The doors to the library slammed open, crashing back against the wall with a loud bang. Sonya and Giles looked up and were astonished to see Xander walk in, carrying an unconscious Buffy in his arms.

"What happened?" Sonya demanded, pushing her wheelchair away from the reading table and moving closer to Xander's side.

"She was attacked by a vampire named Linus that I'd tracked all the way to the Bronze," Xander explained, a note of sadness in his voice. "He tried to put the bite on her but I got there in time to stop him. She went into shock right after it happened and then she just passed out cold."

As he was talking, Xander carried Buffy's still form over to the cot that Giles kept in the back of the library and gently laid her down, covering her up with a thick blanket to keep her from getting too cold. Looking back up at Giles and Sonya, he added, "I had no clue as to where she lived, so I decided to bring her here. Sonya, could you look up her address on the school's database for me?"

The wheelchair-bound slayer nodded, moving over to the computer terminal and flipping it on. "I'll have that address for you in a flash, Xand."

While she was looking up Buffy's information on the computer, with Giles watching carefully over her shoulder, Xander kneeled next to Buffy and gently brushed her golden hair out of her eyes. His eyes landed on a bruise that was forming on her cheek and he sighed, lightly running the pad of his thumb across it. "I had hoped that you would be spared from all of this, Buffy. That's why I didn't ask you out on a date, even though I wanted to so badly. I thought that if I could just keep you away from me, that none of the darkness would be able to touch you." He continued to caress her cheek as he spoke in a soft whisper. "I guess that plan's moot now. But I swear to you that I'll do everything in my power to keep anything like this from happening to you again, Buffy." His gaze became deadly serious as he repeated his vow once again. "I swear it."

Just then, the Buffy's eyes began to flutter open...

Part Six

Buffy moaned. Her head hurt. And so did her whole body. She opened her eyes and saw a male form leaning over her. For a minute it looked like Bobby. It was the day of the accident all over again. Her legs became a searing mass of agony.

"No," Buffy said over and over again, "no, no, no ... not this time!" She sat up quickly and threw the blanket off of her. She had to see her legs! She ran her fingers along them from ankle to the hem of her dress. The white tights had been torn. Angry, red, puffy scars were visible. But scars meant healing, and that meant that Buffy was fine. She took several deep breaths and gradually calmed down. Then she looked up at the boy and Bobby became Xander. She blushed a dark red. He wouldn't understand her reaction, and she didn't want to talk about the accident. Not now. She was trying to leave all that behind.

Buffy pulled the blanket back up over her legs -- the pain had subsided once she figured out when she really was -- and tried to smile. It was shaky. And so was her voice.

"What happened?" she asked Xander. His face, especially his eyes, was incredibly sad. Buffy raised her hand a little, wanting to touch his face. Her eyes focused on her hand. Two nails had been roughly broken off and a cuticle was torn and bleeding. Her face felt sore, as did her body.

Then it slowly began coming back -- Linus the vampire, his invincibility and then Xander saving her. Xander knowing how to kill a vampire.

"Oh..." Her voice was barely more than a whisper. "That really happened didn't it?" From Xander's eyes she could tell it had. Part of Buffy was bewildered, but the other part of Buffy felt like the world was finally making sense. Somehow her subconscious had known of these horrors long before the rest of her mind. The world seemed new and different and more terrifying, but it was all understandable.

She looked Xander square in the eyes and said, "You have to tell me everything. How did you know about those creatures? Where did they come from? Who else knows? In fact, why doesn't everyone know? Shouldn't the police department or somebody have a force to deploy to exterminate these creatures?"

Giles pretended to watch Sonya search through the school's database for Miss Summers' records, but really his attention was on the girl and Xander. Xander couldn't afford to be distracted, not at this crucial juncture. Every minute that slipped away without them finding a spell to reverse Sonya's paralysis brought them closer to the Council's deadline. And if Xander allowed himself to make even one mistake, the Council would be onto them like butter on a scone. And, worse, Xander would probably be dead.

The Watcher noticed the girl's reaction when she regained consciousness, and was impressed in spite of himself. Most of the population of Sunnydale were adept at fooling themselves. Gang members on PCP was the most frequent lie. Their puny brains just couldn't handle the concept of something they couldn't control or explain by science. Miss Summers was a bit agitated, but she seemed to be taking it in stride instead of lying to herself.

A whistle sounded from his office, and Giles went in to find the water he'd set to boil ready for a tea bag. But instead of making a cup of Earl Grey for himself, he mixed up a cup and diluted it with lemon and sugar the way Americans seemed to like it, and took it to Miss Summers. She would need the calming warmth of something in her stomach much more than he. He got there just in time to hear her last barrage of questions.

"Here you are, Miss Summers," he said, handing her the cup of tea. "Drink a little and you'll feel better."

She obediently sipped the beverage, frowning a little at the taste, but not saying anything but a quiet thank you.

Giles reached into his pocket and pulled out two items. He laid them on the bed next to her. "These should help protect you if you get attacked again."

He pointed to the cross. "This will cause any vampire pain enough to cower back." He pointed to the stake, "And this, through the heart, is lethal. But you can't tell anyone of what you have seen tonight."

Belligerence became evident on her face. "Why not? Everyone needs to know about this! If not, they'll be like mice in a trap."

"Perhaps, perhaps not, Miss Summers." Giles sighed. "We're doing the best we can here, and overall we're succeeding pretty well."

"You can't be everywhere at once!" she protested vehemently.

Giles nodded. "True enough, but this is the way it has to be done, as well as the way it's always been done. Most of the people in this town could not handle the truth."

"That's bull!" Anger flashed in her eyes, bespeaking an inner strength belied by her beauty. "If I can handle it, anyone can."

"No, that's not true." His voice was firm, yet not raised in anger. "The people of Sunnydale have had ample opportunity to see the truth. They choose not to, so we battle the forces of darkness ourselves. And isn't it better for them not to know and to be able to enjoy their lives?"

She didn't say anything, but he could tell she didn't believe him. He continued, "Now then, as soon as you've finished your tea, Xander will escort you home."

"I don't want to go home," she exclaimed. "I want to find the answers!"

"None of us here," Giles looked significantly at Xander, "are at liberty to divulge our secrets. We saved you -- rather, Xander saved you. The best way for you to repay that debt is for you to leave and pretend tonight never happened."

He could see she was still ready to argue, but suddenly the silent atmosphere of the library was interrupted by the phone's shrill ringing. Giles gave both Xander and Miss Summers one more intense, stern glance and then headed for his office to answer the phone.

"Hello?" he said into the black receiver.

"It's me." The voice on the other end was familiar, despite the obscuring static from an overseas call.

"Angel," Giles said, relief evident in his voice. Angel, the vampire cursed with a human soul, was one of their best warriors. When he was in Sunnydale, he patrolled even better than Xander, but only because of Angel's super-human strength. Xander had a bit more ingenuity than the vampire, but then, being a normal human and not a slayer, he had to. Between the pair of men, Sunnydale was all the safer. Angel and Sonya had had words at first, but finally the vampire convinced them of his loyalty to the side of good, even though Angel and Sonya never had gotten along. And after the accident, Giles was glad enough for the vampire's help. Angel could get away easier than any of the rest of them, and for this mission, Giles couldn't use his regular contacts in the Council. There was only one person in England whom Giles could trust with a secret of this magnitude -- the rest of the Council had to be kept in the dark, or Sonya's life would be forfeit. So Angel had gone to England on the first overnight flight they could find. It had been a challenge, but somehow they'd found a way to do it with out getting Angel killed by the sun's rays. "How are things there? Did you find anything?"

Angel's voice wasn't happy. "I've scoured the magic stores here. They are some of the oldest in Europe. No one knows of the kind of spell we need. They say it never existed. I'm going to try and get into the Council's headquarters tomorrow night. And if I end up with nothing there, I can try France or Italy."

"If any such spell exists, it will be in the Council archives," Giles said with a confidence he did not feel. "You still have my keys, and my copies of the building plans and alarm codes, don't you? Oh, yes, and the amulet to get past the anti-vampire ward spell around the compound?"

"Yes, things should go fine. Unless your contact decides not to invite me in."

"He'll come through for us," Giles assured him. "I talked to him this morning. He's expecting your arrival."

"I'll call tomorrow to let you know how it goes," Angel promised. "How are things there?"

Giles glanced through his office window at Xander and Buffy still sitting on the cot, talking. "We've had an unforeseen occurrence. But nothing supernatural. We'll be able to handle it."

"Any activity on the Willow or Spike fronts?"

"None so far. I'm sure they'll re-surface again soon. Just when we don't need them."

Giles could hear the ironic smile on Angel's face through the phone wires. "Of course, that's what the love birds like to do best."

"Oh, Angel..." Giles hesitated, unsure whether to take the vampire into his confidence about their three month deadline. Was there anything Angel could do to stop it? He decided not to mention the problem. Perhaps another solution would present itself, especially if Angel was able to find the desired spell.

"Yes, Giles?" Angel asked. "I've got to get off of this pay phone soon ... I'm running out of change and I've got to get back to the hostel before sunrise."

Giles made a decision. He wouldn't tell Angel, but if the vampire happened to find out while searching for needed information that would be all right.

"While you're there, look up Sonya in their records. See what they know and if they suspect anything is amiss." The Council wouldn't tell Giles more than they thought he needed to know, and what they thought he needed to know just wasn't enough.

"Will do," Angel replied. Then he hung up.

Giles placed the receiver back in the cradle, and walked back over to Sonya. She was staring at Xander and the girl, and there was something about her eyes. "Is everything all right?"

Sonya looked up at Giles and smiled a somewhat strained smile. "I'm fine, Giles. Just a little tired, that's all." Glancing over at where Buffy was now awake and talking to Xander, Sonya added, "Since she's conscious again, I'm guessing that we don't need me to look up her address anymore. So I'm gonna shut down the computer and head home, okay?"

"That would be fine," Giles muttered distractedly, his eyes still on Xander and the girl. Then the words she had said sunk in and he looked down at Sonya. She looked tired, purple circles decorated the skin beneath her eyes, and her face drooped sadly. He realized that with all his preoccupation $b#about$/b# the injured Slayer, he hadn't paid much attention $b#to$/b# the Slayer lately.

"No," he said, touching her shoulder and moving so that he stood between her and her view of the cot. "Tell me what's wrong."

Sonya shrugged off the comforting hand that Giles had placed on her shoulder and looked straight into his eyes. In a strained voice, she replied, "I don't need a babysitter, Giles. And I don't need you pretending to be the father-figure that I never had, so give it up." As Sonya spoke, her eyes grew cold and hard. "I managed just fine without your pity and sympathy before and I will continue to do so in the future. Don't you get it yet? You're my Watcher, Giles, but you're not my father and you're not my friend, as much as you might like things to be different. So deal with it and move on, already!"

In the darkness outside the library, Spike lurked. There was a certain window that if you cracked it open just a bit, you could hear almost everything that the whitehats were talking about. And tonight there was a new girlie in the mix. It was almost worth losing Linus on his inaugural kill to find out about this beauty. And now the beauty was cozying up to Xander, the pseudo-Slayer.

But the big question still wasn't answered. Where was Angel? After Angel had killed Dru -- the thought still made Spike livid -- Spike had vowed vengeance. Even after six months of Willow's loving embraces, the blond vampire still raged against his sire. Angel would pay, and Spike would be the one to make him!

There was a phone call, but try as he might, Spike couldn't hear what went on. The vampire was willing to bet his last shilling, or his last quart of stolen blood, that it was Angel on the other end of the line. But there was no way to find out where the whitehats had taken, or sent, him.

Spike's eyes again fastened on the pseudo-Slayer and his new girlie. Willow would love to hear about this. Then he left, heading for the factory and his lady of the evening.

After the librarian left to answer the phone, Buffy looked up at Xander. "Please tell me what's going on! I know he doesn't want you to, but I swear I won't tell anyone. I need to know. I need to at least be able to keep myself and my mother safe, even if you guys won't let me help you..." Something else crossed her mind, and she blurted it out, too. "And if he makes you keep secrets from me I'm afraid I'll never see you again."

Xander held up a hand, silencing Buffy's diatribe. Then he took a deep breath and said, "Maybe it's best if you DON'T see me again, Buffy." He felt his heart break at each word, but he forced himself to say it, knowing that it was for the best. If he let Buffy into his life, she would be in danger from Spike, Willow and the other vampires, and Xander wasn't about to let that happen to her.

Buffy sighed. "You can do whatever you want. I can't stop you. But now that I know what is out there, you can be sure that I'm never going to forget it -- no matter what you and the librarian say!" She stood, regardless of sore legs, bruises and skinned knees. "I need to go home now. My mother will be worried."

Xander nodded, standing up as well. Inside he felt like someone had placed one of his own stakes through his heart, but on the outside he was the epitome of calm and detached. "All right, I'll escort you home. Just let me tell Giles what's going on, first."

Xander left Buffy by the cot for a minute and walked over to speak to Giles and Sonya. "Hey, guys. I'm gonna make sure Buffy gets home safely and then I'll be right..." Xander trailed off, sensing the tension filled the air. Placing a protective hand on Sonya's shoulder, he asked in a quiet voice, "Is everything okay over here?"

Sonya bristled under Xander's touch and yanked her arm away. Her voice began to rise as she cried, "What IS it with you two? You act like I'm made of glass!" She was practically yelling now but she didn't care. "I'm not going to break, not again! So stop trying to protect me from everything!"

Turning on Xander, she accused, "You act like you're some kind of God-send, but in reality, you're just a scared boy who can't stand the fact that his best friend became a demon and has a yen for him! So to escape from that you go out and kill the bad things. But you can't even do THAT right can you? Willow has given you so many chances to kill her and end the whole war, but you can't even bring yourself to do it! You're a weakling!"

Sonya turned her gaze to Buffy for an instant and then turned her wrath back on the pseudo-Slayer. "And now to make matters worse, you're letting this blonde bimbo distract you from your duties!"

At Xander's shocked expression, Sonya snorted, "Yeah, you think I didn't see it? How you stare at her when you think no one's looking? How whenever little Miss Buffy comes into the room, you can't concentrate on anything else but her? Puh-lease! It's so painfully obvious, even Giles saw it, he was just too polite to say anything." Sonya reached out and grabbed Xander's arm, pulling him down to her level, and said in a lower voice, "If you want to drool over the blonde, do it on your own time, Slayer-boy! Capeche?" With that, Sonya turned her wheelchair around and headed for the doors, calling over her shoulder, "If you need me, I'll be in my cell."

Once outside the library doors, Sonya broke down crying in huge sobs. What had she done? Xander and Giles were the only two people in the world that she actually cared about and she'd just exploded at them. And the things she'd said to Xander... Sonya began to slowly wheel herself down the halls and out the door of the school building, not caring if there were vampires out or not. All she could see was Xander's face when she'd flaunted her knowledge of his feelings for Buffy, throwing it all back in his face. She didn't know how he could ever possibly forgive her, but one thing was for sure, she knew that she would never forgive herself.

Buffy had watched the scene unfold with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. She didn't know about 'slaying' and 'watching,' but she figured it had something to do with vampires. Everything these people did seemed to be about vampires. Both Xander and Mr. Giles looked stunned and neither of them said anything. She felt bad for them, especially for Xander who really looked hurt, but her heart went out to the other girl. Buffy remembered clearly the cell that one found in a wheelchair.

"Um..." Buffy stared at Xander, her heart in her eyes, but she didn't know what to say to make it better. She looked at the library doors, which were still swinging. "I'll be back. Don't leave without me?" She realized that was lame, but she jogged out into the shadowed hallway, regardless if Xander was following her. If he was, she hoped he knew enough to stay back.

She looked down the hall just in time to see Sonya maneuver her chair out the door. Buffy ran after her. "Wait!" When she propelled through the outside doors she found Sonya sobbing as if her heart would break. Buffy moved in front of Sonya and crouched down.

"Hey," she said quietly, "if you need to talk to someone, I'm here." She paused and then tried to smile. "I'll be honest -- I did resent the bimbo remark, but I think I might know a little of what you're going through."

From the look on Sonya's face, Buffy thought the girl was about to protest, so she started talking quickly. "You don't believe it to look at me, do you?" Buffy leaned down and grabbed the torn part of her opaque white tights. She ripped them open all the way down her right leg. Puffy, red scars became visible, even in the moonlight.

"Almost two years ago, I was run over by a truck. I was in traction for months, a wheelchair and braces after that. It's taken me a long time to get back to the woman you see before you..." Buffy tried to smile and make light of her statement, but it was too close to her. A tear slipped from the corner of one eye.

"I don't know why I told you that," Buffy said to Sonya's unresponsive face. "You probably don't want me messing in your life. I mean, I got better -- am I correct in assuming you won't? Even when I was in your fix I didn't want to talk to anyone. But now, I think it might have been easier if I talked. So, if you want me to go, I'll go, but I'm here if you need someone to talk to that might have even the smallest chance at understanding."

Sonya scowled at Buffy, hastily wiping the tears off of her cheeks. She averted her eyes for a moment, and then looked back at Buffy, with a hint of apology in her eyes but plenty of anger as well. "Look, I'm sorry for the bimbo thing. That was kinda out of line. But if you expect me to suddenly become your best friend just because you had to be in a wheelchair before, then you're seriously deluding yourself, Summers. So, do me a favor and back off, okay?"

Buffy shrugged. "Whatever. I just wanted to make the offer." She realized that her words might have sounded cold. Buffy was at the end of her emotional rope. She had experienced the gamut of emotions tonight -- everything from the joy of making a new friend, to the terror of being attacked, to the frustration of realizing that everything she'd thought she'd known about the world was a lie.

She sighed. Buffy remembered feeling bitterness like Sonya's. If not for the loving care of her mother, Buffy might still hate everyone. She looked the other girl in the eyes. "I can see why you don't want to talk to a complete stranger -- even though sometimes that makes it easier -- that's why therapists make all that money." Buffy had to consciously make herself stop rambling and pick up the threads of her original point. "Anyway, you should talk to someone. That anger can lock up your heart and ruin your life. It doesn't hurt anyone but you, you know? My mom helped me through that phase of recovery. You need to find someone who can help you."

After she had said her piece, Buffy turned and started the long walk home, totally forgetting that Xander was supposed to escort her. She hoped that Sonya would be able to work out her issues and she really wished she could help her out with that, but until Sonya actually admitted that she needed help, there was nothing more that Buffy could do for her.

Part Seven

"Pet!" Spike called when he stepped foot over the threshold of their lair. "Where are you? I have quite a surprise for you, baby! Wait 'til you hear what daddy found out."

"And whatever could that be, dearie?" Willow purred, stepping slowly out of the shadows. She paused, posing seductively in her newly acquired, emerald green, lace nightgown. "Tell me quickly now, for Mommy must know!"

Spike moved closer to Willow and enjoyed the view. "Pet! Is that a new outfit for me?" He tugged on her long, auburn hair fiercely -- it might have hurt a mortal, but for them it was play.

When Willow didn't answer him right away, Spike put on a play pout. "Don't you care what Daddy has to say, my lover?" The incestuousness of that statement didn't bother him at all. But Willow wasn't very talkative tonight. The frown quickly became real. When he'd been with Dru, she'd always been interested in his findings. Of course, Dru had rarely gotten out because she was so weak, but that didn't matter. If Spike were going to share his victories with someone, she had to be worthwhile.

His finger tangled itself deeper into her hair, and then grabbed a bunch of it hard, pulling her head backwards. "Your little pseudo-Slayer, that child who pretends he's the Chosen One -- he's got a new girlie. Looks like he's gotten over you for good, lover, and for a little blonde, too."

Willow growled low in her throat, her true face manifesting itself over her features as her anger grew. With a yell, she wrenched herself free from Spike's grasp and pushed him away. As he fell backwards onto the floor, knocking over a nearby table and sending everything that had been sitting on it crashing down around him, her eyes landed on his right hand, which was clenched in a fist around a wad of auburn hair.

Willow felt tears of rage come to her eyes as she reached a trembling hand to the back of her head and it came back with blood smeared on the fingers from where Spike's fingernails had dug deep into the sensitive skin of her scalp. The sweet, coppery smell of the blood brought Willow back out of her rage-fueled daze and she calmed down a bit, looking over at Spike with a million questions in her eyes.

Knowing that her vampire lover's eyes were still on her, Willow smiled a sultry smile and slowly licked the blood off of her index finger. Taking a step forward, Willow kneeled by Spike and swung her right leg across and over his thighs, straddling him as he lay back on his elbows, watching her every move. Then she smiled seductively, running her blood covered fingers over his lips slowly. "Now, Spikey," she purred, lightly raking the nails of her other hand across his chest through his black, silk shirt. "I know you're going to tell me everything about the bitch who's sleeping with our enemy. And you'd better not leave out any of the juicy details... or Mommy will be very unhappy."

Spike's demon visage transformed his face at the taste of blood on his lips. He licked her finger clean and then nipped it with his fangs.

"Now you've gone and made me all hungry again, lover. And I've already had my dinner tonight." He pouted -- or it would have been a pout if his fangs hadn't been in the way. But gradually he got control over himself again, and proceeded to answer her question. "She's a pert little blonde. Stunning actually. And strong, for a mortal. She got a few good blows in on Linus before the pseudo-Slayer came and staked him."

Spike paused, shaking his head. "I was almost sorry to lose Linus. For a new one, he had good style." Then he picked Willow up, and got to his own feet before setting her down again. More gently this time.

"Anyway, Harris seemed a bit gaga for the wench. He took her into the inner sanctum. I heard him call her Buffy."

Spike grinned. "Now it's time for dessert. You whetted my appetite. Coming, lover? Some tasty young ones must be leaving the Bronze right about now."

Willow pouted prettily, looking down at her new nightgown that was now stained with blood from their earlier "festivities." Facing Spike, she grinned and stepped up close to him, running her hands through his peroxide-blonde hair. "Look at my new pretty clothes, they're all ruined now. I'll have to throw them away 'cause blood stains never come out."

Tracing a finger down his cheek, she giggled and said, "Maybe my Spikey will take me out to cheer me up. We could kill some innocents, make a night of it. And then we'll pay a visit to this Muffy... Duffy... Fluffy... Buffy bitch."

Willow's eyes hardened and her smiled disappeared to be replaced with an angry snarl. "I'll make her regret ever sticking her nose into our affairs. And won't it just be absolutely wonderful to watch Xander cry as he finds her dead body waiting for him on his door step?"

Willow's eyes lit up at the thought of causing Xander Harris pain. After the way he'd treated her, the way he'd scorned her love, he deserved whatever they could dish out at him! In her excitement, Willow pressed her forehead against Spike's, clasping her hands around the back of his neck and giving him a long, lingering kiss that promised more fun to come... if he played his cards right. "I'm getting all hot and excited just thinking about it, lover. We can drain her together and dance on her grave!" low nodded and skipped off into her bedroom, hardly able to contain her excitement. They were finally going to make Xander pay for what he'd done to her! Willow felt like dancing, she was so happy! Quickly pulling off the bloodstained nightgown, Willow threw it into the trash and began sorting through her wardrobe for something suitable to wear. As she looked through all the clothes, she began to hum a merry tune. Finally, Willow found the perfect outfit, it was one of Spike's favorites. She pulled on the t

Buffy was about halfway through the journey to her house when she started to get the uneasy feeling that she was being watched. She was still limping a little from the encounter with Linus. So, as protection, she pulled the cross Mr. Giles had given her out of her purse. Holding the wooden icon in her hand made her feel better somehow. She heard footsteps crunching on the gravel behind her, and whirled around.

"Who's there?" she demanded, trying to make her voice sound fierce and strong.

Xander stepped out of the shadows, holding up his hands. "Hey, chill out Xena Warrior Princess! It's only me." Giving her a lop-sided grin and shoving his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, he added, "I promise, I don't bite."

Buffy's scowl turned into a smile. Then the smile dissolved into a carefully neutral expression. "So, no one wants me hanging around, but you don't want me dismembered or eaten on the way home. That's so sweet."

She turned around a kept walking towards home. A part of her was grateful when he followed, though she was still angry, too. She was angry at the librarian for his inability to change. She was somewhat miffed at Sonya for not taking her offer of friendship -- though Buffy knew there wasn't any more she could do about that. But mostly Buffy was mad at Xander. He didn't seem to care if they never saw each other again just so long as his precious darkness warrior thing wasn't disturbed. And part of her was angry at herself for caring what Xander thought.

The silence grew oppressive, so finally she said, "What am I supposed to do with all this, Xander? What am I supposed to think?" She paused, biting her lip. "I just don't understand. They let you into their little fighting bad guys club, but I'm not good enough. It just seems to me that you guys can use all the help you can get."

"They didn't really want me in their fighting bad guys club, as you so eloquently put it, either," Xander replied. He smiled a little bit, though it was a sad smile. "But I didn't give them much of a choice in the matter. I was such a fool back then."

Sighing, Xander said, "Look, there's a lot that you don't know about me, Buffy. I guess you could say there were extenuating circumstances." He paused, trying to determine how much he should tell her. Finally, he came to a decision. "Maybe it would help clear things up a little bit if I told you about Willow."

At Buffy's puzzled frown, he clarified, "She was my best friend for the first 15 years of my life. We did everything together... she, me and Jesse. But about a year and a half ago, both Willow and Jesse disappeared. No one knew what had happened, but when the police found Jesse's body, drained completely of blood, they assumed that Willow was dead, too.

"I was a wreck after that. I mean, how does a kid cope with the fact that the only two people in the entire world that cared about him are dead? My parents weren't any help, they never even cared about me before the incident, so why should they change their tune now, right? So I just kind of shut down. My grades, which weren't stellar to begin with, began to slip and I pretty much stopped speaking to anyone. I became the school freak, no one wanted anything to do with me, but I didn't care. And then, when I was at my lowest point, Willow decided to pay me a visit. That was how I met Sonya, actually. She saved me from being turned into a vampire by Willow. And after that, it became my mission in life to fight the vampires.

"Giles and Sonya wouldn't hear of it. They said it was too dangerous for an ordinary mortal to fight against vampires and other demons. But I didn't listen. I began to follow Sonya on her patrols every night, staying just out of sight, waiting for a chance to help. And then I got my wish, though not really in the way I wanted it.

"You see, Sonya was fighting this big, nasty vampire who called himself the Master. He lived underground. And while they were fighting, there was a cave in. The Master was killed by a falling rock that decapitated him, but Sonya managed to almost make it out alive, until she was pinned by a rock, unable to move her legs. That's when she was paralyzed. I managed to get her out, but the damage was already done. The doctors couldn't help her, so she and Giles decided to look for other ways.

"Right now, they're trying to find a spell to cure her, but the chances of them succeeding are slim to none. So that's were I come in. You see, Willow took over as leader of the vampires after the Master was killed. And she wanted me dead because I wouldn't join her. So she kept sending vampire assassins after me, which is why Giles finally agreed to let me help -- me and this guy Angel, but I won't get into that story now. If Giles hadn't decided to train me to be able to fight the vamps, I would have ended up dead. Willow would have seen to it. So now I get the oh-so-wonderful task of trying to slay the vampires until we can cure Sonya."

Sighing, he added in a soft voice, "Believe me, Buffy. If I had it all to do over again, I would run away from this town as fast as my feet could carry me. I mean, defending the world and all that jazz sounds really cool in theory, but in real life, when you have to look death in the face every night and spend all of your time fighting and no time actually LIVING, the whole "chosen one" thing looses it charm really fast."

Xander looked Buffy directly in the eyes and said in his most serious voice, "That's why you should just try to put all of this behind you, Buffy. Because if you're not careful, the darkness just creeps up on you when you're not looking and then one day you wake up and realize that you've been spending all your time fighting vampires and other assorted demons and everything else in life has fallen by the wayside. I mean, I haven't even thought about making friends or having dates or anything else normal in over a year and a half! While everyone else my age is deciding who they're going to take to prom, all I can think about are ambush tactics and how to improve my fighting skills. I have no friends except for Sonya, Giles and Angel. And even they don't really know me. They have no clue about what my home life is like; only Angel has any idea about that and even he doesn't know the whole story. The others just assume that all the cuts and bruises I come in with are from vampires. They don't know about any of that stuff."

Xander paused, running a hand through his hair as he thought of the best way to phrase what he had to say next. "Buffy, is that really what you want for your life? Because if you throw in with us, you don't get to have a "get out of jail free card" that lets you off the hook when things go badly. Once you get mixed up in all of this, you can't change your mind. It doesn't work that way. So you can just forget about that normal life you seem to want, because that goes right out the window first thing. And having a good relationship with your mom or anyone else? Forget about it. Because no matter what you decide to do, you can't tell anyone about all of this. They couldn't handle it. And the secrets and lies that you'll have to tell on a daily basis in order to keep the secret if you join us basically ruin your other relationships."

"Look," Xander said, touching Buffy's shoulder gently. "You wanted to know what you were supposed to do now, right? Well, my best advice would be to just go on with life. Yeah, you should be wary of going out alone at night and always carry a cross with you for protection, but even with all of that to deal with you could still live a normal life." He smiled sadly and let his hand drop back to his side.

"Trust me, it's better for you to move on. You deserve to have a good life, without having to worry about vampires and demons." He stopped speaking when he realized that they were outside of her house. The mailbox had the name "Summers" written on it in big letters.

"Well, here we are," he said lamely, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets. He stopped speaking then, waiting to see what Buffy would say. After all, he'd just poured out his entire life story to her, so now she knew everything. Xander just prayed that Buffy would make the right decision. He looked down at her, taking in her golden hair, her perfect features, and her beautiful hazel eyes. He didn't know what he'd do if something bad happened to her because of him.

Xander tried to think of some other way to convince her to stay away from them, to stay away from him, but he couldn't seem to force himself to think coherently anymore. It was like he'd exhausted himself, dredging up all those painful memories that he'd tried to keep locked away deep inside, and now his brain was shutting down on him. So he just stood there, staring at her and waiting, for what he didn't know.

After a minute or two, Xander realized that he was making somewhat of a fool of himself, just staring at her this way. He tore his gaze away from her face and looked down at the ground, absently scuffing his shoe on the pavement. Then he looked up at her and asked timidly, "So, what are you thinking?"

Buffy didn't really know what she was thinking. Part of her agreed with Xander. She should run from this faster than one should run from a fire, or a dissection in biology class. But there was another part of Buffy that just couldn't do that. During that fight with Linus, when Buffy had smacked her foot into the vamp's chest with perfect accuracy, there had been this sense of deja vu. She couldn't understand it, but it was like somewhere, in another life, such a thing was the norm. The feeling had vanished in actuality, but it remained as a memory in the corner of her heart. She didn't want to lie to people, and part of her didn't want to get involved at all. She wanted to arm herself and get the hell out of Sunnydale. But something stopped her.

Shaking her head, she looked up at Xander from under her lashes. Even now there was an old bruise decorating his jawline. It was turning yellow. She reached up and touched it with a finger.

"I never wanted to be anything but normal," she whispered. "But I stopped being normal when a boy ran me down on the street in front of my old school. I became a pariah. I had to grow up. But then, I was thinking about it one day, and I started to wonder -- who really is normal? I mean, was I normal before when all I cared about was the latest hunk and what was on sale at the mall? Sounds like a scene right out of an Alicia Silverstone movie. Then I thought that maybe moving to Sunnydale would let me find normal. But it's not normal here, either, and neither am I." She paused, a hint of sadness in her voice. "There is no normal. I think we've got to understand that and live with it."

She stopped and just looked at Xander. Buffy realized her fingers were still on his cheek. His dark eyes were staring at her with such intensity. Suddenly, all thoughts of vampires and other unpleasantness vanished from her mind. She leaned in a little bit, and kissed him.

At first, Xander was too stunned to do anything but just stand there. He couldn't believe that she was kissing him. Considering the track record he had with women, it seemed like Buffy was just too good to be true. After all, the only two girls he'd ever liked at all had ended up becoming a vampire and a paralyzed, bitter, vampire slayer. However, all of Xander's musings about his love life faded away when he felt Buffy's lips softly brush against his.

Xander quickly got over his initial shock and returned Buffy's kiss, his hands moving to the slender column of her throat and lightly caressing, then moving up to rest against her jawline, cupping her face gently as he deepened the kiss.

Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that something could feel so perfect, so right. Kissing Buffy was like kissing in a dream. Xander wanted to go on kissing her forever, but common sense prevailed and he slowly pulled away, ending the kiss with great reluctance. He sighed, running his fingers through her tousled blonde hair and planting a tender kiss on her lips before taking a step back.

He saw the look of surprise on her face, followed by a look of sadness and he quickly took hold of her hand, rubbing the pad of his thumb in soft circles over her palm. "We need to go inside," he told her as he began to lead her toward the house, not dropping his grip on her hand, "It's not safe out here at night."

They hadn't even gone two steps when a voice from behind them replied, "You're right, it's not safe out here."

Xander whirled around, moving Buffy behind him, and saw Willow step out of the shadows with Spike close behind her. He gulped, trying not to show his fear as he pulled a stake out of his pocket.

"What's the matter?" Willow asked in a singsong voice as she sauntered closer to the two teenagers. "Not happy to see me?"

Part Eight

Xander didn't respond to Willow's comments. Instead, as he moved forward to engage the enemy, he threw a glance over his shoulder and caught Buffy's eyes, mouthing the words, "Run; get inside the house."

He didn't have time to make sure she obeyed him because Willow chose that moment to attack, lunging at him with deadly speed. Xander dodged, bringing his foot up in a viscous kick to her side and sending her reeling. She didn't stay down long, however. Grinning madly, she jumped up and came at him again, fists flying. Xander tried to evade her blows, but she was just too damned fast, moving with a super-human speed. Xander felt one blow land on his nose and heard a crunching sound. He pushed the agony of the pain aside, thinking that his nose was probably broken, and stepped back, playing for more time. But he didn't count on Spike picking that moment to join in the battle, grabbing his arms and pinning him, making him an easy target for Willow's wrath.

As the female vampire came at him again, Xander used Spike's grip on his arms for leverage and sent a hard kick directly into Willow's midsection, knocking her to the ground. The he twisted in Spike's grasp, managing to get one arm free. That was enough to punch Spike in the face, hard. The blond vampire released Xander, staggering backwards.

Xander turned and launched a kick at Spike while he wasn't looking, catching him squarely in the jaw. Then he followed up with a roundhouse kick, nailing Spike in the side. He was about to ram his stake right through Spike's heart when he heard a shriek come from behind him and before he could even blink, Willow was on top of him, clawing at him with her fingernails. He elbowed her in the ribs, knocking her away and spun around, grabbing her by the hair and throwing her to the ground harshly. Then he pulled her up while she was still dazed from the fall and spun her around, locking her arms behind her and rendering her helpless before placing the tip of his stake against her heart.

Spike, who was just getting back to his feet, stopped short when he saw Willow's predicament. Xander grinned, tightening his grip on Willow. In answer to her earlier question he replied, "No, I'm NOT happy to see you." Sarcasm practically dripped from his voice as he added, "But thanks for stopping by, really. It's nice to know you care."

Willow snorted, struggling to escape from Xander's hold. "Yeah, well you'll be even less happy when we rip your throat out, now won't you?" Looking over at Spike, she added pointedly, "You know, help here would be appreciated."

Spike rolled his eyes at Willow. He would help when he was damn good and ready. Xander might just be a pseudo-Slayer, but his kick had aimed true and smashed his jaw. It had actually been broken before his preternatural healing took over.

"Don't worry, lover," Spike growled from behind his fangs. "He ain't gonna kill ya." The blond vampire looked at Xander with his glowing eyes. "Are you, boy-o? You've had a million opportunities, and you let her go every time when she does the poor, pitiful Willow routine." He gestured to Willow. "Get on with it..."

Both Xander and Willow were staring at him as if he were mentally incompetent. "Fine then," Spike snapped, "force me to do it the hard way."

He turned and looked at Buffy. She had backed away from the fight, but she hadn't gone inside. "Oh, blonde girl, come to Daddy."

It was Buffy's turn to look at him as if he were insane. "OK, you may be the first English vampire I've encountered, but I'm not stupid. A foreign accent may cause other girls to puddle at your feet, but not me." She pulled out her cross and held it between herself and Spike. There were several yards between her and the vampire.

Spike shrugged. "Oh, well." Then he laughed. Before anyone, except maybe Willow, realized that he had stopped the maniacal chuckles, Spike lowered his head and charged toward Buffy with a supernatural speed.

Buffy's eyes widened and she jumped out of the way in the nick of time. When she did just what Spike had hoped, he lunged under her, twisted, grabbed her airborne feet and threw her toward Xander and Willow with a mighty thrust.

The girl floundered in the air and, despite obvious efforts to redirect herself, she crash-landed into Xander. The mortals rolled a few feet and Xander lost his stake. But somehow Buffy had managed to keep hold of her cross, which she held between them and the vampires with a trembling hand.

The vampire strolled over to Willow and helped her to her feet. "Now what should we do, my pet? This is your show, after all. I only came a long for the food. But it'll be bloody unpleasant to get them while the girlie is holdin' that pesky bit o' wood. I, for one, don't relish the idea of burned flesh."

He grinned at Buffy. He'd enjoyed tussling with her in spite of himself. He knew if he tried harder he could take her, and he would enjoy that. But for once, Spike was interested in delayed gratification. "At least not on my own flesh."

Buffy looked at Xander and then toward her house. "Do you think we can make a break for it before they catch us?" she whispered indecisively.

Xander made the decision for her, grabbing her hand and taking off for the house. He heard the vampires giving chase and quickened his pace, scrambling up the porch steps and toward the door. Once there, he grabbed the doorknob and twisted, cursing under his breath when he realized that the door was locked. "Where are your keys? Get them out and unlock the door!" he cried, pushing Buffy toward the door and standing between her and the oncoming vampires. He grabbed her cross out of her hand and thrust it out, catching Spike across the jaw with the wooden tip.

The vampire's flesh sizzled and burned from where the cross touched him and he screamed in agony, falling back. Willow wisely backed off as well, growling low in her throat but staying just out of reach of the cross. Xander glanced over his shoulder, seeing that Buffy was rummaging through her purse for the house keys, before turning his attention back to the vampires. He hoped that she found the keys soon.

"I can't find them!" she hissed to Xander almost in a panic. The two vamps were crouching around, just waiting for an opportunity.

They heard a jingle and looked up in dread. Spike was dangling her keys on one of his long, white fingers. "Missing these, luv?" He grinned, showing off his pointed fangs.

"Where did you get those?" Buffy demanded angrily.

"Found 'em. In an alley. Behind the Bronze. Guess you must've lost 'em when you met up with my pal Linus. You 'member Linus don'cha? My newest son that your boyfriend KILLED?"

Buffy gave Xander a look that said 'cover me,' and then she made her move. There was no other choice. She palmed the stake Mr. Giles had given her, holding it behind her back. Dropping the purse, she grabbed the decorative statue next to the front door and in one quick move smashed it over Willow's head. It was a dazing blow. Buffy was able to get behind the vampire girl and hold the stake to her heart.

"Give me the keys, or I'll kill her," Buffy ordered. Her voice was firm, which belied the panic she felt inside. Vampires were quick healers, if Willow regained full consciousness Buffy could never hold her. Taking a few Tae Kwan Do classes might make her more agile on her new legs, and might even help her defend herself against a mugger, but not against a supernaturally strong vampire.

Spike looked at the girls, glowering. He seemed torn between his desire to get Xander and Buffy and his desire to save his paramour. Part of Buffy's mind wondered if vampires had the capacity to love, and if so, if Spike really loved Willow. She hoped so -- this move was banking on it.

Finally Spike tossed Xander the keys. Xander caught them deftly, not lowering the cross one iota. At that moment, Willow groaned and started to move. Buffy pushed Willow with all her strength, sending her straight into Spike. The vampire managed to catch her, but the unexpected weight nearly toppled them both.

Buffy grabbed the keys from Xander, put the right one in the keyhole and ran inside, with Xander coming after her. Seconds after they crossed the threshold, Spike regained his balance and lunged for them. Something like an invisible wall kept him from reaching him. Spike growled. A little jumpy, but feeling more secure, Buffy slammed the door in his face.

She turned to Xander. "So that not being able to come in unless they're invited thing really works, huh?"

Buffy jumped when she heard her mom's voice from upstairs. "Buffy, is that you, honey? How was your night? You can tell me all about it over hot chocolate."

"Oh, no," Buffy moaned. Of all the times for her mom to wake up. She looked at Xander. "You can't go out there right now. I won't let you! You may have some special training, but you're not facing those two alone. Can you think of some reason to tell my mom why you have to spend the night. Like your house is being fumigated, but something she'll believe?"

Just them Joyce came down the stairs with a big smile on her face. The smile fell for an instant when she saw Xander, and she clutched her robe more tightly about her shoulders. "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't know you'd have company." She looked questioningly at Xander, and Buffy tried frantically to think of something to say.

"Um... Mom... this is Xander..."

Part Nine


The cold breeze whipped Angel's trench coat, but he didn't feel cold. Or, more to the point, he never felt warm, so the coldness didn't matter. He walked with a purposeful stride, but he kept to the shadows when possible, not wanting to be noticed.

The Watcher Compound was on an estate in a rural part of England, as close to London as possible while sustaining the ruralness. On the outside, the compound looked innocuous enough. Angel had asked the locals, and most people thought the estate served as some sort of finishing school, training likely lads and lasses for the future. They were more right then they knew ... but more wrong then they knew as well. If they knew what kinds of occult incidents happened behind the great stone walls and the cast-iron gates, they would drive out the Watchers like the mob drove out Frankenstein. But if Watchers knew one thing, it was how to be inconspicuous.

Of course the compound had a security system, but with Giles' help, Angel knew the codes to turn off the motion detectors. The heat sensors were no problem for someone who was already dead, and with his non-photogenic nature, Angel would not show up on any security cameras. Giles had even provided Angel with a medallion to wear against Watcher anti-vampire spells and a key ring full of useful keys -- the front door, the back door, several side doors, and keys to several locked rooms where private information was stored. The only big problem they had in getting him inside was how to circumvent the whole inviting rule. Giles had sworn to Angel that he had that covered. "Be at the door at 1:30 a.m., sharp, and someone I trust will be waiting to let you in."

Avoiding the night watchman easily, Angel went right up to the front door and waited. The second his watch hit 1:30, the door swung open.

"Won't you come in?" a well-bred, British voice asked politely.

Angel nodded and crossed the threshold. He started to introduce himself to the young Watcher - a man, seemingly in his early twenties, with short, brown hair and glasses - but the man stopped him.

"Please don't," the young Watcher said. "I can't know any more than necessary about you and what you're up to. Mr. Giles was my mentor a long time ago, so I'm willing to do him this favor, but it can't go beyond this. If the upper echelons of the Council find out about this, my rank would be lost. Be aware, as soon as you leave, I will cast a spell that nullifies your access to this place, so this is your one chance."

Angel nodded. "Thank you."

The young Watcher adjusted his glasses with nervous fingers, and then disappeared down the hall, leaving the vampire to fend for himself.

The locked rooms were right where Giles had said they would be, down a long, musty corridor and on the right. Angel went inside and locked the door behind him. He turned and found himself in a room with rows upon rows of endless filing cabinets. He felt a twinge of frustration. Where should he start? Then he looked at the nearest filing cabinet and smiled. Handy labels on the outside of each drawer told what was inside, and relevant dates. Angel smiled at the Watchers and their collective Type-A personality.

When he reached the cabinet that said "Known Vampires, A - M" and the year of his transformation, Angel hesitated. It would be so easy to look and see what they knew about him. It would hurt to see records of his vile past, but it would be useful to know what Giles had reported about him. Angel knew that Giles no longer trusted the Council -- that was the reason for this whole covert operation. However, before Sonya's accident, Giles might have made full reports to the Council, including mentions of Angel. And though Angel now counted Giles an ally, he didn't think the rest of the tradition-bound Council members would take too kindly to befriending a vampire -- even a vampire with a soul.

But thinking of Giles and Sonya made Angel remember that he didn't have time to dally. He was needed in Sunnydale almost as much as the information he'd been sent to collect. Xander was a good Slayer, for a mortal with no superpowers whatsoever. Over the last year or so, the pair had even become friends, sort of. Angel was the only person who knew about Xander's difficult home life, and though Angel had found out about it by accident, he had kept the secret safe to protect the boy's reputation. Angel felt a sense of responsibility for the boy, though he would never say such a thing to Xander. The pseudo-Slayer wouldn't take kindly to knowing he was being looked after. But then, Sonya hadn't taken too kindly to that either. It was rough getting past her guard, and he seldom succeeded.

Angel wondered yet again if he'd tried harder if he could have stopped the accident. Then he quashed that thought. It would do him no good to brood! If there was one thing Sonya's accident had shown him, it was the brooding held no purpose in the fight against evil. Actions -- like killing Drucilla instead of letting her feed on an innocent, 10-year-old boy and getting vital information from the Council -- were what counted.

He walked past the cabinet where his file would be and with some searching, finally found the cabinet for "Twentieth Century Slayers." The files were in chronological order, so Sonya's was the last. But the name on the file before Sonya's leapt out at him. Buffy Summers. The accident that had crippled the young girl and changed her destiny flashed into his mind, as vivid as the day he'd witnessed it. He wondered what she was doing now. If her broken bones had healed and if she was having a happy life. He'd always felt some sort of connection to her. He couldn't help himself -- he pulled out the file. It was very thin. The first few pages chronicled her life up to the point of her accident. Then there was a brief entry about the accident itself, with an attached eyewitness account by Merek, the man who would have been her Watcher. Then, in red ink, the words "Subject no longer viable. Watching terminated."

Angel sighed and put the folder back in its spot. He pulled Sonya's folder out and, using the copy machine that they handily kept in the records room, copied it in its entirety. As he pulled the last page off of the machine, Angel read an entry that surprised him, but it wasn't a good surprise. "Word from Mr. Giles sporadic at best, and suspect. He cares for his charge too much. During the upcoming test, evaluations will be made to ascertain the need for a new Watcher." The date for the test was scarcely three months away. Now he understood the urgency he'd heard in the librarian on the phone. Giles probably knew about the test, but Angel doubted that he knew about his own test. Their time was ticking away fast.

He looked down at his watch. It had been an hour. He'd been in there too long, and he had yet to find the spells Giles needed. But there was no help for it. Giles' contact would let him in again, so this was his only chance.

Angel walked down rows of filing cabinets, looking for subject headings that seemed helpful. He pulled open a few drawers, with no results. Then Angel found what he was looking for. An entire cabinet of healing spells, organized in alphabetical order by the disease or injury being healed. He flipped to the "p" section for paralysis. Nothing. He tried the "q" section for quadriplegic. Nothing. Angel checked "s" for spinal injuries, but found nothing there either. There was nothing helpful under the heading of "nerves" or "nerve damage," "walking" or any other subject that Angel could think of.

Angel wanted to slam the drawer shut in frustration, but he held back out of caution. He started to walk toward the door, but something stopped him. He couldn't leave this room with out an answer. Then a subject heading on a filing cabinet caught his eye. This could be it! He tried the door, but this one was locked. It was the only locked cabinet in the whole room - that had to mean something! Giles didn't even have a key for this one. But that didn't matter. Angel just pulled harder, breaking the lock. He'd hoped to leave without any evidence that he'd been here, but that was moot now. Luckily, the noise wasn't too loud. It might be days (or even weeks or months considering all the filing cabinets in the huge room) before anyone discovered the lock was broken.

Hurriedly, Angel flipped through files. There had to be something in here! There just had to be. It was his last chance - and Giles, Sonya and Xander's last chance, as well. Then he found something -- it wasn't what Giles had asked for, but it might do, especially since there was no other alternative.

Angel pulled the spell from the drawer and made a quick copy of it, adding the papers to the stack in his hands. Then he put the spell back in the drawer and vacated the Watchers' Compound as quickly as his preternatural speed would let him.

When he got back to his room at the hostel, Angel knew it was too late to call Giles, and Angel was tired. He laid down on the bed, with the precious papers on the pillow next to him, and fell asleep, promising himself to call Giles the moment he woke up.

End of Interlude.

Back in Sunnydale...

Xander froze when he saw Joyce, his brain trying to think of something to say but failing miserably. He could just imagine what she must think, seeing her daughter sneak into the house with some strange young man in the middle of the night. He suddenly wished he looked more presentable. Xander looked down at his dirt covered jeans, ripped and bloody shirt, and bruised body. He winced, quickly realizing that he was not a pretty picture. After the fight with Willow and Spike, he really looked the worse for wear. He glanced frantically around the room, trying to think of some way to get them out of this mess. Then his eyes landed on Buffy's panic stricken face and he suddenly felt the fierce need to protect her from any and all trouble, including the kind of trouble she could get in with her mother. Xander didn't take the time to think about what those kinds of feelings could mean; he just acted on impulse.

Xander ran a hand through his hair, trying to dislodge any grass bits that had gotten tangled in it during the fight with the vampires. Then, smiling a somewhat strained smile, he stepped forward and extended his hand, saying politely, "Hello, Mrs. Summers."

Joyce shook his hand and offered a simple hello in return.

Xander took that as a good sign and continued. "Well, I can guess what you must be thinking... strange guy coming in with your daughter in the middle of the night and all of that. Every parent's nightmare, I'm sure. But, at the risk of sounding cliched, this is not how it looks."

Xander paused, trying to think of something to say that would explain everything without actually saying anything about vampires. He guessed he could pull the "your daughter was being mugged by some bad men and I saved her" routine, but he didn't think Mrs. Summers would buy that for a minute. She was sharp. She would realize that they weren't telling her everything right away. So Xander decided to go with the only other plausible explanation he could come up with on the spur of the moment, aside from the oh-so-clever fumigation story.

Xander sighed, looking up at Joyce and then at Buffy, who were both still waiting for his explanation. He hoped he was doing the right thing here...

"Well, it's kinda a long story. But the gist of it is... I can't go home tonight. My parents..." Xander looked down at the floor, staring at a spot on his tennis shoe. He absolutely hated talking about his home life. It didn't matter whether or not he was telling the truth at this very moment. It didn't matter that his father hadn't been so bad this week. Because eventually, his father would have just a little too much to drink and then Xander would have to start locking himself in his room at night again, cowering by the closet with the sheets wrapped tightly around his trembling form until the morning sun rose in the sky, signaling his chance to escape to school and training with Giles and Sonya. For as long as he could remember, it had been this way. Evading his father at night and escaping during the day.

Intellectually, Xander knew that he was physically stronger than his father was. But he could never bring himself to strike back at the man. Perhaps it was just the ingrained sense of fear that his father had placed in him with many years of abuse. But whatever the reason, Xander still quaked with fear at the sight of him in one of his rages. It was ironic really, since Xander had faced down many vampires and demons and things that go bump in the night in his time as the stand-in slayer. But some demons... you just couldn't fight.

It still hurt to say anything about it out loud, especially in front of Buffy. But he pressed onward, trying to make the best of it. "Well, let's just say that they wouldn't win any Parenting of the Year awards. They're both pretty fond of alcohol, especially my father, and sometimes they just go to far. And it's better for me to be elsewhere when that happens."

He shrugged, trying to act nonchalant about the whole thing. "I used to go spend the night at my friend Willow's house. Her parents were really cool; they never asked any questions. They just let me sleep on the couch. But, ever since she died last year... Well, I'm not really welcome there any more. I'd bring back too many painful memories for them."

Xander looked up at Joyce and smiled tentatively. "Your daughter was nice enough to offer to let me stay here tonight. She said something about you guys having a first rate couch. But if it's a problem, I'll leave. I mean, I don't want to cause any trouble or anything."

Buffy looked back and forth from Xander to her mother. She didn't know what to think. Was this Xander just making up a story? She wanted to think so because it was a horrible story, but there was something so authentic in his telling of it. She watched as her mom watched Xander, and wondered what Joyce was thinking.

"Buffy," Joyce said in her most motherly tone, "go upstairs and get the peroxide and some bandages. We need to take care of Xander's scrapes here."

After Buffy was gone, Joyce escorted Xander into the kitchen where she gave him a paper towel. "Use this to staunch the blood flow from your nose." She looked over his wounds with the professional eye of a long-time mother who'd seen her share of accidents. "It's not broken," she said with confidence, "but it will hurt like heck for awhile."

Joyce's eyes narrowed on Xander. "I don't know you, Xander, but my daughter seems to trust you. And I trust my daughter. You're more than welcome to stay here tonight, or any night."

She paused and then continued. "Look, this isn't any of my business, but I'd be failing in my duty as a mother and a human being if I didn't say something. What your father is doing to you is wrong." She saw an expression on his face like he was about to object, but she talked right over him. "You've probably heard this a million times, but I've got to say it. You should do something about it. You may not be ready now, but if you ever are and you need anything you can come to me."

Just then Buffy came back in with the bandages, and Joyce changed the subject, moving on the more inconsequential matters. With practiced fingers, Joyce cleaned his cuts and bruises, and bandaged his wounds. She scrounged Xander an old T-shirt and shorts to wear, and spirited his dirty things off to the washing machine. Then she told Buffy to make up the couch, and Joyce headed back upstairs.

Buffy found blankets and a pillow and put them on the couch for him. "So," she said, her tone worried, "how are you doing?"

Xander shrugged, sitting down on the couch and pulling his knees up to his chest. He wrapped his arms around his legs and leaned his chin down on his knees. "I'll be okay," he said softly, disgusted with himself when he heard the tell-tale tremor in his voice. He was NOT going to cry in front of Buffy. Not over the vampires, not over how much he missed Willow, not over his sad excuse for a life, and most definitely not over his low-life father. "I just need a few minutes to pull myself together. Then, before you even have a chance to blink, I'll be everyone's favorite Xander-shaped friend and psuedo-Vampire Slayer once again!"

Xander tried to give Buffy one of his famous, lop-sided grins but moving his face too much made his nose hurt, so he quickly gave up on that idea. Reaching a hand up to lightly touch the bandage on his nose, he recalled the last time it had gotten busted up. It had been during a particularly bad fight with his parents. His father had just lost his job and was drowning his anger in alcohol, like always. Of course, the alcohol didn't help lessen the anger one bit. It had only served to make things worse in the Harris household.

---Begin Flashback---

The door slamed loudly as Albert Harris made his way into his darkened house. As he was walking, his steps slow and awkward due to the excessive amounts of alcohol in his system, he banged his shin against the coffee table and cursed loudly. "Damned woman never cleans up this place! How's a man supposed to live in a hellhole like this? BRENDA!!! Get your fat ass down here right now, you lazy, ungrateful bitch!"

Hurried steps could be heard coming down the stairs, taking them two and even three at a time. When Brenda Harris reached the end of the stairs and saw Albert standing there in a furious, drunken rage, she froze like a deer caught in the headlights. "Albert?" she whispered, feeling the tears start to come, "What's wrong?"

"What's wrong? What's WRONG? What the bloody hell do you THINK is wrong, woman!" Albert yelled, his face turning an unhealthy shade of red due to his anger. "I cut the hell out of my leg because you were too lazy to clean this damn place up!" Albert reached out and grabbed his wife by the hair, dragging her into the kitchen and pushing her roughly to the floor.

As he moved toward her, like an animal stalking its prey, he slowly loosened the belt from around his waist and pulled it free of his dirty jeans, folding it over to make it into a decent paddle.

Brenda cowered before the man she had married, fear etched onto her face. "Albert... please... don't..." she whispered, but her pleading only served to enrage her husband even more. Tightening his grip on his make-shift paddle, Albert prepared to strike.

As the hand holding the belt whooshed down toward her face, Brenda shrieked and scooted backwards, narrowly missing the blow intended to knock her unconscious. Albert growled, grabbing her by the hair to prevent any further escapes and lifted his belt to strike again. But this time, as the belt came flying down, another hand reached out and stopped it and a scared but determined voice said, "No. Not again."

Albert released Brenda in his rage at the newcomer's interference and whirled around to come face to face with his only son. "Alexander LaVelle Harris, what the HELL do you think you're doing?" he yelled, the alcohol causing his words to slurr slightly. Brenda chose that moment of distraction to scoot farther away, out of Albert's reach but still close enough to see what was going on.

Xander, who was only 15 at the time and knew nothing about the world of vampires and demons that he would later come to face, flinched at the anger in his father's voice. But he didn't falter in his resolve. "Leave her alone, Dad." He bitterly spit the last word out of his mouth like something foul, something unclean.

Albert sneared at Xander and replied, "Oh, so the little boy is finally growing some balls, eh?" He laughed, tightening his grip on his belt before growing deadly serious. "You contradicted me, boy. You're gonna bleed for that."

Before Xander could think of a reply, the belt flew through the air and slapped him across the face with a sickening crunch, sending shooting pain through him. As he fell backwards, his backside hitting the floor painfully, Xander reached a trembling hand up to touch his nose, shocked to see the sticky, crimson colored blood that came away on his fingers. Xander heard the whimpering sounds that his mother was making from over in the corner of the kitchen, but he knew that she would be no help to him now. She was too far gone to do anything but cry.

As his father advanced toward him, the now-bloody belt slapping ominously against his thigh, Xander prepared himself for the next blow and fervently hoped that he would pass out this time before the pain became unbearable. In the distance, the crying grew louder...

---End of Flashback---

... and that was when Xander realized that he was the one crying, with his arms wrapped around his knees and his head facing away from Buffy. He wanted to stop, he commanded himself to stop, but the tears just kept flowing. Pathetic much, Xand, he thought as he swiped at the offending moisture on his cheeks angrily with one hand. Now Buffy probably thinks you're a big wuss. She'll never want to see you again, bud. You might as well consider it over before it even officially began, whatever IT was. Tough break.

When Xander started to cry, Buffy hesitated, unsure of what to do. Things were going on inside of him that she didn't and couldn't understand. After a minute, she sat down next to him on the couch, but he turned his head the other way. It stung like rejection, but she knew he just didn't want her to see his tears. That was very much a guy thing.

She put her arms on his back and rubbed between his shoulder blades, murmuring comforting words in a low voice. What she said was no where near as important as the fact that she was saying something. When he started to calm down, Buffy moved around to where she could see his face. Then she hugged him, letting him spend the last of his tears with his head tucked under her chin.

"I never cared for this dress anyway," she said with a smile as he pulled back a little, realizing he'd made a damp spot. She touched his face when he looked a little guilty. "It's OK, I don't mind. But how are you doing now?"

What he did next surprised her. Instead of talking, or making a joke, or pushing her away, he leaned in and kissed her. It was a fierce and passionate kiss. She could feel his teeth through his lips as he pressed against her. Zings of excitement started in her stomach and radiated out through her body. But then she started to think about it in the tiny corner of her mind that wasn't wrapped up in Xander's lips, his hands in her hair, his breath on her cheek. Besides the fact that her mother could come back down at any second and catch them making out, Buffy knew that this probably wasn't the best way for him to deal with whatever was bothering him. Instead, in a way, this was kind of like drowning one's sorrows in alcohol -- a way not to think about his problems.

After a few minutes, Buffy pushed him back. It was hard, but she managed to do it. And she couldn't stop smiling, because no matter his reasons for kissing her it did mean something. It meant that -- no matter what he'd said earlier -- he did like her, and that maybe they could have a real date, or even a real future.

When she looked at his face she saw the familiar look of guilt coming back to it. She hurried to correct him. "No, it's fine." Her smile was brilliant. "More than fine actually..." The confession wrung a blush from her cheeks. "I just ... we can't do this now." She gestured toward the stairs. "My mom..."

Buffy stood up. She was a little embarrassed now. "Well, I guess I'll see you in the morning ..." Xander gave her a little wave. "Sleep well." She stepped away, but then she leaned back in and gave him another quick kiss. Then, with a silly little smile that she couldn't get rid of, Buffy went upstairs and got ready for bed.

After their monumental failure, Spike was in a bad mood. He grabbed Willow -- who was still mildly stunned -- and threw her over his shoulder. Then he started walking back to their lair.

"I can't believe it," he muttered. "All that and they got away. Bloody hell! I thought you really wanted them this time, what?"

When they got home, he lofted her down onto the bed and threw himself down next to her, trench coat and all.

"So now what?" he wondered aloud. He turned his head and looked over at Willow. "Pet? Are you all right? I need some help plotting and scheming here!"

Willow didn't reply right away. She just lay there, staring dreamily at the ceiling. When Spike nudged her arm, prompting her to say SOMETHING to him, she smiled and rolled over onto her side, leaning back on her elbow and watching her lover with partially unfocused eyes. The silence finally got the best of him and Spike sat up, tearing off his trench coat and throwing it violently across the room. Willow reached out and grabbed his shoulder with a steel-like grip and pulled him back down beside her. "Don't get all angry, Spike. Anger doesn't help us. It only makes us foolish and hasty."

She leaned over the peroxide-blond vampire and grinned widely, tracing a fingernail leisurely down his chest. "Besides, we haven't lost yet, lover. Far from it. We now know exactly where to strike next." Willow giggled, letting her copper-red hair fall down over her pale face. "And when we do, we'll make them pay for what they've done to us."

Part Ten

Xander woke up the next morning with a host of aches and pains, none of which were helped by the fact that somehow during the night he'd managed to roll off of the couch and onto the hard floor. Wait a minute... THE COUCH??? Xander thought, confused as to his whereabouts. This isn't my house, is it? So where the heck am I?

As if in answer to his silent questions, he heard the sound of pots and pans clanking from the general vicinity of the kitchen. Now I know for sure that I'm not at home. Mom would never actually cook something this early... or at any time of the day for that matter.

Xander ran a hand through his sleep-mused hair and stood up, wondering absently what had happened to his clothes. He frowned, trying to figure out where he'd gotten the T-shirt and shorts that he was now sporting but the growling of his stomach distracted him from such thoughts and spurred him on toward the kitchen instead.

As he walked through the doorway, he stopped short when he saw Buffy Summers leaning over the stove, a cookbook in one hand and a spatula in the other. Suddenly everything clicked into place and all the memories from the night before came rushing back to him, specifically the memories involving kissing. Xander shook his head and tried to concentrate on something else before he embarrassed himself in front of Buffy.

Speaking of Buffy... Xander laughed silently to himself as he watched her at work. She was frowning as she stared at the book and then looked at the interesting concoction that was brewing on the stove. "It sure doesn't look like the picture in this book does..." she grumbled, flipping back through the pages. "If this is the beginners cookbook, then I'd hate to see the advanced version!"

After he was sure that her mother wasn't in the kitchen with them, Xander grinned and snuck up behind Buffy, snaking his arms around her waist and giving her a peck on the cheek. "What'cha cooking?" he asked, peering over her shoulder at the stove.

Buffy jumped, inadvertently moving the spatula, and her egg, bacon and salsa concoction went flying onto the floor. She looked at the floor, pouting. "Now all my work is spoiled!"

Then, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, she pulled away from him and went for a sponge. "But it probably would have been gross anyway. I almost flunked Home-Ec."

After cleaning up the mess, she pulled out two bowls, spoons and the Cheerios and milk. "You know what they say, the breakfast of champions." Buffy frowned. "Or maybe that's Wheaties! Umm ... they're G*R*R*R*EAT?"

Xander laughed. "I think you've got your pop-culture references mixed up. Tony the Tiger is the one who says that quote and his cereal is Frosted Flakes." Xander shrugged, taking a bite of his breakfast. "Cheerios is the one with the bee."

After they had finished their food, Xander helped Buffy clean up the dishes. Then he glanced at his watch, shocked to discover that it was only an hour until school started. "Uh, I'd better get going if I wanna get cleaned up and changed in time to avoid being late to class." Grinning he added, "But since we have the same first period, I'll see you there, okay?"

Buffy nodded and gave him a sweet smile. Then she ran into the laundry room and grabbed his freshly washed duds from the night before. "You can bring the other clothes back whenever."

Xander pulled on his jacket over the borrowed clothes and headed for the door before an idea struck him. Turning back to face Buffy, he said, "Hey, Sonya and I usually take our lunches outside to eat. It's kind of a tradition. There's this special place that we like to go... no one else really knows about it. Would you like to join us this afternoon?"

Buffy smiled at the invitation. Xander wanted to eat lunch with her, yet another indication that he had changed his mind about getting involved. She was afraid to say anything lest he change his mind again.

But as much as Buffy wanted to eat lunch with Xander, she didn't want to eat with Sonya -- the girl had barely been civil the night before. Buffy admitted that maybe she had tried too hard, but still she didn't want to be in forced contact with the girl. But she DID want to eat with Xander! She was about to say she would, when she remembered something that made her gasp.

"I'm so sorry, Xander," she said as they walked to the front door, "but I can't today. I mean, I'd love to, and normally I would, but I met someone last night -- definite friend potential -- and we're supposed to do lunch today. Maybe you and I can do the dinner thing -- or even the after-school-snack thing -- instead?" She opened the door for him and looked up hopefully.

Xander smiled and said, "Sure, sounds like a plan." He walked down the driveway and paused when he reached the street, turning to look back at Buffy. "So, I guess I'll see you in class?"

"OK," Buffy said with a smile and a little wave. Then she went inside and closed the door just in time to see Joyce coming down the stairs fully dressed.

"Did Xander leave?" Joyce asked.

"Yeah," Buffy replied. "We had breakfast and then he had to go change for school. Thanks for letting him stay last night."

"It's all right," Joyce said, then her tone became more motherly. "But encourage him to see a counselor or something if you can, OK? I think it would be good for him in his situation."

"I will," Buffy promised, though she wasn't sure she actually would. She didn't want to rock the boat. He didn't seem terribly inclined to talk about his parents much. Though he needed to if the previous night's breakdown was any indication. But Buffy didn't want him to be mad at her for interfering. Xander was touchy about that. Then again, Mr. Platt was a very nice guy; maybe Xander wouldn't mind talking to him.

Then, pushing unpleasantness away from her mind, Buffy scampered upstairs and got ready for school.

As Xander walked home from Buffy's, he began to replay the previous night's events through his mind. It was still hard to believe that so much could have happened in just one night! As he remembered the fight with Willow and Spike, he decided that he'd make sure to drop by the library before class to give a quick report to the librarian. Giles would definitely want to know what had happened. But then he froze mid step and groaned, remembering everything the Watcher had told him about revealing their secrets to outsiders. Don't spill the beans to the general populace... that was the cardinal rule of slaying. Xander snorted. Well, he'd pretty much botched that one up, hadn't he? He'd told Buffy everything and now she would probably want to help them with their mission. How was he going to explain all of this to the gang?

"Giles is gonna KILL me!" he muttered as he slowly trudged home. "And if he doesn't... Sonya definitely will!" Xander sighed the sigh of a man condemned. "I'm doomed."

After a quick shower, Buffy picked out her clothes with special care. She wanted to look pretty today -- both for when she saw Xander again, and to reflect her great mood. For an instant, she wished she still had some of her killer clothes from before the accident, but they were out of style now anyway. From her new, conservative wardrobe, she settled on a pair of old jeans, just worn enough to look soft and cling to her every curve, a white T-shirt worn under a denim button-down shirt with the tails tied at her waist, and her sturdy black boots.

This morning when Joyce dropped Buffy off at school, Buffy was not scared or worried. Somehow, knowing the truth about the world of darkness that surrounded them made her feel less awkward. What was the point about worrying about normal things when one's life was in jeopardy. And there were happy things to think about, too, like Xander's lips, and his arms around her waist this morning, and seeing him again in English class, and even her new, almost-friend Oz who would be sharing lunch with her today. Despite the baddies, life in Sunnydale was starting to look up.

She was walking up the path when suddenly Cordelia stood in front of her holding some books and papers. Buffy had a sense of deja vu, and Cordelia made a big show of stepping back. "Don't hit me, Muffy, OK?"

Buffy glared at Cordelia. "It's BUFFY."

"Chill out, girl," Cordelia said, lifting an eyebrow to indicate how little she cared.

Her buoyant attitude deflated, Buffy turned and walked into the school. Well, she decided, it may still matter what people think, but at least it doesn't quite matter as much. Feeling mildly better, Buffy hurried off to English, wondering if Xander was already there.

The windows of the factory across town were boarded up for two reasons. First of all, the boards kept potential prowlers out and secondly, they blocked out the sunlight, making it possible for Spike and Willow to roam around through the building unhindered by the light of day. All in all, it was a fairly good arrangement.

Spike was just thinking about that when he heard a booming knock from the front room. "Now who would be callin' at such an ungodly hour?" he wondered, joining Willow at the door. "No one I know, that's for sure!"

Willow rolled her eyes at him and replied, "Don't worry, lover. I know who's knocking at our door. They're here to solve all of our problems for us..." She trailed off, turning to face the door with a satisfied smile on her lips.

Staring at the patch of sunlight that filtered through a crack in the shoe-polish covered window on the door, Spike took a step back and scowled. "Well, that's all fine and dandy, pet. But who's going to open the bloody thing and risk gettin' burned to a crisp? That's what I'm wantin' to know."

Willow smiled and rang a small bell that she was holding in her right hand. The sound chimed through the factory, echoing slightly off the walls. "Oh Samuel..." she purred, twirling around on her toes. "Won't you be a dear and come open the door for Mommy? We have guests waiting."

Part Eleven

Giles paced around the library, waiting anxiously for news. Sonya sat at the reading table, working on an assignment. The first period bell would ring in 20 minutes, and Xander wasn't there yet for the morning briefing. Giles hoped that nothing dire had befallen the lad while escorting Miss Summers home the night before. Then he thought of something else having to do with the blonde that could have distracted him, and frowned.

When Xander finally did make it to the library, he looked tired and his hair was slicked back, still wet from the shower.

"Where have you been?" Giles demanded, more curt than he'd intended to be because of all the worrisome thoughts rattling around in his brain. "We've been waiting for you."

"I had to spend the night at Buffy's last night."

Xander's reply got both Giles and Sonya's attention. Sonya wheeled over to the men, positioning herself next to Giles. Giving the boy a severe look, Giles said, "You skipped out on the rest of your patrolling to spend quality time with Miss Summers? Where are your priorities?"

"It was necessary," Xander protested. "Willow and Spike jumped us when we got to her house." He paused, feelings of guilt written all over his face. "I had to tell her everything."

"You did WHAT?" Sonya exploded before Giles could say anything. "What were you thinking, Harris? That wasn't your secret to tell."

Xander hung his head under her barrage of words.

Giles placed a hand on Sonya's shoulder. "It's too late now. The only prudent course of action for the future is to minimize the damage." Sonya looked up at him, and he met her gaze meaningfully. They had talked at some length about Xander and his new "friend" the night before. Now was the time for a united front. She gave him a slight nod.

The librarian Watcher looked at Xander. "You realize, don't you, that you're putting the girl at risk just by being with her. I understand young love -- believe me, I even experienced it once myself, if you can imagine -- but the Hellmouth is no place for it. It pains me to do this, but I have to be firm on this. Xander, you cannot see Buffy Summers again romantically. I forbid it."

There was a mutinous expression in Xander's eyes. "Now wait just a damn minute! Who do you think you are, Giles? You may be able to tell me what to slay and where to slay it, but you have no right to interfere in my personal life."

"What you don't understand, Xander, is that you don't have a right to a personal life," Sonya interjected.

"You, too, Wheels?" Xander asked bitterly.

She nodded, but kept her voice calm and reasonable -- quite an accomplishment for the emotional Slayer. "The Chosen One doesn't get a personal life, Xander. It's right there in the Slayer's Handbook. The Chosen One must devote their life to fighting the forces of evil -- not wrestling under the sheets with some blonde girl."

"Hey!" Xander protested with a blush. "If you must know, we didn't sleep together. It was mostly platonic. I slept on the couch."

"Good," Giles said, "that will make it all the easier for you to break it off with her."

Xander impaled them both with a deadly glare. "No way! I'm not the Chosen One, I don't have to go by these rules. I volunteered for this job, and if I have to, I'll un-volunteer."

"She means that much to you?" Sonya's voice was small and quiet.

Xander nodded. "Yes!"

Giles looked seriously at Xander. This wasn't good. The boy was so wrapped up in his crush that he was really going to walk away from all this. A year ago, Giles would have wanted that above all things -- the boy deserved a safe and happy life. But now Alexander Harris was all that stood between Giles and the ruination of his plan to save Sonya's life. Despite the guilt Giles felt, he knew he had to do this or their plans would all be lost.

"If you want to continue with your duties as temporary Slayer," Giles said, "you will cease to see Miss Summers romantically immediately. It's come down to a choice, Mr. Harris -- fish or cut bait, so to speak. Sonya and I need someone devoted to the cause, not someone distracted by blonde hair and green eyes."

He paused. It was time to reveal his secret. It was the only thing he could think of to convey the magnitude of the situation to the boy. "If you decide to walk away from all this, I can scarcely blame you, but know this. The deadline we've been afraid of has come. The Council is sending a representative here in three months to evaluate Sonya -- and you know what they'll do if they find her like this. Termination, they call it. Culling the weak is another term I've heard. I need to focus on finding the spell to heal her right now, but if you leave she and I will have to do the patrolling. It's up to you, Xander, but you should think about it very carefully."

Emotions flitted over Xander's face so quickly that Giles couldn't read them, but after a second or two the boy's face was a cold mask. "I'll call it off with Buffy today. You can count on me."

Giles nodded, trying not to show the guilt he felt at dealing yet another blow to the young lad's heart. He felt cruel for ending the only relationship Xander had had since Willow's transformation, but Giles shook those thoughts out of his head. In three months, all this could be over. Then Xander could pick up with Miss Summers if he wanted to.

The bell for first period chose that moment to ring, and Xander and Sonya had to hurry for fear of being late to yet another class. Giles went back into his office, and closed the door. He needed a moment of silence to prepare for the bad things yet to come.

Xander walked down the hallway slowly, not even caring whether of not he was late for class again. His mind was whirling, thinking about everything that had just happened. He knew that he couldn't possibly leave Sonya and Giles now, not when Sonya's life was on the line. If she died because if him, he wouldn't be able to live with himself. But he honestly didn't think he had the strength to break it off with Buffy. He cared for her so much, more than he had cared for anyone in a very long time. Finally Xander came to a decision. It wasn't a decision that he liked very much, but it was the only choice he had.

Just then the tardy bell rang and Xander was startled out of his thoughts by Mrs. Jacobs' stern voice from across the hall. "Well, Mr. Harris? Are you just going to stand there or are you going to come to class?"

Xander tightened his grip on his bookbag and hurried through the door, quickly sliding into his seat near the front. He studiously ignored Buffy, who was sitting right in front of him, and didn't respond to her whispered hello.

Just then, Mrs. Jacobs began taking the roll and Xander slouched down in his seat, praying that class would be over soon.

When Xander didn't respond to her hello, Buffy assumed he just didn't want to make Mrs. Jacobs any more angry at him than she already was. Buffy sat docilely in her seat, pretending to take notes on the forms of the Sonnet. She was quite relieved when Mrs. Jacobs did NOT make them actually write one.

When the bell rang, Xander was out of the room like a shot. Quickly, Buffy gathered her things together and ran after him. "Hey," she called, "wait up!"

Just outside the door, a few steps away from the exiting horde of students, Xander stopped. Buffy smiled at him. "Hey, stranger. For a minute there, I thought you didn't hear me."

His face softened. "Of course, I heard you. I always hear you."

Buffy leaned in to give him a kiss, when suddenly he stiffened up again. She looked up at him in confusion. His dark, hooded gaze was directed at something just over her shoulder. She turned her head and saw Sonya glaring at them from her wheelchair a few feet away.

"Does she not want you to see me, is that it?" Buffy demanded angrily. When he didn't respond, she began to get worried. "Are you listening to her?"

"Look," Xander said softly, "I'm sorry, but I can't do this now. Some stuff happened this morning... Can we talk later? At your house at about 4o'clock?"

Buffy stared at him, unwilling to commit to the date -- or maybe appointment was a better word. "Why?"

"Please?" Xander said, begging her with his eyes as well as his voice."Please?"

Finally, she gave in. "Fine!" Without another word to him, she turned and walked away, giving Sonya a glare as she passed the wheelchair-bound girl.

And to think that last night I tried to be nice to her! Buffy thought, feeling her anger seethe and roil around in her stomach. We'll see if I ever make THAT mistake again!

She didn't know what was up with Xander. It looked like he was breaking things off with her now. Buffy couldn't stand this on-again/off-again relationship. If he broke up with her this time, because Sonya was jealous or whatever, it would be the last time.

As Xander watched Buffy leave, he felt his anger rising. How could Sonya and Giles do this to him? How could they force him to make a decision that he didn't want to make? As all these thoughts were dancing around in his brain, he walked over to where Sonya sat and waited for her to yell at him again over Buffy. She didn't disappoint him.

"What the HELL was that about, Harris? I thought we were clear on this matter! No contact with the blonde, remember?"

Xander kneeled in front of Sonya, bringing himself down to her level. In a deceptively calm voice, he replied, "I'm not an asshole, Sonya. I don't just leave a girl hanging like that. I owe Buffy the truth, and that's what I'm going to give her this afternoon when we meet."

"You're seeing her AGAIN?" Sonya exclaimed.

"Yes, I am. Do you want to make something of it?"

"Harris, what is your problem? Don't you understand what the phrase 'no contact' means or are you just that mentally challenged?"

Xander studied Sonya closely. "Where is all this anger coming from, Sonya? You know that I've agreed to put my 'sacred duty' above everything else, even Buffy. So why are you getting so worked up about this?"

Sonya crossed her arms in front of her chest. In a defensive voice, she replied, "I don't know what you're talking about, Xander. I'm not worked up. I just don't want to see you loose sight of what's important here because of some blonde bimbo."

"Buffy is NOT a bimbo!" Xander snapped, rising to his feet.

"There, you see? Already, you're siding with her and defending her," Sonya pointed out with a smug smile. "That's why you have to cut the ties now, before you get even more attached to her."

Xander threw up his hands, exasperated and practically seething with anger. "What is your problem, Sonya?" he demanded, "Why can't you stand to see me happy for once?"

"Giles and I think..."

Xander cut her off. "No, I know why Giles is doing this. He's too busy looking at the so-called big picture to even realize how much he's hurting me. But what about you? What do you get out of this, Sonya? Some perverse satisfaction out of separating me from someone I love? Or maybe you're just jealous because you don't have anyone special and I do, is that it?"

Sonya looked at him with wide eyes and whispered, "You love her?"

Xander paused, momentarily taken aback by her question. He hadn't really meant to say anything about love earlier, it had just come out in the heat of the moment. But when he thought seriously about it, he had to admit to himself that it was true. Xander smiled. "Yeah, I think I do. Strange, huh?"

Sonya didn't reply.

Xander shook his head, clearing his mind of thoughts of his newly discovered love for the time being, and looked down at Sonya, who was trying not to cry. His anger at her diminished some when he saw how upset she was. "Hey, what's the matter, Wheels? You look like you lost your best friend."

Sonya hastily wiped her eyes and looked up at Xander with a too-bright smile plastered on her face. "I've gotta go. I'm gonna be late for class." Then she quickly wheeled herself down the hall and away from him.

Xander frowned. That wasn't the same Sonya that he knew. Something was wrong. But as the bell rang for second period, he had to forget about that for now in favor of the wonderful world of Algebra.

Samuel was afraid. He had been afraid for a very long time now, ever since he'd been kidnapped by the bad people. The man was so big and strong, he towered over Samuel's small form. But he wasn't who occupied Samuel's nightmares every night...

The woman with the flaming red hair.

She was who REALLY scared him.

Red hair...

Samuel's mother had red hair...

Samuel missed his mother.

The ringing of a bell startled Samuel out of his thoughts and he gathered up his chains, making his way slowly to the front room of the factory. "Yes, Miss Willow," he whispered, cowering before her.

Willow gestured to the door and smiled. "Please let our guests in, dearie. It's almost time for tea..." She giggled.

Samuel nodded and moved to open the door, afraid of what he might find on the other side.

Buffy walked into the cafeteria with a heavy heart, much different from her buoyant trek from the car to the school this morning. It was like everything that could have happened to pierce her new armor of happiness, had happened. She let out a deep sigh and headed for the hot lunch line.

As she stood there, waiting her turn with the hotdog surprise, Buffy's eyes searched the large room. All she needed for her day to be a complete bust would be for Oz to stand her up for lunch. When she finished selecting her meal from the unappetizing options in front of her, Buffy moved slowly to the table by the window she'd sat at yesterday. No Oz. She sighed again and pulled her trusty book out of her backpack.

"At least you'll never let me down," she whispered to the worn copy of her favorite novel ever, Jane Austen's Emma. Buffy had read the book at least ten times over during her time in traction.


Buffy looked up and her face broke into a sunny smile. The first in hours. "Oz. I'm so glad you're here."

The short, semi-cute boy slid into the seat opposite her at the small table and set down his tray of macaroni and cheese and Jell-O. Then he reached into his backpack and pulled out a book of his own. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. "See," he said, gesturing to the book, "expanding our minds together."

Buffy grinned. "Looks like a deep book."

"Not too deep after the fifth reading," Oz replied with a shrug.

The hotdog surprise was rubbery and hard to swallow. Buffy grimaced as she chewed, and her eyes roamed around the cafeteria. Then she saw Xander standing next to the vending machine with a soda and a candy bar. Probably headed for lunch with Sonya-the-witch Buffy thought with a frown.

It was hard for her to believe that things with Xander had gone from better than her wildest dreams this morning to awkward and confusing this afternoon. He'd treated her so weird after class -- as if he couldn't get rid of her fast enough. Because of Sonya probably. Granted, he did invite himself over to her house this afternoon, but from the way he was acting, Buffy suspected he was back on his "shouldn't date Buffy" attitude instead of his hopeful, life-embracing (and Buffy-embracing) attitude of this morning. Buffy stared at Xander for a minute, meeting his eyes, then she consciously turned away and smiled at Oz.

Turn about is fair play she decided. If he can treat me like crap and then go hang with Sonya, I should feel no guilt about eating lunch with another guy. And why should I feel guilt anyway? It's not like Xander's my boyfriend. We haven't even gone out on a real date. And Oz is just a friend anyway...

Realizing that she'd been silent for a long time, Buffy looked up at Oz. His face was never very full of expression, but there was a gleam of concern in his eyes. "Something's wrong. I can tell."

Buffy sighed. "I don't want to burden you with it. We've only just met. We should be talking about our favorite movies and things, not the darkness in our souls."

Oz leaned closer to Buffy. "I think humanity is much more interesting than a movie could ever be." He paused. "But if you really want to know, it's My Stepmother is an Alien. Great flick."

That made Buffy laugh. Her reservations overcome, she told him all about Xander (well, except for the parts about vampires, and the abuse stuff, which she knew she shouldn't share with anyone). "Do you know Xander Harris?"

At Oz's nod, Buffy continued. "We almost had a date last night, and then this morning we had breakfast together and he was so sweet to me, but when we got to school he practically blew me off, not to mention how he jumps whenever Sonya Parker says so. I don't know what to think. Is that just a guy thing? Or is he ashamed to be seen with me, or what?"

"No one would be ashamed to be seen with you," Oz said.

"Thanks," Buffy said with a smile. "That's nice to hear."

Oz leaned forward and commenced what, for him, was a very long speech. "There are rumors about Xander, but I've always thought he was a classic misunderstood guy. Sonya has been, like, the only friend he's had here since his other friends died."

Buffy nodded to show she knew that story. She suspected that she knew more of it than Oz did. He continued. "Give him time to work out a good balance. If it's real, he'll work it out, and if it's not, you'll know soon enough. Don't go dredging up trouble."

She tapped the cover of his book. "Is this where you got all your insight, because I must admit, you made me feel better."

"Can't tell you," Oz replied. "Wouldn't want to mess up the aura of mystery I've created."

Just then, the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. Both teenagers stood up and collected their things. "So, is your band playing tonight?"

Oz nodded. "Yep. Coming?"

Buffy shrugged. "Depends on the balance."

"Good deal." Oz turned away to deposit his inedible lunch in the self-bus window. "See ya 'round." Then he disappeared into the throng of rushing students.

Buffy looked after him for a minute, and then bussed her own tray and headed for class.

The library phone shrilled, startling Giles out of his contemplative stance.

"Hello?" he asked into the receiver, hoping against hope that it was the call he'd been waiting for.

"Giles," Angel said, the phone crackling with long-distance static.

"Where are you? What happened?" Giles demanded. "I was beginning to think the worst."

"I ... overslept," Angel admitted. "I had to hurry to make it to the airport in time for my flight. The plane is about to board. I'm calling from a payphone in the airport."

"You got first class, right? Plenty of room in the seats, and thick window shades?"

"Right," Angel agreed. "It's all taken care of. When I get to the airport in New York, I'll stay inside for the rest of the day, and then catch my connection to LA at 8 p.m. I should be in Sunnydale late tonight."

"Good," Giles said, wiping his forehead with his pristine, white handkerchief. "Now, what did you find?"

"I don't want to go into it on the phone," Angel said. "I got a copy of Sonya's file, and I found something that might be useful."

"The healing spell?"

Angel hesitated, and Giles began to suspect the worst. "I'll explain it all when I get there, Giles. I've got to go. They're calling my flight."

The phone went dead, and Giles began to panic. If Angel had failed, what were they going to do now? Then he tried to think rationally. If Angel hadn't found anything, he would have stayed in Europe to scour the continent for a spell that would work. That had been the plan. Angel must've found something -- and maybe it was the healing spell after all. Pushing the last of his doubts away, Giles ordered himself to be happy. He couldn't let his charges see the magnitude of his fear. He had to be their rock. Sonya was always just a few inches away from a breakdown, and now Xander was most likely desolate over the abrupt end to his new relationship.

"Keep a stiff upper lip, old man," Giles told himself. "Don't let them all down."

Part Twelve

Xander walked out of the library at a quarter til four, ditching his daily training session with Giles so that he could make it to Buffy's house in time for their meeting. He had left a note on the library counter so he wouldn't worry, and now he was sprinting across the quad at top speed. He managed to reach the Summers' residence with about two minutes to spare, luckily they lived fairly close to the high school. He waited a second until he had caught his breath and then he walked up to the front door and knocked. Buffy opened the door and let him in, keeping a carefully neutral expression on her face.

"Uh..." Xander faltered, trying to think of what to say, "Is your mom home yet?"

"No," Buffy replied as she took a seat on the couch in the living room. "She's still at the gallery. She won't be home until 6."

Xander nodded, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

"So..." Buffy prompted him. "What's the deal?"

Xander didn't immediately respond. He was still trying to figure out how he was going to handle this.

Buffy sighed and stood up, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "If you want to break things off, just tell me, okay? Don't beat around the bush and try to soften the blow or whatever. I'm a big girl. I can take it."

Buffy turned away from him, not able to look him in the eyes. "So if you don't want me, just say so."

Before Xander even realized what he was doing, he had crossed the room and placed his hands on Buffy's shoulders, forcing her to face him. "Buffy, don't say that!" he exclaimed, gathering her into a comforting embrace. "I don't want to end things between us, far from it."

Sighing, he pulled back and looked her in the eyes. "When I'm with you, I feel like all the horrors in the world don't even matter any more. And that's part of the problem. You see, Giles and Sonya confronted me in the library this morning. They both told me not to see you any more. They say you're a distraction I can't afford to have right now. Giles said it was either you or the job. I told him I'd walk away from it, but they really need me right now. It's life and death. I feel like I'm torn in two pieces!"

"You were going to leave it for me?" Buffy looked up, a tremulous almost-smile on her face.

"I was, until Giles hit me with his trump card. Turns out that the Council is on the verge of finding out everything. If I don't stay with them, Sonya could die. I mean, what kind of choice is that?" Xander sighed. "Sonya's my best friend. I'd die for her, but when I'm not with you, all I can think about is how I wish I WAS with you. And nothing else seems to matter. Not vampires. Not school. Not my problems at home. Nothing. And that's what Giles and Sonya just don't get. They are convinced that this is just some silly, little crush; puppy love or something. But it's more than that, Buffy."

Buffy could hardly believe what she was hearing. He did care, and so much more than she'd thought. She couldn't stop smiling. Then, when she couldn't take any more, she leaned in and kissed him full on the mouth. That occupied them for more than a moment, and then Xander pulled away a little bit.

"But what are we going to do?" he asked. "I told them I wouldn't see you. I didn't want to, but I don't have any other choice. But I can't NOT see you! Arrgh! I feel like a character from Shakespeare!"

"There's got to be a way around this." Buffy leaned her head on his shoulder and thought really hard. There had to be something he hadn't thought of. Then the metaphorical light bulb brightened above her head. "We could still see each other ... if we didn't let them find out."

"You mean sneak around?" Hope dawned on Xander's face. "Maybe it would work. After all, the Council deadline is in three months, then it will be over and done with once and for all."

"Three months isn't that long," Buffy said, willing him to agree. "I'm sure we can find a way to meet secretly, between classes and patrols and stuff." An impish grin curved her lips. "Know any good broom closets?"

Xander laughed, and pulled Buffy into a hug. "Wow -- I'm having an affair. This is kind of cool."

Buffy giggled. "I've never been part of a forbidden romance before. You're right -- it is kind of Romeo and Juliet ... only without the whole suicide thing." She glanced up at the clock. It was 4:30. "So, how much longer do you have?"

He hesitated, and then said, "For you, I'll make some time." Then he pulled her into another, long kiss. Buffy surrendered herself to the moment without another thought. They could figure things out in more detail later. For now, this was enough.

Samuel opened the door, and Spike looked on with interest to see what would be revealed. All in all, it was kind of disappointing: a raven haired girl with short cropped hair, a dark complected and haired man who stood at least 6'7" tall and an ordinary looking brunette. They were all wearing thick, brown woolen cloaks despite the lovely California temperature.

Looking over at Willow, Spike hissed, "These are the people to help us take out the whitehats for good? A tad anti-climactic, don't you think? What the devil 'ave you been smokin', lover?"

Their human slave, the boy Samuel, scooted back as quickly as his shackles would let him. Spike raised an eyebrow, and spoke more loudly, "What are you afraid of, boy?"

Then something exploded just above Spike's head.

"What the bloody hell was that?" Spike growled, and his face took on its vampire visage as he prepared to face an attacker.

"Calm down, Spikey," Willow cooed, stroking his arm. "It was just one of my new friends." She gestured for them to come in out of the sun. Samuel closed the door behind them, and the five adults went into the dining area where Willow had ordered Samuel to set up for tea.

The three humans removed their clothes, revealing very different styles of clothing. The short haired girl wore a black bodysuit with leather straps covered with weapons of various styles criss-crossed over her chest. A dagger blade stuck out of each of her black combat boots and a gun belt hung low on her hips, sporting a couple of berettas and some spare ammunition. The brunette wore plain jeans and a denim, button-up shirt. And the man wore black, floor length robes over his tall, lanky form.

"I was the one with the pyrotechnics," the man said, smothering a cough with one of his long-fingered hands. "My name is Nathan. I am a sorcerer of Druidic descent, and I'm the leader of our team." He looked at Willow and inclined his head in a respectful nod. "The Order of Taraka sends you its regard, madam. Never before has such an extensive contract been made. That's why the order sent our team. If I may say so, we are the best team available."

"I'd expect nothing less," Willow replied with a cruel grin.

Spike looked at the humans dubiously. There were some interesting smells coming off of them -- a whole lot of magic -- but how could a sorcerer, a neo-nazi and a school girl defeat ... Then he thought of something. He looked at Willow and asked yet another question. "Exactly how extensive of a contract, m'dear? How much is this costing us?"

Willow waved a hand about in an airy gesture. "Don't worry, lover. I took care of the fee."

Nathan spoke up. "Let me answer the other question. We are here to remove the following targets: the Watcher, Mr. Rupert Giles; the paralyzed Slayer, Miss Sonya Parker; the human male, Alexander Harris; the human female, Buffy Anne Summers; and the demon known as Angelus, or Angel if you will."

"And all we have to do is get at least half of the targets to the same place at the same time tomorrow night," Willow added, smiling and rubbing her hands together like a kid in a candy store. "That's gonna be the fun part."

"Let me introduce the other members of my team," Nathan said to the room at large. "First, Kate Smith, lycanthrop."

The school girl stood up and grinned. In the blink of an eye, her face had turned to that of a snarling werewolf -- but the rest of her body had not changed, and the feral look of most werewolves was absent from her yellow eyes. Then she spoke, her voice only obscured a little by her muzzle and fangs. "Unlike most of my kind, I have complete control of my lycanthropic abilities. I can change any part of my body that I choose, or all of it. I have complete mastery of my feral instincts. And, best of all, I can change whenever I need to -- day or night, full moon or any other phase."

With that introduction, Kate reverted back to normal. She smiled prettily and sat back down. Spike was impressed in spite of himself.

Nathan gestured for the other girl to stand up. "Meet Gillian Layne. Her talent is rather unique. There isn't actually a name for it, so I'll just let her demonstrate."

Gillian stood and extended her hands. Spike expected her to go for some of her many weapons and demonstrate incredible aim or something of the sort.

But what she did was something totally different and unexpected. Her hands started to extend and change shape. The left hand morphed into the blade of a sword -- long, sharp and deadly. When she moved it, Spike could hear the blade slice the air with a deadly swishing noise. The right hand distended longer and longer. It moved like a snake without a head. Finally, it was six feet long. Gillian motioned and Spike heard a cracking sound, like a whip.

She had extended the new appendage so that it wrapped around one of the beams in the ceiling, and as she was hanging from it she moved her legs in a flurry of impressive karate-style kicks. Then, in a few seconds, the new and dramatic appendages had reverted back into normal hands again.

"She also has deadly aim with all forms of weaponry," Nathan said as Gillian sat back down, "but there's no need for her to demonstrate that, I'm sure."

Spike had to admit it. He was completely impressed. The whitehats didn't stand a chance. However, he only had to admit it to himself. There was no need to give these newcomers an over-inflated ego, was there? So he just sat back in his chair and smiled.

It wasn't long after dark when Giles heard someone come into the library.

"Xander?" he called, hoping the boy had found his way back from his breakup with Miss Summers -- Sonya had told Giles about Xander's plans before she left for home. She was much more illuminating that the terse note Xander had left on the counter.

"No, it's me."

Giles came out of his office to find Angel standing there with a sheaf of paper. "You got here fast."

"I decided to risk flying out earlier from New York. It worked out all right. I had to take cover in the bathroom for part of the flight, but I'm here." Angel held out his hands to evidence his wholeness. Then he walked over to the counter and set down the stack of papers. "Here's Sonya's file, and a spell that I think will help. It's not the spell you wanted, but it has potential." Angel hesitated. "I'll just let you read it for yourself, and then we'll talk."

"Where are you going?" Giles asked, his eyes already straying to the stack of papers that might hold the answers to his dilemma.

"I thought I'd do a patrol run." Angel shrugged. "Xander's got natural aptitude for this, but he's been alone out there for too long. I guess I just worry."

"Natural," Giles muttered distractedly. Then he looked up at the vampire. "Go, find Xander, patrol. That would be good. Come back here later, and tell me what you think of this stuff. Then I will have had time to read it all."

Angel nodded. "Will do."

Giles looked at the first page of Sonya's file and smiled a little as he saw his own report of the Harvest situation -- the good old days, before Sonya's accident.

"Oh, and Angel..." He looked up and found Angel was gone. Giles hadn't even heard the door close.

That night, Xander patrolled with a goofy smile on his face. He'd spent too much time at Buffy's, but it had been worth it. The smile got wider as he remembered the smoochies. Buffy smoochies...

Stop it! Xander ordered himself. You're patrolling right now. Got to prove to Giles and Sonya that she WON'T distract me... Buffy smoochies... Dang it!!! Let's try and think of something else... Vampires... big, evil, scary... Buffy smoochies. Wait, Buffy smoochies aren't scary, how did that segue happen?

Then he heard a crunching sound behind him. Xander whipped out his trusty stake and whirled around -- all business. "All right. Who's there? Come out where I can see ya."

"Hey, point that thing somewhere else!" Angel stepped out from the shadows.

"It's not a thing!" Xander adopted a pained expression. "He has a name."

"You named your stake?" Angel raised an eyebrow. "Just out of curiosity -- though I'm sure I'll be sorry I asked -- what do you call it... er... him?"

"His name is Bob."

Angel couldn't help it. The laughter forced its way out of his throat. Xander always managed to make him laugh. "You named your stake BOB?"

"He looks like a Bob," Xander replied, pouting slightly. Then he dropped the routine and walked up to Angel, slapping the vampire on the shoulder. "So, you're back."

"Barely. There was a near-mishap during the flight, but the plane's bathroom is a pretty sunless place."

Xander nodded, getting back to business mode. They began walking side by side, patrolling the danger zone of the graveyard together like they had countless times before. "So, what did you find out?"

Angel sighed. "Not as much as we'd hoped for. There was no healing spell strong enough. They had spells for everything from wart removal to broken arms, but nothing for paralysis."

"Damn it!" Xander kicked a rock and sent it flying into the darkness. In the distance they could hear it strike a tombstone. "Now what are we going to do? There's not enough time for another expedition."

"Well, I found something that might help us, but I don't want to say any more than that yet," Angel said. "I gave the stuff to Giles, and he's looking over it. I don't want to get your hopes up until we know for sure."

Xander nodded, reigning in his impatience and frustration.

"So," Angel said, giving the boy a sidelong glance, "how have things been while I was away?"

"Not too bad," Xander replied, trying to be nonchalant. "No untoward demon sightings or anything. A few Spike and Willow encounters, but nothing I couldn't handle."

"Is that what happened to your nose?"

Xander touched the bandage with a rueful grin. "Yeah. Battle scars." He paused, wondering how much of his Buffy experience he should confide in Angel. Sure the guy was a vamp, but over the last year he'd become a friend. For a second, Xander remembered the time that Angel rescued him from his father during one of the old man's rages -- then Xander pushed that from his mind. But Angel might have some insights into his Giles/Sonya vs. Buffy problem. The guy HAD been around for awhile. But Xander didn't want Angel reporting on him -- he wasn't sure what the guy would do. Then he thought of the perfect way to get advice without risking any reprecussions.

"So," he asked in a carefully casual tone, "on a completely unrelated topic... I have this friend -- a hypothetical friend."

"All your friends are hypothetical," Angel muttered in a sarcastic-yet-brotherly tone of voice, but Xander was too wrapped up in his story to hear.

"Let's call this guy John. Anyway, John has this job. It's a very stressful job -- it occupies a lot of his time. And John's bosses, well, the phrase control-freak-workaholics springs directly to mind. Then John met this girl -- a hypothetical girl. Let's call her ... um ... Jane."

Angel rolled his eyes, but didn't comment.

Xander continued, "So Jane is this really great girl. She's gorgeous, but that goes without saying. But she's more than that. She's my ... she's JOHN'S perfect match. And, even more unbelievable, to JOHN, she likes him, too. These lovebunnies just can't get enough of each other!"

At that, Angel just had to laugh out loud.

"Shut up and let me finish, Dead Boy," Xander reprimanded him.

"Up yours, Weasle Breath," Angel replied without missing a beat.

Xander gave a big sigh and asked sarcastically, "Can I finish my story now?"

"Please," Angel said politely. "I'm all ears." He smiled again -- enjoying every moment of this fraternal bickering with Xander. He hadn't had any male siblings to banter with during his youth, so the past year of experiences like this with Xander had been refreshing.

"So..." Xander paused, just to make sure Angel was paying the proper amount of attention, "... the problem is that John's bosses think that Jane is distracting him from his job. They laid down the law big time -- the job or the girl. John can't leave the job, they need him a lot, but he can't give up the girl either -- she's so great... And the smoochies are ... um ... great or so John said in his hypothetical way. Anyway, now they're forced to sneak around behind everyone's back, like some Romeo and Juliet thing. Which is actually kind of interesting -- I had to read that play once. They did all kinds of wacky things like potions and climbing on balconies, not to mention the secret marriage and the sex. The more I think about it, the more it was pretty Hellmouthy if you ask me. All they needed was a demon. Wait a minute! Maybe that priest guy WAS a demon! He sure was way too interested in magic potions and stuff... I bet Shakespeare lived on a Hellmouth. How else do you explain MacBeth? What a psycho play that was..."

Angel cleared his throat rather loudly. "Was there a point to this 'hypothetical' story?"

Xander paused, and then said, "I guess John and Jane are just wondering what to do. Sneaking around is fun and all, but it's got it's problems. I mean, they don't like lying to everybody, but they can't stop seeing each other, but the job is REALLY important." He gave Angel a sidelong glance. "So, what do you think? Any words of wisdom for our two starcrossed lovers?"

There was a silence between the two men as Angel digested all this information. "I think that you and Jane should quit stressing so much. I understand why Giles did what he did, but you have the right to your own life. And all this may be over sooner than you think." He paused and then smiled. "And you're right, MacBeth really is a psycho play."

"Wait a minute! John isn't me!" Xander exclaimed, but he couldn't really keep the outrage real. They both knew the truth. "So... you're not going to tell Giles and Sonya, are you?"

Angel shook his head. "No. I know you'll do it yourself eventually. You've never been a good liar."

"I am, too, a good liar!"

"Are not. Do I need to say anything more than 'hypothetical'?"

They walked on for a few more minutes, and then Angel's enhanced ears picked up a sound in the distance. It sounded like a scream. And then something crackled from the other direction.

"What's up?" Xander asked. He'd had plenty of practice reading Angel's signals.

"There's something that way," Angel pointed ahead of them, "and back that way. We've got to split up. You backtrack, and I'll go ahead."

"Right-o. Meet ya back here in a few." Then he looked up and Angel was already gone. "I hate it when he does that," Xander muttered.

A minute later, and Xander heard the crackling sound, too. He pulled out Bob again, and searched the darkness behind him. "Come out, come out wherever you are..." he said in a sing-song tone.

"Maybe I want you to come find me..."

Xander's face grew cold and shuttered. He knew that voice. Willow waltzed out into the moonlight, her skin luminous under the silvery orb. She was wearing a flowing, crimson dress with a plunging V-neckline.

"Miss me?" Her smile showed many teeth, but no fangs -- yet.

"Not particularly," Xander said snarkily. "What do you want? More of last night?"

She cocked her head to the side, and her long, red tresses rippled with the motion. "I came to give you one last chance, Xand. For old times' sake. Don't you remember the fun we used to have?"

"I remember." His voice was cold.

"We could have that again. If you come and be with me, I'll kick Spike out of here, and you and I will rule this town. You won't have to put up with your pitiful excuses for parents, that broody vampire with a soul, or even that bossy old Giles and the crip. I need you with me, Xand. I miss you. You're my best friend."

For a second she looked like the Willow of old. Part of Xander wanted to reach out, hug her and tell her that everything was going to be all right -- her Xand would be there for her just like he always had been. But the other part of Xander remembered everything else -- Willow in vamp face, Willow kissing Spike, Willow ripping the throat out of some innocent teenager...

They could never go back to what they had before.

"No," he said simply. "Never. You're not my Willow. My Willow died a long time ago, and I can never get her back. You're just an insane, horny vampire that happens to be wearing her face."

Willow snarled and let her true visage show. Fangs gleamed in the moonlight, and ugly, vampiric wrinkles marred her youthful beauty. "I was giving you a chance, but you blew it, pal! After tomorrow night, things are going to be different in Sunnydale."

"What are you talking about now?" Xander demanded.

"Spike and I are throwing a little party," Willow replied with a cruel, fangy smile. "At the Bronze. It's gonna be fun. You should show -- and maybe bring a date." She paced back and forth, running her fingers lightly over the tops of the tombstones. Then she cocked her head to one side and looked back at Xander. "It will be an intimate gathering -- only a few of our nearest and dearest. Everyone else will just be the hors d'oeuvres." Then she vanished into the darkness, her tinkling laugh lingering behind on the wind.

Angel chose that moment to run back up. "My search was a wild goose chase. Did you find anything?"

"More than I wanted to." Xander filled Angel in on what Willow had said about the party at the Bronze. "Looks like we're booked for tomorrow night."

"You realize it's a trap, don't you?" Angel commented.

Xander nodded. "Of course, but we can't let innocent Bronze patrons die because we didn't want to fall into a trap."

Angel looked serious. "We'll meet there about eight?"

"Better make it seven. Wouldn't want to miss the opening festivities."

Xander looked at his watch. "One of us had better go fill Giles in."

"You go, I'll finish patrolling," Angel offered. "I had a chance to rest up in England -- you deserve a little break. Maybe after the library, you'll have time to go see your hypothetical Jane, too."

"Everything's a joke with you, Dead Boy," Xander said, sarcasm dripping from his tongue. "You're never serious for a minute."

Xander went back to the school to pick up his jeep, and found the library locked and empty. He stopped by a pay phone and called the librarian at home, filling him in on the plans for the next night.

"Great," Giles muttered over the phone. "Just what we need. Meet us in the library tomorrow before school and we'll figure out a game plan."

"All right," Xander answered in a clipped tone. He was still perturbed with Giles, and didn't want to chat too long. "See you at 7:30."

Then he hung up, and climbed back into the jeep, planning to head for home to take advantage of some extra sleep time. The second hand jeep coughed and sputtered when he started it up. Xander shook his head. "Gotta thank Uncle Rory and his used car lot."

Soon he was driving down the road, thinking about the events of the day. Then he looked up and realized he was outside of Buffy's house. He pulled up to the curb, cut the motor and looked down at the jeep -- which he had laughingly dubbed the Slayer-mobile -- and frowned. "Must've been on autopilot. But as long as I'm here..."

He crept around to the backyard, conscious of the late hour, and looked up at Buffy's window. The light was still on. He smiled. If she was up studying, she'd probably be ready for some distraction. He picked up a small pebble and threw it toward the window with perfect aim. He repeated the routine a couple of times, until her silhouette appeared behind the curtain.

"Xander?" Buffy called, sliding the window open and peering out.

"What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Buffy...ette is the sun," he paused, suddenly at a loss for words. "Um... that's all I remember from when we had to memorize the scene in freshman year." His heart thrilled when he heard her laughter.

"Meet me at the front door," she called.

"Are you sure you don't want me to ascend to your balcony, fair maiden?" he asked.

"Xander," she replied, "I don't have a balcony."

He hurried to the front porch, and stepped inside when she opened the door.

"I'd come out," Buffy whispered, "but that didn't work so well last night."

Xander winced, remembering the fight. "I can be quiet."

They tiptoed into the living room, and Buffy turned on one small light. "What are you doing here?"

"I don't actually know," Xander admitted. "I got off of patrol a little early and suddenly found myself here."

Buffy thought that was adorable, but she didn't want to say too much to inflate his ego, so she just gave him a kiss.

"If that's my reward, I'll throw rocks at your window every night."

"So," she asked, "how was patrolling?"

He pulled her into a comfortable embrace while they talked. His arm wrapped around her shoulders, and her head rested on his chest. The perfume of her hair tickled his nostrils. "Angel just got back from England. It was good to see him again."

"Tell me about Angel again?"

"Well, he's a vampire, but he's a good vampire."

"Is that possible?"

"Yes, but it's too long of a story for now. Suffice to say that he was cursed by some gypsies, and now he's got his soul back, so he's on our side."

"Oh. So he's back from England..."

Xander resumed his story. "Yeah, he was trying to find out a way to cure Sonya. He found something, but he wouldn't tell me what it was yet. And then Willow showed up."

Buffy glowered. "What did SHE want?"

"She and Spike are having a little party at the Bronze tomorrow night. It's obviously a trap, but if we don't go then they'll have free reign to feed on lots of innocent victims."

Buffy sat up and looked him in the eye. "I'm going, too."

"No way!" Xander exclaimed. "I can't worry about you and do my job at the same time."

"Shh!" Buffy cautioned him, glancing worriedly at the stairs. "Mom's asleep."

"Sorry," Xander said, shame-faced.

"And, yes, I'm going. I'm not made of glass, you know. I did pretty well against that Linus creep. Well, he did get me in the end, but that was just because I didn't know what the heck I was dealing with. I'll have a cross and a stake, and maybe I'll even stop by and get some holy water." She leaned in and enunciated her words clearly, but softly. "I am going to be there. There's no way I'm letting you face all that danger while I sit at home alone worrying about you."

Xander realized she was serious. "I guess that makes sense. Inactivity makes me crazy, too. But what about Giles and Sonya? If you're there alone, they'll realize you came for me, and our whole situation will come out into the open. That would be bad." He grinned smugly. "See, you can't go. Too bad. Sorry."

Buffy squinched her eyes tightly shut and thought for a minute. His heart sank a little when she slowly smiled and opened them again. "I think I've got a way around that..."

Xander got to the library on time for once that morning. He walked through the doors saying, "7:30 a.m., right on the dot!" Giles and Sonya were waiting for him. The three evil-fighters settled around the reading table, and the two teenagers looked at Giles and his pile of papers.

"We have two things to talk about this morning," Giles said.

"Only two?" Xander questioned sarcastically. "You're losing your touch, old man."

Giles frowned at Xander and continued. "I have before me the results of Angel's trip to England, and we have to talk about the plan for tonight."

Sonya stared at the papers under the librarian's hand with a fearful expression. Part of her wanted very much to know what Angel had found out. If things had gone right, she might be whole again soon -- or at least that was the hope. But since Giles had had all that stuff for awhile without telling her about it, she began to suspect the worst.

"I'm going tonight," Sonya said firmly, avoiding the subject she wanted to know about the most. Xander and Giles both jumped in to convince her otherwise in a heartwarming display of caring.

"It's not possible," Giles said.

"I won't let you," Xander said over the well-bred librarian. "I'll tie you up myself if you try it."

But the fact that they both cared about her, also meant that they doubted her ability to do anything, and that got on Sonya's nerves. "Sorry, boys, I'm going. I may be bound to this stupid chair, but I'm still a Slayer. You know what they say, half a Slayer is better than no Slayer at all..."

The men quieted down, but both still looked mutinous. Sonya knew she would have to do more convincing, or blackmailing, later.

"Well," Giles said, "we're going to need a plan of action."

Xander looked surprised. "I thought the plan was take all the weapons and mow all the vamps down. Call it the John Wayne approach to battle."

Giles rolled his eyes at the boy. "Yes, well, that may work in the movies, but what about all the innocent patrons. We need a way to get them out of there before the battle."

"I was thinking about that," Sonya said. "I figured you and I could get the sheep out the back way while Angel and Xander distract Spikey-poo and Willow-the-slut."

She couldn't keep her eyes off of the papers in front of Giles, and the Watcher noticed. He sighed. Now came the hard part. Abruptly, he changed the subject. "Angel didn't find what we'd hoped while he was in England."

Xander's face was an expressionless mask, but Sonya paled and sat back. Giles had to keep going. If he stopped to comfort them, he wouldn't be able to go on.

"But he did find something. It's a long shot, but it might work." He paused, and then blurted the rest of it out. "He found a spell that the Council keeps under lock and key, and for good reason. It is a spell to forcibly transfer the Slayer Essence from the current Slayer to another potential Slayer."

Sonya was deadly silent, but Xander had a question. "How come it's kept so secret? I mean, all this stuff we've been doing for the past year, it's almost all moot with this spell."

"Except for Sonya's life," Giles reminded him.

"That's the part I don't understand," Xander said. "I mean, why would the Council be willing to kill a Slayer who can't slay instead of just using this spell?"

Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his forehead. "I've been thinking about that all night. You're right, it doesn't make much sense. But the Council doesn't always make much sense from a human perspective. I remember the filing cabinet where Angel said he found this. It is the only locked cabinet in the room. No one ever opens it. I always wondered what was inside, but no one would tell me. And it wasn't that they were keeping it a secret. Honestly, no one knew about it's contents."

He looked from one teenager to the other. Xander looked angry. Sonya looked drained of emotion.

Giles continued. "My hypothesis is that only the head of the Council even knows of this spell's existence, if even he does. Think about it. If it was widely known that the Slayer could get rid of her powers, there would be an anarchy of sorts. 'Chosen One' wouldn't mean anything. If a girl didn't like the life -- and very few of them do at first -- she could trade it in and the powers would go to someone else, then the new girl would have to be trained -- if she agreed not to transfer HER powers -- and it would be a never ending circle. And in the meantime, vampires would overrun the world without a seasoned Slayer to fight them.

"I know it sounds hard, and very inhumane -- but from my years in the Council, that's how I think the reasoning went. The Council is an old, stuffy organization -- I'll admit it. They aren't in touch with the human side of slaying or the Slayer, and I don't know how that can be changed. But, anyway, this spell is the only option we have because apparently there is no healing spell strong enough to cure paralysis." He looked at Sonya. "I'm sorry."

She held up a hand, which admirably was not shaking, signaling that she did not want to talk about that right now. Instead she bit out, "But how are we going to do it? I mean, do you know any potential Slayers? As far as I know everyone who was going to be a Slayer was called and is now dead, and I thought it took a big spell or prophecy or something to determine who the next one will be."

"That's the difficult part. I don't know how we're going to find the girl," Giles admitted. "But I'm sure that Angel has a plan. If he didn't have a plan, he would have stayed in England until he found out the name of the next Slayer. He was supposed to meet me last night to discuss it, but he got busy patrolling until sunup. After tonight's festivities, we will have another meeting, with him in attendance, and talk about the details."

The clock on the wall read 7:55. Xander stood up, still a bit pale. "Gotta get to class. We can talk about this more later." He laid a sympathetic hand on Sonya's shoulder, but she pushed it off. Xander sighed and left the library.

"Sonya..." Giles started.

"Shut up!" Sonya snapped. "I can't do this right now." Then she wheeled herself out of the library, letting the doors slam behind her.

Buffy walked into the school that morning with purpose. She kept her eyes open, and watched the world around her instead of staring down at her feet. This time when Cordelia crossed her path, Buffy saw her in time to stop before the collision. Cordelia looked at her with a puzzled expression. Buffy just smiled and kept walking.

English class was good. Ever since the accident, Buffy had found her hidden aptitude for schoolwork, but poetry was one thing that had always eluded her. But this morning, as Mrs. Jacobs went over the Shakespearean Sonnet ("What winds do shake the darling buds of May" and "How do I love Thee? Let me Count the Ways..."), the words made sense to her in a whole new way. But when the teacher asked for comments about Sonnets, Buffy didn't raise her hand. She figured saying, "They make me think of my boyfriend," wasn't quite what Mrs. Jacobs was looking for. A few sidelong glances with Xander behind her, though, showed identical feelings on his face -- though he looked more serious than usual this morning.

The hard part about sneaking around, Buffy figured out as she was leaving English class without actually talking to or touching Xander, was that there were times when the urge to go over and kiss him, or just smile at him and revel in their feelings was almost overwhelming, and she had to squelch the desires.

This is harder than it looks Buffy thought, bending over the water fountain to get a drink. She felt a light touch on her back and straightened up just in time to see Xander walk by her. He caught her eye for a brief moment, and she followed him, a few paces back. Xander checked out the hallway in both directions, saw nothing, and slipped through a door.

Buffy looked at the sign on the door. Basement. She hesitated, scenes from all the horror movies she'd ever seen going through her head. Wasn't there a clause or something that said basements are bad? That would probably go double or nothing on the Hellmouth. But then she followed him inside anyway. One of the other clauses in those movies was that you usually only get killed when you're alone -- and she wasn't planning on being alone down there.

A couple of steps down, a pair of arms caught her around the waist. She squinted until her eyes adjusted to the dim light and she could make out the lines of Xander's face.

"This is so hard," he moaned, burying his face in her hair.

"I know," Buffy replied. "Why did we decide to do this again?"

"Saving the world," Xander muttered. "Saving the world. That's important, right?"

Buffy nodded. "That's important. And so is saving your best friend."

His smile drooped. "Yeah. That's going to be hard now. Giles found a way to save the world, but it may not save her. Or, it will save her life, but not her calling."

Looking up at him with concern, Buffy could see the sadness on his face, though she didn't quite understand what he was talking about -- only that it was bad for Sonya. "I'm so sorry." She didn't like Sonya, but Xander obviously cared about her, so Buffy couldn't find it in her heart to completely hate the girl. "Is there anything I can do?"

"I just need to forget about it for a few seconds."

They hugged fiercely, hoping for enough closeness to push away all the badness of the world, and to sustain them for the rest of the day -- or at least for a few class periods. They kissed too -- frantic, rushed kisses, but still sweet and new. Buffy couldn't get enough of him.

"You make my knees go all wobbly," she whispered, breathless.

Xander opened his eyes and looked down on her in surprise. "I do that?"

Buffy smiled. "Yeah, you do."

"No one's ever said that to me before." His smile took on a mischievous air. "I think that deserves another kiss."

But they couldn't stay there forever. The bell would ring soon, and they both had to get to class -- on opposite sides of the school. Finally, they pulled apart.

"Are you coming over to my house after school?" Buffy asked hopefully.

Xander shook his head sadly. "Can't. Battle conference for tonight."

Buffy nodded. "I understand. Well, don't worry. I'll see you at the Bronze at 7 or so."

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Positive." She kissed him on the cheek. "I've sat around at home and wondered what was going on in the real world for too long. I'm not going to do it again."

Xander gave her a quick hug. Then they helped each other fix their hair until they looked like responsible students again.

"Any lipstick on my face?" he asked with a grin.

Buffy made a big show of inspecting him, then she smacked her head with her hand. "Silly me. I forgot. I don't wear lipstick."

"Really, why not?"

Buffy remembered how hard it had been just to comb her hair or get clean in traction -- no time for cosmetics. And since then it had just become habit not to wear them. She wanted to tell Xander about that. She's told him a little about her accident, but not very much. But the ringing of the bell told them there was no time.

"You go out first," Xander said. "Kick the door or something if Sonya or Giles is out there. If you don't, then I'll come out in a minute or so, and hopefully no one will notice."

"Except our teachers when they mark us tardy," Buffy answered, but she did what he said. The hall was almost empty -- no librarians and no wheelchairs.

She ran off to class, which happened to be the one class she actually shared with Sonya. Still angry about the lengths Sonya and Giles had forced her and Xander to, Buffy wanted to give the girl a dirty glare, but she also remembered what Xander had said and felt a spurt of pity for Sonya, so she refrained. Buffy apologized prettily to the teacher, and made up some excuse about getting lost, it only being her third day and all. The teacher bought it, and didn't give Buffy a tardy. Buffy slid down into her seat gratefully, not noticing the dirty look Sonya was shooting HER from across the room.

When the class was over, Buffy was one of the last people out of the room. Time for the morning break, she realized with a smile. A few precious minutes of freedom before it was back to the grind. The halls cleared out quickly as students rushed to the lounge and the vending machines. Buffy was pondering getting a soda when suddenly Sonya was there in her path.

"Excuse me," Buffy said, trying not to sound rude but not succeeding very well.

"I need to talk to you," Sonya said, her voice cold.

"What about?" Buffy demanded. "We don't have anything to talk about that I can think of. You made sure of that when you and Mr. Giles made Xander stop seeing me. I'm not a part of your inner circle now, so what in the world could you possibly have to say to me? Did you want to rub it in?"

"You don't deserve Xander!" Sonya spat. "He needs somebody real, not some girl with nothing better to do than go to the mall."

Buffy stared at Sonya. The girl didn't know what the heck she was talking about. But the insult hurt anyway -- it brought back to mind the shallow person she used to be. "For your information, I haven't been to the mall in several months. And who do you think does deserve Xander? You?" Buffy thought about adding something about the wheelchair, but that would hit too close to home for her, too, so she didn't.

"He needs someone who understands him, and what he's up against," Sonya said, avoiding Buffy's last question.

"I understand him!" Buffy cried. "I'm not one of those fluff-for-brains people that can't see the truth of the evil. I think you're just jealous."

Sonya didn't say anything for a minute, and the truth started to dawn on Buffy. Her tone went from defensive to accusatory. "You're in love with him, aren't you?"

"No!" Sonya stumbled over her words. "How could I love him that way? He's my friend, he's the guy that picks me up when I can't get my chair up the stairs. He's not a romantic leading man."

Buffy just looked at her. The anger in her eyes softened. "I'm sorry if I got in your way, Sonya. I didn't mean to hurt you, but Xander and I really care about each other. You may be able to force him not to see me, but you can't force him not to care. If that's the way you love him, then I feel sorry for Xander because your love isn't real, it's selfish."

Sonya stared at Buffy for a few seconds, searching for words that weren't there. Then the girl turned her chair around and wheeled herself away, leaving Buffy alone in the hallway.

Lunchtime couldn't come fast enough for Buffy. When the bell rang signaling the end of fourth period, she scampered down the hall to the cafeteria.

After looking over her disgusting options, she selected an apple and a Coke, and then went over to her usual table. A few minutes later, and there was Oz, book in hand.

"Hey," he said, sitting down with a tray of something Buffy couldn't identify. "How's the balance?"

For her plan to work, Buffy had to tell Oz everything -- well, everything except the slaying and vampire parts. She hesitated for a minute and then plunged into the story.

"Better," she said, "but not perfect. I need your help."


"You see, no one can know that Xander and I are still seeing each other. If it gets back to the wrong people, he will get in big trouble with his ... job. But he's got too many responsibilities to just give it up, so we're in a bind."

"Yeah saving the world from vampires and stuff can be time consuming, or so I've heard."

Buffy's eyes opened wide and she dropped her apple down onto the table. Oz caught it before it could roll away and handed it back to her.

"Thanks," she said, and then added, "but how do you know all that?"

"I have eyes," Oz said, "and a brain. There was this one night when this dude with a weird symbol on his forehead came into the Bronze before the Dingoes were going to go on. He started to eat Cordelia Chase up there on the stage. Sonya came in and busted the place up. For some reason, the next day, everyone thought it had been gang members on PCP, but I knew the truth. And then Sonya had her accident, and suddenly she and Xander are together like peanut butter and jelly. And then there was the Halloween Incident... It all adds up."

"Wow," Buffy said. "You're pretty good."

Oz inclined his head modestly. "So, you needed help?"

She swallowed nervously, and then just said it. "I need you to be my beard."


"You know, a beard." She tried to explain. "When a guy is gay he will take a date to something as a cover, and she is his beard. I need you to be my beard tonight. Well, in a non-gay way, of course."

"Of course." Oz waited for more.

Buffy hesitated, and then decided to tell him most of the truth. After all, if she was going to take him to the Bronze, he had a right to know so he could be prepared, right?

"There's going to be vampire trouble at the Bronze tonight. Xander and the others are going to be there, and I want to go, too, but if I go alone..."

"They'll catch on," Oz finished for her."So, what do you think?"

"I'd be honored to be your fake date," Oz said. Then he stood up. "Gotta jet. Pick you up at 6:30?"

Buffy smiled, telling him where she lived. "See ya then."

Part 15

The Library

Sonya sat in the darkest corner of the library, alone with her thoughts. Was Buffy right about her? Was she really in love with Xander? But how could she have not realized it before now? All of these thoughts swirled around in her brain, each demanding attention. But she pushed them to the back of her mind for now. They would keep. She needed to figure out how she was going to deal with the other life-altering piece of information that she'd been given today. If things went according to plan, soon she might lose a huge chunk of who she was. She might lose the feeling of being the Slayer, something that she had always relied on to help her get through life in a wheelchair. Logically, Sonya knew that saving the world was more important than her feelings of insecurity, but it still hurt, nonetheless. If she wasn't the Slayer, then who was she? Just some crip with a chip on her shoulder the size of Australia, that was who. And someone nobody liked being around.

Sonya sighed, burrying her head in her hands. "What am I going to do?" she muttered to herself dejectedly.

Then she remembered something Buffy had said to her the other day...

"Almost two years ago, I was run over by a truck. I was in traction for months, a wheelchair and braces after that. It's taken me a long time to get back to the woman you see before you..."

Suddenly, as if a light bulb had gone on in her brain, Sonya finally got it. She realized that other people were strong, even without Slayer powers. Buffy had fought her way out of a wheelchair all on her own. And Xander risked his life to save the world every night without extra powers to help him. Even Giles was strong, in his own bookish way. After all, he had to deal with both her and Xander on a daily basis, didn't he?

Sonya smiled a little, wiping away the tears from her damp cheeks. If they could be strong, then so could she. She might not ever get out of this damn wheelchair. She might not ever get Xander to love her as much as she loved him. And she might not ever have her old, pre-accident life back again. But Sonya would be damned if she was going to throw away the rest of her NEW life by being a bitter recluse like she had been for the last year. "It's time for everyone to meet the new and improved Sonya Parker," she vowed to herself. As she wheeled herself out of the library, Sonya felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. It was a good feeling.


After school, Buffy headed home. She had to dust off her old, stylishness and pick out a cute, yet able-to-fight-in outfit for the Bronze. She was stuck between two choices when the doorbell rang. Buffy glanced at the bedside clock -- 4 o'clock. She wasn't expecting anybody, but maybe Xander had found time to sneak away.

She ran down the steps and pulled open the door with a big smile on her face. The smile froze and then disappeared when she saw who was actually there. "What do you want?"

"I've been trying to figure out what to say the whole way here," Sonya said, looking uncomfortable, "but in all that time I couldn't come up with anything better than this. I'm sorry I've been such a bitch to you, you didn't deserve it, and is it too late to ask you for a favor?"

That left Buffy speechless for a moment. She had a mean, childish urge to slam the door in the girl's face, but she didn't. Instead she silently pulled the door open wider and stepped back so that Sonya could wheel herself inside and into the living room. Buffy followed her. "What kind of favor?"

Sonya hesitated. This was harder than she'd thought it would be -- and considering the fact that she'd known this would be extremely hard, that was saying a lot. "Well...let's just say you were right the other night. I'm turning into a bitter, mean-spirited person that nobody wants to be around, and I've got to change that. I figured the best way to start would be with the outside. This says a lot for how closed off I've been, but you're the only girl I really know, so I thought maybe you could help me."

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "You want me to give you a makeover?"

"Well, I wouldn't word it exactly like that," Sonya muttered defensively, "but if that's what they're calling it nowadays, then so be it."

For a minute, Buffy just stood there, a million thoughts crowding for space into her brain. Part of her wanted to help Sonya. The girl needed a friend -- and Buffy knew that more than anyone. But another part of Buffy was still ticked off at the way the girl had treated her, and for the way Sonya had helped Giles keep Buffy away from Xander. And then there was the part that she didn't even want to admit to herself -- what if she made Sonya into someone Xander could fall in love with? But Buffy knew that if what she and Xander had was real, she had to trust him. And Sonya was a person sitting before her asking for help. What if Buffy's mother had turned Buffy away when she took that step?

"I'll help you," Buffy finally agreed. Buffy stepped forward and examined the girl. Sonya wore no makeup and serviceable clothes. Her long, brown hair was bound up in a bun and held by boring, black bobbypins. "If you trust me..."


When Joyce got home from work, she came in the house to hear the sounds of two excited girls laughing and talking in the living room. Joyce walked into the living room to see it turned into a makeshift beauty parlor. Clothes, makeup and assorted paraphenalia were scattered all over the place, presumably for the benefit of the brunette in the wheelchair.

"Hi, honey," Joyce said with a smile.

"Hey, Mom!" Buffy said, grinning. "This is Sonya."

Joyce walked fully into the room, putting on her best hostess smile. "Hello, Sonya. It's nice to meet you." Joyce tried her best to sound normal, but it was hard looking at the girl in the chair. That could so easily be Buffy. Then a little maternal pride crept into her heart. Trust Buffy to be caring and kind enough to pick this girl as a friend.

"Hi," Sonya said quietly.

"What are you girls up to?" Joyce asked. "Hot dates tonight?"

"Well, sort of," Buffy said. "I'm going to the Bronze with this guy I just met, Oz. He's really nice and he plays in a band." She glanced at Sonya. "Wanna ride with us?"

"Yeah," Sonya agreed, "that would be good."

Joyce's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Oz? But what happened to the boy from the other night? Xander? I thought you really liked him, and he was sure sweet on you."

Buffy blushed and stammered. "Um...things didn't quite go as we planned. I don't think it's going to work out."

Walking over, Joyce gave her daughter a hug. "I'm sorry, sweetie. He was kind of special."

Buffy shrugged. "Yeah, I thought so, too, but what can you do?" Then she noticed the guilty look on Sonya's face and decided that rubbing it in anymore would be unkind. She changed the subject. "So, Mom, what do you think of our outfits? I gave Sonya a complete makeover."

"You two sure have been busy," Joyce said, her eyes going over the room. It was a shambles, but the girls looked good. Buffy had her hair pinned up away from her face and tied with a white ribbon. She wore black leggings, a longish, purple, silk shirt, a big, silver cross on a chain around her neck and a pair of clogs. Sonya looked good as well. Her hair hung about her shoulders in loose curls that framed her face -- obviously newly cut judging from the pile of brown hair laying on some newspaper in the corner. Her face was delicately made up to show off her delicate cheekbones and clear, blue eyes. She wore an ankle-length, black skirt with red flowers on it a cute, tight red sweater with big buttons, and chunky, red sandals. The skirt wasn't very flowy, but that was OK because that way it wouldn't get caught in the wheels of her chair. Sonya also had a cross hanging around her neck.

"Very nice," Joyce said with an approving smile. "You do good work, Buffy, but I'm sure you had a good base to work with." She glanced again at the necklaces and then asked, "Are those the new fad?"

"Um...yeah, Mom. Very in this season," Buffy said. Luckily, she was saved from further comment by the doorbell. "That's got to be Oz!"

She ran to the door, and, sure enough, it was Oz. He stood there in slacks, a shirt and a jacket, but no tie. Buffy looked at him with a smile. "Wow -- I've never seen you so dressed up."

"Needed the pockets."

Letting him in, Buffy said, "Do you mind if Sonya rides with us to the Bronze? Your van is big enough for her chair, right?"

Unflappable as always, Oz just said, "Sure." They went into the living room and did the introduction thing. Joyce was gracious, and Sonya actually smiled. Oz did a double take when he saw her. "Nice threads," he said. She blushed.

Then they were off. Buffy let Sonya sit in the front seat so that she could be buckled in securly, and Buffy held their purses -- bulging at the seams with crosses and stakes -- in her lap during the drive. In what seemed like only a few seconds, they were there.


Giles sat in the passenger seat of Xander's jeep, holding on for dear life.

"Tell me why your seatbelts don't work, again?" he yelled over the wind.

"That's what you get when you buy used, I guess," Xander called back.

Giles thanked his lucky stars that Sonya had given up on her insane wish to come along as Xander careened around a corner with barely a pause at the stop sign. She probably would have ended up another car crash fatality.

"So," Xander yelled, "the plan is that you hide in the back, and then when Willow, Spike and the gang show you'll guide people out the back door while Angel and I put the fear of God into the vamps, right?"

"Yes, I believe that's the best plan," Giles managed. "I wonder if my heart has stopped," he muttered when Xander sped through a yellow light. "Oh, wait, there it goes."

An eternity later, Xander pulled into a parking space at the Bronze with a squeeling of the brakes. Giles had to forcibly let go of his death grip on the dash board, and the Watcher wobbled a little as they crossed the parking lot.

"Oh, look," Xander said, seeing Oz's zebra-striped van. "Looks like the Dingoes are playing tonight."

"Oh joy," Giles muttered. Then the two men went inside the club, hoping that they were prepared for whatever would come.


Part 16

The Bronze

The lights were low inside the club, as usual. An all-girl band had possession of the stage and alternated between screaming lyrics to a pulsating beat and crooning love ballads with only a guitar for accompaniment. The dance floor was about half full, and plenty of teenagers clustered at tables and around the bar. The Bronze wasn't packed out, but it was doing good business for a Thursday night.

Buffy, Oz and Sonya sat at a table in the corner. Buffy marveled at the intense look on the other girl's face. The Slayer was stretching her heightened senses to their fullest, searching the face of every newcomer to the club for tell-tale signs of vampirism.

Oz, on the other hand, was studying Sonya. Buffy elbowed him in the ribs and whispered, "You're *supposed* to be hanging all over me, remember?"

He looked at her and said mildly, "Let the hang-age begin." Then he put an arm around her shoulders.

By the stiffening of her shoulders, Buffy could tell that Sonya had noticed. *Good* Buffy thought *that means she won't be suspicious of Xander, and that's why we're doing all this, right?*


Xander walked into the club wearing jeans and a leather jacket. It was a bit warm for the jacket, but Xander wasn't making a fashion statement -- he had weapons hidden up his sleeves, in the pockets and in his waistband. Giles had made himself scarce as soon as they'd entered the Bronze. Xander was glad not to be seen hanging around with the oldest looking dude in the place, but somehow he felt better just knowing the Watcher was at his back.

People clustered in the doorways, so Xander had to push past them to get into the main room of the club. "Excuse me!" he said in an annoyed tone. "Why do people always lurk in doorways?"

"Well, why do other people always have to be rude about it?"

Xander found himself looking at Cordelia and rolled his eyes. *I remember the last time she was about to get eaten* he thought disgustedly. *Next time I think I might just let it happen.* But, good guy that he was, he couldn't just not say anything.

"You know, Chase, I don't think this is the place you want to be tonight. You might want to take your girlfriends and go to the mall or something. Things may get a little hot here tonight."

Cordelia curled one side of her mouth up in a sneer. "The hotter the better, in my opinion. And the mall is so five years ago. Like I would be caught dead there after prime shoe-shopping hours are over!"

Xander shook his head and continued on his way. When he finally got to a relatively clear space by the bar, he stopped and scanned the room. He found Buffy immediately, almost as if he was connected to her like a magnet. Then he saw Oz. The guitarist had his arms all over Xander's girl! But before Xander could go ballistic, he remembered that Buffy had a plan, and deduced that this must be it.

"A cover date," he muttered. "She could have at least warned me."

Just then Buffy noticed him, and gave him a tiny smile before pretending not to see him again. Xander felt better, and continued scanning the room, starting with the other person sitting at Buffy's table. His jaw dropped -- both literally and metaphorically. It was Sonya, and she looked actually stylish -- AND she was sitting with Buffy...WILLINGLY. Would the weirdness never stop?

"Hey, anything happen yet?"

Xander jumped and looked around to see Angel standing there in his normal attire of black pants, white shirt and a black trench coat. "How many times have I told you not to do that?" he demanded. "You scared me to death."

"Sorry." Angel did his own scan of the room. "So, what was it that had you so distracted?"

Xander grinned. He could actually feel the goofiness on his face, if such a thing were possible. "She's here."

"Oh, really? I take it you mean your hypothetical Jane." Angel looked at Xander with interest. "So, point her out to me already. I'm breathless with anticipation."

Xander gave Angel a look. "You're always without breath, Dead Boy. You'll have to come to terms with that one of these days."

"Always the cut-up," Angel replied. "Now, where is she?"

"OK," Xander said, "but you have to look casual. Look over to our left, at that table in the corner. The one where Sonya's sitting for some unknown reason. Buffy's the girl sitting next to the short guy. Oz is her cover date so no one gets suspicious. Isn't she smart?"

Angel looked in the direction Xander had directed him and finally located the proper table. Sonya looking more spiffy than he'd ever seen her, a short guy with red hair and a girl in purple with blonde hair. There was something familiar about her. Angel stared harder, willing her to turn around. There was something about the way that hair draped down her shoulders.

"It can't be," he whispered.

"Can't what?" Xander wanted to know, but Angel ignored him. Then the girl turned her head, laughing at something Oz was saying. It was Buffy Summers! She was in Sunnydale. If Angel had a working heart, it would have stopped beating. She was more beautiful than he remembered. He had checked up on her a couple of times over the years, so he'd known that her legs had healed, but somehow he hadn't expected her to look as lovely and vibrant as she had before. All thoughts of the spell flew out of his head. He just had to talk to her... Angel started walking toward the table.

"Uh... Angel, what are you doing?" Xander asked, pulling on the sleeve of his trench coat. "You're blowing our cover, man!"

Angel kept walking, pulling Xander a couple of steps.

"Stop! What's going on?" Xander demanded, pulling even harder.

Angel finally stopped and looked back at Xander. "Let go," he said firmly.

"Why?" Confusion built up in Xander's eyes. Angel had never acted like this before!

Then Angel looked back at the table. Oz and Sonya were sitting alone. Buffy was gone. "Where'd she go?" he asked Xander.

"Who, Buffy?" Xander looked over to her empty chair and shrugged. "The bathroom or something, I guess."

Angel pulled himself free of Xander's grip and tried to get a hold of himself. "Sorry about that, man. Just a shock, that's all."

"Huh? Buffy was a shock? I mean, I know she's gorgeous and all, but..."

"I'll tell you about it some other time," Angel replied. "Now, you take watch here, and I'll go over there." He made a vague gesture and vanished into the crowd.

Xander moved over to an unoccupied space of wall and waited. He didn't know what was up with Angel, but he guessed he'd find out eventually. He glanced again at Buffy's empty chair. As soon as Buffy got back, Xander decided he could use Sonya as an excuse to go over there. It would be a challenge to his acting abilities, but he was going to do it anyway.


In the old factory on the other side of town, several vampires and the three members of the Order of Taraka bided their time. Nathan the sorcerer stood before a small fire.

"Better keep a good watch on that thing, boy-o," Spike warned. "Fire and vampires do *not* get along."

Nathan nodded. "I know. Don't worry. I just need it to see how the plan is progressing." He looked at Willow. "You did fulfill your part of the bargain?"

"They'll be there," Willow hissed. "I made sure of that."

The fire cracked merrily, and the vampires stood back. Nathan whispered a few words and black-hued magic flowed from his fingertips into the flames, turning them black as well. Then a clear blotch formed in the center of the flames. It spread until figures could be seen in it. It was the Bronze. The blotch focused on several faces in turn: Buffy Summers, Alexander Harris, Angel, Rupert Giles and Sonya Parker.

Nathan nodded. "They're all there." He ended the spell with a gesture, and the fire was orange again. "It's time for you to spring the latch closed on your trap."

"Ready?" Spike asked Willow, his impatience showing. Their vampire minions, clustered about the walls and doorways, muttered their readiness.

"Yes, lover, it's time," Willow replied, running her finger up the sleeve of Spike's black coat. "I'm ready to enjoy my party now."

Spike nodded, and all the minor vampires headed for the door, followed by Kate Smith and Gillian Layne. Spike looked back where Nathan stood motionless. "Ain't you comin'?"

Nathan shook his head. "This is where I work best. I cast the spells while you make the kills. There's enough fun to go around."


Part 17

The Bronze

The line for the bathroom was long. Buffy suffered through it until it was her turn, and then afterward stopped by the bar to get a soda. She had just handed the bartender some money and was wondering how much profit the Bronze actually made since most of its patrons were high-schoolers who couldn't drink, when she sensed someone standing by her side.

She looked up and saw a tall, handsome man with a sad, serious face. He had reddish-brown hair slicked back with gel, but in an attractive way. His eyes were surrounded by thick lashes, and he wore understated, but becoming, clothes. His skin was also very pale. He was staring at her. Buffy began to feel a little creeped.

"Excuse me," she said moving by, hoping that he was just waiting to get up to the bar. Instead he followed her. Buffy swallowed nervously, and gave herself a mental pep talk. *You're in a public place, and Xander is here, not to mention Sonya and Oz and maybe even Mr. Giles. Everything will be OK. And you are a strong girl. You have a cross around your neck if this guy is a vamp. And if anything happens that you can't handle, all you have to do is scream.* She glanced at him again, this time focusing on his intense eyes. Something in them made her relax a little. Suddenly, she didn't think this guy meant her any harm.

"Can I help you with something?" she asked, stopping a few feet away from the bar.

The guy just stood there for a minute, looking at her. At first it was kind of flattering, but the longer he stared, the more Buffy felt like she was in the bathing suit portion of the Miss America contest.

"Who are you?" she finally exclaimed.

That seemed to get his attention, and he finally spoke. He had a sexy voice, the kind that would melt butter. "My name is Angel. I'm a friend of Xander's."

Buffy's face lit up in a smile at the mention of Xander. "Yeah, I saw him a minute ago." Then she remember that she wasn't supposed to act like she liked him, so she stifled the smile. "You know, if I cared." She bit her lip and wondered why she was failing so miserably with her charade with this guy.

Then the name sunk in. This was Angel -- the vampire with a soul. The idea was kind of interesting, but it seemed a bit tragic to Buffy -- being immortal and having to live with the guilt of killing humans. She wondered if he ever got to date, then dismissed the idea. She didn't know what would be worse -- being an immortal and having to watch one's lover grow old and die, or being mortal with an immortal lover one couldn't grow old with. The whole thing sounded kind of sucky now that she thought about it. Buffy decided the only way one could really fall in love with a vampire would be not to know he was a vampire at first, because once love hits, that's it. The thought of love brought Xander back to mind, and she glanced over her shoulder to see where he had gone to. He was standing by the wall, looking over toward Sonya. Then Buffy wondered how much he was liking the makeover. That made her frown.

Angel's voice brought her back to the conversation at hand. He was actually smiling. "Don't worry. Xander told me. Your secret's safe with me."

"He told you?" Buffy asked, surprised. "I guess he really trusts you."

"We watch each other's backs," Angel said. He paused and then said, "You've healed really well."

"What?" Buffy looked at him sharply. How did he know about her accident? He seemed to sense her change in demeanor. "Look, I've got to go, but keep an eye out tonight, OK? I wouldn't want you hurt, and I know Xander wouldn't either."

Buffy nodded, her eyes still suspicious of him. "Don't worry. I can take care of myself now that I know what kind of creeps I'm dealing with."

He winced at her vampire reference, and then turned and melted into the crowd. Buffy watched him go with a puzzled expression. She still wanted to know how he knew about her accident, and why the vampire would care. Then she turned and looked at Xander again. Setting her cup down, she headed toward him with a sense of purpose. Sonya's back was turned -- it was the perfect time.


*Buffy and Xander, who would have thought it* Angel wondered as he got away from the blonde as fast as possible. She made him feel weird inside -- those types of feelings he used to have back in his adolescence. But she liked Xander, and Xander -- Angel's pseudo-little brother -- liked her. Angel couldn't think the word 'love' for some reason. Angel shoved the inexplicable feelings down deep inside. The reason Buffy was important was the spell -- there was no other reason Angel should be thinking about her. Speaking of the spell ... Angel scanned the room, hoping to see Giles. He had to find the Watcher and finish explaining the plan. Giles might want to make sure Buffy got to a place of safety...


Xander couldn't believe Sonya's new 'do. It was amazing what a little makeup, a haircut and some new duds could do. She actually looked almost happy as she sat chatting with Oz and scanning for vampires. Oz's face was unreadable, but Xander figured the guy must be having a good time, too, or he would have been long gone looking for Buffy right now.

Thinking of Buffy... *Where did she get to* he wondered. Suddenly he felt a fingernail running along the back of his neck. He shivered and turned to see Buffy standing there.

"What are you doing?" he mouthed, glancing back to see if Sonya had noticed. She hadn't even turned around.

Buffy was backing up, and then she ducked into a little, enclosed alcove and pulled the curtain shut. Xander grinned. Then responsibility set in. He couldn't fool around now. Willow and Spike would be there soon. But the temptation was almost unbearable. *Angel, Sonya and Giles are here watching* he rationalized. *I can take five minutes. What's five minutes compared to a year of slaying...*

Double checking Sonya again, Xander moved casually over to the alcove and ducked inside.

"You're insane!" he whispered, pulling her close for a kiss.

"I know, I'm sorry," Buffy mumbled against his mouth. "I just had to." She pulled back and looked at him. "I met your friend Angel. He gives me the wiggins."

"You met Angel?" Xander repeated. "Weird. He's not usually one for socializing." Xander shrugged. "Don't worry about him. He's not real good at human interaction. I guess it comes from killing all those people a long time ago." When Buffy shuddered, he hastened to add, "Don't worry, he's a completely different person now."

"I hope so," Buffy replied. Xander couldn't help it. He leaned in for another kiss. Xander couldn't help a lot of things when it came to Buffy.


Sonya sighed. The Bronze was active for a school night, but no vamps as of yet. And no Xander. She looked around. And now no Buffy. She'd caught a glimpse of Angel earlier, but the broody vampire had vanished. That was where she liked Angel best -- there for backup but nowhere in sight.

"So," she said, glancing at the quiet boy across from her, "how did you meet Buffy?"

"Over a book," Oz replied. "She's not what you expect."

Sonya looked down. "No one ever is."

"True enough." He leveled his gaze on her. "Not even you."

She looked around at everything but Oz. Sonya was still amazed that he had just figured everything about vampires out. Then she muttered, "I've got to go check in with Xander and Giles. I'm supposed to help Giles get people out the back when the bad guys get here. I guess that's all I'm good for nowadays..." She turned to go.

"You're good for more than that," Oz said to her retreating form.

Sonya heard him, but couldn't think of anything to say, so she said nothing. She moved along in her chair as best she could. Most people moved out of the way to give her room when she came by, but some gave her dirty looks or pretended not to notice. She kept close to the wall and tried to hurry. Then two guys were standing right in her way. Sonya gave them a pointed glare, and they started to move, but not very fast. Then she heard a man's voice. The voice was familiar, even if she couldn't make out exactly what it was saying.

A female laugh tinkled out of a curtained alcove right next to her. Sonya felt her heart drop. She knew those voices. *Just go on, Sonya* she told herself. *You don't want to know.* But it was too late. She already knew. Her hand trembled as she reached out and pulled back the curtain. There they were, Xander and Buffy, locked with their arms around each other, but staring at her like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming 18-wheeler.

"Sonya..." Xander managed, reaching out his hand. Buffy let go of him, and stepped back guiltily.

"You liar!" Sonya tried to yell, but it came out in a tiny, gasping voice she hardly recognized. "You're both liars!"

Buffy blushed and looked at her shoes. "Yeah, we are."

Sonya's chin started to tremble, and she felt the tears build up in the corners of her eyes and spill over.

"Sonya," Xander said, "let me explain."

She fixed him with her coldest glare. "Leave me alone." Then she wheeled herself away from there as fast as possible, not caring whose feet she ran over. She pushed her way into the handicapped stall in the bathroom and locked the door. The heard of girls checking their makeup at the mirror were silent for a moment, and then they left, muttering about some people's rudeness. It was only then, when she was alone, that the sobs came. Painful, gut-wrenching sobs.


Buffy felt like a traitor, guilty for what she had done and angry at Sonya for making her feel guilty. It was Xander's white face that scared her the most. And it was all her fault.

"Xander... I'm sorry..."

"I am, too." He looked at her with a wealth of pain and hurt in his eyes. Then he walked away.

The girl band began to scream lyrics at the top of their lungs. The sound served to mask Buffy's crying. After a moment or two, she mastered herself enough to go wash her face. She didn't know what was going to happen, but now wasn't the time to fall apart.

When she walked into the bathroom, she heard the sobs coming from the stall. Immediately, Buffy knew who it was. She knocked on the stall door quietly. "Sonya?"

"Go away! Leave me alone."

"I want to say I'm sorry."

There was a click, and the door to the stall swung back. Buffy looked into Sonya's tearstained face. "Yeah, right," the girl spat. "You wanted to flaunt it in my face."

"I didn't!" Buffy protested.

"What I don't understand is why you did all this for me." Sonya gestured to the sweater and the skirt and her newly cut hair.

"Because you deserved to look pretty," Buffy said. "You're a good person underneath all that anger. I wanted you to have a chance to show that."

"So you could gloat all the more when you took it away from me?"

Buffy sighed. It was time for the truth. "Xander and I never stopped seeing each other. Yes, we lied -- because you and Mr. Giles gave us no choice."

Some kind of understanding sparked in Sonya's eyes. "You love him, too, don't you?"

Buffy nodded.

"And here I thought it was just some fling. I didn't think it was real."

"Well, it's real -- at least for me."

Sonya managed a tiny smile amidst her tears. "I think it is for him, too. I've never seen him like he is when he's with you."

"I hope so..." Buffy got two paper towels from the dispenser, wet them, handed one to Sonya and used the other to wipe her face. "I'm going to go back out there. I want to try and talk to him again, but maybe I should wait. Those vamps should show up soon."

"If they're really coming," Sonya muttered darkly.

"You think they aren't?"

"It's been so long... maybe they were just distracting us while they went after what they really wanted."

Buffy shrugged, not knowing how to respond. Finally, she said simply, "You coming?"

"In a minute," Sonya answered. "I've got to finish getting myself together."

Buffy nodded, and then went outside. The door swung shut behind her as she stepped into the unusually empty hallway. She looked around and saw a window open. Did they leave windows open in places like this? Then Buffy felt a shooting pain as something crashed into her skull. And everything went black.


Giles hovered in the back of the Bronze. He calculated the shortest distance from the main part of the club to the back doors and made sure the door was unlocked. Then he loitered by the inside bouncer, on the look out for familiar, pale faces.

Just when he thought Xander had been wrong or that Willow had been misleading him, the front doors burst open with a loud crash and Spike and Willow walked in, followed by a good number of vampires, a normal-looking brunette and a dark-haired girl with an arsenal strapped to her back. Giles moved back into the shadows before they could spot him, and readied himself for the rescue mission. Then he noticed something that made his heart race. Rings on the fingers of the two, non-vampiric girls -- rings bearing the symbol of the Order of Taraka. But where was the third? Giles knew these assassins always moved in threes.

"Oh, no," Giles moaned. The trap had been sprung. He had to find a way to warn the others.


"Hey, man. Wanna dance?"

Xander pushed the unknown girl off of him with a brusque refusal, and continued pushing his way through the dance floor. He didn't know where he was going. Weird emotions were seething through him. Anger, fear, guilt, love... Everything was all messed up, and he didn't know how to fix it.

Suddenly, the music stopped. Xander looked up and saw the lead singer of the girl band held by her throat. He followed the hand back until he met Willow's yellow eyes. She had her vamp face on. She threw the girl down, and took the microphone. "Hello, everyone, I just wanted to take a minute to welcome you to our little party..."


Part 18

The Bronze

"Shit!" Xander cried, trying to push his way past the screaming crowd and reach the stage where Willow stood. As he knocked people over and elbowed his way through the masses, Xander scanned the room for other possible danger zones. His eyes immdeiatly landed on Spike and a group of vamps who were already catching some of the teens on the edges of the crowd and starting to feed. Meanwhile, Willow had grabbed the band's drummer, a blonde girl with eyes as wide as saucers, and snapped her neck brutally. She giggled as she let the lifeless body sink to the floor. Things here were quickly spiralling out of control and Xander just didn't know what he could do about it by himself. Where were Angel and the others when he needed them, anyway?

Finally, Xander managed to make his way to the stage and was about to take the battle to Willow when a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around. Xander thought it was Angel or someone for a minute, but was surprised to find a fairly normal looking young girl with longish brown hair and a sweet smile. He assumed it was one of the frightened teens from the crowd, though why they'd be trying to talk to him was a mystery. "What is it?" Xander asked, concerned. "Are you alright?"

The girl smiled. "More alright than you're going to be, sweetie."

Xander was confused. But before he could ask her what she meant, another girl walked up to her side. This girl wore all black and had an entire arsenal of weapons strapped to her sides. Xander gulped, dropping into a defensive stance. "Who are you?"

Rambo-chick grinned and suddenly her right hand had changed shape, elongating and turning into a whip of sorts. "Your worst nightmare," she said simply.

Xander didn't wait for her to attack, instead he took the offensive and lunged forward, barreling into her midsection and tackling her. Once they hit the ground, Xander jumped to his feet first, though she quickly followed suit. Xander lashed out with a kick to her side and followed up with a snap kick that caught her in the jaw, snapping her head back sharply. But before he could press the attack, the brunette walked over to stand beside her friend and grinned. Suddenly, her face began to change shape, her forehead sloping and her mouth and nose elongating into a snout. Hair began to grow all over her body as she almost doubled in size, her jeans and tshirt ripping open. Soon, she was huge, covered in hair and growling in the back of her throat. Her eyes glowed with a yellow light.

The she-wolf took a step forward, using her greater size to intimidate Xander. Lashing out with her claws, she swiped at him. Xander jumped out of the way, but was just a little too slow. The edges of her claws caught him across the chest, leaving five bloody gouges running across his body. Xander winced, trying to ignore the pain. He could hear Willow laughing from the stage, but ignored it. He had all he could handle with the two girls in front of him.

The girl in black cracked her hand/whip at Xander, managing to wrap it around his throat. It pulled tight, dragging Xander to the ground as the life was slowly choked out of him. He clawed at the whip, trying to get it off of him. The girl just laughed cruely. "This one was all too easy," she told her partner as Xander began to slowly pass out from lack of oxygen. But before he could succomb to the darkness, Xander managed to reach a hand into his boot, pulling out his boot knife and crawling to his knees. Xander took aim and threw the knife, watching with satisfaction as it embedded itself up to the hilt in the she-wolf's side. The creature howled, taking a step back and looking down at the knife in shock. Xander knew that the blow wouldn't kill the creature, but at least is took her out of the fight for a little while.

The woman in black saw what he had done to her friend and hissed angrily, drawing the whip tighter around his neck. Her other hand began to change shape as well, turning into a dagger with a viscious looking serrated blade. Grinning, she began to advance on Xander's weak form. But by that point, he was already losing consciousness...


Giles stood motionless for a minute. Willow was up on stage -- he could hear her over the microphone -- but Giles was, for once, stymied as to a course of action. With the Order of Taraka here, things had just gotten more difficult. He needed to start getting the innocents out the back door, but he also needed to warn the others. Then Angel was there, standing next to him.

"I've got to tell you something," Angel said urgently. "It's about the spell."

"And Sonya," Angel added, "she's probably a target, too."

"Sonya's here?" Giles questioned. "Bloody hell! I thought she'd come to her senses and stayed at home."

"Sonya?" Angel looked at Giles askance.

Giles nodded. "You're right. Of course, she wouldn't."

"I'll warn the others, but there's something else," Angel said. "It's about Buffy."

"Not you, too!" Giles exclaimed. "What is it about that girl that has everyone so befuddled?"

Angel was speechless for a second. Then he continued. "No, I mean that she's vital to the spell."

"No, only a potential Slayer can..." Giles' eyes widened as the full weight of the vampire's words impressed itself upon him.

"Buffy is a potential Slayer. She has the correct genetic makeup for us to use in the spell. The Essence will come to her this time. It only skipped her because of a debilitating accident," Angel explained. He kept glancing into the other room. He needed to get in there, but Giles had to know this first.

Light dawned in the Watcher's eyes. "That's why her name sounded so familiar at first. I couldn't place it at the time, but... Buffy Summers was to be Slayer before Sonya!" Giles grabbed the sleeve of Angel's trench coat. "If you see her, get her to me. I'll get her out of here."

"Right," Angel said. "I'm going back in there. I'll get word to Xander and the others about the Order."

"Be careful," Giles warned. "The two girls wear the rings, but the Order always travels in threes, and I've yet to see the third. It may be a nasty surprise."

"Anything Willow and Spike have planned is a nasty surprise." Angel turned to go. "Don't forget to waste the vampire guards outside the doors before you rush the innocents outside."

"Of course..." Giles started, but the vampire was gone.


Sonya came out of the bathroom when she heard unusual noises coming from the main part of the club. It had only been a couple of seconds since Buffy had left. Sonya expected to see the other girl still in the hallway, but she wasn't there.

*Must have been running...* Sonya thought.

Sonya heard soft footsteps from behind her and spun her chair around, coming face to face with a vampire. He growled at her, obviously thinking that she would be easy pickings since she was crippled. Sonya grinned, her hand pulling a stake out of her purse. The vamp paused when he saw the stake, but decided to attack anyway, rushing her and knocking her chair to the ground.

Sonya grappled with the vamp, using her slayer strength to keep him at bay. After a moment, she saw the opening she needed and plunged the stake through his heart. He burst into dust.

Gasping, Sonya turned away from the dusted vamp and looked over to where Giles should be posted. He wasn't there. The back door burst open, and Giles stumbled in covered in vampire dust. When he saw Sonya, some of the worry vanished from behind his eyes. He was holding an empty crossbow.

"There were two guards, but I dusted them," the Watcher quickly explained, helping Sonya back into her chair.

"Right," Sonya nodded, all business now. The tactics drilled into her by her Watcher moved front and center in her brain. "You move faster than me. Go in and start leading people out here. I'll watch for more vamps at the door and herd the sheep outside."

Giles nodded and moved into the main part of the Bronze. Soon Sonya had all she could handle in getting the scared kids out the back door without making too much noise and alerting the other vamps.


Oz watched Xander squaring off with the two girls, but he didn't think he'd be much help there. Then he saw Spike and his vamps attcking the teens, but Oz knew that he couldn't win a fight with almost a dozen vamps, either. Oz was definitely feeling a bit out of his element here. But then he saw the redhead, Willow was her name if he remembered correctly, slowly killing off the band, one girl at a time. Maybe he could do something to help them. Oz pulled a small water gun from the purse that Buffy had packed and grinned, making his way to the stage. The crowd had thinned out by now, which meant that Giles and Sonya were doing their job well, and Oz reached the stage in no time, jumping up and facing Willow. "Leave the band alone," he demanded, raising his gun.

Willow raised an eyebrow, her hands still wrapped around the bass guitarist's neck. "Why ever would I do that? I'm having too much fun."

Oz didn't reply, instead he aimed his water gun at her face and fired, a stream of holy water shooting out and hitting her right in the eyes. Willow screamed, dropping the band member and raising her hands to her face, which was now smoking. "You son of a bitch!" she yelled after the smoking stopped, removing her hands from her blistered and burned face and glaring at Oz. "You'll pay for that."

She tried to lunge at Oz, but he simply raised an eyebrow and sprayed her again, causing her to fall back and scream again.

Willow didn't try for a third time. Instead, she jumped off the stage and ran out of the Bronze. "Let the Order of Taraka deal with them," she muttered, trying to ignore the painful agony that was her face. "I never signed up for this torture." Willow kept running, making her way back to the Factory.


Nathan watched it all from his window in the black fire. Things were going well. His girls were doing their stuff, and the body count was rising. He began to whisper words from the language of the ancient Druids -- his ancestors. He could feel their power growing in his body. It whipped around his robes with an unnatural wind.

As he gazed at the fire, he felt like he was at the Bronze himself. He repeated the ancient words to the strengthening spell over and over again. Kate and Gillian fought with a renewed ferocity.

Nathan ended the spell, and a coughing spasm wracked his thin body. It almost doubled him over. The sorcerer reached into the inner folds of his robes and pulled out a small leather bag filled with a blue powder. He took a pinch of the powder and tucked it under his tongue. As his saliva moistened and dissolved the powder, the coughing spasm stopped and he felt strong again.

That was the only drawback to his awesome power. The physical human body wasn't meant to hold that much magic. It burned it up from the inside, and certain measures had to be taken.

Nathan looked back at the fire, pushing thoughts of frailty out of his mind. Now was the time for strength, not weakness.


Buffy regained consciousness some time later. She didn't know where she was, but her head hurt, she was very thirsty and she was bouncing. She opened her eyes to see plaid.

"What the..." Then she realized she was staring at someone's back -- someone wearing a plaid shirt. She twisted her head around and saw they seemed to be approaching an old, abandoned factory. They went inside, and Buffy was laid roughly on a large, oak table. She could now see that her kidnapper was a vampire.

"Tie her hands and feet. We must make sure she cannot escape."

The vampire did as he was bid, and Buffy -- weak and losing blood from the wound on her head -- could do little to stop him. She craned her neck and tried to see who else had spoken. A tall, lanky man with a shock of shaggy dark hair and long black robes moved into her line of sight.

"Who are you?" she asked.

His smile made his thin face a mass of wrinkles. Buffy shuddered. Though he seemed young, something about him gave her the feeling that she stared into the eyes of something beyond time itself.

"I have many names," the man said in a calm and almost pleasant voice. "But you man call me Nathan."

"What do you want with me?" The words came out sounding more frightened than she'd intended.

"That remains to be seen." Nathan rubbed his thumb over a ring on his index finger. The ring was silver and had a weird symbol on it that Buffy did not recognize. "A contract has been put out on your life..."

Her chin quivered. Who could hate her enough to do that? Willow's insane, jealous eyes from the fight two nights before came into her mind.

"Move along, Seth," Nathan said to the vampire. "You've gotten her here, now you'd better get back to the club to help the others finish off the rest of the goodie-goodies. I'll take care of this one."

Seth nodded and obeyed orders.

Nathan moved closer to Buffy and stroked her hair with one cold, white hand. She shivered.

"You're a strong one," he muttered, almost to himself, but she could hear him. "You don't know it, but you have the potential for greatness. And your greatness can enhance my own..."


Part 19

The Bronze

The screams had lessened. Most of the innocents had been evacuated, and those who hadn't were beyond help. Angel staked one of Spike's minions, and turned to face his next opponent. He heard a roar and whirled around just in time to see a strangling Xander hurl a knife at a huge werewolf. The wolf cringed back, but Xander was beginning to lose consciousness in the deathgrip of the other girl, who Angel knew without a doubt to be one of the members of the Order of Taraka.

In vamp face, Angel picked up a nearby table and charged the werewolf. He bashed the table into its huge skull, stunning the creature and breaking the table. Tossing the ruined table to the side, Angel grabbed the wolf and half-carried/half-drug it closer to Xander. Using all of his preternatural strength, Angel pushed the beast into the girl with the whip-arm, knocking the girl forward and loosening the choke-hold she had on Xander.

When the girl hit the floor, Angel was already charging. He scooped up the knife that had been in the werewolf's side and used it to saw through the appendage that held his friend. The girl screamed as blood came rushing out of what was once her arm. The blood stained Angel's trench coat. He could smell it. That made him hungry. And being hungry, made him all the more angry.

Angel took a few steps over to the writhing girl, took her head in his hands and snapped her neck. A little dazed, Xander got to his feet. He looked a little green when he stepped in the sticky blood.

"What *are* these people?" Xander asked.

"The Order of Taraka," Angel explained, eyeing the werewolf to see if she was going to awaken any time soon. "A group of bounty hunters -- some demon and some humans with special gifts. Obviously Spike and Willow planned to take us all out tonight."

"Anything else I need to know?" Xander asked.

"Only that there's one more somewhere that no one's been able to locate," Angel said. "And with the way our luck's going, that one's probably the most powerful."

Xander touched the bruises forming on his neck. "If these two were the wimps of the trio, I'd hate to meet the powerful one."


"I'm never going to help you, so you might as well just let me go!" Buffy said. Her show was obviously fake, however, seeing as she was strapped down to a large table and completely at the mercy of the sorcerer who called himself Nathan.

Nathan walked over to her very slowly. "Letting you go isn't an option, my dear, but I do love your show of spunk there. Very brave to challenge me when I've so obviously got the upper hand."

"What is it you want?" Buffy cried. "I don't have any special powers or anything."

A calculating smile curved his lips. "You don't know, do you?"

"Know what? That you're a sick-o who's trying to play with my mind?"

Nathan grabbed her by the hair and pulled hard. Tears sprang into Buffy's eyes.

"You shouldn't call me names. If you make me mad I won't be gentle."

Buffy just stared at him, hatred in her eyes.

"You have powers, my dear Buffy," Nathan said, running his hands down her bound arms with a light, cold touch. "You were to be a Slayer. I would have thought you'd know, seeing as you're obviously involved in that world."

"What?" Buffy whispered, unbelieving.

"It's true. Any one of them could have told you, I'm sure. Sonya only got the powers because of your unfortunate little accident. She stole your destiny from you."

"Why are you telling me all this, and how do you know?" Buffy demanded. Feelings of shock and betrayal slipped into her heart. Could they have known and not told her? No! Mr. Giles, maybe, but not Sonya, not Xander...

"Telepathy is one of my many powers," Nathan bragged. "One look in all your minds, and I knew all that I needed to. And what luck that I realized who you were before the contract on your life was fulfilled." He began to cough and clutched the edge of the table for support. "The latent power in your soul will be enough to make me strong again. Your essence will bind my magic into my body, and keep it there for all time. No longer will I be plagued with this weakness."

He walked over to where his magic supplies were piled and pulled out a large, shiny knife with an ornate hilt. He walked back over and held it out. "This will do nicely." He lowered the blade until it touched the tender skin of her neck. Buffy couldn't move. She wondered where Xander was right now, and wished they hadn't left things so badly.

Suddenly, the door to the factory burst open with a loud bang. Willow -- her face mostly healed but still looking a little juicy -- strode into the room on her high heels and demanded, "What the HELL is going on here?"


When Willow was gone, Oz helped the remaining band members off the stage and led them to the door where Giles and Sonya were helping people leave. They were pretty much the last living people in the club -- all the others had escaped, were dead or were undead.

"Now what?" Oz asked Giles and Sonya.

"Where's Buffy?" Giles demanded. "Did you leave her in there?"

"She's not in there," Oz protested. "She never came back from the bathroom. Isn't she out here with you?"

"We haven't seen her," Giles said. His face paled. "Now what are we going to do?"

Sonya looked at her Watcher in surprise. Why did he care about Buffy all of a sudden? She thought back to the last time she'd seen Buffy. The blonde girl had disappeared awfully fast from the hallway in front of the bathroom.

Then a thought struck her. The window in the hall had been open. Before she could change her mind, Sonya blurted all this out, ending with, "I thought she'd gone back to the table with Oz, but ... do you think she could have been kidnapped?"

Oz looked serious. "Either kidnapped, or dead."

"Look," Giles ordered, "whatever happened to her, we can't help her now, but we'd better get in there and help Angel and Xander."

Suddenly, a large number of Spike's gang who had decided the hallway might offer more prey stood in front of them.

"Or maybe we should help ourselves," Oz said, pulling out his squirt gun. Then they all heard a loud roaring sound and an unnatural wind picked up inside the building.

Uncaring, Sonya pulled a stake from her bag and flung it with perfect accuracy at one of the vamps. It disappeared into dust. The other vamps started running.

"Am I that scary?" she wondered aloud.

"No," Oz said, "that's scary."

She looked behind her, back toward the bathrooms, and saw huge, orange tongues of flame licking the walls. Identical flames had appeared in the main part of the club as well.

"Get out!" Giles yelled, herding the two teens toward the door.

"But what about Xander?" Sonya yelled.

"He and Angel will have to take care of themselves. There's nothing we can do for them now."


"Willow, my darling," Nathan said, pulling the knife back from Buffy's throat. "You're early."

"Lucky I was," Willow replied, stalking over to the other side of the table. They faced each other with Buffy between them. "I think the Order would like to know about this. You abandoned everyone else in your group to focus on healing yourself with someone you're supposed to be killing."

Nathan shrugged. "She'll die either way."

"I'm not paying you to make yourself stronger. I'm paying you to kill the five thorns in my side, including her."

"Gillian and Kate will take care of the others," Nathan said, gesturing toward the magic fire. "See..." His voice trailed off as he actually looked at the scene in the Bronze for the first time in several minutes. He saw his girls fallen -- Gillian was dead, and Kate was unconscious, slowly bleeding to death. None of the targets had been eliminated.

"You were saying?" Willow asked snidely.

Nathan howled in rage. His girls were dead -- or as good as. He began chanting the words to a spell that he'd only use for a last resort. The flames in the fireplace jumped in response, and moved through the magic portal he'd created. Seconds later the Bronze was ablaze.

Nathan hit the ground, hard, and looked up at Willow with a deadly glare. "I would have been able to keep him safe, but you broke my concentration. Now the fire is only under it's own control. I hope your Spike knows how to run."


When Spike saw the flames he knew that he'd stayed too long at the party. He didn't see Willow anywhere, but he knew that the red head could take care of herself. She wasn't weak like Dru had been.

The blond vampire ran for the nearest window, and started smashing it with a nearby chair. Some of his minions rushed over to help. The window was small and raised. Spike had to jump for it. When he grasped the sill, strong hands grabbed him and pulled him the rest of the way out. He looked up to see Seth, one of his best lieutenants.

"Good job," Spike said approvingly. "Bloody great job, actually."

They looked back in the window, but the flames were already touching the other vamps. Several of them exploded as they watched. Spike shrugged at the screams. "Let's get back to the factory. We'll find more hired help later."


Giles, Oz and Sonya stood a few yards away from the blazing building. They could hear sirens in the distance. A crowd had formed behind them made up of escapees and onlookers.

"Where's Xander?" Sonya asked for the millionth time.

Giles just watched. He wanted more than anything to see either of his friends come out, but with each second that ticked by he had less and less hope. Especially for Angel -- fires were deadly for humans, but even more so for a vampire, soul or not.

Then they all heard a loud creaking and groaning noise.

"Uh oh," Oz said under his breath.

Giles echoed the sentiment in his own mind. There was a loud crash as the roof of the Bronze gave way to the fire and caved in.

"Hey, look at that..." The cry came from somewhere in the crowd behind them. Giles opened his eyes and saw two silhouettes approaching out of the haze. It was two men supporting each other as they walked. As the figures got closer, their features became more distinguishable.

"It's them," Giles breathed, sending thanks to the higher powers that had granted them this miracle.

Xander let go of Angel when the pair reached their friends. He leaned down and gave Sonya a hug. "I'm so sorry," he whispered.

"It's OK," Sonya replied, tears clogging her voice. "I'm just glad you're alive. Nothing else matters. But if you ever, ever scare me like that again..."

"That's a real threat, man," Oz said. "I wouldn't test her."

Xander laughed, and then his smile faded when his searching eyes didn't find the one person he wanted most to see. "Uh... guys, where's Buffy?"


Part 20

The Factory

Willow and Nathan watched the magic window onto the Bronze until the fire was down to its last embers. Willow did a little happy dance when she saw Spike get out in time, but when she noticed that none of the four remaining targets had perished, she slugged Nathan as hard as she could.

"It's not fair!" Willow moaned, glaring in Buffy's direction. "I wanted the joy of sucking her dry, but now we have to keep her alive." She walked over to the table, her high-heeled boots clicking on the floor. "You lucked out this time. You've been upgraded to hostage. But that doesn't mean we can't have fun with you..."

Nathan picked himself up, and dusted himself off, glaring at Willow. "You act like this is all my fault. Who was the vampire that ran screaming from the Bronze when faced with a midget with a squirt gun?"

"Yeah, well," Willow whined defensively, "you're the one that said your little group was the best around. Now they're dead and the whitehats are still alive. You suck."

The sorcerer rolled his eyes, and returned to his magic supplies.

"What are you doing?" Willow demanded suspiciously.

"Just a little insurance," Nathan replied. He released a pinch of red powder into the air, and it crackled and exploded. " case they come here looking for her. A coating of this stuff hurts like hell."

On the table, Buffy tested her restraints. She didn't really see the point. They never loosened. But what else was she going to do? Lay there and cry? She was shocked when the leather strap binding her right hand suddenly gave a little. She looked quickly towards Willow and the sorcerer. Was Nathan looking at her? Buffy stopped moving, but there was a tiny gleam of hope in her heart. If they ever left her alone, maybe she could get free and warn the others about whatever it was Nathan was cooking up.


Five sweaty, soot-covered people reeking of smoke fumes straggled into the library an hour later. Angel and Xander fanned out to check the perimeters, making sure there wasn't another trap, and the other three slumped down at the table. Assured that the missing member of the Order of Taraka wasn't lying in wait for them, Angel and Xander came back and gratefully took seats of their own.

Xander was the first to speak. Sooty streaks decorated his cheeks and forehead, and his shirt was bloody in front. Paramedics called to the scene of the fire had dressed the gouges made by the she-wolf, but the shirt would be considered a definite casualty. His eyes narrowed on Giles, Oz and Sonya. "Now will you answer my question? What happened to Buffy?" He'd been holding his peace a long time -- tending to the wounded and doing what they could to help had taken precedence. But he couldn't keep silent anymore. His heart sank when they exchanged nervous glances.

"Honestly, we don't know," Giles finally said.

"You don't know?" Xander accused. He was unsure how to feel -- grateful that there wasn't proof of her death or scared that there wasn't proof of her life. The latter won out. "What the HELL do you mean, you don't know!" He stood up violently, and his chair flew back, hitting the floor with a crash. Sonya flinched.

Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his head, smearing the black soot around even more. "She was last seen leaving the bathrooms, but she never made it back to Oz."

"Either she got kidnapped, or she's dead," Sonya said in a soft voice. She felt a twinge of guilt, as if she could have done something. "Unless...well... maybe she got scared and ran away."

"No way!" Xander exploded. "Not Buffy! Something must've happened to her." His mind whirled, trying to come up with a possible scenario and grasping at straws. "Maybe... maybe Willow took her! Yeah, that sounds like something she'd do just to piss me off!"

Oz stood. "I'll go call Buffy's house, just in case." Giles gave the boy an approving look as the teen went into the office to use the phone.

The Watcher looked at Xander. "You've got to calm down. I agree that the loss of Miss Summers is quite distressing, but..."

"You're such a liar!" Xander yelled, advancing on Giles. "Quite distressing, my ass! You never cared about her, and you're the one who forced me to quit seeing her!" He grabbed Giles by the collar. "We never would have had to sneak around, if you'd just been a grown up and accepted the fact that we love each other. And if we hadn't had to sneak around behind your back, I could have kept her close to me in the Bronze, and this would never have happened! If she's dead, it's all your fault." He let go of Giles' shirt and the older man fell back into his chair with a loud thump.

"Don't, Xander!" Sonya cried, tears making tracks in the soot on her cheeks. "It's all my fault, not Giles. I was the one who told him Buffy was distracting you..."

Xander turned to Sonya, his supposed best friend, with new rage and a healthy dose of betrayal in his brown eyes. But he didn't grab her. She reached her hand out to him, but he ignored it. "Why?"

Her face drained of color behind the dirt, and the tears started coming faster. She started to say something, but choked on the words, and just turned away.

Then Oz came out from the office, his face drawn. "Mrs. Summers hasn't seen her. I told her that we got separated and for Buffy to call us if she comes home." He walked over to Sonya, and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. She accepted it from his hand and used it to cover her face.

*Buffy is dead* Xander thought simply. Part of him had hoped she'd run, even though he knew she wasn't that cowardly, and now his mind turned to the worst possible outcome. Pain started in his heart and threatened to overwhelm him.

A hand touched his shoulder. He looked up. It was Angel. "If they took her anywhere, it would be the Factory."

Taking strength from his friend, Xander straightened up and latched on to this idea, this last chance. "I'm going, now." He walked to the cage and began stuffing weapons into his pockets -- a new boot knife, plenty of stakes and crosses, cross bow bolts, and he slung the crossbow over his shoulders by its strap. Once armed, he turned back to the others. His gaze was cold when it landed on Giles and Sonya, but he didn't say anything to them. He didn't trust himself to say anything civil, so he bowed to the wisdom of saying nothing at all. Instead, he looked at Oz. "Do you have any more of those squirt guns?"

The boy reached into his jacket and pulled out one that was florescent green. Oz tossed it to Xander who caught it deftly in one hand and tucked it into the waistband of his pants.

Then Xander looked at Angel. "Coming to back me up?"

"Don't go, Xander!" Giles finally said. "We don't even know if she's there. We need to find out for sure, and if she is there then we can formulate a concrete plan."

"I'm going," Xander insisted. He pointed to the beeper clipped to his belt. "If you find out any new information, beep me."

"Wait," Oz said. "I'll come with you."

"Too dangerous," Xander said.

"I want to help."

Angel stepped in. "He can drive the getaway car. Oz can stay outside with the van running, and if... when we find Buffy and get out of there, we'll have an escape route ready."

"Fine." Xander shrugged. "But if he becomes vampire chow, it's no skin off my nose. No offense, man."

"None taken," Oz replied, stopping in the cage for a few weapons of his own. Angel did the same.

The two teenagers had already started for the van, when Giles grabbed Angel's sleeve. The vampire turned.

"I'm going to perform the spell." He gestured to Buffy's purse laying on the table. Oz had kept it all this time. "There's a brush in there with a hair sample, and all we need is something with her genetic code. If the spell works, and she's there, she'll be able to help you. If it doesn't work, we know she's dead."

"What if she's undead?" Angel said quietly.

Giles looked worried but resolute. "That's a risk we just have to take."

Angel nodded, and followed the others out to the van.

Giles looked at Sonya. Her shoulders shook with a suppressed sob from time to time, but she had herself much more under control now. When she looked at him, he said, "I need your help. There's something about Buffy Summers that you should know."


Spike walked into the factory and surveyed the scene. Willow was arguing with Nathan -- Spike really didn't like that sorcerer, he seemed to have his own agenda, and Spike felt that he was the only one allowed to have one of those -- and Buffy was strapped to their dining room table.

"Willow, my pet," Spike said, removing his torn, dirty trench coat, "did you get a new centerpiece and not tell me about it?"

"Lover! You're back!" She ran over to him and threw herself into his arms for a spin. Spike held her for a minute, and then put her down.

"You still haven't told me what the girl is doing here."

"Nathan did it," Willow muttered with a dark glance in the sorcerer's direction. "But now we need her, as leverage against the whitehats."

"Bloody hell!" Spike swore. "They *all* got out alive? Remind me to call the Order and file an official complaint. We asked for five dead people, and we got four pissed off whitehats and a new centerpiece."

Willow pouted. "I think we should get our money back. Nathan sucks." Then she smiled. "And, speaking of sucking, I was thinking that it might be fun to add Xander's little blonde slut to our happy family. What do you think?"

Spike looked at the girl consideringly. "The idea has merit, my dear, why don't we..."


Spike looked at Nathan angrily. "Who do you think you are, ordering me around in my own bloody house?"

Spike began to advance on Nathan who stood between him and his intended victim. "We paid you to kill her, and you didn't, so I'm just going to do it myself, you wanker."

Nathan's black eyes focused on Spike. "Before you do that, there's something you should know."

"What could you possibly say that would interest me?" Spike laughed. "I'm breathless with antici... wait, silly me, I don't really care. I'd rather eat!"

"Do you care that your lover Willow is the one who had Drusilla killed?"

That stopped Spike in his tracks. He looked at Willow. She was gazing at Nathan in horror.

"Yes," the sorcerer continued, "I dipped into her mind with my telepathy..."

"Now I know you're lying," Spike exclaimed with relief.

"Telepathy doesn't work on vampires. It's like the mirror thing -- no reflections."

Nathan was already shaking his head. "That may be true of ESP and other paltry forms of telepathy, but Druidic telepathy is much stronger. If a being has a mind, I can see into it." His eyes closed for a second, and then reopened with confidence. "Right now, you're remembering being one second too late and seeing Drusilla's body crumble to dust before your very eyes." Spike gasped. The sorcerer was telling the truth. He could see into vampire's minds.

Willow shrieked and ran in between the two men. "He's lying, Spikey. I would never have done that. And how generic is what he said? Of course you were thinking about Dru's death. He brought it up himself."

"Yes," Nathan said, "but could I guess that you arranged for Drusilla to find the little boy? In fact, you lead her there yourself, to a place where you know Angel would be patrolling. And then you led Spike there just in time to see her die. You're quite devious when you want to be."

Spike turned on Willow. His eyes glowed and his fangs descended. "Is this true? Is it?"

Willow stepped back. "No, of course not. Who are you going to believe, some incompetent sorcerer, or the woman who's been your partner for over a year?"

"She hated Dru," Nathan said. "She only pretended to like her to keep you fooled. She wanted Dru out of the way so she could rule Sunnydale with you. In fact, Willow doesn't even really like you. She wants Xander to rule with her. You're just a substitute."

Spike lunged for Willow and slapped her. His fingernails made bloody gashes across her cheek. Willow vamped out, getting angry in turn.

"You idiot!" she spat at Spike. "What does the past matter? Nathan is trying to divide us so that he can have Buffy so he can make himself stronger. He's playing you for a fool!"

"The past matters," Spike growled, "or at least it does to me."

While the vampires argued, Nathan turned toward Buffy, pulling the ornate dagger out of the folds of his robes. "That should keep them occupied for a while," he told her with a smile. "At least long enough for me to complete the ritual."

He lifted the knife up, and Buffy closed her eyes and tensed for the blow. Then she heard a thwack. She peeked out from beneath her lashes and saw a crossbow bolt protruding from Nathan's shoulder. The dagger clattered to the floor.

All eyes in the room turned toward the doorway where Xander was standing with the crossbow. From the shadows behind him, Angel was scarcely visible.

Spike yelled, and the ten vampires that had not gone to the Bronze came running in. "Kill him!" Spike ordered. "In fact, why stop there?" His smile bordered on the insane. "Why not kill everyone else, too?"

"Even her?" One of the vamps pointed at Willow.

Spike glared at his former lover. "Especially her."

Part 21

The Library

The cavernous room echoed with memories. Sonya lay on the reading table, surrounded by glowing candles. A large book and the photocopy of the spell sat on a podium near her head. Giles was running back and forth between his office and the table, setting things up.

This was the place where Sonya had done most of her Slayer training. This was the place where she had gotten to know Xander. This was the place where she had come into her own as a demon fighter, and now it was the place where she would give up that part of her life forever.

Her thoughts swirled around. She could hardly process them all there were so many. One thing that stuck out in her mind through it all was Buffy. How should Sonya react to all this? Buffy was getting everything Sonya had ever wanted, and all Sonya could do is sit back and watch it happen. Buffy got Xander, Buffy would get her powers, and eventually Buffy would even get Giles. But there were also the good things -- Buffy trying to be her friend that first night, bonding over similar injuries. And then more bonding over a makeover -- and Buffy hadn't had to do that. Sonya had been half expecting the girl to slam the door in her face. And, for good or bad, it had been Buffy that finally made Sonya face her true feelings for Xander.

*In a way* she thought *it's almost just that Buffy get these powers. I suppose she could be upset that I got them instead of her the first time. At least I was able to have them for this long. And I'd rather Buffy get them than a stranger, I guess...*

Just then, Giles came back in with a white linen towel and the hair from Buffy's brush. "Are you ready?" he asked.

Unable to trust her voice, Sonya nodded.

Giles placed the towel over Sonya's chest, and filled a small crystal bowl with holy water. He whispered a few Latin words -- looking at the photocopy to double check his memory -- and then he dropped the hair in the water. Then he picked up a large, purple leaf and touched Sonya with it. Then he touched it to the bowl, saying the next part of the spell in a louder, more confident voice. A magical wind picked up, ruffling Sonya's clothes and hair. Magic crackled in the air, and the lights flickered. Sonya's skin began to tingle...


Xander's first instinct was to run to Buffy's side and make sure that she was okay, but when Spike's minions rushed him and Angel, he realized that was easier said than done.

The first few vamps fell victim to the deadly aim of both Xander and Angel's crossbows, bringing the vamp count down to eight. Then the vamps were upon them and they had no more time for reloading. The two crossbows were quickly discarded in favor of better close-range weaponry.

Xander pulled out his water gun and began spraying all the vamps in their demonic faces, blinding them so that Angel could begin to pick them off one by one. Soon, only six vampires remained and Xander's gun was empty. He tossed it to the side and leapt into the fray. He and Angel fought back to back, moving a like a fluid pair. One vampire attacked Angel with a large dagger, slicing at the souled vampire's neck. Another vampire came at Xander with a barrage of dizzying kicks and punches, keeping just out of reach of Xander's stake.

"PREPARE TO MEET YOUR DOOM, HUMAN!" the ninja-vamp screamed, lunging at Xander.

The pseudo-Slayer just rolled his eyes and replied, "Nah, how about you meet my friend BOB instead, moron!" With that, Xander ducked under the vamp's swing and plunged his lucky stake into the demon's heart, turning it into a pile of dust. Another vamp soon took it's place in the fight.

"I swear, bad guys are just too melodramatic!" Xander called over his shoulder to Angel. "Drives me crazy."

Angel grinned but didn't reply. He had his hands full with the dagger wielding vampire. Xander was having troubles of his own with the new vamp he was fighting. The creature was huge, towering over Xander by at least a foot. Every blow it got in was staggering to the mere human. Angel saw that Xander wasn't faring all that well, and quickly came to a decision. "Switch!" he yelled, ducking down into a crouch.

Xander grinned and did a back flip over Angel's crouched form, landing right in front of the vamp with the dagger. "You read my mind, Dead Boy!" he replied, quickly gaining the upper hand against his new opponent. Angel stood and turned to face his own new adversary, launching a kick at its jaw that sent it reeling....


Buffy could hear the battle raging around her, but she couldn't see much of it. She tugged at the loose strap with a renewed ferocity. Without even Nathan's 'protection' she would be food for a hungry vamp if she didn't find some way of defending herself soon. The leather strap chafed her wrist. Buffy winced and felt a dribble of warm blood run down her arm. Then, suddenly, with one last mighty pull, the strap came free of the table. She was stunned for a second, but quickly recovered herself enough to unfasten the other three straps.

When she sat up, her head spun. Her skin tingled, and she felt dizzy. *What's wrong with me?* she wondered frantically. *Get it together,Buffy...*

A low laugh caught her attention, and Buffy looked up to see a vampire advancing toward her. She grimaced and tried to push the bad feelings aside. She could be sick later. Thoughts of her Tae Kwan Do class flashed through her mind. She hopped off the table and into fighting stance, and actually started to feel better. When the vamp was close enough, she aimed a kick that landed on his chest. The vampire staggered back, but recovered fairly easily. It came toward her again, and managed to grab her arm.

"I'm hungry," it whined.

"I'm not very tasty," Buffy replied. "I promise." With her free hand, she punched the vamp, snapping its head to the side. Then she jerked free, and suddenly Xander was there, plunging his stake into the vamp's chest. There wasn't even a chance for a hello, though, because another vamp took notice of Xander. Luckily, there were only a few left -- meaning no more for Buffy.

She looked around, wondering what had happened to Nathan. She finally spotted him in a corner, muttering the words to a spell. Then he pulled the crossbow bolt out of his shoulder, and his words caused the flesh to instantly knit back together.

He looked up, and right into Buffy's eyes. She started to advance on him, unclear of what she could accomplish, but she didn't want him to be free to cast spells unchecked.

"Sorry, m'dear," Nathan said, wagging a finger at her. "You're a bit too much for me right now. My flesh may have been healed, but the fighting here and at the Bronze has strained my powers. I need time to recoup." A cough punctuated his words. "But, mark my words, we will meet again. I crave your strength even more now."

Then he gestured to the ground in front of him and a large black vortex opened before her eyes. Buffy froze in place, not wanting to get sucked in. Nathan reached into the folds of his robes, pulled out the pouch of red powder and tossed it at Buffy. Then he jumped into the vortex which closed behind him.

Buffy caught the pouch reflexively, but a little of the powder spilled out anyway. It crackled and exploded around her, singing her skin and hair. She winced and threw the bag as far from the people in the room as possible. When it hit the floor, the whole pouch exploded, leaving a big hole in the wall.


Spike and two of his last remaining vampire lackeys stalked Willow, taking turns attacking her. The three of them proved too much for the petite vampire and she began to retreat, trying to find a way out of this fix.

"Spikey, let's talk about this. You know you can't just kill me in cold blood, don't you, lover?"

Spike sneered. "Actually, I was planning on doing just that, m'dear! It'll be a bloody good time -- pardon the pun." The vamps converged on Willow as Spike reached out and grabbed her by the neck, preparing for the killing blow.

Suddenly, a loud bang was heard. Spike whirled around, forgetting about Willow in his momentary surprise. Willow quickly scurried away, putting some distance between herself and the enraged British vampire. Then she saw what was responsible for the loud noise and a smile slowly crept onto her face. "At last, things are finally starting to look up..." she murmured.


Xander and Angel were both standing near Buffy protectively, having just finished off the last of the vamps. Only Spike, Willow and the two vamps assisting the blond were still standing.

Angel watched for a minute as Spike turned on Willow, but finally said, "I think we should get out of here before anything else happens."

Xander shook his head. "No, I'm going to put an end to this war tonight, with or without your help."

Angel sighed and nodded. "I thought you might say something like that." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his last stake. "Well, I can't leave you in here to fight them alone, now can I?"

Buffy looked at them both like they were crazy. "What are you saying?" she demanded, grabbing Xander's arm and forcing him to look at her. "We have a clear shot at an escape and you want to stay here? Spike's gonna kill her, you don't have to worry..."

Before Xander could reply, they heard a loud bang, like the slamming of doors. Buffy gazed with trepidation at the front entranceway, her face paling at the sight of twenty or thirty more vampires pouring into the room. A quick glance behind her affirmed that even more vamps were coming through the hole that Nathan's exploding, red powder had made in the wall.

"Uh guys..." she said, tugging anxiously on Xander's sleeve. "We've got company."

Suddenly, Willow's voice could be heard echoing throughout the building. "Kill them all!!!"

One of the vamps, the plaid-loving fellow named Seth, pointed at Spike and asked, "Even him?"

Willow looked over at Spike who was watching her with actual fear behind his eyes. She grinned, repeating almost to the letter what he'd said earlier. "Especially him."


Part 22

The Factory

Spike scanned the room quickly as the new horde of vamps came in. Willow grinned at him evilly, and he knew there was no going back down that road -- not that he had any desire to. What he really wanted was to tear her skin aside with his bare fangs, mush around in her insides until she writhed with agony and then stake her into eternal damnation where Dru could wreak her own special breed of after-life torture on the red headed traitor. Spike also wouldn't mind the taste of Nathan's blood on his lips, but the sorcerer had vanished somewhere when Spike wasn't looking.

However, the blond vampire's bloodthirsty thoughts were derailed by the extreme odds against him. Part of Willow's band of vamps circled around Spike and his two friends, while the rest moved toward the whitehats menacingly. As Spike watched, Angel and Xander pulled out their crossbows. Xander handed his crossbow to Buffy, quickly showing her how to use it.

Soon, the bolts were flying and vamps were exploding into dust left and right. But it didn't even seem to make a dent in their numbers. Then Spike heard a whooshing sound and something bright whizzed past him, nailing one of his two remaining minions. Spike's eyes grew wide as he saw the creature catch fire and explode into dust. Whirling, Spike saw that Xander had pulled out what appeared to be a flare gun and was helping Angel and Buffy pick off as many vamps as possible, using the flares to catch the vamps on fire.

Another flare whizzed by and Spike ducked, barely avoiding being hit. "I'll be dust if I stay here any longer!" he complained. Growling to himself, he grabbed the nearest vamp and used the weaker creature as a shield, roughly dragging him across the room towards the whitehats. The captive vamp screamed as crossbow bolts hit him in the arms and torso, but Spike paid the creature no heed. Finally, Xander saw what Spike was doing and shot a flare at the vamp, forcing Spike to drop him as he combusted. But by that time, Spike had managed to reach the whitehats and was standing beside the three of them.

"What the hell do you want, Spike?" Xander demanded, grabbing Spike by the collar and shaking him roughly.

Spike disengaged himself from Xander's grip fairly easily and replied, "I'm willing to make you wankers a deal. I'll show you a secret way out of this joint if you'll help watch my back."

"Why should we trust you?" Angel asked, looking up from where he was crouched with his crossbow.

"Because, mates, it's really quite simple," Spike said with a knowing grin. "What other choice 'ave ya got?"


Sonya lay prone on the table after Giles had completed the spell. She could move if she tried really hard, but somehow it didn't seem worth the effort. She felt drained and weak, and so, so tired.

A gentle hand touched her forehead, smoothing back her hair. "How do you feel?"

She opened her eyes and saw Giles leaning over her, a look of concern evident behind the frames of his glasses.

"I feel..." she started to say OK -- not quite the truth, but it would make him feel better. But instead, gasping sobs came out.

Giles gathered her up in his arms and rocked her back and forth the way one would a small child. "Don't worry, Sonya," he murmured. "It will be all right."

But deep down inside, they both knew nothing would ever be the same.


When Xander had first thrust the crossbow into her hands, Buffy hadn't known what to do with it.

"Bolt goes here, trigger there, now shoot," Xander said, putting more ammo in her pockets. Buffy stared at him as he delved into his pockets for his flare gun. Then she looked over at Angel firing his crossbow.

After watching for just a second, she got a better idea of what to do. She raised the crossbow and took aim at a particularly nasty looking vamp who was giving her the eye. She pulled the trigger, and watched the bolt fly as if it were in slow-motion. It impaled the vampire right in the center of his heart. For a second, Buffy was amazed at her perfect aim, then she snapped herself out of contemplation-mode, loaded another bolt into the crossbow and took out another vamp.

After Spike's daring run across the room, the vampires began moving closer to them. The projectile weapons were holding them off for now, but just barely.

"Is there another choice?" Buffy asked after hearing Spike's offer, giving the others a glance.

Xander and Angel both frowned. "There's got to be another way," Xander muttered.

Suddenly, Buffy saw a vampire with a sword running toward Xander. She tried to shout out a warning, but she wasn't quick enough. However, faster than her eye could follow, Spike yanked the flare gun out of Xander's hand and shot the charging demon in the chest. The vampire burst into flames and exploded, his sword clattering to the ground at Xander's feet.

Xander paled, obviously realizing how close to death he had just been. Looking up at Spike, he studied the vampire closely, his face inscrutable. Finally, he spoke. "You've got a deal, Spike." Xander extended a hand for the vampire to shake. "Consider this our temporary truce."

Spike shook the hand Xander had offered and then scooped up the sword lying on the ground. Extending it to Xander, handle first, he said, "How's your swordsmanship, Harris?"

Xander grinned and took the sword from Spike's outstretched hand, quickly decapitating a vampire that had been trying to sneak up on them. "Good enough. Now where's that secret exit you were talking about?"

Spike gestured for the others to follow his lead and made a break for it, shooting his last flare at a vamp that crossed their path. "I'm out!" he yelled over his shoulder.

"Catch!" Xander called back, tossing him the box of flares. Spike caught it deftly and reloaded the gun as he ran. As they reached the other side of the room he pointed at a hallway that was just a few steps away. "Over there!"

Xander nodded and sent Buffy and Angel on ahead, staying behind with Spike to cover their backs. "I hope this secret exit is as secret as you claim," he told Spike before ducking into the hallway.

"Me, too, mate," Spike muttered, shooting a flare and killing a vamp before he turned and ran after the others into the hallway. "Me, too."


Willow saw where her traitorous ex-lover was going with the whitehats and growled, grabbing Seth by his plaid shirt and ordering him to go after them. "They're trying to trick us," she scoffed, "But Spike underestimates me. I know exactly what he's up to. I'm not a moron like that crazy ditz Drusilla was." Giving Seth a sultry smile, she purred, "Now that poor Spike has fallen out of my good graces, I'm going to need another big strong man around the house." Willow ran her fingers lightly up and down Seth's strong, muscular arms. "If you play your cards right, baby, it could be you."

Seth grinned. He wasn't a fool. With Willow by his side, he could rule over the all the vampire factions in Sunnydale. And that was what he planned on doing. "Anything for you, my lady," he drawled, pulling Willow into his arms and giving her a passionate kiss. All the other vamps watched them with respect. They now knew that Seth was Willow's new favorite. And in the world of the undead, that meant something.

Willow allowed Seth to enjoy his moment of glory before she put on her resolve face. "Get them and kill them," she ordered, pointing to the hallway where Spike and the others had disappeared. "Half of you go that way with Seth and try to catch up to them. The other half follow me. We'll get them one way or another."

With that, she walked to the front door and slammed it open, leading a large group of vampires around to the side of the factory where they would lay in wait. "This is gonna be so much fun," she giggled, skipping along the path. "They'll never know what hit 'em!"


Oz was waiting in the van with the motor running, as per his instructions, when he saw Willow and a group of fifteen or so vampires leave the factory and duck around to the side of the building. Frowning, Oz watched for a minute, curious as to what they were up to.

Glancing down at his watch, his eyes narrowed. It had been over twenty minutes since Xander and Angel had gone inside. He would give them 5 more minutes to make it out okay and then he would have to do something drastic. Oz drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited. He hoped they were alright...


Xander could hear the vampires following them and cursed. "I thought you said this way was secret," he whispered at Spike accusingly. "Shouldn't they have given up and turned back by now or something?"

Spike rolled his eyes. "Don't worry. I've got it all under control."

Xander snorted. "Yeah, right. I feel SO much better now."

The four of them were crouched under an old, rotting stairwell. As they waited, trying not to make any noise, they saw a group of almost twenty vampires troop by, obviously looking for them. Once the coast was clear, Xander inched his way out from under the stairs and turned to help Buffy out. Angel and Spike followed shortly. Once everyone was more or less on their feet again, Xander turned to Spike and said, "Okay, now what? I figure we have maybe 5 or 10 minutes at most until they double back and find us."

Spike grinned. "Yeah, but once they figure out that they've missed us, we'll be long gone."

Angel frowned. "Long gone how? I wish you'd just tell us where this secret exit is."

Spike laughed softly. "That's the joke, mates. There IS no secret exit. While they're searching for us in this maze of halls and rooms, we'll be calmly walking out the front door like we bloody well own the place!"

Buffy couldn't help but laugh. The idea was so absurd that it actually made since to her. Gesturing with her crossbow, she said, "Well, what are we waiting for? We don't have time to dilly dally around here. Let's go!"

Spike turned and led them out of the hallways and into the main room, which was completely disserted. "See?" he said smugly, "It worked like a charm."

"Let's not celebrate just yet," Angel admonished him. "We're not completely out of danger."

Spike rolled his eyes. "You always were a downer, weren't you, Angelus? Must be that whole soul thing. What a drag."

Angel ignored him and headed for the door.

"Hey, now don't get your panties all in a wad, mate," Spike called after him. "I was just makin' an observation."

Xander made shushing noises at both of them. "Quiet!" he hissed. "You two are being loud enough to wake the dead!" At the dubious looks he received, he added, "Well... um... pun not intended, but seriously, we need to keep it down. We don't want Willow and her vampire goons to hear us."

"Oh, it's far too late for that, my dear."

Xander looked up and gasped. Willow and a large group of vamps were standing at the front door. They'd obviously been waiting outside until Xander and the others returned. Just then, Xander heard footsteps from behind him and whirled, coming face to face with Seth and his group of vamps. They were trapped... again. Xander sighed. "Suddenly I'm getting a sense of deja' vu and I'm really not liking it."

The vamps began to advance on the four of them.

Xander turned to Spike and snapped, "Thank you SO much for not helping matters with your stupid plan! Next time I'm surrounded by a group of undead fiends who want to kick my ass, remind me not to call on you for help, okay?"

Willow smirked. "I could have told you that a long time ago, Xand." She pouted prettily. "Too bad you didn't think to ask."

Buffy took a step closer to Xander and whispered, "Any ideas?"

Xander shrugged. "Running comes to mind."

Suddenly, there was a loud crash and the front doors went flying. From amid the wreckage, a large, zebra-striped van emerged driving over vamps left and right and screeching to a halt right in front of Buffy and Xander. The passenger side door opened and Oz leaned out. Grinning, he asked, "Anybody need a lift?"

Xander looked behind them and saw that Seth's vamps, who had escaped relatively unharmed from Oz's drive-by, were gathering their forces and preparing to attack. He heard Willow yell, "Get them! Don't let them escape, Seth!" She was slowly picking herself up from the ground, brushing bits of glass and wood off of her clothing.

"Everybody, into the car!" Xander ordered, shoving Buffy in first and motioning for Angel and Spike to follow.

"We're taking him with us?" Angel asked, pointing at the peroxide blond vampire with a scowl.

Xander shrugged. "Why the hell not? Stranger things have happened. Now move!"

Angel complied and Xander turned to Spike, who was rapidly loading a flare into his gun. "Well, are you coming or not?" he yelled, grabbing the vampire by the arm and pulling him in the direction of the van.

"Just a bloody second!" Spike replied, still fussing with the gun.

"Oh, have it your way," Xander cried, exasperated. "But we're not waiting around for you."

He jumped into the van and signaled for Oz to drive. As the musician gunned the motor and headed for the spot where the front doors used to be, Spike jumped up and grabbed the side of the van, planting his feet firmly inside as he leaned out the open door and aimed his gun at Willow. "Hey sweet cheeks!" he yelled, getting her attention. She looked up and paled noticeably at the sight of her ex-lover training a flare gun on her.

"Spikey, wait..." she started to say, raising her hands.

Spike smiled and pulled the trigger, the flare hitting her directly in the chest. She screamed as she was consumed by unnatural flames and disappeared into a pile of dust. "I'll see you in hell, baby," he told her ashes before climbing all the way into the van and pulling the sliding door closed behind him.

As Oz used the van to steamroll over any vamps who got in their path on the way to the doors, Spike sank down onto the floorboards and tossed the flare gun aside. He wouldn't be needing it anymore tonight. "Rest in peace, Dru, baby," he whispered as he watched the nighttime cityscape pass by in a blur through the van's windows.


Part 23

The Library

When Sonya's tears were spent, Giles tenderly picked her up and set her back in her chair. She seemed so fragile in his arms, but at least she'd stopped crying.

"How do you feel?" he asked, and then realized how stupid that sounded. "I mean, besides the obvious. Are there any side effects we need to be aware of?" Giles retreated into a more official manor to cover a sadness and confusion that he didn't want to show Sonya. He was the adult -- he had to be the strong one for her.

"Nauseous," Sonya said softly. "And cold." She paused, and then looked up. "And weak."

"You may feel... 'weak' as you say... for awhile," Giles said, taking off his glasses and cleaning them with his handkerchief just for something to do with his hands. "It could be a natural side effect for the Slayer Essence leaving your body."

"Will it last?"

Giles put his glasses back on. "Your body is used to the extra strength of being a Slayer. I think your feeling of weakness will pass when your body gets used to being without it." He picked up the photocopy of the spell. "As far as I know, this spell has never been used -- at least not in recent history. The side effects aren't documented."

Sonya nodded, trying to put on a brave face.


The van rushed along the windy road at top speed. Oz was a good driver, and had shaken the last of the vamps -- two of which who had tried to jump aboard through the open sliding door. Those two were now sporting broken bones and severe tire damage, at least until their healing powers kicked in. Spike reclined on the floorboard, lost in thought. Angel sat in the front seat with his head turned to keep an eye on Spike. Buffy and Xander sat on opposite sides of the back seat.

Buffy didn't know what to think. Things had been happening so fast. It felt awkward to be around Xander right now. Her feelings were so conflicted: love, hurt at the way he'd left her in the Bronze, confusion after what Nathan had said -- that they'd all known of her so-called 'powers' -- and there was still some lingering pride from the way she'd handled herself in that fight. Buffy hadn't known she had an aptitude for that sort of thing. She felt strong and energized. If they'd been walking instead of riding in the van, she would have been running for the sheer joy of it.

Xander slid her a sidelong glance. "They didn't hurt you or anything, did they?"

"No," Buffy said, glancing at him from under her lashes.

"So... do I need to file official documentation? Should it be stamped, notorized or what?"

Buffy looked at him in surprise. His quirky, shy smile could still warm her heart. "What are you talking about?"

"To start the makeup proceedings... I've never had a girlfriend before. I don't know how to get the ball rolling here."

"I'm your girlfriend?" Buffy gasped, happiness flooding into her heart.

"Well, I'm not really in the market for a love slave right now, so I thought maybe girlfriend..." Xander looked at her hopefully. Then he pouted playfully, "Will you please be my cuddle-monkey?"

It was his puppydog eyes that won her over. Buffy laughed and launched herself across the seat and into his arms. Xander grunted when her force knocked his head into the back window.

Buffy looked at him in surprise. "I'm sorry. I guess I was more excited than I thought..."

"Or the fact that you're the Slayer now could have somethin' to do wi' it."

Everyone (except Oz who was driving) stared at Spike in shock.

"What?" Xander demanded.

Nathan's words came back to Buffy, and she frowned. "That sorcerer guy told me that you all *knew* I was supposed to be the Slayer before Sonya. I'm not really sure what all that means, but I can't believe you didn't tell me!"

Her gaze fell upon Xander especially.

Xander looked from Buffy to Spike and back again. "Hey," he said, holding out his hands, "I'm just as clueless here as you are."

Angel spoke next. "I knew, but no one else figured it out until after you were kidnapped." Then he glared at Spike. "But how do *you* know?"

Spike shrugged. "I've whacked a few Slayers in my day. It ain't hard to tell when you know what yer lookin' for."

After a moment, Angel explained about the spell, and that Giles had planned to attempt it while they were rescuing Buffy. "So, apparently, it worked."

Buffy's eyes grew wide. "That explains why I could shoot like that... Wow -- this is kind of cool. You mean I can fight with extra strength, have great aim, heal fast and all that?"

Angel and Xander exchanged a look. She didn't know what she was getting into.

Then a thought struck Xander. "But what about Sonya?" Even Buffy's smile fled at that thought.

"We won't know until we get there," Angel said, "but I guess she's just Sonya again."

Behind the wheel, Oz sighed, but his enigmatic expression never changed.


Once they got to the school, everyone piled out of the van and headed inside, not quite sure what to expect. Buffy was nervous. What would Sonya say to her when she found out that Buffy had recieved all of her Slayer powers? She wasn't really looking forward to the confrontation. As they were walking, Xander reached out and took Buffy's hand, giving it a comforting squeeze. She looked up at him and smiled, grateful for his presence.

Once they reached the library's double doors, Angel pushed them open and everyone filed in, Angel coming in last. As they walked into the center of the room, Spike turned around and gave the place a once-over. He frowned. "You know, this place looks bigger from outside."

Giles walked out of his office and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Spike standing there with the others. Grabbing a cross, he held it out at arms length toward the blond vampire and said, "What is HE doing here?"

Xander shrugged. "He helped us out at the factory, so we gave him a lift. We have a temporary truce, so he shouldn't cause any trouble." Giving Spike a serious look, Xander added, "Not if he wants to make it out of here without a stake in the heart."

Spike plopped down in a nearby chair and propped his feet up on the reading table. "HE has a name, you know," he commented dryly.

Xander rolled his eyes. "Whatever, Spike."

After a moment of silence, Oz spoke up. "Where's Sonya?"

Giles glanced toward the library doors. "The ladies room. She needed a moment to herself, I suppose." Then he looked at Buffy with a keen eye. "And how is Miss Summers?"

Buffy felt odd under his scrutiny. Was he going to be her trainer now? She knew a lot of stuff about Xander, Giles and Sonya's world, but she didn't have all the details and terminology down yet. And as far as she knew, Giles didn't like her. She stared right back at him but didn't say anything.

It was Angel who answered the question. "The spell worked. We saw evidence of it during the battle. She adapted well."

"Good." Giles nodded. "That will be a positive asset. Er... Miss Summers..."

"Hold on," Buffy said, "let's just get one thing straight *Giles* -- no more of this 'Miss Summers' stuff. From what I understand, you're going to train me like you did Sonya, and that is much too much formality for me. Call me Buffy." She wondered what the librarian would say. It was the first time she'd ever called him Giles without the 'Mr.' part. Honestly, Buffy didn't know what to think of him. He seemed a decent sort -- always caring about Sonya and trying to save the world and all -- but the fact that he'd tried to keep her apart from Xander still rankled.

"Buffy," Giles repeated, trying it out on his tongue. "I think I can manage that." He smiled just a little at her.

Buffy smiled back, feeling a little more comfortable already.

"Now Miss... er... Buffy," Giles said briskly, "we need to talk. There are things for me to explain to you about your new destiny, and we have to set up a training schedule and..."

The library doors swung open, and Sonya rolled her chair inside. She looked paler than usual, but otherwise fine. Her eyes darted from one face to the other. Then Oz was by her side. He grabbed the handles of her chair and pushed her the rest of the way inside.

"I don't need any help!" she snapped.

"I know," Oz replied, but he kept pushing anyway, placing the chair in a prime spot where she could see everyone. Though Sonya was irked by the asperison cast on her ability to function, she was a little impressed at both his nerve and his caring. She gave him a glance of thanks, which he accepted with a tiny nod.

Then her eyes landed on the peroxide blond vampire resting his feet on the reading table. She glowered. "What is *he* doing here?"

Spike grinned at her. "I'm invited, baby. You can't do nothing about it."

The old Sonya wouldn't have let him get away with that, but this new girl -- a girl uncertain of herself in so many ways -- pressed her lips together tightly and averted her eyes. She could feel Xander's gaze on her -- she was always aware of him when he was in the room -- but she didn't return his look.

She waved her hand toward Giles, who was also looking at her with concern. There was so much concern and pity in the room it make her want to puke. "Go on with whatever you were saying to Buffy. Don't let me interrupt."

With one more look, Giles turned back to Buffy and started talking about destinies, the Chosen One, training schedules, unto one generation there is born only one girl..., the Slayer handbook... So many things were mentioned as he gave her a brief explaination of the rest of her life. The words echoed so clearly in Sonya's ears. He'd told her all that in the beginning, Giles, her Watcher... Then it hit home once again -- he wasn't *her* Watcher anymore, he was Buffy's!

"I'm going home to Kansas." Five pairs of eyes whipped around to look at Sonya with expressions of dismay, pain, guilt, pity and other things she couldn't identify -- Spike was examining his own fingernails in a bored fashion. Sonya continued, "My great-aunt lives there. I can stay with her."

"Why the bloody hell would you want to go to Kansas for?" Spike asked, looking up and straight into her eyes. "There ain't nothin' to do there except commune with the freakin' prairie dogs!"

"Are there prairie dogs in Kansas?" Xander muttered under his breath. "I thought they only lived in Texas."

Spike turned and glared at the boy. "They were metaphorical prairie dogs, ya stupid wanker!"

Xander glared right back at the vamp, but stifled whatever comment he'd been about to make when Sonya started talking again.

"Why do you think I'm leaving?" The words came out harsh, as she'd intended them to. "You've got Buffy now. You don't need me. And what good does it do me to stay on the Hellmouth when I'm crippled and weak and can't take care of myself!"

The venom behind the words made Buffy wince. She felt horribly guilty. As if she were stealing a life that didn't belong to her. And more than that -- somewhere along the line, Buffy had begun to actually like the other girl. Finally screwing up her courage enough to face Sonya's anger, Buffy blurted, "You can't go! If you leave, who's gonna show me the ropes?" She gestured toward Xander and Giles. "I mean, they're fine and dandy, but they don't know what it's like to be a girl and in this job. You're the only one who's been through it... who can advise me and let me in on the secrets... Like Xander or Giles would know how to fix one's hair for both attractiveness and fighting vampires!"

The bark of laugher that came out of her mouth surprised them all, but none more than Sonya. But though the laugh had a genuine core, there was still a rock-hard lump deep inside that wouldn't go away.

Then Xander walked over and crouched down until he was at eye level with Sonya. He reached out and touched her hand, a wealth of remorse in his eyes for the way he'd treated her earlier while on his Buffy-rampage. Though he didn't love her in the way she hadn't known for a long time that she wanted, Sonya knew that he did love her. They'd known each other for long enough, and the friendship had grown deep enough that Sonya could read his thoughts on his face. And he could read hers, too -- when she let him. This time she let him see in her eyes and on her face, what she couldn't say in words. That she loved him, and she was sorry she'd caused him pain by encouraging Giles to keep he and Buffy apart. Then Xander reached out and hugged her. She hugged him back. He pulled away and whispered, "Don't go, Wheels."

Oz walked up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up in surprise. He didn't say anything, but then, he seldom did.

Her gaze found Angel. The vampire stood back, aloof from the emotions around the table. He inclined his head briefly. They didn't talk -- they never had. But the gesture told Sonya that even he wanted her to stay.

Sonya was torn. She wanted to stay, but she wanted to go. She didn't know what to do. Then Giles knelt down in front of her.

"As long as you stay, Sonya, you are welcome in my house. I may not say it enough, but you have always been an asset to us. Your life is more than powers you do or don't have." His voice clogged. Perhaps it was the Englishman in him that didn't want to emote. "You've... been to me... well... like the daughter I never had. If you go, I'll support you in the decision, but I'll miss you."

That finally won her over. "OK," she said, laughing through her tears, "I'll stay. If you guys can't live with out me..."

Spike pushed his chair away from the table with a loud clatter and stood up. "Why the hell am I hangin' 'round this joint? This is bloody boring." Then he walked out of the library, letting the doors swing shut behind him. Everyone was stunned silent for a moment, and then they all burst out laughing. Angel and Oz even cracked smiles.

Then Giles reminded them of their purpose. "Now, tell us everything that happened in the fight..." All details were shared. Xander told about Willow's demise, and Buffy got to explain about the red headed vamp's part in Drusilla's death. Angel looked a bit surprised at that point, but he accepted it with calmness.

"What about Spike?" Xander asked after they'd relived all the details of the very long evening. "Should we follow him or something? Try and take him out while he's down?"

Buffy shook her head. "Nah. Just let him go this time. I'd be willing to bet he stays away from Sunnydale for awhile. You know, the memories..."

"You can never bet on anything when you live on the Hellmouth," Sonya cautioned her. "The only thing I count on is to always expect the unexpected."

"Well, the next time he shows up, we'll put him out of his misery," Angel said. "But we did have a truce, at least for tonight."

"The rules of a truce can't be broken without dishonor," Oz said. When everyone looked at him, he shrugged.

Just then a high-pitched beeping filled the room. Buffy looked down at her watch. The alarm had gone off. It was 1 a.m. "Oh no!" she moaned. "That was my curfew. I'm late! I've got to go home or my mother will ground me for life!"

Everyone stood up, and prepared to call it a night.

"I'll drive you home," Xander offered to Buffy. "My jeep's right where I parked it when we got back from the Bronze." Then something occured to him. "The Bronze. It's gone. We'll never dance there again."

"My band will have to find a new gig," Oz said.

Giles rolled his eyes. "I'm sure you can all find a better, more cultured place to frequent..." He turned toward his office. "Oz, would you mind taking Sonya home in your van? I've got to go and write up a report for the Watchers' Council. I have some explaining to do to them."

Oz, Sonya, Angel, Buffy and Xander walked out into the parking lot. Angel slapped Xander on the back in farewell, and with one last, long look at Buffy he walked away alone.

Xander helped Sonya into the passenger seat of Oz's van. "See you at training tomorrow morning, Parker?" he asked. Pain flashed across his face when he realized what he'd unwittingly said, but it vanished when she actually smiled, just a little.

"I'll be there, Harris, and just because I'm not the Slayer anymore, don't think that I'll never be able to whip you again."

"I'm shakin' in my boots," Xander answered in the words of a common joke between the two of them. "See you then." He closed the door, and waved as the van pulled out of the driveway. Then he turned to Buffy, who was already perched in the passenger seat of his second-hand jeep -- the vehical didn't, and never had had, a top. When it rained, Xander took the bus.

As they drove the short distance from the school to Buffy's house, Xander put his arm around Buffy's shoulders. She rested a hand on his knee. It was a casual gesture, but it sent thrills of excitement throughout his body. They pulled up at the curb, and he turned off the motor. The second the car stopped, the porchlight snapped on.

"Mom's waiting," Buffy said.

"I hope you're not in trouble." Xander looked toward the house where a curtain moved.

Buffy shook her head. "I think I can talk her out of it. But I guess I can't tell her any of what really happened, can I?"

"Nope," Xander answered. "Just one of the rules of the slaying game."

"This is going to take a lot of getting used to."

"On all counts," Xander agreed.

The porch light blinked."Well," Buffy sighed, "I'd better go in."

Xander leaned over close and gave her a quick kiss. The kiss became longer as they both surrendered to it. Finally, Buffy pulled back, regret written all over her face. She looked at the porch, and then leaned in for one more kiss.

"I wish I didn't have to go in."

"Me, too." Then Xander grinned. "But there's always tomorrow at school. You know, I never really cared about that before."

Buffy smiled at him tenderly. "Yeah. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Giles will expect you there at 7:30 a.m. sharp," Xander warned.

"I'll be there." Buffy gave him one last kiss, and then hopped out of the jeep. She walked up to the porch and the door swung open to reveal Joyce.

Xander waved to them both, and then drove away.

Joyce looked at Buffy in confusion. "Wasn't that Xander? I thought you weren't seeing him anymore..."

Buffy smiled softly. "We worked it out."

"Well, that's good," Joyce said, and then her voice took on a more motherly tone. "You know you missed curfew..."

"Yeah, I'm sorry."

Joyce smiled and gave Buffy a hug. "I forgive you, but don't do it again without calling, OK?"

"OK, Mom." Buffy turned and headed for the stairs. Then she looked back at her mom. "Hey, Mom, I love you."

Joyce looked surprised. "I love you, too, but what brought that on?"

Buffy shrugged. "Nothing really, it's just been a very full few days."

"Moving to a new place will do that," Joyce observed.

Buffy smiled. "I guess so. Good night!"

"Good night!" Joyce watched Buffy go upstairs with a maternal smile. Then she turned out the light and went to bed herself.