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Slayer Central 11: Out of the Blue

Timeframe: About a week after the events in "Familar Patterns."

Summary: Angel brings in a familiar face to replace Lilah, and a new Slayer shakes up things at the Hyperion.

Angel sat at his desk, reading the summary of the activities of the Acquisitions Department for the past week--it was relatively short, unlike the pile of lengthy documents representing the activities of the other departments. Lilah's departure had left him heavily dependent on the shortcut procedures that Willow and Fred had dreamed up for making his paperwork manageable; unfortunately, using the procedures on the raw paper output from the departments was resulting in less readable summaries, and he had been concerned about missing important clues as to what his people might be trying to sneak past him.

The intercom chimed softly, and Angel pressed the button: "Yes?"

"Mr. Angel, your 3:00 is here." The calm voice of Angel's personal assistant--a Harvard graduate who had been described as "borderline evil, but very loyal" by Lorne after listening to a few lines from "9 to 5"--came over the intercom.

"Thank you, David--have him brought in, please." Angel smiled coldly. <Time to take care of my problem.> Two very large--though very human-- security guards led a dark-haired man in his early thirties into the room, gave him a gentle shove forward, and departed, closing the doors behind them as they left. Angel stood up, grinned wickedly at the outraged new arrival, and greeted him simply: "Hello, Lindsey--what've you been up to?"

Lindsey McDonald, Esq., stared at his old foe for fully five seconds before cutting loose with a torrent of curses that crossed over into several foreign languages, including Latin and the trading language of a tribe of warrior demons endemic to Southern California. Angel listened quietly, occasionally raising an eyebrow at some of the more creative invective. When the lawyer finally ran out of steam and stopped to glare at Angel, the vampire smirked and commented, "You always did have a way with words, Lindsey--so how have you been?"

Lindsey blinked and replied in a deadly calm voice: "Oh, just peachy. I'm minding my own business in a little town in Northern California, doing some writing, singing occasionally at a local bar, when one day a couple of goons the size of Fyarl demons grab me and toss me into the back of a van. Eight hours later, we stop and I find myself back at my old place of work-- where I left on less than amicable terms. I'm expecting to see Lilah, or one of my old bosses ready to explain to me that I'm in breach of my contract, and that I'm going to have my skin slowly peeled from my body with a carrot grater--then I see you. Right now, a carrot grater would be a welcome sight."

Angel shook his head sadly. "Lindsey, I'm hurt--what you don't realize is that I'm your best friend right now." Lindsey gave him a look that telegraphed extreme skepticism, and Angel elaborated, "A certain Beast came through these parts late last year and slaughtered the entire population of this building except for Lilah--who lasted another few weeks until she ran into Cordelia while she was possessed by an evil goddess. Not good." Lindsey blinked in shock, and Angel continued, "Now, this created a serious problem for you--all of your blackmail material was on people who are now dead, and on cases long since resolved. Also, since the head office has turned this branch over to me lock, stock and barrel--"

"Excuse me?" Lindsey assumed that his ears weren't working properly. "You OWN this office?"

"Down to the last paperclip." Angel replied smugly as he took a sip from his coffee and continued, "Anyway, any remaining material you do have might damage this office, but not the head office--meaning that they could freely kill your sorry ass and not worry about what it might do to them." Lindsey swallowed hard, and Angel nodded and commented, "I thought that might get your attention."

"So why is that your problem--if you're working for the bastards at the head office, why didn't you just drop me in their laps and get a fat bonus?" Lindsey snapped, shocked that Angel had gone over to the other side. <I hate the bloodsucking SOB, but I never thought he'd roll over like this.>

"I don't work for them--they just gave me and my associates the place, with a whole new staff and the old client list. It's a whole big temptation thing--they give me this place and hope running it sends me on a path straight to irredeemable corruption before I can use it to destroy them and everything they stand for. Couldn't resist a challenge like that, could I?" Angel smiled and looked at Lindsey. "I don't scare easy."

"Fine, you're not a traitor to the White Hats,--you're just completely nuts." Lindsey commented softly, and Angel shrugged before the lawyer added, "That still doesn't tell me what I'm doing here."

"Well, the senior partners reanimated Lilah and set her up as their contact between us and them, but she's gone--some of my friends decided that she deserved to get out of her contract, and they pulled it off with the help of a enchanted Masamune and a very stubborn Englishman." Lindsey frowned in impatience, and Angel added, "So I need a new person in that position, and I decided it should be you."

Lindsey snorted, "My bar card expired over a year ago--I can't practice in this state, and there's probably half a dozen ethics actions ready to be pursued if I reactivate it without the higher-ups covering my ass--"

Angel tossed a manila folder to the front of his desk, and Lindsey picked it up, knowing what he would find: a current California Bar card, several documents dismissing any outstanding ethics actions against him, and a document describing the responsibilities for his new job. He raised an eyebrow at the salary and benefits, and Angel shrugged and commented, "The budget allows for it, and I don't want to have to listen to you whining about being deprived of the perks you obviously love so much. Just sign at the bottom, and we'll go on from there."

"Why should I?" Lindsey replied, throwing the folder back on the desk. "I still hate your guts, and I did just fine without practicing law for the last two and a half years--why shouldn't I just walk out that door and go on without this crap?"

Angel nodded and responded quietly, "The only reason you're not dead or being tortured right now is that three months ago it occurred to me that you must still be under contract with this office. I checked, and I was right--though your contract was due to automatically revert to the head office if I didn't act to protect this firm's rights, which I did. With Lilah still around, I wasn't sure what to do with you, but I had some time to decide--but time's up. If you don't take this job--the senior partners will be coming to collect, and from what Lilah says, they're not fun guys to be around."

Lindsey paled, then grinned wickedly as he remembered something. "I still have dirt on this place that can bring it down, Fang Boy. What's to stop me from just forcing you to keep me on staff at a healthy rate of pay, then just taking a nice long vacation at your expense?" Angel smiled. "I'm glad you asked that question, Lindsey. Remember how there was music playing in the back of the van that brought you here?" Lindsey nodded, and Angel added, "And remember how you just couldn't help humming along after a while?" Lindsey nodded again, not understanding. Angel grinned wickedly and pressed the intercom button: "Send in the Director of the Entertainment Division, please."

The door to Angel's office opened, and Lindsey turned, his jaw dropping as he recognized the figure in the Armani suit. He stared, then whispered: "You traitorous bastard."

Lorne shrugged. "Sorry, Lindsey-bear. Orders are orders, and it's a pretty good package deal as a whole." He looked over at Angel and reported, "Everything is secured, except the items that are just in his noggin--and those aren't going anywhere, unless you let him do it." Lorne's tone made it clear that he didn't think Angel would do any such thing.

Angel nodded once, and Lorne left quietly after glancing apologetically at Lindsey. Lindsey glared at Angel in helpless rage for a moment before picking up the folder, reading through it carefully, and shrugging before reaching for a pen and scribbling his name across the bottom of the contract, mumbling, "Well, it's better than being a shoe salesman." He looked over at Angel and stated flatly, "I still can't stand you, but I have to admit that I'd rather have you running this place than my old bosses. Now, can you tell me how the hell this all happened?"

Angel nodded, and buzzed his assistant to have him bring in a bottle of good Scotch, which he and Lindsey shared while he gave the attorney a rundown of the past few months--minus a few crucial details. Lindsey listened attentively and after Angel had finished, he commented, "So, you get to work with your old girlfriend again--why isn't she here?"

"Buffy does most of her job out of the Hyperion," replied Angel. "Right now, she's debriefing an unexpected new arrival."

After four months of operations, Slayer Central had reached full occupancy, with eighty five inhabitants occupying its sixty eight rooms; fortunately, the twenty four deluxe suites had made doubling up practical for a while. However, it was obvious that other arrangements would have to be made for some time, until the exodus of Slayers to their new posts of duty relieved the population pressure a bit. Fortunately, Angel had a ready solution in a housing tract that Wolfram & Hart, Los Angeles, had acquired about a year back, but had never had a chance to develop before the Satan wannabe had wiped out the committee tasked to it. He had reviewed several offers to take it off his hands for what his experts assured him was a fair price, but the Slayer situation caused him to decide to use the property for a rather less profitable--but far more useful--purpose. He sent Xander and a crew he picked to examine the homes for habitability, and sent Willow, Buffy, and Faith to check them for less mundane hazards. Much to everyone's surprise and delight, nothing turned up--even evil law firms occasionally make ordinary business acquisitions, and this one would do nicely for putting up the next few hundred arrivals. From that moment on, new arrivals would be brought to the Hyperion--to take advantage of the promise won by Giles for W&H Interdimensional not to tamper with any Slayers brought to the Hyperion--then assigned quarters in the housing tract. Simple.

By September 12, 2003, one hundred and four Slayers had crossed the threshold of the Hyperion, and Willow's scrying attempts insisted that they had found all of the Slayers but one, who seemed to be moving around. Buffy was concerned, but decided to wait and see if the last unknown American Slayer would stop in one place long enough for a rescue team to bring her back to the Hyperion.

As it happened, the concern was unnecessary, as would be the rescue team. The one hundred and fifth Slayer had found them.

Robin had desk duty that afternoon--with the hotel at full occupancy and visibly occupied, people tended to wander in to inquire about vacancies in spite of the rather prominent neon sign announcing "NO VACANCIES." Someone had to smile politely for the tourists and break the bad news that they would not be staying at the lovely Hyperion that night, and the position rotated on a daily basis. So it was that Robin was working on a crossword and contemplating the plan for a romantic dinner with Faith when a calm, feminine voice interrupted his thoughts: "Excuse me, sir, but are you in charge here?"

Robin looked up and raised an eyebrow. The woman standing in front of him was wearing a business suit that had to have set her back three grand--its cut displayed her figure to good effect while not being obvious or tacky. She appeared to stand about five foot eleven, and the flats she wore indicated that her height was no illusion. Her eyes were dark brown, like Faith's, and her hair was honey blond and trailed down her shoulders in flowing waves. Robin guessed that she was twenty, give or take a year. Standing about three feet behind her was a man who resembled her enough that Robin assumed he was her brother--he was a few inches taller than her and wore a simple blue suit that was cut in a way that suggested that he was ready for a fight if anyone bothered his sister. <Rich tourists,> thought Robin as he smiled politely and replied, "No, but I'm here to help anyone who comes by--I'm sorry, but we don't have any vacancies right now."

The woman nodded slowly and commented, "I see." Robin nodded in response and waited for the visitors to depart, and was startled when the young woman asked quietly, "In that case, can you tell me where someone who has just found out that she's a Slayer should go?"

Robin opened his mouth, and closed it without replying. The young woman held her right hand behind her and her companion slapped a crowbar into it. Robin tensed and prepared to dodge, but the woman simply grabbed the crowbar with both hands and bent it in two as easily as if it had been made of tinfoil. She handed it to Robin, smiled at him, and added, "I believe this will serve as my credentials."

Robin looked down at the crowbar, made a cursory attempt to unbend it before finding that it was indeed made of solid steel, and laughed nervously before picking up the phone and punching a speed dial number. After a moment he heard the person at the other end pick up and answer, and he said simply, "You might want to come down to the lobby--there's someone you'll want to meet."

A few minutes later, Buffy, Faith, and Willow came down the grand staircase to see the young woman and her brother patiently waiting while Robin stood there with the mangled crowbar still in his hands. Buffy laughed and commented, "Yeah, you were right, Robin--I definitely want to meet her." She turned to Willow and laughed, "Looks like we can call off our hunt for number one oh five, Will." She walked down the stairs, extended her hand, and said simply: "I'm Buffy Summers--and you are?"

Her name was Helen Baines, and--much to the surprise of Buffy and several of the others--it was a name they recognized. Helen and her twin brother Robert were nineteen, and they were the sole heirs to the fortune of their billionaire parents, who had died seven years before in a plane crash. The will had provided for their education by private tutors, and by eighteen both had finished the equivalent of bachelor's degrees. By that point, both were ready for a little relaxation, and they had spent the last year traveling around the world. She had not been identified as a potential Slayer--though she possessed the traditional mark, as a cursory inspection demonstrated--and the fact that she had not been hassled by the minions of the First was further evidence that it had possessed no special way of identifying potential Slayers other than following the lead of the Watchers and perhaps spotting the mark on a girl on its own.

Buffy, Faith and Willow had taken Helen off to interview her in the training room. Robert had wanted to go with her, but Xander--who had arrived a few moments before and heard the story of the new arrivals--had put it simply for him: "Rob, there's just some things that guys weren't meant to hear, and these interviews are part of them. Besides, Helen can handle herself better than ten of you or me can at this point--just part of being a Slayer. Come on--I'll show you the lounge and you can tell me how you found us over a nice bottle of scotch."

Buffy, Faith and Willow wanted to know the same thing--as it turned out, it had been fairly simple. Helen had displayed minor precognitive powers since adolescence, and the activation of her Slayer abilities had caused them to go into overdrive. The night after the Hellmouth collapsed, Helen had seen a vision of the final battle, and realized that the young women had powers like she had inexplicably developed. Another dream two months later had shown her the Hyperion and the fact that the fighters she had seen were currently residing there, and she had spent the past eight weeks researching to discover what she had become, and where the Hyperion stood. "The rest," she commented, "was just a matter of spending money in the right places, and chartering a jet to get us here."

Buffy nodded. "It sounds like your Slayer Dreams are really specific--most of us who have them have to deal with flowery hints and dire warnings rather than more useful stuff. It'll be a useful talent." Helen smiled, and Buffy asked, "So--have you ever fought before?"

Helen shrugged. "Black belt in tae kwon do, karate, and judo, plus a bit of kickboxing. Robert was way better than me until the change happened-- that was the tip-off that something was different. He was training me and I threw a punch and knocked him back twenty feet.--scared the hell out of me." Buffy smiled sympathetically, and Helen added, "From what you've told me, Slayers are already way past those levels as far as fighting ability goes--looks like I put all those years of training in for nothing."

"No, it helps--believe me." Faith interjected, looking over the younger Slayer and explaining, "A big problem a lot of the newbies have is that they're just not used to the idea of fighting, even though as Slayers they're better equipped to handle it than almost anyone on the planet. You've hit people, and you feel comfortable sizing up your opponent and figuring out how to beat them. A bit of work, and you'll be near top of the heap here--the only downside I can see is that you look a little too much like a jock." Helen frowned in puzzlement, and Faith explained, "One of the things that gives a Slayer an edge is that vamps and demons don't always take them seriously, even if they know she's the real deal. A six foot eight vamp who was a bodybuilder when he was alive just isn't going to take an itty-bitty girl like B over there seriously unless he's way smarter than the average bloodsucker, and by the time he's figured out what a dumbass he is, he's usually dust. You look like you just came back from the Olympic Trials--they'll catch on to you a lot faster. On the other hand, there's nothing stopping you from just kicking their ass anyway, and extra reach is always good in a fight--you'll do fine."

Buffy and Willow nodded in agreement, and the rest of the meeting went well. When it was over, Helen had raised an issue that had occurred to the others, but which they had felt uncomfortable bringing up: "Buffy--I've got a great deal of money, and this is an important cause for the entire world. I'd like to help in any way I can, along with pulling my weight as a Slayer."

Buffy--and Giles, when she had called him and briefed him--were more than receptive to the idea of receiving financial help in tracking down the Slayers and providing for their upkeep, and the next two weeks were taken up largely with planning how best to effectively use the new infusion of capital, and the resources that Helen's corporate connections represented. During this time, the newest Slayer was a major topic of discussion among the inhabitants of Slayer Central. Xander--who had not lost his ability to sum up a person in a relatively short sentence--described Helen to the curious as "Kate Heigl with a touch of Gabrielle Reese, and just a hint of Lara Croft." Willow noted that he said this in a relatively calm tone, and the witch saw an opportunity to tease her old friend: "So, are you going to land yourself a Tomb Raider, or what?"

Xander gave Willow an annoyed look. "Will, I am capable of letting the new arrivals settle in without slobbering all over them. Besides, for all we know, she's gay."

"She's not." Kennedy replied matter-of-factly. Willow and Xander raised eyebrows, and Kennedy looked at them coolly and elaborated, "I flirted with her for fifteen minutes--might as well have been talking about the weather. Gay-dar is reading a big flat nothing." Willow gave Kennedy a dirty look, and the Slayer shrugged and added, "Hey, I've got to protect my interests-- if she had been, I would have introduced her to Natalie and backed off. I just didn't want to wait around and find out she was hot for Wiccan redheads, you know?"

There was general laughter in the room, and Vi brought up the other hot topic of discussion at the Hyperion: "Robert is quite a sight to behold in the workout room, isn't he?"

Most of the female heads in the room nodded emphatically in unison, but there was one notable dissenter. Dawn scowled and replied, "He's not all that great--Xander's much better looking than he is."

There was a moment of silence, and Xander looked over at Dawn and said simply, "Dawn, that's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me, and you are totally full of crap. No offense intended."

Dawn shook her head and retorted, "I just don't see what the big fuss is over him anyway. Yeah, he's easy on the eyes and keeps himself in good shape, but he's not that good looking." She turned to Willow--who was signaling frantically with her expression not to be asked about this topic-- then turned to Kennedy and suggested, "Kennedy--you can be objective about this: he's not that handsome, is he?"

Kennedy looked at Dawn with a pitying expression and replied, "Dawn--my hobby when I'm not patrolling or training is sculpture. And let me tell you--with all due respect to Xander, Giles, Wes, and Gunn--as soon as I can I'm going to grab our new friend and use him as a model--preferably a nude one." Dawn stared at her and Kennedy concluded simply: "Dawn--I'm gay, not blind."

"Sounds good to me, Kennedy--next week OK to start?"

Everyone turned to the door of the training room, where Robert had just walked in. He was wearing black shorts and a gray T-shirt, and he walked over to the now-blushing Slayer and smiled at her. "I've done a bit of modeling before to help out friends--I just hope I'm not a disappointment."

"I'm sure you won't be," Kennedy mumbled as she noted the jealous stares from most of the Slayers in the room, and heard the snickering from her girlfriend.

Robert nodded, and moved off to greet the other occupants of the room. Xander shivered as he noticed the predatory expressions on the faces of several of the Slayers as they looked at the new arrival. <Better you than me, pal.>

Robert concluded by nodding at Xander, then turning to Dawn: "Good afternoon, Miss Summers. How have you been lately?"

Dawn blinked, then turned and gave Robert a rather good impression of Buffy's Glare of Death. Robert was unmoved, and Dawn sighed and replied, "I'm fine--thanks, but I've got to go. Later, everyone!" She quickly left the workout room, and Robert smiled softly and started to stretch.

Xander frowned at Dawn's obvious distaste for Robert--who seemed to be a decent guy, as far as he could tell--and turned away to see Willow and Kennedy whispering back and forth. He moved over in time to hear Kennedy say, "Fifty bucks--it's a bet."

"What's the bet?" Xander asked, noticing the vaguely secretive expressions on the faces of his friends.

"We can't say--but when it happens, we'll let you know." Willow replied mysteriously, as she and Kennedy moved off, leaving Xander shaking his head in confusion in their wake.

Two more weeks went by, and the routine at Slayer Central had changed somewhat--the Slayers who had yet to finish school were taking daily classes with privately hired instructors who were under the impression that they were teaching students who had been orphaned by natural disasters and other tragedies (true in many cases, but misleading). Dawn had joined them- -she had wanted a few refresher classes before obtaining her equivalency certificate and checking out the local colleges. There were few complaints, and Buffy had noted that Faith was quietly auditing a few courses--she wondered if Wood had urged her to follow Dawn's example, but chose not to pry.

Helen's early training had gone well--Buffy had no doubt that she would perform well in a fight. Her intuitive abilities bordered on the spooky even by Slayer standards--Wesley had been particularly fascinated by some of her flashes of insight regarding people she had only met once or twice. By the time that early October arrived, there was only one major item remaining on Helen's agenda as far as finalizing her training went, and that was actually going out in the field to face demons. Helen had expressed enthusiasm at the idea, though she sounded amused as she commented, "I'm amazed that there's any demonic activity within a thousand miles of here, with a hundred Slayers living in the area."

"Slayers are living weirdness magnets--a lot of demons who wouldn't ordinarily be coming this way are doing so just because there are a hundred Slayers here," Buffy explained. "That's one of the reasons that I haven't been in more of a rush to get all of the Slayers out of here and scattered back around the States and the rest of the world--having L.A. be a big 'Welcome Demons' zone makes it less likely that an unsuspecting Slayer will get ganged up on by a bunch of demons. Of course, that means that we have to be careful that innocent people don't get hurt just because we're doing it this way."

Helen saw the concern on Buffy's face and smiled softly. "That's the job, and I'm ready to do it." She glanced around the training room--where two dozen Slayers were engaged in various forms of workouts--and asked, "So-- who is going to baby-sit me for my first field assignment?"

"We've come up with a workable plan for first runs--two escorts: I choose one, and you choose one," Buffy explained. "That way, I make sure an experienced Slayer I think will work well with you will be there, and you can have someone there you feel comfortable with." Buffy waved across the room, and Faith jogged over. "You two seem to work well together, and Faith's a good partner."

Helen smiled and reached out to clasp arms with Faith. "I approve of your choice, Buffy--Faith is a good person to have watching my back." She frowned and asked, "Should I go ahead and choose my other companion now?'

"Go ahead." Buffy replied, curious about who the younger Slayer would choose among the rather deadly collection of young women in the room as her other companion.

Helen closed her eyes for a moment and appeared to relax. After a few seconds, she turned to the doorway and pointed--at the person who was just walking into the room. Buffy and Faith blinked, and Helen stated simply, "Him," and opened her eyes.

Xander stopped in his tracks and looked at the room full of Slayers staring at him. "Uh ... is something wrong?"

Buffy flushed. "Nothing's wrong, Xander--could you wait over by the training dummy, please? Faith and I need to talk to Helen for a minute." Xander nodded bemusedly and walked away, while Buffy and Faith turned to Helen. Buffy took a moment to compose herself before saying quietly, "Helen--I know I told you that you could choose the third person on your own, but I assumed you would choose a Slayer. Xander is a wonderful human being who would walk into Hell if he thought it would help a friend, but he's pretty near the bottom of the list for the people in this hotel as far as fighting skills goes, and that's not a putdown: most hotels aren't crammed full of Slayers. Would you mind telling me why you chose him?"

"I thought about it, and it just seemed right, Buffy," Helen's expression was calm and non-confrontational, and she looked back at Buffy as she added, "I have the feeling that having Xander along on this mission is going to be important somehow--but I'll gladly admit that I don't have a clue as to how. If you want to choose someone else, I won't take it personally."

Buffy studied Helen carefully, and was grateful yet again that Lorne had been available to do readings on all of the new Slayers as they arrived at the Hyperion. <If I didn't know that Helen was a certified member of the White Hats, I'd be thinking that she was pulling a stunt like the one that Vulcan hottie pulled on Kirk and Spock in that old Star Trek episode that Xander made me watch.> She turned and waved Xander over. When he arrived, Buffy looked up at him and stated simply: "Helen's going out on her first real mission tonight and she asked for you to come along with her and Faith--are you up for it?" Buffy managed to keep her tone level, but she couldn't hide the concern in her eyes as she waited for Xander's answer.

Xander forced down his momentary irritation at Buffy's concern. <My injury shook up Buffy as badly as anyone--she's scared to death that something else might happen to me.> He turned to Helen and grinned wickedly as he asked, "Rookie missions can be rough, Helen--are you sure you want a gimp watching your back?"

Buffy and Faith gave Xander dirty looks, and several of the other Slayers in the room gave Xander looks with rather more amorous messages--Xander flushed slightly at the latter and focused on Helen.

Helen walked over to Xander and studied him for a moment before whispering, "I just believe that you are the best person available to accompany Faith and I on this mission, Xander--I have no doubt that you will be a valuable ally. Will you join us?" She extended her arm, and waited for a reply.

Xander felt a moment of warmth towards the young woman, and he clasped arms with her as he stated simply: "Absolutely." He turned back to Buffy--who was watching silently--and asked quietly, "Is this going to be a problem, Buffy?"

Xander saw Buffy's expression go blank, and he was about to press her when she sighed and said quietly, "Xander, she couldn't choose a better partner if she took a hundred years to decide." Xander felt a tingle at the praise, and Buffy added, "Be here in two hours with all your equipment." Xander nodded and left, and Helen smiled at Buffy and left to retrieve her own supplies. Buffy turned to Faith and began, "Faith--"

"With my life, B--both of them." Faith spoke quietly, but Buffy could hear the steel behind the words.

"Thank you." Buffy reached out to squeeze Faith's shoulder, and the other Slayers watched as they left the room.

Faith whistled. "Nice Slaying threads--you've been getting pointers from B."

Helen grinned and responded, "Yeah--but I've had a few years of experience when it comes to looking good while kicking annoying people in the teeth, too." She wore a simple black top with short sleeves, and a sheer pair of jogging sweats that hugged her legs and hips without hampering her ability to move or kick. She slipped stakes into the large pockets in the back of the outfit, and asked, "Where's Xander? We should be going."

"Right here. Sorry I'm late--had some last minute business to take care of." The Slayers turned, and Xander was standing in the doorway. He wore well-worn jeans, and a heavy gray sweatshirt that had several rather visible holes in it. Faith raised an eyebrow and commented, "That top looks a bit drafty, Xander."

"Look who's talking," Xander retorted. Faith glanced down at her own rather revealing outfit and shrugged, and Xander added, "It's my favorite sweatshirt--it just had a little mishap while Willow was trying some experiments yesterday."

"Experiments?" Helen didn't like the sound of that.

"Relax--Willow isn't doing anything sinister. We're just trying to figure out the implications of this whole 'null magic' condition I have." Xander sounded rueful, and both Slayers raised eyebrows at his partial explanation. Xander sighed and elaborated: "She's been trying various minor protective spells on me, then checking with other spells to see how well they work on me. Mostly, the changes are minor--different colors, different sounds: one spell designed to protect against body lice made me turn blue for ten minutes." Faith snickered, and Xander glared at her for a moment before continuing, "Willow moved on to the heavier stuff--she tried a spell that was meant to make a garment bounce crossbow bolts or other similar projectiles for three or four shots. Pretty useful out in the field, either for baddies with bows or as insurance against a shot from a friendly going wild. She cast the spell on my shirt while I was wearing it, then put the shirt on one of the dummies and had Vi and three of the other girls shoot it with crossbows. Obviously, things didn't go that well- -glad I wasn't still wearing it." He patted the shirt and concluded, "Not going to lose my lucky sweatshirt over a few little boltholes."

Faith snickered, and the three of them finished readying their gear and headed out.

"You OK, Helen?" Faith yelled, daring to glance back in the younger Slayer's direction as she fended off the attacks of the Tagla demon in front of her.

"Yeah--never better!" Helen snapped back as she dodged a clawed hand from the Tagla in front of her. The demons were seven feet tall and solid muscle--the Slayers were getting a serious workout. Xander stood back--his injury had rendered his crossbow skills more or less useless when friendly fire casualties were a possibility, and Faith had stared him back when he had tried to come forward with a sword. <I can't just stand here--what can I do that won't get in the way?> After a moment, he grinned and reached for two items in the bag he was carrying.

Helen was feeling worn down--the creature was as strong as she was and a lot better armed. She was considering a retreat to safer ground when Xander came up next to her, grinned, and threw a bottle of holy water at the Tagla's face from five feet away.

The demon snarled and gave ground, and Helen blinked as Xander handed her a sword and whispered: "That won't slow it down for long--better hurry."

Helen nodded and stepped forward, raising the blade. The Tagla tried to regroup, but a low feint--followed by a thrust to the center of its chest and a classic decapitating strike--sent the headless corpse of the Tagla falling to the ground as its head bounced away. Xander smiled, then turned as he heard a loud 'crack' behind him.

Faith had maneuvered her opponent into coming low, and gotten him in a headlock for the coup de grace. She dropped the twitching body to the ground and jogged over to where Xander was standing, giving him a dirty look for a moment before chuckling and saying, "OK--just don't tell B I let you get that close." They grinned at each other, then turned to see Helen standing over her fallen foe, silent and shaking slightly. Faith frowned and asked again, "You OK, Helen?"

Helen turned to them, and both Faith and Xander could see that she was ghostly pale before she turned away again and dropped to her knees, losing her latest meal all over the stone floor of the crypt. Faith's expression twisted in concern, and she was about to go to Helen when Xander stopped her and said quietly, "Let me take this, Faith--I think I might have a better handle on this particular problem than you do."

Faith nodded and went outside, while Xander walked over to Helen: she had dropped the sword and was still shaking. Xander waited for a moment, then said quietly, "Helen--please tell me what you're feeling right now."

The Slayer wiped her mouth off, and hesitated for several seconds before turning to Xander and whispering, "Xander--I've never intentionally killed anything in my entire life before--not even a bug. It always seemed wrong to me. I learned how to defend myself because I know that there are people out there who don't have the respect for life that I do, but I was never sure that I could make myself kill another human being if it came down to my life vs. theirs. When you handed me that sword, I completely lost control for a few seconds--I didn't really become aware again until that thing was dead on the ground and I saw what I had done to it." She stared at Xander, and her eyes were wide and fearful as she asked, "What if I lose it like that and someone I care about gets in my way? I couldn't live with that, Xander."

Xander swallowed hard, and looked back at her intensely as he replied, "Helen--the first fight I had with Buffy was at a club full of high school students: if we had lost, the Master would have entered the world and we all would have been history. One of my two best friends had been turned, and I ended up face to face with him. He dared me to stake him, and I'm not sure I could have--someone shoved him into the stake I was holding and he went 'poof' right in front of me. I kept it together for the rest of that fight, and during the aftermath, but when I went home that night I did my share of throwing my guts up, too." Helen's expression twisted in sympathy, and Xander smiled sadly at her as he added, "It's never going to be easy, Helen--I'd be a little scared for you if it was. If there was ever a danger zone for Slayers, it's getting to enjoy the killing a bit too much. Maybe your attitude is why you ended up with the nifty intuitive abilities--I don't know. But when the moment came, you did what you had to do and didn't lose it until everything was over. In my book, that makes you just as much a Slayer as anyone. If you've got problems, we'll work with you and help you get through them. That's how we've done it for the past seven years, and we're not about to change it now."

Helen blinked, reached down to pick up her sword, and whispered, "Thank you," before walking to the exit of the crypt and into the graveyard. Xander followed her and watched as she walked off under a nearby tree to finish composing herself. He smiled, then felt eyes on him. He turned and saw Faith shaking her head at him. He scowled at her and said, "Stop looking at me like I'm Tony Robbins--it was just a little pep talk. Nothing to write home about."

Faith shrugged, though the fond look in her eyes remained. "Whatever. Should we call it a night? Kid did good, but she's pretty shaken up."

"The 'kid' is fine, and I have the feeling that those two demons had a partner out there somewhere." Helen walked over and looked out at the rest of the graveyard with a frown on her face. Faith and Xander watched her concentrate, and after a few seconds she looked back at them and said simply, "I think we should split up."

"OK--I'll take Xander with me and check the section to the west, and you take the section to the east." Faith replied.

Helen hesitated, then shook her head. "I think you and I should go east, and Xander should go west."

Faith blinked, and took a moment to recover from her surprise before replying, "Helen--I know we're supposed to give you a bit of room to make mistakes as you learn, but if I let Xander go off on his own when we both think a demon might be around, she's really going to kill me--if Willow or Dawn don't get to me first. We're going to have to come up with another plan."

"Hold on, Faith." Xander's voice was soothing as he stepped forward and asked Helen, "Helen, is this something that your rational outlook of the situation is telling you, or is it just a nagging feeling you have?"

"It seems a little crazy to me too, Xander--but I just feel like you should go a different direction than us right now. If Faith wants to overrule me-- or you don't want to go off alone--I totally understand." Helen looked conflicted, but her eyes were calm as she looked at Xander.

Xander reached for his equipment bag, slung it over his shoulder, and replied, "See you ladies later."

"Damn it, Xander--I am not going to explain to Buffy how I let you get squished by some demon!" Faith snapped, staring at her friend with genuine concern in her eyes. "I'm not getting on Helen's case, but it's my job to help her learn, and going to her crazy friend's funeral is not part of the learning process!"

Xander chuckled. "Faith--sending me off alone is not an idea that someone just randomly has, much less something that Helen should be feeling strongly about. I'm betting it's her mojo working here, and that it's for the same reason I'm standing here instead of Kennedy or Vi. Look--I'll be careful, and if I see something big and nasty I'll run like hell and scream my head off. I seem to remember you being an admirer of my ability to do that."

Faith flushed, then managed a grin: "Actually, I think I said 'shrieked.'"

Xander scowled and retorted: "And I said it was a bellow." He smiled reassuringly at Faith and said simply, "Faith--just believe in my ability to come back in one piece ... well, more or less one piece."

Faith glared at him for a moment before nodding once. Xander chuckled and headed west. Faith watched him go, then turned to see that Helen was watching her with a worried expression. Faith smiled at her and said reassuringly, "He'll be fine, Helen--it was his call to make, not ours. Xander knows what he's doing."

Helen nodded and walked off to the east. Faith turned to follow her, but looked back over her shoulder at Xander once more before moving after Helen.

<Hope you're right, Xander.>

Xander was getting bored--he had been quietly moving from crypt to crypt, looking for signs of something that didn't belong, and finding absolutely nothing. <Maybe Helen was just having jitters, and I was just here to get her over her reaction to killing that demon.> He shrugged. <Time to get back and check in with the others.> He moved back to the east, and saw the two Slayers standing near a crypt about a hundred yards away. He was about to call out to them when he saw motion out of the corner of his eye and froze.

A dark shape slipped out of a niche beneath a crypt that Xander had checked earlier and moved behind a low bush--out of the sight of the Slayers. It seemed to be man-sized, though a few protrusions on its body suggested that it was not human. The object in its hands was what riveted Xander's attention--it was an assault rifle: a state of the art model that was more than capable of spraying dozens of rounds in a few seconds at targets a substantial distance away. If Faith and Helen were caught unawares, they wouldn't have a chance. On the other hand, if the shooter heard him, he wouldn't have a chance, either--he was in open ground with no nearby cover available. He thought quickly and saw a good sized rock nearby--he picked it up and prepared to throw it over near the Slayers. <Should get their attention long enough for me to find cover and yell.> He wound up, only to step onto a loose patch of dirt and stumble loudly.

The figure turned with superhuman speed, and yellow eyes glared at him. Xander started to move, but the scaly finger pulled the trigger on the weapon, and Xander sighed inwardly:

<Oh, crap.>

The sound of an assault rifle going off on full automatic shattered the silence of the graveyard, and Faith and Helen instinctively sought cover while searching for the source of the sound. They quickly saw the muzzle flashes, and Helen gasped, "Xander," and started forward just before the sound stopped and the echoes faded. The Slayers looked at each other grimly and dashed over to where the shots had been coming from, ready to dodge if the gunman opened up again.

They found Xander staring at the corpse of the demon, which still held the weapon clutched tightly in its hands. Faith raised an eyebrow and looked at the body closely. Several bullet holes decorated it, including a gaping wound in the creature's forehead that had undoubtedly killed it instantly. The older Slayer turned to Xander and commented, "Creative way to off itself--what did you do, scare it when it was cleaning its gun?"

Xander shook his head. "Nope--it had me dead to rights. Opened up on me at full automatic from twenty feet away." He pointed at several spots where bullets had damaged the crypt or nearby tombstones, and said simply, "I think we should go back and report to Buffy." He turned green and added, "After I throw up."

Buffy stared at Xander--she was used to him getting into weird situations, but this one was taking the cake. They were all in the training room, and the assembled Slayers--along with Dawn and Willow--listened in fascination as Buffy added, "So this demon had the drop on Faith and Helen, and you surprised it and it decided to blast you instead?" Xander nodded, and Buffy paused and counted silently to five before continuing, "And the bullets--?"

"He burned through a whole clip of fifty--he probably missed with two thirds of them. The rest bounced off of me and went in various directions-- four went straight back at him, causing wounds that killed him instantly." Xander was in soldier mode, and he reported the facts as he knew them in a crisp, calm voice. Of course, the vomiting followed by the fifteen minutes of calming conversation with the two Slayers as they drove back to the Hyperion had done wonders for his nerves. He looked at Buffy and stated simply, "We disposed of the body and came back here to report."

"Yeah, I got that part." Buffy looked stunned, and Xander waited patiently for her to gather her thoughts. After a moment, Buffy shook her head and studied Xander carefully before asking, "Do you have an explanation for exactly how you're still alive--or should we just start calling you 'Clark'?"

Willow--who had come quickly when she heard that the mission had run into a snag--frowned as she looked at Xander and noticed what he was wearing: "Xander--isn't that the sweatshirt we tried the projectile-blocking spell on?"

Faith and Helen's eyes widened as they remembered Xander telling them about the experiment, and Xander nodded and replied, "Yeah, Will--it is, but that couldn't be it: that spell didn't work, and even if it did that spell wouldn't have anywhere near the power to stop one rifle bullet, much less send twenty of them flying off every which way."

Willow nodded absently, then quickly cast a spell. Xander's sweatshirt flared crimson, and continued to glow in the same hue, dyeing the room and its occupants red as Willow explained, "The spell works by interacting with the wearer's magical aura and coming up with the right balance to block several projectiles before being expended. Since Xander doesn't have a natural magical aura, I wanted to see how the spell would react. When the crossbow bolts went through the shirt on the dummy, I assumed that the spell had failed completely, and didn't bother to check to see how the shirt would read when Xander was actually wearing it." She gestured at Xander and added, "That red aura indicates very powerful protective magic, though I can also tell it is fading: my guess is that it'll be gone in twenty-four hours, and Xander will just have a sweatshirt with a lot of holes in it and no magic whatsoever."

Helen frowned and asked, "Why wouldn't the magic work when the shirt was on the dummy? Do manufactured objects generally have natural magic auras?"

"Generally not--that's why I did the test that way in the first place rather than having people throw stuff at Xander." Willow spoke absently, deep in thought. Buffy was about to prompt her when she brightened and blurted out, "Xander! You had me cast material strengthening spells on one of the dummies last month--which one was it?"

Xander thought a moment, and replied, "The dummy I put the shirt on." Buffy gave him a questioning look, and Xander flushed and explained, "I thought it might be nice to have a dummy around that could survive you or Faith in a pissed off mood."

Faith snickered, but Willow was still all business: "So the dummy did have a distinctive magical aura, and that threw off the spell that had been cast while sitting on a null magic person. Mystery solved."

Buffy frowned and replied, "OK, I get why the spell went wonky and why it made Xander bulletproof--and why Helen's intuition said that Xander should come along, but why did Xander have to go off alone? Couldn't Faith or Helen have snuck up on the demon like Xander did and maybe even disarmed him without any shots being fired?"

"That thing was fast, Buffy--it moved way faster than anything human when it heard me. If Faith or Helen hadn't been able to get right on top of it first, it would have shot her, no question." Xander sounded grim, and Buffy was nodding when he added, "Plus, it slipped out when Faith and Helen moved to a position where he could sight on them without being seen, even though it was hiding in a place I couldn't see and which had no visible windows or other sighting mechanisms with a vantage point that would have let him see them. I think it had some kind of sensing ability that felt them coming--that would explain how I was able to get right behind it without it seeing, hearing, or smelling me."

"And if we had stayed in a group?" Faith asked.

"The bullets that missed me might have hit you, or the bullets that actually hit me might have bounced off and hit you.--which would have left me with three dead bodies instead of one, or if I was unlucky--"

"Two dead Slayers and a pissed-off demon ready to reload or just kill you with his bare hands." Helen spoke quietly, and Xander had trouble interpreting her expression as she added, "Nice to know I was right, even if it meant you getting the hell scared out of you, Xander."

Xander forced a smile. "All part of the service."

Buffy sighed. "Well, this isn't the weirdest post-mission briefing we've ever had, but it's up there." She turned to Willow and said bluntly, "Will- -we need to be more thorough about following up on the experiments. If Helen hadn't had that flash of intuition, that shirt could have really made a mess of things. Keep up the work, but just be a little more careful." Willow nodded, looking embarrassed, and Buffy turned to Faith and Helen and continued, "Good job--both of you. Helen--I definitely want to do more investigating of your intuitive powers--they've just proven themselves to be wicked accurate." Helen nodded and Faith grinned, and Buffy turned to Xander, and hesitated for a moment before beginning, "Xander--?"

Xander looked at Buffy with concern. "Yeah, Buffy?"

"Please don't get yourself killed." Buffy spoke quietly, and Xander sighed and was about to turn away when Buffy added, "You did a great job--but ..."

"I know, Buffy." Xander knew the look in Buffy's eyes all too well, and noted the similar look in Willow's eyes. He turned and was about to walk out of the room when he felt a touch on his shoulder. He turned and saw Helen standing there, the same expression as before still on her face. He smiled and said, "Hey, Helen--what can I do for you?"

"It's not what you can do--it's what you already did," replied Helen quietly, looking at him intensely and visibly composing herself. Xander frowned and was about to ask for clarification when Helen stepped forward and kissed him on the mouth.

Xander was startled by the action, but not as much as he might have been before Willow had done something similar the prior month. <Must be the new aftershave I'm wearing--makes insanely powerful women want to kiss me. Maybe I can get an endorsement contract.> He cooperated with the kiss, noting that Helen was showing some restraint, but he felt a certain degree of invitation in her manner. After a few moments, Helen withdrew and waited for a moment before saying in a normal tone of voice: "Thank you for saving my life, Xander--both times."

Xander stared, and it took a few moments before he could bring himself to swallow hard and reply, "You're welcome." He heard footsteps behind him, and turned to see Buffy rushing past him and running out the door. Xander looked after her, and realized abruptly that Helen had inadvertently stepped into an old minefield. "Crap--I've got to go after her." He smiled apologetically at Helen and ran out the doorway.

Helen stared after the two of them, looking confused and a bit hurt, and was startled when Dawn ran up to her and gave her an uninhibited hug. She looked down at Dawn and whispered, "I don't understand--what--?"

"It's not important--except that it's wonderful. I'll explain it someday, I promise." Dawn released Helen and ran out of the room with barely restrained glee.

Helen found herself the subject of a lot of stares--some of which looked rather jealous. Willow smiled reassuringly at her and left, and Helen turned to Faith and stated simply, "I'm really confused right now--I just kissed Xander because it seemed to be the right thing to do--"

"Knowing you, it probably was." Faith grinned at Helen and gave her a friendly nudge before adding, "Besides--he's a damned good kisser: must have been all of that time with Cordelia in the broom closet." Helen blinked in confusion and Faith took her arm and invited, "Come on--we'll split a bottle of something in the lounge and I can fill you in on the backstory."

Helen nodded--getting drunk sounded like a useful option at this point--and the Slayers left the training room.

Xander ran out and looked for Buffy for five minutes before finding her standing on the balcony where Dawn had given him the ultimatum two months before. He walked up behind Buffy and said quietly, "Would you mind sharing the view with an old friend?"

Xander heard Buffy laugh bitterly, and was not surprised when she turned and had tears in her eyes. Xander smiled at her and said, "You know, I know that women kissing me rarely leads to anything good, but you don't have to burst out into tears over it--I'm pretty sure that Helen isn't going to try to kill me or wish that my head explodes."

Buffy laughed again--this time in genuine amusement--and replied, "I'm sorry--didn't mean to be so melodramatic. It's just that Helen's known you for less than a month, and she's already doing a better job of giving you the thanks you deserve than I've managed in seven years. I'm pretty ashamed of myself right now."

Xander sighed sadly and walked over to the railing of the balcony, looking at the stars in silence and thinking of what he could say to make things better. After a few moments, he looked over at Buffy and said quietly, "When that thing had that rifle pointed at me, and I saw it pulling the trigger, the first thought I had was 'oh crap'--pretty much par for the course." Buffy nodded, and Xander stared at her intensely before adding, "But the next thought I had was 'God, I wish Buffy was here.' Not just because I needed some serious bailing out at that moment, but because I really didn't want to die without seeing you again, Buffy. You are my hero, and you are my best friend--I will always love you, no matter what. Even if you haven't been able to find the words at times, I know damned well how you feel about me, and even a seriously hot, extremely nice, and preternaturally intuitive Slayer is never going to be able to hold a candle to that, Buffy." He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead and concluded, "Don't ever forget that, because it's as true as anything I've ever said."

Buffy stared at him for a moment, and whispered, "Thank you," before turning and leaving the balcony without another word. Xander watched her go with a wistful expression, then followed, leaving the balcony silent and empty.


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