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Slayer Central 14: All In

Timeframe: About two weeks after "Pulling Back the Curtain."

Summary: Buffy comes to some basic conclusions about her life and who she wants to spend it with, but may be too late. Final part of "Slayer Central".

Part I

Valerie Wallace waited for the harsh voice to stop coming from the speaker on the phone, then disconnected it from the wall and closed her eyes in frustration and anger. She sat on the couch and buried her face in her hands. That had been the fourth threatening call she had received that day- -the caller ID was useless for identifying the speaker. She had sensed that she was being followed when she left the house, and there were other subtle signs that she had been noticing that she suspected she would not have taken heed of only eight months before.

Valerie Wallace was twenty-six years old and made a living as a well- regarded interior decorator in San Diego, California. She was also a Slayer, and she was beginning to realize that it had been a mistake to refuse the offer of the petite blonde who had shown up at her door four months before with a wild story to explain the odd things that had been happening to her since she had awakened from sleep early one morning in May, screaming in absolute terror.

Buffy Summers had entered her life four months later, and she patiently explained what had happened to Valerie, and why. Valerie was skeptical, and Buffy provided proof in the form of an iron bar--which Valerie bent as if it were tinfoil--and an annoying fly--which Valerie snatched out of mid- air behind her back without knowing what she had done until she felt the vibration in her hand.

Valerie had been intrigued enough to follow Buffy back to an ancient hotel in Los Angeles, where she had met other Slayers and a few other people who were obviously allied with her. A rather handsome Englishman in his early thirties had explained some elements of the whole Slayer situation to her, and she had listened in intense interest, while thinking that book geeks sure as hell didn't look like that when she was in school.

In the end, the pull of her old, comfortable life was too strong--she didn't want or need a new career. By the same token, she didn't want to exploit her new abilities to become rich and famous--she perceived without difficulty that such exposure would make her a target. Buffy had been disappointed, and warned her that being a Slayer tended to draw unwanted attention from things that went bump in the night. The senior Slayer encouraged Valerie to obtain certain weapons in case of emergencies, and to train in using them. Buffy also gave Valerie a number to call if she was in trouble. The two had parted amicably, and Valerie had trained for several hours a week with the unfamiliar weapons that moved in her hands as if she had been born with them. <Well, I'm certainly not going to sweat street muggers from now on.>

Seven days before, the calls had began. They were more or less identical-- a threatening, unidentifiable voice describing horrible ways in which she would be killed, and mentioning things about her that made it impossible to contact the authorities without repeating things that would have her committed to a psychiatric facility for observation. Someone or something knew she was a Slayer, and had marked her for torment and death. Valerie was not a coward--even before the Spell changed her life she was a strong- willed, intelligent young woman who didn't take crap from anyone--but she sensed that this was something beyond her, Chosen or not. She opened her eyes and shivered--then considered the phone number she had been given. She quickly reconnected the phone and punched in the number.

Valerie heard a number of odd pops and humming noises on the line, and wondered if Buffy's cell phone was somehow magically protected. After a moment, the odd noises faded away, and the phone rang twice on the other end before Valerie heard a click, followed by the blessedly familiar voice: "Buffy Summers."

"Buffy--this is Valerie Wallace." Valerie kept her voice calm--only a slight quiver betrayed her anxiety as she continued, "I think I'm in trouble."

There was a moment of silence from the other end of the line, and Valerie felt a pang of fear before she heard Buffy order: "Tell me."

Valerie quickly told Buffy about the events of the last week, and waited for a response. She heard a low growl from the other end of the line, and then Buffy's voice again: "Damn--Valerie, we need to get you up here and figure out who's after you. Pack a small bag and sneak out of your house through the back yard--you'll find that hopping fences comes a lot easier these days." Valerie smiled involuntarily, then sobered as Buffy continued, "Find a cab, and go to the Breezy Rent-A-Car service downtown. There will be a car there under the name Jenny Calendar--they won't ask for I.D. Drive up to L.A. and go to the Bonaventure Hotel--there'll be a room there for you under the same name--same routine. Check in and wait for me to call."

Valerie felt a moment of relief and sighed involuntarily before saying, "Got it. Buffy, thank you for helping me--I don't think I realized just how bad things could get--"

Valerie heard a chuckle, then a reply: "Neither did I, when I got the news about being a Slayer. We're here to help, Valerie. Get your butt up here, and we'll deal with this."

The connection broke, and Valerie smiled before going to gather some necessities.

A few miles away, a robed figure glanced at the softly glowing cell phone in its hand, and it chuckled softly before whispering in the unmistakable voice of Buffy Summers: "I love it when they thank me for leading them to the slaughter." Red eyes glowed inside the drawn hood, and it continued chuckling as it put the phone away and prepared to leave.

"Looks like Helen hasn't had any problems finding volunteers to go east with her." Angel looked up from the list in front of him and smirked at Buffy before adding, "Maybe they think they'll be getting a less stern taskmaster there."

Buffy glared at him for a moment before smiling and commenting, "If they are, they're in for a big surprise--Kennedy's going to be in charge of the training program there, and she makes me look like a big wuss when it comes to workout discipline." Angel chuckled, and Buffy added, "Most of the ones going now are the ones with ties to the region; eventually, we'll probably put a third branch in Houston or St. Louis to cover the central part of the country--along with the dedicated sub-branch we're putting together for Cleveland. Five Slayers ought to be enough to hold the fort there except for apocalypses, and we've drilled it into everyone that we have cell phones and email accounts for a reason--we're not going to have any more surprises like Kendra or Mrs. Post."

"Good to hear it," Angel winced at the memories of the near-disasters those two screw-ups by the Watcher's Council had caused, and looked back at the list before commenting, "I don't see Willow's name--is she going to be following Kennedy?"

Buffy blinked, and her voice was a little sad as she replied, "She's going for the time being, but she's not being given a permanent position right now. Helen's glad to have her any way she can get her, but Willow's not sure she wants to move back there permanently. Giles offered her the position as his assistant, but she's not thrilled at the idea of traveling as much as he's going to have to for his position as the head of the Council. She just isn't sure about what she wants to do."

Angel frowned. "I'd hate to see her lose another relationship--she's had a rough time of it."

Buffy shrugged. "At least this would be a 'normal' breakup--people break up over relocation issues every day. It'll work out OK for her, and for Kennedy, if it happens." She smiled and added, "It's not like she wouldn't be able to find someone else."

Angel noted a tough of sadness in Buffy's last sentence, but their recent discussions about their past were too fresh in Angel's mind for him to feel comfortable bringing the topic up again. He smiled and said simply, "Willow's definitely worth taking chances for--I'm sure you're right: she'll be OK."

Buffy nodded, then blinked as she noted a gap in the organization chart in front of her: "Forgot about this--Helen still hasn't picked anyone as Head of Security for the branch. There are a couple of Slayers on her list who have some prior experience that would be good for the job, but I can see why she might want someone with more experience. Maybe I should screen some candidates from the ones who haven't signed up with her yet and ask--"

"Buffy." Angel interrupted, looking very uncomfortable. "Helen's already found someone she wants for the position, but that person hasn't accepted yet."

Buffy raised an eyebrow at Angel's comment. "You know, you've always gone cryptic on me at the moments when it was really going to tick me off--and this definitely falls into that category. Who does she want for the job, and why do you know about it?"

Angel looked immensely uncomfortable, and Buffy was about to press him further when Angel sighed and said simply: "Xander. Helen came to me and asked me my opinion of Xander and how he would do in the position."

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "She came to you for that information? Why?"

"She told me that most of the people who knew Xander well liked him too much to objectively evaluate him, and that Faith had mentioned that I didn't like him very much--she wanted a different point of view." Angel replied quietly, still looking uncomfortable.

Buffy smirked. "She certainly cuts to the heart of things, doesn't she? What did you tell her?"

"I told her that Xander is hot-headed, stubborn, prone to holding grudges, and someone who takes intolerable risks with his own safety." Buffy frowned at Angel's comment, but the vampire wasn't finished: "I also told her that he was loyal to a fault, smarter than he or most people give him credit for, and one of the most courageous human beings I have ever encountered--and I described the incidents that convinced me of that last fact. I told her that he would be an excellent candidate for the job."

Buffy smiled involuntarily, though Angel could see from her eyes that she wasn't completely happy about the situation. "Can't argue with any of that- -OK, thanks for the info." She turned the page of the organization chart, and glanced at an item. "How long before Gunn can line up that vendor for the physical security at the site?"

Helen scowled at the screen. <I need to delegate more of this stuff.> She finished the email and sent it along, then shut down her computer. She stretched, then sighed. <I could really use a decent rub-down--maybe I should talk to Angel about converting some space in the Hyperion into a spa.> Helen smiled at the thought, and was wondering where they could hire a masseuse who wouldn't be taken aback by having a large number of super-strong women as clients when she heard a familiar knock at the door. She blinked, and called out, "Come in, Buffy."

After a moment, the door opened, and the senior Slayer walked into Helen's suite--which had been partially converted into an office. Buffy walked over to an overstuffed chair and sat down, commenting, "I've mentioned that you knowing who it is without seeing them is really creepy, right?"

Helen chuckled. "I can't do it for everyone--you have a very distinctive knock." Buffy blinked, and Helen smirked before adding, "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Angel and I were going over your plans for the East Coast site--and they're good. You'll have a first-rate team there, even if Willow doesn't end up staying permanently." Buffy replied.

Helen smiled, but noted that Buffy looked rather concerned, given that she had just praised the plans. She locked eyes with Buffy and prodded, "But-- ?"

Buffy sighed, "I was that obvious, huh?" Helen nodded without hostility, and Buffy shook her head and said simply, "Angel told me you talked to him about Xander, and why."

Helen flinched inwardly, though she had been ready for this confrontation. <I hate being right sometimes.> "I went to someone who I thought would be helpful in determining the qualifications of a candidate for an important position I'm trying to fill. You don't have a problem with me talking to Angel, do you?"

"Of course not." Buffy was a bit nettled about being put on the defensive, but she quickly regained her composure and added, "I'm impressed that you had the judgment to go to someone who you knew didn't like Xander very much with the purpose of finding his positive qualities. I'd like to know why you're considering Xander for the job when you've got two Slayers on your list with more formal experience that would qualify them for the position-- and a few more who aren't on your list yet."

Helen raised an eyebrow. "If formal experience was all that counted, you never would have made it out of Sunnydale. Xander's smart, a proven leader, and damned loyal to the people he cares about. Sure, he can't go toe-to-toe with a big demon or a Slayer, but the job doesn't require that. Angel's got Gunn running the security department in his firm--why shouldn't Xander be able to do the same for me?"

Buffy hesitated for a moment, and her voice was a bit cold when she spoke: "Are you sure that's all you were thinking when you offered Xander that job, Helen?"

Buffy saw Helen flush, and the taller woman stood and walked next to Buffy before replying in an equally cold voice: "I'm not going to reply to an accusation that you don't have the nerve to make explicitly, Buffy. I've offered Xander the job, and he hasn't given me an answer yet. If you want to speak to him about what he's taking into account when he makes that decision, that's your business, not mine." She turned her back on Buffy and walked back to her desk, muttering, "Now, if you'll excuse me--I've got a new business to set up."

Buffy glared at Helen's back for a moment, then got up and stormed out of the room. The door slammed, and Helen looked back at the door and sighed before turning her attention to the paperwork in front of her.

"You know, I'm starting to think that you had Willow put some spell on that eye patch, Xander." Robert looked rueful as he toweled the sweat from his forehead and looked over at his older friend. "You can't possibly be seeing some of those punches I'm throwing, but you're blocking them."

Xander shrugged, though he was inwardly pleased by the compliment. "Your style is getting more familiar to me--I'm picking up patterns in your attacks." Robert nodded, and Xander added, "I'm also cheating in my stance- -I'm paying a price for it, but it's worth it. That will be important when I'm fighting with people and things I haven't fought before."

Robert nodded, and smiled as he commented, "Of course, if you took Helen up on that job offer, you could avoid that nasty little problem--you'd be the one telling other people where to go and kick ass, rather than going out and doing it yourself. Might not be the worst career choice in the world."

Xander shrugged. "Maybe--I still don't understand why she didn't offer you the position."

Robert smirked. "Gee, maybe because I'm three years younger than you and haven't spent the last seven years fighting demons?" Xander blinked, and Robert added, "Helen isn't a believer in nepotism, Xander. I've been her informal bodyguard for the past few years because I can do the job better than most pros, and because she trusts me. As much as it bruises my pride, I've learned to live with the fact that if she needs one from now on, it's going to be another Slayer, not me. If she offered you that job, it's because she thinks you can do it better than anyone else she can get-- period."

"Sounds like you've got two new fans, Xander." Buffy spoke quietly, and the two men turned to see her standing in the doorway of the workout room. Buffy nodded to Robert, and said simply to Xander, "I need to talk to you for a few minutes."

"That's my cue to leave," Robert commented as he walked over to retrieve his things. He glanced at his watch, and his expression turned into one of mild panic as he muttered, "Damn--I'm already running late--I need to--"

"Forget you had a date tonight, Robert?" Xander joked, wondering what had the younger man so shaken up.

Robert blinked, and looked nervously between Xander and Buffy before mumbling, "No comment," and leaving the room.

"Poor bastard--one of the Slayers must have finally pinned him down. Does our medical plan cover that?" Xander commented, shaking his head in amusement. Buffy snickered, though her expression remained serious, and Xander sensed that gentle mockery of Robert's love life would have to wait for another time. "What can I do for you, Buffy?"

Buffy gazed at Xander for a moment, and Xander was unable to interpret her expression as she asked quietly, "Why didn't you tell me that Helen had offered you the security position?"

Xander was taken aback by his friend's bluntness, and he took a moment before replying, "I haven't decided whether to accept it or not, and I didn't see any reason to bother you. Didn't you give Helen a free hand in recruiting the people she wanted?"

"Of course I did--that's not the issue, Xander." Buffy sounded defensive, but she wasn't backing down. "You've been offered a position that would move you all the way across the country and away from most of the people you've known all your life--including me and Dawn. I'm just wondering why you didn't feel the need to mention that to us."

"Dawn's going to college next year, Buffy--she could end up anywhere. Willow could end up on the East Coast, in Cleveland, or even in England if Giles lures her over there." Xander frowned, and looked back at Buffy with a mildly annoyed expression on his face. "Buffy--let's cut to the chase here: do you think I'm qualified for the job that Helen's offered me? If not, tell me now, and I'll go to her room and turn her down before the echo's gone."

Buffy blinked, and Xander could see a moment of deep-down hurt before she shook her head and said softly, "She'd have a hard time finding anyone better, Xander. I just ... you've been a part of my life from the moment I moved to Sunnydale, and I can't imagine doing without you any more. I'm always going to want to have you near me--and the past has proven that I need you there."

Xander sighed, and reached out and squeezed Buffy's hand before saying simply, "Buffy, I know that, and I appreciate the fact that I've been an important part of your life. Things are different now, though, and you'll have plenty of good people in your corner regardless of what I decide to do. Helen needs an experienced person in that position, and she's offered it to me because she thinks I'm the best person for the job. I haven't decided yet, but I might have to choose to go to the place that I'm most needed, not just one where I know I'll always be wanted no matter what." Buffy's eyes moistened, and Xander squeezed her hand again and concluded, "I hope that doesn't make you mad at me."

Buffy squeezed Xander's hand softly in response and released it. "Of course it doesn't--I just wanted to know what you're thinking." She turned away and added, "I'll see you later."

Xander watched her go, and stared at the empty doorway for a moment before sighing again and turning to retrieve his possessions.

Buffy opened her eyes, and found she was walking along a dark path in what looked like a park or a cemetery. <Here we go again.> She took a moment to consciously relax--the tension of the day was combining with the tension that always accompanied a Slayer's dream, and she knew that the combination was not good for extracting the most useful information possible from the experience. The stress seemed to recede somewhat, and she sighed and continued to walk.

A figure darted by her at a good rate of speed--Buffy tried to get a good look at who it was, but was unable to see a face before the being vanished into the darkness ahead of Buffy. The Slayer scowled and picked up her pace, running as quickly as she could while being careful of her footing-- dream or not, falling tended to hurt--and listening carefully for sounds that might give a clue to the location of the mysterious figure.

After what felt like a few minutes, Buffy saw the figure standing alone, just off the path--it seemed to be a woman of medium height. She walked up to the silent woman and called out quietly, "Are you all right?"

The woman ignored Buffy, then flinched as she whispered, "Stop laughing at me! Why are you following me? What do you want?" Silence followed, and the woman snarled angrily, "Buffy knows I'm here--she'll stop you!"

Buffy felt a pang of fear--she recognized the speaker as Valerie Wallace. <I haven't spoken to her since she went back to San Diego--what's she saying?> She walked next to Valerie and spoke again: "Valerie--where are you? What's following you?"

Valerie didn't react, and she was still speaking to her unseen tormentor: "Damn you--if I find you I'm going to kill you--or I'm going to bring back a whole bunch of Slayers to do it with me!"

Another moment of silence followed, and Valerie began shaking her head in what seemed to be disbelief and horror: "No, no! I won't let you--I'll die first!" She ran off into the darkness again, and Buffy was hard- pressed to keep her in sight. They left the path, and Buffy noted that they seemed to be running across grass. After a few seconds, Buffy saw a flash of blue light outline Valerie, and a horrifying scream echoed throughout the area.

Buffy ran faster--heedless of the occasional rocks that seemed to be popping up in her path--and ran to Valerie's side. She looked down, and only her non-corporeal state allowed her to avoid vomiting at what she saw. Valerie had been shredded by whatever had just hit her--her flesh was burned and torn, and her clothing was scorched and in pieces. Her face was unrecognizable, though Buffy could see that the pain of whatever had done this to her had twisted her expression into a gruesome rictus before death took her.

Buffy felt tears come to her eyes, and she snarled with all of the anger within her: "You coward! I'll find you--and you'll wish you'd never been born when I do!"

Buffy heard a low, sinister laugh, and she looked for its source. After a moment, she saw a figure in robes, and a voice that said simply:

"Your time will come soon, Slayer--and those you protect will fall after you do."

Buffy screamed in rage and charged the figure--which vanished as Buffy's eyes snapped open and revealed the ceiling of her room. She cursed, grabbed her robe, and headed out.

Buffy reached Helen's door, and hesitated before knocking. <She's pissed off enough at me right now--if she didn't share this dream, waking her up at five in the morning isn't going to make her like me any more.> She had half-decided to go take a shower and wait a few hours before bothering her before she heard the familiar voice: "Come in, Buffy."

Buffy stared for a moment, then opened the door. Helen was sitting at her desk in her own robe, looking exhausted and as upset as Buffy was. Buffy looked at her and noted quietly, "OK--that time I didn't knock."

"After the dream I just shared with you, it didn't take a rocket scientist to guess who'd be coming to my door at this hour--the floorboards of this place creak something fierce. Let's compare notes, shall we?" Helen sounded as tired as she looked, but there was no trace of hostility there.

Buffy nodded, and she found a seat before describing to Helen what she had seen and heard. Helen listened carefully, and commented, "It was another 'observer' dream for me. I saw what you saw, mostly, but I caught a few glimpses of things you didn't mention: a large pond to your left, and what looked like the L.A. downtown skyline beyond it."

Buffy blinked, then burst out: "MacArthur Park! It has to be." Helen smiled at Buffy's quick analysis, and Buffy smiled back before saying, "I need to call Valerie--it sounds like someone might have lured her here, and if it hasn't happened yet, I need to warn her not to come until we can send a group of Slayers to escort her here." She thought for a moment, and the number that Valerie had given her came to mind. She punched the number into her cell phone and waited, only to hear the line ring without picking up. "Damn--she's got an answering machine and it's not picking up. This isn't good."

"We'll find her, Buffy." Helen replied in a reassuring tone, and the older Slayer relaxed slightly as Helen added, "We know it's close, and that it'll go down at night--the sun will be up in less than an hour, so I'm guessing we have the day to plan, at least. I'm going to grab a few more hours of sleep, and we can set up a meeting to plan our approach."

Buffy nodded. "Good plan. I need a few hours to calm down--seeing what happened to her really--"

"Yeah, me too." Helen's voice sounded shaky, but her eyes were determined as she looked back at Buffy.

Buffy smiled thankfully and said simply, "Thanks." She got up, but a pang of conscience kept her from leaving. She turned to Helen and hesitated for a moment before saying, "Helen, I was way out of line yesterday. Xander will be great for that job--and if you've got other reasons besides that for wanting him with you ... that just shows you know a great guy when you see him. I won't stand in the way of what Xander wants."

Helen nodded curtly, and Buffy turned to leave. Before she reached the door, she heard Helen say, "This is none of your business, but you might want to know that I told Xander three weeks ago that I was interested in pursuing a relationship with him. He said no--he said it in a very nice way that did a great job of keeping my ego intact, but the answer was still 'no.' I made the job offer knowing that was his answer to the whole hearts and flowers thing."

Buffy was startled, and asked, "Did he say why?"

"I got the impression he was interested in someone else--he didn't admit or deny it when I asked him about it." Helen replied, and her voice was softer as she added, "Perhaps someone else should ask him--and soon."

Buffy nodded absently and left, and Helen shook her head in annoyance and concern before retreating to bed.

A full war council had been assembled in the main conference room at Wolfram & Hart, and Angel frowned after Buffy and Helen had finished their accounts of the dream. "I've never heard of anything like that blue light that you've described--but anything that could do what you described to a Slayer is a nasty weapon." He turned to Fred and added, "This sounds like something right up your alley."

Fred looked at the notes she had taken, then back up at Angel as she nodded and replied, "We're on it." She looked at Wesley and added, "I could use your help on the mystic angles--it might be something old instead of something new."

"Agreed." Wesley stood up, and followed Fred out of the room.

"I've made some calls," Buffy said, watching the faces of the remaining occupants of the room. "Valerie hasn't been seen by any of her friends since yesterday morning. She hasn't used her bank or credit cards since then, and she managed to give the two private detectives I had watching her the slip. She could easily be in L.A. by now--I think we need to assume that she'll be in MacArthur Park either tonight or in the next few nights, and that something will try to kill her when she gets there." She turned to Willow and asked, "Can you cast the Slayer detection spell again so we can try to trace her?"

"Yes--but it won't pinpoint her, Buffy--it'll just show how many Slayers are in this immediate area. We'll know she's here, but not exactly when. She doesn't have a cell phone, so we can't just call her. Her answering machine isn't working, so we can't even leave her a message at home to let her know she's been tricked." Willow scowled in frustration, and took a moment to calm herself before adding, "We may need to just stake out the park and hope for the best."

Buffy nodded, and turned to the other listeners: "OK, then--I want to set up a force for that purpose. Twenty Slayers, operating in teams of two. That should be plenty for keeping an eye on things until she shows up, and for killing anything nasty that shows up. Willow--I want you working with Fred and Wesley: if some nasty spell is involved, they'll need you to come up with a countermeasure. Angel--I need you and Gunn to push your connections to the limit: see if anyone has been bragging about a big plan to kill off Slayers, or if there's been some big mystical disturbance that would account for what Helen and I saw." She looked around and asked, "Anyone else have any input?"

"Am I the only one who thinks this looks like a trap? From what you said, Valerie freaked out at whatever she heard after she said we'd come to save her--maybe it told her that he'd used her for bait and that he'd kill any Slayers who showed up" Faith's voice was grim.

Buffy nodded. "That was my take, too--that's why I'm sending twenty slayers instead of five. Better chance to spot the guy and take him out before he can shoot. If he's got a plan or a gadget that will let him be a danger to twenty Slayers at once, then we'd better know as quickly as possible." Faith nodded, and Buffy asked, "Anyone else?"

Xander started to open his mouth, but closed it and remained silent. Helen caught the movement, and wavered for a moment before turning to Buffy and saying, "Buffy--I'd like to suggest another member for the squad in the park." Buffy nodded, and Helen locked eyes with her and said simply, "Xander."

Buffy felt a chill. "Helen--whatever that thing was using turned a Slayer into hamburger before she had a chance to fight back at all. I don't want to expose Xander to that--I wouldn't want to expose Slayers to that if I wasn't out of options. Is this another of your intuitive flashes?"

Helen nodded, and Xander commented softly, "Her record's been awfully good with those, Buffy--I don't think we should ignore this one." Buffy's expression twisted in worry, and Xander smiled reassuringly at her before he added, "Buffy--this guy's gunning for Slayers. He probably won't even notice I'm there." Buffy looked somewhat mollified, and Xander concluded, "I can coordinate communication between the Slayer squads, and be an extra eye in the park. Safer than houses."

Buffy hesitated, then nodded. Xander smiled, and looked at the others before saying softly, "Let's go save a friend."

Part II

Valerie finished her dinner and fidgeted nervously. She had checked into the Bonaventure late the prior afternoon, and she had relied on room service for food from then on, giving the bellboys careful scrutiny through the peep hole before letting them in.

<Buffy knows exactly where I am--I'm practically within walking distance of the Hyperion. Why hasn't she just sent a team over to retrieve me?> Valerie shook her head in dismay, and was considering throwing caution to the wind and just calling the Hyperion when the phone rang. She picked it up: "Yes?"

"Miss Calendar?" The voice on the other end of the line was polite, and Valerie immediately recognized it as the front desk clerk.

"Yes, what is it?" Valerie replied.

"There's a small package here for you--would you like it brought up to your room?" The clerk sounded a bit harried--Valerie had noted that there were two conventions being held in the hotel, and the hallways were swarming with middle-aged men who had consumed a few too many drinks..

"Thank you--that would be nice." Valerie replied. The clerk thanked her and broke the connection.

Valerie waited impatiently for several minutes before someone knocked softly at the door. She went to the peep hole and looked: the bellboy standing there was the one who had brought up her dinner an hour before. She opened the door, accepted the package, and tipped the bellboy--who left with a smile.

Valerie walked to her bed and sat down, looking at the package. It was wrapped in plain brown paper, and was addressed to Jenny Calendar, c/o the Bonaventure Hotel. The return address read: "B. Summers, Hyperion Hotel." Valerie sighed in relief and opened the package. It contained a hooded cloak that was an odd silvery color, and a note. Valerie opened the note, which read:

Sorry it took so long to get back to you--something nasty is going on, which is why the cavalry hasn't arrived yet. I've figured something out that will let us get together without intolerable risk. Wait until 9:00 PM, catch a cab to MacArthur Park, and put on this cloak when you arrive-- make sure the hood is up and drawn. Walk to the northeast corner of the park, sit on the stone bench next to the historical marker sign, and wait for me to show up. We'll take it from there.

Be careful,

Buffy Summers

Valerie looked at the cloak and sighed in relief. Buffy had come through-- now it was just a matter of waiting it out until nine-o-clock. She smiled, and called room service again. A big dessert sounded like a good idea about then.

Buffy frowned, and glanced over her shoulder. She could see Vi and Kennedy standing a hundred yards away to the south, and beyond them another fifty yards were two more Slayers she couldn't identify at the distance. The teams were rotating their posts, on the theory that fresh eyes in any one place might spot something the prior teams hadn't. It had been dark for almost four hours, and it was just after nine in the evening. Fortunately, there were relatively few civilians at the park at that hour, but Buffy knew that they'd have to be careful to avoid innocent casualties in this job. She pulled out her cell phone and hit the redial button. She heard a click, and asked simply, "Xander--where are you?"

"A hundred and fifty yards south of you--I'll check in with Vi and Kennedy, then head to your position. Figure three minutes, Buffy." Xander's voice was crisp, and the certainty in his voice gave Buffy a sense of irrational comfort. "See you in a few."

The connection broke, and Buffy shook her head in dismay as she looked at Faith. "Faith--I should have done a better job of trying to talk Valerie into coming up here. Hell, I should have just offered her a job--how much would refurnishing the Hyperion have gotten her for a commission? That might have been enough--I should have thought of it."

"Don't go there, Buffy." Faith's reply was blunt, and Buffy blinked as the younger Slayer added, "You told her the score, and she had the right to try to live a normal life. Any one of us could be a target--the upside is that when you go after one Slayer, you have to deal with all of us. We'll get her back--or make something pay with a lot of pain. Better yet, let's do both."

Buffy smiled thankfully at Faith and glanced to the south--where she could see Xander talking with Vi and Kennedy. Faith noted the look, and sighed to herself before commenting, "Xander's got this routine down pat--it's nice to have him helping us out for now. I'm going to miss him when he goes east with Helen."

Buffy flinched, and turned to take a look at the trees north of them before turning to Faith and replying, "He hasn't decided to take that job yet-- he's still thinking about it."

Faith raised an eyebrow. "Really? What's to think about? A big, important job--with a nice salary, and a boss who's pretty obviously ready to add some nice perks."

Buffy glared at Faith and snapped, "Xander's not interested in her--Helen thinks he's attracted to someone else."

<And in other news: water is wet, rocks are hard, and the Cubs haven't won the World Series for a while.> Faith managed to bite down the sarcastic comment, and replied, "You don't say--have you thought of talking to whoever it is and getting her to lean on Xander a bit? I'd just as soon keep him around--given that I'd be pushing up daisies three or four times over if he hadn't been here."

Buffy frowned. "We've been kind of busy with this crisis--but I'll think about it. We need to find out who it is first."

Faith looked over to the east for signs of movement, and took the opportunity to roll her eyes at Buffy's comment. "You know Xander pretty well, B. Give it some thought, think of who Xander might feel that way about--it'll come to you." <And if it doesn't, I can go to Willow and see if she can zap up a Clue Stick big enough to penetrate your thick skull.>

Buffy smiled, oblivious to Faith's annoyance. "Thanks, Faith. I just hope it isn't you--not that I wouldn't want you and Xander to be happy, but after the whole Willow/Xander/Cordelia/Oz thing, I'd just as soon not have any more soap operas to deal with. I think you and Robin are great for each other."

Faith felt a moment of warmth towards the older Slayer, and sighed inwardly before replying, "Yeah, we are. We'll shoot the breeze about this later, Buffy. Right now, let's take a closer look at those trees to the north."

Buffy nodded, and the Slayers moved off--not noticing the fog creeping in from the south.

Willow felt a surge of nausea, but forced herself to look at the picture that Fred had called up on the screen. It was a Naganis demon--eight feet of teeth, horns, and muscle that tended to be more than a match for anything that wasn't a Slayer or lucky enough to be carrying a pocket full of iron pyrite dust. This one had been reduced to a mass of shredded and bleeding flesh, and Willow carefully noted the damage before turning away and saying, "This looks like a match for Buffy and Helen's description, Fred. What was the cause of death?"

"The Naganis was working for W & H in Bangkok--an assassination mission eighteen months ago. They assigned another demon to create a photographic record of the mission for intimidation purposes, and he got these shots before getting the hell out of there, and I don't blame him." Fred frowned at the data file, and added, "The demon reported seeing a flash of blue light before the Naganis went down, and noted that he was in line of sight of the target for fully twenty seconds before he escaped, but that there was no further fire."

"Might take a while to rack that spell up again--it's nasty." Willow frowned, then asked: "Did W & H do a full autopsy?"

Fred nodded, and pressed a few buttons. A densely printed page of information appeared on the screen, and Willow read rapidly, looking for obvious anomalies. Three-quarters of the way down, she found what she was looking for: "Corpse was drained of all magical properties--useless for harvesting organs and fluids."

Willow blinked, and considered the state of the Naganis' body, and that of the Slayer in Buffy's dream. Willow didn't have a Slayer's intuition, but her recent experience with Xander reminded her that a magically null corpse was as rare as a thousand carat diamond. Something had drained the magic from the Naganis, and killed it violently in the process. Her eyes widened, and she snatched her cell phone without hesitation and hit the speed dial for Buffy.

She waited for several seconds, and felt a chill as she heard the recorded message saying that Buffy was out of the area of service for her cell phone. She tried Xander, then Faith: same result. She turned to Fred with an appalled expression on her face and said, "Something's blocking communications in the park--I can't get anyone on the line."

"That's not all." Gunn walked in and flipped a few switches on a panel. Three overhead monitors flickered on and showed a thick fog moving into MacArthur Park. "That started happening about three minutes ago--and the weather isn't right for it." He flipped another switch, and the screens went blank. 'We've got five cameras in the park, and they're all dead. No signal at all."

"I've got to warn them--they'll be sitting ducks!" Willow cried out, and Fred and Gunn heard Willow mumbling something under her breath. The only discernable word was "Hermes."

Wesley walked up and commented, "Maybe we shouldn't panic--it might be just a momentary--"

Willow's eyes went as black as midnight, and all three of the people standing near Willow took two steps back involuntarily. After a few seconds, Willow's eyes returned to normal, and she gave her friends an apologetic look before whispering, "Sorry--gotta go!" Her outline blurred, and she vanished with a thunderclap that coincided with the exit door being slammed violently into the corridor wall, shattering it into splinters.

Fred, Gunn, and Wesley looked at each other, and it was Gunn who finally broke the silence: "OK, that was cool."

Valerie sat on the bench and waited. The cab had dropped her off at the northeastern corner of MacArthur Park, and she had waited for the cab to pull away before slipping the cloak on and pulling the hood up, carefully drawing the hood closed so as to conceal her face. She had slipped into the park and found the bench near the sign, and sat down.

After a few minutes, it struck her how deserted the park was on this night. It was not even 9:30 yet, and it was a clear and warm night given the time of year. That made it all the more odd when she saw a fogbank quickly drifting in from the south. In less than a minute, everything within her line of sight was obscured by the strange phenomenon--which was not as cold as she expected it to be. She squinted, but could make out no objects beyond about thirty feet. She coughed nervously, and realized that the sound was muted. She felt a chill. <This might be Buffy's way of providing cover for bringing me in--but my instincts are telling me to get the hell out of here, and I'm going to listen to them.> She stood up and turned toward the northeast exit of the park.

"Going somewhere, Miss Wallace?"

Valerie froze at the voice coming from her left, then forced herself to turn and face it. She saw only empty space for an instant before a robed figure faded into view. It appeared to be man-sized, and was pointing what looked like a wand or baton at her: its tip glowed a soft blue. Valerie stayed where she was, though she was carefully evaluating the distance between the stranger and herself, and wondering if it had the same vital spots as a human being. She was carrying two stakes in her pockets and a throwing knife at her hip, concealed under her cloak. She managed a smile and replied, "Apparently not. Let me guess--you're the bad guy, right?"

The figure raised its head slightly, and Valerie flinched at the sight of red eyes within the hood. Her reaction provoked laughter, and the figure called out, "You're too easily put off by simple parlor tricks: my eyes simply allow me to see in the dark." It pulled back its hood, and Valerie saw the features of a man in his late sixties or early seventies, marred by a nasty scar that started on his right temple and went down to his throat. The man nodded, and added, "The real differences are ones you can't see."

Valerie stared at the man, while slowly slipping her right hand downward to grasp the throwing knife. "You look human--why would you want to hurt me? I've never done anything to you."

The man chuckled, and his voice was cold as he replied, "My dear, if I was who I appeared to be, the very fact that you had chosen to turn your back on your Calling would be enough for me to have sought your death by the most expedient means available. Miss Summers and her lackeys have turned what was once a sacred duty into a polite request, and were it not for a rather high fatality rate among the Council of Watchers last year, she would have stood at the head of their enemies list for such presumption."

Valerie's eyes narrowed: Buffy had told her about the old Council, but even her less-than-complimentary description hadn't made them seem this ruthless. Abruptly, she remembered something the man had said, and she snapped, "So you're not a Watcher? Who are you, and why have you lured me here?" She tensed as she waited for an answer, looking for an opportunity to throw the knife now resting in her hand.

The man chuckled. "You've seen far too many movies, Miss Wallace--you hope that I will talk long enough for rescue to come unexpectedly, or that I will let slip some information that will help you make a miracle escape." Valerie glared at the man, and he reacted with a smile and a nod as he added, "Very well--I will humor you. Once upon a time, there was a member of the Council of Watchers who saw the decay of discipline within the organization, and foresaw that it would not be long before it ceased to be an effective force in holding back the attempts by the forces of darkness. To forestall that fate, he bargained with what he believed to be lesser evils to give him power to make the Council more ruthless than it had ever been, disregarding mercy and wisdom in favor of ruthlessness and draconian adherence to archaic laws. When a Slayer who--in spite of great ability-- did not conform to the long-established traditions of the Council, he sought her demise, by both direct and indirect means. When she defeated him and forced him to accept her status as the Chosen One, he bided his time, knowing that sooner or later she would perish, and the Council would remain and resume its status at the head of the Forces of Light." He paused--noting that Valerie seemed fascinated in spite of herself--then chuckled again and concluded, "But then a strange fellow in a priest's costume blew up the Watchers' Headquarters, and Mr. Quentin Travers was forcibly separated from his body--after which I took up residence there, inheriting his memories and abilities. I hope he enjoys his new accommodations in the afterlife--the nice thing about being frozen in ice up to your chin is that you don't have to worry about posture any more."

"So you're a demon--you could have just said so," replied Valerie, watching the creature as it smirked at her. "Of course, the backstory will be interesting when the Slayers find you and hack you into little pieces."

The demon laughed, and Valerie felt cold fear creep up her spine as it waved its free hand--causing the fog to clear away from them for about a thirty foot radius. Its voice was clearer now, and Valerie shivered as it said, "My dear, the Slayers have been combing this park for the better part of half an hour, and you have not seen them, and they have not seen you. A little property of that cloak you're wearing. By the time they know you are here, it will be far too late for them. You are bait, and your usefulness to me is finished."

Valerie felt a low snarl come from her throat, and she brought the knife up faster than she could ever remember doing anything. The blue light from the wand struck her in mid-throw, disrupting her aim somewhat, though the blade still struck the demon in the left thigh with a meaty thump.

Valerie felt intolerable pain from every part of her body, and she tumbled to the ground helplessly as a horrible scream was torn from her in spite of her best efforts to remain silent. Her last sight was of grim--if mildly pained--satisfaction on the face that had belonged to Quentin Travers, and her last thought was a prayer:

<Please let them stop him.>

Buffy heard the faint scream to the north of her, and she felt a moment of horror and failure.


She ran through the fog, knowing that Faith was right behind her and hearing the heavier footsteps of Xander not far behind them. She had the impulse to tell Xander to try to find the others--the fog had killed communications and deadened sound to the point where the teams could no longer hear each other--but she knew it was futile: Xander would not let his friends go into danger alone.

They broke out into a fog-free area, and Buffy quickly spotted the limp form lying about thirty feet away, in the center of the clear zone. The Slayers ran up to the body, and Buffy had to bite on her lip to stop from crying out: Valerie looked as she had in the dream--torn apart and burned badly. Buffy looked around carefully, and Faith checked in the opposite directions at the same time. Nothing there--but Faith quickly spotted the oddly-colored liquid on the ground a few feet away. "Something got hurt over here, Buffy--and I don't think it was human." She pointed at a trail of purple fluid that went about five feet to the east, then stopped. "Bleeding stopped fast." She spotted a stained throwing knife at the end of the trail, and added, "It must heal fast, or it's hell on wheels with Band-Aids."

Buffy didn't respond--and Faith turned back to see that the older Slayer was staring at Valerie's body, tears filling her eyes. Faith was about to walk over and try to snap Buffy out of it, then saw that someone better suited for the job had arrived. She sighed and turned back to look for lurkers in the trees on the east border of the park.

"Buffy--we need to hold it together for now." Buffy looked up and saw that Xander's eye was also moist, but his jaw was set and his voice quivered with controlled anger as he said, "We'll get this guy, but we can't drop our guard. One funeral is going to be bad enough."

Buffy nodded and whispered, "The show must go on." She called out to Faith, "Faith, come look at the body with me--I want to see if the spell left any visible traces that might give us a hint of how to fight it, and I want another pair of eyes." She looked at Xander and said simply, "Watch our backs."

Xander nodded, and started watching the tree line. Both Buffy and Faith were also looking up regularly at the trees to the north and east--only occasionally looking to the wall of fog to the south and west: it should be hard for something to see well enough to fire from within it. They had been at it for two minutes when Xander suddenly felt a tingle go down his spine as he was about to look to the east. Obeying an impulse he didn't understand, he quickly turned to the south.

A figure was fading into view, leveling a wand like object that was glowing an ominous azure. Xander winked, and noticed that the figure seemed to be moving very slowly as it pointed the wand at Buffy and Faith. He was standing near the line of fire--he sensed that if he moved now, he could interpose himself in the path of the lethal energy. It might do no good-- an attack that could reduce a Slayer to shredded and burned flesh might well treat his merely human, unshielded body like so much tissue paper. He could try to cry out and hope that Buffy and Faith would dodge in time, but his inner instincts told him that this would be futile.

In a moment that seemed to be frozen in time for no reason he could discern, Xander weighed his options and considered the two friends who were facing certain death, against his own certain death for an action that might be for naught. Xander thought briefly, sighed inwardly, and dove forward as the wand emitted a burst of blue light.

Xander felt his perceptions change abruptly--he was sailing through the air at normal speed, and he felt the beam strike him squarely. He felt his body convulse, though for some reason he felt no pain. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Buffy and Faith were unharmed. As his consciousness fled, he smiled and thought:

<All in.>

The demon snarled as the human dived into the path of the bolt, blocking it and sending him tumbling into a bare patch of ground. <How did he react so quickly?> It was distracted from this thought by a sudden burst of feedback as some of the bolt rebounded along the path it had traveled and struck the wand. The device heated up, and the demon dropped it with a howl of pain. After an instant, it looked up and saw a truly terrifying sight.

Two Slayers were glaring at him, and their hands were already in motion. The demon tried to cast its cloaking spell and flee, but the pain from the feedback clouded its mind, and the spell fizzled as a throwing knife struck home in its throat. The demon gurgled and dropped to its knees, and it looked on helplessly as the dark-haired Slayer charged forward with a rather lethal-looking axe. In the instant before its head went rolling into the fogbank, the demon had a thought that would have been very familiar to the man whose body it had occupied:

<I seem to have miscalculated.>

Faith screamed in rage and triumph as the demon's head rolled, and Buffy broke out of her shock to see Xander convulsing on the ground. She started to go to him, but froze when she heard a familiar voice shouting in restrained terror: "Buffy, NO! Don't touch him!"

Willow had appeared in the clearing as if she had teleported, and she had only just managed to shout out the warning before she dropped to her knees, panting and pale as a ghost. She ran over to Willow, glancing over at Xander and waving to Faith as she did so, and helped her friend to her feet, asking urgently, "Why not, Willow? He got hit by that spell that killed Valerie--we've got to help him."

Willow visibly gathered herself, then managed to whisper, "If any of us touch him, he'll die, and I think we will too." The fog was dispersing quickly, and Willow reached for her cell phone, hitting the redial button. She didn't wait for the person picking up to speak: "Send a trauma team to the northeast corner of the park. No Slayers or demons--normal humans only, using null magic protocols. No slip-ups, or Xander's dead." She paused, and listened for a moment before saying, "I'm fine, Fred. Never tried that spell before--it's got some interesting poss--" Her voice trailed off, and she collapsed in a dead faint.

Buffy and Faith looked at each other in confusion, then reached for their own phones to call the others. The threat was gone--but one of their own was dead, and another was fighting for his life.

"Very nicely done--perfect in the execution and timing. Not bad at all for a first assignment."

Lilah turned away from the gathering crowd of Slayers and turned back to Doyle, who had just complimented her. "It wasn't so hard--the kid's got a built in reflex for putting his neck on the line. I just had to turn him the right way and make sure he got there in time." Lilah frowned, then asked: "By the way, you told me to make sure I was out of his body before the beam hit--what would have happened if I hadn't?"

"He would have died instantly, and your immortal essence would have been incinerated beyond recovery," replied Doyle. Lilah flinched, and Doyle nodded and intoned, "With great power comes great vulnerability when the bad guys use the right mojo on you."

"Gee--I'm so glad you didn't tell me that in advance." Lilah replied sarcastically, shaking her head. Doyle smiled, and Lilah asked, "So--what do we do now?"

"Back to base for paperwork--they've got some good people working on the rest of this operation." Lilah scowled, and Doyle chuckled and inclined his head at a glowing doorway. "Come on--those reports don't write themselves."

<I should have chosen the fire,> grumbled Lilah inwardly, but she followed Doyle without audible complaint.

Buffy sat quietly in the chair just inside the door, watching silently as Xander lay on the bed in the intensive care ward of Wolfram & Hart's private clinic. He was still glowing blue, though his apparently undamaged clothes had been replaced by a hospital gown. A simple IV needle had been inserted into his left arm, and he had been restrained by straps to keep his occasional convulsions from ripping out the needle or otherwise causing him harm.

When she had recovered, Willow explained the conclusion she had come to after reading the autopsy report for the Naganis demon, and why it had caused her to risk an extremely dangerous spell to warn them about what the Travers-demon had at its disposal. The Naganis' corpse displayed two unusual characteristics: extremely extensive damage, and total absence of the high levels of magic intrinsic to a powerful demon.

"The demon was using a kind of anti-magic--one that reacts violently with the magic that is found in living creatures." Willow had glanced at Xander's still form at that point, flinching as he convulsed under the restraints. "The more magic within the creature, the more violent the reaction. Any demon would be destroyed by the physical damage caused, unless it was so large that the beam could only affect part of its body. We saw what it did to Valerie--it would have done the same to me or any other witch or Slayer. The magic in normal humans tends to concentrate in the brain, the heart, and the bloodstream. The reaction with the anti- magic would almost certainly cause fatal strokes, blood clots, and ruptured blood vessels."

"But Xander's a Null." Fred had commented, quickly realizing what Willow was leading to.

"Exactly," Willow had replied, her expression twisting with concern for her friend. "The anti-magic has nowhere to go, since there is no magic in his body for it to interact with, and no other magic close enough to him for the anti-magic to be drawn away or to react with--thank the Goddess that he wasn't wearing any protective magic tonight. It's just sitting there, and from the way he's reacting to it, it's screwing up his normal bodily functions. We need to keep him completely isolated from magic while we figure out a way to draw off and neutralize the anti-magic, and we need to do it before his body shuts down from the imbalance."

Buffy had been sitting in the chair for thirty-six hours, only getting up for bathroom breaks. She had eaten very little--and it was only Willow and Fred's combined threats to sedate her and hook her up to an IV that had made her accept that much--and had not slept at all. A steady stream of visitors had come to see Xander, and they had all shivered at the sight of Xander glowing and silent in the bed, and of the stark black tape line that indicated the closest point of safe approach for anyone not wearing special protective clothing--and even that was only for ordinary humans. Willow had banned Dawn from the ward altogether because of the unknowable risk that her unique state might trigger a reaction that could kill her or Xander at a much longer range than anyone else. Dawn had been shaken up by the order, but had not argued it. She was back at the Hyperion, waiting for word that Buffy had promised to send her as soon as something had changed.

Faith had visited only once--Buffy had quickly delegated her supervisory duties to the younger Slayer, and Faith had protested only briefly before turning to go. She looked back at Xander and whispered, "He knows you're here, Buffy. Believe in him--he'll come back." She had left after that, and Buffy had sighed and turned back to her vigil.

Giles and Angel had sat with her for some hours--they were the only ones who weren't subject to her orders or critically necessary to the research effort, and they had noted that she took comfort in their presence after token resistance--though her eyes never left the bed and its occupant. Angel had said very little, though his eyes betrayed sadness and a certain amount of resignation as he watched Buffy watch Xander. Giles had stood next to Buffy, and his eyes crinkled with restrained affection as he commented, "I will never understand how fate has given one man such reckless courage and such improbable fortune. He should be dead two dozen times over by now." He smiled at his Slayer and added, "Which leads me to believe that he will survive on this occasion as well. Get some sleep, Buffy--you won't be helping Xander if you collapse from exhaustion." He had departed, and in spite of her own formidable will, Giles' words helped erode her resistance. After a few minutes, her head slumped, and Gunn--who had poked his head in while running an errand for Fred and Willow-- retrieved a blanket and draped it over the exhausted Slayer.

Buffy's eyes snapped open. The room was strangely quiet, and Buffy stood up, looking around. The lights had dimmed, and the blue glow around Xander's body could be seen throughout the entire room. Buffy could see Xander's expression was peaceful, and that relieved her somewhat. She set her jaw and whispered, "Please hang on, Xander. I don't want to have to go on without you."

"Then isn't it about time you made sure you won't have to once the big jerk wakes up?"

Buffy whirled at the familiar voice. She saw a tall, dark-haired woman with dark, sad eyes and a calm expression that belied the rather blunt tone of the question she had just asked, standing in the doorway and watching her. The Slayer stared, and there was shock in her voice as she whispered:


Part III

Buffy stayed frozen for only a moment before she took the two steps she needed to reach Cordelia and hug her hard. Cordelia accepted the gesture without pulling away, but remained silent. After a few seconds, Buffy realized that he was embracing Cordelia hard enough to hurt her and pulled away quickly--then realized that Cordelia would have protested. She took an instant to get a feel for her surroundings, then sighed and looked at Cordelia with sadness: "I'm dreaming again, aren't I? Damn."

Cordelia smiled wistfully. "Yeah--but it's really me, if it makes you feel any better. Part of the package that I got when Skip tricked me into the higher power deal--I can enter the dreams of those with psychic abilities when the Powers let me do so. Had to wait for you to fall asleep, though-- it's a good thing that Giles can still get through to you."

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "So you're here to talk to me about Xander?"

"No--that's just something I'm getting done while I'm here, since you're not listening to the conscious." Buffy winced at Cordelia's retort, and the seer smiled wickedly for a moment before her eyes went sad again and she said simply, "There's a new arrival who's refusing to move on until she talks to you, and she needed a guide." She gestured into the hallway, and a familiar, softly glowing figure walked over to Cordelia.

Buffy stared, disbelieving, as Valerie gave her a shy look and whispered, "Hi, Buffy."

Buffy moved forward slowly--as if she was afraid that Valerie would vanish-- and reached out to touch her. Valerie felt solid, and Buffy gently drew the taller woman to her and cried softly on her shoulder as Valerie held her and Cordelia watched. After a few moments, Buffy pulled away and saw that Valerie's eyes were full of tears. Buffy took a deep breath and said simply, "Valerie--I'm so sorry I let that bastard get you."

Valerie shook her head. "Don't, Buffy. You told me the risks of being on my own, and he had a good scam running. He had a lot of inside info, and he managed to intercept my call to you--you might want to check to see if there's a way to plug that leak: other Watchers might have had the same deal with the devil that he did." Buffy nodded, and Valerie paused for a moment before straightening slightly and adding with a note of pride in her voice, "Besides, I didn't go down without a fight."

"No, you didn't." Buffy replied, and the look in her eyes made it clear to Valerie that the senior Slayer was very proud of her. Valerie smiled softly, and Buffy asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

Valerie nodded, "I know you've got connections, and that you've got my body. Make it look like I died in a car accident before you tell my family- -I don't want them ever to know about--" She paused, and looked down.

Buffy felt a moment of intense sadness. She wanted nothing more than to sit Valerie's family down and tell them that their daughter and sister had died fighting against something that would have been a threat to the entire world, and that she had faced her fate with courage and honor. Unfortunately, the price of that knowledge would be that they would know that the world was a far more dangerous and evil place than they could have imagined--and Valerie was well within her rights to protect them from that. She waited for Valerie to look up, then replied softly, "I'll take care of it--and I'll make sure they know I think you were a wonderful woman-- someone I would have been proud to work with."

Valerie swallowed hard and whispered, "Thank you, Buffy." She extended her hand, and the two Slayers grasped each others forearms in a warrior's leave- taking. Buffy released Valerie reluctantly, and tears ran down her cheeks as Valerie smiled, nodded, and vanished.

Buffy looked at the space where Valerie had been, then turned back to the room, walking past Cordelia and sitting in the chair with a look of being exhausted. She looked back up at her old friend and whispered, "I hate this."

"I know." Cordelia reached for a chair--being careful not to step over the black line--and pulled it next to Buffy. "In case I never mentioned it to you, I came to appreciate the crap you always went through over the years while I was here with Angel. Dead friends, people you try to protect getting killed anyway--or just winning and realizing you haven't accomplished a hell of a lot by doing it. It sucks--but there are always the moments that remind you why it was worth it--and seeing her here just now was one of them for both of us." Buffy sighed, and Cordelia added, "And you have better reason to know than just about anyone that Valerie's going to a better place--she'll be fine." Buffy nodded reluctantly, and was startled when Cordelia's expression and tone changed abruptly: "Now let's talk about you and my temporarily unconscious ex-boyfriend."

Buffy blinked, and looked at Cordelia in annoyance before shrugging and saying, "What's to talk about? He's been offered a job that he'd be great at, and he'll accept it and work like crazy without worrying about anything else until he decides that maybe he should let the hottie billionaire Slayer talk him into her bed."

Cordelia chuckled, and Buffy glared at her as the taller woman looked back with a deeply amused expression: "What's so damned funny?"

Cordelia shook her head and replied, "Buffy--you've known Xander for almost seven years. Have you ever known him to avoid interested women?"

Buffy stared at Cordelia, and thought about the question for a moment. "Well, he turned me down cold once--"

"Yeah--once he figured out that love spell he tried to screw me over with had zapped you, and that it wasn't just his fondest wish coming true," Buffy blinked in surprise at Cordelia's knowledge of things she shouldn't be aware of, and the seer snorted, "I've been stuck with very little to do for a long time in the last two years, and between the powers that Doyle stuck me with and the ones that Skip tricked me into accepting, I'm as close to omniscient regarding the past and present as you're ever going to see. Would you pass up a chance to see a lot of the crap that was going on behind the scenes in your past if you had the chance? If I get out of that coma, I'm so kicking Xander's ass for that stunt--he never told me why he cast it." Buffy grinned at Cordelia's obvious--if belated-- outrage, and Cordelia stopped ranting and started smiling in response before prodding her: "Any other times?"

"Not when he was with someone else," replied Buffy, not adding her next thought, <and not always when he -was-.> She shrugged and asked, "What's your point?"

"My point is that for eight months Xander's been living in a hotel surrounded by beautiful, sexy women--many of whom would mud-wrestle in front of him for a chance to date him. He's got a hell of a motive to get hooked up with one of them, because your crazy sister conspired with his crazy dead ex-demon girlfriend to make sure he wouldn't retire to a life of celibacy, like that would be all tragic or something." Buffy carefully stifled the laughter that Cordelia's irritated expression threatened to provoke, and Cordelia glared at the Slayer for a moment before adding, "You know he likes Helen, and her brother's become one of his best friends. It would have one thing if she had proposed marriage, but she just wanted to go out with him and see what would happen--why didn't he go along with the program?"

Buffy shrugged again. "Maybe he's still not over Anya being gone."

Cordelia shook her head. "I got a good sense of where his head was when he and Angel did that ritual thing to communicate with me--he was hurting over Anya, but the way she died helped him deal: she went down fighting. The letter helped more: he's been ready for months to move on--I'm sure of it."

Buffy shook her head. "Then maybe Helen was right, and he's interested in someone else."

"Well, duh, Buffy," Cordelia replied, shaking her head in annoyance. "Let's see--someone he's in contact with in spite of not having left L.A. except for quick Slayer retrievals in the past eight months, and who he hasn't managed to get hooked up with in spite of nothing visible being in the way of him just asking her: who could that be?"

Buffy scowled at Cordelia--she knew damned well what the seer was saying, but an inner reluctance caused her to resist the obvious conclusion. She remembered something, and she scowled slightly as she exclaimed, "Wait a second--I caught Dawn with a hickey the other day, and she was being dodgy. Maybe she's cheating a few months on her deadline, and Xander's afraid that I might damage something important if I found out." Her expression darkened slightly and she muttered, "And he might not be wrong."

Cordelia snickered. "Xander isn't giving Dawn hickeys, Buffy--and you'll just have to wait to find out who is. No fair using my omniscience to spy on your baby sister."

Buffy shrugged, and started pulling likely names out of the air: "Faith."

"Is happy with Robin, and Xander has a bet with Giles about who gets to be best man at the wedding."

Buffy smiled, then scowled as she tried another name: "Fred."

"After she saves Xander, she'll return to planning how to corner Wesley in a dark lab while wearing a very short skirt."

Buffy chuckled involuntarily, and tried again: "Willow?"

Cordelia laughed. "Xander is her pear." Buffy blinked, puzzled, and Cordelia elaborated, "She may go back to guys someday, but it won't be Xander. Why couldn't she have figured that out five years ago, before I had that close encounter with a rebar?"

Buffy was silent, and Cordelia pointed out, "You've run out of names, Buffy."

"Yeah, I noticed," replied Buffy, looking away from Cordelia. She sighed, and turned back to her, whispering, "Why wouldn't he tell me? We talk more these days--he has to know I wouldn't laugh at him or anything."

"Well, let's see. The first time he asked you out, you shot him down with the 'let's be friends' speech. Four months later, you dragged him out on the Bronze dance floor and humiliated him in front of all his friends and his worst enemy--who admittedly got slammed pretty good that night too." Buffy flushed in shame at the memory, and Cordelia concluded, "And, of course, the moment when he thought you had finally fallen for him, only to have it be that love spell that had you ready to kill him and almost caused you to be cat food. Of course, that one was his fault." Buffy shivered, and Cordelia shook her head and added, "Yeah, can't imagine why he wouldn't say anything to you."

"He's not going to say anything--I'd have to speak up before he'd admit it." Buffy turned away from Cordelia, and shook her head fiercely before she added, "Good--then I won't have to hurt him again. I'm not going to do it, Cordelia--I'm not going to let him in."

Cordelia scowled at Buffy. "Oh hell, Buffy--why not? You're obviously attracted to him--I've sensed that on some level since we were in high school--and I'm not the only one. Why do you think Angelus was after him so much? Why do you think I never trusted him alone with you? Damn Willow blindsided me--I was watching the wrong girl, at least for right then. You trust him--you love him. What's the problem?"

Buffy turned back to Cordelia, and her voice was the barest whisper as she replied:

"Because I don't want to be what kills him, Cordelia."

Cordelia blinked, but remained silent. Buffy blinked, and shook her head as she elaborated, "Cordelia--every relationship that Xander's ever been in has ended badly, and usually with him nearly getting killed. You're the best of the lot, but it's like he's got a death wish and relationship radar that leads him right to the best places to try to indulge it. One of the reasons I'm scared of him moving away is that I'm afraid I won't be there when he finally finds the one who will finish him off."

Cordelia shrugged. "We knew that about him already. So?"

Buffy blinked, and tears came to her eyes as she whispered, "So I screw up the lives of guys who fall for me--they don't get better until they leave me." Cordelia began to protest, but Buffy cut her off: "Angel lost his soul over me, and he spent his last year in Sunnydale being tormented by me playing hot and cold with him until he got some sense and just left town-- he came here and made a life for himself without me. Riley was a dedicated professional soldier when I met him--by the time he left town he was a junkie with a death wish. Less than a year away from me--he's James freaking Bond and married to Wonder Woman. Spike ... I turned a master vampire into a crazy, confused wreck just by being around him, and I decided that he would be the one to get me out of my suicidal depression. He leaves town, and he comes back with a soul. Well, at least he came back--yay me! Of course, that just meant that he had to die while I ran for my life and left him alone in the dark." Buffy blinked again, and the tears fell as she concluded, "Lucky him--he got away from me."

"Oh, God, Buffy--you don't really think it was all bad, do you?" Cordelia reached out and squeezed Buffy's hand. Buffy squeezed back, but didn't answer. Cordelia sighed and said, "Buffy--Angel was a smelly wreck living in filth before Whistler took him to L.A. and showed him your life. He had- -and has--a rough road ahead of him, but everything that followed was because you inspired him to continue. Riley was living a lie--if it weren't for you, he would have died in that lab without any chance for a future. It's not your fault that he wasn't able to find a purpose in his life other than being with you until he had to leave--and he didn't blame you: he told you that himself when he came back. Spike ... well, you turned a monster into a reasonable facsimile of a decent person without even a soul to work with, Buffy--and you drove him to take the next step. Yes, the whole thing was deeply screwed up, but looking back on it--you needed Spike right then, and he needed you, and when it all settled out--he saved the world. Not such a bad way to go out." Buffy closed her eyes, and Cordelia shook her head and added, "You made a lot of mistakes, Buffy. We all have--Xander sure as hell has. Don't walk away from what could be happiness because you're afraid you're doomed to fail."

"Cordelia--he's already missing an eye because he chose to follow my lead." Buffy opened her eyes and looked at the still figure on the bed, frowning at the blue glow that continued to surround his body. "What if I'm the final disaster that's just been waiting to find him?"

Cordelia smiled at Buffy, and said simply, "Xander dove in the way of that beam knowing he was going to die, Buffy. He pushed all his chips to the center of the table because he was willing to die to give you and Faith just a chance to live. If you tell him that you love him--and you do-- and that you're afraid that if he loves you back, it might kill him, what in the hell do you think he's going to say?"

Buffy's eyes widened in revelation, but a tiny doubt remained: "I don't want to be what kills him, Cordelia."

Cordelia snorted. "I didn't want to be an omniscient coma patient, Buffy. None of us ever really get what we want. In this case, you get stuck with the job that Anya gave to Dawn--doing your damnedest to make Xander happy. You could fail, and he could die. You're the Slayer, Buffy--can you deal with that risk in exchange for the upside? Because I know for a fact that Xander could--if you let him."

Buffy locked eyes with Cordelia, and after a long moment she gathered every bit of determination within her, and whispered two words:

"I'll try."

Cordelia smiled and faded away, and Buffy's eyes snapped open. Xander was still lying in the bed, but the scenery in the room had changed. Buffy got to her feet and said, "What the hell--"

"Fred and I had a brainstorm," replied Willow--who was standing in the doorway. She looked down at her old friend and commented, "You were really out--it took twenty minutes to set this up, including the spell."

Buffy stared at the new objects in the room, careful to stay behind the black line. A large needle had been inserted into Xander's arm, attached to what looked like a very thin thread that was glowing blue. The thread ran over about ten feet to a cylindrical object that appeared to be--Buffy raised an eyebrow and asked Willow, "Is that a hot dog?"

"A Dodger Dog, to be exact. We needed a large one, for the purposes of this approach." Willow pointed to the hot dog, which was sizzling as the blue light seemed to seep from the thread into it. Buffy stared, uncomprehending, and Willow explained, "We needed to draw the anti-magic out in a way that would allow us to neutralize it away from Xander's body. The thread is very strong but non-magical spider silk--bringing it into contact with Xander's body without proper shielding caused the anti-magic to move along it without damaging the thread. I threw a material strengthening spell on the hot dog and the thread near it: the anti-magic is being drawn along the thread until it reaches the enchanted hot dog and thread section, after which it starts reacting with the material strengthening spell, drawing the anti-magic faster and faster as the reaction gets larger. We were ready to cut the thread if the reaction started going the other way--back to Xander--but it stayed where it was. If the hot dog burns to ash or the thread breaks before the anti-magic is gone, we repeat the process--the anti-magic should be completely out of Xander's body in a few minutes."

Buffy walked over and hugged Willow. "That's great, Will! You guys are geniuses! Well, that's not news, but you're great! This is great! I'm--"

Willow laughed. "Buffy--I take a compliment as well as the next person, and I know you're happy that Xander's going to be OK, but I have the feeling something's going on here that you're not telling me about."

"It can wait--this is more important," Buffy replied, suddenly feeling very nervous. It was one thing to tell Cordelia in the dream world what she would do--it was quite another to tell Willow and the soon-to-be-awake Xander.

"Nothing to do but wait, Buffy, unless we have to repeat the procedure. Xander's going to be fine, and you're stalling." Buffy flushed, and hemmed and hawwed for a moment, but she saw Willow's expression change, and the redhead's next words were no surprise: "Resolve face, Buffy--start talking."

Buffy sighed, and began to speak. Willow's eyes brimmed during Buffy's description of her conversation with Valerie, but she recovered quickly when the topic turned to Xander, and Buffy noticed that Willow had a small, secret smile on her face as Buffy concluded her account. Willow was silent when Buffy had finished, and it made Buffy nervous: "Will? Are you going to say something?"

Willow looked straight into Buffy's eyes, and the affection there caused Buffy to shiver slightly as the redhead said simply: "It's about time."

Buffy's jaw dropped, and Willow laughed in delight as she added, "What? Did you think I was just biding my time with Tara and Kennedy? I'm over Xander, Buffy--I told him that, and I'm telling you that." She chuckled and said quietly, "He's my pear."

"OK--someone's going to have to tell me what the hell that means," muttered Buffy.

Willow snickered, then walked over and gave Buffy an uninhibited hug, whispering, "I'm really happy for you, Buffy."

"You might not want to jump the gun, Willow--I still have to talk to him." Buffy looked back at Xander, and she paled visibly as she turned back to Willow. "I don't know if I can bring myself to admit it to him."

"Better start working on it, Buffy." Willow pointed over to the thread. Buffy looked and saw that Xander was no longer glowing blue, and that the blue aura was fading from the thread. With a last sizzle, the glow faded from the charred hot dog, which sat and smoked quietly after the anti-magic was gone. Willow frowned and said simply, "Cross your fingers--I'm going to use an active sensing spell to make sure it's all out of him." She made a quick gesture and uttered a single word: Xander glowed briefly, then faded. He lay quietly, breathing normally. Willow sighed in relief and whispered, "He's clean. We just have to wait for him to wake up now."

Buffy paled further, and turned away from Xander to face Willow. "Willow-- it's too soon. I can't tell him now. What if--?"

Willow rolled her eyes, and was silent for a moment before making a grabbing motion and making a sound like a subdued growl. Buffy jumped in surprise, and asked, "What did you do that for?"

"Nothing--thought I saw a bug," Willow replied. She walked over to Xander and brushed a stray hair from his forehead before turning back and saying, "Look, Buffy--I know you're scared. You just need to get used to the idea of saying what needs to be said to him. He's been through a lot--he'll probably sleep for hours, and you'll know it when he starts waking up. Just sit here and talk to him--tell him what you're thinking. It'll make it easier later." Buffy looked hesitant, and Willow sighed and added, "Look--I need to tell everyone that Xander is OK, and that we'll be able to visit him when he wakes up. I'll close the door after me. No one's going to hear you--just say what you feel, Buffy." The redhead smiled and closed the door after her--Buffy did not see the wicked glimmer in her eyes as she pulled out her cell phone and started walking to Fred's office.

Buffy picked up her chair--relieved that the black tape was now just an unpleasant reminder--and sat next to the bed. She saw that another hair had slipped onto his forehead, and she brushed it back as Willow had. Her hand lingered and brushed down his left cheek in a caress, narrowly missing the eye patch. She pulled her hand back and folded her hands nervously. She swallowed hard, and began to speak:

"Hey--it's nice to be able to get this close to you again. I was starting to worry we might have to keep you in a bubble for the rest of your life-- that wouldn't have been fun ... Xander--you've got to stop doing stuff like this, OK? Yeah, Faith and I would be dead if you hadn't, but I'm not sure I can bear to sit in this chair another time and wonder if this is the time I got you killed. OK, I know that was pointless, but I had to say it, because it's how I feel--I'm never going to stop hating that being in my life means you keep nearly getting killed, and you're not going to stop sticking your neck out when one of us is in trouble. I think Giles would call that an impasse, and we're both going to have to live with that."

Buffy paused, and the only sound in the room was Xander's soft, rhythmic breathing. Buffy relaxed a bit. <This isn't so hard.> She took a deep breath, and continued:

"So my Slayer dreams kicked in again--got to say goodbye to Valerie, and I had a talk with your scary ex-girlfriend--the one in a coma. She pointed out some things to me that I should have noticed before--there are a lot of rude comments from Dawn and my friends that make a hell of a lot more sense now. After seven years, there's no point in beating around the bush, Xander. I'm pretty sure you're in love with me--and I know I'm in love with you. And let me tell you--the idea of it all scares me more than anything has in a while. You've got a talent for finding the worst possible women to fall for, Xander--and I've got an even bigger talent for royally screwing up the lives of the guys who fall for me--you gave me a pretty good yelling-at over one of them three years ago, and I've never forgotten it."

Buffy paused, remembering the confrontation in the warehouse and feeling another pang of doubt, but Xander's continued silence gave her the courage to continue: "I'm afraid that those two talents brought together are going to be the death of you, Xander--and I'm not sure I'll be able to live with myself if that happens. I'll always need and want you here, even if we couldn't make it work. Helen's offered you a great job--and there's no reason in hell you couldn't do work just as important here, or somewhere else if that's what you want. You've built a life and an identity completely separate from me--if I died tomorrow, you could go on without me and live a life that anyone would be proud of. I'm afraid that if you open your eyes and say yes to trying to make it work between us, I'll be taking that away from you--and I don't want to do that, not if it's not the best thing for you." Buffy closed her eyes, and the tears began to fall as she whispered desperately, "God, Xander--I just wish I knew what you really wanted."

"Right now? I want to kick Willow's ass for hitting me with that binding spell just when I was waking up."

Shocked into reflexive action, Buffy jumped to her feet, kicking the chair back to shatter against the wall behind her. Xander was watching her with his one good eye, and his expression was decidedly ambivalent. Buffy blinked, and tried desperately to regain her composure as she asked dazedly: "Binding spell?"

"Yep. We worked together for weeks to perfect it, along with some people with some actual magic in their bodies. Closed my eyes, made my voluntary muscles stop working, and forced a normal sleeping breathing pattern. Ears were working just fine, though. Very handy--you should ask her to demonstrate it."

Buffy stared, and quietly made the grabbing gesture and growled low in her throat. Xander nodded, "Yep--that's the ticket. Except I think you have to be an insanely powerful witch to make it work right."

Buffy felt a burst of anger, and it coincided with her very real desire to flee. She felt a great amount of energy building up as she snarled: "WILLOW!! I AM SO KICKING YOUR ASS WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON--!!"

Buffy felt a hand close on her wrist, and she turned as Xander sat up in bed, still looking a bit groggy, though he seemed to be quickly recovering. She froze, and waited for a moment until Xander sighed and said, "We'll get even with her later--right now, I have something to say."

Buffy waited as Xander sat up in bed and looked at her with a nervousness that seemed to mirror her own. He took a deep breath, and said, "Buffy--I was considering that job because I really thought it might be where I was most needed. After what happened in the park ... I think I'd better stay put--there has to be a reason I keep taking shots for you and living through them. We're at the point where it's not a fluke--it's an item for my resume."

Buffy laughed, and Xander shook his head as he continued, "You're right-- our past records make this look like a bad bet, and I know why you're scared. I'm scared, too--I've hurt the people I've cared about a lot in the past, Buffy, and I'm just lucky that they all forgave me, because I'm not sure I deserved it. I don't want to find out this is just another way I can hurt you."

Buffy was silent, and Xander added, "And you're right. I've gone on before thinking I would never see you again, and I've managed to build a life that would let me go on without you." He looked deep into her eyes, and Buffy felt the jolt of it down to the base of her spine as he whispered, "So we both agree that I can live my life without you. Buffy--am I going to have to?"

Buffy stared back at him, and shook her head slowly as she whispered fiercely: "Not while I have anything to say about it you're not." She leaned forward, and Xander met her halfway as their lips met in a ferocious kiss. She forced him onto his back as she moved onto the bed, and for a moment there was only silence as hands moved over fabric.

"Ahem." Buffy and Xander flinched and looked over to the door, which had opened. Willow was standing just inside the doorway, smirking openly. Just behind her, Fred stood in the doorway, grinning and looking as if she had just discovered gold. Buffy and Xander sat up--grateful that they had not yet removed any clothing--and Willow added, "I just thought you might want to do that in a room without a big honking window that opens up on a corridor."

"Well, yeah--but we're still going to kick your ass for tricking us, Willow," Buffy replied--completely aware that the goofy grin currently residing on her face tended to drastically reduce the menace of the threat.

"Get in line," Willow replied, pulling a bundle of clothes from behind her back and walking over to hand it to Xander. Fred followed, rolling a wheelchair into the room. "You're going to have to hold off on the smoochies for a while, Buffy. We're taking him home--there are a lot of people waiting to see him."

Buffy and Xander shared exasperated looks, and it was Xander who sighed, "Great--you couldn't have showed up twenty seconds earlier? We're kind of short on cold showers right now, you know?"

Buffy snickered as Willow flushed, and she took the initiative to lead Willow and Fred out as Xander sighed in relief and began to change clothes.

The celebration was in the main banquet hall of the Hyperion, and it was loud and raucous. Angel had broken out the good stuff from the lounge, and ordered a lot more from sources which he would not describe in detail--and he had only given Xander one good long dirty look before embracing Buffy and shaking Xander's hand.

It was only after twenty minutes of hand-shaking, backslapping, and other congratulations that Buffy noticed that someone important was missing: "Hey, where's Dawn?"

Faith shrugged. "Haven't seen her--I went by her room before I came here, but she was out."

Buffy frowned and tried Dawn's cell phone--the message picked up immediately. She felt a chill of concern and asked, "Had she heard about Xander?"

"I called to tell her we had the cure, and that it was working. I also told her it might be a while--she might have gone off somewhere to deal and just turned off the phone." Willow replied. "I'm sure she's fine, Buffy-- she wouldn't leave the hotel without knowing what happened to Xander."

Buffy nodded and smiled wickedly. "Let's find her--we need to let her know that the arranged marriage has been called off."

Buffy and Xander were joined by Willow, Kennedy, Faith--and Helen, who followed them at a short distance, a small smile visible on her face. Buffy checked the balcony first, and found it empty. She frowned and suggested, "Why don't we try the workout room?" The others agreed, and the six of them quietly walked down the halls and to the door of the workout room. There was light spilling under the door, and Buffy called out softly, "Aha! Dawnie, we've got some news--Xander's OK--" She had been speaking as she threw the door open and marched into the room, and what she saw made her stop in her tracks and stare in silence. The workout room was indeed in use--but not for its intended purpose.

Dawn was standing in a corner of the room, energetically kissing the tall, lighter-haired young man who was holding her in his arms. Unsurprisingly, they had not noted Buffy's entrance or greeting. The Slayer was about to speak a bit more loudly when she saw Xander shaking his head, an evil smirk on his face. Buffy nodded and stepped back. Xander took a moment to take a deep breath, and as the others walked in behind him and began to stare, he opened his mouth and bellowed with every ounce of wounded outrage he could muster:


Dawn and her companion broke apart, and Buffy raised an eyebrow at the flustered expression on Robert's face as he stumbled up against a nearby wall. Dawn's eyes widened and her expression quickly changed from surprise to sheer joy as she screeched, "Xander!! You're OK!! You're ... " She hesitated as she processed her current situation, and the fact that Xander was scowling at her and tapping his foot theatrically. She swallowed hard, and finished in a far more subdued voice: "You're here."

Xander nodded--looking grim--but the voice coming from behind him sounded rather more elated: "Pay me, Kennedy."

Dawn heard Kennedy grumble, and saw a fifty-dollar bill change hands. She glared at Willow and snapped, "You knew this was going to happen? How?"

Willow snickered. "Oh, please--I had to suffer through Xander and Cordelia's romance. You think you're going to get 'bickering as obvious sexual tension' past me? I don't think so."

Dawn fumed in annoyance, but was distracted as Xander shook his head sadly. "So, this is the woman who promised to spend the rest of her life with me, should I be so unfortunate as to not find romance in the next eight months? Seems like you might have a hard time keeping that commitment--I'm not sure what I should think."

Buffy bit her lip carefully when she saw the appalled expression on Dawn's face. <Oh, yeah--this is going to be good.>

Dawn blinked, and her voice took a pleading tone as she replied, "Xander ... I'm sorry. I didn't plan for this to happen. It just did, and I know I've hurt you. I swear--I'll find a way to make it up to you."

"Make it up to me? Dawn, I just don't know what to say." He turned to Buffy and asked, "What would you call this, Buffy?"

Buffy frowned and pretended to consider the question before replying, "Well, I'm not sure what I'd call it, but I'm pretty sure that Cordelia would call it--'karma.'"

Xander winced--as a self-conscious cough was heard from Willow--and gave Buffy a mildly dirty look before turning back to Dawn--who was deeply confused at the smile that was suddenly on Xander's face. "Be that as it may--I can't let this go without an appropriate reaction. Dawn Summers--we are through, for once and for all!" Dawn blinked, and stared in shock as he walked over to Buffy and announced, "I'm leaving you for an older woman!" He leaned down and swept Buffy into his arms, kissing her with energy and enthusiasm.

Dawn's jaw dropped, and she froze in her tracks long enough to note that Buffy was returning the kiss with equal vigor. She squealed loudly and ran to the two of them, hugging them both and jumping up and down with manic energy. Buffy and Xander broke apart, sighed in mock annoyance, and released each other to hold Dawn. After a few moments, they broke apart, and Buffy called out, "OK--no more illicit smoochies in the workout room-- let's get back to the party."

"In a minute, Buffy." Xander had folded his arms and was looking at the quiet figure standing in the corner of the room. "I'd like to have a few words with Romeo here."

Buffy and Dawn looked at each other, sighed, and intoned simultaneously: "Men." They left the room, followed by the others.

Xander walked over to Robert and folded his arms, waiting in silence for several seconds as the younger man watched him nervously. At length, Xander sighed, then smacked Robert on the side of the head and demanded in a mock-irritated tone: "What took you so long?"

Robert smirked at Xander and replied quietly, "Look who's talking."

Xander frowned, then nodded. "Point taken. Let's go--they're waiting for us, and it's always good to avoid annoying Summers women."

"Preaching to the choir, Xander." Robert replied. They left the room, leaving it silent and dark.


Christmas Day, 2003

Buffy leaned against the wall of the banquet hall, feeling the warmth of the eggnog and enjoying the sound of the party around her. Everyone had come to the Christmas party--everyone who had made it out of the year alive, in any event.

They had arranged for the deception with Valerie's body, and Buffy had quietly manufactured a phony background story for her parents that explained why a certain English foundation would be endowing a scholarship in their daughter's name, to be awarded annually to "a young man or woman who has the courage to face the future and the ability to make it a better place." She had attended the funeral that was held a week after Valerie's death--and Xander had been at her side.

The preparations for establishing the new branch had made a vacation for Buffy out of the question, but there were no complaints from anyone when Buffy and Xander tended to disappear for extended periods of time within the course of the days after Valerie's funeral--and the snickering from their grinning friends was kept to a bare minimum.

This celebration would be one of the last times the American Slayers would probably be in a single room--barring some unforeseeable crisis. The move east for some of them would begin after the first of the year, and the outpost in Cleveland would likely be fully operational by mid-2004. Buffy would soon begin planning the international expeditions that would be required to gather the other thousand-odd Slayers that had not yet been located, and Xander would be with her--firmly fastened into the organization chart as "Director's Personal Assistant."

Helen had taken Xander's decision in good humor, and had congratulated both of them warmly. Buffy was going to miss Helen--there was something very intimate about sharing dreams the way they had. Her talents and connections were too good to waste in a secondary position, though, and Buffy had no doubt that she'd shine as the Slayers and Watchers established a firm foothold in the eastern part of the United States.

Buffy was not sure that she was as thrilled about Dawn's announced intention to take her high school equivalency test before the New Year arrived, and to follow Robert to New York while she scouted out colleges on the East Coast. A recent thought she had experienced popped up again-- this time a bit more insistently. <I'm not ready to be Aunt Buffy.> She shrugged, and smiled. <At least she'll have friends out there.> Helen had surprised Buffy by immediately offering Willow the position that Xander had declined, and Willow had surprised them both by immediately accepting. "It's a challenge worthy of my talents," she had commented, seeing the sad expression on Buffy's face, "and it'll involve a lot of travel. I think we won't have any trouble staying in touch--and you know I won't abandon Xander."

Buffy had nodded and sighed sadly. <The old gang is breaking up.> Giles would be in England, and while she had grown accustomed to having him around less, she still felt a pang of loss. <Oh well--I'm Head of Security for the Watchers' Council on the organization chart--plenty of excuses to visit even after I set up a good team there.>

The plans of the others were still up in the air. Buffy watched Faith and Robin together and smiled. <Never thought I'd see either of them this happy.> She thought of Angel and the Fang Gang, and of Cordelia still in that bed in the intensive care ward. <We still don't know what the Senior Partners might be planning to screw with them--we're going to have to help them deal, whether Cordelia makes it back or not.>

She shook her head and her thoughts went back to Xander. It had quickly become obvious that the two of them were physically compatible, though she refrained from the superhuman excesses that had marked her relationships with Riley and Spike--she didn't want to have to reserve a permanent room for Xander in Wolfram & Hart's trauma ward. Still, it was more than enjoyable, and she had to grudgingly admit that Anya had only been exaggerating slightly for all of those years.

The doubts remained, however, and they troubled her even in moments like this. She sighed, and was surprised when she heard a familiar voice next to her: "Penny for your thoughts, Buffycakes?"

She smiled and turned to Lorne before shrugging. "That obvious, huh?"

"To me? Pretty much." Lorne replied, watching her carefully. "I have a suggestion that might help, if you feel like collecting your boyfriend and following me."

Buffy raised an eyebrow, then waved Xander over. They followed Lorne out, wondering what he had in mind.

"OK, considering where we are, I'm not sure I like where this is going."

The three of them were in the Hyperion Lounge. Lorne had efficiently poured them all drinks, and they sat at the bar, looking at the lights swirling around the stage area. Xander--who had spoken--inclined his head at the karaoke machine and said simply, "We lucked out the first time, Lorne--I'm not sure that a second song for me is such a hot idea."

Lorne shrugged. "It's up to you, but I'd think you'd like to give it a try. You're both worried that you're headed for disaster--maybe I can get an early warning if you really are headed for something nasty."

Xander frowned, and something occurred to me. "Wait a second--we found out that I'm a Null: isn't that going to screw up your reading?"

"If you were singing alone? Probably. The ritual you did with Angel wasn't a normal reading, which is why it worked in spite of your condition. I've never been able to read you particularly well--I just get some of the themes. What I'm proposing is a duet--since I'll be intentionally trying to read your shared future, Buffy's own internal magic should be enough to give me all the juice I need." Buffy and Xander looked at each other nervously, and Lorne shrugged again. "I won't do the hard sell, kids--it's up to you. It might be bad news."

"Not to mention that we actually have to sing a duet together," commented Buffy, shivering slightly as she looked at the karaoke machine. "I've seen a lot of atrocities in my time, but--"

"I won't tell--and it's a safe bet you won't do worse than a Fyarl Demon singing 'If I Could Turn Back Time,' replied Lorne. All three occupants of the room shuddered, and Lorne led them over to the stage and handed them a thin booklet: "You'll do fine."

Lorne watched as the couple leafed through the booklet for a few minutes, and smiled as the two of them smiled simultaneously and pointed at a selection. They looked at each other and nodded, and Lorne came over with a smile: "What have you picked?" Xander pointed, and Lorne raised an eyebrow: "Going for irony?" He flinched a little at the Glare that Buffy directed his way, and held his hands up in surrender: "OK, OK--no editorials."

Lorne walked over and started making adjustments to the machine, and Xander smiled at Buffy as he asked: "Scared?"

Buffy nodded, and Xander nodded back: "Nice to know it's unanimous."

Lorne stepped back, and indicated the small screen in front of the microphones. "You're on in thirty seconds." He smiled at his friends and said simply, "Go get 'em." He went back to the bar and waited and watched as Buffy and Xander took their positions, and listened as the opening music began. He opened his mind as Xander began to sing, watching Buffy as he did so:

If you say my eyes are beautiful
It's because they're looking at you
And if you could only see yourself
You'd feel the same way too

You could say that I am a dreamer
Who's had a dream come true
If you say my eyes are beautiful
It's because they're looking at you

Buffy's eyes glittered, but she picked up her part at just the right moment, watching Xander as intently as he had watched her:

If you wonder why I'm smiling
It's because I'm happy with you
And the warm sensations touch my heart
And fill me through and through

I could hold you close forever
And never let you go
If you say my eyes are beautiful
It's because I just love you so

Buffy paused, and Xander continued:

Now my heart is an open door

Xander stopped, and it was Buffy's turn:

Won't you come inside for more

Lorne felt an upsurge of emotion, and watched intently as Buffy and Xander sang together:

You give love so sweetly now
Take my love take me completely now

With that last verse, they stopped singing and ignored the continuing music, embracing and kissing each other with intensity born of long-denied need. After a moment, they both remembered that they had an audience, and turned to see Lorne watching them with a stunned expression on his face. Buffy felt a pang of fear, and locked eyes with the Pylean with all of the force she could muster as she ran up next to him: "What is it, Lorne? What did you see?"

Lorne hesitated, then shook his head and reached past Buffy for his drink, downing the rest of it. Buffy stared up at Lorne and heard him say quietly, "My dear friends--some endings just shouldn't be spoiled." Xander saw Lorne turn his head slightly away from Buffy and at him--so that he could see Lorne's face, but Buffy couldn't--and wink once and smile before turning away again and walking towards the door.

"Damn it, that's it?" Buffy yelled, staring after Lorne. "We do the whole singing thing and you hold out on us! I swear to God, Lorne, if you don't come clean I'm gonna--"

"Buffy, it's all right." Xander's voice was calm.

"No it isn't, Xander!" Buffy snapped, and began yelling at Lorne again. "Lorne, if you've read me, you know just how much of a bitch I can be--"

"BUFFY!" Xander's shout caused Buffy to turn to berate him for interfering in her attempt to stick up for their need to know--only to be interrupted by a gentle kiss.

The kiss lasted for but a moment, and Xander stepped away to let Buffy see his expression. The Slayer was stunned to see it: a mixture of relief, understanding, and--most of all--sheer bliss. She had only seen it on his face once before--in the moment after she had literally come back from the dead in the lair of The Master, and Xander was staring down at her, welcoming her back to life. The expression made him look younger: for an instant she saw him as he had been in the days when she first knew him, and the sight brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them away, and the vision faded--he was once again as he was: a man in his mid-twenties with care lines that would be appropriate for a man ten years his elder. She stared at him and whispered, "Xander, I--"

Xander smiled and shook his head. "I don't need to hear the words, Buffy-- I've heard the music. I never want to stop hearing it." He leaned forward and kissed her with passion, and they sank to the floor as Lorne--sniffling slightly--paused and hit the light switch as he departed.


Author's Closing Note: The song was "If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful", and was performed most notably by a young Whitney Houston and Jermaine Jackson--the lyrics were written by Eliot Willensky. Hopefully, Lorne will not hunt me down and do me bodily harm for making him listen to it.

Author's Second Closing Note: My thanks to all who have enjoyed this series, and who have encouraged me to bring it to a successful conclusion. I have no plans for a sequel, but probably wouldn't be adverse to an occasional short story in this world as the mood strikes me.


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