/suggestion. "Yeah, Gretch wanted me to get it fixed, but I figure I need to keep this as a souvenir," he said, pausing to take a long swallow from his mug. Seeing the unspoken question in his companion's eyes, the big man elaborated. "This may not look very pretty," the younger man stated, his finger tapping the cicatrix marring his right cheek as he spoke, "but the - situation - that gave it to me could have gotten a whole lot uglier. I've got this little reminder here because I was overconfident and careless, and three of my people got a bad case of dead because of it. And the only reason the rest of us didn't join them was because we were lucky..."

Yeah, Gretchen was right, he thought to himself; Mark was still feeling guilty and blaming himself for everything that had happened, even though no one else was.

"That's not the way I heard it," he disagreed, looking his friend in the eye. "Everything I heard about it said that you managed to pull your people out of a situation that had turned into a major cluster fuck because of a combination of bad intel and plain old bad luck. And that you nearly got your throat ripped out while saving the rest of your team. From what Iverson told me about it, I wouldn't call anything you did luck, Mark. You got as many of your people back, alive, as you could under the worst circumstances anyone could imagine. You did the best that you could do, and that's all you could have done. Don't keep beating yourself up over what happened, kid.

"There's too many Pentagon Pattons sitting around who'll be glad to tell you what you should've done in any given situation, while they're in a nice, safe, air-conditioned office, twenty-four hours later, with all the intel you were lacking when the shit hit the fan," he counseled his friend, as he thought back on far too many years of first-hand experience dealing with so-called 'superior' officers, who considered themselves the next up-and-coming Field Marshall Rommel or General Clauswitz.

The best thing to do with those types of assholes, he had decided a long time ago, was to drop them twenty or so klicks deep in enemy territory with a canteen, a .45 and three clips of ammo, and then forget about them. If they made it out alive, then they'd be worth listening to. If they didn't, so much the better. And under no circumstances do you *ever* let someone like them lead your people anywhere.

They sat there silently for a few moments, drinking their beer, each of them lost in their own thoughts, before Mark shook himself and looked up to catch him looking at him with a worried expression on his face.

"Hell, old man," he managed a wan grin, "stop worrying, okay? I'm be fine. It's just gonna take a while, that's all.

"Anyway, I almost forgot the real reason I came by - I wanted to tell you in person, the Team is being broken up. I'm being transferred back to headquarters, and reassigned to the Logistics branch, and the guys are being reassigned to a new group that's being detailed to handle 'unusual cases,' " Mark informed him, as he barely restrained an unusually vulgar exclamation at the news.

"The right and Honorable Senator Kinsey's Subcommittee on Exceptional Threats to National Security has reassigned all of the Team's duties to a special group reporting directly to him," the colonel explained. "And to top it off, Maybourne is the group's field leader."

"Christ on a mini-bike! What the hell are those assholes in Washington thinking?!" he demanded as he practically jumped upright in his chair, hardly able to believe his ears. "That shithead almost got two of my teams killed because of his incompetence when I was still active. As it was, five of my guys ended up in the hospital because he shot his mouth off in a bar trying to impress some broad he met. The sonuvabitch is lucky he's still alive!" he practically snarled as he thought of the overbearing, self-important bastard.

"Yeah, he certainly is, what with that mugging outside Bethesda, two years ago," Mark agreed with a sigh. "You'd think four .45 slugs in the chest would've taken him out for sure. Unfortunately, he was wearing a vest when he got shot. A couple of drunks practically stumbled over him and the shooter just as it was happening, and the perp ran off before he could finish the job. That was the only thing that saved the little prick's life," he lamented. "Turns out he was on his way to a meeting with a member of the Russian Mafia, who was gonna dime out some of his buddies. Had NIA and the FBI running their asses off in circles for weeks trying to pin the attack on one of the bosses, but they ended up with zip. None of them had any real reason to burn him at the time, so the Feebies finally decided it was just a random mugging.

"It's a damn shame you weren't there to celebrate with us when we heard about it. Happened just a couple days after you retired, as I recall," he stated, as he gave his companion a speculative glance. "But I guess backpacking along the Appalachian Trail was a lot more fun."

His face gave away absolutely nothing, and his voice was equally bland. "Yeah, I really enjoyed getting away from everything. Nearly broke my heart when I heard about the 'mugging.' That it failed," he clarified when Mark raised his eyebrows. "You'd expect somebody'd try to be a little more professional about a job like that, wouldn't you?"

Any suspicions the kid might have regarding the timing of the attack on Maybourne were gonna stay exactly that: suspicions. If you didn't admit anything, it could never come back to bite you in the ass later.

"In any event," Mark said, with a shrug, "considering your history with Maybourne, I wanted to make sure you knew about the changes, in case you tried to get in touch with anyone at the base for support. I'll get you my new number, once I'm situated, but I'm not going to be able to provide you with anything near like we used to. I'm completely out of the chain of command with this transfer, and I think it's gonna be a while before I can get back in."

"Don't worry about it, kid," he smiled reassuringly. "I've got other contacts I can use if I need anything special. You just watch your own ass. Anything Kinsey and Maybourne are involved in has gotta have something wrong with it, so you need to watch your own six. Me, I'm covered six ways from Sunday.

"So tell me, what names have you and Gretchen decided on for my future nieces and/or nephews?" he asked, deliberately changing the subject.

Acknowledging that there was nothing further to be gained by continuing their previous discussion, Mark allowed himself to be distracted and began an enthusiastic discussion of his and Gretchen's selection of potential names for their expected progeny.


"Oh god, you're killing me, woman."

A smug, self-satisfied smirk crossed her lips as she heard him groan, and she continued slowly pumping her fist up and down his shaft while her tongue deftly laved his sac.

She delicately sucked each tight lump of tissue into her mouth and slowly caressed them with her tongue, making sure that they were well coated with her saliva before finally releasing them to begin painting the rest of his scrotum and his prostate with more soft, broad strokes, taking care to ensure that there wasn't a single square centimeter of skin there that hadn't felt her touch.

Teasingly running her lips up his length, she turned her head from side to side above him, letting her long silky tresses caress his genitals the way she knew he enjoyed, before bending down again to plant a firm, wet kiss on the swollen head of his shaft.

Running her tongue roughly around the head, she then parted her lips slightly, encircling and gripping his shaft as she dropped her head and let him slide into her mouth, smiling to herself as she heard her lover give out yet another barely audible groan. Lowering her head until she could feel his glans pressing against the back of her throat, she then began bobbing her head up and down as she sucked hard on him while simultaneously lightly caressing his prostate with her fingers.

Her lover's fingers tangled in her hair, and she allowed him to guide the rhythm of her motions until she heard him gave a loud groan as he tried to pull her away.

"Any more of that, and I'm done for, darling," she heard him warn her, before she relented and reluctantly allowed him to pull her head away from his groin and draw her up, to lie atop him so he could more easily kiss her sultry, tempting lips and plunder her mouth with his tongue.

As their mouths dueled unceasingly, she let her legs drop to the sheets on each side of his hips. Her close-cropped throbbing lips pinned his erection beneath her, mashing her clitoris against his hardness, and she could feel her juices flowing over his swollen flesh, lubricating him in anticipation of his entrance into her own aching flesh.

Even as they kissed, she was reaching down between them and grasping him, maneuvering her hips so as to guide him to her entrance and allow her to slide down his hardened length. She closed her eyes as she felt him nuzzling against her opening, the better to concentrate on the delightful sensations of him entering her and her own throbbing flesh giving way before his so-very-much desired invasion of her most private area.

As she slowly pressed her hips downwards, she let out her own small moan of pleasure at the sensation of him filling her so completely that she wondered if she would even be able to take a deep breath ever again, before deciding that, at that moment, she really didn't care.

When her pelvis was finally pressed firmly against his, she paused for a moment to bask in the incredibly, delightfully, full feeling of him inside her, stretching her inner passage almost to bursting. With every breath she took as she straddled him, her passion-swollen, engorged nipples pressed hard against his chest, their every movement inflaming her pleasure and desire and emphasizing once again to her just how much she wanted and needed him.

Not just sexually, but emotionally and spiritually, too. When she was with him, she felt whole and fulfilled for the first time in her all-too-short life. Knowing that she had his complete, unswerving love and support gave her a sense of completeness and strength, the certainty that she could accomplish anything she desired or needed. With him there to guard her back, both literally and figuratively, she didn't need to ever again worry about anything or anyone ever sneaking up on her.

He had always been there for her. All the time. Every time.

And she wanted, she *needed*, to make sure that he knew that she wanted to do the same for him. That she would always be there for him, too.

To support him when he needed it.

To love him, the same way he loved her.


Slowly, they began to move against each other in the same way they had been doing for so long now, and yet, not nearly long enough to suit her. She wanted this connection with him to last until she couldn't stand it any longer.

To last until she fell down and simply died from the pleasure, the unrelenting bliss she was feeling, from knowing that the two of them would always have each other until the day they died.

And maybe even beyond that, if she could have her way.

Reluctantly pulling her lips away from his, she pressed her hands against his chest and pushed herself upright, so that she could better control their rhythm, all the while maintaining eye contact with his dark brown eyes as an apparently senseless stream of words bubbled in a hushed whisper from her mouth.

"So good baby oh yeah just like that you're making me crazy oh yeah like that so good oh god so good I love you baby I love you you're mine forever and ever and no one else can ever have you cause you belong to me I love you baby I love you," she could hear herself babbling as she rocked herself up and down his rock hard length, feeling the pleasure mounting with each stroke, as he drove himself up into her as frantically as she slammed herself down on him, his hands on her hips gripping her tightly and guiding her to ever more breathtaking heights.

As she felt his thumb stroke her wet, aching clitoris, she let a exultant scream burst from her lips as she began spasming in what she knew was going to be just the first of many orgasms he would be giving her, and her eyes locked with those of her reflection in the mirror across the room, the dark brown irises slightly dilated as she explosively came, and she threw her head back, her long dark tresses hanging down her back as she shuddered with pleasure.

"Faith?" Buffy gasped, as she snapped upright in her bed, her eyes wide-open, her breaths still coming short and quick, and her body still shaking from the intensity of the orgasm she had just experienced.


"Oh god, you're killing me, woman."

A smug, self-satisfied smirk crossed her lips as she heard him groan, and she continued slowly pumping her fist up and down his shaft while her tongue deftly laved his sac.

She delicately sucked each tight lump of tissue into her mouth and slowly caressed them with her tongue, making sure that they were well coated with her saliva before finally releasing them to begin painting the rest of his scrotum and his prostate with more soft, broad strokes, taking care to ensure that there wasn't a single square centimeter of skin there that hadn't felt her touch.

Teasingly running her lips up his length, she turned her head from side to side above him, letting her long silky tresses caress his genitals the way she knew he enjoyed, before bending down again to plant a firm, wet kiss on the swollen head of his shaft.

Running her tongue roughly around the head, she then parted her lips slightly, encircling and gripping his shaft as she dropped her head and let him slide into her mouth, smiling to herself as she heard her lover give out yet another barely audible groan. Lowering her head until she could feel his glans pressing against the back of her throat, she then began bobbing her head up and down as she sucked hard on him while simultaneously lightly caressing his prostate with her fingers.

Her lover's fingers tangled in her hair, and she allowed him to guide the rhythm of her motions until she heard him gave a loud groan as he tried to pull her away.

"Any more of that, and I'm done for, darling," she heard him warn her, before she relented and reluctantly allowed him to pull her head away from his groin and draw her up, to lie atop him so he could more easily kiss her sultry, tempting lips and plunder her mouth with his tongue.

As their mouths dueled unceasingly, she let her legs drop to the sheets on each side of his hips. Her close-cropped throbbing lips pinned his erection beneath her, mashing her clitoris against his hardness, and she could feel her juices flowing over his swollen flesh, lubricating him in anticipation of his entrance into her own aching flesh.

Even as they kissed, she was reaching down between them and grasping him, maneuvering her hips so as to guide him to her entrance and allow her to slide down his hardened length. She closed her eyes as she felt him nuzzling against her opening, the better to concentrate on the delightful sensations of him entering her and her own throbbing flesh giving way before his so-very-much desired invasion of her most private area.

As she slowly pressed her hips downwards, she let out her own small moan of pleasure at the sensation of him filling her so completely that she wondered if she would even be able to take a deep breath ever again, before deciding that, at that moment, she really didn't care.

When her pelvis was finally pressed firmly against her partner's, she paused for a moment to bask in the incredibly, delightfully, full feeling of him inside her, stretching her inner passage almost to bursting. With every breath she took as she straddled him, her passion-swollen, engorged nipples pressed hard against his chest, their every movement inflaming her pleasure and desire and emphasizing once again to her just how much she wanted and needed him.

Not just sexually, but emotionally and spiritually, too. When she was with him, she felt whole and fulfilled for the first time in her all-too-short life. Knowing that she had his unswerving love and support gave her a sense of completeness and strength, the certainty that she could accomplish anything she desired or needed. With him there to guard her back, both literally and figuratively, she didn't need to ever again worry about anything or anyone ever sneaking up on her.

He had always been there for her. All the time. Every time.

And she wanted, she *needed*, to make sure that he knew that she wanted to do the same for him. That she would always be there for him, too.

To support him when he needed it.

To love him, the same way he loved her.


Slowly, they began to move against each other in the same way they had been doing for so long now, and yet, not nearly long enough to suit her. She wanted this connection with him to last until she couldn't stand it any longer.

To last until she fell down and simply died from the pleasure, the unrelenting bliss she was feeling, from knowing that the two of them would always have each other until the day they died.

And maybe even beyond that, if she could have her way.

Reluctantly pulling her lips away from his, she pressed her hands against his chest and pushed herself upright, so that she could better control their rhythm, all the while maintaining eye contact with his dark brown eyes as an apparently senseless stream of words bubbled from her mouth.

"So good baby oh yeah just like that you're making me crazy oh yeah like that so good oh god so good I love you baby I love you you're mine forever and ever and no one else can ever have you cause you belong to me I love you baby I love you," she could hear herself babbling as she rocked herself up and down his rock hard length, feeling the pleasure mounting with each stroke, as he drove himself up into her as frantically as she slammed herself down on him, his hands on her hips gripping her tightly and guiding her to ever more breathtaking heights.

As she felt his thumb stroke her wet, aching clitoris, she let a exultant scream burst from her lips as she began spasming in what she knew was going to be just the first of many orgasms he would be giving her, and her eyes locked with those of her reflection in the mirror across the room, the blue-green irises slightly dilated as she explosively came, and she threw her head back, her long blonde tresses hanging down her back as she shuddered with pleasure.

"B?" Faith gasped, as she snapped upright in her bed, her eyes wide-open, her breaths still coming short and quick, and her body still shaking from the intensity of the orgasm she had just experienced.


He sat quietly, watching the house as Shadow, the massive white stallion on which he rode, stood under the trees calmly awaiting his command, while the sun slowly dipped towards the horizon.

Inside, the terminal point of his quest waited, the focus of the past nineteen months of searching, the quarry that had managed to continually elude him as no other had ever done before, and which no one would ever successfully do again.

That was the only thing of which he was completely certain, after seeing and recognizing that house: this would be his last hunt. Ka-Dih had shown that to him in his vision quest, all those years ago. The house, and his battle against the yellow-eyed demon that had stolen the body of the woman who was the sister he had never had.

Ka-Dih hadn't shown him the final outcome of battle - no, that would left up to him to determine, as befitted a warrior. All the Creator had done was to provide him a glimpse of his true foe, the one that hid behind the mask of a family member.

Soon now, the creature that had been haunting his dreams for the past year and a half would die, and Betty would finally be able to rest, along with the other members of his adopted family who had died at the hands of the creature that had killed her and stolen her body: Dusty and Mark, two fellow warriors with whom he had stood shoulder to shoulder through innumerable battles and confrontations with those who erroneously thought their might made them right, and who had probably believed that they would die in battle against outlaws or renegade Indians, not drained of their life's blood by a creature who wore appearance of a loved one; Ole Devil, the patriarch who had offered him the opportunity to become a member of their family; Billy Jack, Charlie, Buck, Tommy Okasi and the other ranch hands who had been savagely murdered; all of his now long-dead family and friends would rest easier once this 'vampire' was destroyed.

Doc had been the one to put a name to the body-stealing spirit; he was the one full of the book-learning that so many white men put so much consideration to. If Doc hadn't gone with him to talk to that specialist doctor in New Orleans that Ole Devil had insisted he go to see, he would've probably died at the ranch that night, too. As it was, after the horror of finding all of their family and friends murdered had abated somewhat, it had been Doc who had recognized the bite marks on most of the victims' necks, and Doc who had put a name to the murderer, or at least to the spirit that was responsible.

And it had been Doc who had told him how to destroy this 'vampire' once and for all, since it was evident, from the various emptied weapons scattered throughout the house, that bullets couldn't kill it.

Fire, religious symbols, holy water, stakes and decapitation; these were the methods that Doc had told him were reputed to work against the monster that now wore Betty's body, and he was equipped and prepared to use any and all of them to put an end to this abomination, so that she could finally be put to rest with the rest of his family.

He flinched only the slightest bit as the pains shot through him again, but the impassive expression on his face never wavered in the slightest. The pains were growing stronger, and came more frequently now, as both Doc and that self-important fool that Ole Devil had insisted he see had warned him would happen, but that was of little consequence to him, now. He was Comanche, a Dog Soldier warrior, and he and pain had grown to know each other very well in the course of his life. His father may have been a white man by birth, but he, too, had been as much Comanche in his heart and spirit as any brave-heart warrior who had been born into the tribe.

Pain was an inescapable part of life. That was something he had learned early on, from his grandfather and the other name-warriors of the tribe, just as he learned that Death was an relentless foe who would pursue you time and again, never giving up and never stopping his hunt until he had finally won.

Everyone died, sooner or later. He suspected that that was probably the only universal truth. And the way he died was just as important as the way he had lived, at least to him. Better to die in battle than in a bed, far better to fight and destroy any possible threat that might remain to those he cared for, to count coup against the monster that had slaughtered his friends and then cut off its head, to ensure its final death before he, too, died.

He only had a short time remaining in which he could accomplish this, of that he was certain, since both Doc and Ole Devil's specialist agreed on that point, too, so he had little time to waste. His medicine might not be strong enough to cure him of this thing inside him that was slowly killing him, but it was most certainly strong enough to stop this vampire.

Nudging Shadow into a walk, he headed back to the hotel he was staying in. It would be dark all too soon, and there was still much to prepare for the night's activities.


It had taken him more time than he liked, as the sun was just now beginning its rise above the distant horizon, but he had finally completed all of the preparations necessary to ensure that his quarry would not escape him again. Nob Hill was one of the most prestigious areas of the city and the McClintock family one of the most powerful families living here, and the precautions they took to maintain their privacy and security would deter most would-be intruders.

To a Dog Soldier, however, their efforts were laughable. Even the youngest boys of the tribe, who could do little more than guard the horse herds, would have been able to pass through the 'security' that ringed the mansion like smoke through a window.

Every window of the house was now barred to the demon by one of the crosses Doc had given him, together with the sacred eagle feathers from his fan - each pair of items held securely in place with beeswax to preclude their being inadvertently dislodged - as were most of the doors, including the one to the cellar that had been hidden behind the towering thicket.

The master of the house, along with most of the staff, was still away on the European trip from which Mrs. Elizabeth Hardin McClintock had just returned, so he was quite certain that the number of innocent bystanders present in the house was nil. From everything he had been able to gather by eavesdropping on the servants' conversations, the mistress of the house had brought her own personal staff with her after her marriage to their employer, people whose personal loyalty was to her alone, and none of the new staff associated with the old retainers any more than they absolutely needed to.

Questions regarding these individuals sent by telegraph to Waco at his office in Denver had been answered by the sheriff's subsequent appearance here in San Francisco with a saddlebag full of files on every member of 'Betty's' staff. Unsurprisingly, each one had a record for violence and mayhem almost as long as his arm. Any casualties that might occur in the course of his attack would garner no tears from him; the wild dogs that followed this monster most assuredly deserved whatever end Coyote had in store for them.

In fact, the only problem he had encountered with Waco regarding his plans had been persuading the lawman to allow him to handle the situation by himself. It had taken strong words reminding him of his responsibility to Beth and the children, and the necessity of making sure the creature didn't continue its path of death, should he fail, before the younger man had reluctantly agreed to let him proceed alone.

He had changed into his breechclout, leggings, moccasins and buckskin shirt in a secluded portion of the grounds, buckling the black leather gun-belt with the walnut-handled Colt Dragoon butt-forward on the right and his James Black bowie at his left hip, while his medicine bag was tied to his belt just forward of the knife. Slipping his shield, with its sun and eagle symbols brightly blazoned in red and black on its front, over his arm, he ghosted through the grounds and made his silent way into the house.


"Lon. It's so good to see you again, 'big brother.' "

The creature wearing Betty's body smiled serenely at him as he stood just inside the doors of the library. The seemingly delicate and fragile brunette stopped playing but remained seated at the grand piano at his appearance, a glass of what looked to be a burgundy wine on a small table to her left. Knowing what he did of this creature, he was certain that what the crystal held was something quite different.

"I must say, that 'savage Indian' image suits you quite well. You look quite sinister and foreboding," she quietly mocked him, as she watched him crouch to place a cross and an eagle feather before the doorframe, before slowly beginning to approach her, his shield held down by his side at the moment.

"I can't say that I can ever recall seeing you all decked out like this before, though. Is this a special occasion of some sort? A vengeance quest, possibly?" it sneered, the expression on its face reinforcing for him the fact that this creature was not Betty. The woman he had known was warm, loving and compassionate; such an expression as that could never have graced her face.

He said nothing as he carefully continued to move towards her, as cautious of the monster wearing his friend/sister's body as he would be of a mountain lion he had cornered in a cave.

"What? No 'Hello, Betty, you're looking well'? Not even a 'My, it's good to see you, again. You haven't changed a bit since the last time I saw you'?" it smirked as it watched him slowly draw closer. "I don't think the same can be said about you, though, can it?"

You don't hold conversations with a diamondback rattler; you just shoot it and cut off its head.

"I would guess that Dr. Morganton didn't have any good news for you, did he?" it continued speaking, as it tried to catch his eyes. Any attempt to enspell him was doomed to failure; his medicine was strong enough to protect him from that aspect of the monster's power, at least.

"You've lost weight, dear boy. Aren't you feeling well?" it asked, with a parody of concern on its stolen face.

He drew the Colt as he stopped some twenty feet away, once he had attained a straight line view at it, so that he could be sure that there was no weapon available to it to use against him, aside from its own claws and fangs. There had been ample evidence of their existence back at the ranch, the bodies clawed and torn as though they had been attacked by a grizzly bear or some similar creature. The fact that he couldn't see any such things evident didn't mean that they didn't exist.

The vampire rose to its feet as he stopped moving, the supernatural grace of the monster evident in the fluidity of its movement.

"You know, pulling a gun on an old friend is not a very friendly thing to do, Lon," the creature said, its eyes narrowing as he lined the Colt at it, and thumbed the hammer back.

It suddenly *moved*, just as he pulled the trigger, and he began twisting to the side as he realized that he had missed, reflexively bringing his left arm up in front of himself, and inadvertently interposing his shield between himself and the creature as it slammed into him, the force of the collision painfully reminiscent of the time he had been smashed to the ground by Ole Devil's prize bull when it had escaped its pen. The creature, too, screamed in pain as its body slammed into him, crashing the two of them to the floor, the impact knocking the Colt from his hand and sending it sliding across the polished floor to rebound against the lacquered baseboards.

Rolling away from him as quickly as it could manage after their collision, the monster stared at him in confusion as it crouched beside the piano and clutched at the burn mark on its face, the seared area on its cheek and the scorched area on its blouse mirrored images of the symbols marking his shield.

"What did you do?" it demanded, pain and bewilderment filling its face as it stared at him. "How did you burn me?"

He rolled to his feet, reflexively pulling the Bowie from its sheath as he rose, the quickly ignored pain of what felt like several broken ribs stabbing him as he tried to take a deep breath. Shaking his head in negation of its demands, he smoothly slid across the polished floor, the knife held low, the blade parallel to the floor so as to ease its entry between his opponent's ribs as he again positioned the shield to face his adversary.

As the monster grabbed an oil lamp from a nearby table and threw it at him, he ducked and lunged forward, his shield battering aside its outstretched arm and allowing him to plunge the eleven and a half inch blade deep into the creature's chest, with only its instinctive twist away and to the side preventing him from impaling its heart.

As he felt his blade driving into his foe, he simultaneously felt its claws raking across his stomach, parallel lines of fire furrowing their way through his own flesh, but he focused his resolve and disregarded the messages his body was screaming at him to pull his arm back and attempt a second attack, but managed only a relatively shallow slash across the fiend's stomach.

His opponent's frantically flailing arm knocked him off to the side and it raced towards the open door promising the safety of escape, only to stop and suddenly rebound, as though it had smashed headlong into a brick wall, to meet the onrushing blade of the Bowie as he drove it between the creature's shoulder blades, severing its spine.

As it flopped helplessly to the floor, it looked up at him, the expression of perplexity on its face bringing a grim smile of satisfaction to his.

"The crosses shouldn't have worked for you," it snarled its confusion as he loomed over it. "I know you don't believe, so it shouldn't have worked for you! What did you do?" it screamed its frustration at its failure and its imminent death at his hands.

"You forgot. I may look white, but I was born and raised Comanche," he smiled down at his foe, a savage expression of grim satisfaction on his face as he raised the Bowie for the final strike. "The eagle is as sacred to me as the cross is to those who believe in the Christ," he said, as the blade sliced down through the creature's neck.

A moment later, all that remained was a broad scattering of dust that marred the bright gleam of the polished floor. Behind him, the burning oil from the shattered lamp had set fire to the wall hangings, and the flames were beginning to spread rapidly across the room.

Pausing only to retrieve the Colt and wrap a section of curtain ripped from a window around his abdomen to staunch the bleeding, he quickly made his way to the rear of the estate where Shadow was tethered and headed off, while the growing inferno behind him drew the attention of anyone up and about at this hour.


Chapter 19

"Shit!! What the hell is going on with me lately?" Xander muttered to himself as he opened his eyes to find himself wrapped up in the twisted, sweat-drenched sheets of his own bed.

"Well, at least this last one had a different cast of characters from the other ones I've been having," he mused to himself, vocalizing the upset and confused thoughts whirling through his mind about the dream from which he had just awoken.

"Why can't I get the dreams where I win the lottery and find a beautiful nymphomaniac who wants to screw my brains out five or six times a day?" he asked himself rhetorically, as he picked up the small journal lying on his night stand and began writing down all of the names, dates, weapon caches and bank account numbers he could remember from the dreams, along with concise descriptions of each individual and any name or names that went with him or her that he could remember from his dream.

He also noted in the journal that, just like all of the other weird dreams he had been experiencing, all of the scenarios he had lived through had felt less like dreams and more like half-forgotten memories that he was only slowly recalling. He could see how that might happen with the Soldier-Guy memories, but not why it felt the same way with the others. The soldier memories had, after all, been indelibly burned into his brain when Ethan had decide to fuck all of Sunnydale over with his costume joke that particular Halloween. He'd have to make a point of thanking the old bastard properly and at length, preferably with a cattle prod and a rusty knife, if they ever had the misfortune to run across each other again in the future. Wouldn't do to waste a good knife on Euro-trash like that.

Glancing at the clock as he finished his annotations, he noted that it was almost time for him to get up anyway, so he freed himself from the covers entangling his legs and headed into the bathroom to clean up.

Fifty minutes later, his morning ablutions completed and now dressed in his typical jeans and tee-shirt, he was finishing the clean-up of his breakfast dishes when he heard a knock on his door.

Peering through the peephole, the ex-Zeppo stared with mixed disbelief, anger and astonishment at the small brunette quietly standing outside the front door of his apartment, unable to credit what he was seeing.

< Damn! I knew I should have moved out first thing yesterday afternoon, > he rebuked himself as he began considering some of the consequences of yesterday's confrontation that he hadn't given any serious thought to, at the time: the people who he least wanted to associate with now knew where he lived.

< The sign for that three-bedroom apartment over Zimmerman's Insurance was still out when I passed yesterday. Maybe I should call and see if it's still available, > he made a mental note to check on once he had taken care of this - Slayer-shaped annoyance.

He gave a small start as the knocking resumed again, a bit more forcefully and just as insistent as its predecessor had been, indicating a strong likelihood that the visitor wasn't just going to go away if he ignored them.

"Shit. What does it take to get through to the single Scooby brain cell they use?" he muttered under his breath.

Taking time only to retrieve one of the Walther P-99's he had been carrying the night before, he held it by his side in his left hand, careful to make sure it was concealed behind the door when he finally answered the knocking and partially opened the front door.

"I told you yesterday, the only thing I wanted from you people was for you all to leave me alone," he half-snarled as he stood looking out at her through the narrow gap between the door and the frame.

"Xander, please! Don't shut the door! I just want you to listen to me for a minute, so I can apologize to you! That's all. Please?" the young and vulnerable-looking girl standing before his door was begging him, her eyes pleading for just the briefest moment of his time.

Faith's face held a combination of emotions, he saw as he looked down at her freshly washed and, for once, not over-made face: sorrow, contrition and desperation, along with several others he couldn't readily identify.

But it was the momentary, almost unnoticed flash of fear that flickered across her features as she looked up at him that quelled the reflexive flare of rage that had erupted inside him at the first sight of her, and he immediately calmed himself, silently berating himself for allowing his inner feelings to be seen and recognized. His soldier aspects considered that a cardinal sin.

He had managed to successfully hide his true self from everyone around him, even his closest and oldest childhood friend, behind the mask of the joker for the past four years, so why was he suddenly unable to continue the façade?

Was it that he was unable to do so any longer, or was it that he was *unwilling* to do so?

His public veneer as the clown, the funny guy, the one who made light of everything and everyone around him had been thrown aside during their confrontation yesterday and he felt no inclination to resume that aspect of his life again.

He was tired of pretending that everything was okay, that he wasn't offended by the way they so casually dismissed his contributions (the ones they even recognized, at least), that he really didn't mind that the people he had thought of as his true family for four years treated him like he wasn't quite good enough to measure up to whatever standard they compared him to. That day in the college canteen, in particular, still burned inside of him.

He was just *simply* *fucking* *tired* of feeling like he was tolerated, and that his presence among the people he loved was endured rather than appreciated.

If they couldn't accept him for the person he really was, as opposed to the guy they thought he was (Not that they seemed to care all that much about that version of him, either!), then to hell with them! Fuck 'em all!

From now on, he was going to act the way he felt like acting and say whatever he felt like saying, and if anyone had a problem with that, then they could go pound sand up their asses, 'cause he was going to be the Xander Harris *he* wanted to be. Not the one others thought he was or should be.

All of that self-revelatory crap had flashed through his head in a bare fraction of a second, and he found himself staring silently at Faith for a moment while he debated exactly what he wanted to do.

Shoot her, the way he wanted to do to all of them yesterday?

Just slam the door in her face and ignore the Dark Slayer's existence completely? He had, after all, been managing to live without any Scooby association for the past month and a half. He was probably going to continue on along that path for the rest of his life, so why break the streak he was on?

Or, should he speak with her and find out exactly what was the reason for her appearance here this morning and what it was she felt she needed to say?

It was the fact that she had said she wanted to apologize that finally decided the matter.

Searching his memory, he couldn't recall *any* instance of Faith ever apologizing to anyone about anything since she had first shown up in town two years before, running for her life from Kakistos and his minions. So for her to show up here the way she had done meant that something extremely out of the ordinary was going on, and he might as well learn just exactly what it was as early as possible.

It seemed to be a local Hellmouth-y law of nature that any catastrophe or apocalypse in the making would end up with him being involved in some manner, so it might be best to find out what kind of shit was going to be raining down on them, and when, exactly, the storm was due. That way he could make sure he was at least carrying an umbrella with him when it hit.

Stepping back, he opened the front door a bit wider, but made no overt invitation for her to enter. He had absolutely no intention of breaking an ingrained habit acquired over the course of the past few years, even if the visitor was standing in the full-on rays of the early-morning sun.

Looking as though she was more than a little bit uncertain as to what to do, the Dark Slayer gave him a last quick, searching glance before stepping forward and entering his apartment for the second time in the last forty-eight hours.

Once she was inside, he closed the door, keeping an eye on her all the while and noting the hesitant and somewhat tentative way she was behaving, mannerisms that would normally be considered as polar opposites to the way the Faith of the past two years would have behaved.

"All right, you're here," Xander addressed her brusquely. "What is it you wanted to say?"


Giles' apartment

"And then, all of a sudden, we heard someone go "Ahem," like they do in the movies to get someone else's attention, and when everyone looked around to see who was there, whoever it was started shooting!" Buffy reported to her Watcher as Willow sat next to her on the couch, nodding her head animatedly as the blonde described the happenings of the previous night.

"Mystery Guy was using a pump-action shotgun, Giles," the Slayer stated with absolute certainty. "I watched some of the Initiative squads practicing with them a couple weeks ago, and Riley insisted that I learn how to handle all the weapons the Initiative uses, so I know the sound they make when they're reloading, and that sound I heard last night was definitely the same! But whatever ammunition the Mystery Guy was using made the gun shoot flames out of the barrel, not bullets," she noted, a puzzled expression on her face.

"And then, after that, somebody started shooting the vamps up with some kind of machine gun," Willow chimed in, her eyes wide as she recalled the events of the previous night and a concerned look on her face. "And every vamp that got shot just sorta caught fire for a second before they turned to dust, just like if they got caught out in the sun!"

"You're certain that there was only one individual who was doing the shooting you described?" the former librarian asked, his forehead furrowed as he reviewed the notes he had scribbled during the girls' recounting of the previous night's patrol.

"No, not really," Buffy readily admitted as she shook her head in negation. "All I'm really sure of is that one person said, 'Ahem,' right before somebody started shooting and taking down the vamps who were getting ready to attack us.

"It's possible there was more than one person there, but it sure seemed there was only one person shooting, first with the shotgun, and then with the machine gun, since there was only one gun firing at a time, not both together," she pointed out. "If there were more than one person involved, why didn't they all start shooting at the same time?"

"A valid point," Giles agreed, as he made another notation on the pad he held.

"Is there anything else that you can remember about last night's events that might help us to identify the person or persons responsible for saving you last night?" he asked.

Thinking back over the sequence of events again, Buffy recalled an observation she had made for which she still had no real answer.

"Well, I remember thinking that there was a smell in the air after all the shooting was done that seemed sorta familiar," she said thoughtfully. "It was a different smell than the gunpowder, some chemical thing. I felt like it was something I had smelled not too long before, but I can't remember exactly where or when."

"Well, if and when you do recall what it was you smelled, Buffy, be sure to inform me as soon as you can," Giles directed his Slayer. "It might turn out to be something of significant import."

"Don't worry, Giles, you'll be first on my call list," Buffy assured him as she paused to take a sip of her jumbo orange juice, the second of the morning. She had woken up earlier than usual that morning thirsty for fruit juice, unlike her usual hankering for the extra-strong-triple-sugar-double-extra-cream-in-it extra large mug of Columbian coffee she normally gulped down first thing after waking up.

That was, after all, the main reason the two of them had sprung for the Mr. Coffee dispenser that occupied the top of their mini-fridge; Willow's craving for coffee in the morning was nearly as bad as hers.

Although the Slayer privately thought she was a good bit nicer in the morning before that first cup of liquid nectar, since she, personally, had never threatened to turn someone into a poodle and then teleport them into the middle of a school of famished piranhas just because they were entirely too perky in the women's showers first thing in the morning.

Giles' comment brought her wandering attention back to the discussion at hand.

"Now, I believe you mentioned earlier that the vampire leader had said something about their boss sending all of them out together because even you would not be able to 'take out all of them' was the phrase you used, I believe, Buffy," the former librarian observed, consulting the notes he had made in the course of the two Scoobies' report. "Is that correct?"

"Well, actually, Giles, I'm pretty sure that he said 'even the two of you, together, couldn't take out all of us'," Buffy corrected him, once she thought back to the previous night's incident.

"Now that I think about it, it sounds more like both of us were their targets, and not just me," she said, a look of concern and worry growing on her face as she began to consider the various implications of the vamp leader's statement.

"Actually, the implications of your opponent's statement from last night would lead me to the suspicion that this 'boss' he referred to has almost certainly had you and, most likely, the rest of us under observation for some time now," Giles noted, his own brow furrowed with unease as he began pondering the ramifications of such actions

"They, whoever 'they' might turn out to be," he noted parenthetically, "must have been watching all of us for a period of time sufficient to allow them to develop a relatively confident assessment of your general reactions and inclinations while on patrol, Willow."

"Wow," Willow breathed, her voice sounding a bit faint and low. "The demons and vampires know who I am," she said in a wondering tone.

"As opposed to me being just one of Buffy's helpers," she qualified her observation, her face expressing her doubts as to the somewhat ambiguous value of having a reputation and possible name recognition among the demon community. Both an ego boost and a definite scary at the same time.

"Well, it's not like that's gonna cause a major change in any of the demons' attitudes about us, is it?" Buffy commented, taking another sip of her juice and wondering about the chances of getting Giles to make her one of his super-Slayer-strength ham and cheesy omelets. Maybe with some English muffins with strawberry preserves on the side.

"Pretty much every evil demon that comes into town has been trying to kill us for years now," she noted. "The only thing different about this new Big Bad is the fact that he now he probably knows who we are, so he call us by name while he's trying to kill us.

"Not that big a deal," the Slayer shrugged somewhat indifferently, before turning her attention back to what she considered the more important matter before them.

"What's most important, what we need to figure out right now, is what do we need to do to get Xander to forgive us, Giles?"


"All right, you're here," Xander addressed Faith brusquely. "What is it you want to say?"

As he considered just how painful and distressing the entire situation leading up to this moment had been, the onetime so-called Zeppo gave a small, barely audible snort at the expression of uncertainty that was currently gracing Faith's face.

Uncertainty and Faith - those were two words Xander would never in his wildest dreams have associated together, along with subdued, hesitant and insecure, and yet here she was, displaying all of those characteristics.

As he waited for her to say something, he smiled grimly as the brunette's eyes glanced over him and suddenly widened when she saw the Walther he still held in his left hand. Her gaze quickly jumped back to his face, to look him in the eye for a moment before immediately dropping to stare at her shoes in an obvious effort to indicate she wasn't attempting to challenge him in any way.

< Keep it cool, girl, don't aggravate the guy with the gun, who you tried to strangle not too long ago, > she cautioned herself. < And this is *so* not the time to ask him where he learned to do that thing with his tongue... > she decided, as a random memory of the nighttime activities that had triggered yesterday's calamitous confrontation suddenly sent shivers down her spine.

The thought of the pistol in his hand served to focus her attention back to the original purpose of her visit here. < Screw this up and you might be leaving with more bodily orifices than you arrived with, > she told herself

Swallowing with a suddenly dry throat, Faith stumbled verbally as she tried to speak.

"Uhm, I, uh, I wanted to, uhm, to apologize to you, Xander. For the way I acted towards you last night," the Dark Slayer finally managed to get out of her suddenly constricted throat. "And for the way I acted most of last year, too," she added quickly. "You were pretty much the only person there who treated me decently after I showed up here, and I turned around and treated you like shit. And then, after I accidentally killed Finch, you tried to help me, and to show you how much I appreciated that, I tried to kill you.

"I'm sorry," she told him as sincerely as she could as she looked up into his eyes, trying to make him see the truth of her statement. "I'm sorry for the way I treated you, and I'm really very sorry for trying to kill you. All I can say about that is that I really couldn't control my behavior back then. Literally."

The tall brunet she was addressing said nothing, and merely stood a few feet away from her, his gaze focused and intent on her as she spoke. It wasn't hostile anymore, but completely blank. She would have much preferred to see the hostility; at least she could read that.

"I know you probably won't believe me, but I was acting that way last year because I was under a mind control spell, one that Gwen Post cast on a ring she gave to me, right after she showed up here in Sunnydale," she went on with her explanation, trying to avoid babbling mindlessly as she attempted to clarify exactly why she had behaved so wildly and uncontrollably the previous year.

"Giles and Red and this witch friend of hers discovered it after they, uhm, after they switched me and Buffy back into our own bodies last night," she elaborated, while growing steadily more nervous at the complete lack of any reaction on the brunet's face to her words.

"The spell makes a Slayer believe anything her Watcher tells her is the God's honest truth and makes her want to do anything her Watcher tells her to do, regardless of what it is. And she told me not to trust any of you guys, that you were probably planning to use me as a sacrificial lamb to keep Buffy safe," she finished, her voice going quiet as she waited for his response.

Xander still had no apparent reaction to her explanation, she noticed as a slinking feeling began to grow in her stomach.

"They said that they found another spell on the ring, too," she continued. "One that let the Mayor take Gwen's place in the first spell, so that I'd believe he was a good guy and do whatever he told me to do.

"And I did," she said glumly, a mixture of shame and regret taking their places on her face as she once again considered the acts she had so keenly committed while under the Mayor's thrall.

"I did everything that he told me to do, and I was happy to do it. Hell, I was overjoyed that I could do it," she confessed quietly. "Because I *knew*, without any doubt whatsoever, that he loved me and appreciated me, and doing what he asked me to do would make him happy and that was all that I cared about.

"That was the *only* thing that I cared about: making him happy," the small brunette said, looking as though she were feeling sick to her stomach at the memories she could recall.

"If he had told me to burn down an orphanage, the only thing I would have asked him about was whether he cared if anyone got out or not," she admitted in a small voice, sounding as though she was about to break down.

Xander stilled the reflex, with some considerable difficulty, that urged him to step forward and take the obviously distraught brunette into his arms to comfort her, and simply stood there impassively, watching as the Dark Slayer sought desperately for words that would explain exactly why she had done the things she had done and make him understand just how sorry she truly was for the things she had done to him.

Unfortunately for her sake, however, none came.


"Ah, there you are, Professor. Katherine told me you had stopped by and left a message for me. Something about completing the translation you've been working on for Mr. Farrenworth?"

Nails' voice startled Lindsey out of the single-minded deliberation he currently had focused on his translation, re-reading and re-evaluating each phrase he had so painstakingly studied, taking the time to go over the wording one more time and reassure himself of the validity of his work.

"Oh, uh, yes, Mr. Nails, I did," the former professor nodded his affirmation of his superior's statement.

"Well, at least as much as I'm capable of doing at the present time," he quickly qualified his initial statement. "Until I can acquire more specific information regarding the area in which the fragment was initially found, I'm at a standstill. I've managed to translate the basic parameters and requirements of the ritual and can provide the most basic rote phrases and intonations the spellcaster will need to articulate in order to initiate the ceremony, but I still have absolutely no idea of how to identify the specific powers and beings the caster will need to call upon later in the proceedings."

"Well, I'm certain that Mr. Farrenworth is trying to determine that information, even as we speak, Professor," Nails assured the ex-academic, as he smiled and patted his shoulder in a gesture of appreciation. "And when I tell him what an excellent job you've done on the translation for him, I have no doubt whatsoever that he'll want to thank you personally!"

"Oh, uhm, there's no need for that," Lindsey murmured weakly, the thought of attracting their leader's personal attention more than a little bit unnerving, but he merely smiled and nodded as Nails continued his description of the Master vampire's gratitude and approval.

"Make no mistake, Professor, once I inform Mr. Farrenworth of your success, he's going to want to make sure you're there when he performs the ceremony," the middle-management demon insisted. "After all, without your expertise, there wouldn't be any translation at all! You're going to be the center of attention once the ritual is completed. I can pretty much guarantee that!"


"So, you are Spike. Original name - William Ragsdale. Turned in London, England in 1880 by the reputedly insane vampiress known as Drusilla, and subsequently gained notoriety and infamy as a member of the group of vampires known as the Scourge of Europe.

"I am quite pleased to meet you. You may call me Adam."

The patchwork giant standing in front of him was not only one big wanker, he was also possibly the most bizarre looking being he had met in what had most definitely been a long and impressively peculiar unlife, the blond-haired vampire decided as he gazed up at the creature before him. How the hell this, this - super-sized chromed-up G.I. Joe tinker toy - had managed to convince this bloody group of bleeding idiots following him that he was going to lead them into the Promised Land, where the sun never rose and where there would unlimited numbers of plump and tasty humans available for their dining pleasure, was something he'd never be able to understand..

Satan help him, if he hadn't already believed there were far too many idiots being turned to increase the ranks of demons before learning about this group, the sight of all these flaming assholes blindly hanging onto every word this build-it-himself ponce uttered would have convinced him straight away. Nobody had any bleeding standards any more, it seemed.

Staring at the massive hybridized ogre who had somehow managed to apparently become the savior of a sizeable portion of the undead population of Sunnydale in less than three days, Spike determined that once he took over control of the town that every single one of this creature's followers would be dust before the sun rose the next morning.

After all, if you couldn't depend on your own fellow demons to back you against some unknown monster, who could you depend on?

And knowing ahead of time who you could be certain wouldn't support you allowed one to establish exactly who could be most readily spared when you had to illustrate the consequences of picking the wrong bloke to support. Who said politics couldn't be fun?

Turning his momentarily distracted attention back to his host, Spike put on his brightest, most charming smile and stuck out his hand towards the amalgamation standing before him.

"Delighted to meet you, mate," he said as ADAM(H) stared curiously at his hand for a moment before reaching out to grasp it.

"Been hearing lots of interesting things about your...organization here," Spike stated truthfully. "There's a lot of demon folk saying you're the bloke who's going to be running this town in the not too distant future.

"Looking forward to a long and fruitful partnership, I am," he smiled.

And every word he spoke was completely true. A partnership with Tall, Dark and Seriously Grotesque here could end up being very fruitful for both of them.

He just expected that his side of the alliance was going to last a lot longer than that of his cobbled-together associate's.


"That's odd."

Buffy looked up from her seat on Giles' couch, where she had been giving intense consideration to the best way she should go about trying to reconcile her, admittedly, quite serious friendship problems with Xander. Giles had left the apartment a few minutes after the two girls had completed their debriefing about the previous night's patrol, murmuring something about needing to check with some of his sources about the possible identity of the girls' savior of the night before.

"What's the prob, Will?" she asked, her curiosity piqued by the witch/hacker's tone of voice.

"Well, I've been hacking all of the local phone companies' databases, trying to get Xander's new phone number, but I can't find any listings for him, anywhere. I've tried Alexander Harris, Alexander L. Harris, A. L. Harris, Alexander Harrison, A. L. Harrison and half a dozen other variations, and I can't find any listings that might be his, at all," the redhead explained, a frown of concentration furrowing her forehead even as her fingers continued to dance across the keyboard of her laptop.

"Well, maybe he used a different name when he got one," Buffy offered the rather obvious suggestion, after a moment's consideration.

"Although, at the moment, I can't think of any particular name he'd want to use. There's no way he'd using his stepfather's name. Not after everything you told me, yesterday," she stated definitely.

"Uh-uhn," the hacker-turned-witch shook her head emphatically, not looking up from her labor as she spoke, "not a chance of that, at all. Xand'd call himself Angel before he'd even consider using that name," she noted absently as she concentrated on her task.

Accordingly, she missed the slight wince that her unthinking comment about the Slayer's undead former love interest had provoked.

< How stupid could I have been? > Buffy asked herself silently as Willow's remark evoked a cascade of emotionally wrenching images from her past. < Choosing a vampire instead of a living, breathing person? Could I have been anymore obvious about initiating an impossible Harlequin-style romance? >

"And this is really strange."

The Slayer's ruminations were thankfully interrupted by her roommate's latest comment, and she craned her neck to see what had provoked this remark.

"Something the matter, Will?" she asked as she noted that the frown on the redhead's brow had deepened.

"Maybe, Buff," Willow conceded, her eyes never leaving her laptop's screen. "Since I couldn't locate Xander's phone number in any of the phone companies' databases, I hacked into the local municipal tax collection records, 'cause I figured I could get his address of where he lived backwards from there, because he'd have to be paying the local occupational privilege tax if he's working anywhere inside the city limits."

"And this is strange how?"

"Well, there is a listing for an Alexander L. Harris, who is employed by a company called 'Ivory Chevalier Endeavors,' who's paying the tax, but he's listed as the owner of record of the company."

Willow's face wore a look of extreme bewilderment as she typed new lines of code, and that expression only grew as she perused the information filling the screen of her laptop.

"According to the city's records, Ivory Chevalier Endeavours was established five weeks ago, and it's only got one employee, the owner, one Alexander L. Harris."

"Xander set up his own company?" Buffy asked, not able to keep a note of astonishment out of her voice. "What's the company do?"

"According to the records filed with the city, it's a 'personal service and reclamation enterprise'," Willow quoted from the file she had accessed. Fingers flying even more rapidly now, she continued reading a moment later.

"The personnel records for Ivory Chevalier Endeavours indicate that the owner is twenty-two years old, and he's got several gun licenses, a CCW and a class 3 federal firearms license, too," the witch announced disbelievingly.

"What's that mean, Will?" the Slayer asked, not grasping the significance of the abbreviated descriptions the witch had just told her. "What's a CCW? And what good is a class whatever federal firearms license?"

"A CCW is a license to carry concealed weapons, Buffy. Gun type weapons!" Willow's eyes were as wide as Buffy had ever seen them as she gazed at the screen before her.

"And a class 3 federal firearms license means that he can own and possess fully automatic weapons without worrying about getting arrested by the ATF or local police departments. Actually, I'm not completely sure, but I think that it means that he can even sell fully automatic weapons legally," she said, her face mirroring her confusion.

"Are you sure this couldn't be some weird case of someone else with the same name, Will?" Buffy asked doubtfully, as she got to her feet to go over and look over her roommate's shoulder.

"I'm trying to access the gun license section of the Sunnydale Police department now," Willow replied. "They should have a photo of every license holder in the area," she explained, as she waited impatiently for the file to finish downloading.

As the photo filled the brightly-lit screen, she took one look at the visage displayed and turned her head to find Buffy staring back at her in speechless disbelief, both of them recognizing the unmistakable features of their former Scooby Gang cohort, Alexander (Xander) Lavelle Harris, calmly gazing out at them from the depths of the laptop's screen.

Chapter 20

"So, since you seem to be Explanation Girl at the moment, want to explain to me just what it was you were planning on asking me to do for you that was gonna be so outrageous that you felt you had to tell me that you loved me, to make sure that I'd do that for you?" Xander said quietly, the anger in him slowly simmering as he tried not to explode at the brunette.

The disparity in how he had felt that night when he had first thought he heard Buffy say those words to him, and then later the next morning, when they turned to ash with the real Buffy's revelation, the magnitude of the difference of how he felt was enough to make him want to beat her senseless.

"What are you talking about, X-Ma-, I mean, Xander?" Faith asked, the expression on her face one of complete bewilderment as she listened to his question.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about, Faith," he replied, his voice as cold and hard as anything she'd ever heard someone say to her.

"No, I don't," she told him. "I haven't got the faintest idea what you're talking about, Xand," she insisted, a frown of dismay and worry taking up residence on her exquisite features.

"Really. I don't know what you're talking about," she insisted fervently when she saw the look of disbelief appear on his face.

"You said it to me when we were mak- when I was in you the third time," Xander told her in a completely flat tone of voice.

"I *never* said that, or anything like that!" she asserted as firmly as she could. "I did mean it when I said that you getting hurt would upset me outside the Expresso Pump," she immediately clarified her previous statement. "But that was all I said, and the only time I said it."

It was true, after all. The thought of him getting hurt while out helping with Slaying *did* bother her. A lot. But she had never said that she loved him.

Telling a guy that you really did care about him was just asking to be kicked in the face. Asking to be used and then dumped, once they didn't have any more use for you.

She'd learned that early on, once she'd left her 'home' and was on the street and had to start taking care of herself. All that did was give them another way to control you. ("I really do love you, babe. I just need you to do one little thing for me, and then we'll be set for life. Really.") She'd heard those words or some variation too many times already in her life, after making the mistake of admitting she cared for someone, to ever risk letting someone gain control over her that way again.

Even if she thought that she really might be feeling that way about him, she would never have said those words to him. At least not in the circumstances they had been at that moment, when she still had been under the influence of the spell and Gwendolyn Post's and the Mayor's mental conditioning.

She had felt something for him, but she would never had said anything about it, not after that bitch Post had suggested - well, ordered her, actually, considering the effects of the spell Jeeves and Red had explained to her - not to trust any of the people here in Sunnydale.

And once good old' Gwennie was gone, Hizzoner had jumped in and added his own little touches to the mind-fuck she had gotten, and any warm-and-fuzzy feelings she might have been harboring about any of the Scoobies went right down the toilet.

So, there was no way in hell or the Hellmouth that she had ever said "I love you" to him, regardless of what he might think. It was just skin, that's all, no matter how many times they'd made l-, they'd screwed.

Hold on a minute, there, though! The THIRD time?

"Wait a minute, Xand! You said that I said that the third time you were in me?" the Dark Slayer asked, wanting to make sure she didn't misunderstand what he had said.

"Yeah, Faith, that 's what I said," the brunet standing in front of her frowned. "The third time."

"Xander, I was only there for two times," she informed him. "Red and her new witch friend blipped me out of your bed while you were going down on me after the second time. I know that for dead sure, 'cause I was getting ready to pop when all of a sudden, bingo! I'm lying on Jeeves' living room floor, wearing manacles and leg irons, wondering what the hell happened." She didn't add how pissed she had been to miss THAT event - X sure had a talented tongue.

"And I'll swear that on any oath you want me to take," she added. "You can even get Red to cast a truth spell on me, if you want," she offered.

It was only after she had offered that information to Xander that she realized the full implications of what she had just pointed out.

It took but a moment for Xander to react, and when he did, describing the look on his face as outraged didn't begin to approach the actuality.

"That BITCH!" were the only words to issue from his mouth as he turned away from Faith to grab a jacket from the coat rack by the door.

"Come with me!" he ordered as he headed out the door and Faith trailed along behind him, as much because she couldn't think of what else she could do as because of his instruction.

< Oh man, the shit's gonna hit the fan now, > she decided as she followed Xander out of his apartment. < And it's all gonna land on B. >


"Have to say, I appreciate your meeting with me on such short notice, guv," Spike said, dropping onto the chair opposite that of the bespectacled, rather nebbish-looking vampire as he sat at one of the tables in Willy's.

"You indicated that you felt my meeting with you would be of significant importance to Mr. Farrenworth, Spike," Nails replied, placing his apparently ever-present Day-Planner into an inside jacket pocket and focusing his attention on the demon across from him. "Since it is imperative to assure that none of Mr. Farrenworth's plans go awry, I came to meet you here as quickly as my duties would permit," he explained.

"Now, if you would, please explain to me exactly what it is that you felt necessitated this meeting?"

"Well, now, tell me, mate - have you been hearing anything about a chap called Adam, lately?" Spike grinned across the table at the clearly middle-management level bookkeeper.

"No, the name is unfamiliar to me," Nails admitted after a bare second's contemplation of the question. "There isn't anyone in our organization with that name, nor anyone affiliated with any organization with which we do business.

"What is the significance, if there is any, that we should attribute to this individual and, more importantly, why should we?" he continued.

"Well now, have you ever read Mary Shelley's novel, 'Frankenstein,' now, mate?" the bleached blond asked as he lit a cigarette.

"One of the classics of its time, it was," he went on, "and one that some kind of black ops group here in town has taken as an article of faith, evidently."

"What, exactly, do you mean by that?" Nails asked, his brow narrowing in puzzlement.

"Well, it seems that a black ops group of true-believer mad scientists living here in town have taken to building their own do-it-themselves super-soldier out of all the spare parts they had lying around after they finished all of their testing and mind-control experiments on the demons they caught," the one-time poet explained. "Made this unbeatable soldier that's pretty much invulnerable to harm, and can't be killed by anyone or anything.

"And it appears that, once it was complete, it looks like the superpowered wanker turned around and decided that he didn't like the people who put him together very much at all," he laughed, a rather vicious smile lighting up his face.

"How do you know that this is actually fact, as opposed to some story put out by a group of wild-eyed lunatics?" Nails challenged his companion's tale of science gone wildly wrong.

"As it happens, I just came from a personal meeting with the giant Tinker-toy, not two hours past," Spike replied reasonably.

"Calling him, it - however you want to describe it - somewhat bizarre looking would be an understatement on the order of saying that the Titanic's maiden voyage was a bit of a disappointment to its passengers," the bleached blonde demon went on.

"Calls itself ADAM it does, and it's gotten itself its own little army of vampires who think the moon waxes and wanes on its head. It's also got plans for this little burg, and they don't include having anyone around who might be able to challenge it for leadership."

"So this - ADAM - creature just invited you over for a cup of tea and revealed to you its plan for domination of this town?" Nails asked skeptically.

"Not quite," Spike shook his head. "It knows about the chip I've got in my head and it's offered to neutralize it, so I can go back to my old ways, if I help it take over," he admitted.

"And you've developed such a feeling of solidarity with Mr. Farrenworth in the course of two days that you've decided to forgo this modern-day Frankenstein's offer? You'll have to excuse me if I find that extremely hard to believe," the Master vampire's representative scoffed.

"Not at all, mate," Spike readily admitted. "It's that I wouldn't trust that walking collection of gears and cast-off parts as far as I could spit. I don't believe that it'd disable the chip even if I did do everything it asked.

"More likely, it'd keep me as a slave or fry my brain like a hamburger in a skillet, once it thought I wasn't of any more use," he expounded.

"Now, with your boss, he's a businessman; he's got a reputation for not screwing his partners over once a deal's done. Him, I can deal with. Almost trust, you might say," he grinned at the conservatively dressed demon across from him.

"After all, we can probably do business with each other in the future. Something I don't see myself as having if I deal with this ADAM git."

"If this creature is invulnerable and unbeatable, as you indicated, then how can you expect us to defeat it?" Nails asked reasonably.

"Because there isn't a government that's ever existed that would build a bloody Doomsday weapon that didn't have some kind of "OFF" switch they could hit," Spike explained with a smile that would chill the blood of anyone seeing it.

"Politicians and generals may be dumb as dirt, most times, but they sure as hell ain't stupid. Not even these here Initiative wankers. They didn't build themselves a Superman out of demon spare parts and leftover television chips, without building themselves some Kryptonite, too.

"We just have to find out what it is, and where they hid it, that's all."


Xander was raging inwardly as he drove towards Giles' apartment.

Although judging by the way Faith was sitting quietly on the passenger side of the seat, just watching him with a very concerned look on her face, he probably wasn't doing a very good job at the moment of maintaining the indifferent façade he now habitually presented to the world.

It wasn't enough that Buffy, with Willow's help, had tried to force him out of the Slaying, tried to keep him out of the only thing he had ever really felt he had been able to do that made a real difference - no, she had to go and use him and then toss him aside. Hell, at least Faith had been honest enough to make it clear she had only been interested in one thing, and then shove him out of her motel room, once she was done.

Buffy, though, she used him the same way that asshole Parker had used her last semester, and had then tried to pretend that she hadn't

And, yeah, sure, he had been mega pissed when he found out about that little incident, for a number of reasons.

First off, he was pissed that some arrogant asshole had treated one of his friends that way and hadn't been beaten into the ground for acting like that. But, no, Buffy wouldn't hear of it and Willow had preached this song and dance spiel to him like he was a five-year-old about how doing something like that would make his karma turn bad.

Yeah, like his karma had ever been anything but in the toilet, for most of his life. Just what the hell was Willow thinking of, to tell him something like that? Life had been treating him like it was a pigeon and he was a windshield for as far back as he could remember, and she'd actually told him it could get worse?

Ehhhnnn. Wrong. Try again.

But the second, and more hurtful, reason he had been pissed when he had found out about Parker was the realization that Buffy could find herself attracted to somebody who looked so much like him, but wasn't.

Him, that is. Hell, even Willow had started to comment on how much Parker resembled him, before apparently finally realizing what she was saying and abruptly changing the subject.

It was like the Hyena all over again; Buffy got off on the evil version of him. Sometimes having a super sense of smell really sucked.

But he had managed to shrug off the feelings of insult and disappointment, eventually, 'cause when it came down to the basics, Buffy was entitled to do whatever she wanted with whoever she wanted, even if it wasn't him, and he'd kept on helping, doing what ever he could to make sure that she stayed alive and healthy and happy.

Things his so-called friends couldn't be bothered to even think about, as far as he was concerned. It wasn't as though they ever asked about how anything in his life was going, right?

But getting back to the whole point that had triggered his jumping into the car and heading out to confront the lying little bitch, the biggest difference between the Parker disaster and his situation here was that Parker, after pounding the Slayer into the mattress, had at least acknowledged that he had only been interested in nailing her delectable little ass.

Buffy, though, had used him to get herself off, several times, and then tried to pretend she hadn't - that she had no idea what he was talking abut, that she was still Little Miss Pure-Heart, the very embodiment of propriety and innocence.

If she had even said that she had been caught up in the moment and had just gone with the flow, he could sorta understand it. Hormones raging, pulses racing, getting carried away and acting on impulse - that he could understand and he could live with.

But for her to deny that she had been the one present, urging him on to what at the time had been probably the happiest night of his life - that was something else.

He had known that Buffy had a very highly-inflated sense of her own importance even before becoming the Slayer - after all, by her own admission, she had been the Cordelia Chase of Hemery High - but he had never thought that she could be so callous as to just use a person and then even deny that anything had ever happened.

That she had acted the way she had after Parker had treated her so shabbily, and could then turn around and lie about their making lo- about their fucking two nights ago had enraged him almost beyond belief.

That was the final straw.

He was done with her, now, once and for all.

He would continuing fighting the Darkness, there was absolutely no question about that.

But once he had his final words with her, Buffy Summers and her merry crew of misfits could forget about getting any more help from him.

He hoped that other apartment downtown was still open; he was definitely gonna have to move, now.


"Giles you won't believe what we found out about Xander!"

Willow's semi-frenzied exclamation as he entered his apartment immediately made the Englishman wonder if the redhead had somehow managed to acquire and ingest yet another of the triple-strength, double grande, double sugar espresso roast coffees that they permitted/ allotted the hacker-turned-witch each day. He shuddered in fear at the thought of Willow ever discovering this Red Bull concoction he had seen advertised the other night.

Heaven alone knew how the young woman managed to sleep at night with all of the caffeine she consumed added to her normally hyper-active disposition, the former librarian reflected to himself momentarily before turning his attention to the redhead's virtually incomprehensible babbling as she excitedly pointed to the monitor screen of her laptop while attempting to explain to him exactly what it was she had discovered and how she had managed to locate whatever it was she had found, while his Slayer sat perched on another chair at her friend's elbow.

"While you were gone I hacked into the local municipal tax collection records 'cause I figured I could get Xander's address of where he lived backwards from there because he'd have to be paying the local occupational privilege if he was working in the city and I could use that to find him from his social security number and they had a company named Ivory Chevalier Endeavours listed that was only established five weeks ago and it's only got one employee the owner whose name is Alexander L. Harris and we found out that this Alexander L. Harris not only has licenses for several pistols but has a license to carry concealed weapons and even has a class three federal gun license too and when I checked the gun license section of the Sunnydale Police department because they have a photo of every license holder in the area I found that it's a picture of Xander and this company is listed as a personal service and reclamation enterprise and I'm not sure exactly what means exactly but I think it probably has something to do with hunting vampires and maybe demons too and since it only lists one employee it must mean that he's been working by himself which means that he doesn't have any backup and we need to talk to him and make sure that he's not doing anything foolish like trying to go up against vampires and demons all by himself and since he won't even talk to me or Buffy we need you to contact him and find out exactly what it is he's doing and try to get him to at least agree to talk to us so that we can apologise for the way we were acting and try to get things back the way they were before we made the mistake of trying to keep him out of the Slaying," the young woman told him in what he considered a truly remarkable demonstration of both her information retrieval capability and her capacity for 'Willow-babble,' a term originally coined by the young man about whom she was currently speaking to describe her apparent ability to speak without having to draw a breath.

Pausing for a moment to convert the redhead's deluge of words into intelligible segments of information, Giles found himself, in one aspect, somewhat amazed at the revelation that Xander had apparently set himself up in some sort of business and yet, simultaneously, not at all surprised by the idea that the young man would endeavor to continue on with the vocation he had chosen some three years earlier when he had first stumbled upon the truth of what lay just beyond the shadows surrounding them all.

As he opened his mouth to comment, he was suddenly struck by a flash of insight as the information Willow had just provided combined with the report the girls had made regarding the previous night's patrol.

"You just said that Xander possesses a class three federal firearms license, did you not, Willow?" he asked as he let the various possibilities suggested by the information percolate through his brain.

"Yeah, Giles, I did," she agreed, looking at him questioningly, as did Buffy from her seat on the other side of the hacker's laptop.

"If I m not mistaken, possession of such a license permits the bearer to hold and sell fully automatic weapons," he pointed out to his two charges. "Fully automatic weapons like those used by your unknown savior last night."

The sudden dawning expression on Buffy's face surprised the Englishman, as did the blonde's abrupt darting towards her black leather jacket that had been casually tossed onto the coat rack standing just inside the front door.

Both he and Willow watched with curiosity as the Slayer semi-frenziedly pawed through her jacket's pockets for a moment, before triumphantly holding up a bright red tube approximately the size of lipstick case with a flattened tip.

"This is it! This is what I was thinking of! This thing smells just like what I was smelling last night after Mystery Guy shot up all the vamps attacking us, Giles," Buffy declared with certainty as she displayed the shotgun round with the brand name "Dragon's Breath" printed on the side she had found on the floor of Xander's Blazer.

"It was Xander who saved us!" she announced, a smile gracing the petite blonde's lips as she thought about their estranged teammate coming to their rescue the night before.

< He can't really be that mad with us, if he was making sure that we were safe, > she thought to herself with a feeling of relief.

Even if he was still upset about everything that had happened in the previous few weeks, he had still cared enough about her and Willow to help ensure their safety. That was what was important. That he still cared.

Where and how he had gotten the guns he had used to save them last night wasn't all that important, although she was certainly curious, no question about that.

And where and how had he gotten the ID that said he was twenty-one? And the federal and local gun licenses? That surely wasn't something you just walked in and picked up at the driver's testing center.

But none of that really mattered compared to the fact that she now had a reason to think that, fairly soon now, she'd be able to talk to him about everything that had happened between them the other night, and she'd be able to tell him how she felt about him.

Things were finally looking up.