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Story Data

Posted January 27, 2003

Also linked at:
    Archive of Our Own

Nominated at:
    Walk With Heroes,
    Round 2, "Team Ups"

Fan Fiction: They Also Serve

Title: They Also Serve

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: All your Buffy are belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy.

Rating: PG-13 to R. Language, mild (canon) slash, and some violence.

Pairings: Canon (Willow/Tara, past Xander/Anya).

Summary: While the Slayer's in L.A., the Duo still want to play. What's a former Zeppo to do?

Spoilers: Up to B:tVS "Normal Again" (6.17), AU from there, incorporating some events through the end of the season. Fragments of dialogue borrowed from "Seeing Red" (6.19).

Series: This is the third novella in the "Lesser Men" series, following "Lesser Men" and "From the Shadows".

Archive: Just let me know where it goes!

Alexander Lavelle Harris

Chapter Index:

  1. Found
  2. Reconnaisance
  3. Theories & Evidence
  4. Arrivals & Departures
  5. Girl Power
  6. Sharing Secrets
  7. Rescuing Amy
  8. Earthquake
  9. By Any Other Name
  10. A Battle Won
  11. Shaken, Not Stirred
  12. It's Not Over Yet
  13. Disturbances
  14. Adventures in Slaying
  15. Cold Pizza
  16. Conversations & Confrontations
  17. Uses of Power
  18. Suspicions & Decisions
  19. A Sense of Family

Chapter One: Found

"To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides."
~David Viscott


Teenagers are many things, but stealthy is not one of them. The sudden rush of footsteps up the stairs was not exactly quiet, and the impatient hand of youth wrenching at the doorknob impossible to ignore. Tara smiled against Willow's lips as she heard Dawn's sudden gasp from the hallway, and the faint click of the catch as the girl pulled the door shut again.

Willow sighed happily and pulled back far enough to return the smile. Her face was glowing with joy, as bright and warm as a stained-glass candle cup when the flame's been set inside, and her green eyes were suspiciously shiny. "Was that Dawnie?" she whispered, shooting a brief glance at the door.

There was another brief thunder of footsteps from the direction of the stairs, and Tara laughed softly. "I think so."

The luminous smile on Willow's face turned slightly wicked, and she bit her lip thoughtfully before closing the distance between them again. "Good," she whispered, her warm breath feathering over Tara's lips. "She'll warn the rest of them not to interrupt us."

Somewhere deep inside, Tara was still wondering if she'd made the right decision. There was a part of her that still cringed at the thought of Willow's record with the dark magics and the spells that had tampered with her memory...

(( There's just so much to work through. Trust has to be built again on both sides. ))

...but there a much greater part, the part that craved her Willow's love, that would never be complete without her. It was a little more than two years now since the two witches had first met, and Tara had been falling ever since. She'd found the strength somewhere to move out when things had gotten so bad, but every day apart had been a serious test of her resolve. Surely it had been long enough.

(( Can we just skip it? Can, can you just be kissing me now? ))

Needless to say, it was the hopeful half of Tara's spirit that was winning, that had brought her here tonight. She shivered slightly at the passion in Willow's eyes, and closed the tiny gap to weld their lips together once more.

It felt like heaven; it felt like coming home. Tonight, the rest of the world might as well not exist; this was all that mattered.

The world came into focus again sometime the next morning, with a wash of sunlight spilling into the room and a Willow wrapped snugly around her girlfriend. Tara took a deep breath and ran her fingers gently through the red hair spread across her stomach, basking in the peace and completeness she felt. It couldn't last; it never did, but now, now was very good.

Willow yawned and stirred, rubbing a sleepy smile against Tara's skin. Then she blinked and looked up, squinting towards the window.

"When did morning happen?" she asked.

Tara giggled at the fretful tone in Willow's voice. "After the moon went down," she teased.

"But morning means we have to get up!" Willow continued, schooling her features into a tragic expression.

Tara tried to look stern, but she couldn't help the smile that twitched at the corners of her mouth. "Morning also means breakfast, and showers, and, and happy Dawnie faces," Tara scolded her gently.

Willow widened her eyes, doing her best to look innocent and put-upon. "But it also means clothes and research and making with the space between us," she said, letting her lower lip tremble a little.

"And toothpaste," Tara said, defying the pouty lip with a twinkle in her eye. "D-don't forget the toothpaste."

Willow giggled suddenly, and her petulant expression broke into a happy grin. "Aw, like I care about your morning breath." She scooted up the bed a little, leaning in for a kiss.

Tara shrank back against the pillows, giggling again as she tried to avoid Willow's lips. "Who says I don't care about yours?" she objected, pretending to be offended.

Willow slipped back into the mock-pout, pressing a hand against her heart. "Don't you love me?" she wailed dramatically, then faltered a little, her expression turning more serious.

She'd just been thinking the peace couldn't last, but this was ridiculous. A whole bouquet of negative feelings threatened to unfurl-- hurt that Willow doubted, guilt that she'd left Willow to doubt, upset that Willow always seemed to put her own pain first-- but Tara cut that line of thought short with a bright smile. Later, much later, would be soon enough to get serious.

"Of course I do, silly. That doesn't mean I have to kiss you before toothpaste!" She lifted a hand to trace the curve of Willow's cheek. "N-not that I won't anyway."

Willow's flagging smile lifted at the corners again, and she leaned back in for quick, closed-mouth kiss. "Okay, I get the hint. Toothpaste and showers and breakfast it is." She bounced up, suddenly energetic, and started scooping clothes off the floor. "And I still have to help Buffy track down the Empire of the Nerds, but the rest of my time is all yours."

Tara stretched, and slid slowly out from under the covers. "Sounds good to me."

A sudden knock startled Tara, and she clutched at the sheets again, then blushed at her reaction. It was probably just Dawn.

"Um, hello?" Willow called, clutching several loose garments in front of her.

"Good, you're awake," came a cheerful, male voice from the hall.

"Xander?" Tara asked, exchanging a puzzled glance with Willow. "W-why are you here?"

There was silence on the other side of the door for a minute, and then a cautious, embarrassed question. "I, uh, didn't interrupt anything, did I? Sorry, Tara, I forgot you were here."

"We were just getting dressed," Willow hastily assured him, then frowned a little. "Is something wrong?" She glanced at Tara again, then towards the window, and then her eyebrows rose comically. "Where's Buffy? Did something happen to Buffy?"

"No, she's fine!" Xander said hastily, responding to the alarm in Willow's voice. "She and Dawn had to go to L.A. this morning to meet with her Dad, but Giles is with them; they'll be okay. Anyway, that leaves us on Slay-duty, so I thought I'd bring doughnuts by and see if you had any leads on the Evil Trio? Or Evil Duo, I guess, if Jonathan wasn't lying when he said he bailed..." His voice trailed off.

"Whoa! Whoa! Buffy's in L.A.? Jonathan talked to you guys? When did all this happen?" Willow gaped at the door, sounding almost affronted.

Tara put a hand to her mouth to cover a sudden smile, then cleared her throat and spoke up, cutting off any reply Xander was about to make. "D-doughnuts sound great, Xander! We'll be right down."

"Right, great," he exclaimed, sounding relieved. "I'll just go keep the doughnuts company, then." There was a brief moment of awkward silence, then footsteps retreating down the hall.

Willow was still staring at the door, blurting questions to herself. "And what does Buffy's Dad want with them anyway? And didn't Giles just get here?"

Tara slid back off the bed, wrapping herself up in the top sheet in lieu of a robe. "Questions later," she said, stopping in front of Willow with a mischievous smile and placing a finger over the the other girl's lips. "Did I leave some extra clothes here?"

"Oh! Um, that green shirt, I think, the one with the slightly flared sleeves? And that maroon skirt, I think they're still in the back of the closet."

The rest of the morning routine went quickly. With Xander waiting downstairs, they didn't really have time to dawdle, but all the same, it was... nice, sharing a sink again, bumping elbows at the mirror as they brushed their hair, stealing kisses as they dressed. The day had started out kind of morning-aftery, but as the minutes passed the problems seemed to evaporate; it was like they'd never been apart.

Willow paused at the top of the stairs as they finally headed down to meet Xander, clutching tightly at Tara's hand. "You know, I had forgotten how good this could feel," she said softly. "Us. Together." She paused, then added, "Without the magic."

Tara smiled back at her, and squeezed her hand. Magic or no, they'd always been great together. "There was plenty of magic," she said, and leaned in for another kiss.

Willow sighed happily, and they continued down the stairs.

Xander had the box of doughnuts out on the coffee table, along with a short stack of napkins and three to-go cups from the Espresso Pump. He popped up when he saw the girls coming down the stairs, then moved around the table to give Tara a careful hug.

"Hey, welcome back," he said, cheerfully. "You've been missed." Then he stepped back, waving a hand over the coffee table in a grandiose gesture. "Look, I went for coffee, too. All we need now is Willow's computer and a stack of heavy books, and we're ready to go."

"Are you sure you want to give me caffeine this early in the morning?" Willow teased him, settling onto the couch and picking up one of the cups. "And what's with the no color today? Not that it doesn't look good. It just looks like you fell into Spike's wardrobe."

Tara settled down next to Willow and reached for one of the other cups, taking in Xander's outfit as she did so. Willow was right; he was all in black today, from the long-sleeved tee and jacket to a pair of tight jeans and heavy boots on his feet. That was unusual enough that she gave him a closer look, and realized that there were new shadows in his eyes, too, and something seriously different about his aura.

"Hey," he was saying, answering Willow's questions. "It's past ten, and I'll use Tara as a buffer if I have to," he joked. "And I guess I didn't feel like color today. Found this lying around in the back of my closet," he plucked at the front of the shirt, "and figured it would make for good sneakwear, if we're going to catch us some evil geeks."

Willow rolled her eyes at him. "Are you sure that's not macho-speak for 'I'm depressed'?" she asked, carefully. "Because of Anya, and everything? I mean, we all saw her do the demon face last night."

His face shuttered up abruptly, losing its characteristic Xander openness, and Tara was struck again by how different he was today. "Anyway," he said dismissively, sitting back down and rubbing his palms together. "About that video feed. I remember you telling Buffy you could trace it?"

Willow blinked, then shifted from her place at Tara's side to get up and fetch her laptop computer. "Um, yeah," she said, switching into research mode with a visible effort. "I pretty much figured out where it was coming from, I got a phone number, I just need to cross-reference it with an address. They'll be long gone by now, I'm sure they noticed me snooping in their system, but we might be able to find some clues there."

"Oh, I can go by myself," he said, smiling a little as he picked up a doughnut and began to inhale it. Whatever was different about him, it certainly hadn't affected his appetite. "I mean, you guys probably want some time to yourselves today, right?" He waggled his eyebrows at them. "And besides, like you said, they're probably gone. I'll just walk in, Sherlock around, and walk back out. Easy."

Tara blushed a little at the eyebrow-waggling, and immediately chastised herself silently for being so silly. She'd known him for how long now? And she'd been dating Willow for most of that time. Joking innuendo from Xander's direction was nothing new. Except that he was new today, somehow, and he was making her a little uneasy.

"Oh, here it is," Willow blurted, and reached for a napkin. "Gotta pen?"

Xander leaned over and scavenged one from under the coffee table, then sat back up and handed it to her. Willow took it and hastily scribbled an address on the napkin, then handed the napkin to him.

"That's the address," she said, and locked eyes briefly with Tara, hope warring with duty in her expression. "Are you sure you want to go by yourself? Because, we're totally ready for action," she said, earnestly.

Something must have shown in Tara's face then, despite her attempt not to smile, because Willow suddenly giggled and corrected herself, looking back at Xander. "Uh, I mean, bad-guy-fighting action."

Xander suddenly smiled back, one of his trademark goofy grins, as he tucked the napkin into his jacket. "Oh, that's okay. I'll be fine, Willow. You guys have fun, I'll stop by again in a couple of hours with whatever I find. Sound like a plan?"

"S-sounds like a plan," Tara agreed, with a quick smile.

"Then I'm off." He stood quickly, picked up his coffee cup and another doughnut, and headed for the door. "I'll see you guys later."

"Wait!" Willow called after him. "What about Buffy? And Jonathan? I had questions!"

Her only answer was the sound of the door shutting behind him, and she blinked, non-plused. "Is it just me, or is he weirder than usual today."

Tara frowned after him through the window, then exchanged a worried glance with Willow. "It's not just you," she said, quietly.

Chapter Two: Reconnaisance

"If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril."
~Sun Tzu


Xander made tracks away from Buffy's house, pretending he hadn't heard the confused questions Willow cast after him. A lot of things had happened last night that Willow hadn't been around for, more than Jonathan dropping in and Buffy's dad being an ass over the phone, and he knew that if he let her start asking questions she wasn't going to stop until she found out about the wish.

He climbed into his car, buckling the seatbelt absent-mindedly, mentally chastising himself for being a coward about it. It wasn't like it was such a big deal. Giles had said to Anya, "I wish Xander would grow up," or something British to that effect. It wasn't the kind of wish that most people would worry about, when they heard about it. They'd already been saying it to his face for years, after all. Never mind what it might actually mean, in a practical sense!

Xander took the napkin out of his pocket and gave the address another glance, placing it on the Sunnydale map in his head. Then he started the engine and pulled away from the curb, thinking about the reactions he'd gotten so far.

Anya had just seemed disappointed that the wish hadn't been painful or bloody. Not that he blamed her. Leaving her at the altar hadn't been one of the brightest ideas he'd ever had, to say the least. Giles, on the other hand, had seemed upset that Anya had tricked him, but not particularly guilty about the wish itself. Xander had given the G-man enough grief over the years; this was the perfect kind of payback, lesson-y and bloodless and likely to inspire glasses-polishing instead of chaos.

Spike knew, but Spike was... well, Spike. Xander had a feeling the only comments he'd get from the vampire would be a variation on his usual snide remarks. There was no telling what he really thought, not that Xander particularly cared.

He did care, however about Buffy's opinion. She hadn't reacted at first; she'd been all caught up in arguing about the came-back-wrong thing with Giles and Spike-- which was actually a whole other issue he was not going to think about right now. Later, though, she'd teased him about it like it was no big deal.

((You said 'grow up', right, Giles?)) She'd swatted his arm after some remark he'd made, and then pouted over at her Watcher. ((Because I haven't noticed much of a difference.))

He was pretty much expecting the opposite out of Willow. She'd want to know if he felt any different, for one thing, and what he thought about it, and a million other questions that wouldn't occur to Buffy at first glance, or second, or even third. And then there was Tara. He'd seen the looks Tara was giving him in Buffy's living room, and what Tara saw Willow would find out about, lickety-split.

Was it really that obvious? He'd probably stared at himself a good twenty minutes in the mirror that morning after he shaved, looking for evidence that something was different, and found nothing. Not a damn thing. He didn't even feel any different... it was the thinking that was getting him in trouble.

Xander scanned the rearview mirrors again as he came to the next turn, then checked his blind spots, frowning irritably at the banged-up Ford Escort that had been behind him for the last two blocks. It didn't turn left when he did, though, and a little knot of tension let go somewhere in his spine.

He frowned again as he found himself parking two blocks away from the destination and carefully checking all the passersby before getting out of the car. The space at his side where a sidearm would rest felt noticeably exposed, and he tucked his hands impatiently into the pockets of his jacket and tried to focus on the sidewalk. All his nerves felt open, like the volume had been turned up, or something. It was dredging up old, buried instincts left over from Soldier!Xander, shocking him with little danger signals at every strange sight, sound, or smell. It was spooky.

He reached the path leading up to the prospective lair and visually inspected the area again, paying a little more attention this time. The house itself was pretty unassuming, a white one-story with an arborvitae planted on either side of the walk and 2935 in little metal numbers above the front door. Everything was quiet, and no one seemed to be looking, so he walked casually around to the back door and turned the knob.

No luck. Xander felt around in his pocket for something to pick at the lock with, then glanced down at his footwear and grinned. "I knew there was a reason I put these on this morning," he said, and lifted one foot to deliver a good, solid kick to the door. He might not be the Slayer, but it didn't take supernatural strength to lay the smack down with a pair of steel-toed work boots.

The door burst inward, shedding splinters around the broken lock, and he caught it with his hand before it could rebound on the hinges and hit him across the face. "All right," he said, cracking his knuckles as he scoped out the room. "Let's make this quick."

He made a slow circuit of the rooms on the ground floor, scanning carefully for any clues to the geeks' presence. There wasn't much. He found a little dirt tracked into the carpet on a path from the front door, but that could have happened anytime since the floors were last cleaned. The trail did, however, lead straight to an internal door at the top of a flight of stairs.

"Basement... Bingo," he said, smiling with satisfaction as he tromped down the stairs.

Now, this was more like it. There was evidence of immature maleness everywhere; the place was decorated in cheesy, geeky love-pad fashion. "Hmmm. Comfy couch." Xander sat down, perched on the edge of the leather cushions with his hands braced on his knees, and did a visual scan of the room. Ten to one, anything important in the place would be visible from this spot, where Jonathan's buddies probably spent most of their time.

Hmmm. Multi-colored, glowing lights, shelf decorated in little figurines... Oooh, hello to the warrior chicks in bikinis! Work desk covered in books and papers, an iMac and some data CDs, a tip-tilted white board that looked tailor made for detailing evil schemes. What to investigate first?

Xander stood up and walked towards the white board, deciding to try it before anything else. If they hadn't erased it recently, maybe it would give him pointers to what else in this mess was likely to be useful.

He had one hand on the corner of the board, ready to turn it up, when one of those little danger shocks ran up his spine and froze him in place. Something was wrong here; something was very wrong. Xander frowned, scanning the floor around the base of the whiteboard stand and then the board itself for any sort of trap. Finally, he found it. There was a wire attached near the hinge, running down to some sort of switch.

"Hunh." He slowly lifted his grip on the board, careful not to jog it any, then craned his neck to see if he could read what was written on the surface without moving it.


"Well, that can't be good," he said, smiling wryly at the message. "Glad I didn't trip that one." Gingerly, he stepped backward from that area of the room and then did a very careful check of the various books, papers and CDs scattered on the desk and other flat surfaces. Several things looked interesting, and he loaded up his arms and pockets before turning back towards the stairs.

He paused before leaving and glanced over at the white board again. His curiosity was acting up, demanding to know just what the booby trap was supposed to do, but he wasn't foolhardy enough to set it off. Unless... Hmmm. Xander glanced at the wall opposite the board, and noticed a locked basement window up near the ceiling. He smirked, then crossed the room to open the window before turning back to the stairs and leaving the house.

Once outside, he set his souvenirs down safely on the grass before picking up a handy rock and circling the foundation. It didn't take him long to find the window and crouch down to peer through it, zeroing in on the board's titled surface. "Here goes nothing," he muttered, tossing the small rock through the narrow space to hit his target.

The rock bounced off the frame with a loud thwack, transferring just enough kinetic energy to turn it up to vertical, squeaking loudly as it did so. Warren's message came into view, facing the middle of the room, and then without warning a whining buzzing sound kicked in. An enormous circular buzz saw sprang out, cutting the white board in half, and then several other saws popped up and began slicing through the room.

"Damn," Xander said. "Now that's a booby trap." He shivered a little, very glad he hadn't been in there when the saws went off. "Good thing I didn't let Wills and Tara come." Sobered, he trudged back to his little pile of rescued information and gathered it up, then made his way back to his car.

He got in and stacked up the stuff in the passenger seat, straightening it as best he could so it wouldn't slide around while he was driving. A little card fell out of one of the books as he did so, skittering to the floor, and when he picked it up he saw that it had a very familiar name on it.

"Amy Madison? What are these creeps doing with rat-girl's address?" The former rodent wasn't as powerful a witch as Willow, but she knew enough to do some damage-- as half the female population of Sunnydale could attest. Xander had tried to get her to make Cordy fall desperately in love with him about four years ago, and instead had captured everyone but Cordy. The headcount of the smitten had included Amy herself, Buffy, Willow, Jenny Calendar, Buffy's Mom, and even Spike's then-girlfriend, the mad vampire Drusilla.

Alarmed, he picked through the stack of papers again, remembering something Jonathan had mentioned in passing last night. The Orbs of Nezzla-something... he'd seen it on one of these papers, too, he was sure of it.

After a few minutes he gave up and glanced at his watch, then dug his cell phone out of his pocket. Giles ought to be in L.A. with the girls by now, and maybe he'd know something about the Orbs that Xander could pass on to the witches when he got back to Buffy's house.

"Giles." Buffy's Watcher answered his phone abruptly, and Xander could hear traffic moving in the background.

"Hey, G-Man, aren't you in L.A. yet?" he asked, teasing the older man. "Man, you drive slow."

"Xander," Giles said sternly. "Was there a point to this phone call? I'm in downtown traffic at the moment, and I'd prefer not to deal with unnecessary distractions."

"Yeah, actually, I had a question for you," Xander said, more seriously. "You remember those Orbs of Nez-whatever Jonathan mentioned last night?"

"The Orbs of Nezzla'khan, yes," Giles answered, suddenly sounding a lot more interested. "As I recall, they grant strength and invulnerability to their bearer. I'd understood from his story, however, that his friends could not fetch the Orbs without his help."

"Just his help?" Xander asked, turning the card with Amy's name and address on it over in his free hand. "Or would any magic user do? 'Cause I've just been in their lair, and they had Amy Madison's address on file."

"Oh, dear Lord," Giles muttered.

"Is that Xander?" A female voice, slightly muffled, was raised on the other end of the line. He couldn't tell if it were Buffy or Dawn.

"Yes, yes it is," Giles answered distractedly, then turned his attention back to the phone. "Xander, just how close do you think they are to uncovering the Orbs?"

"I dunno, G-man, but I found books, maps, spells, all kindsa stuff. I think if they got Amy to do the spell-part, they could probably find these Orb things right away."

Giles sighed. "I'm afraid I'll have to drop you ladies off and return to Sunnydale," he said, his voice a little fainter as he spoke to the occupants of his car. "You should be safe enough here with all the lawyers around, and I'm sure if you call Angel's hotel someone will be more than willing to put you up for the night or drive you back, whichever is necessary."

"Giiiiiiles!" Both girls exclaimed simultaneously.

"Xander, I'll be there shortly," Giles continued, addressing him again. "Don't do anything foolish before I arrive. I'm reluctant to pull the girls away from their meeting with their father, given what's at stake, but I think I should be there in case the Orbs are uncovered."

"Sure, whatever," Xander answered. "I'll be at Buffy's house." He pulled the phone away from his ear and pressed the OFF button, cutting off an argument between Buffy and Giles mid-word. Boy, was he glad he wasn't the one telling Buffy she had to hang out with her dad's lawyers instead of coming back and kicking ass.

Satisfied with the morning's work, he turned the car on and pulled away from the curb.

Chapter Three: Theories & Evidence

"Too bad that you couldn't see / See the man that boy could be / There is more than meets the eye / I see the soul that is inside"
~Avril Lavigne, 'Sk8er Boi'


"So what's up with him, do you think?" Willow turned to the window, watching as Xander started his car and pulled away from the curb.

"I don't know," Tara answered, furrowing her brow as she thought about it. "But there's, there's definitely something different about his aura. Has anything, um, really big happened in the last couple of days?"

Willow frowned, puzzled, and flopped back down on the couch next to Tara. "I don't think so. I mean, aside from Buffy going crazy and trying to kill us, or his un-Wedding a few weeks ago... You really think something's wrong? He could just be tired, or maybe he forgot to do his laundry, or maybe he's still all depressed about the Anya thing, or, or, Wait!" Willow sat up straight, staring wide-eyed at Tara. "The wish thing! It has to be the wish!"

"W-wish?" Tara shook her head, confused. She had her suspicions about Anya; Xander's ex-fiancé had been trying awfully hard to get everyone she knew to make nasty wishes about him, Tara included. Coming from an ex-vengeance demon, that was pretty ominous behavior. But surely no one had taken her up on it?

"You didn't see it," Willow said. She reached for Tara's hand, twining their fingers together as she stared into the distance, remembering. "The nerdy guys have these cameras set up everywhere, the house, Xander's job site, the college, the Magic Box, everything. They were spying on us. So I hacked into their camera feed yesterday and started looking around, and I saw her in the shop, crying all over Giles. We didn't even know he was back! And then she stepped away and her face went all demon-y, and I just know he made a wish. Poor Xander."

"It doesn't have to be a bad wish," Tara said slowly, thinking about it. "Giles doesn't hate him."

Willow sighed, and made a sad face. "No, but he's not best friends with Xander, either. Giles can be pretty hard on him when he thinks he's being immature, and I know he didn't think Xander was ready for marriage in the first place. I can think of lots of things he might have said to Anya about it."

"M-maybe," Tara said, still working it out in her thoughts. "But Xander didn't look injured or anything. Confused and upset a little, but not physically hurt. A-and there's not much you can wish about a person's mind. You could wish him smarter, or in love, or French, o-or something, but anything like that would be obvious."

"And I can't see Giles making that kind of wish, anyway," Willow said. "Not intentionally. He maybe would say, 'I wish he hadn't jilted you,' but then we wouldn't remember it happening, right? We'd be different people already, like what happened with skanky vampire-ho me." She shivered, then picked up her coffee and took a long sip.

Tara leaned forward and took another doughnut, then nibbled on it thoughtfully as she considered the changes in Xander's aura again. "You know," she said, "Ever since I've known Xander, he's been a little, um, unfocused. Like he has all these compartments in his life, and he doesn't really know how to integrate them. There's hard-working Carpenter Xander, and funny Scooby Xander, and insecure Boyfriend Xander, and... and lots of Xanders."

"Like different personalities?" Willow scrunched up her forehead, looking puzzled.

"N-no. More like masks. And he, he has trouble taking them off, I think. Or seeing other people without theirs."

"I never thought about it that way," Willow said. She set her coffee down and snuggled into Tara's side, laying her head on her girlfriend's shoulder and idly stroking her arm. "But isn't that normal? Because of his parents, you know, the insecurity thing? That doesn't make for a good self-image."

"S-s-some of it, p-probably," Tara agreed, resting her cheek on Willow's soft red hair. "But th-that applies to m-most of us." Take her father, for example. Just thinking about him, most days, was enough to raise her stress levels and worsen her stuttering considerably. She took a deep breath, cleansing her mind of the negative thoughts, and continued. "Didn't you mention before that Xander has been possessed?"

Willow was quiet for a minute, thinking. "He got possessed by a hyena, and then a soldier, not long after we met Buffy. The soldier thing was the first time we met Spike, too; it was that Halloween when I got turned into a ghost. Do you think it fractured him somehow? And that whatever Giles wished for fixed it?"

"Possibly," Tara agreed. "That would explain the differences I saw."

They sat together like that on the couch for another couple of minutes, lost in thought, until Willow smiled against Tara's shoulder and got a little more motivated with the areas her hands were roaming. "Enough about Xander," she said, in slightly husky voice. "This is our first day back together. There are other things we could be doing."

"MMmmmm." Tara giggled, and turned her face towards Willow's for a lengthy kiss. "But not on the couch."

"Well, then what are we doing downstairs?" Willow giggled back, then linked both hands with Tara's and stood, pulling Tara after her.

Tara stole another kiss, then let Willow lead her to the stairs and back up to the master bedroom. Xander had said he'd be a couple of hours, hadn't he? They had lots of time.

Tara and Willow spent the next hour and half rediscovering each other in the snug confines of the master bedroom. Bodies explored in shadow the night before were now limned in diffused sunlight; territory made new by months of absence became familiar again, inch by inch. As they lay together afterward, soaking up the peace, a verse oft heard in her childhood floated through Tara's mind:

"And the evening and the morning were the first day," she whispered, thinking about the hope and beauty inherent in the beginnings of things... or a re-beginning, in their case.

Willow smiled. "First day of the rest of our lives," she whispered back, indulging the cliché. Then she stretched and sat up. "Joint shower?" she suggested.

"Mmmm," she was answered; and so they did.

"I've missed this," Tara said softly a few minutes later, resting her forehead against Willow's under the gentle cascade of water.

"So have I," Willow replied with a wistful smile. "Let's not ever fight again, okay? I mean, I know things won't ever be perfect, but whatever I have to do, giving up the magic, anything, I'll do it. I never want to lose you again."

"I think that can be arranged," Tara said happily. "Um, speaking of arranging, if we have time after the Scooby research, I have all this stuff over in the dorms that could use another home..."

"We'll make time," Willow declared, pulling back to make sure Tara got the full effect of her expression. The wet tangles framing her face and the drops of water glistening on her cheeks did nothing to diminish the impact of the Resolve Face.

Tara laughed, delighted, and dropped a kiss on the tip of Willow's nose before reaching around her for the shampoo.

By the time they had finished dressing again and weaving braids into each other's hair, it was almost one o'clock. Nearly three hours had passed since Xander had grabbed his coffee and doughnut and took off into the wilds of Sunnydale. The girls frowned at the bedroom clock, then headed down the stairs arm-in-arm, intending to start a search for him.

Xander was already back, however, sitting quietly on the couch and sorting a mess of books and papers on the coffee table.

"Xander!" Willow exclaimed. "We were just about to go looking for you, it's been more than two hours since you left. Why didn't you tell us you were back?"

He looked at them and smiled, his brown eyes twinkling with good humor. "Hey, I didn't want to interrupt again," he said. "And you know, if you still want to be alone..."

"No, no, we're good," Willow said, giving Tara a warm look.

"We're better than good," Tara echoed, smiling back at her.

"Great," Xander said, grinning benevolently at both of them.

"Super," Willow added softly, and reached up to stroke Tara's cheek.

It took a lot of effort for Tara to look away from Willow's green gaze and pay attention to Xander again. "So, um, nerds. How are them? They?"

Xander shrugged. "Well, it was definitely their lair," he said. "But you were right, Willow; they obviously knew you were tracing their signal. They left in a hurry. Van was gone, but everything else was still there."

If Willow had been a cat, Tara mused, her ears would have perked up at that statement. "We should go back," the redhead exclaimed. "Tara and I can take a look around..."

Xander winced and gave Willow a sheepish look. "Actually, there's nothing left there now. Giant buzz saw. The place was booby-trapped, like Indiana Jones and the Nerd Pit of Doom."

"Xander!" Willow's excitement shifted to alarm. "You could have been killed! You're not Buffy, you know. This stuff wouldn't be worth you getting hurt." She let go of Tara's hand and knelt down by the coffee table to get a closer look at the things he had brought back.

Tara followed her, lifting one of the heavier tomes from the table before settling cross-legged with it on the floor. It wasn't written in any language that she recognized, but there might be English notes scribbled in the margins somewhere.

Xander sighed. Tara looked up again and caught a flicker of irritation and guilt cross his face, but it was quickly replaced by a rueful smile. "Yeah," he said. "I know it was dangerous. I got lucky; I spotted the trap right away." He waved a hand over the coffee table. "So I carried all this stuff out before setting it off to see what it would do. Those guys really didn't want any intruders getting back out alive."

"You set it off on purpose?" Willow shook her head. "Why? What if it had caught you? And what if there had been more? I mean, it seems kind of silly for them to only set one obvious booby trap."

"My curiosity got the better of me," he said, shrugging carefully. "And hey, I'm not exactly stupid. I tripped it from outside. But that's kinda beside the point. We need to go through this stuff and see if we can find anything that might tell us what they're up to and where they're going. Giles will be back in a couple hours, but I'd like to get a head start-- I want to find these guys before they hurt anyone else."

"He's coming back already?" Willow lifted a data CD out of a stack of loose pages, then moved around the table to retrieve her notebook computer from the couch where she'd left it earlier. "You called him?"

"Yeah, it looked this might be more than we could handle," he answered. "I thought we could use that big brain of his."

"That's a good idea," Tara said. "This looks like it could take awhile, and, and we'll need him for these demon texts... unless you think maybe Anya...?"

Xander's face closed up at the mention of her name, and he shook his head. "I'm guessing she's not feeling real researchy right now."

"W-what about Spike?" Tara pressed.

He rolled his eyes. "Even if I was inclined to trust the chipped freak, he isn't around. He vanished last night when he was supposed to be watching Jonathan. I'm guessing they're in L.A."

Willow's eyebrows went up. "Because of Buffy, you think? Why was Jonathan here, anyway?"

"When is anything to do with Spike not about Buffy these days?" Xander snarked. "Jonathan I dunno, I think he's just running away from Warren and Andrew. They wished him back here courtesy of Anya, and he wasn't too happy."

"Well, if he's telling the truth that's one less bad guy to worry about," Willow mused. She frowned at her computer screen, clicking around the contents of the CD. "So why is Buffy meeting with her Dad?"

"Wants custody of Dawn, he says," Xander answered, shuffling papers around. "Demanded they meet with his fancy lawyers today."

"C-can he do that?" Tara shared an alarmed look with Willow.

"Not according to Buffy's Mom's lawyer. Giles called him last night and made sure he'd be there. According to him, unless CSD decides Buffy's evil, Dawn gets to live here as long as she wants."

"Well that's hopeful," Willow said, turning her attention back her computer. "Hmmm... and so's this, maybe, if I can figure it out. A bunch of schematics with the designations stripped." She sighed. "This is going to be a pain."

"Well, you know what they say," Tara teased.

"No pain, no gain," Xander and Willow chorused in reply.

Chapter Four: Arrivals & Departures

"This is what is hardest: to close the open hand because one loves."
~Friedrich Nietzsche


Xander spent a long moment on Buffy's porch, breathing deep, before opening the front door and carrying in his armload of booty. He'd been expecting to find Willow ready with questions, especially since he'd left so abruptly, and he wasn't sure yet whether he was ready to answer. Fortunately, the house was peaceful and quiet, with no witches to be seen.

The quiet was broken a moment later with the sound of laughter in the upstairs hall, followed by the muffled slam of a door and then the creak of pipes that heralded a shower. Xander glanced at the ceiling with a smile, then turned his attention to the mess he'd dumped on the coffee table. It was good to hear them happy, after the darkness that had dragged at everyone this year. He didn't mind waiting while they got 'reacquainted' some more.

They practically glowed when they came downstairs awhile later. Xander had a brief flashback to his almost-wedding, and Buffy waxing on about the light at the end of the tunnel-- well, that had all gone to the Hellmouth in a handbasket, but it looked like someone else had taken up the job. Hey, maybe one day they'd all manage to be happy at the same time.

The conversation went brightly, too, up until he mentioned the part about the buzz saws. Of course, Willow couldn't let that go. Xander liked that she cared about his well-being, really he did. What he didn't like was the 'fray-adjacent' mentality; it had plagued her attitude towards him ever since she'd discovered her witchy side and left him the only normal Scooby. It hadn't kept him from stopping zombie bombers back then, why should it keep him from tracking homicidal geeks now?

It wasn't worth the argument, though. Besides, he could hardly explain to himself how he'd discovered the threat there, much less anyone else, so there really wasn't any way to make what he'd done sound less dangerous. He decided to just play the 'got lucky' card instead, then segue right into Responsible Xander.

As a distraction, it seemed to work; they were as concerned as he was about the bad guys, of course, and the mention of Giles didn't hurt. Except that led right into whys, and wonderings about Anya and Spike, which skated perilously close to things he didn't want to talk or think about just now. He'd made such a habit out of being blind to things he didn't want to see... that wasn't going to work anymore, and he knew the truth was going to hurt. Best to face it later, when he had time to fall apart.

Finally, the research won out. Willow had CDs to decipher, Tara was paging through the books, and Xander was still sorting out the papers. He hadn't had a chance to examine every one of them in the lair, and he still couldn't find the one that had triggered his memory about the Orbs. The thing had to be...

Xander froze in mid-sort, blinking at the page in front of him in surprise. Then he started laughing. "I don't think this one is going to help us any."

Willow, deeply absorbed in Research Mode, looked up and gave him a distracted little frown. "Hmm?" Her eyes fell to the piece of paper and the strange symbols that covered it, and her frown deepened. "Why do you say that? I mean, it's not any language I recognize. It could be the key to their next plan."

Tara gave him another of her strangely knowing looks and raised an eyebrow at him. "O-or a shopping list?"

Xander laughed. "Poetry, actually. Klingon love poetry, no less... and not even original. 'I hunt in darkness, the stars my guide. The memory of you sings in my blood'... this is straight out of a Star Trek episode."

Willow stared at him, her green eyes wide with surprise. "You can read Klingon?"

He really needed some more guy friends. Xander laughed again, blushing a little, and let the sheet of paper flutter from his fingers to rest under the coffee table. "Moving right along, before I embarrass myself any further..." he said.

Willow rolled her eyes, but Tara was still watching him with a thoughtful expression. "There's a lot more to you than you like to pretend," she said quietly.

Uh oh. Danger, Will Robinson. Xander could almost feel the question coming.

"Or is it something to do with Giles' wish?" Willow asked seriously, picking up on Tara's lead. "I've been meaning to ask you about that."

He made one last weak attempt to deflect the conversation. "What, you think Giles wished me to speak Klingon?" he joked. "You'd think he'd pick Latin, or something else useful."


Oh, she'd brought out the big guns now; Xander found himself looking at Resolve Face and winced. "He actually wished for me to grow up. Cruel and unusual, hunh?"

Tara took a deep breath. "That could work," she said, nodding at him.

Okay, that was an unexpected reaction. "Uh, what do you mean?" Xander asked, blinking at her.

Tara glanced briefly at Willow, then returned her focus to him. "We, um, I noticed earlier that your aura, it's different. More, more focused, more coherent."

"Coherent?" His eyebrows went up. Okay, so maybe half the things out of his mouth were stupid humor. But even if his jokes weren't funny, he liked to think that they made some kind of sense.

"It's like you were all frayed at the edges," she said. "B-before, I mean. Maybe from the times you were possessed. And now it's like you're, um, re-woven."

Xander looked down, bracing his hands on the couch, thinking about that for a minute. Re-woven, she said. Well, it seemed as though a few non-Xander threads had got caught up in the weave. Soldier reflexes? Sharpened senses? Damn and double damn; he really didn't want any leftovers from the hyena. "It makes as much sense as anything," he said, sighing. "But... can we not talk about it yet? I need some time to think."

The girls glanced at each other again. "We just, you know, we worry about you. If you need to talk about it..." Willow lifted a hand from her keyboard and laid it on his arm.

He took her hand and squeezed it, then moved it back to the computer. "You ladies'll be the first ones I come to," he assured her, then smiled. "Especially if things get weird."

Willow smiled back, relieved. "When are things not weird with you, Xander?" she teased.

He grinned, then deliberately turned his attention back to the sorting. He still felt Tara's eyes on him, but after a minute she turned back to her text, too.

By the time Giles arrived around 3:30, the three of them had managed to wade through nearly everything that had been retrieved from the geeks' lair. A lot of the information was just junk, like the Klingon poetry, but there had been enough of the other kind on one of the CDs to light up Willow's eyes and send her scrambling to hook up her printer. Dozens of sheets filled with bank blueprints, vault schematics, armored car routes, and other highly valuable theft targets had printed out at her command.

They were busy piecing together a probable timeline from the information when Xander heard Giles' car pull up. Xander dropped the page he was working from on Willow's stack and walked to the front door, then paused with his hand on the latch, waiting.

"Xander, what are you..." Willow frowned, looking up at him, then looked out the living room window. "Giles is here?"

"Yup," he said, grinning back at her while he listened for the G-Man's footsteps. "Three, two, one..." He pulled the door abruptly open and stepped back, grinning at the British man's non-plused expression.

"Xander," Giles greeted him with a frown, and dropped the hand he'd been reaching for the door with.

"Hey, Giles," Xander nodded, and gestured towards the living room. "Come on in. Wills made some tea."

The older man sighed and stepped over the threshold. "That sounds marvelous; it's been a very long day already. Have you found anything else about the Orbs of Nezzla'Khan?"

Xander shrugged. "No, mostly just clues for their treasure hunt... Talk about crime spree. The stuff about the Orbs is mostly written in another language, so we were saving that for you." He tagged after Giles into the living room, and pointed out the things they'd set aside for him.

Giles settled into a chair and picked up a text, frowning at it. "Probably the language of the Nezzla demons," he said, sighing. "I know a little of it." He accepted the cup of tea Willow brought him, and took a careful sip before settling it on a tiny cleared space on the coffee table. "Have you located Miss Madison yet?"

Xander smirked at him. "And I quote, 'Don't do anything foolish before I arrive,'" he said. "It's been several weeks since we saw Amy last, and she was all skanky magic girl then. I didn't want to check up on her without backup."

"What about Amy?" Willow asked, looking a little confused.

Giles looked at Xander, and Xander sighed. "Warren needed someone to cast a spell to find these Orbs, right? So they could pull off the rest of this stuff. Except Jonathan bailed on them, and half these opportunities are time-sensitive, so they have to find another magic-user right away."

"And you think they'd go after Amy? Do they even know her?" Willow frowned. "She was in a cage in my room for three years."

"Well, they had her address in their lair," Xander shrugged. "We need to check with her at least."

"Okay," she said, nodding. "I'll go with you."

"Whoa," he objected instantly, throwing up his hands. Here be dragons! "And what happens when she makes with the mojo? No offense, but I need a functioning witch or mage, and Tara's the only good one I know." He glanced over at the witch in question with a small smile. "That is, if she wants to come."

Tara looked surprised, but also pleased that he'd asked. "O-of course," she said. "If Willow doesn't need me here?"

Willow looked a little hurt, but her expression was also tinged with self-disgust; she didn't like his objection, but she understood. "No, I'll be fine. Amy was pretty strung out last time I saw her, I doubt she's much danger anyway."

Giles looked pensive. "I wouldn't underestimate her, Willow," he said. "In fact, it might be a better idea if I accompanied Xander. If Mr. Meers and his friend haven't reached Miss Madison yet, then we can prevent him from doing so, and this text is useless; if they have, I might have more luck stopping any spells in progress than Tara would, and the translation can likewise wait."

The comfortable way Giles spoke of the magic caught Xander a little off guard. When they'd defeated Catherine Madison during Xander's sophomore year, Giles had claimed he'd never cast a spell before. Since then, Ethan and Eyghon had proven that an obvious lie, but the older man still seemed uncomfortable when casting magic, and not particularly gifted at it.

Xander didn't have a chance to ask any questions, however; without warning, there was a disturbance in the air and Anya's form appeared in the middle of the living room, facing Tara and Willow.

"Willow!" Anya exclaimed, wringing her hands. "That friend of yours, the twitchy one who used to be a rat and led you into the bad magics? I can sense her, she wants vengeance very badly, but for some reason I can't teleport to her. That's never supposed to happen."

"So..." Xander said, slowly, trying not to choke on the feelings of frustrated love, self-hatred, and disgust for what she'd become that roiled in his stomach. Note to self; find out from Giles later how to stop Anya-- no, Anyanka-- if it became necessary. "Why are you telling us all this?"

Anya spun around, noticing Xander and Giles for the first time. "Well. Since you're White Hats and everything, and I can't help her, I thought you might want to know. Not that I care what happens." She frowned at them, then snapped her fingers and disappeared as abruptly as she'd come.

"That was... unusual," Giles said, slowly.

Xander blinked, then twitched his lips into a sour smile. "What, no 'Oh Dear Lord'? You're slipping, G-Man."

Giles lifted an eyebrow at him. "Do stop calling me that, Xander," he snarked back. "I noticed long ago that you don't listen to that particular phrase anyway."

"Whatever you say," Xander smirked, grateful for the distraction from thoughts of Anya. He moved towards the door, pausing when he got near Giles to hold out his hand, palm up. "Hey, Dad, can I drive?"

The irritation on Giles' face grew more pronounced. "Don't call me that either," he growled, brushing past Xander to exit the house. "And the day you drive my car is the day I no longer walk this Earth."

Xander shook his head and followed the other man out the door.

Chapter Five: Girl Power

"A woman is like a tea bag - you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water."
~Nancy Reagan


"Damn Anya." Willow scowled at the door, looking very much like she wanted to stomp her foot.

"Sweetie?" Tara gently touched Willow's arm, wondering where the anger was coming from.

Willow turned her irritated green gaze on her girlfriend. "I mean, I understand why she still shorts out Xander's circuitry, but Giles? Since when does she throw his great big brain off the tracks? They left here without any weapons or a way to find Amy!"

Tara smiled a little, amused at Willow's vehemence. "Since she tricked him into wishing?" she answered Willow's first question. "Besides, Xander has Amy's address. They'll probably check Willie's after that for information? O-or maybe try a location spell."

"Not unless they go by the Magic Box for supplies," Willow objected, "and they don't have anything of Amy's to cast it with. Plus, I don't care how blase Giles suddenly is about the magic, I've never seen him cast anything off the cuff. They need help!"

"Willow..." Tara began cautiously. Everything she was saying was more or less true, but Willow and magic were still, in Tara's opinion, un-mixy things.

"I know, I know! So would you? Please?" The big green eyes widened, and Willow's face took on a pleading expression that almost qualified as puppy-dog eyes.

Tara sighed. Well, it wasn't as if it would take much time or energy, and it could save the men a lot of running around. "All right. Do we still have anything that was Amy's?"

"Thank you!" Willow sighed in relief and threw her arms around Tara in a quick hug. "I think there's some stuff from the Habitrail in my closet," she said, and ran up the stairs.

Tara went into the kitchen and opened the coupon drawer, looking for a map of the Sunnydale area. She had one back in the dorm, but she didn't want to run back just for that, and there were usually a couple of spares in Buffy's house. They came in handy, for several reasons.

She located a map that wasn't spotted with pizza residue, demon slime, or anything else that could interfere, and spread it on a large clean area on the floor. According to the chore chart, Dawn had mopped in here Thursday night, so it should be fine on the tile... and hey, easy to clean up afterwards.

Willow came back downstairs. She had changed into a pair of jeans, and was carrying the round running wheel from Amy-rat's cage. "I gave her some of the other toys, you know, kind of as mementos, but she said she never wants to see any big wheels ever again. So, voila. One object heavily associated with the person to be located."

Tara had the components for the location spell she wanted to use with her, as it wasn't particularly complicated. A few sprinkles, an incantation, and some concentration were all it required. Theoretically, the materials she'd scattered on the map would coalesce in a pinpoint of light, showing Amy's location. As long as she was in the mapped area unshielded and the focus object was properly chosen, it was pretty much guaranteed to work.

"Something's clouding her presence," Tara said with a frown a few moments later. "I can't... I think there's a magic barrier around her. But it's somewhere in this area." She gestured at a softly glowing region on the map that covered a few square miles.

Willow frowned down at the map. "There's nothing there. The Initiative cave-and-tunnel system avoided that area, and the sewers don't run out there either. It's one of those blocks of space that don't show up on any Sunnydale blueprints. Demon hideout, maybe?"

Tara sighed, and let the spell go. "Do you think they took her along? To fetch the Orbs?"

Willow nodded, looking determined. "Probably. So... I'll get a crossbow and some stakes. It shouldn't take us very long to get there." She jumped up and walked back out to the living room. A creak of hinges and some muffled clunking announced that she was digging through the weapons chest.

"Us?" Tara called into the other room. She unfolded her body from the floor, brushing her knees off as she stood, and carried the map over to the garbage can. She shook the residue off, put it back in the drawer, and then went for a broom to make sure none of the herbs and powders were left on the linoleum. "Willow, I thought we were doing this to help Xander and Giles. You, you need to call them."

"With a vague area?" Willow objected loudly. "We need to narrow it down. I promise we'll call them when we figure out where it is. I'll bring my cell phone." She reappeared in the doorway to the kitchen, brandishing an axe and a crossbow. Then she extended the axe to Tara, handle-first, with a smile. "Here. It's the one you stopped that biker demon with, the one that attacked me."

Tara leaned the broom handle against the counter and cautiously took the axe, remembering the chaos of the evening they'd brought Buffy back, and the gang of demons looting the town. It had been the first time she'd ever killed anything with such a weapon. Willow had been weakened from calling on Osiris...

Tara looked into Willow's face and did a thing she seldom felt comfortable with; she studied Willow's aura for the flickering that would indicate lying or deception. She loved Willow, but after everything that had happened, it was only prudent to be cautious. Fortunately, nothing was wrong; Willow was just her normal enthusiastic self.

"Okay," she told Willow, then put a touch of bedroom in her smile. "B-but just so you know, this wasn't the kind of activity I had in mind when I came here."

Willow blushed very prettily at that remark, and her eyes sparkled. "Don't worry, we won't go anywhere near the demons unless it's an emergency. We'll be safe back home in no time, and then maybe we can get back to those plans." The last words were spoken breathily as she leaned over the weapons between them and touched her lips to Tara's in a gentle kiss.

It took about half an hour to locate the general area the map had indicated. There weren't any roads running directly through that chunk of land; the ground rose and fell there in gentle waves, and trees obscured any possible caves or buildings.

Willow carefully parked Xander's car in the nearest pull-off area, and tucked her spare key back in her pocket. "So," she said. "We scout a little, and at the first sign of demons or Amy call Giles and Xander."

Tara nodded. "That's the plan." She got out of the car, trying to minimize the sounds of gravel scrunching under her feet, and retrieved the heavy axe from the back seat.

Willow got her crossbow and exited the car, then patted the pocket of her jeans to make sure she still had the cell phone. Then she glanced over at Tara, and her face shifted into an unreadable expression.

"What?" Tara asked, a little alarmed. "Is something wrong?"

Willow shook her head and sighed. "No, just remembering. You know back before the Glory thing got big, when we were still living in the dorms? You kept studying spells and things late at night."

Tara thought she saw where this was going. "I s-said I d-didn't think I was useful," she stuttered, with a sad smile.

"Yeah." Willow looked down at the ground and turned over a few pieces of gravel with the toe of her shoe. "My turn now. Xander wanted your help, not mine."

"You're s-still the real Scooby, though," Tara said, quietly. "That won't ever change."

Willow gave her a watery smile. "I know. It just hits me sometimes. It's been years since I was just a normal girl. Queen of the research, hacker extraordinaire, but no extra powers-- it kinda sucks."

Tara bit her lip, not sure what to say to that. Strictly speaking, Willow wasn't addicted to magic... she was addicted to the dark magics, which was an entirely different thing. Lots of the heavy kind of spellwork had effects on the caster, including adrenaline and chemical spikes, producing a 'rush' that was way too easy for a body to get used to, and way too vulnerable to outside meddling. But until Willow viewed magic as a tool and not a method of empowerment, it wouldn't be safe for her to practice even the white magics. She would just get sucked right back down.

A moment of silence hung in the air, and then Tara smiled reassuringly at her. There was something she could say. "You're special to me."

"And that means more to me than the magic," Willow said seriously. Then she took a deep breath and turned towards the forest. "Okay, then. Let's find Amy."

They picked slowly through the forest, looking for trails or any other sign of life. There was a lot of ground to cover, a lot of hillside to examine for caves, and a lot of brush and other foliage to push aside. Tara was hampered by her skirt, as she hadn't been able to change before leaving Buffy's house, but at least she'd been wearing sensible shoes.

It was around five o'clock when they found the tunnel entrance. It would never have been visible from the outside if the previous visitors had been at all careful, but someone had broken several branches on the trees that flanked the opening. A few of the branch stubs were as large around as Tara's upper arm, but the sap seeping from them was still fresh.

"Did Xander ever tell us just what these Orbs were supposed to do?" Tara asked quietly, trying to figure out how much strength it would take for a person to do that much damage.

Willow blinked at her for a moment. "You know, I don't think he did. I think he and Giles forgot we weren't there when Jonathan talked about them. Why do you ask?"

Tara touched her fingers to the beads of sap, then showed them to Willow. "Someone left here in a hurry. A-and I don't think it was a demon. But they did so much damage..."

Willow sighed. "Xander did say the Orbs were going to help them with their crime spree. I guess now we know how; even if Buffy were still here in town, she would have a harder time stopping them if they have superpowers from some magic artifact."

Tara nodded. "We should probably call them now and tell them what we've found before we go in."

"But if Warren and Andrew have already left...?" Willow looked into the dark mouth of the tunnel, then back at Tara, and then sighed. "No, you're right, I know. Who's to say it was them, or that they both left, or whatever." As she spoke, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket and checked the display screen.

She didn't dial, however. Instead, she began pacing around on the hill, scowling at the phone as she went. "There must be something blocking the cell coverage here... I'm not getting a signal, Tara."

Tara glanced back in the direction of the town, then at the hills around them. "Did you check it in the car, where we parked?" she asked. They could always track the direct path back to the road and wait for the guys there.

Willow gave her a chagrined look. "Um, no. I kinda forgot..."

A weak cry interrupted their conversation, issuing from the tunnel's mouth. Both Tara and Willow went silent, listening hard.

"Help me..." the voice pleaded. "Anybody... please...?"

Willow looked at the phone, then at Tara; Tara looked at the tunnel, then at Willow. They stared at each other for a long moment, until Tara sighed and nodded. Nothing else to do now, but go in.

Chapter Six: Sharing Secrets

"He moves in darkness as it seems to me / Not of woods only and the shade of trees."
~Robert Frost, 'Mending Wall'


Giles was quiet as he drove towards Amy's house. He'd asked Xander for her address and handed the young man a sword retrieved from the back seat, then clammed up once he'd turned the key in the ignition. Normally, Xander would have started some inane conversation to fill the space, but the quality of Giles' silence bothered him. The older man was tense, with worried lines around his eyes and a tense grip on the steering wheel, and there were little green sparks dancing around his knuckles.

Guess that answers the question about the magic, Xander thought. Something's happened to him, too. "Lot on your mind, Giles?" he asked, quietly.

Giles shot him an unreadable look. "Yes, there is actually, not that you'd..." His voice trailed off, and the corners of his mouth turned downward as he sighed. "Or perhaps you would, which is one of the many things that I'm worried about."

"The wish," Xander guessed, nodding sagely.

"Yes." Giles cleared his throat. "I did a bit of research last night; as it happens, it is possible to reverse a vengeance demon's wishes by destroying her power center. However, I have no idea what Anyanka's power center is, nor whether it would still work if she has granted wishes since." He almost managed to sound apologetic.

"It doesn't matter," Xander shrugged. "According to Tara all the wish did was make me more focused, anyway. It could have been worse."

Giles signalled for the next turn, then glanced at Xander again. "Tara noticed this...? Ah, your aura. I see. Have you noticed any effects?"

To tell, or not to tell. On the one hand, it really wasn't any of Giles' business, especially before Xander worked it through on his own. On the other hand, if Giles stuck around at all he was bound to notice certain things, and it might be better to have the 'fessing up out of the way. On the third hand, it was partly Giles' fault, and the guy deserved to know the consequences of his wish. Plus, Xander knew that despite his detached behavior, Giles really did care.

Tell, then; he'd just have to make sure he shared with Willow soon, too. He had promised.

"Um, yeah," Xander said aloud, fiddling nervously with the upper strap of his seat belt. "I think she's right. But there's something else... she said she thinks I was unfocused in the first place partly because of the hyena thing, and the soldier thing..." He paused, thinking how to phrase what came next.

Giles signalled again, and turned onto Amy's street. He parked the car carefully against the curb, frowning as he did so. "She believes that being possessed twice had damaged your psyche? Well, it's entirely possible. The effects of such occurences are difficult to determine with any exactitude."

"You can determine in my case that they left something behind," Xander sighed. "This whole refocusing thing? All of a sudden I have a lot of instincts that aren't mine. And I can hear a lot of stuff I shouldn't be able to. It's kinda neat, but pretty wig-inducing, too."

Giles blinked at him, then removed his glasses and began polishing them with the tail of his shirt.

Xander snickered. "See? Glasses polishing. A main indicator of serious Giles wiggage."

Giles stopped, then glanced down at his hands and gave a rueful smile. "Ah. I'm afraid I hardly noticed." He put them back on and gave Xander a serious look. "We don't have the time to discuss this in depth now... but I'll keep it in mind. Thank you for telling me."

"No prob," Xander said, with a nod.

Giles gripped the door handle and prepared to exit the car, but he paused again, at the last moment, and threw another comment over his shoulder. "Incidentally, if this is how you behave when grown up, then perhaps it's not such a change, after all."

Xander raised an eyebrow at him. "Thanks... I think," he said, then opened the passenger door and got out.

The two men walked slowly up the sidewalk to the house Amy Madison was presumably sharing with several other amateur witches-- the girl hadn't moved to live with her father, as she still didn't want to explain the magic to him, and few of her remaining friends had the wherewithal or desire to host her rent-free. Xander held his sword close to his leg, concerned about carrying it around in daylight in a public place, but what passersby there were didn't even give him a second glance. Ostritch behavior, he thought. If you don't see it, it isn't there.

If you don't see it... Xander flashed on "naked pushups", then shook his head angrily. No. Not thinking about that just now.

Giles frowned at him, then lifted his hand and knocked on the front door of the house. Xander heard the clatter of something being dropped inside, then some hushed whispering and sweeping noises before a set of footsteps came to the door. It opened just a crack, revealing a pair of brown eyes in a thin, pinched face.

"Whaddya want?" the unidentified girl asked.

"Is Miss Madison available?" Giles asked, reverting to a more proper, upper-crusty version of his British accent. "There are important matters that I must discuss with her."

The girl goggled at him, then shook her head. "Nah, man. She went out with this guy, I dunno, Wart? Something."

"Warren?" Xander prompted. "Did he say anything about where they were going?"

"Warren, that was it," she said, nibbling at her lip. "And I think he was like an old boyfriend or something. He asked if she still did ma..., um, math! Yeah, and then he grabbed her arm and took off. Didn't say where."

Giles glanced at Xander, then frowned at the girl. "Is there anything else you can tell us, Miss? Did she go with him willingly?"

She blinked at him, then sucked in a sharp breath. "Hey, weren't you the high school librarian? Man, I don't care what book she took off you, I ain't helping you catch her." With a scowl, she shut the door in his face.

"What a lovely young woman," Giles said sourly, staring at the closed door.

"Nice and suspicious. Notice how she wouldn't say magic; I bet any authority figure woulda scared her off." Xander shrugged. "Well, we know Warren's got Amy anyway; now what?"

"Now we locate Warren," Giles said, and turned to walk back to the car. "He's operating under the delusion that he's Buffy's arch-nemesis, correct?"

Xander rolled his eyes and followed him. "I don't know what he's smoking, but yeah," he confirmed.

"Then he's certain to make waves almost immediately, hoping to match up against her. I doubt it's a coincidence that you found so much information on their plans in that basement."

"Then you think we're too late to stop him getting the Orbs?" Xander frowned, and came to a halt at the passenger door of Giles' car.

Giles sighed. "Unfortunately, yes." He unlocked the car, then opened the door and hit the power lock button for Xander. "Anya's message indicated that Amy was behind a magic barrier somewhere, and given that Warren has already taken her, I believe it's safe to assume that she's currently wherever the Orbs were kept. Warren already has them."

"Isn't that bad news? AKA, the-Slayer-really-should-be-here kinda news?" Xander asked as he got in and fastened his seatbelt. "'Cause I don't really think the rest of us are a match for superstrength and invulnerability."

Giles settled into the car, staring off into the distance, then shook his head. "No. Buffy and Dawn must remain in Los Angeles until the confrontation with her father is finished; I don't want to chance anything going wrong on the legal front. Dawn must not end up in her father's custody."

"Would have to agree with you there," Xander said. "Sooooooo..." He drew the word out, tapping his fingers of one hand on the dashboard. "Where's that leave us?"

"We'll have to separate him from the Orbs," Giles answered. "He will have to carry them with him, and that will make him vulnerable."

Xander shook his head. "If we're lucky, maybe. If it were me, I'd be wearing 'em in one of those hidden leather moneybelts, you know, with the openings on the inside? You'd never get 'em off me."

"Yes, well, we'll just have to hope he's not that inventive," Giles frowned. "Even so, however..." Giles flexed his fingers on the steering wheel, and the little green sparks Xander had noticed earlier flared into a hyperactive lightshow, radiating from fingertip to elbow and casting strange forested shadows on Giles' face.

"Nice," Xander said, dryly. "What happened, you get struck by lightning? Or have we been missing something all this time?"

"It's a tale for another time," Giles said. "Now... shall we proceed to Willy's?"

"Sounds like a plan," Xander replied. "He's overdue for his monthly thrashing, anyway."

The unfortunate barman, however, had no appreciable information. Neither cash nor threats produced an answer. It seemed that Warren did come in every now and again making noise about the Slayer, but he hadn't been seen in several days, and no one else had discussed his whereabouts or his plans.

Xander checked his watch as they exited the bar, and saw that it was nearly five o'clock. "You know, we probably should call Willow if this is going to take much longer," he said. "The first big event on Warren's list is the carnival take, later tonight. If we don't catch him in the next few hours, we'll need to set up over there."

"Quite. Although he's unlikely to bring Miss Madison with him. Perhaps in the meantime, Tara could try locating her? She may have been moved from the barrier Anya detected."

"I'll ask." Xander pulled out his cell phone and leaned against Giles' car, then dialed the Summers' number.

"Xander..." Giles said warningly, as the phone rang.

Xander grinned at him. "Calm down, I'm not gonna scratch the paint."

The answering machine picked up on the fifth ring, filling his ears with Buffy's canned voice. He frowned and left a short message. "Willow, Tara, it's Xander. Call me on my cell if you get this."

He hung up, and dialed another number. "Sounds like the girls are out; I'll try Willow's cell," he narrated for Giles' benefit. Unfortunately, that number didn't work either. The automated Out-of-Range message picked up instead.

Giles removed his glasses again and rubbed at the bridge of his nose with a heavy sigh. "Wonderful. Now we have four people to locate, instead of two," he muttered. "Can anything else go wrong?"

"Great," Xander groaned. "You've jinxed us now. C'mon, Giles, even I know better than to ask that question!"

Giles gave him a black look, then put his glasses back on and looked down at the pavement, thoughtfully scratching it with the edge of one shoe. "There's something else I'd like to try. Can you direct me to the house you investigated this morning?"

"The one that's now a carpenter's nightmare?" Xander snorted. "Okay, sure. I'll try Wills again when we get there. No reason to panic yet." He shut the phone and put it back in his pocket, then got back in the convertible.

Giles' mood seemed to darken further on the way to the Trio's former lair, and it gradually began to dawn on Xander that it wasn't just the weight of worries dragging the older man down, there was something acting on him. The stress lines around Giles' eyes were in full evidence, and the air around him fairly radiated tension, even without the lightshow around the steering wheel.

"Uh, Giles, is there something, you know, actively wrong? You're not under some Ethan curse, or cancer, or anything, are you?" He spoke quietly, hoping for an actual answer instead of the standard manly deflection.

Giles started, then frowned. "The short answer is no. The long answer is a bit more complicated, and all tied up with the, um." He gestured, and sparks followed his fingers. "Let's just say that I'm a great deal more aware of the Hellmouth than I used to be." A faint shudder went through his frame. "The longer I'm here the more difficult it is to ignore."

Several formerly unconnected dots reassembled in Xander's mind to make a coherent picture. "Shit, Giles, you shoulda told us before you took off again. Buffy really beat herself up about it, you know; she thought it was all her fault. If you had stayed, I don't think..."

Gah. (( Naked pushups. Buffy coming back from patrol covered in bruises he should have suspected from adventures with Anya. Spike telling them how Buffy liked a washcloth on the back of her neck! )) Xander swallowed hard. "Anyway, she really felt abandoned."

Another fine tremor passed through Giles' shoulders, and he made a show of double-checking the addresses before pulling the car over. "It wasn't as bad then," he finally said, quietly. "And I honestly thought it was better for her. I could not let her grow dependent on me." He shook his head, then roused himself and gave Xander a sour look as he got out of the car for the third time that afternoon. "Not that I need to explain my actions to you."

"No, you need to explain them to Buffy," Xander said softly, then straightened up and shifted into Action Mode. "Now, what are we here to do, again?"

"I didn't tell you the first time," Giles said. "We're here to do what we've been doing; track Warren. Now be quiet and let me work." He approached the back of the house where the door still hung askew, then knelt in the grass with his palms flat against the earth.

Chapter Seven: Rescuing Amy

"It is a denial of justice not to stretch out a helping hand to the fallen; that is the common right of humanity."


"Next time, please don't say 'unless it's an emergency,'" Tara said softly, raising an eyebrow at her lover. "Because every time someone does, there is one." Then she turned to the tunnel, advancing carefully into its shadowed depths.

The weak voice inside had fallen quiet again. Tara could hear a coughing sound from somewhere ahead of her, but she couldn't see anything; there wasn't any light, natural or otherwise, to guide her steps. She licked her lips to moisten them, nervously aware that this time she was the muscle and Willow the backup.

"Tara...?" Willow whispered, coming to a halt behind her. She sounded as nervous as Tara felt. "You wanna shed a little light on the subject?"

"Umm... j-just a second..." Tara touched a hand to her throat, where a crystal pendant hung on a thin leather cord. "Incandesce," she whispered. The stone grew warm against her skin and emitted a soft white glow, just enough to show her where to put her feet and how far away the walls were. She'd been worried that whatever was blocking this place from the outside world would also prevent her from working her own magic, but it seemed to be just a fuzzy sort of shielding, not a nullification spell.

A gasp echoed in the enclosed space, followed by the clatter of small stones slipping over each other and bouncing off of the floor of the cave. "Oh, goddess... Who's there...?" The pained voice spoke again, and this time Tara recognized the voice; it was definitely Amy's.

"That's Amy," Willow breathed in Tara's ear, placing a small hand on Tara's shoulder.

"Shhh," Tara cautioned her, then narrowed her eyes and concentrated, reading the 'aura' of the underground space as best she could. An Elemental mage would be far better at this, one who could talk to the spirits in the earth or air, but she could at least open herself to the presence of other beings, or any magical traces left behind.

After a moment, she let out a sigh of relief and willed her necklace to grow brighter, illuminating the rough-hewn walls and the heap of fallen rock blocking the tunnel several dozen meters from where they stood. Except for a strange blank spot that was probably the treasure chamber itself, the place had that empty aftermath kind of feeling, and the number of recent aura trails leading to that magical wall equaled the ones coming out. No one was hiding in there.

"Amy's the only one here, I think," she told Willow. "Warren definitely got what he came for, but they left a little while ago."

"Phew." Willow stepped out from behind Tara and walked slowly towards the rockfall, frowning at it. "Amy?" she called. "It's Willow and Tara. What happened? Are you okay?"

"Not... particularly..." the hidden girl groaned. "He brought... the ceiling down on me..."

Tara winced in sympathy. They had been more concerned about stopping Warren from using Amy to get the Orbs than about the girl herself-- she wasn't exactly a friend-- but Tara found it difficult to tolerate anyone's suffering, friend or not. "How bad is it?" she yelled. "Did it just catch your legs, or...?"

Amy filled in the blanks with a raw, pained laugh. "It's... pretty bad. I'm... mostly buried."

"Goddess," Willow breathed, picking her way through the outflung fringe of the rock pile. "How are we ever going to move all of this?"

Tara bit her lip. If Amy was in a lot of pain, she wasn't going to be much help; it was hard to do magic when you couldn't concentrate. Willow had only her hands, and that was a lot of rock to move manually. Tara could dissolve a few of the larger rocks to get through, but then the entire stack would shift and possibly crush Amy further. She could try levitating the mess, but her telekinetic grasp was pretty weak; it would take a great many tries to shift that much mass.

At least, it would for her alone. Tara frowned, flashing back on the Gentlemen's visit, way back when she was first getting to know Willow. They'd been chased by some lackeys and needed a way to block a door. Individually, neither of them could have budged the soda machine even a little, but when they'd linked hands it flew across the room as though shot from a cannon.

Would it be too much like doing magic, if she asked Willow for help with this? She could do the actual casting, guiding the levitation, and treat Willow as just another energy source. When they linked their power like that, it tended to multiply what either of them could do alone, and in this case that kind of power would be necessary. They had to get to Amy before her injuries got any more serious.

"Willow?" Tara spoke up, picking her way through the rubble until she stood behind her girlfriend. "I, I don't think I can do this. Not alone."

Willow turned wide green eyes on her, her expression equal parts shock and doubt. "But Tara, you know I can't do magic. Not now, maybe not ever. Remember? You agreed, it's too dangerous."

Tara swallowed. "I'm not asking you to do magic," she said, reaching out to caress Willow's smooth cheek and tuck several wayward red hairs behind her ear. "Just, d-do you remember the soda machine?"

Willow thought for a moment, nibbling on her lower lip, then nodded. "When we needed to block the door," she said. "I couldn't move it by myself, but then you lent me your power..."

Tara smiled encouragingly. "Exactly. You don't have to do anything, just let me draw from you."

Willow thought about that a moment more. There was still doubt in her face, matching the knot under Tara's breastbone, but there really was no other way to do this in any reasonable amount of time. Finally she smiled a little, and took Tara's hands in hers. "Okay," she said, "Operation Willow-Battery is a go."

Tara took a deep breath, and focused on the link between them, imagining Willow's power flowing into her through their joined hands. It didn't feel as smooth or as joyous as it had in the past-- there was too much water under the bridge for that, and too much darkness in Willow's energy. There was a strange sense of balance to it, however, and a distinct feeling of having come home.

"Amy?" she called out, when she felt she was ready. "We're going to try something. How far past you does the tunnel go?"

"Not very," Amy answered, then coughed. "There's a... barrier. But it... burns up every... everything that touches it. Instantly."

"Hey," Willow said, raising her eyebrows. "Rescue Amy and clean this place up at the same time; Martha Stewart would be proud."

Tara stifled a laugh, then closed her eyes and concentrated. Carefully, she extended her mental grip around the rock-pile, imagining it flowing around and between the stones and solidifying like concrete. She was careful not to take the entire mass; she didn't want to grab Amy up by accident. Then she began to push.

The rocks wouldn't slide smoothly past each other and there was no room to lift them against the ceiling, so she had to thin the stones out a little, funneling them out from the far side while holding the rest still. It didn't take long to figure out where the barrier was, when the first batch vanished from her touch with a sizzle of strange power.

Very shortly, all but the bottommost portion of the rubble pile was gone, obliterated against the Nezzla demons' barrier. Most of the rock dust and some of the smallest pebbles had escaped Tara's control, pattering down in a dusty rain as they worked and making Amy cough more, but otherwise it had gone without a hitch. She released Willow's hands with a sigh of relief, and let their mingled magic separate again.

Willow sighed as well as she felt Tara release her power, then turned shining eyes on her girlfriend. "That wasn't so bad," she whispered, smiling. "It feels different, when I'm not controlling it. No temptation or anything."

That was an encouraging thought. "Maybe we can, um, experiment a little later," Tara said, smiling back. "But for now, Amy...?"

"Right." Willow nodded, her expression slipping back into seriousness. Then she began climbing through what was left of the rockfall, looking for any sign of the trapped witch.

Tara followed her, opening her tired magical senses again to check for the girl's aura. Amy had fallen silent sometime during the removal, so they weren't sure exactly where she was, or what state she was in.

They located her after a minute or two, when the glow from Tara's necklace caught glints from Amy's light brown hair. She didn't look well; she was unconscious, there was a lot of blood, and her aura was very weak.

"We have to get her out of here," Willow said, looking worried.

Tara knelt next to the fallen girl, carefully picking off the rocks that were still resting on the girl's chest and extremities. Fortunately, it looked like her shoulders and head had been spared, and the way she was laying had probably protected her spine. "I think I'll have to levitate her to the car," she said, quietly. "I might need your help again; we can't risk injuring her more."

"I told her to stay away from me, you know," Willow said with a worried frown, helping Tara move the rocks. "After she dosed me with power and called it a birthday gift. Did I do the right thing? Should I have tried harder to get her to stop, too?"

Tara sighed. Willow's guilty insecurity complex had a tendency to manifest at difficult times. "It's not your fault, Willow," she said quietly. "She would have pulled you right back down, you know that."

"Maybe not," Willow said, her voice pained. "I mean, maybe Warren wouldn't have gotten to her. Maybe if she had real friends, I could have stopped her going to Rack. Maybe..."

"She did have friends," Tara assured her. "She chose to go find Rack again, after you, um, de-ratted her. B-besides, it's much easier for someone to pull you down, than for you to pull them up. My mother used to say they have gravity on their side."

Willow smiled a little at that analogy and sighed again. "You're right. I just feel guilty, seeing her like this, when I was mean to her last time we talked."

The last of the debris came free, and Tara winced at how bad Amy looked. "Everything will work out," she said, mentally crossing her fingers. "Let's just get her to the hospital."

It took some doing to get Amy to the car without jostling her or worsening her injuries, and the effort utterly exhausted Tara. As soon as Amy was laid out on the back seat, she slumped into the passenger seat and leaned back against the headrest with her eyes closed.

Willow put her spare key in the ignition, then paused and pulled out her cell phone again. "Hey, I've got reception now," she said, sounding encouraged. "You think I should call 911? Or just Xander and Giles?"

"It would take the ambulance too long to get here," Tara murmured, keeping her eyes closed. "Try the guys, tell them we're taking her to the hospital. Giles will probably have questions."

"Okay." Willow dialed quickly, then waited for someone to answer her call.

Chapter Eight: Earthquake

"Time has been transformed, and we have changed; it has advanced and set us in motion; it has unveiled its face, inspiring us with bewilderment and exhilaration."
~Kahlil Gibran


Let him work? What was that supposed to mean? Xander frowned down at Giles, watching in confusion as the older man closed his eyes and sank his fingers into the turf.

Nothing seemed to happen over the next several seconds, so Xander shook his head and retrieved his cell phone to make the promised call to Willow. He'd entered all 10 digits and had his thumb poised over the OK button when he looked up again, checking instinctively on Giles' position. Giles hadn't actually moved, and no one else had appeared... but each and every one of his recently enhanced senses suddenly clamored at him, and his soldier's instincts were going haywire. Not to mention his instincts as an ordinary boy raised to manhood on a Hellmouth.

Giles' attitude had reminded him of prayer before, and that impression was even stronger now. He had bowed his head slightly towards the ground, and his knees were out of sight amidst the grass... grass that had suddenly grown another three inches in the last few seconds. It was rippling gently in circular waves, as if each blade were bending towards Giles' kneeling form. More than that, small vines and flowers had begun appearing out of nowhere between Giles' fingers, winding up his wrists in shades of green and brilliant color.

The early evening sun seemed to dim slightly where it touched Giles' skin, taking on a pale green hue reminiscent of new leaves in the spring. Giles himself seemed impossibly solid, unbearably real. Every line of his features gave off the impression that it had been hewn from granite, despite the fact that he was obviously made of flesh and not stone.

The phone fell to the grass unnoticed, all thoughts of the girls gone from Xander's mind. He didn't know what to make of this, how to process what he was seeing. It was as though Giles had become a living statue, part of the Earth; the ground, the plants, the very dust-motes in the air were welcoming the older man.

Then things began to change. The air dimmed further, as though a cloud had passed over the sun, and the foliage clasping Giles' arms and legs abruptly withered and fell to the ground. The shivering grass waved outward instead of inward, falling flat like the walls of Jericho and writhing with dark shadows.

Xander hadn't been in church in many years and didn't often remember his Sunday School lessons, but something about this situation brought it to mind. Maybe it was the way he suddenly felt so small, puny and irrelevant in the face of something frighteningly vast. Vampires and demons never made him feel this way; he could strike at them and crack lame jokes even when they scared him, even when they could pulverize him in return. They were immediate and knowable. This... was not. What on earth had Giles tapped into?

Giles groaned, and the world snapped back into order with a nearly audible jolt. The dimness lifted, traded for sunshine warm and golden with approaching sunset. The long, dark circles of grass shrank back into a short, green expanse of healthy lawn. The blackened vines and flowers vanished as though they had never been. Giles was back to being Giles again, British and aging and human, familiar and comfortable and not all that mysterious.

"Um, Giles?" Xander asked, stooping to retrieve his phone from the ground. "Could you maybe tell me what that was? Because it looked pretty Hellmouthy to me."

Giles snorted and looked up, spearing Xander with haunted green eyes, and maybe he wasn't so familiar after all. "Hellmouthy? You have such a way of phrasing things, Xander." He leaned back on his heels, moving his hands from grass to thigh, and pushed smoothly to his feet. "I was asking the earth spirits that abide here where Warren had gone with his object of power, and the Hellmouth did indeed interfere."

"Can I be the first to say, Wha...?" Xander half-joked, raising a hand up into the air. None of this made any sense. He might vaguely expect something along these lines out of Willow, at least before her magic-addiction spree, but Giles was usually steady as a rock, carefully intoning any spells he used from thick, well-guarded books.

Giles' hands went into his pockets, and his gaze turned introspective as he answered. "They burned this out of me, you realize," he said, his voice thick with some remembered pain. "Long ago, after Eyghon. If Willow got out of control again and was brought to their notice they might try to retrain her, but I was judged a lost cause."

"Why?" Xander couldn't help but ask. Eyghon had seemed so horrible when he was younger, but the memory of it had lightened in comparison to everything else he'd seen in the years since. Sweet, for one; how many people had burnt up from his demonic songs? Now that had been a colossal mistake on Xander's part. So maybe Xander wasn't inherently powerful, but did that make what he did better or worse?

"Willow draws on her own power, and that of her chosen deities, as does Tara. Ethan is much the same; he has Chaos to fuel him. Most practitioners of magic pull from similar sources. I, however, inherited another sort of power entirely."

Giles paused for a moment there, looking uncomfortably terrible and tragic, before continuing. "My mother's family has an Elemental connection to the earth; always has, since records of her line began. The men manifest the abilities in puberty; the women do not, but are always carriers. Her uncles arranged her marriage to my father as a test, to see what would come of two such old and different guardian lines. I was the only offspring... and a grave disappointment."

He took a deep breath, and looked up to meet Xander's stunned gaze again. His voice was calm, as though he were giving some lecture or other; there was very little emotion in his words. Close up, however, Xander could see his eyes burning with truths and pain. "I took that power and turned it to perverse ends; Eyghon was the worst, but by no means all. They could not eject me from the Watchers due to the influence of both families, but they could and did render me harmless. At the time, I felt guilty enough that I accepted the punishment without question."

Xander interrupted him there with a choked laugh. "I wouldn't exactly call you harmless, G-Man. I mean, even before this." He waved vaguely at the ground at Giles' feet.

The corners of Giles' mouth twitched in an almost-smile. "Yes. Quite. But I was, for many years. At any rate it's back, God knows why. I'm not certain I'll be able to master it now without becoming Ripper again, but if defending my chosen family means that I must face that..." He shook his head.

Xander filed most of the explanation away for later. He knew he'd have lots of questions once it sunk in, but he was having trouble absorbing it just now; the shock was making the details hard to grasp.

"So that's the long answer, huh?" he joked. "Wow." Something Giles had said earlier about Xander's new gifts floated to the surface of his mind, and he parroted the words back with a with a more genuine smile. "We don't have the time to discuss this in depth now... but I'll keep it in mind. Thank you for telling me."

Giles just shook his head and stepped forward, removing a hand from his pocket to clap Xander on the shoulder. "I wasn't entirely being sarcastic when I said that this isn't such a change for you," he said. "I think you've been behaving stupidly for quite some time as a cover for truths that you have seen, but would rather not know."

Xander swallowed. "Yeah. Probably," he admitted. "I keep wanting to pretend everything's perfect, but..." he shrugged. "I've done some really brainless stuff, haven't I?"

Giles gave his shoulder another squeeze, then dropped his arm and turned towards the street. "You have all your life in front of you, Xander. The slate has been cleared; what you write on it from here on out is up to you."

"Yeah." Xander cleared his throat, and followed Giles' look. "So. Did these earth spirits have anything to say? And what did you mean about the Hellmouth interfering?"

Giles' expression soured. "I can feel it," he said. "It's a bloody great wound in the earth, and it pulls at the edges of my mind now even when I'm trying to ignore it. All of Sunnydale is tainted by it, and it clouds everything I try to do." He took a deep breath. "Nevertheless, I did manage to contact a guide." He gestured towards the curb.

It looked empty enough to Xander, but he was willing to believe anything just now. "A guide?" he prompted, raising his eyebrows.

"All living things on the earth are a part of its domain," Giles said. "I haven't much control over the more intelligent creatures, but some are willing to be of service. This being will follow the path of the disturbance Warren left behind with his medallion; we should be able to trace him to his current position."

"So what, we walk?" Xander wasn't exactly objecting to Giles' invisible friend, as he'd seen enough strange things in his life. The speed of their pursuit was bothering him, however.

"Don't worry," Giles said, nodding at the blank space. "It can travel a good deal faster than our vehicle." Without further comment, he headed for the car.

If he hadn't known better, Xander wouldn't have realized there was any difference between the drive to Warren's lair and the drive back. Giles kept his eyes on the road, signaled in advance of every intersection, and generally behaved like the conservative driver he was supposed to be. Apparently, their guide was well versed in human traffic laws... or else very patient.

The smooth journey stopped abruptly as they passed through an intersection near the Bronze. Giles halted in the middle of the road, glancing left and right with a concerned look on his face. "Warren's crossed his own path," he said, frowning. "If he were carrying the Orbs the second time, hopefully that trail will be stronger..."

The guide apparently made up its mind just as the honking of the cars behind Giles began to get obnoxious. Giles followed it toward a line of parked vehicles, then found an empty space and stopped the car. "I think it wishes us to follow it on foot now," he said, unnecessarily.

Xander stretched as he got out of the car and cast an eye at his watch. At some point since they'd left Willy's, a whole lot of time had vanished into the ether. It was actually starting to get late; Willow and Tara hadn't checked in yet and the sun was beginning to go down. He frowned at the darkening horizon, then felt in his pockets for a stake before following Giles and their guide down the sidewalk.

They were nearing the door of the Bronze-- what was Warren doing in there?-- when something else unexpected happened. Giles cried out and dropped to his knees; at about the same time, Xander became aware of a deep, low sound, barely audible to his newly expanded range of hearing. It was swiftly followed by a sudden heaving of the earth. Xander abruptly found himself making a close acquaintance with the pavement as chaos erupted around him. Glass shattered in windows up and down the street, car alarms started going off, and signs and other loose bits of buildings began crashing to the ground. The rumbling continued for several seconds, causing further damage, and then quieted, leaving the street eerily calm.

"Giles? You OK?" Xander picked himself up off the cracked cement sidewalk, carefully patting himself down to check for injuries. Fortunately, he seemed to have picked up only bruises.

Giles looked up slowly from his kneeling position, his face slack with surprise. "It's... it's gone," he said, with wonder in his voice. "The Hellmouth... I can't feel it anymore."

"It's WHAT?" Xander exclaimed, disbelieving. Surely that wasn't possible. How could it be gone? It was a fixture, a fact of life around here. What could have taken it away?

"There was a massive burst of magic," Giles said, climbing slowly to his feet. He stumbled a little, bracing himself against the nearest wall with one hand, and breathed deeply as the blood drained out of his face. "Ohhh, I don't feel well."

"Someone made it go away?" Xander's jaw dropped. "Well, why didn't we just do that a long time ago?"

Giles heaved a sigh. "Because it would just go somewhere else, and because the magics involved are intensely evil." He swallowed. "Perhaps... perhaps you'd better see if Warren's inside? Give me a moment to catch my breath."

Xander kept staring for a moment, then shuddered and forced himself to shift gears. "Warren. Right. Orbs. Sure. I'll... I'll be right back."

"Do be careful," Giles added.

Xander just nodded, then walked to the door. The bouncer was just climbing to his feet again, and he waved Xander through without asking for the cover charge. He was fumbling with a cell phone, looking a little stunned, probably trying to call the management or 911.

The club was chaotic inside, full of broken glass and noisy people. Some were crying out in pain, some were aiding the injured, some were beginning to clean up the mess, and some were just starting to make for the exits. Xander did a quick visual scan of the main area, hoping to spot Warren before Warren saw him, but there were too many moving bodies. He'd just have to wade in and see what happened.

Chapter Nine: By Any Other Name

"Liberty, equality - bad principles! The only true principle for humanity is justice; and justice to the feeble is protection and kindness."
~Henri-Frédéric Amiel


Willow didn't manage to reach anyone by phone, either on Xander's cell or at Buffy's house, and neither she nor Tara could remember Giles' mobile number. They decided to try again from the hospital, then tucked the phone into the glove compartment and set off.

They were still en route when the road suddenly dropped out from under them, then slammed upward, jarring the car with brutal force. It took Tara a few seconds to blink the drowsiness from her eyes and realize what was going on; by the time she did, the earthquake had already sent the car tumbling toward the ditch. The shriek of damaged metal filled her ears, worse than any alarm clock she'd ever awakened to.

"Oh my God," Willow whispered, pale and shaking, as they came to an abrupt halt. Her side of the car was raised higher than Tara's, and the seatbelt was all that was keeping her from being thrown into Tara's lap. "Tara? Amy?" She craned her neck around as the earth stilled, trying to see what had happened to the injured girl.

Tara touched a trembling hand to her forehead where it had made contact with the passenger window in the initial jolt; it felt deeply bruised, but there was no blood. "Willow...?" She still felt slightly disconnected, as though she weren't entirely awake; was this some sort of nightmare?

"Tara," Willow breathed, and turned wide, shocked green eyes on her girlfriend before fumbling with her seatbelt and straining towards the back seat again. "I've got to check on Amy," she said, her voice tight with worry. "She wasn't belted in!"

"Was, was that an earthquake?" Tara released the catch on her own seatbelt, struggling to sit upright and make some sense out of the sudden chaos.

The catch on Willow's seatbelt abruptly came loose. Without that tough strap of fabric there was nothing to keep her in her seat, and she tumbled immediately into Tara's lap. "Ow," she said, rubbing her hip where it had collided with one of the non-upholstered bits of the car's interior. "Sorry, baby, are you okay?"

"I'll be fine," Tara reassured her. In other circumstances she might have enjoyed the lapful of Willow, but all she wanted to do at that moment was to calm the worry in those wide green eyes.

A weak groan issued from the back seat. Willow immediately eased her weight off of Tara's legs, inching towards the corner of the car Amy's voice was coming from. "Amy?" she called, softly. "Are you awake?"

Amy had already been badly injured before the quake; Tara didn't even want to imagine how much pain she must be in at the moment. There was no way they would make it to the hospital now in any kind of reasonable time frame, and the 911 lines were probably already choked with panicky citizens.

"Oh God." Willow sounded stricken, and she took several deep breaths before leaning back to meet Tara's concerned gaze. "There's blood on her lips, Tara, I think she has internal injuries. Is there any way we can get her out of the car?"

The doors on Tara's side of the car were firmly wedged against the ground; the only way out would be through the driver's side doors, which were up in the air at an angle. Tara might be able to get out, and Willow could, but removing Amy was going to be nearly impossible. Even if levitating her were possible-- which, given Tara's current exhaustion, was a big "if"-- the tilt of the car and the positions of the seats would complicate things even further. "I, I don't know," she said, helplessly.

Suddenly, they heard a knocking sound on the windshield. Tara straightened abruptly in her seat, hoping that some Good Samaritan had stopped on the road to help them, but found herself face to face with Anya instead. The vengeance demon was in human face and wore a worried frown as she craned her neck to look into the car's interior.

"Anya?" Tara exclaimed, momentarily surprised to see the other girl. Then she remembered; of course Anya would be here. She had been the one to warn them about Amy in the first place; she could sense Amy's need for vengeance, or something like that, and she could teleport.

"Anya?" Willow echoed, then gasped. "Anya! Maybe she can help us!" She scrambled up the length of the back seat and braced her shoulder against the door, then started pulling on the door handle. The door opened slightly, but the weight of it immediately slammed it shut again.

Anya watched as Willow attempted the door a few more times, then shook her head. She walked around to that side of the car, out of Tara's line of sight, and then a sudden wrenching sound came from the door Willow was struggling with. It gave a sort of tortured metallic groan, then disappeared entirely. Apparently, the demon Anyanka was a great deal stronger than she'd been as a human.

The door clanged to the pavement outside. Anya peered in through the new opening, wearing a strange little smirk. "This is Xander's car, isn't it?" she asked. "I don't think his insurance will cover this damage."

"Money later, Anya," Willow chided her, out of habit. "Can you help Amy?"

"Well, that depends on Amy, doesn't it?" Anya said brightly, with a false smile. She stared intently down at the foot-well behind Tara's seat, where Amy's crumpled form had come to rest. "Amy, can you hear me?"

A muffled, liquid moan was her only answer.

Anya face settled into a determined expression. "Willow, help her up. She can't breathe properly all scrunched up like that."

"But she's hurt!" Willow objected. "If I move her who knows what kind of damage it'll do, she has all kinds of broken bones."

"She's dying anyway," Anya said bluntly. "Just get her mostly upright so she can talk. She has to be able to make a wish, or I can't do anything to help."

"A wish?" Tara repeated. What kind of wish could Amy possibly make that would help her? Anya was a vengeance demon, after all. Was it ethical to let Amy use her dying breaths to possibly maim or kill another human being, even if it was Warren? "I don't think..."

"And how are you going to stop me?" Anya said fiercely. "Are you going to kill her before she can talk? Or leave her curled up and drowning in her own blood? I didn't think so. Willow, help her sit. Now."

There was silence in the car for a moment, followed by sounds of movement behind Tara's seat. She swallowed hard and turned around, leaning over the headrest to get a glimpse of what was going on, then wished she hadn't. Amy looked terrible. Her eyes were open, but unfocused, and what skin was left undamaged was pale and beaded with sweat. There was far too much blood, and it was getting on Willow's clothes as the redhead struggled to follow Anya's orders and shift her sometime friend into a better position.

"Good," Anya said, a moment later. "Amy. Can you hear me, Amy? I need you to repeat after me."

"What..." Amy rasped. Her voice was so weak, Tara could hardly hear it, but Anya seemed unconcerned.

"Just repeat after me. I'll make it all better, I promise. Say these words. 'I wish'..." She trailed off deliberately, waiting for Amy's response.

Amy blinked, and a little more awareness came into her glassy eyes. "I wish..." she whispered, then nearly choked on a wet cough.

"Don't pass out, we're not done yet!" Anya ordered. "Now say, 'the wounds that were given to me'..."

It took several tries for Amy to get all the words out, but she did. Meanwhile, Tara shared a startled look with Willow. This wasn't the sort of wish they'd been expecting.

"Almost done," Anya praised the injured girl. "Good thing you were conscious. Now say, 'would rebound on he who caused them'."

"Would... would rebound..." Amy tried to swallow, and her voice faded away entirely. Tears were running down her face as she mouthed the last words. "On he who caused them."

"Good enough." Anya nodded, and her face shifted into its demonic aspect. "Done."

Amy gasped suddenly, filling her lungs with air; then her eyes rolled up in her head, and she fainted. There was still blood everywhere, but all the wounds and bruising that had marred her skin were gone, and she wasn't nearly as pale as before. Willow hastily pressed her fingers to the girl's pulse, then looked up at Anya in wonder. "You healed her," she said.

"Not really." Anya's face shifted back to its human aspect, and she met Willow's gaze with a matter-of-fact expression. "I just transferred the wounds elsewhere. Warren should be in a lot of pain right about now."

"Won't that kill him?" Tara asked. She was happy Amy was all right-- she hadn't expected that outcome-- but the idea of killing another human through vengeance still troubled her.

"Not while he's carrying the Orbs of Nezzla'khan," Anya said, with a shrug. "But it might slow him down long enough for Xander to stop him."

"Xander found him?" Willow sounded worried again. "He was just supposed to look for Amy. He can't fight Warren!"

"Oh, Xander has Giles with him," Anya said, dismissively. "There's something strange about Giles lately; he's got a lot more power than he did last year. He can protect Xander if he needs to. Not that Xander doesn't deserve to get beaten into a pulp..." She turned away, but not before Tara saw the hurt etched into the lines around her mouth. "Anyway, I should be going."

"Wait," Tara called after her.

Anya turned back, smoothing her face into a bland mask again. "What?"

"I, I just wanted to say... thanks," Tara said, with a small smile. She and Anya had been auxiliary Scoobies together for a long while. So maybe Anya wasn't with Xander anymore, but for awhile there Tara hadn't been with Willow, either. She knew all about that outcast feeling. And somehow, despite Anya's renewed demon nature, she didn't think Anya had stopped caring.

Anya favored her with a slight curving of the lips in return. "You don't need to thank me," she said. "It's all in a day's work for a justice demon." Then, with a snap of her fingers, she was gone.

Justice demon? Tara thought. A vengeance demon by any other name? Well, of Anya's recently granted wishes, she knew of three; if the witnesses were to be believed, only one of those three had caused pain, and none had been fatal. Maybe Anya really had learned something from her time as a human.

"I can't believe that just happened," Willow murmured, interrupting Tara's thoughts.

Tara shook her head and began squirming around in the seat again, bracing her feet so that she could climb into the backseat and out the door-hole. "W-which part? The thing with Xander, the cave, the earthquake, or Anya saving Amy?" She laughed a little as she pulled herself out of the car.

Willow grinned tiredly. "Some first day back for you, huh?" she said, looking up at Tara. "Do you think... Ooof!" She grunted as Amy stirred again and accidentally elbowed her in the stomach.

"Wha...?" Amy blinked her eyes open, then tried to pull herself out of Willow's grasp. She failed the first time as the car's slope caught her by surprise, but soon managed to follow Tara out through the former side door. Willow wasn't far behind.

Amy plucked at the bloody ruin of her clothes, then looked up at the other two witches in confusion. "What... was that all a nightmare? Did I really get trapped in a cave-in? I vaguely remember you guys pulling me out, and some other girl, but... why am I OK?" She sounded very lost. "And what happened to the car?"

Willow looked at Tara, then put a companionable hand on Amy's arm. "It's a long story, Amy. Maybe we better tell it on the way back to Buffy's, though... it's starting to get dark, and I don't have any stakes on me."

Tara glanced up at the colors fading on the horizon, and shivered. "That sounds like a good idea," she said. The area they were in was sparsely populated, and Revello Drive was a good few miles away. They would be lucky to get there without any trouble.

She linked her right arm through Willow's left and aimed her feet in that direction, muttering under her breath as they went.

"Vampires and werewolves and demons, oh my..."

Chapter Ten: A Battle Won

"Men are at war with each other because each man is at war with himself."
~Francis Meehan


Xander pressed his way towards the bar, still scanning the chaotic crowd for a glimpse of Warren or Andrew. Along the way, he paused to assist a young woman who was partially trapped under a collapsed table. He vaguely recognized her from his high school years, and he wondered idly where her boyfriend was. Surely she wouldn't have come here alone?

She didn't seem injured, just a little bruised and in shock, so he helped her carefully to her feet and started to lead her towards some more solid furniture where she could sit down and catch her breath. They hadn't gone more than a few steps when she looked up, at another section of the crowd, and called out a name in alarm. "Frankie!"

Xander followed her gaze and winced inwardly at the scene before him. Warren was here all right, posturing in front of one of the jocks Xander remembered none-too-fondly from gym class. From the looks of things, Warren's memories had been pretty similar, and he was looking to get some of his own back. They were facing each other, perpendicular to Xander's line of sight, and Warren was looking mighty sure of himself. The jock didn't seem to realize that something was a little off about this confrontation... not to mention the fact that he'd left his girlfriend in trouble while he was reliving his high school role!

"What'd you say?" Frank was saying, loudly. He had a few inches on Warren and was using them to best effect, leaning slightly forward and squaring his shoulders in his brown suede jacket.

Warren didn't seem intimidated; if anything, he seemed viciously amused. "You heard me, meathead," he replied.

Frank's face was getting pretty red. He reached out to grab Warren by the shoulders, probably to push him away, and scowled. "Oh, you're dead, you little..."

Warren didn't budge. "This ain't high school," he said, with a self-satisfied smirk, and shoved Frank in the chest with one hand.

Frank flew backward, colliding with a couple who were making their way towards the exit. His girfriend cried out in alarm and dropped Xander's arm like a hot potato, scurrying over to check on the fallen man.

It looked like Giles was right; strength was definitely part of the Orb package. Judging from the force Warren had used-- or lack thereof-- and the length of Frank's flight, Warren was probably a match for Buffy right now. Not good, not good at all. Well, this was as good a time as any to test the invulnerability part; if Xander waited any longer, the supergeek would see him, and the element of surprise would be lost.

Casually, Xander picked up a chair, strolled over toward Warren, and swung it with all his might at Warren's back. Xander's friends tended to see him as the wimp of the group, given that there was nothing supernatural about him, but he wasn't the same lanky fifteen-year-old he'd been back when this all started. Six years of maturing had put muscle on his bones, and at least a third of that time had included heavy manual labor. Against a purely human opponent, he wouldn't have had much trouble. Against Warren...

The chair hit Warren's back hard enough to shatter, collapsing in a shower of sharp wooden pieces that Xander's subconscious automatically catalogued as potential stakes. Warren didn't even flinch. He turned and gave Xander a surprised look, then backhanded him. Xander winced at the sudden, sharp pain as he commenced his own flight through the air. His backside made a brief acquaintance with the bar-top, and then he was on the ground behind it, gasping for air.

Xander scrambled immediately to his feet, planting both hands on the bar for leverage, and found Warren grinning at him from the other side in a similar posture. "Oooh," Warren challenged him, "it looks like the Slayer's lapdog grew a pair. Guess it was too little, too late, though; I hear your girlfriend left you and became a vengeance demon. I gotta say, I don't even know how to quantify how pathetic that makes you."

Xander narrowed his eyes at the other man, and the fight shifted from being the usual "gotta save the world", to something more personal. This, from a guy whose life had until recently been even lower on the loser scale than Xander's? Not only that, Warren had actually had the temerity to try to use Anya to further his evil schemes, plus one of his major goals was taking Buffy down. This could not be tolerated. Xander squared his stance and threw a solid punch at Warren's face.

The punch had even less effect than the chair. Warren smirked as Xander clutched his hand in pain, then taunted him. "You hit like a girl."

"At least I know how to get one," Xander hissed, still smarting over the Anya comment as much as the damage to his hand. Warren had his facts wrong, of course, but that didn't change the tangled guilt and love and anger that seethed in Xander's stomach on that subject. Anya should have left him, long before the disastrous wedding attempt. He'd never quite been what she deserved; surely, if he had been, he'd have respected her more; he would have been able to dismiss those horrible pseudo-visions; she'd never have ended up with her old pals doing vengeance again...

In short, this was not a topic he wanted the likes of Warren anywhere near.

Warren's face settled into an angry scowl at the insult, and he punched Xander, hard. Xander hit the ground again, ending up sprawled on his back. He could feel the blood starting to trickle from his nose, running down his face. Damn, that hurt!

Andrew seemed to materialize from somewhere, hovering in the background as Warren approached Xander again. Xander scowled at them both and struggled to his feet, determined not to go down that easily.

"Warren, we gotta get going," Andrew said, and clutched at Warren's arm. "We got that thing to do, and I don't know if the earthquake will throw the schedule off, or if the cops are gonna show up here..."

"This'll just take a minute," Warren said, shrugging Andrew's arm off. "We go when I'm ready." He pulled back his fist, preparing to deck Xander again, and his jacket pulled back a little at the waist.

Xander blinked as he registered the pouch exposed by that movement, attached to Warren's belt. Could the guy really be that stupid? A smart warrior never allowed the enemy easy access to his most important weapons. Hadn't Warren ever run across the Evil Overlord list on the Internet? If he could just get the Orbs away from Warren...

That thought had barely registered in Xander's mind when a sudden flash of light enveloped the other man, and Warren staggered backward, taking the Orbs out of Xander's reach. On the plus side, though, that also took Warren's fist out of reach of Xander.

Warren's face abruptly went pale, as though all the blood had drained out of it. He hunched forward, clutching at his ribs with one arm, and made a strange moaning sound, as though all the air had been knocked out of him. Then he touched his other hand to his lips, and stared at the wet redness that came away on his fingertips. His legs buckled, as though they could no longer support his weight, and he went down hard.

"Warren!" Andrew yelled, and dropped to his knees beside his fallen friend.

Xander blinked at the tableau in astonishment, then looked up and mouthed a "Thank you" in the general direction of the ceiling. Whatever had just hit Warren must have been pretty powerful magic; someone, somewhere, was looking out for Xander... or, at least, for Xander's side of things. He wasn't going to quibble about the details.

Warren coughed a few times, bringing up more blood, then swallowed hard and clutched at Andrew's arm, trying to struggle back to his feet. The color was already starting to come back into his face-- maybe the attack had only partially penetrated the Orbs' invulnerability spell? Xander knew that if he didn't act immediately, he probably wasn't going to get another chance. He lunged forward, latching onto Warren's belt pouch with both hands, and tugged it away. He pulled hard enough that the pouch ripped where it had been snapped around the belt, and the momentum sent him stumbling back a couple of steps.

Warren yelped and tried to snag the pouch with a flailing hand as it moved away from him, but missed. "No!" he gasped.

Xander felt relief wash through him at the sudden look of fear on Warren's face, and he couldn't resist firing a Buffy-esque remark at the defeated man. "You're nothing but a sad little boy, Warren. But it's time you grow up, and pay for what you've done."

Warren scooted backward on the floor, panting as the Orbs' effects left him. Whatever injuries had been given him were apparently not completely healed; he went pale again, and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. "Get away from me!" he gasped.

"Oh, no," Xander smirked. "I'm gonna take you down. You piece of... "

His voice trailed off then as an unfamiliar wave of sensation passed through his body, spreading outward from his left hand. It felt mildly electrical, and kind of tickled. He looked down at the pouch he was holding in surprise, and saw a faint purplish mist trailing up his arms. What the...?

"Oh, God," Andrew blurted. "Now he's got the Orbs! We're doomed!"

"Shut up, Andrew," Warren slurred, still backing away. He'd managed to get his feet back under him, but he was leaning heavily on his short, blond friend.

Xander stared at the Duo in surprise. Was it really that simple? No activation spell or anything? Just grab them and presto, you're empowered?

Apparently so. Andrew quivered under his gaze, then hurriedly pulled Warren towards an exit, half-dragging the injured man in his haste to get away.

Briefly, Xander was tempted to dart after the pair and give them a thrashing they'd never forget. Then the door shut behind them, and suddenly the rest of the club snapped back into focus. There were injured people here, and Willow to worry about, and Giles outside on the street looking ill and suddenly being one with the Earth, and really, what threat was Warren now? He'd lost his lair, he'd lost his magic wielder, and he'd lost his super artifact. Buffy could finish running him out of town when she got back. After all, Warren & co. had only been after her for months now; who was Xander to deprive her of the cathartic final takedown?

In the back of his mind, newly reawakened instincts niggled at him; you never left an enemy standing, not if you could help it. The "responsible Xander" instincts, however, were stronger.

He emerged from the club fifteen minutes later, considerably dirtier than he'd been when he entered, but a lot lighter in spirit. Despite the initial chaos, the total injuries and damage hadn't actually been that bad; a good thing, considering that the Bronze already spent way too much money each year cleaning up after Acts of Hellmouth. That didn't leave much in the way of resources to deal with Acts of Nature.

Giles was still there, leaning against the wall of the club. He looked much better than he had earlier; he was staring off into the distance with a deep, thoughtful look on his face, but the lines around his eyes and mouth had relaxed considerably, making him look younger than Xander was used to.

"Hey, G-Man," he said, nudging the older man's shin with the toe of his boot.

"Hmmm? Ah, Xander." Giles blinked out of his reverie and gave him a quick once-over. "You encountered Warren, I see? Are you all right?"

Xander touched his sore nose self-consciously, and laughed a little. "Oh, yeah. I'm good. Guess what this is?" He waved the pouch containing the Orbs under Giles' nose.

"The Orbs of Nezzla'khan?" Giles' eyebrows shot up and his eyes fixed avidly on the pouch. "However did you...?" His expression was a cross between downright astonishment and rabid curiosity, and it wrung another laugh out of Xander.

"Got it in one," he said, dropping the pouch into Giles' outstretched hand. "And it's kind of a funny story, actually..."

Chapter Eleven: Shaken, Not Stirred

"In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these."
~Paul Harvey


The three girls made it perhaps half a mile down the road before a second, much smaller quake shook the ground. Tara stumbled a little, clutching at Willow's arm, then blinked and labelled it "aftershock" in the back of her mind. Willow and Amy didn't seem phased, but then, they'd grown up in California and were probably expecting it.

"Everyone OK?" she asked, glancing over at the others.

"I'm good," Amy said, with a faint smile. She still looked a little shocky, but Tara didn't blame her; the young witch's day had been pretty awful so far. After Willow had summed up what they knew about her adventures, Amy had gone silent, wrapping her arms around herself and staring off into space. She seemed a little less distant now, but still far from her normal expressive self.

Willow started to say something, then grinned suddenly and gave Tara a warm look. "Better than good," she said quietly, giving Tara's arm a gentle squeeze.

Tara blushed at the reference, and smiled back. What a day this had been! Hopefully, it would end as well as it had begun, despite the chaotic events in between.

"Oh!" Willow's eyes went wide with surprise, breaking the mood, and she reached for her pocket. "That reminds me. I'll try the guys again."

Somewhere during the events in the car, Willow must've grabbed the cell phone again-- a good thing, because Tara had completely forgotten it. The machine picked up again at Buffy's house, and Willow got the "not available" message on Xander's cell, but this time she finally remembered Giles' number and he answered.

"Giles!" Willow exclaimed, grinning with relief. "What's going on? I've been trying to reach you guys for awhile now."

Tara couldn't distinguish individual words in Giles' reply, but she could hear the tone, and he didn't sound alarmed or stressed. Willow listened for a moment with wide eyes, then shook her head. "Wow. I can't believe he did that! Did he get hurt?" Giles rumbled a negative, and she sighed in relief. "One of these days, I swear. So did you send them to jail?"

He? Them? The guys must've run into Warren and Andrew. Tara watched the surprise fade from Willow's face, followed by an eye roll and a sigh. "Well, you got the Orbs, we found Amy, and their lair is toast. That means no more crisis, right? Buffy can finish 'em off when she gets back? 'Cause I kinda had other plans for tonight." She shot Tara another warm look.

Giles asked a question, and Willow frowned, shifting her focus to Amy. "Yeah, well, we were just going to find her and call you guys, but the phone wasn't working and she was trapped in a cave-in, so..." Giles interrupted, and Willow look startled. "No, thank God. I mean, we did kinda get into a wreck but... that would have been awful." There was another, sharper interruption, and she sighed again. "Look, Giles, it's a long story. Why don't you meet us at Buffy's again, and we'll compare notes, all right? We're fine... Yes, I'm sure... OK. Bye." She cut off the call and tucked the phone in her pocket again.

"I never thought about that," Amy said, looking pale again. She had also been listening to Willow's side of the conversation. "If I'd still been in that cave during the earthquake..."

"But you weren't," Tara said, soothingly. "It's past now. We're all OK."

Amy shivered. "Swear to God, I'm never doing magic again. I should have learned my lesson the first time, after what happened with my Mom. Not to mention getting stuck as a rat. It just keeps messing up my life."

"I hear you," Willow said, with a sigh.

Amy flinched, and bit her lip. "Uh, I never apologized for the power thing, huh? I just, we'd had so much fun with the magic, and then all of a sudden you went goody-two-shoes about it. I couldn't understand that, and Rack was on my case about you not coming anymore, and I thought it couldn't hurt..." She let her voice trail off, looking a little lost.

"Water under the bridge," Willow said, with a faint smile. "And hey, friends, right? If you're serious about the no-magic thing, maybe we could help each other with it. Like, a support group of two?" She gave Amy a hopeful look, then shot a glance at Tara, as if looking for approval.

Tara nodded back. She didn't entirely trust Amy, but this sounded encouraging. It was always easier to do difficult things if your friends were in it with you, instead of tempting you from the other side. It might give Willow more hope and endurance to be somebody else's example, instead of fighting the pull of darkness alone. Not that Tara would let her be alone, not anymore, but Amy would understand Willow's problems in a way Tara couldn't.

Amy blinked at Willow, then gave a tentative smile. "You think? I'd like that. I'm not sure I could stick it out on my own."

"Of course," Willow said brightly. "Strength in numbers, you know." Then she patted Amy's arm and turned back to the road. "Now, where were we?"

Tara knew Willow meant it rhetorically, but she glanced at the nearest signpost anyway. "Wallace Road," she said. "Maybe we should, uh, call a cab or something? It's going to take us forever to get to Revello Drive, and it's not safe out here."

Willow grimaced, glancing up at the stars coming out overhead. "Duh, I should have asked Giles to pick us up. But then Xander would have asked about his car..."

Tara winced. "If he's with Giles, he already knows it's wrecked."

Willow sighed, and reached for her cell phone again. She didn't get a chance to call, however; the sound of a vehicle approaching caught the girls' attention, and they stepped off the road to await its passing. It turned out to be a police car, probably out checking the fringes of the city for wrecked vehicles, and it slowed when it neared them.

The drivers' window rolled down as the car came to a halt, and a youngish male officer frowned out at them. "Ladies? Were you in that car I passed half a mile back?"

They glanced at each other, then back at the cop, debating what to tell him. None of them quite trusted Sunnydale's men in blue, even though the Mayor had been dead for years. They still overlooked far too much that went on in this town.

"Uh," Willow began, "Actually, yeah, but ..."

Any hope of reassuring the cop and sending him on his way passed when he caught sight of Amy's clothes, ripped and soaked with blood. "Oh, my God. What happened, ma'am?" he exclaimed reflexively, then caught himself. He had to be new. "Nevermind that," he continued, with a shake of his head, "we've got to get you to a hospital." He reached for his radio.

"No," Tara blurted, "D-don't call an ambulance. It's, it's not as bad as it looks. We're fine!" At his dubious expression, she continued. "Um, you could drive us to the hospital though, if, if it would make you feel better." She glanced at the other two for confirmation, then back at the cop. It would draw less attention than an ambulance, if they could keep him from getting too suspicious, and it would be safer than staying on foot.

He blinked at her, confused, then took a good look at all three of them. Tara could almost hear his mental checklist: Mobile, verbal. No paleness, glassy eyes, or other indications of shock or major injury besides the blood. Not begging for help, which meant they were probably a victim of Things Not To Be Spoken Of. Or perhaps they were Things Not To Be Spoken Of?

Finally, he seemed to reach a decision. "If you're sure you don't need an ambulance...?" he asked, hesitantly.

"We're sure," the three girls said firmly, nearly as one.

"All right, then." He put the car in park and got out, opening the back driver's side door for them. Tara didn't miss the fact that he kept one hand on his gun the entire time, or that he didn't offer to let one of them sit up front with him. Good for him; paranoia would probably add years to his life. Why did cops ever take transfers to Sunnydale, anyway? Surely they knew about the mortality rate.

He didn't ask their names, and they didn't ask his. In fact, he barely spoke another word to them during the drive to the hospital, although he did glance frequently at them in the rear-view mirror. Don't ask, they were thinking at him; don't tell, he was thinking back. It was the way things had always been in Sunnydale, and it didn't look like that would change anytime soon.

He dropped them off at the emergency room doors without any fanfare or attempt at procedures, just a warning to keep safe. The girls watched him go, then turned away from the glass doors. The last thing they wanted was to get stuck for the next couple of hours in the waiting room, or to be examined, especially since they didn't have a good explanation for what had happened to Amy.

"We're just a couple of blocks from the college," Tara said, rubbing at her arms. The air temperature was starting to drop, and she didn't have her coat. "We could stop by my dorm and pick up some fresh clothes for Amy," she suggested.

"Oh, that would be great," Amy said fervently. "And maybe a quick shower? I'm really starting to feel gross."

"Oh, and do any of your roommates have a car?" Willow asked, hopefully. "Would they be willing to drive us over?"

"I can ask," Tara answered.

The minutes ran by, consumed by ordinary activity, and it was nearly nine o'clock when they finally returned to Buffy's house with Amy in tow. Tara's sweats were a little loose on her, but not bad, and all three felt more comfortable for their little break from reality. Tara's roommates had been deep in studies and gossip, and it had been nice to play at being normal kids for a brief while.

Giles' car was already parked at the curb when they arrived. Tara waved her roommates away and started up the front walk with Amy, but Willow paused to scowl at the red convertible. "It's like a big red stop sign," she said, by way of explanation. "Like, Stop! If you go any further, you're going to be asked a million inconvenient questions!"

Amy rolled her eyes, but Tara smiled. "Giles won't be too harsh on us. We saved Amy, and we got back in once piece. And Xander would forgive you anything."

Willow sighed. "I know, I know. It's reflex, I guess. No one on Earth gives guilt like Giles does."

Tara sniffed the air, and her smile widened a little. This ought to encourage Willow. "And no one on Earth eats like Xander does. Do you smell pizza?"

"Pizza?" Willow perked up visibly. "They ordered dinner? Oh, good! I'm starved! Those crackers you had in your room took the edge off, but I'm still all rumbly." She hurried up the walk past Tara, her worries forgotten as she headed for the front door.

Amy watched her go, then turned a sad smile on Tara. "I'm glad she's back with you, you know," she said quietly. "I tried to hook her up with some other girls at the Bronze... she wouldn't even look. Even when we were out having fun, she wasn't really happy. You're the only one that does that for her."

Tara couldn't decide whether to be pleased, upset, or touched. "Um, thanks?" she said, not sure quite what to say.

Amy looked away. "Yeah, um, I'm just gonna..." She shifted her feet uncomfortably, then followed Willow into the house.

Tara took a deep breath and glanced up at the stars again, then headed for the front door herself. Oh, what a day.

Chapter Twelve: It's Not Over Yet

"There are no extraordinary men... just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with."
~Adm William Halsey


Giles insisted on a detour to the Magic Box on the way back to Buffy's. Xander stayed in the car and pretended not to exist, just in case Anya should look out the window; she was probably occupied with cleaning up whatever fell during the earthquake, but he wasn't about to tempt fate.

The older man came back out a few minutes later with an intimidating stack of books and a twinkle in his eye. Xander groaned at the sight and slumped further in the passenger seat. "We just beat the bad guys, Giles! Can't we put the research off 'til tomorrow?"

Giles gave him a calculating look. "Well, certainly we could. However, I thought you might like to know whether it would be safe to keep the Orbs of Nezzla'khan in your possession...?"

The question caught Xander's attention, and he bolted upright. "Whoa. Back up the train. You'd let me keep the Orbs? Me? I mean, I thought you'd lock them up, or destroy them, or maybe put them in the Magic Box or something. I mean, we never get to keep any of the weird stuff we get our hands on." Anything more complicated than a sword was usually too dangerous-- or valuable-- to leave in the Scoobies' hands. Standard procedure! So what was different this time?

"I am quite aware that Buffy and Willow are still protective of you," Giles said, "despite the fact that you are quite capable of taking care of yourself, and have been an integral part of their past successes." He paused for a moment while he started the car, then continued. "I thought that you might enjoy the chance to level the playing field, so to speak. They can hardly object to your presence on a dangerous mission if you are impervious to injury."

Xander just stared. Since when did Giles care how Xander felt about getting benched? The idea was really cool-- he had enjoyed getting to wield that strength in the Bronze, and it would be nice to fight beside Buffy instead of behind her for a change-- but the whole thing sounded a little unreal. Besides, he was pretty sure that giving artifacts to kids was not something Giles' bosses smiled upon.

"Won't the Council object?" he asked.

"Well, they never need know, do they?" A predatory smile crept over Giles' features. "After all, the Slayer was not directly involved in their acquisition; I see no reason why I should mention the Orbs in my reports."

He actually meant it! Xander felt a matching grin pull at the corners of his mouth as he replied. "Careful, G-Man. You're gonna get fired again, at this rate."

"And we don't want that, now do we?" Giles answered, in the driest of voices.

The phone rang a few minutes after Xander finished ordering the pizza. It had been almost an hour since Willow had reached them on Giles' cell, and he figured it was about time she called to give an ETA. He'd heard the painful word "wreck" in the midst of the earlier call, but if his car had been all that damaged, surely they would have asked the guys to pick them up? But there was nowhere in Sunnydale that would take an hour to reach from Buffy's, even if some of the streets were still blocked.

"House of Buff, Xander speaking," he said, as he stuck a place marker in the tome he was reading and dropped it on the coffee table.

Instead of the expected giggle, he got a surprised pause, then a mock-stern Slayer-voice. "Xander, please tell me you haven't been answering the phone that way all day. You make my house sound like a gym or something!"

"Or something," he said, chuckling a little as he dismissed several more inappropriate possible meanings from his mind. "Hey, Buff. No, I just thought it was Willow calling; she's supposed to be back soon. So how are things going in L.A.?"

He heard her take a sharp breath. "Not good," she said, her voice suddenly very tense. "It's... it's complicated. I don't..." She stopped, and cleared her throat.

A sick feeling started welling up in his gut. Had she lost Dawn to her dad? But Giles said that was impossible! Or, could it be something else? Did it have anything to do with Spike taking off last night? Xander didn't think they were still... involved... since all the clues he'd spent so much time ignoring had dried up in the past few weeks. It was pretty clear, though, that Spike was still obsessed with her. And no matter what else you could say about the guy, he was still a soulless vampire.

Of course, saying any of this out loud was not a good idea; Buffy didn't know Xander had guessed about Spike, and she was likely to go ballistic instead of telling him what was going on. He held his tongue.

A few silent seconds later, Buffy continued. "The important part right now is, the Hellmouth isn't in Sunnydale anymore, and I have no idea how the demon population is gonna react. Tell Giles for me, OK? You guys should be on your guard tonight."

"Whoa, whoa," Xander said, sitting up straighter. How could she know about that? L.A. was hours away! "We knew about the Hellmouth moving... the earthquake was a pretty big give-away, and Giles figured it out. But how did you know? What's going on?"

"Buffy knows about the Hellmouth?" Giles blinked at him from the other side of the room, finally looking up from his book. "What's happened?"

Xander waved him off, listening intently to the phone. Buffy had gone quiet again, a pained sort of silence, but there were other voices in the background. Dawn, definitely. Spike (aha!) and another British voice he was having a hard time putting a name to. Cordy somewhere in the background, and maybe Angel?...

Some fumbling and rustling sounds came from the other end of the line, and Dawn's voice came on. "Xander?"

"Dawn? What's going on?"

"It's a really, really long story," she said, with a sigh. "The lawyers were evil, and they knew I was the Key, and things got messy. They did some spell and brought the Hellmouth here, and there's a new prophecy, and we saw that balance demon guy, and... and Dad's dead. Buffy's not dealing well. I... I don't know...I think you better wait 'till we come back to get the details."

Just about everything in Dawn's explanation hit Xander hard, sticking in his brain with neon lettering and exclamation points. He didn't know which question to ask first, but his tongue seemed to have disconnected from his brain anyway. All that came out was an inelegant "Huh...? Wha...? But..."

Dawn sighed. "Don't worry. We're safe now, and we'll be back tomorrow. I gotta go."

A click sounded in his ear, then a dialtone. He lowered the phone slowly, staring at it as though it were a poisonous snake.

"Xander?" Giles prompted, sounding alarmed.

"Well, now we know where the Hellmouth went," he replied, staring at the older man in dismay.

"It, it went to Los Angeles?" Giles stuttered, aghast.

Over the next few minutes, Xander managed to repeat most of what Buffy and Dawn had said, word for word.

Giles was horrified. "I cannot believe that I failed to investigate the lawyers before I left them there," he muttered, pacing restlessly around the room as he dialed the number of one of his contacts. His free hand twitched, as though expecting a glass of Scotch to wrap around, and after a few minutes he jammed it into a pocket.

Several calls later, after a particularly frustrating conversation, he stabbed the OFF button on the phone with a forceful finger and threw it in the vague direction of the couch. "'Only a law firm', he says," Giles fumed. "'We saw no reason to alarm you.' Rubbish! I wonder what else he has failed to pass on?"

"Travers?" Xander guessed.

"Whatever gave you that idea?" Giles snapped, sarcastically, then threw him an apologetic look. "The building I delivered the girls to apparently belongs to the Los Angeles branch of a well-known law firm called Wolfram and Hart. They are involved in a great deal of demonic activity, usually providing legal protection, information, and funds. They seldom take a more direct role, that we know of; I didn't even consider that they might try to interfere with Buffy or her family. Despite her status as the Slayer, she is only one girl, and they tend to think on a more global scale."

He took a deep breath, turning to glare out the window, then continued. "However, it seems that in recent years they've taken a very particular interest in the life and connections of a certain souled vampire. Obviously, that would include Buffy... and I assume that led to their discovery of Dawn's true nature."

"So this is all because of Angel?" Xander's eyebrows went up, and he fought down a surge of irrational anger. Of course, to be fair, even if it were true it wouldn't really be Angel's fault. Still! If Buffy had just been a little smarter with her love life...

Abruptly, he remembered his earlier guess that it was Spike's fault, and shook his head, amused in a painful kind of way. "Well, I guess I got it half-right."

Giles gave him a strange look. "What do you mean?"

The doorbell rang, interrupting the conversation. The scents of hot melted cheese and warm dough reached Xander's nose, and he fumbled in his pocket for the pizza money.

He paid the deliveryman and sent him on his way, then shoved the books on the coffee table aside to make room for the pizza boxes. "Nevermind," he said, in belated response to Giles' question. "So did you get anything on this new prophecy Dawn mentioned?"

Giles narrowed his eyes at the dismissal, but followed along with the topic change anyway. "No. Not anything to do with Dawn, or the Hellmouth, at any rate. And the telephone at the hotel seems to be off the hook, now. I believe we'll just... have to wait until they come back, as Dawn suggested."

"So what now?" Xander asked, flopping back into his chair. The call from Buffy and Dawn had blown his earlier good mood entirely out of the water, and he was feeling pretty pessimistic about Willow and Tara's arrival, too. Somewhere between finding Amy and wrecking the car there were probably a bunch of unpleasant dots to connect. He just knew it.

The phone rang again, somewhere in the depths of the couch, and both men flinched, startled. Xander sighed and got up, hoping that this time it really was Willow. With good news.

"Summers residence, Xander speaking," he said, mildly.

"Hey, kid, uh, is the Slayer around?" The speaker certainly wasn't Willow. The voice was nervous, male, easily recognizable but completely unexpected.

"Willy?" he blurted. "Why are you calling here?"

The barman swallowed loudly. "I just thought she might want to know... everyone's gone nuts down here. My clientele? They've pretty much trashed the bar, and they haven't left yet. I'm holed up in my office. So if she's looking for a party to crash..." He was trying to sound casual about it, but the fear he felt was infecting his voice.

It looked like Buffy had been right, Xander thought. The demons were beginning to notice that the Hellmouth was gone. "She's kinda out of town right now..." he began.

Willy groaned, despairingly. "Great. Just great."

"...But I can get someone over there soon," Xander continued, over the interruption. "Hang on, man." Willy might be just a snitch, playing both sides of the human/demon divide, but he'd been useful in the past. And he was human. They couldn't just leave him to twist.

There was a crashing sound, and Willy whispered a quick "Thanks, man. Hurry," before hanging up the phone.

Giles stared at Xander for a moment, then sighed and shook his head. "You just had to ask, didn't you," he said, looking disappointed.

"What?" Xander blinked at him, caught off guard. Non sequitur much? What was Giles talking about?

"I distinctly heard you ask, 'What now?'" Giles continued, turning the corners of his mouth down in a stern, parental frown. "Really, Xander. One would think you'd know better by now."

Xander blinked at Giles again, then realized what he was doing and adopted a similar, depressed expression and shook his head too. "Yeah, you'd think so, wouldn't you?" He heaved a sigh. "Maybe some day I'll learn."

Giles chuckled, and headed for the weapons chest. Xander took a moment to appreciate the unlikely event of being on the same wavelength as the older man, then smiled and headed for his favorite axe. Looked like they'd have a fun evening after all.

Of course, he'd have to remember to leave a note for the girls. Oh well. At least someone would get to enjoy the pizza.

Chapter Thirteen: Disturbances

"Change is certain. Peace is followed by disturbances; departure of evil men by their return. Such recurrences should not constitute occasions for sadness but realities for awareness, so that one may be happy in the interim."
~Percy Bysshe Shelley


Tara heard raised voices as she entered the house. She sighed, shutting the door quietly behind her, and wondered what else the day had in store for them. Was it too much to ask for a quiet evening?

"You're just going to get yourselves killed!" Willow was saying. She sounded indignant, and worried.

Tara walked into the living room as the argument continued, and saw Willow squaring off with Giles and Xander. The boys were each armed, Giles with a sword and Xander with an axe, and the feel of heavy magic emanated from their corner of the room. Xander's face was bruised, as though he'd been in a fist-fight at some point during the evening, but he radiated energy like a coiled spring. Together they looked dangerous, and determined.

Willow, facing them, had only her hands on her hips and the dismayed expression on her face. Of course, after all the years of serving as a sister and daughter to these men, she really didn't need much else to make her point. Behind her, Amy stood uncertainly near the couch, darting looks from face to face.

"Wills, we'll be fine," Xander said reassuringly, gesturing carefully with the axe. "It's just some standard vamps and demons. Not like it's anything new."

"Lots of vamps and demons," Willow replied, frowning. "And no Buffy. Giles..."

The Watcher sighed. "Willow, I assure you that Xander and I are more than capable of handling the problem." He gave Xander a sideways glance, and nodded slightly.

Xander set down his axe, propping it against a wall, and reached into his jacket pockets. When he pulled his hands back out each was curled around a small glass orb, a deep translucent red in color with white and gold symbols inscribed on the surface. A thin lavender mist drifted from each orb, skimming over Xander's hands and into the sleeves of his jacket.

"Not the safest way to carry them," he said, wearing a lopsided grin, "but I'm kind of in a hurry."

Willow gasped. "Are those..." she said, stretching her hand out as if to touch one.

"Yep." Xander put the orbs back into his pockets. "The Orbs of Nezzla'Khan. I ran into Warren in the Bronze. He was throwing his weight around-- my weight, too, actually-- but he was keeping these on his belt, and it didn't take long to get my hands on them. Seriously, he's an embarrassment to Evil Overlords everywhere."

Tara moved farther into the living room. She glanced at Amy, then back at Xander, and wondered. It couldn't have been as easy as he made it sound. "Did anything s-strange happen to W-warren while you were there?" she stuttered, butting into the conversation.

Xander blinked at her, registering her presence, then wrinkled his brow a little. "Strange? You mean, like someone dropping a magic anvil on him? Yeah, for a minute there he looked like Wile E. Coyote, caught in one of his own traps. Did you guys have something to do with that?"

Tara smiled a little at the comparison. "Um, actually..." She glanced over at Amy.

"Uh..." Amy shuffled her feet a little. She looked a little embarrassed, and a little defiant. "I was kind of dying, and I guess I made this wish..."

Xander's eyebrows went up, and he looked back at Tara. "Anya was there?"

There was a tangled mess of dark emotions in the depths of his eyes. Tara nodded slowly. She wasn't sure if what she was about to say was going to make it better, or worse. "She suggested the wish, actually. As, as a justice thing."

"Justice?" Xander echoed, staring at her.

Giles frowned at that, and took a closer look at Amy. He took one of her wrists in his free hand, and his aura flared suddenly with an excess of magical energy. "Whatever injuries you had were not healed," he said, in a wondering tone. "They were removed entirely."

Amy nodded, watching him with slightly widened, suspicious eyes. "Yeah. How did you know that?" Tara was wondering the same thing; the magic she'd felt Giles use wasn't anything she'd seen from him before.

"Magic," he answered simply, in a slightly sarcastic tone. Then he let go of Amy's wrist and turned his focus on Tara. "She transferred the injuries to the one who caused them," he stated.

Tara nodded again.

Xander looked slightly thoughtful at that. "Like, I'm rubber and you're glue?" he asked, his tension disappearing into the familiar joking-Xander expression. "Hey! That could come in handy. I wonder how many bad guys would keep committing crimes if they always rebounded?"

Amy snorted. "Not the murderers, anyway."

Tara winced at that, and Xander stifled a groan.

"Justice versus vengeance," Giles mused aloud, ignoring the byplay. "It will be very interesting to see how Anyanka's choices play out in the future."

Not that any of her choices would help Xander in less material ways, Tara thought. He'd acted, Anya had reacted, and in the process they'd left no common ground between them to rebuild their relationship on. A sad state to be in, really, for a man who built and repaired things for a living.

It was true, what they said; sometimes love wasn't enough. But then again... sometimes, it was. With that thought, Tara stepped forward to take Willow's hand; Willow gave her a fond look, and she smiled softly back. At least it seemed to be enough in their case.

"Speaking of choices." Xander picked up his axe again, resting it against his shoulder. "Willy's are getting fewer by the minute. We better get going, G-Man."

"Quite." The Watcher clapped him on the shoulder and took a step forward, giving Willow an apologetic look.

Willow sighed and edged back out of his way, letting him pass. There were still a few worry lines around her mouth as she watched him head for the door, but fewer than there had been before Xander had showed her the Orbs. "Be careful," she said.

"Oh, we will," Xander said, smiling at her as he followed Giles. "And hey, you be careful, too. Some frustrated demon might get the bright idea to come looking for the Slayer. We're trusting you guys to watch the house."

Willow perked up a little. "We can do that. Just don't expect there to be any pizza left when you get back."

Xander just smirked as the door clicked shut behind him.

"Damn, when did he get hot?" Amy muttered, as they heard Giles' car start up out front.

Willow shook her head, and smiled a little in reminiscence. "A long time ago," she said, then glanced up at Tara. "Not that I look, anymore. But you should have seen him at the Prom."

"Well, considering that I was a rat at the time..." Amy shrugged. Then she glanced at the coffee table and changed the subject. "So. Pizza. Can we eat now, or what? I'm starving."

Hours later, after Amy had been settled in Dawn's empty bed and Willow had drifted into an uneasy sleep, Tara crept back downstairs. She'd borrowed a bit more of Willow's energy to cast protective wards around the house, enough to trigger all three girls awake if anyone approached-- but she still could not rest. No matter how she tossed and turned, she managed to offend at least one bruise or stiffening muscle.

She fixed herself a mug of chamomile tea, then settled on the couch, thinking about their evening. The hours had gone by fairly quietly. The girls had eaten about half of the pizza, then put the rest away in the 'fridge and settled in to wait. A couple of Hellmouthy beings had come near the house once or twice, but they were fortunately of the smarter sort, and backed off when they felt the gentle nudging of the wards.

Giles had called briefly from the bar when he and Xander were finished there, saying only that they were fine, and that they had decided to patrol the rest of Sunnydale. Tara and Willow had lived with the Slayer long enough to know that patrol could take several hours; on a really busy night, Buffy might even stay out until dawn. They'd given up the vigil at that point, deciding to catch a few hours' sleep while they could.

Of course, that only worked if sleep wanted to be caught, Tara thought, and sighed.

She scooted around on the couch, curling up with her back to an armrest, and looked out into the darkness of Revello Drive. The city had gone quiet at last; sirens had sounded on and off for hours, as police and emergency crews dealt with the aftermath of the earthquake. It hadn't been a particularly bad one, but even the smaller quakes tended to cause mass damage and injuries.

In Buffy's house, fortunately, only a few glass knickknacks and vases had met with their doom. There were a few more cracks in the cement walls of the basement, but that wasn't anything new. There'd been more damage from the flooding the year before.

According to Willow, who'd gotten a very abbreviated explanation out of Giles before Tara came in, somehow the Hellmouth was responsible for both the earthquake and the upsurge of demonic activity. It had apparently gone elsewhere, for reasons Giles hadn't explained yet. Tara spared a thought for the cop they'd met today, a man who hadn't yet been fully converted by the habitual apathy of the Sunnydale police force, and hoped he wasn't out there tonight. Maybe if the loss of the Hellmouth had an impact on the darker nightlife, he and the other, newer cops might start to turn the town's attitude around.

Of course, there would be other consequences, too. Was Buffy going to be sent away to wherever the Hellmouth had gone? Was the Scooby Gang going to go with her? Giles lived in England, Xander had his job, and Willow was still in college. It was near the end of the school year, but Tara and Willow had a year to go before they got their degrees. Tara's roots were in the people, not the town, and she knew she'd follow Willow anywhere, but...

A slight tingle at the edge of the wards caught Tara's attention, and she instinctively reached out to still the alarm before it could awaken the other girls. The disturbance was coming from somewhere to the front of the house. She stilled, wary of catching the intruder's attention if it was in a position to see through the window, and carefully scanned the shadows for its presence.

A man's profile came into view, lit from the side by the dull yellow glow of a streetlamp. He didn't look familiar to Tara, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. He had enough otherness about him to trigger the wards, but when she cautiously studied his aura, she found him more conflicted than evil, and definitely human. Strange.

He stood in the shadows a moment more, as if making a decision, then proceeded slowly up the walk. Tara could see him better now. He was older-- at least as old as Giles-- and lean in a way that spoke of deprivation, not diet and exercise. He had receding brown hair, a long, narrow face, and stress lines around his dark eyes. Unaware of her eyes on him, he looked world-weary, and resigned.

Tara set down her mug and quietly got up from the couch. When the careful knock came on the door, she was ready and opened it slowly, without a greeting. Up close, she could see that his skin was very pale; either he was a vampire, or her guess about deprivation was right. Prisoners sometimes had that look.

His eyebrows shot up when he saw her; he scanned her quickly with his eyes, first in surprise, then in appreciation. "Hmmm, I haven't met you before," he said, with a British accent. "I think I'd remember if I had. So where do you fit in with Ripper's children? Were those wards yours?"

Ripper? Tara blinked, and suddenly placed the man. She had never met Ethan Rayne in person, but she'd heard about him from the Scoobies. He was an old, estranged friend of Giles', and a worshipper of Chaos. What was he doing here?

"Giles isn't here, Mr. Rayne," Tara said carefully, ignoring his questions.

"I can see that, dear girl," he said, waving a hand towards the empty curb. "However, I thought it would be rude not to say hello, since I'd already alerted you to my presence. Might I ask how you know my name?"

"You turned Giles into a d-demon just after I met Willow," Tara said, quietly, with a stern expression. A short explanation, but effective, revealing minimal information about herself, while letting him know she was aware of his reputation.

Ethan's face lit up suddenly with understanding. "Ah. You must be Tara, Willow's girlfriend; Ripper spoke fondly of you. Perfect; then you can deliver my message."

"M-message?" Giles had mentioned her to this guy? When?

He grinned at her, and his eyes twinkled with amusement and arrogance. He suddenly seemed a completely different person from the one she'd seen coming up the walk; his spirit burned brightly, filling him with energy and animation. "Just tell him that I'll be seeing him. Oh: and to watch out for his second Slayer. She'll be a handful."

"Wh-what do you mean?" Tara asked. Second Slayer? Was he talking about Faith?

"Oh, he'll find out." With a parting chuckle, Ethan turned and headed away from the door. "By the way, it was nice to meet you, Tara," he said, as he headed down the walk.

"I'm not sure I can say the same," Tara said quietly to herself, watching him until he disappeared from view.

She shut the door and locked it again, then curled back up on the couch. There was a throw blanket draped over the back, and she tucked it around her body; she was wearing full-length pajamas, but the air outside had cooled, and she was chilled.

"It can't be much longer," she said, then yawned. Giles and Xander would be back soon, and she could tell them about this disturbing visit.

She yawned again, and her eyelids fluttered shut. Soon enough. She'd just rest her eyes for a minute.

Chapter Fourteen: Adventures in Slaying

"A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines."
~Frank Lloyd Wright


Xander stepped away from Giles' car and lifted his axe to a ready position. The door of Willy's bar hung crookedly on its hinges before him, spilling noise and light out into the street. The barman had claimed that the demons inside had gone a little crazy, and from the sound of things, he believed it. The few pedestrians brave enough to be out tonight were avoiding that section of sidewalk like good little Sunnydale citizens; none of them wanted to have to acknowlege the problem and get involved.

Giles drew his sword and tossed the sheath into the seat, then walked around the car to stand on the sidewalk next to Xander. "Frontal assault, do you think?" he asked, as he tested the blade's edge with a careful thumb. "Or shall we try something a bit more devious?"

Xander eyed the doorway, listening to the raucous sounds within. A frontal assault would certainly do the job; but while the Orbs gave him the equivalent of Slayer strength, he seriously doubted they gave him her speed and accuracy. Some of the demons would get by him in a melee fight. Besides, he was curious to see what Giles had come up with.

"Devious sounds interesting," he said, raising his eyebrows. "What did you have in mind?"

Giles sank carefully to one knee on the rough concrete surface. "Perhaps we can fight one sort of horror with another," he said, with a thoughtful expression. He touched the fingers of his free hand to a tiny gap between curb and sidewalk, where a few small weeds struggled to survive, and wrinkled his brow in concentration.

Before Xander could even ask what he meant, a soft green glow sprang up and the weeds under Giles' hand began to twitch and writhe. Xander remembered the flowering plants that had grown up around the older man that afternoon, and watched the shifting stems in fascination. What kind of plant would a Watcher categorize as a "horror"? Something exotic and toothy? Something poisonous? Something with a mind of its own?

He had to struggle not to laugh when the plants began lengthening into a tangle of recognizable vines. If the slightly hairy, rough-edged oval leaves weren't enough of a clue, the sharp, curved thorns made his skin prickle with sense memory. He had to agree with Giles on this one-- blackberry plants were nasty things. (Unless you were talking about the fruit, of course. Especially as syrup on a stack of warm pancakes...)

The vines grew at a tremendous pace, reaching the doorway in less than a minute. The noise inside continued unabated for another several seconds as they began pushing inward, but then startled cries began to reach Xander's ears.

Giles closed his eyes and clenched his jaw as beads of sweat began appearing on his forehead. He seemed to be unaware of anything but what he was doing, intensely focused on his contact with the Earth. A pair of vampires in full demon face stumbled out of the bar, swearing and tripping over the writhing green foliage, but he didn't move; he kept concentrating, pulling life out of the ground.

Xander stepped in front of the older man, ready to defend him, and met the vamps' growls with a stony glare. "Looking for trouble?" he challenged them, bracing himself for a fight.

"What the hell?" one of them exclaimed, glancing from him to the kneeling Watcher, and then to the vines. He'd been a slight man as a human, built more for speed than muscle, and it seemed that the instinct to run was still with him. "Forget this, I'm outta here," he said, then turned and bolted down the street, abandoning his companion.

"Smart guy, your friend," Xander said, smirking at the second vamp as he tightened his grip on the haft of the axe. "You sure you want to stick around?"

The vampire snorted and grinned back, exposing his fangs. "Hey, more for me," he said, and braced himself to lunge at Xander.

A strangled yell echoed from somewhere down the street, followed by an ominous silence. Xander and the vampire both looked instinctively for the source of the noise, and were startled to see a loop of wayward vine rising from the sidewalk. It was coiled in a circle at roughly neck-height, surrounding a dissipating puff of ash.

"No," Giles suddenly said, his voice rough with strain. "Death for you."

The vampire's face went slack with fear; if he could have paled any further, he probably would have. Xander decided to take advantage of the guy's momentarily paralysis and slashed his axe in a quick semi-circle. The vamp was dust before his head even hit the ground.

"Nice one, G-man," Xander said, grinning down at the kneeling mage. "And you were pretending I was the heavy hitter on this team?"

"I don't think I can manage that again," Giles said apologetically, shaking his head as he tried to catch his breath. "It takes a bit more effort than I'd anticipated to direct them individually."

An incoherent snarl of rage and a snapping, rustling sound distracted them both from that line of thought. "Oh, this looks like fun," Xander said, frowning as a large, muscular being with curled horns fought out through the vines. The doorway was choked to waist-height with the plants already, but the strong demon was pushing his way through with brute force. "It's one of those Fyarl guys like the one Ethan turned you into. Wasn't there some specialized way you had to kill them?"

"Silver," Giles frowned, as he concentrated on the vines again. "But I'd imagine removing the head works equally well."

Xander glanced down at the axe blade, then at the demon's tough skin, and sighed. "If he nicks my axe, Giles, you're getting me a new one."

"Buffy's axe, you mean," Giles said, distractedly.

"Semantics," Xander shrugged. Of all the weapons of Slayage he'd tried using, the axe tended to be his favorite; and of all the team's axes, this one fit him best. It wasn't like anyone else ever used it, right?

The demon approached him with a slightly manic glint in its eyes, still snarling at him. Xander heard a few words among the growled sounds, but nothing he could decipher. He stood still as it drove a few punches at him, grinning as the solid hits just bounced off his skin, then swung the axe at the surprised Fyarl's neck. He could get used to this invulnerability thing.

He was the one surprised, however, when it threw up an arm to block the blow and began making a hocking sound in the back of its throat. "Gross!" he commented, wrenching the axe blade out of the demon's forearm and staggering backward. "Please tell me it doesn't spit acid?"

"Rock hard mucous, actually," Giles informed him. "It paralyzes."

The demon screwed up its face and pursed its lips, and Xander hastily raised the axe again, using the blade as an impromptu shield between him and the demon's mouth. Something hit it with a wet smack, and he grimaced in disgust. "So much for the axe," he muttered. Somehow, he didn't think something described as "rock hard" would just scrape off. Well, might as well get one last use out of it before tossing it on the scrap heap.

He swung the axe at the demon again, and it blocked once more. This time he was ready for it and kicked out as the axe connected with its arm. He would have aimed for the groin, but he wasn't sure it would work on this demon; it didn't always. The knee shot usually did, though, whatever the species.

There was a crunching noise, and the Fyral bellowed in pain, reaching for its right knee with both hands. "Scoobies 3, Demons 0," Xander grunted, taking advantage of its distraction to swing the axe one final time and deprive the demon of its head.

It died fairly quickly after that, collapsing in two pieces on the ground. Xander dropped his ruined weapon on the body with a frown, then turned to look at the British man. "So. How's it going?"

Giles sighed. "I'd imagine the ones inside are quite uncomfortable by now," he said wearily, then lifted his hand from the vines and rose to his feet. Several inches of sidewalk had buckled and pulled away from the spot he'd touched, now bursting with a massive, concentrated outgrowth of plant life. Except for one or two random strands, like the one he'd used to snare the running vampire, the thick greenery all headed straight into the bar.

Xander edged around the twisted, thorny plants to the edge of the opened door and peered curiously inside. The sight that greeted him was like something out of a fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty, perhaps, at the part where the thornbushes spring up around the castle... or maybe that one about the princess whose mother wished for her hair to grow, and ended up filling rooms and rooms with it every night. He couldn't remember how that one ended.

"Wow," he said, with a low whistle. "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't believe it. This is... hey. I wonder if you can get trees to do this? Talk about creative carpentry."

Even stranger than the sight of a bar filled brimful with coiled plant life, though, was the effect it had had on the warring patrons. Embedded in the greenery like flies in amber were several cursing, twitching forms; they were whimpering and yelling in several languages, but none of them had managed to break free yet.

"I just have one question, though," Xander continued, peering fruitlessly between the leaves in the direction of the office. It was reinforced, so the vines wouldn't have gotten in, but that begged the question of how they would. "How do we get to Willy? Hack our way through this mess? 'Cause I'm guessing that would kind of defeat the purpose."

Giles straightened his back and took a few steps toward the door. He looked tired, like Tara had when she'd come into the house earlier, but also determined. He gestured at the vines commandingly with his sword, as though they would part like the Red Sea had for Moses, and waited for a reaction. Something shifted inside, some piece of a table or chair clattering from a nest of leaves to rest on the floor, but there was no other noticeable movement. Giles frowned and tried it again, and then a third time, before sighing and lowering his sword-arm.

"Open sesame?" Xander joked, staring at the mass of vines. One of the stronger beings inside had begun to thrash and pull at the constriction; their chances of getting Willy out unscathed were dropping.

"Too much in one day," Giles said with a frown, and scrubbed a hand over his damp forehead. "I'll need to relearn my limitations, I suppose. Ah, do you remember exactly where the office is in relation to the outer wall?"

Xander frowned, reconstructing the interior of the bar in his mind. He'd certainly been in there often enough, usually for reasons unrelated to alcohol. If he remembered correctly, it was... "There." He pointed to one corner of the building.

"Do you suppose you might be able to break through to make an opening?"

Xander stared at Giles, nonplused. "Why didn't we just do that to start with, then?" All those vines, all that wasted energy... what if they needed Giles to do something on the way home?

Duh, he suddenly realized, his brain catching up to his mouth. You do what you always did before. And hello, if Giles hadn't 'tied up' the patrons, they would have heard the breaking-in and ambushed you on the way out. It's called the most effective distribution of resources.

"Never mind," Xander said, before Giles could answer the stupid question. He brushed his palms off on his jeans, then balled his hands into fists and moved toward the wall. Then, as he braced himself to deliver the first, testing blow, something else occurred to him. "Ten bucks says I get hired to fix this later," he said with a smirk.

The wall put up a decent resistance to his borrowed strength, but it wasn't enough to slow him down by much. It only took him a few seconds to make a hole big enough to look through, and he peered cautiously into the interior before doing anything else. "Willy? Are you in there?"

There were scrambling sounds from the other side of the wall. "Kid? What the hell are you doing to my bar? I asked for rescue, not demolition!" Willy sounded more upset than grateful.

Xander laughed. "You wanted the Slayer to come, originally," he reminded the barman. "That's as good as demolition, most days. Besides, I don't think you'll want to stick around here much after tonight." As he spoke, he began prying at the edges of the ragged hole, dropping pieces of the wall to the ground at his feet.

Willy grumbled a little, then sighed. "So there is something up," he said. "How did you guys find out about it before I did? None of my sources said anything about this."

"The Hellmouth's gone," Xander said, giving Willy an abbreviated explanation as he worked. "According to Buffy, some big shots in L.A. did a spell and it backfired. A lot of your customers were drawn here by that energy, you know, and with it suddenly missing they're going a little unhinged."

Willy spent the next couple of minutes pacing and swearing while Xander enlarged the hole. Phrases like "never thinking of the little guy" and "after all I've put up with on the Hellmouth" were heard amidst the more colorful language. By the time the hole was large enough to walk through, however, he'd managed to calm down again.

Giles frowned as Willy emerged, and checked his watch for the time. "Please make sure no one's broken through the vines yet," he said, raising an eyebrow at Xander, then stepped around Willy and into the dark office.

Xander frowned after him, puzzled, then nodded in understanding when he heard Giles pick up the phone. Willow and Tara would want to know.

"Vines?" Willy asked, also staring after the British man. "Did he just say vines? What's that supposed to mean?"

Xander grinned at him and tilted his head in the direction of the front door. "Remember how I said you wouldn't want to stick around?"

Willy stared in shock as he caught sight of the blackberry growth. "So that's what those sounds were," he said, in a voice faint with disbelief. "What the hell am I gonna tell my insurance?"

Chapter Fifteen: Cold Pizza

"He who cannot rest, cannot work; he who cannot let go, cannot hold on; he who cannot find footing, cannot go forward."
~Harry Emerson Fosdick


Tara turned her face against the arm of the couch and lifted a sluggish hand to rub at her eyes. Her back twinged in protest as she did so, tugging her further out of sleep, and she realized abruptly that she wasn't in her bed. Or hers and Willow's bed. So where...?

Soft sounds filtered into her consciousness from the direction of the kitchen, and Tara remembered: Buffy's couch. She'd been waiting for Giles and Xander. She heard the refrigerator close, and the ripping sound of a paper towel being freed from its roll; a plate clanked loudly on the counter, and a quiet male voice rebuked the perpetrator. They're here, Tara thought. She must have been sleeping pretty heavily to miss them coming in.

She sat up slowly on the couch, stretching out the knots in her muscles, and stifled a wide yawn. She hadn't meant to fall asleep at all, but her exhaustion had finally caught up with her after Mr. Rayne left. Which had been... she glanced toward the nearest clock... a few hours ago. No wonder she felt like the couch pattern had imprinted on her face.

"...MMmmm," she heard Xander mumble, around a mouthful of something. "We should have taken some of this with us, I've been hungry since before you volunteered us for patrol."

Giles sighed. "I'll never understand American eating habits," he commented, and did something that made a series of beeping noises. A soft whirr started up a second later, and Tara realized that he was using the microwave. Oh; they'd found what was left of the pizza.

The conversation continued as the two men ate, and she was content to sit and let it wash over her as she finished waking up. Tara wasn't used to this much late night activity, anymore. It had been second nature to sleep short and hard during the long months without Buffy, but recently she'd only had schoolwork and the occasional Wicca meeting to keep her up late.

"...tried to kill them all if she were here." Giles' voice sharpened a little with the statement, and Tara focused again, listening. "But the majority were of typically nonviolent species. They were a bit disoriented and irritable, yes, but if we killed every human with those qualities..." He let his voice trail off meaningfully.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Xander said, sarcastically. "So we sent them to Los Angeles, where they'll be Angel's problem, not ours."

Giles sighed. "Xander..."

Tara yawned again, and slowly got to her feet. Might as well go in and say 'Good Morning'; she really didn't feel like eavesdropping on them any longer. Besides, cold pizza was starting to sound really good.

Xander paced out into the hallway before she got to the kitchen, shaking his head about something. He seemed a bit startled when he saw her, and gave her a chagrined look. "Oops. Sorry, didn't mean to wake you."

"That's all right," she said, smiling tiredly at him. "Any pizza left? It's getting close to breakfast time."

"A couple slices, I think," he replied. "How were things here, during the night? Any oogly-booglies come knocking?"

"I'm not sure," she said, and looked past him into the kitchen, where Giles sat with a cup of tea. "Giles, does Ethan Rayne count as an oogly-boogly?"

The older man turned abruptly to look at her, green eyes widening behind his glasses. "Ethan was here? What did he want?" He sounded a bit apprehensive, but there was something else in his expression that gave her pause.

Over the past few weeks, with no Tuesday night adventures to keep her busy, Tara had had a chance to catch a few episodes of that new Superman show, "Smallville". It had been an interesting storytelling choice for them to make Clark and Lex start out as best friends... but then again, best friends had more power to hurt each other than almost anyone, except family. It added dimensions to the enemies-as-adults relationship that made the story much more complex, and it occurred to her now that maybe that was what had happened to Giles and Ethan. Minus the whole Kryptonite thing, of course.

For a moment, Tara almost felt pity for them... but then the analogy ran away with her imagination. Suddenly, she was picturing Giles in a blue Spandex suit with a big red G on his chest, and she had to choke down an inappropriate giggle.

"He, um, said to tell you that he'd be seeing you," she replied, and saw him flinch. That had touched a nerve somewhere. "But he also said to watch out for your second Slayer, that she'd be a handful. And then he left. What do you think he meant?"

"What, is Faith out of jail already?" Xander exclaimed behind her, making her jump. She'd forgotten he was there.

Tara shook herself and moved farther into the kitchen, lifting the last two slices from one of the boxes of pizza and settling onto a stool. "I thought she wasn't up for parole for a few more years?" she asked.

Giles frowned. "Even if so, I am not her Watcher; Wesley is." He paused. "And if... even if she were to die, I don't believe the Council would assign me to Watch her replacement. The only reason they still tolerate me as Buffy's Watcher is because she insisted; it wouldn't do to alienate the strongest Slayer in centuries."

Xander shook his head. "Well, maybe Buffy knows something. She's in L.A., Faith's in L.A., Wesley's in L.A. I'm sure..." His voice trailed off, and his eyebrows knit together suddenly. "New prophecy, Dawn said. Wonder if that has anything to do with it?"

Giles scraped a hand over his tired face and sighed. "Well, whatever it is, I'm sure I'll deal better with it after some sleep. Tara, might I have the use of the couch? Or do you still have need of it?"

Tara glanced at Xander, and thought about the empty room upstairs and the wrecked car in a ditch several miles away. "Amy's in Dawn's room," she said decisively, "and we're still in Joyce's, but Buffy's is free," she said. "I d-don't think she'd mind. One of you stay up there, and the other can have the couch."

Giles blinked. "Ah, I rather think I'll take the couch."

Xander glanced at him, then at Tara, then at the ceiling. "Um, why don't I just crash at home? I know I'll be back again in a few hours, but fresh clothes would be of the good."

"Crash being the operative word," Tara reminded him gently, with an apologetic expression. "So unless Giles plans to die today..."

"What?" The Watcher looked a bit startled.

Xander caught the reference, however, and raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "My car? What did you guys do to it? Wills did say 'wreck', but I thought, since you didn't ask... that you must've... Oh never mind." He threw his hands in the air. "Why is this my life?"

"S-sorry, Xander," she said. Some imp of the perverse, probably the one that had shown her a comically-clad Giles a few moments before, inspired her to keep going. "It might have been salvageable before Anya ripped the door off, but now..."

Disbelief gave way to dismay in Xander's face. "Oh, that's just great," he groaned. "Now I'm feeling Willy's pain. What am I going to tell the insurance?"

"Oh, I wouldn't worry," Giles said, dryly. "In Sunnydale, they'll believe anything, as long as it isn't supernatural. You should see my insurance records."

Xander struggled with his feelings a moment longer, sending his aura dancing, then suddenly straightened, looking thoughtful. "Well, I guess I could tick another item off the X-Man's Life List: Wake Up in Buffy's Bed." He paused. "Unfortunately, this is not the way I pictured that happening."

Before Giles' expression could settle into either amusement or severe disapproval, Xander shook his head and waved the conversation away. "Never mind. Just give me a few blankets, and I'll be good on the living room floor. Remind me to give Willow the third degree later, though. I liked that car."

Just like that, he'd regained his equilibrium. "Don't worry." Tara smiled at him, then set down the slice of pizza she was nibbling on and headed for the linen closet. "You'll be drowning in cookies before you know it."

He chuckled a little, the turned to ask Giles a question before following her. "Uh, G-Man, about the Orbs? Where should I store them when I'm not using them? I don't think they came in that leather pouch Warren was using, and I didn't see anything else likely."

Giles' answer was mildly surprised. "You don't intend to keep them always with you, then?"

"Tempting as that idea is," Xander said, "I'd have to say, No. C'mon. I've seen what happened to Wills when she got all dependent on her magic. And it's not like I really need them, all the time. Just when the world's about to end, and stuff. I've done without them before, right?"

"That's... actually rather mature of you," Giles said, then sighed. "Of course. Ah, I think any small box or pouch would do. I can locate a magical container in a few days to prevent them from showing up on a scanning spell, but for now, just put them somewhere safe."

"'Kay." Xander appeared at Tara's elbow, yawning hugely. "Thanks, Tara. For the blankets, I mean. Wake me up when Buffy gets back?"


He took the blankets from Tara and headed for the living room, followed shortly by Giles. Tara waited for them get settled, making sure they didn't need anything else, then sat back down in the kitchen with her breakfast. She still felt a little drowsy and short on sleep, but now that she was moving again, the minor injuries from the wreck were making themselves felt. She doubted she'd be able to fall asleep again without waking Willow, so she might as well just get dressed and wait up for Buffy.

She polished off the pizza, then stifled another yawn and set a cup of water to heat in the microwave. Buffy kept a small selection of tea here for Giles and the girls, and some of it came in filterbags. Tara thought she remembered seeing some Tazo "Awake" in the mix; it made a good alternative to coffee.

About ten o'clock in the morning, as the soft peal of church bells rang out over the city, Tara heard Buffy's key in the front lock. She padded to the door in her sock feet and put her finger to her lips in the universal 'shush' signal as it began to open. Buffy looked a little startled to see her standing so close, but nodded and passed the gesture on to the people behind her.

Buffy, Dawn, and an unfamiliar man with blue eyes and a very strange aura tiptoed in after her. Buffy started for the stairs, but Tara shook her head and gestured for them to follow her through to the kitchen. Buffy frowned a little, but nodded, and moved to set her bag and Dawn's down by the couch before doing so.

The Slayer paused when she saw the tall form spread out on the couch, and smiled suddenly, her whole face softening with affection and a hint of sadness. "Giles," she whispered, and shot a glance at the others.

"Xander," Dawn mouthed back, and pointed to a heap of blankets nearby. "Cute!"

The corners of Buffy's mouth twitched with amusement, and a little more animation came into her eyes. She tiptoed over to the sleeping young man, and mimed pouring a cup of something over his head.

Dawn just rolled her eyes in response, then gave a startled frown to the man behind her as he gently nudged her back with an outstretched hand. "OK, OK," she whispered.

Tara smiled and led the three out to the back porch, where they could all sit down and talk without worrying about waking anyone up. She thought that the tall man must be Wesley, the ex-Watcher that Giles had spoken about, but he didn't look like the pictures she'd seen of him. Perhaps it was the fact that he wasn't wearing a suit, or glasses? Never mind, he looked much better without them, and the scar gave him a sort of roguish look.

"So, Tara," Buffy said, once the kitchen door had closed behind them. Her smile had faded, although she was trying to keep her tone light. "Slumber party?"

"Oh, n-no," Tara said, worried about the look on the Slayer's face. Whatever had happened in L.A. couldn't have been good. "It's just that they got in so late from patrol. You were right about the demons, things got a little hectic last night."

Buffy sighed. "You better fill me in first, we've got a lot to tell, and I'd rather only do it once. So..."

Dawn nudged her side with a pointed finger and cleared her throat loudly.

"Oh." Buffy blinked, and shot an apologetic glance at the man standing next to her. "Sorry. Wesley, this is Tara Maclay, Willow's, um, girlfriend?" She gave Tara a questioning look.

Tara nodded. "Yes, we're back together."

That got a spontaneous happy smile from Buffy, and a squeal and a hug from Dawn. "I thought so!" the younger Summers said, with a huge grin spread over her face. "I'm so happy for you guys!"

Now it was Buffy's turn to clear her throat. "And Tara, this is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. He was kind of my Watcher for a little while, when they fired Giles that time, and Faith's too before she went into that coma."

"It's nice to meet you," she said, extending a hand towards him.

"My pleasure, Miss Maclay," he said, as he took her hand in a firm grip. "And congratulations, as well."

Chapter Sixteen: Conversations & Confrontations

"The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order ... the continuous thread of revelation."
~Eudora Welty


Xander drifted slowly back toward consciousness, peripherally aware of the tread of feet through the house and the soft swell of voices on the back porch. None of it triggered as a threat, however, so he decided (if a vague intention could be called a decision) to just sleep in a little bit longer. After all, until pretty recently he hadn't believed Sundays even had an A.M.

It was not to be, however. He had just burrowed deeper into his blankets and tuned out the others when Giles began to stir, mumbling something under his breath that Xander couldn't decipher.

"Great." Xander yawned, scrubbing a hand over sleep-crusted eyes, then stretched and sat up. "I wonder if he knows he speaks foreign languages in his sleep?"

There was no real reply from the sleeping Watcher, just more unintelligible phrases. Xander sighed and thought of the empty bedroom upstairs, but quickly nixed the idea as he realized that one of the voices on the back porch must be Buffy's. Which meant that Tara should have woken him, already. Oh well, he was sure she had her reasons.

He stretched again and got to his feet, then fingered the hem of his grimy shirt and wondered if he still had a change of clothes here. Probably. He'd ended up here fairly often after patrols during the summer, and he doubted any of the girls would have thrown his things away since.

Sure enough, a quick trip to the basement uncovered a worn pair of blue jeans and an aging Hawaiian shirt. Not very flattering, but then, that was why he'd worn it on patrol; it didn't matter if his old duds got stained with demon goo. He carried the clothes upstairs and ran a brief shower, then dropped the dirty clothes in the laundry heap.

By the time he found his boots again and decided he really didn't want to put them on yet, Willow was stirring upstairs and Giles had snapped out of whatever dream he was having. He wasn't very communicative yet, though, so Xander left him rummaging in the kitchen for tea and reached for the back door to join in the conversation.

"... rather impressive acquisition," another British voice was saying, as he put his hand on the door knob. "That will give your group quite an advantage in future difficulties."

It took Xander a minute to identify the speaker as Wesley, the useless, prissy Watcher that Cordy had mooned over all that time ago. Xander had heard via the Willow gossip line that he'd gotten more useful and less prissy of late, but Xander had yet to see that for himself. The guy hadn't come with Cordy to Joyce's funeral or to Buffy's, which was a black mark against him; but to be fair, most everyone in Sunnydale had made their dislike of him pretty clear.

While Xander stood inside the back door pondering, the conversation outside continued. "I just don't believe it," Buffy was saying, in a tone of mild disbelief. "Xander took Warren down, even though he had the Orbs? That's impossible."

The old proverb, 'Those who eavesdrop seldom hear any good of themselves,' ran through Xander's mind. Still the Zeppo, he mused, and scowled.

Tara continued, however, before he could go out there and make a fool of himself. "W-we were out too, looking for Amy. We found her, but she was badly hurt, and the earthquake made it w-worse. Anya found us, though, and granted Amy a wish; she took the injuries from Amy and gave them to Warren. I think Xander was f-fighting him at the time."

"And that would give Xander an opening," Buffy said, slowly. "Lucky for Xander. Giles told me night before last that it's nearly impossible to stop a guy with the Orbs, since he'd be as strong as me and pretty much indestructible."

Well. That was a little better; not a put-down, just genuine surprise. Slightly mollified, Xander finally opened the door and stepped through. "Which means training should be slightly less embarrassing from now on," he said, dredging up a goofy smile to flash at the group. "No more Puffy Xander, for one thing."

"Xander!" Dawn grinned at him. "Hey." She stepped forward and gave him a tight hug. Xander patted her back a little awkwardly, grateful once again for her presence in the Scoobies' lives. Growing up around Willow had in effect given him a sister, since they'd been so close over the years, but despite the fact that he was older physically Willow had always filled the elder sibling role. Dawn was the younger sister that he got to spoil and tease, and he'd missed their camaraderie during the months when she was fixated on Spike and he'd been stressed about his upcoming wedding.

Tara smiled at him. "Morning, Xander. S-sorry I didn't wake you. I thought I could, um, tell them what happened here, first?"

"Yeah," Buffy said, quietly. "We've got kind of a lot to tell you guys, and I only want to say it once."

Xander looked her over carefully, still not sure how he felt toward her after what he'd discovered. She looked worn and thin, 'like butter scraped over too much bread,' to quote the biggest movie of the year. He already knew this weekend had been pretty horrible for her, from what Dawn had said on the phone, and the last several months had been pretty bad all around. Pulled from heaven, money troubles, annoying enemies, Giles leaving, Willow going magic-happy-- and that was just the stuff he knew had happened before she'd gotten frisky with the undead. Xander still couldn't quite wrap his mind around the Spike thing... he didn't even have a soul!... but maybe there had been extenuating circumstances. Maybe. If she'd just talk to him!

"Hey Buff," he said, and mentally shoved the mess aside. To everything there is a season, as the saying went, and the moment for confrontations was not this one. "How are you doing? You didn't sound so good on the phone."

Buffy's expression threatened to crumble, but she held it in, wrapping her arms around herself like protective bars. "I've seen better days," she said, shortly. "But I'm OK."

Xander didn't really believe that, of course. It didn't look like Wesley did, either; the ex-Watcher raised his eyebrows at her, then sighed and smiled ruefully at Xander. "Don't believe a word she says," he declared. "We've all had a lot to digest of late, Buffy more than most."

"Wes, right?" Xander said, and stuck out his hand to shake. The guy looked different than he remembered-- tougher, experienced, and more confident. It wasn't just his change of wardrobe, it was written in his stance and the lines of his face. Xander instinctively responded to that with a higher level of respect. "I hear you've had an interesting few years. Too bad we didn't get this version of you instead of the Watcher; you were pretty useless back then."

"Xander!" Buffy blurted, appalled.

Wesley looked a little startled at the bluntness, but he smiled in return and took the offered handshake. "It's all right; I was, you know."

"Only about 90 percent of the time," a dry voice added from the doorway. "You drove the girls up, then?"

Wesley nodded to Giles. "Yes. Most of the others were unable to come, for one reason or another, and I have need of your library, at any rate. We've uncovered a new prophecy."

"Of course," Giles said, with a frown. "Although I was rather expecting it. Your situation is a bit unique."

"No kidding," Dawn exclaimed. "Vampires aren't supposed to have kids. And how weird is it that Angel's son turned out to be someone we know?"

"Wha... hunh?" Xander interrupted, completely thrown for a loop. Tara looked as flabbergasted as he was, but the others all seemed to know what she was talking about. "Say that part again? Angel has a son?"

"Yes," Wesley said, dryly. "Although I believe we should wait for Willow; as Buffy said, we've a lot to tell, and I don't wish to repeat myself."

"I'm here," Willow said, walking out through the open kitchen door, behind Giles. Her red hair was still damp from the shower, as she'd taken one just after Xander, but she'd taken the time to find something a bit more stylish to wear. She gave Tara a lingering hug of greeting, then leaned up against the railing, watching the others. "Amy's still asleep; I didn't think you'd want her down here."

Buffy shook her head. "No, I don't. She may have rejected Warren and Rack, but her loyalty is still kinda questionable."

"So," Xander slapped his hands together impatiently, interrupting the conversation. "Now that everyone's here. I repeat: Angel has a son?" The concept was mind-boggling. And ominous.

"Angel huh, what, huh?" Willow repeated, eyes wide. "Cordy never said anything!"

"I don't think she felt it was her secret to tell," Wesley said, apologetically. "Not until Angel told Buffy, and as he never did..." The ex-Watcher let his voice trail off as he glanced at the aforementioned Slayer.

Buffy met his gaze with an annoyed expression. "Yeah, not until said son had already gotten stolen, thrown through a portal back in time, and grew up into you. Which, when you think about it, is really twisted. I mean, for awhile there I was dating my Watcher's dad."

"Now there's an image," said Giles, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Xander would have been slightly encouraged by the way Buffy was taking the news, but he was too busy being thrown by it himself. "OK. So let me get this straight. Angel, some woman, 9 months later a baby. Which I'm guessing is some weird prophetic thing? I could maybe get my mind around that. But..." He blinked at Wesley. "I mean... How..." He paused and shook his head, taking refuge in humor. "I'm going to go cross-eyed if I keep trying to figure it out, aren't I?"

"That's just really strange," Willow said, a kind of awe in her voice. "And I mean, Hellmouth here. I know from strange. How's everyone dealing with this?"

Wesley sighed. "Well... it's a work in progress. The latest prophecy hasn't helped any, I'm afraid..."

"Oh, I don't know," Dawn said brightly, with a brave smile. "I mean, sure, Slayers aren't exactly known for their long, happy lives, but with four of us around I think we ought to do OK."

"Four?" Giles exclaimed, in tones of disbelief. "Dawn, what do you... Wesley, what is the meaning of this?"

"Oh, right," Buffy said, with a subdued smile. "You hadn't heard that part yet."

"What part? You don't honestly mean to say that, that, that Dawn's to become a Slayer now? I'd thought she was safe from that, when she didn't develop the powers after your death. And Wesley? Four? You don't honestly mean to say..."

Wesley produced a knife from somewhere up a sleeve, and solemnly bent it into a pretzelled shape. Giles fell silent as he watched, staring at the twisting metal, and the others seemed equally mesmerized. Xander blinked and looked up at the man's face as he worked, and was startled to see a flash of gold in the blue of Wesley's eyes. That, more than anything, made the whole thing real.

Xander kept watching, still and quiet, as Wesley tossed the bit of metal flashing through the air toward Buffy. He kept his eyes on the man while Buffy un-pretzelled the knife and handed it to Giles. He kept staring while Giles sputtered in surprise, then took a deep breath and spoke up.

"You're not really human anymore, are you?" Xander asked, quietly.

Wesley gave him a level look. "No. Not really. I'm meant to be something called the Destroyer, although the prophecies group me with the others as the Chosen Ones. It's a very recent development, and one I'd rather do without, actually."

"On the bright side, though," Tara added, softly, "at least you've still got your soul."

Everyone turned to look at her. She blushed a little, embarrassed, but stood her ground. "I, I can tell. It's like you're a hybrid, or something."

Shades of grey. Was there no black and white in the world anymore? Xander looked at Dawn, who he'd been feeling protective of, and Wesley, who he'd just begun to respect, and felt very lost.

"M-m-maybe we should take this to the books," Giles said, vigorously polishing his glasses. "As, as you said, it's quite a lot to digest, and..."

"...we haven't even scratched the surface of what's happened," Buffy said, with a sigh.

"But, on the plus side, we'd have flat surfaces and warmth and possibly snacks?" Willow said, with a slightly hopeful look. "Although I wouldn't suggest eating anything actually found in the Magic Box. Anya's gotten some really strange things in lately."

There was a pause as everyone regained their equilibrium a bit, and Wesley nodded toward Giles. "Magic Box it is," he said, solemnly.

One by one, the crowd on the porch filed back into the house, shooting wondering looks at each other. Xander stood and watched them go, content to be last, wondering what he was going to say to Anya when they got there. A small, irrelevant worry; but it kept him from worrying about everything else.

Forget asking why this was his life. Why was this Dawn's life? And Wesley's. And Angel's. And oh my God, that meant Spike was Wesley's nephew! And that was just...

"Xander?" Buffy said softly, interrupting his thoughts. "Are you OK?"

She was the last one out there, besides him. He looked up at her, searching her face for something he couldn't put a name to, then flinched and looked away as his sensitive nose detected cigarette smoke on her jacket.

"I've seen better days," he said, parroting her words back to her. "But I'm OK."

"Xander?" she said, sounding a little hurt. "I, I know we didn't talk so much there for awhile, but... I do care, you know? And I'm so sorry, about you and Anya..."

His eyes flicked back to hers, and he couldn't stand it anymore. "I know, Buffy. I know, OK? So just... don't."

She stared at him. "What? What do you mean, you know..."

"Spike," Xander said, with a sigh.

The color drained out of Buffy's face abruptly as she realized what he meant. "You know about Spike?" she finished in a whisper. "But, but it's over. Xander, it's been over for awhile now, and I already know what you're going to say, about the chip and him being evil and everything but it's just... it was so hard..."

He made a slashing gesture with his hand and cut her off before she could hyperventilate. "Too hard for the truth?" he said, bluntly. "Buffy, I'm not going to lecture you. I think you already know all the arguments. What hurts the most isn't actually that you were with Spike..." He pulled a face and shuddered. "It's that you didn't trust me enough to tell me."

"I'm sorry," she said, in a small voice, looking crushed. "You're right. I should have told you."

Xander swallowed, then reached out to trace the curve of Buffy's cheek with one rough finger. He never could stay mad at her for long, and he hated to see her hurt. "Well, maybe you would have," he conceded, "if I hadn't given you so many reasons to think I'd be an ass about it."

"Guess we've all done a lot of things lately we're not proud of," she said, with a slightly watery smile.

He chuckled, and dropped his hand. "And I've probably got you beat."

"Wanna compare?" she teased, gently.

"Not so much." Xander took another deep breath. They still hadn't resolved all that much, but it was a start. It was like lancing a boil, or something; their friendship was still a little messy and sore at the edges, but the pressure was draining away. "I don't know what I'd do," he added, "without you and Will."

"Let's not find out," she said softly, with tears in her eyes.

Xander nodded, and held his arms out as she came toward him for a hug. He held her there for a long moment, just letting the comfort of it wash over them both, and nearly burst into tears himself when she whispered something else against his shoulder.

"I love you. You know that, right?"

If she'd said that years ago, if she meant it as anything other than affection for her Xander-shaped friend; but he knew the order of things. Xander smiled sadly over her shoulder, staring into the far corner of the yard...

...and gasped, as he spotted something over Buffy's shoulder. "Buffy!"

She pulled back and followed his alarmed gaze toward the corner of the yard, where a still-battered and bloody Warren stood, pointing a gun at the space between them.

"You think you can just do that to me?" Warren laughed crazily, none too steady on his feet. "You think I'd let you get away with that? Think again!"

Buffy moved, trying to throw herself in front of Xander, but he was having none of it. Xander turned with her, spinning as she lunged so that he ended up between her and Warren, leaning slightly forward as he grasped her arms.

Then a loud noise sounded, and everything became a curious mixture of numbness and pain. Xander stared down into Buffy's eyes, startled by the specks of blood that had appeared on her face and on her shirt, and suddenly realized that he'd made a crucial mistake.

He wasn't carrying the Orbs.

Darkness swam up to claim him, and he sagged into the Slayer's waiting arms.

Chapter Seventeen: Uses of Power

"Anyone entrusted with power will abuse it if not also animated with the love of truth and virtue, no matter whether he be a prince, or one of the people."
~Jean de la Fontaine


Dawn was the first to notice that they'd left Buffy and Xander behind. The group had filed into the living room and begun discussing who would ride with whom, when the brunette teenager suddenly looked around in puzzlement and asked where her sister had gone.

"I think she's talking to Xander," Tara said softly, reassuring Dawn. She hadn't missed the differences in the way he'd been watching Buffy, and hoped that they were taking this opportunity to clear the air. She still felt a little protective of Buffy on the Spike issue, especially since Buffy had trusted Tara enough to reveal it to her and ask for help, but the secret was poisoning all of the Slayer's relationships. It needed to come out.

"Oh," Dawn said, dropping into a chair. "That's good, I guess. They haven't talked much this year-- not that Buffy really talks to anyone these days."

"She doesn't?" Giles asked, in a worried tone.

"No." Tara shook her head. "Not s-since, well, since." They all knew what she meant, without her having to clarify. "I think m-maybe she talks to Spike, but..."

Giles looked grim. "He said something the other night about her having come back wrong. Buffy assured me that you'd researched it for her and discovered that wasn't the case, but the implications of his having discussed it with her first are somewhat disturbing."

"Spike... does care," Wesley added, with a troubled expression. "He is perhaps unique among vampires in that respect, but we mustn't forget that he is still soulless. If it were to his best advantage to give her poor advice, he would, without a qualm."

Dawn began to look mutinous at that comment. Tara sighed, and decided to change the subject a little before the teen started trying to defend the blond vampire. "He's kind of your nephew now, isn't he?" she asked Wesley.

He grimaced. "And grand-nephew, actually, and also uncle. It depends on which way you trace the Aurelius bloodline. Darla was Angel's sire the first time round, but Drusilla was the one who turned her when Wolfram and Hart brought her back."

"Whoa, whoa," Willow objected, suddenly looking horrified. "Darla was your mother? You didn't mention that before!"

Wesley sighed. "Does it make a difference? I'm the child of vampires, any way you look at it, no matter who the vampires were."

"It makes a big difference," Willow said, still looking shocked. "To me, anyway, and Xander. Don't tell him. She turned our best friend Jesse, back when Buffy first came to Sunnydale, and Xander ended up having to stake him. It's bad enough that you're Angel's son, Xander has major issues there, but he hated Darla with a nuclear intensity."

"Well, he can just deal," Dawn said, still irritable. "If I don't get to hate Wesley for Darla turning our Dad, then Xander doesn't get to hate him either."

"What? Turned?" Giles gaped at her. "Xander mentioned that you said your father had died, but..."

He didn't have a chance to finish his sentence. Without warning, the sounds of gunfire echoed from the back yard. Tara counted at least three shots, one of which must have hit the house, because there was a crash of breaking glass from upstairs. More ominous, though, was the lack of audible reaction from either Buffy or Xander.

Galvanized by fear, everyone bolted for the back door. Dawn was first, and gasped in shock as she saw the scene outside. "Xander!" she screamed, and dove to her knees next to his unconscious form.

Buffy had collapsed into a seated position on the porch, cradling Xander's head and shoulders in her lap. She was covered with blood, although it didn't look like any of it was hers, and had pressed her hand to a gunshot wound in Xander's upper chest. Blood was seeping out at a worrisome rate, and was soaking Buffy's legs as well; the bullet must have gone all the way through.

"Oh my God, oh my God, Xander..." Buffy was whispering, her face contorted in grief. "Not you, I can't lose you too..."

Willow clutched at Tara with a gasp as she, too, exited the house and saw what had happened. "Xander!" she exclaimed.

Giles pulled out his cell phone and pressed it into Tara's hands, then dropped to his knees next to Dawn and put a hand over Buffy's on the wound. "Buffy..." he began to say.

Tara took the phone, steadying Willow with one arm and dialling 911 with the other. She didn't see how an ambulance could get there in time, but there was no question of not making the call.

Buffy abruptly came out of whatever trance she was in, and snapped her head up to stare at her Watcher. "Help him!" she begged. Giles blinked at her, in confusion and dismay, and she made a soft sound of distress before abruptly shifting Xander's upper body from her lap to Giles'. "Help him," she repeated, more fiercely this time, then staggered to her feet and fixed her gaze on one edge of the yard, where the shooter must've come from.

"Warren is mine," Buffy growled, and her face became a tight, angry mask. The Slayer in her was fully in the driver's seat. Before anyone could reach out to her, she plucked Wesley's knife neatly from Giles' pocket and took off at a dead run.

"Buffy!" Giles yelled after her, futilely. "You mustn't kill him!"

"Faith," Wesley said inexplicably, whispering the second Slayer's name in dismayed tones, and took off after Buffy at impossible speeds.

"Dawn, help me move him," Giles said, suddenly. When the girl didn't move, he repeated himself, with steel in his voice. "Dawn! Willow, we must move him to the grass."

"What?" Willow said, looking at him in puzzlement through a veil of tears. "Why?"

"He must be touching the Earth. Help me, please, or we risk losing him!"

Tara didn't move when Willow let go of her and moved shakily to help; she felt as though she had become a statue. All that blood. All that damage and pain, and magic or no, there was nothing she could do. It brought back horrible helpless memories of her mother's death, and of Buffy demanding that they find a way to help Joyce.

The 911 operator was on the line, demanding to know what was going on, and somewhere Tara found the strength to answer. "R-Revello Drive," she stuttered. "1630 Revello Drive. G-g-gun, shots f-fired..."

They stretched Xander out on the grass, facing the blue of the morning sky. His features were slack and pale, and only the slight rise and fall of his chest gave any clue that he was still alive. Giles, his back to Tara, placed his hands over the bloody wound again and bent his head in concentration. Willow and Dawn knelt opposite Giles, looking at the older man with confusion and hope in their faces.

Tara, watching them, heard the operator speak again, asking some question she couldn't quite hear; but though her ears seemed to have gone wonky, there was no problem with her sight. The cell phone slipped from numb fingers as a light welled up beneath Giles' palms, as green as emeralds and rich with the promise of life.

She'd told Buffy, once upon a time, that healing spells didn't work. They were primarily dark magic, and tended to make things worse. But there was one sort of healing magic that wasn't a spell at all; it was part of the very Earth. Giles had never shown any signs of bearing Elemental magic before... but somehow, he was wielding it now.

The world seemed to hold its breath as the glow grew brighter, and threads of ivy wove up out of the lengthening grass to twine around Xander's body. The morning sunlight streaming down was suddenly thick and golden where it neared him, casting strange shadows across the planes of the his face. Willow gasped and pulled back a little, staring open-mouthed at what Giles wrought, then looked up at Tara with shocked green eyes.

"Wow," Dawn babbled, her expression full of wonder. "Oh, wow. Giles? How are you doing this? Not that I really care, I mean, if he's going to be OK. He's going to be OK, right?"

The green glow flared even brighter, etching a Giles-shaped shadow in Tara's field of vision, then began to fade again. The manifestations of Earth magic reversed and began to pull in on themselves, fading slowly back into a normal back yard on a normal Sunday morning. Finally, after a long moment of quiet, Giles lifted his hands from Xander's chest.

"Ohhhhhhhh..." Xander moaned, slowly opening his eyes. "Did anyone get the number of that bus?"

"Xander!" Willow burst into tears and threw her arms around him as he struggled to sit up. "You almost died!"

Giles sagged backward, folding in on himself in exhaustion and relief. Dawn smiled tearily at the hugging best friends, then turned a grateful look on Giles and scooted round to make sure he got a hug, too.

The numbness that seemed to have wrapped Tara's emotions like cotton wool abruptly began to fade, and she slumped to the porch next to the cell phone, leaning her forehead against the railings. The squawking voice of one of Sunnydale's finest still rasped out of the phone's earpiece, and she shut the thing off with a snap, shaking her head. No need for an ambulance, now.

The whole thing must have taken longer than she'd thought, though, because a few seconds later the sound of sirens began creeping up in the distance. Tara took a deep breath and got back to her feet, knowing that she was likely to be the most coherent one in the entire group. Trust the police to respond instantly to a threat of guns, while ignoring the "gang" problem ninety-nine percent of the time.

Movement at the edge of the yard caught Tara's attention, and she flinched, thinking it was the cops already. It wasn't, however; Buffy was back, a grimly pleased expression on her face as she strode across the grass. There was no Warren to be seen.

Tara swallowed, feeling faintly nauseous. What had Buffy done?

But there wasn't any bloody knife, either, and a moment later, Wesley appeared behind Buffy. He had one hand wrapped around Warren's upper arm and the other trapping Andrew's shoulder in a vice-like grip. Neither boy appeared to have any fresh wounds, although both looked extremely upset and kept darting fearful looks toward the Slayer.

"Buffy! Buffy!" Dawn caught sight of her sister and let go of Giles, springing to her feet. "Xander's OK! Giles fixed him!"

"What?" Buffy's pace faltered to a stop, and she blinked as she focused on the little group clustered on the grass. "Xander?!" she asked quietly, staring at him as though she'd seen a ghost.

"He isn't dead?" Andrew blurted, hopefully. "Does this mean you're gonna undo the wish? 'Cause man, it was pretty harsh."

"I wouldn't bet on it." A fifth person had entered the yard with the others, partially obscured by Wesley and the boys, but her smug, matter-of-fact tone was easy to identify. "Buffy could have wished for a lot worse, and personally, I think it couldn't have happened to a more deserving pair of idiots."

"Bitch." Warren said, sullenly.

"You might want to watch your language," Wesley warned him, in a casual, indifferent tone. "Anyanka has quite a bit of power even without the Wish; I wouldn't anger her if I were you."

Xander suddenly spasmed in Willow's arms. He took a deep breath, then pulled back and leapt to his feet, looking wildly around him with an expression of horror. "Buffy!" he yelled, pressing a hand over the spot where the wound had been.

"Xander," the Slayer repeated, still standing frozen several yards from him. Relief flared momentarily in her eyes, but then they rolled back in her head and she fainted, crumpling gracefully to the grass.

"Oh, dear Lord," Giles said, and moved across the grass to her side. "I hadn't realized; the bullet must have grazed her after it passed through Xander."

"Bullet?" Xander echoed, staring worriedly at Buffy. Then he looked up, and accidentally caught Warren's eye. Tara could almost feel the memories click back into place as Xander's face hardened in anger.

At that moment, nearly anything could have happened. What did happen, though, was that Amy walked through the back door with a worried look on her face, followed immediately by a pair of Sunnydale's finest. The cops had arrived.

Chapter Eighteen: Suspicions & Decisions

"What happens is not as important as how you react to what happens."
~Ellen Glasgow


The arrival of the cops was like a huge splash of ice water, dousing Xander's rage. He was pretty unclear on everything that had happened after Warren fired the gun-- when had everyone else run out here? How had Wesley got hold of Warren and Andrew? Why wasn't he dead?-- but he was clear on what would happen if he went medieval on Warren in the presence of police. The city's blind eye did not extend to human-on-human violence.

Right on the heels of that thought was another: He was wearing a bloodsoaked shirt with two bullet holes and (apparently) no wounds to show for it. Not something he wanted questioned. Quickly, he whisked the shirt up over his head and moved to Buffy's side, hoping to pass the blood on it off as hers. He could tell them he'd been holding her when she was shot, which had the benefit of actually being true, and hope they didn't take the shirt as evidence.

Giles pulled the neck of Buffy's shirt to one side to expose the wound. The bullet had just clipped her shoulder in passing, carving a furrow through skin and muscle. She was still bleeding sluggishly, but not as much as a normal human would have; really, this was a pretty piddling injury for a Slayer. Buffy had been clawed worse in the past and survived unscarred. It had probably been the shock that felled her, not trauma or blood loss.

"She, she'll be OK, right?" Dawn asked, nervously. "I mean, she was running around after you were shot..."

"She'll be fine, Dawnie," Xander told her, and reached up to squeeze her hand. "It's barely a scratch." He banished some of her fear with a reassuring smile, then turned his attention back to Buffy.

Giles touched a hand to the wound, and for a moment Xander saw green sparks dancing in among the older man's fingers. Then Giles pulled back, hesitating, and shot a look over at the cops.

Comprehension followed. "You healed me?" Xander asked, quietly.

"As best I could," Giles answered, distractedly. "But they've probably brought an ambulance, and they'll want an explanation for all of the blood."

Xander rubbed at his chest again, self-consciously, still hardly believing that he was still alive. All that pain and the fade to black, with Buffy's face as the last thing he saw... he'd always hoped to die that way. Not the getting shot part, obviously, the saving someone part. Especially the saving Buffy part.

The healing had left a scar, catching his fingertips with smoothed ridges as he ran his fingers over it. Proof that it had happened. The last time Buffy had really needed saving, it hadn't been real; it had been in the visions at the wedding that wasn't. It had felt real, though. He'd failed her, and it had not only literally crippled him, it had led him to ruin Anya's happiness and become an abusive wretch like his father.

The visions turned out to be false, but they'd been built from his own fears. Maybe, just maybe, that could mean... But no. Xander stopped that train of thought in its tracks with a shake of his head. No matter what his subconscious was trying to tell him, there was still the small fact that Buffy preferred her men undead, or at least superpowered and questionably loyal. Angel, Riley, and Spike: Xander didn't fit their mold, and he was pretty sure he didn't want to.

Someone touched Xander's bare shoulder, and he abruptly realized that he'd been staring at Buffy's unconscious form for the last couple of minutes, oblivious to everything else. "I'm fine," he said, smiling awkwardly up at Willow's concerned face. "Just contemplating my own mortality."

"The stretcher guys are here," she said, glancing worriedly at Buffy and then over to a pair of efficient-looking men with EMT gear. "And this policeman, Officer Herrington? He wants to ask you some questions. Y'know, since you were the only one out here when..." She paused and bit her lip, gesturing toward Warren, who was being cuffed by one of the cops.

Xander nodded, then handed Willow his crumpled shirt. "When Buffy got shot," he said, with a wry smile, and stood. He glanced at both officers, trying to decide which looked like a Herrington. The one Mirandizing the Duo wasn't paying him any attention, but the one talking to Tara was. He was probably the guy.

Xander took a deep breath, calming his thoughts. Time to be the Responsible Construction Worker, not the Experienced Demon Hunter. It was hard sometimes to play dumb, since the cops at least had an idea of what went bump in the night, but necessary.

"Officer Herrington?" he asked, stepping up next to Tara and extending a hand. "I'm Xander Harris. Willow said you had questions for me?"

The cop studied him carefully for a moment, then accepted the handshake with a slight nod. Xander felt cautiously relieved at that; it meant the cop might be here on friendly terms. Sure, he was here because someone attacked Buffy... but you just never knew in Sunnydale. Xander remembered Detective Stein and his anti-Buffy attitude all too well.

"Mr. Harris," the cop said, in a neutral tone. "Yes, actually. Are you aware that your car is in a ditch out on Wallace Road?"

Okay, that question had come out of left field. Xander glanced at Tara, who looked a little alarmed; had the girls run into this cop yesterday? "Uh, I wasn't sure where it was, exactly, but yeah, I knew it was damaged in the earthquake."

"Hmmm," the officer said, lifting a small notepad and scribbling something in the margin. "Not all of the damage was consistent with such a wreck. But that's not important right now. You see, I picked up three young women leaving the wreck: Miss Maclay, here, Miss Rosenberg, there, and the young lady who let us into the house. They were covered in blood, but seemed otherwise uninjured, and didn't want to go to the hospital. Does that seem strange to you, Mr. Harris?"

How the hell was he supposed to answer that? Xander glanced at Tara again, and shrugged. "I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation," he said, with a more guarded expression. "You might want to try asking them about it, though, since I wasn't there."

The cop just kept looking at him, with an enigmatic little smile. "Mmm. Well, the whole thing seemed strange enough that I ran the plates afterward; imagine my surprise when the name on the registration sent up red flags all through the station. You and your friends, Mr. Harris, especially Ms. Summers, have made quite a reputation for themselves."

"What are you getting at?" Xander asked sharply, beginning to lose his temper. "Look, we were the ones who got shot here. I don't think this line of questioning has any relevance to that."

"We?" Officer Herrington echoed him, dropping his eyes to the drying blood and the fresh scar on Xander's chest.

Shit, Xander thought; this situation was getting out of hand. He fisted his hands at his sides to keep from rubbing the scar self-consciously, and scrambled to think of a cover. "Buffy, I mean. I said 'we' because you're talking about us as a group."

The cop sighed, and shook his head. "You might try cleaning your back before you try that story on anyone else. Look, Mr. Harris, I'm just trying to say that I'm well aware that your little group is more than meets the eye, and I'd prefer not to go through the whole denial routine."

Several conflicting emotions ran through Xander at that little speech. Chagrin: he'd forgotten there'd be crustifying blood on his back as well as his chest, and of course he'd been facing away from the cop when he was checking on Buffy. Irritation: what gave this guy the right to be a smug know-it-all, anyway, badge or no? Panic: dammit, somebody in authority knows, and knows we'll try to deny it, and what on earth am I supposed to tell him? Protectiveness: if this guy is a threat to 'me and mine', he needs to be put down, NOW.

Before Xander could spontaneously combust, however, Tara put a calming hand on his arm and spoke quietly to the officer. "Why does it m-matter?" she asked.

A flurry of voices sprang up from the lawn. One corner of Xander's mind sighed with relief as he heard Buffy berating the EMT's and insisting that she didn't need to go to the hospital. He didn't take his eyes off Herrington, however, even when the cop glanced away to take in what was going on.

Herrington watched the others for a moment, then turned back to Xander, wearing a very serious expression. "It matters because I know you're planning to lie to me about what happened here today. Not all of us worked for Mayor Wilkins, you know; I wasn't even in Sunnydale back then. I don't see how you expect us to keep this town safe, if no one ever reports the truth."

Xander had the sudden, insane urge to yell at the man that he couldn't handle the truth, but he successfully suppressed it. "Look," he said, enunciating clearly, "I don't know what you're talking about, and even if I did, I still wouldn't tell you, because I don't trust you. If you have any more questions, you're going to have to talk to Mr. Giles about them. Now, can we get back to the issue at hand?"

Herrington narrowed his eyes at Xander, and Xander met him, glare for glare. He was not going to be out-stubborned on this. If the cop had any brains at all, he'd give in and adjourn this argument for continuation another day.

Finally, the cop cleared his throat, and glanced down at his notebook again. "All right, then. Why don't you tell me what happened? Or, rather, what you want me to believe happened?"

It was another couple of hours before all of the assorted police, paramedics, and prisoners finally left the Summers' back lawn. Herrington hadn't pressed for 'the truth' any further, contenting himself with a few black looks at Xander, and Buffy had gotten away with just a bandage and a promise to get someone to drive her to the emergency room for stitches. Not that she actually would, of course.

The last anyone saw of Warren and Andrew was the fearful expression of the latter's face as they were escorted to one of the police cruisers. Xander felt a momentary pang of pity for the boy, as he'd pretty much just gotten sucked along in Warren's wake, but it quickly passed. Andrew was more than old enough to know what he was doing.

The next order of business had been to get everyone over to the Magic Box, where further explanations awaited. Even Amy; they could hardly leave her at Buffy's house, after what had happened. Anya was less than pleased that they were going to "clutter up her store" while she was still cleaning it, but she was still in a good mood from whatever Buffy had wished on the Duo, and didn't put up too much of an objection. Privately, Xander thought she was also pretty fascinated by the appearance of Wesley, and the "intriguing" (more like, psychotic) story he had to tell.

The Angel's-son part was difficult enough to grasp; the story in its entirety, which was all tangled up with Ethan Rayne, Jonathan, balance demons, prophecies, and evil lawyers, was enough to give Xander a headache. Not to mention the part where Wesley and Faith seemed to be together now-- hadn't Buffy said, when she followed Faith to L.A. that time, that the dark Slayer had spent awhile torturing her ex-Watcher? Had she really changed that much since then?

Out of the whole story, however, only two things seemed especially significant to Xander. First was the situation with Buffy's dad; it explained so much, but it was obvious that neither Buffy nor Dawn were taking the news well. Were they ever going to get a break? Second was the revelation that Buffy, Dawn, Faith, and Wesley were supposedly destined to chase a moving Hellmouth around the world for the rest of their lives.

"Then shall the Chosen make their choices four / And ever after fight they for the Rule"... it seemed pretty clear. Ever after was just another term for forever (he knew his fairy tales) and they already knew which Four were meant. What the bit of poetry didn't say, however, was whether the choices were limited to those four. Given how things had been with Buffy from the beginning, Xander was willing to bet the answer was No. Not if they were to succeed, anyway.

He waited for the hubbub to die down, listening carefully to the others' comments as he turned a small bit of metal over and over in his hand. Xander had retrieved the bullet from the lawn where he'd lain before the police could find it-- like the shirt, it was coated with his DNA, and he didn't want them locking it up as evidence. Besides, it was a good reminder of how much was at stake, and how close they'd all come to death at one point or another in this long, insane ride they'd been on since the Slayer first came to town.

"So, Wes," he finally spoke up, when the others ran out of questions and exclamations. There'd been plenty of why's and how's and what-now's, but no concrete discussion of where to go from here; well, he could be the practical one when he had to. Besides, it would get them out from under the nose of that inquisitive cop.

"How soon do you need us in L.A.?"

Chapter Nineteen: A Sense of Family

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
~E.M. Forster


During Wesley's long explanation-- assisted at times by Giles, who apparently knew the first half, and Buffy and Dawn, who'd been there for the rest-- Tara kept checking the others for their reactions. She'd barely been there for Faith's last appearance in Sunnydale, knew Angel mostly as Buffy's ex, had never known Wesley or Ethan, and hadn't gone to school with Jonathan, so it was difficult for her to be as invested in the story as the rest of them were.

Giles' primary reaction, of course, was concern. The free-floating Hellmouth was an unknown quantity, a threat unlike anything the Watchers' Council had encountered before. He paced, polished his glasses, fingered books on the shelves, and shot worried looks at Buffy and Dawn when he thought they weren't looking.

Anya was fascinated with the story, and kept relating anecdotes from her own (long) past whenever she felt they were appropriate. Usually, of course, they weren't, but as Wesley seemed equally fascinated with the concept of a vengeance demon that actually liked humans, no one had the courage to ask her to stop.

Amy barely reacted at all; if Tara hadn't seen her take a chair to a corner half-hidden by a set of shelves, she wouldn't have known the girl was there. She just sat there with wide eyes and her knees pulled up to her chin, trying not to be noticed as she took everything in.

Willow reacted with dismay and anger. She clutched tightly to Tara's hand as she objected and questioned, telegraphing a fear of change that Tara whole-heartedly understood. Xander and Buffy were Willow's best friends; she had almost lost the one today, and if Wesley's prophecy were true then the other was going to be taken from her. Willow could be a very strong woman, but she had very little in the way of an internal support structure, relying instead on those she loved for her encouragement and self-worth. She reacted badly to anything that might disturb that.

Dawn, for the most part, was quiet, in an introspective way. This was huge news for her, after all; she was just fifteen, had only been real for a little more than a year, and already she was being saddled with another enormous destiny. It couldn't be more than a few more weeks before her Slayer abilities were scheduled to activate, and once that happened she would never just be Dawn Summers, high school freshman, ever again.

Buffy was tense, radiating distress, but despite that she was making an effort to be a voice of reason in the conversation. It might have been the shock keeping her calm, but all the same, it was encouraging to Tara. Whatever else happened, at least Buffy wasn't sunk in her self-destructive, inwardly focussed world anymore. She had been given a fresh cause and a new responsibility toward her sister, and she was making an effort to rise to the challenge.

Xander was another story. He mostly just sat there, watching and brooding, turning something over and over in his hands. The expression on his face reminded Tara a lot of Aragorn in the recent movie, "Fellowship of the Ring", when he first encountered the hobbits-- intent and serious, with ominous thoughts going on behind his eyes.

When he finally did add something to the conversation, it was completely unexpected. "How soon do you need us in L.A.?" he asked, calmly, watching Wesley for a reaction.

"Well... I don't, really," Wesley said, drawing his brows together in puzzlement. "We've closed the Hellmouth again, and it's trapped under a heap of rubble for the time being. It won't be that difficult to keep it under control while it remains in the city."

"And what about when it moves on?" Xander pressed.

"We follow it," Buffy said, matter-of-factly.

"Right," Xander said, nodding thoughtfully. "And when it moves again? And again? Buffy, you're not going to be able to hold down a job, or keep Dawn in school, if you keep chasing this thing all over the place. You heard Giles-- no one even knew this was possible, they're not gonna have any idea how to stop it anytime soon. You could be on the go for the rest of your lives. What are you going to do about money? What's going to happen to your house?"

Buffy stared back at him, dismayed. "I... I hadn't thought that far ahead," she said, plaintively, and turned wide eyes on Giles. "Giles? Will the Council help?"

Her Watcher sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose, his glasses dangling between his fingers. "No. It's doubtful whether I should even tell them what's going on; the first thing they're likely to do is send a black ops team after Wesley, and we can't allow that to happen."

"The thing is," Xander said, butting back in, "you guys are used to planning for the short-term, and you're good at it. Target the next crisis, and then take care of it. But this crisis is going to keep going for the indefinite future-- that prophecy doesn't have a limit on it, or an end-date. You've got to look at the big picture."

"I understand what you're getting at, but what does your coming to Los Angeles have to do with it?" Wesley asked, curiously.

Xander tilted his chair back on two legs and began gesturing expansively with his hands, really getting into his explanation. "Look, there's four of you, right? More or less in two pairs. You and Faith, Buffy and Dawn. You can't all just keep chasing the Hellmouth, you'll run yourselves into the ground that way, so why not form two teams? You and Faith, and Angel, and whoever else from A.I. that wants to go. Giles and I could travel with Buffy and Dawn, and possibly Spike if we absolutely have to include him. Wills and Tara have another year of college, but maybe after they could join in too?"

He shot a questioning look at Tara as he spoke her name, and she nodded at him, caught up in his logic. It was a good plan, a hopeful one, although she did see a major flaw in it. "What about your job?" she asked. "What about money?"

"See," he said, "that's where the move to L.A. comes in. Whichever team's not out can keep running Angel Investigations, and bring in money that way. Plus, if Anya agrees, we could move the Magic Box down to the hotel and staff it with anyone that wants to help but not be on the fighting teams."

Amy got a significant look from him at that statement, and she jumped in her chair, startled. She regained her equilibrium quickly, however, and bit her lip, giving him a quick nod in response.

"I could go for that," Anya put in, crossing her arms in front of her. "With the Hellmouth gone business is going to dry up here anyway, and the rent and utilities will probably be cheaper in Angel's hotel. Plus, there ought to be less loss due to breakage and theft if we're in the same building as a detective agency."

"Hmmm," Wesley mused, scribbling thoughtfully on a piece of paper. "That could work. There's also a rather large unused area that Lorne could use to reopen Caritas-- with three businesses in the building, we might bring in enough profit to finance the teams."

"Plus," Xander said, "if we all live there, that cuts way down on our own expenses. Even if it's not so livable right now, I have some savings, and we'd have whatever we can get out of Buffy's house to fix things up with."

"Mom's house," Buffy said with a sigh, and a distressed look. She got up and started pacing, working her hands in front of her, then stopped and frowned at Xander. "Okay, I see where this plan makes sense. But I don't see how it has to involve you. Or Amy, or Anya, or Will and Tara, or even Giles. I mean, you guys all have lives and jobs and homes of your own, and just because..."

"It's our choice, Buff," Xander interrupted her, sternly, before she could get too agitated. "It's always been our choice. Besides, if the Slayage gig had paid, I would've quit my job a long time ago. It's not like this is a hard decision."

"Yeah," Anya said, frowning at the Slayer. "We'd have to move the Magic Box anyway, I mean, who's going to come to Sunnydale if there's no more mystical energy vortex or demonic Mayor? No one, that's who. So this pretty much works for me."

"It's not like I have anywhere else to go," Amy added, quietly.

"You can't honestly think I'd let you and Dawn face this alone, do you?" Giles added, gently. "You're my Slayer-- my Slayers. This challenge is like nothing you've ever faced before, and helping you with it is more important than my job with the Council."

Willow glanced at Tara, looking slightly ill with worry, and clutched her hand more tightly. "And we, I mean, I, could transfer to UCLA for my senior year."

Tara smiled at her. "We," she reaffirmed. She wasn't going to make Willow choose between her friends and her lover, so soon after they'd gotten back together. Besides, what did she have to anchor herself to Sunnydale? Only the people in this room. "And we could help run the businesses until we graduate."

Buffy looked around at all of them, her eyes filling up with tears, and turned a watery smile on Wesley. "I guess they've already got it all planned out," she said, with a weak laugh. "Not what you expected when you drove us up, is it?"

Wesley was looking a bit shell-shocked, but he smiled back at her, gratitude shining from his eyes. "No. I rather expected to be shown the door, actually; I don't have the best record here."

"But how could we not help?" Tara said. She squeezed Willow's hand again, then stood up, addressing everyone. "We're all each other has. No matter what happens, we're f-family." She'd learned that lesson last year, when her father came to take her back, telling her she was really a demon and that her friends wouldn't want her. They had, and they'd defended her-- even Spike, in his own way.

"Pretty dysfunctional family," Xander said, with a grin. "So, Wes, what do you think? Shall we freak Dead Boy out and just show up on his doorstep?"

Wesley smirked a little, staring off into the distance, as if picturing the souled vampire's reaction. "Hmm. Perhaps I'd better make a call..."

The rest of the day was spent in a flurry of research and planning. Wesley grinned widely at whatever Angel said on the phone, then spent an hour or so reassuring everyone else in L.A.-- apparently Angel had passed the phone around, with some comment about "what Wesley's gotten us into now." In the end, however, their tentative plan got a green light from the A.I. crew.

The Summers' house would go on the market within the week. Xander and Anya were going to put in their 30 days' notice at their apartments and places of business, and begin transferring furniture or inventory as they had time. Willow and Tara would finish up classes and work on contacting all the various bill companies and the Magic Box suppliers. Giles would make one last flight to England to tie things up there, and Buffy and Dawn would spend the time making peace with leaving Sunnydale and figuring out how to homeschool Dawn while they were on the road.

Tara was amazed at how everyone just fell in together, heartily working toward a major life-changing move. At the bottom line, though, it made perfect sense. Most of them had been feeling trapped or depressed by their current life circumstances, and this was the perfect chance to start over. Tara had the feeling that once they shook the dust of this town from their feet, they would never look back again.

"Just one more question, Buffy," she spoke up, later that night, when they paused for dinner. "What did you wish on Warren and Andrew?"

Buffy's shared a satisfied glance with Anya before answering. "Oh, it was pretty simple," she said. "I wished that for every plan they ever make from now on, they feel their would-be victims' pain-- ahead of time."

Xander whistled. "Nice. Talk about rehabilitation-- they'll only be hurting themselves if they don't change their attitude."

"That was the idea," she said.

"See?" Anya put in, looking intolerably smug. "Justice demon. I don't have to be evil just because I'm not human anymore."

"Hear, hear," Wesley said, a bit more seriously, and raised his cup. "To the Grey Hats: we might not be perfect, but we do our best to make the world a better place."

With the clink of glass meeting glass, a feeling of goodwill spread around the table. They had a monumental task ahead of them, but they were ready. Come what may, they would meet the challenge together.



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