Christmas, Presents and Pleas

Author: IceWing <icewing[at]>

A Journeyverse Story by IceWing

Feedback: It's the coin of the realm.

Disclaimer: I don't own the characters contained… Oh, why do I bother. You all know this already. *looking over a a rabid lawyer…* Oh, fine… Say it with me folks… We don't own the characters, we're just borrowing them. We'd return them, but frankly we're doing a better job using them than the original owners are at this time, so they can have them back when they come knock on the door for the characters and their lawnmower.

Latest addition

Chapter 1

The Mansion
Chrismas Morning: 1996

Faith woke from a fitful sleep just as the sun was starting to lighten the sky outside her window. She yawned involuntarily and slowly wiped the sleep from her eyes as she kicked the blankets off and got out of bed.

<It's Christmas.> She thought without any real emotion as she looked out at the green grass and blue waters beyond her room. "Woo hoo."

She snorted and grabbed a pair of jeans from the floor and a light sweater from the dresser and walked around her room to look at something she'd been lugging around for a long time. In the previous timeline she'd lost it when Kakistos raided her home and grabbed her and her watcher.

This time it had ridden in her jacket pocket, through one fight after another, and somehow survived the months and months or poor treatment until it arrived here.

She rolled the snowglobe in her hand and watched the blizzard overtake the Eiffel tower inside it, then snorted lightly and made her way downstairs.

As she approached the sitting room she frowned as she heard muffled voices, like someone was whispering. She rounded the corner with a puzzled expression, "Hey, what are ya whisperin 'bout..."

Faith stopped in her tracks, her hands going limp and the globe fell from them for a long interminable moment. As it shattered on the hardwood floor, Faith managed to say two words.

"Mom? Daddy?"

"Mom? Daddy?"

The Tasker's whipped about, staring in shock for along moment, the sound of water and glass echoing through the room.

"Dana?" Helen spoke first, "baby?"

Faith stood there, stunned as her parents rushed her, her mother reaching her first and pulling her into a tight embrace and then her father's big arms engulfed the two of them.

Behind them, in the doorway that led to the kitchen, Xander smiled slightly, if a little sadly, as he caught sight of Faith's tear streaked face and he softly backed away. <They can eat later.>

<Indeed.> Elan said softly into his head. <You know, Alexander, you occasionally do things right.>

<Gee thanks.> Xander thought wryly to the ancient soul.

<For an uncultured barbarian, of course.>

<Of course.> Xander smiled as he heart the tinkling laughter shimmer and ripple through his psyche, making him forget for the moment the sharp longing he'd felt in the instant he saw Faith and her parents together. He remembered it a moment later, of course, but that's all it was. A memory.

<Thanks Elan.>

The ancient soul just shrugged.

The carpet made moving silently, already an ingrained habit for the young were, even easier. As she padded down the steps, trying as she did every morning to straighten out her shirt. Why she had to wear these stupid clothes was beyong her, but Xander wanted her to wear it and Xander was the leader of her pride, so she was stuck wearing it outside of her room or the forest. And if she was going to wear it, she was at least going to make sure she looked presentable.

The sound of breaking glass reached her ears from down the hallway, followed by what sounded like Faith trying to cry out, but unable to…. Instinctively, Mikki began running down the hardwood floor. Faith was the Alpha female of the Pride, although it had taken her a while to come to that conclusion. And nobody messed with her family. Not ever again.

As she cleared the doorway into what the realtor lady had called the sitting room, Mikki took in what was happening. A large man she'd never seen before had his arms wrapped around Faith and another woman, both of whom were crying. Without thinking, Mikki snarled and leapt. As her feet left the polished wood floor, the were heard a hiss as someone whispered her name in disbelief, but by then, she was already committed.

As Xander stood in the doorway to the kitchen, he heard soft footfalls coming from the stairs. The footfall was too light to be Jack or Giles, who was due anytime, which meant Tara or Mikki. Then, the time displaced young man heard the tempo pickup as whoever it was started to run. Which meant Mikki.

He started to move to intercept the young were, just as she cleared the doorway behind Faith and her parents. Unlike Harry, Helen and Faith, no, right now, she was Dana for the first time in months, he could see Mikki. 'I should let them have a few more minutes in peace,' he thought. Then he saw the look on the young girl's face as she raced into the kitchen. His eyes darted from the were, back to the reunited family, then to the broken glass on the floor, then back to the were.

'Oh, shit…' he thought to himself as everything clicked into place and he realized what must be going through Mikki's mind at the moment. He started to move...

To an outside observer, the scene, well, would have looked like something out of Rolly Tyler's bag of tricks. When the little girl entered the room, she looked, well, normal. Then she leapt into the air, morphing as she covered the distance until there was a snarling jaguar clad wearing a pink t-shirt with a matching pair of pants slowly falling to the floor.

As the somewhat, well, insane looking jaguar continued its flight, another form stepped into the room, moving even faster than the jaguar.

As he heard the snarl, Harry Tasker, instinctively turned. It was a noise he'd heard more than once on missions, including The Mission, in South America. But he never expected to hear it in suburban America, and certainly not while he was being reunited with his daughter.

His hand moved towards the small of his back, and the Desert Eagle which lay in the custom holster, where it had dug into his back the entire trip west. Even as his fingers wrapped around the checked grips, his eyes were matching those of the were. And, unlike the last time he had looked into those deadly orbs, this time he saw intelligence and Rage, staring back at him. He knew that he wouldn't be able to clear his weapon and bring it to bear in time. Instinctively, he pushed Helen and Dana to the ground with his free hand.

Then, all hell broke lose.

Well, relatively speaking.

The young man who had picked them up, then performed more acts of insanity than even Harry was comfortable, moved in like, well, the Flash came to mind. Ok, an exaggeration, but not much. Xander moved in and grabbed the jaguar by the scruff of its neck, and then spun, redirecting the cat's momentum and sending both him and it towards the corner of the room.

Claws dug into the floor as the cat tried to stop itself. Although it failed, the jaguar did manage to dig huge gouges into the flooring before it smashed into a large vase filled with flowers.

"Mikki, stand down!" yelled Xander as he began to roll from his back to his feet. As he was regaining his footing, he looked back towards Harry, who was still bringing his hand cannon to bear. No animal was going to hurt his Dana, not after all he had been through.

Xander's eyes took in the situation in a heartbeat. Although his senses had automatically kicked into hypertime, his body couldn't react nearly as quickly. He did not want to deal with patching bullet holes or cleaning up blood on Christmas Day. And, he knew Faith would be seriously pissed if he hurt her dad minutes after he arrived at the house.

'Kinda explains where Faith got the whole react violently behavior from,' he thought as he mulled over possible courses of action. Just about every one involved the chance to seriously hurt Harry, and that still assumed that Mikki paid attention to his command. 'This is so not how I wanted to start the day,' he thought.

< Considering your track record Alexander, I would think that this was actually somewhat of a successful plan…>

'Oh, laugh it up Elan. Come on, how the hell do I deal with this.'

<Violence seems to be your prefered solution.> Her smirk was almost audible. <A habit that I believe you used to chastise others for.>

'Well, come on. What am I supposed to do with monster, devils and Hell Gods? Sit down for a nice cup of herbal tea?'

<No, I believe you save that approach for Angels.>

Inwardly, Xander winced. 'Walked right into that one, didn't I?'


'You channeling Teal'c now, Elan?'

<No, although you could learn a lot from him. As for our current situation, I would suggest that as you are worried about Faith's reaction to you assaulting her father, you could let her deal with him in this situation.>

'Have Faith take down her own Father? Are you out of your mind?'

<Faith will not allow an innocent to be harmed. Beside, at this time, the situation is already in play. It may as well be used to prove a point to her Father that his little girl is now an accomplished warrior in her own right. As you would say, in for a penny…>

'In for a pounding,' he thought as he noticed how few slivers of time had passed… 'The joys of communicating at the speed of thought... You think we can get royalties for that?'

<Don't you have something to deal with…> responded the Atlantean.

'Fine…' He opened his mouth in order to yell. "GU…" Before he could finish his utterence, everybody in the room was suddenly unable to move as a shout could be heard from the next room…


Into this surreal tableau, entered Tara. Her face strained as she focused on holding everyone present within the power of her hasty spell. As she stepped into the room, focusing all of her concentration on the spell, she tried to figure out what was going on before her.

"Good job, Tara," said Xander as he extricated himself from Mikki, who was slowly starting to move as well. "Mikki!" snapped Xander as he turned back to the young were. "You've got some 'splaining to do… Now change back…" As the were began to change, well within the line of sight of Harry and Helen, Xander turned towards the Taskers, throwing a comment over his shoulder reminding Mikki to put her pants back on. "As for you two… No pulling guns in our house unless one of us pulls them first." With that, he reached out and pressed the magazine release, catching the clip before it could drop more than six inches. In a second motion, he racked the slide and caught the ejected cartridge. "Now behave!" Sticking the magazine in his pocket he faced Tara, who was almost shaking as she stood there… "Good job Tara," he said with a smile. "Quick thinking."

Tara met his gaze and let a faint smile cross her face, before her eyes rolled back in their sockets and her body went limp, like a marionette with its strings suddenly cut.

Xander managed to catch the young witch before she hit the ground, then picked her up and laid her on the nearby couch. "She's going to have a killer headache when she wakes up," he said as he stood straight and turned around.

Just in time to see a large fist as it slammed into his face.

Chapter 2

Xander had just enough time to comprehend what he was seeing before the impact of the demolition ball, which was somehow masquerading as a hand, smashed into his jaw and launched him across the room. He landed on his ass and slid for a couple of feet on the polished wood floor. Caught off guard, he hadn't even had time to brace himself for the impact, and as such, was stunned for a moment while his brain finished rattling around in his skull.

From her position in the center of the room, Faith heard the tell-tale rumble beginning in Mikki's throat as the young girl turned her attention to the man who had not only threatened Faith, or so she thought, but had now attacked Xander. Helen has turned at the sound of the growl, and was now watching in a combination of horror and fascination as Mikki's face began to distort and stretch…

"MIK!" Yelled Faith once she saw her mom's confusion and then the source of it. "Stop that, right now! You hear me?!?"

The were, caught halfway through her change, turned to look at Faith, like, well, a cat that was caught eating the canary.

"Change back and sit down, ok?"

As the young were complied, Harry started to take a step, but suddenly found himself to be unable to move forward. A second later, he realized why.

In order move, one had to have their feet solidly on the ground. And the fact that he was being lifted off the ground by his belt was preventing that condition from being met. But that wasn't actually the embarrassing part.

The embarrassing part was when he realized his daughter was the one lifting him. And then, she stalked across the room and sat him down on one of the chairs which was scattered around the room. "And YOU…" she said as she glared at him. "Stay!"

Before he could formulate an appropriate response, she walked back over to kneel by Xander, who was now sitting up and rubbing his jaw. "Well, I can definitely tell where you got your attitude and mean right cross from…"

"I'm sorry Xand…" Faith started, trying to apologize…

"No worries," Xander shrugged and chuckled, "After all, I am used to you... You're dad may be a spy, but he isn't in your ballpark."

Faith practically preened as Xander watched their 'guest's' for a moment. "This obviously could have gone better…"

"You think?" asked Faith.

"Yeah," answered Xander as he looked at Faith's parents, who were trying to talk quietly. The fact that Harry was more than a little agitated and kept trying to get out of the chair, only to be pushed back by Helen, made it pretty easy to understand what was being said. "Look, I'm going to take Tara back to her room, try and calm Mikki down and then I'll make us all a decent brunch in a while. Can you handle this by yourself, or do you want me to stick around for backup?"

Faith looked at Xander, then back at her folks. He could almost see her irritation fading away like smoke in the wind. "Mom, Dad… Can you guys stay here for a minute?"

Harry looked like he was about to say something when Helen told him to hush. "Of course sweetheart. We'll be right here."

After hesitating for a heartbeat, Faith spoke. "Thanks Mom," and then turned to Xander. "Lemme help," she said as she moved to get hold of Tara's feet.

Xander started to say something to her but the look in her eyes brought his words to a halt before they were even formed. Instead he said ok, then told Mikki to go open Tara's bedroom door and stay there. The young were continued to stare daggers at Harry, but acquiesced upon Xander repeating his request. Then, as one, Faith and Xander picked up Tara and carried her out of the room.

"So…" started Harry, only to stop in mid sentence as his wife turned towards him as his daughter conversed with Xander near the fallen blonde. 'Oh, not good,' he thought as she poked him hard in the chest.

"Just what the hell is your problem?" she demanded, while trying to keep her voice down.

"I was…" he started, trying to defend himself before she got going.

"I'm not even going to go into the cat girl thing. I can understand your reaction to it… Her.. Whatever… But," she poked him again hard in the chest. "What in the hell were you thinking when you punched him?!?"

"He… I…" The large man tried to get the words to form in his mouth. "He deserved it? Lecturing me about pulling a gun…"

"This, Harry, is his house. A house, which I might add, seems to be where our daughter is living as well…"

"Yet another thing I have to strangle him for," muttered Harry. "If he's sleeping with her…" His diatribe was cut off by Dana asking them if they would stay put for a minute."

Harry was about to answer when he suddenly felt Helen's entire weight on the toes of his right foot.

"Of course sweetheart. We'll be right here," replied his wife.

A moment later, Dana was gone from the room, helping carry the blonde upstairs. The little girl had glared, not to mention practically snarled, at Harry before racing ahead of the other two and their carried companion.

"So, can you contain your obsessive desire to keep attacking our host?"

"I don't…"

Helen cut him off before he could finish his sentence. "Every time you've met the boy, you've attacked him."

"I did not…"

"When he came to tell us she was ok, you attacked him. When he called to tell us she was ok, Spencer stormed the hotel."

"Hey that wasn't me!"

"Only because you couldn't be there in time to lead the charge yourself!"

"Still doesn't count…" he muttered.

"And then, after he puts himself through who knows what kinds of danger, with people who he KNEW would tear the countryside apart looking for him AND Dana, you sucker punched him in his own house…"

"Ok, so maybe I over reacted… But, I did have a fucking panther that was doing its best to tear my throat out."

"It was a little girl…" Answered Helen, her maternal instincts kicking in, despite the fact that she had watched that little girl change back from being a big cat before her very eyes. "And you almost shot her…"

"I still say I was right. I was trying to protect our daughter."

Helen looked at her husband and sighed. "Harry, I love you. But sometimes I wonder what goes on in that thick skull of yours! We're here… WITH DANA… For the first time in two years, we can spend some time with her. Because," she pointed upstairs. "Because that young man obviously loves our daughter, for whatever reason, enough to drag us across country. Just so we can spend the holidays together." Her voice softened. "I know this is all some kind of messed up… Something… But… Dana… We get to see our baby… So don't you dare screw that up…"

As she wound down her speech, Harry leaned in and wrapped his arms around her. "You're right." He sighed then looked down at his pistol, which was still clenched in his hand. "So, we…" He paused as he slipped another magazine into the grip, the reholstered the weapon. "I just hate being so, powerless."

"I know, but we have to remember that this Xander went through a lot to get us here."

"Ok…" answered Harry. "But I don't have to like it…" He looked around the room for a moment. "So, we're supposed to just wait here…"

"I'll wait… You look through things and see what you can find out about our host before Dana gets back." When Helen saw the look Harry shot at her she paused. "What? Just because I like what he did for our family doesn't mean I TRUST him…"

Xander and Faith had managed to get the unconscious witch up to her bedroom and laid out on her bed before anybody said anything.

"Mikki…" started Xander. "What have I told you?"

The response was a mumble.

"Look…" He paused. "Ok, I can understand your reaction, but you over-reacted."

"Did not," she defended herself with a slight stomp. "You vanish for days, then I come downstairs, breaking glass and two strangers in the house. Thought they were attacking Faith."

"They're her parents!" came the response. "They were hugging her!"

Mikki just looked at him. "They smelled like Faith. Thought they'd grabbed her. Was trying to help…" The young girl looked like she was halfway between crying and breaking something when Faith interrupted.

"Probably smelled like me cuz they're my folks," she said. "As for attacking them, look, no blood no foul, right?"

"See!" said Mikki with a pout as she turned back towards Xander. "Faith's not mad at me…."

"Why do I always end up the mean guy or the punching bag?" Xander the muttered to himself, then sighed. "Mikki, I'm not mad at you, I swear. I…" He leaned against the wall and gently beat his head against the plaster. "I just wanted this to go better… A lot better…"

"Its cool Mikki," said Faith. "Look, we're going to go back downstairs. Can you stay up here and watch Tara? When she wakes up, get her some water or a Gatorade out of the fridge?"

Mikki looked at Faith, then Xander. "I didn't do anything wrong, right?"

Xander answered before Faith could. "You didn't do anything wrong Mik. You were just trying to protect Faith. But remember, Faith's dad was just trying to protect her, just like you were. He lashed out at me because he's scared for her."

Mikki looked at him and nodded solemnly, then turned to Faith. "Sorry Faith."

The Slayer reached out and rubbed her hair. "No problem kiddo. Now you watch Tara, ok?"

When the were nodded, Faith grabbed Xander's arm and pulled him out of the room, closing the door behind them.

Before they could get halfway to the stairs, Faith reached out for Xander's hand and pulled him to a stop. She turned to face him, but hesitated. "I… I just wanted to say…" Her mouth twitched as she tried to find the words to express the overwhelming emotions that were welling up inside of her. "Damn it," she said, swallowing and trying to wipe her eyes dry. "Xander, I…." Again, she paused, then banged her head against the wall.

Xander shook his head and softly pressed the tip of his finger to her lips. "Shhhh…." Inside, he chuckled, glad that he was doing this when the armor of Faith had been stowed for at least a few precious hours. If he'd pressed a finger to Faith's lips, well… Pleasure or pain, pretty much equal odds…

"Don't say anything. You don't owe me anything… This is my way of saying thanks for everything I've put you through, for everything you've been through, since… Well, just everything. This is for you. Your parents, who love you as much as you love them, are here to spend time with their daughter, who they miss very much. So don't waste it. Be with them, tell them what you want to. I'll back you up, no matter what. For a couple of hours, let all of what we are, all of what we do… Let it go… Just for a little while, be their little girl again."

The beautiful young woman who had fought both with and against him, looked up at Xander, her eyes brimming over with tears. "I can't… There's no…."

Xander smiled at her, then wrapped his arms tight around her… "Merry Christmas Faith."

She smiled as she wrapped her arms back around him. "No, today, for a little while at least, its Dana." After holding him for a long moment, she pulled away. "Can we hold off on the whole 'your daughter is a Slayer' thing for a couple of hours?"

"Sounds good to me," he said. "Go on, Fai… Dana…" He said with a grin. "I'll be down in a while."

With a smile, the young woman leaned over and kissed on the cheek. "Thanks, Xander," she said, her eyes watering, and then practically ran for the stairs.

<You did good here today, Alexander.>

As Xander watched, she hit the bottom of the steps and dashed into the room with her parents and out of his sight. 'She deserves so much better than all of this,' he thought.

<Most good people do, especially warriors such as yourself and Faith. But, we don't always get what we deserve. The best any of us can do is to live the life we are dealt, and live it to the utmost.>

As Xander walked back to his room, he glanced again at the doorway through which Fa… Dana had vanished. 'At least one of the people in this house can be with their family today…'

<Alexander,> chided Elan. <Everyone in this house is with their family today.>

After a moment of thought, Xander smiled. 'You're right…Merry Christmas Elan,' he thought as he entered his room and quietly closed the door.

<Merry… Christmas to you as well Alexander.>

As he closed his eyes to relax for a few minutes, Xander thought to his companion…. 'So, tell me about the holidays the Kine celebrated……'

Helen, standing just inside the doorway, made a soft snap of her fingers, alerting Harry to their daughter's imminent return. Immediately, the more experienced agent stopped rifling through the paper's he'd found and instead made it look as if he was examining the books on the shelf, trying to keep his attention away from the higher shelf and the empty japanese sword stand on it. His fingers itched to close around the handle of the missing blade, but he knew Helen would have his guts for garters if he attacked the Xander kid again. Maybe if he just threatened him….

A heartbeat later, Dana reappeared in the doorway, and for a moment, all three of them just looked at each other, not sure quite what to do or say.

Then, with none of them sure quite what happened, they were all standing in the center of the room once more, their arms around each other.

"I've missed you guys so much," said Dana, her eyes full of unshed tears. "I'm…"

"It's ok, princess," said Harry as he held her. "Its ok…"

"We're just glad you're ok… We've missed you Honey…"

A few more minutes of hugging passed before the three broke from their embrace. Dana motioned for them to take a seat, while she effortlessly slid what Xander referred to as 'The Comfy Chair' directly in front of it. Hesitating, she asked if either of them wanted something to drink. When both declined, the nervous young woman grabbed a can of Coke from the mini-fridge before curling up on the chair.

"So…" she started as she opened the can and took a sip.

Her parents looked at each other, neither quite sure how to start this. The uncertainty in the room was almost palpitable.

Dana sighed. "This sucks. I know I screwed up by not getting in touch with you guys sooner, but…" Her dad started to say something, but Helen squeezed his hand gently. Helen knew Dana had to start this, otherwise she'd just clam up. Or worse, run again. A moment passed before the Slayer spoke again. "Can we just skip the yelling and questioning for like an hour or so? Just for a while, forget the whole thing of all of us lying and keeping secrets…. Just for a while, I just want to be your normal daughter, and have you guys be normal parents… Then the yelling and interrogations can start…"

Helen looked at her daughter. "Dana, sweetie. We're not going to yell."

The dark haired teen looked at her mom, a faint smile on her face. "Oh, trust me. There's going to be yelling. And screaming and then denial. And then some threatening and some more yelling, but can we just hold off on all that for a while?"

Harry looked like he wanted to protest, but a look from his wife silenced him.

"No yelling, no arguing and no punching people out. Deal?" she asked her husband in a tone more likely to deliver an ultimatum than an actual request.

Knowing when resistence was worse than pointless, Harry nodded his assent.

"Well, you guys will be proud to hear I'm going to have a 3.3 GPA this quarter…."

"That's great Honey… What classes are you taking?" asked Helen, beaming as only a mother could.

Dana smiled as she leaned forward and hugged her folks again. "Like I said, I'm sorry I didn't get in touch with you guys sooner. But I'm glad you're here today. Wouldn't be a Merry Christmas without you," she paused and looked at her dad. "Even if Dad looks like he's about to bite nails in half if he has to keep biting his tongue not to ask what's really going on here…"

"You don't have to say anything if you don't want to, dear," said Helen as she patted her daughter's hand.

"I know I don't have to, but… You guys have a right to know, in case…" her words trailed off as she gathered her thoughts and composed herself for what she knew was coming. "Go ahead and ask. I'll answer everything as honestly as I can."

"As honestly as you can?" asked Helen.

"Some of what's going on, I'm not… Some of it, there are somethings that aren't my secrets to tell. Others, well, normally I'd say it could fall under National Security, but I guess you guys can keep your mouths shut." Her eyes, held a wicked grin as she told them to ask away.

Harry had tried as best he could to keep himself under control, but he opened his mouth and all his carefully planned questions and the odd speech or two he'd rehearsed for this moment since the week after Dana had vanished, all vanished like wisps of smoke… "How did you pick me up like that?!?" he asked incredulously.

"Well," answered Faith. "I guess that's as good a lead in as I could ask for." She paused to take another sip of Coke before beginning. "The world…" She paused. "Damn, I guess I can't use all of Giles' canned speech anymore." After a moment's hesitation, she tried again. "A long time ago, there was a race we call the Ancients…"

Harry had had enough. Despite the fact that he'd had more run ins with the bizzare and weird over the years, the largest of which was now a water filled crater in South America, he just couldn't take any more of this. Not from his daughter. "That's it. I've had enough of all this crap. This is all that Xander punk's fault and I'm not having any more this. You are not going to be the Slayer anymore, and that's final. You are going to go get your things and come home with us right now young lady!"

The response from the two women in the room were pretty much what could have been predicted by anybody who was not responding to gut reaction as Harry was.

Helen snapped out her husband's name, not able to believe what he had just done. All they had gone through, all Dana had gone through, and he was going of the handle and issuing ultimatums

Faith just rolled her eyes. "Dad… Look, I love you and everything, but I am the Slayer. Or a Slayer… Or.. Shit, I hate all this time crap. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I'm the Slayer. This shit is real and I'm part of it, whether I want to be or not."

"You're coming home with us. I'm your father and while you live under our roof…"

"Oh, that's just rich, considering I've got my own room in a fucking mansion on the other side of the continent. Not to mention the whole thing of if I come home I've got NID, as well as god knows who else, looking to grab me off the street or out of the house the second they think they've got a chance. Oh yeah, coming home, that's just a great plan… " said Faith with a laugh.

Laughing at a guy who is already feeling powerless and in a situation he has no control over is generally not the best way to calm a situation down. So, when Harry stood up and started yelling, Helen just buried her face in her hands and sighed.

At that moment, Xander decided to interupt, and knocked on the doorframe. "Um, I hate to break this up before somebody gets violent, but are you guys going to get ready for the Christmas party?"

Chapter 3

The Mansion
Around Noon on Christmas: 1996

All three of them turned toward Xander. Harry broke the silence. "Did you say a Christmas party?"

"Yeah, you know, where friends come over. Celebrate the holiday. Exchange some presents maybe… Stop me if I'm going to fast for you.."

"Xander," snapped Faith. "Don't be an ass…"

The young man smiled. "But it comes so easy…" The look he got from all of them made him sigh. "Oh, ok. I'll try and watch it. At least until your folks get used to me." Looking down at his watch, he noted the time. "The gang should be getting her in about an hour or so. If you guys want to get cleaned up, the third room on the right upstairs is yours as long as you're here." When neither Helen nor Harry made a move, Xander sighed. "Look, we're having some friends over, and it wouldn't be real social of you to hide the entire time. Or to stand there in some extremely wrinkled clothes and glare at me, Mr. Tasker. So take the opportunity to go upstairs and get cleaned up. There should be some nice threads in the closet that'll fit each of you. Faith, can you show your mom the way?"

The Slayer looked at her friend, then at her dad. "Umm, you sure that's a good idea Xan?"

"No, not really," he replied with a grin. "But we need to take care of some business first." Seeing the concerned looks on both Helen and her daughter, Xander attempted to reassure them that everything would be fine. "We just need to have a talk, that's all."

After a moment, Faith nodded, then took her mom's hand. "Come on, Mom," she said with a smile. "I'll give you a quick tour of the upstairs."

A moment later, the two women were gone. Only after the sounds of them ascending the stairs had vanished did Harry turn towards him. "So, what is it you want to talk to me about."

Xander looked at the big man, hearing the irritation and anger in his voice. "Look, Mr. Tasker, I know you're probably more than a little bit upset about…"

"Don't you tell me how I'm feeling, you little…"

Xander, who had been walking across the room, stopped in his tracks and spun around. "Okay, that's it," he snapped as he stalked back to the spy. "I don't know what your problem is…" He paused. "Ok, not true. I understand what your problem is. But you know what, I'm not your enemy. I've tried, what, three times now to reassure you that your daughter was ok. I went…"

Harry tried to cut him off, but Xander wasn't having any of it. "We're not doing this here… Follow me." Without waiting, Xander went through a door, holding it open for Harry. When the big guy didn't make a move, Xander sighed. "Look, we're not doing this in there… Let the girls have a couple of minutes of peace and quiet without us screwing it up."

After a moments hesitation, Harry followed, swinging the overly thick door closed behind him.

The two were now standing in a stairway which led down to a large, well equipped gym. Xander lead the way, then once both of them were on the padded mats, closed another door. As he turned around, anybody who had ever fought against him would have known in that heartbeat that they should back off.

"I've had about as much of your shit as I'm going to take, Harry. I've gone out of my way to try and let you know Faith was ok. Why? Because Faith is my friend, and a lot more. And I'd do anything for my friends. But that doesn't mean I have to put up with your shit. Three times now I've gone through shit for you and your family. Once I had to avoid a fucking SWAT raid and twice you've tried your best to beat me down. That's two more times than I let most people get away with."

"Are you threatening me, you little shit?!?"

Xander looked at Harry, and shook his head. "God Harry, what the fuck is your problem? You can't be this dense when you're on the job, so why can't you get your head out of your ass?"

The big man was practically ready to blow steam from his ears.

"I know you don't believe, well, probably any of what you've heard over the last couple of hours, but can't you just for a while calm down and enjoy some time with your daughter?"

"She's coming home with me…"

"The country is doomed," Xander muttered. "And how exactly do you plan on keeping her safe, Dutch?"

Harry actually took a step back in disbelief as Xander said that. "How?"

"I know a lot more than you think I do. About a lot of things. Deep down, you know that you can't bring her home with you. Think about all the crap we had to go to get you out here. You think that US alphabet agencies are that worried about you and Helen? They're after Faith… Dana. Not because of anything they actually know about, but because somebody managed to put a piece, of what I'm not a hundred percent sure of, but they put a piece together and they want to wring her dry and see where she'll lead them to next…"

"Over my dead body," said Harry with conviction.

"Yeah, and Helen's and any innocent bystanders and anybody else who gets in their way. These people, they play for keeps Harry, just like you do. Just like I do. Hell, just like Faith does. The difference is, that while we're all trying to do what's best for the people we watch over, they just want power and more power. And they're willing to do whatever it takes to get it."

"We can keep her safe."

"Yeah, and how you going to do that? Keep her surrounded by agents day and night? Shuttle her to and from school in an armored car? That's not living, that's a prison."

"It.." The distraught father tried to figure out what to say next. "Its better than, all this," he said with a wave. "Assuming she's not blasted on something you slipped in her food, being protected by her family is better than being a target for all these de…" He let the word trail off.

"Demons." Xander sighed.

<<He is going through a lot Alexander>>

'You think I don't know that Elan? But every word I've said is true. If they take her back, either she'll run again, these damn agencies will grab her, and that assumes the Watchers don't ever try and make a pass at her. She'd be miserable.'

<<Everything you say is true, but that has nothing to do with the pain and turmoil her father is experiencing right now. He is a strong man, who is used to bending the world to his will. And yet, here he is, being told by his daughter that the world first of all isn't what he thought it is, and that his little girl is suddenly a fighter on the very front lines he has tried to protect her from for years.>>

'Doesn't mean he can take a swing at me every time we cross paths.'

<<No, it doesn't. But give him time to adjust and he will calm down.>>

'He's Faith's dad, Elan. I'm not sure calm is in the gene pool from what I've seen..'

Harry met Xander's eyes, and the look contained within was that of a defeated man. "I can't protect her, can I?"

"Not in the way you want to," replied Xander. "Look, I know this isn't easy. But, if its any consolation, you're handling it better than you did last time." Harry shot him an ugly look. "Ok, fine, you're handling it about the same as your last introduction, but at least a bunch of uptight assholes don't have your daughter in front of a kangaroo court with a death sentence as the only possible outcome."

"What?" Harry wasn't sure which was more confusing, but none of it sounded very pleasing.

"Harry, I swear to you, we're not your enemies. Everybody in this house is Faith's friend. We're her family, not by blood, but by choice. And we won't let anything, or anybody, hurt her while any one of us can stop them." He paused for a moment. "And believe me when I say that we've got more resources and capabilities than you can even imagine. But I can't, we can't, keep her safe when we've got to watch out for her friends lifting more rocks than the people who want her for less than friendly reasons."

The spy looked at the young man before him and weighed his words. "How can I trust you?"

"Fa… Dana trusts me. So, I guess the question is, do you trust your daughter?"

Harry was silent for a long time before asking if Xander had a phone he could use.

"Merlin," said Xander to nobody as he grabbed a cordless phone from the wall charger. "Could you provide a secure line? Harry needs to make a phone call."

"Of course. If I may ask for the number." The response emanated from a concealed speaker, which Harry immediately turned to face.

"Um, who was that?"

"That was Merlin," responded Xander. "He's kinda complex to explain, but let's just say he's our resident expert on, well, just about everything and that without him, we wouldn't have been able to get you and Helen out here as easily as we did."

"You call that easy?"

"Well, compared to some of the other stuff I've done, yeah."

Harry just shook his head then, after a brief hesitation, rattled off a number.

"Very good. The line is secured. Commander, I feel I must advise you that the number Agent Tasker has provided leads to the office of the head of Omega Sector, a Spencer Trilby. It should be noted however, that there are no taps or recorders on the line and that the number one speed dial is to Mrs. Trilby. Number two is to Agent Tasker's line and the third speed dial is to a florist shop on the corner of…"

"That's enough Merlin… You don't have to show off. Next thing you know you'll be trying to get KARR to debate." Xander caught Harry's stunned look and shrugged. "I'm a firm believer in having good people around you and Merlin is the best at what he does, although I have to say, his limitations are about as unique as he is. Anyway," he shifted his gaze to the speaker and continued speaking. "Go ahead and put it through Merlin. Harry knows the score and I trust him to do what's right for Faith." And with that, he tossed the phone to the man with the confused look on his face. When Harry made no move to put it to his ear, Xander told him it was ringing, then walked across the room to give Harry some privacy, or at least the illusion of it.

It was moments like this, sitting behind a desk on Christmas, while his wife and kids were at home enjoying a home cooked meal, that Spencer Trilby hated his job. Not that he'd do anything else, but sometimes it just well that he was able to take out some of his frustrations on the various terrorist who'd had the misfortune of entering his crosshairs.

And, now it looked like he had some additional problems, which were currently pissing him off to no end.

Two of his best agents, who also happened to be amongst the short list of people he called his friends, were missing. And from the report he'd been given about an hour ago, it appeared that there had been a series of high speed pursuits which originated from the area near the Tasker's home and ended near Dulles. Not good. And what made it worse was that the other party involved may have in fact been some other agency, although he'd not been able to ferret out which one or why they were harassing his agents.

Reaching into his desk, the head of Omega Sector pulled out a bottle of antacid and took a pull from it which would have been equal to four recommended doses, had he cared.

As he was capping the bottle, the phone rang. Looking at the massive desk, his eyes tightened a bit as the secure line LED lit up, as did the indicator which told him this was coming in on his private line, yet the caller identification screen remained blank. Curious, he picked up the phone and simply said "Speak."

"Spencer, its Harry."

"Of course its Harry," came the retort as Trilby attempted to mask his relief at the fact that his friend was at least alive, if not ok. "You think I can't tell your voice after all the bullshit you've tried to get past me? Where the hell are you? And is Helen ok?"

"We're fine. Both of us. Didn't even lose our luggage this time."

Spencer relaxed a little bit as he heard the phrase which Harry and he had arranged years ago to indicate that everything was ok in a situation where one of them couldn't speak freely. Had he said anything about the food on the flight, then it would have meant things were bad and he needed an immediate extraction, preferably with guns blazing.

"So what the hell is going on Harry? I've got reports on my desk which indicate you were chased from your home by some unknown agency, in an EXTREMELY public fashion, broke god knows how many laws in the process."

"What can I say… I had something important come up."

"Something important? What in the hell was so important that you had to rip down nearly every street between your place and Dulles? And who in the hell did you piss off enough to chase you down nearly every street between your place and Dulles?"

"No idea. But that's not why I called."

"And here I was thinking your just wanted to make my ulcer act up again."

"I need you to try and find out who…"

There was a click in the line and the sound of buttons being pressed as somebody tried to place a call. A moment later, a male voice spoke. "Umm, hello? Liz?"

"Get off the line please," snarled Harry.

"Uh, sorry. Yell when the line's free, would you?"

"Just hang up the phone already!" yelled Trilby.

"Geez.. Ruder than the little bastard…" was all they heard muttered before the click of a phone hanging up.

"Anyway," said Harry. "You remember how you said you owed me a couple?"

"Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this…."

"I need you to stop trying to find Dana…"

"WHAT!?!?! Are you crazy? We've got several good leads on her and I still think we almost had her that last time…"

"Spence, you're going to have to trust me on this. Stop looking for her. It's more important to figure out who's looking for her. Whatever group was chasing me, they've got way too many resources to be spending it chasing after a teenage girl. And that means they're either rogue or right on the edge of it."

"I can't believe you want me to stop looking for your daughter. This is Dana we're talking about here… Are you out of your fucking mind?!? Let me talk to Helen."

"Can't, she's upstairs."

"Upstairs… Who's she…" Then the sound of a quick inhalation. "Dana?"

"Yeah, we've found her, boss."

"Is she?"

"She's fine. We've been talking for the last hour or so after we almost hugged her to death."

"Where are you? I'll have a chopper…"

Harry cut him off. "No can do, Spence."

"What do you mean, no can do? You guys get home right now."

"We…" Harry paused and looked at Xander, who was sitting on the padded mats and looked to be meditating. "Look, like I said you're going to have to trust me, old man. She's safe where she is, but she won't be safe at home. Not without making her a prisoner."

"I… The…" A sigh. "Well, shit…"

"Believe me, I feel the same. This is a bad situation, but at least we know she's safe now. And surrounded by her friends."

"That kid?"

"Yeah, he's the one who actually came and got us. Spencer, I have to say, I don't like it when a civilian kid knows more about the groups after my daughter than we do."

"Won't be the case much longer. You said groups?"

"Groups. Find 'em, tag 'em, and bag 'em. There is no reason for any part of our government to be after my little girl. Or anybody else for that matter."

"Yeah, well, I'll get the ball rolling… You need anything?"

"Don't think so. Our host has things pretty much lined up. He's the one who gave me the line to call you."

"Interesting. So he's protecting Dana now?"

"Seems to be. Along with a few others."

"He's protecting a few others, or they're protecting Dana?"

"Kinda both it seems. It's a real zoo here…" Harry paused as he realized what he'd said, then pressed on. "But they're a tight group, at least what I've seen so far."

"Do you trust him?"

"Dana does."

"Hmph… Well, sounds like its better than any safe house we could put her in back here."

"Yeah, we know how well that worked out last time."

"Really… Ok, look, take as much time as you need… Just call in if you get a chance, ok?"

"Not a problem, boss."

"And Harry?" The head of Omega Sector's voice softened for a moment. "Give her a hug for me, ok?"

"Will do Spencer. Anyway, I've got to run."

"Try not to shoot anybody."

"I tried, but the kid disarmed me."

"Smart ass." And with that, Spencer disconnected.

Harry turned to Xander, who was back on his feet again, and tossed him the phone. "I thought you said that was a secure line."

Instead of Xander responding, it was Merlin who answered. "The line, Mr. Tasker, was secured. However, ensuring that the signal cannot be traced, identified or recorded in no way keeps the people in the kitchen from picking up the phone and trying to make a call."

"So how do you keep that from happening?"

Xander shrugged. "Tell people you're making a call? Other than that I don't know. Haven't had to call the president since we moved in here…"

Harry looked at the young man and shook his head. "Ask a stupid question…. So, you said something about some clean clothes…"

Xander knocked softly on the doorframe. Inside the room, the two occupants looked up at the doorway.

"Hey Xander," said Tara hesisitantly.

"Hey yourself. How you feeling?"

"Been better," she replied with a half smile. "But, I've been worse as well."

"Wanted to stop by and see how you're feeling. Mikki taking good care of you?"

The young witch looked at the younger were, who was curled up on the window bench, basking in the sunlight, and smiled. "Yeah, she got me something to drink a little while ago."

"Well, just wanted to check in. If you're up to it, the gang should start showing up in an hour or so."

"I'll be fine."

"Want some aspirin or anything?"

"N..No thanks. I'll make myself some tea when I get downstairs."

"Ok… By the way, Tara. That was pretty quick thinking downstairs. You're doing really good with your studies." Tara blushed as Xander turned to head down the hall. "Oh, and Mik, don't forget you've got to get ready as well."

Had been in her other form, Xander just knew her tail would have been twitching in irritation. A smile on his face, he walked towards his room. As he entered, he was surprised to see Mrs. Tasker flipping through his wardrobe. "Umm, hello," he said.

"Hello Xander," she said as she continued flipping through his shirts. "I have to say, you have a good eye for fashion. Especially for someone your age."

Xander grinned. "What can I say, I must be older inside. Not to mention, I've had some rather, um, unique help in the fashion arena. Not voluntarily I might add."

Helen considered this for a moment. "Gay friends?"

The young man laughed, then looked around with a slightly worried look on his face. "No, not at all. In fact, she's about as feminine as you'll find."

"I wish she'd take a look at Dana's," she paused. "Faith. That's going to take some getting used to. I wish your friend would take a look at Faith's wardrobe. She… Well, lets just say that they aren't the same clothes my little girl used to wear. But then again, she's not the same person she used to be, is she?"

Xander smiled sadly. "No, she's not, Mrs. Tasker."

"Please, call me Helen."

"Umm, Helen. Fai.. Dana…"

"Call her Faith. It'll be easier for us to get in the habit, and since I hear we're going to be guests at a Christmas party, we need to fit in."

"Ok… You're right. Faith, she isn't your little girl anymore. She's gone through too much to really be Dana, at least for the most part, anymore."

"For the most part?"

Xander weighed his words, trying to figure out the best way to say this. "Inside, at her core, she's still your daughter Mrs. Tasker, sorry. Helen. But she had to shield that part of herself, and in the process she grew up. I can't tell you everything, that's not my place. But I can tell you that Faith is one of the bravest, most courageous people I know. She's one of the strongest women I know and also one of the most dangerous. But, she's trying to help people, protect those who need protecting and I'd like to think that those are traits she got from you and your husband."

Helen stood there, her eyes watering. "I don't know if I should be proud or worried."

"Be proud. She's a strong young woman who makes a difference. What more could a parent ask?"

"Could you, could you tell me about my daughter?"

For the next thirty minutes, Xander told Helen about the young woman he was proud to stand beside. About school and hanging out. How she was making friends and starting to enjoy life again, at least a little bit. And at the end of the time, Helen Tasker, who had thought she had lost her daughter, Dana, knew a little more about her daughter, Faith.

"Thank you Xander."

"Not a problem, Mrs. Tasker. Faith's my friend, and I just want her to be happy."

"Well, you've made all of us very happy. Even my husband, although I doubt he'll ever say it." And with that, she gave him a rather motherly kiss on the cheek.

"Like I said, Faith's my friend. I'd lay down my life for her, and she'd do the same for me. Bringing you guys together for Christmas, that was easy."

Helen smiled. "I'm glad to hear it. But I do have a question for you…"


"I'm curious as to why there are a half dozen of your shirts, not mention a pair of boxers, in my daughter's room." Her eyes glinted mischievously as Xander cradled his face in his hands and muttered about there being no justice in the world.

"Ok, reality check," said Helen as she smoothed her blouse down.

"Hello, I'm Harry Williams, Faith's father. Myself and my wife, we run an import-export business. We just got back from a purchasing tour in the far east and are happy to be able to spend the holiday with Faith and her friend. Allow me to introduce my wife, Helen."

"Hello, Helen Williams. Yes, we just made it back from Singapore and found some of the most delightful handcrafted jade statues there." She paused for a moment. "Yes, its difficult being separated from our daughter, but we feel that a solid education is more important, not to mention the safety of the States. How do we know the Harris's? Actually, Xander's grandfather was Harry's mentor before he passed. Yes, such a good man. So when we started our business, his parent's were more than happy to let Faith stay here while we're out of the country."

Xander and Faith looked at her parents. "Damn," said Xander. "They're good."

"Yeah, tell me about it. I've forgotten just how true the lies can sound…"

As the doorbell rang, Xander smiled. "Showtime."

"Hi, Mrs. S. Would you like to come in?"

"No thank you Xander, I just wanted to drop of Buffy and Dawn for the Christmas party. Are you sure this won't be any imposition?"

"Not at all, Mrs. S. We're glad to have them. In fact, Jacks and Mikki have both been hounding me," he grinned as if some inside joke ran through his head, "to have her over. And Buffy's been hanging out with Jesse, Willow after school and I try to spend at least a few hours a week with them."

Buffy and Dawn both took the opportunity to squeeze past their mom, standing in the doorway.

"Thanks Mom," said Buffy. "We'll call you when you should come and pick us up."

Dawn, on the other hand, took the time to stop and give her mother a hug and kiss. "Merry Christmas Mom," she said before she too moved into the house.

"Well, if you're sure…" said Joyce as she watched her babies vanish into the foyer, then beyond.

"Really, its not a big deal."

"Ok then. I'll be back to pick them up around nine-ish."

"Are you sure there's no way I can convince you to stay? You're more than welcome."

"No, although I appreciate the offer. I worried when we moved here that neither of them would be able to make friends, but each of them have made friends so effortlessly. Almost like things were tailor-made for us to move here."

Xander smiled. "Ah, Sunnydale. Where life is definitely not off the shelf."

"Well," said Xander as he looked around the living room. Although not packed, there were enough people present to give the room a homey feel. Which was exactly the effect it was having on several of those present. This, this was family. "I just wanted to say thanks for everybody showing up. I know that most of you know each other, but there are a couple of new faces here. Faith, if you'd do the honors."

"Thanks, BT," she said with a smile. Xander on the other hand rolled his eyes. "Anyway, I'd like to introduce my parents, Harry and Helen Williams. Mom, Dad, wave to the nice people."

From his position perched on the edge of a couch, Giles chuckled. "Really?" he asked a wicked glint in his eyes.

"Yes, really," retorted Faith.

"And here I thought you sprang out of the earth in a puff of brimstone, just to make my life miserable..... funny that..."

"Limey prat," she muttered, which resulted in Giles taking a half bow. "Anyway, that's Giles back there in the peanut gallery."

"Pleasure to make your aquaintance. She really is a wonderful girl...."

Faith continued after presenting Giles with a the peace gesture. "Dawn, you remember my folks. She's Buffy's sis." Each of them waved. "Xander you know. Next to him, that's Tara. Say hey, Tiger."

The shy blonde greeted Faith's parents. Harry looked from Tara to Mikki, then back again. "Are they both… " He let the sentence trail off.

Faith and Xander both laughed, while Tara caught the comparison and began to turn as red as Willow's hair. After a moment, Faith took pity on the witch and told her dad that it was just a nickname, nothing more. She chuckled once more before continuing the introductions. "That's Robert behind Tara and Mikki. He's kinda been tutoring me in um, history and mythology."

"Oh," said Helen. "So you're a teacher at Faith's school then?"

"No Ma'am. I actually run a bar."

"You what?" she said, not quite sure of what she had heard.

"I run a local tavern. But that's just for something to pass the days with. I also have a pretty large collection of books, both recent publications and more dated materials. Faith needed some help with her history and mythlogy and I was more than willing to aid her." He paused to take a sip of his drink before continuing. "Since the pub only takes up my evenings, I have ample time to tutor her during the day and afternoon."

"Young lady, you're hanging out in a bar?"

Faith sighed. "No mom, I don't hang out in a bar." She grinned. "I wouldn't want to cost him his liquor license. Anyway, his library is a lot more plush that the bar. But if you want, I'll take you guys over while you're in town." Before they could say anything else, Faith plowed ahead with the introductions. "The guy who looking out the windows, that's Jack Styles. No relation to the other Jacks, who is currently masquerading as an adult and needs to stop necking with Vin and free up the mistletoe for somebody else."

"That Red, commonly known as Willow. Sitting on her left is Jesse and to her right, that's John-boy. Hope you remember all of em, cause there's a quiz on it in the morning."

Harry and Helen just smirked, then flawlessly rattled the names back, Harry taking the left side of the room, Helen the right.

"And who didn't see that one coming?" asked Styles as he rose from his seat. "I'm going to get something to drink. Anybody else want anything?" As everybody started rattling off their desired drinks, Tara flowed to her feet, offering to help and the two left the room. A minute later, Jesse excused himself as well and made his way to the kitchen as well.

The smell of the holiday meal permeated the house as the caterer worked his culinary magic in the kitchen, coaxing tantalizing hints from the various dishes which were being prepared.

In the living room, the assembled group found themselves relaxing as the a small fire burned in the ornate fireplace.

"You remember to open the flue this time?" asked Faith with a smile.

"Almost burn the house down one time…" countered Xander. "At least I'm not the one who got caught eating the decorations while doing her homework."

"Hey, I was hungry. And I'd just made the popcorn strands that afternoon."

"Uh huh…" replied Xander as he looked at the now redecorated tree. "Well," he said. "I guess things in the end, this was a pretty good year."

"Damn skippy." As soon as she said it, Faith sighed. "Well, for the most part anyway." Faith muttered about waste of good people and raised her glass. "Absent Friends."

Xander, Dawn, the Taskers, Giles, Jacks, Vin and Sinclair all raised their glasses and solemnly repeated the toast, while the rest of the group looked confused for a moment before some of them followed suit.

"But enough of this. Its Christmas… And Christmas," said Xander as he moved down to the floor. "Is a time for giving. So, who wants to open their's first?"

Chapter 4

"But enough of this. Its Christmas… And Christmas," said Xander as he moved down to the floor. "Is a time for giving. So, who wants to open their's first?" When there was no response, Xander grinned and just reached into the pile… "Survey says…" he looked down to read the tag. "Giles. You're the lucky winner." Xander flipped the present to him.

The Watcher no more caught the package deftly and looked down at the tag. "From Faith." He paused and looked across the room to the young woman, who simply nodded. Taking that as a sign that the package wasn't going to be anything untoward, he opened it, the lifted the lid of the box aside, and shifted the tissue paper. He cocked his head slightly to the side before realizing what he was lifting out of the box. "I say, Faith, you… Where did you find this?" He examined the black t-shirt for a moment, before turning it around to show the rest of the group.

"I know a guy who knows a guy. Figured I owed you one for letting me crash and for all the grief I'd handed you…"

"I don't get it," said Willow as she looked at the t-shirt, which was emblazoned with the logo of the 'Sex Pistols'.

Surprisingly, it was Dawn who spoke up. "It's… It's autographed by Sid Viscious."

Vin and the Taskers, both of whom recognized the band, did a double take at the shirt and this time meant it when they all thought 'Nice….'

Giles, who was preening like the proverbial cat, carefully set the t-shirt back in the box. His hand drifted up to his face, before he realized that he didn't have any glasses on to remove and polish. "Words fail me, Faith. So, I will have to settle for a mere thank you."

"Like I said, G, you earned it… So X-man, you got anything in that pile for me?"

"You'll have to wait your turn Faith," came the reply as Xander grabbed the next present, this one larger, and indicated that this one went to Jesse.

"From Tara," read the young man, as he held the box. "You didn't have to get me anything…"

The young witch responded with a simple, soft smile and watched as the package was opened….

"Whoa," said Jesse as he lifted the three quarters length leather jacket out of the box. "Tara…" His words stumbled to a halt as he stood and slid the jacket on. The sleeves, the ends of which were rolled up into cuffs, were currently the right length, but obviously were meant to be able to accommodate him if he grew any more.

"Looks good on you, Jess," said Xander as his friend dashed across the room to envelop the blonde wicca a heartfelt hug.

"Thanks, Tara…" he said as the two held each other for a moment before Jesse let her go and then sat down next to her.

"Jacks, you're up." Two packages were passed to her, wrapped together with a ribbon. The larger package was approximately 3 foot tall and about two wide, but only a few inches thick. The smaller looked almost like a postage stamp placed in the center of an envelope when compared.

When the presents reached her, Jacks read the tag on the present. "Somehow, I doubt Santa delivered this…" she said as she looked at Xander.

"What, you don't believe in Santa Claus, Jacks…" Xander said with a grin. "And I don't even need to mention his…"

"Go on, turtle boy…" she said, have irritated, half amused.

Xander grinned. "Just open your present Jacks."

The seemingly twenty-something woman carefully sliced the ribbon away with a fingernail then caught the smaller package as it fell. The paper was torn away, revealing a battered copy of 'A Midsummer's Night's Dream'. As Jacks looked up, half the people in the room burst into laughter, while most of the remained looked either confused at her irritated look or cringed because of it.

"Turtle is too good for him," she muttered.

Vin patted her leg. "He got you far and square, Snowbird."

"Fine… But my turns not far off…"

Chuckling, Xander told her he'd be waiting, but for now, she should just open the rest of her present.

Muttering, Jacks did just that, tearing the paper away. As she did so, she gasped at what lay beneath. The removal of the paper had revealed an aged canvas, painted sometime earlier in the century. The subject of the portrait was a young woman. A young woman, several people in the room noted, who looked very similar to Jacks herself.

The eyes of the half fey turned to Xander, questioning silently.

His smile and nod was all the confirmation she needed for the tears to begin rolling down her face.

"We," said Col. Jack O'Neil, as he let his tray drop to the table in the cafeteria of the SGC, "Need lives."

The rest of SG-1 looked at him, looks of confusion on their faces. Well, except for Teal'c, who's sole response was to raise an eyebrow.

"Oh, come on people," he continued as he sat heavily in his chair. "It's Christmas, for Christ's sake." He paused, as a part of his brain debated on whether or not that was redundant. "Anyway, we need lives. We're at work, on a day we don't have to BE at work. And why is this, boys and girls… girl?"

"Because…" Daniel Jackson started to respond, the stopped. "And, I'm drawing a blank. Why are we here on Christmas?"

"Because, due to our vigilance, the people of the Tauri are able to enjoy their holy day without worrying about the Goa'uld trying to destroy this world."

Jack looked at Teal'c. "Like I said, we need to get lives." With that he began to pick at the christmas fare the kitchen had prepared for the staff of the SGC who either had no families to spend the holiday with, or who had decided to stay on base for whatever reason. "So, Carter. Why aren't you with your brothers?"

Before she could answer, an airman approached their table. "Sirs, the General requests your presence in his office, as soon as convienent."

"Thank you airman," said O'Neil as he rose from the table. "Well, if nothing else, maybe he's got some decent eggnog…"

Her new necklace glittering in the sunlight, Tara skimmed over the paper she held in her hand. She couldn't believe Xander had tracked down her mother's relatives for her. It was almost too much.

But even as the witch watched Dawn holding up her new longbow and hearing her excitement about taking archery lessons, Tara wondered, once again, about the differences between blood and family.

And for the first time since even before her mother had vanished, Tara was home.

"Come on in folks," said the General. "And close the door behind you, please Doctor Jackson."

"So, what's the occasion General," asked Jack as he took a seat. "Imminent Goa'uld attack? Offering us a libation? President giving us all raises?"

"Actually Colonel, mail delivery." The General gestured to the pile of brightly colored packages. "Before we go any further, I have to say that I'm more than a bit concerned that someone is sending personally addressed packages to you here at the SGC."

"Um," said Daniel Jackson. "Are we not suppose to receive mail here?"

"Usually mail for this command goes through NORAD, upstairs. Packages are not supposed to say sub-level twenty six, and in one case, which would be your's Doctor Jackson, include your Office Number to boot!" The General took a breath. "Now that I've said that, open your presents…"

O'Neil looked confused. "That's it? Massive security breech, followed by, open your presents?"

"I'm not happy about this Colonel, but from the note I receieved, it was rather apparent that the person who sent these is also the same person who you all worked with over the summer, and he just wanted to say thank you. I'm not going to get too mad at a man who saved the world and has to hide the fact. Hits a little close to home, you might say."

"Sir, could we perhaps see the note?"

"No Carter, you cannot." The General took the opportunity to open the cabinet behind him and withdrew a crystal decanter, filled with an amber colored liquid, as well as a set of glasses. "As of this moment, we're all off duty for a while. Now, who wants a drink?"

The second round had been poured and the General has asked Doctor Jackson to hand the presents which had arrived out to the designated recipients.

"Well, ladies first," said Hammond as he nodded to Carter.

"Are you sure, sir?"

"Do I have to make it an order?"

"No, sir." With that, Sam tore the paper open. "What the…" Her sentence trailed off, causing everyone to wonder what she had received. Speechless, she lifted up the book which was contained within, allowing everyone present to read the title. "Goa'uld Technology for Geniuses." The cover art looked suspiciously like the Dummy series of books. Sticking out of the top, was a piece of paper, labeled 'Read Me'. As the rest of SG-1, plus General Hammond, was trying to figure out if they should be irritated or bust out laughing, Carter pulled the paper loose and began to read it.

Major Carter,
Figured you might enjoy some reference material to help you along the way to decoding the Goa'uld technology you and the SGC have come into possession of. Although this won't spell it all out for you, it will hopefully point you in the right direction to understanding the how and why on your own, without locking your thinking into what does and doesn't work. You'll find the entire book, plus a little more on the CD's enclosed.


As Carter was drooling over the book, and resisting the urge to run back to her office, Teal'c opened his present, revealing a small brass lamp and a note laying on top of it.

Enclosed you will find an ancient Hindi meditation lamp. It has been used by many wise men and I hope that it will help another when you Kel'nor'em.


The former First Prime of Apophis picked up the small lamp and turned it over in his hands. "Indeed."

O'Neil looked down at the package in front of him. 'A Christmas present. How…' For the life of him, he couldn't come up with a word that summed this up. It had been… The last presents which had been exchanged in the O'Neil household had been opened under his son's gleeful eyes. After that, well, neither he nor Sarah had really felt like celebrating. And then, since Abydos, he'd spent the holidays, well, ignoring the holidays.

"Colonel?" said the General. "Open your present."

Hesistantly, O'Neil complied with the instruction. A moment later, a book similar to, although significantly thinner than, Carter's was revealed. The title proclaimed 'Goa'uld Technology for Dummies' in what was an extremely clever parody of the original series. Chuckling, he pulled a note similar to Carter's from between the pages of his book.

Hope this will help when Carter launches into scientist mode. The index is pretty complete and easy to use. Thanks.


Jack shook his head. That kid was… Well, something. As he re-read the note, he noticed that the note had actually been written on the back of a bill of sale. His eyes got big and a huge grin worked its way across his face as he realized that the book, although something he was sure he'd use a lot, could even compare to the fact that his lake, where he loved to go and fish, had just been fully stocked by the kid.

"And finally, Doctor Jackson."

The archeologist tore into his package like child, ripping the paper off in tatters and shreds. When he was done, there were two books in his hands. The first was a copy of the 'Goa'uld Technology for Dummies', identical to the one Jack had receieved. The second however, was far older, and if the cover lettering was any indication, written in something other than english. A note was affixed to the front of what would probably end up being the only classified Dummies book in the world.

Dr. Jackson,
I couldn't get Merlin to part with any of his books, but I did manage to acquire something I bet you'll find interesting. It's a treatese written during the renaissance by someone who claimed to have conversed with a demon who took the shape of a snake and possessed unsuspecting people. Sound familiar? Anyway, its in Venetian, so I hope you can read it.


"Merry Christmas , SG-1. Now, all of you. Go home. Get off my base. I don't want to see any of you for at least 48 hours," said the General with a smile.

As the door closed behind Doctor Jackson, George Hammond smiled as he reached into his bottom desk drawer and slid the note out from his own copy of 'Goa'uld Technology for Dummies'.

General Hammond,
I wanted to say thank you for the dedication and skilled performance of SG-1 over the past spring while they performed as our liason. A better group of soldiers, of people, we couldn't have asked for. I know that you won't accept anything from us, as we're an unknown element, but I'd still like to say thank you. So, if you'll contact the number below, you'll find a college trust fund has been set up for your grand-daughter. No strings attached. Keep up the good work and know that you're not alone in this fight.


Sliding the note into his pocket, George Hammond picked up the phone and called the most powerful person he knew in order to wish them a Merry Christmas.

"Hey Honey, its your Grandpa…"

The middle aged man sat on the couch, next to his wife and watched as his daughter played with the toys which Santa had left under the tree for her this Christmas season.

From the doorway, there was a soft knocking. Looking up, the slightly handsome man who had been through so much in the past year saw one of his one time protectors who over the years had become a friend. "Hey Bob, come on in."

"Thank you, Sir." He entered the room, carrying an armload of brightly wrapped packages. "These just arrived via courier, Sir. We've checked them and everything seems ok."

"Would you like to sit down with us for a moment, Bob?"

"That's ok, Tom," said the bigger man. "Spend the time with your family." He smiled. "We've got the New Years Football marathon to keep you busy with." As Tom and Marilyn chuckled, Bob handed them the three packages he held. "And on behalf of me and the rest of the detail, Merry Christmas." And with that, he left the room.

"So," said Marilyn as she took the present with her name on it. "How much have you got riding on the games this year with guys?"

"Not much?"

"Liar," she replied with a smile as they watched their daughter open her newest present. The sounds of glee as an intricately craft dollhouse was revealed warmed her heart.

A moment later, she was staring at what could only be described as as one of the most perfect pieces of jewelry she had ever laid eyes on. Crafted of some sort of herringbone silver, it was adorned with a pendant which contained a rainbow of stones and gems, most of which she couldn't even identify.

Her admiration was cut short though by the sound of her husband tearing through the paper on his in a fashion quite remeniscent of their daughter. When the wrapping was gone, a highly polished wooden box was revealed, a small note affixed to the lid.

Sometimes, a 'Thank You' just isn't enough. Even though you haven't accepted our offer, don't think we will forget what you've done, for us and the rest of the American people. Sometimes the cost of doing what is right is higher than we think it will be, or are even able to pay. But remember, the tougher the choice, the more critical the decision, in the long run, history will remember those who stood for what was right, no matter the cost. You made a tough choice, but it was one which had to be made… And the cost you paid was far less than others who made equally difficult decisions. But remember, no matter where you are, what you do, we are in your debt, Mr. President…. Thank you for your service. And for your choice. ˜X

Curiously, Tom Whitmore lifted the lid… And a heartbeat later almost dropped the box as he read the first few words, some of which had been scratched out, then rewritten as the man who would eventually speak those famous words struggled to find just the right note as he tried to put his thoughts to paper.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Jack Styles reached down and pulled his pocket watch from the pocket of his slacks. "Umm, I hate to be rude but I've got to get going if I'm going to be on time for my date."

"With Liz?" asked Harry.

"No," said Jack with a smirk. "Liz is meeting me along the way so I can have the present I wanted to deliver. Tonight, I'm dining with an Angel…"

"Well, in that case, you should probably open your present first," said Xander as he scrambled for the small box under the tree. Finding it, he tossed it to Jack, who had just finished sliding into his jacket.

"Cool, thanks for the keys Xander. I'm assuming the Volvo is still down at the boat house?"

"What? How?" stuttered the young man.

"Oh, please," said Jack. "I may have lost a couple hundred years, but I'm still a pretty damn good spy. Merry Christmas everybody. Don't wait up." And with that, he was gone.

Xander looked at the doorway through which Styles had departed. "Well, at least we know next year to be sneaky about what we give him..." He paused and looked under the tree again. "Wills, you're up."


Xander chuckled. Years could pass, time could be folded on itself, but something would never change. "Yes, you." He gently flipped a small envelope to her.

Willow greedily tore open the envelope and slid out the three certificates contained within. Her eyes lit up as she read the first and then second, but then she seemed to lock up as she read the third.

Jonathon grinned as he poked Willow gently in the side. "I think you broke her Xand… What'd you give her?"

"High speed net access for a year, another year with Master Lee and dinner…"

Willow looked up, seemingly confused and elated at the same time. "Nikon? Here?"

Xander smiled. "Yep, along with Dade, Kate and Cereal. Joey couldn't make it. They earned a break, so I gave em a trip to Vegas for the week. Wasn't a problem to arrange a side trip here at the same time. So, I'd suggest a good night's sleep tonight."

Jesse looked back and forth. "Umm, I'm confused. Who are these people and do we trust them?"

Faith chuckled. "They're cool, but don't expect em to be real friendly. With the chance to hang with Red, the rest of us are going to pale, cuz we ain't elite."

Jesse looked more confused than ever as Xander handed him an envelope. "Maybe this will make up for it."

The teen looked at the envelope, then at Xander and Willow, who was still in shock. "If this is for dinner with a camera, we're having words…"

"Just open it."

Shrugging, Jesse complied, and found himself holding a certificate pronouncing him the owner of a hundred shares of Yahoo as well as a certificate good for another year of Master Lee's tutalage. "What the hell is Yahoo?" asked Jesse.

Faith, Giles and Dawn all chuckled or laughed as Xander said he's just have to wait and see.

"And now, Jono. Pass that carefully, will you?" said Xander as he handed the package to Willow, who handed it off to Jonathon.

"Umm, for some reason, I'm a tad nervous here…" said the young man who was holding the wrapped present with his name on it.

"Man, you know, you guys are the most nervous people I know when it comes to opening presents…"

"I wonder why, coming from Mr. 'I sometimes work for the'…"

Xander cut Jonathon off, a bit more harshly than he intended, before he could finish the sentence. "Just open it, ok?"

Jonathon looked a bit sheepish as he apologized, his hands carefully untaping the paper and unfolding it from around the present.

As the tissue paper was removed, Jonathon's mouth fell open as he realized what he was holding. "It can't be…"

"It is…"

"No way…"

"And, if that's not enough, check the inside cover…"

Jonathon seemed very nervous as he opened the aged leather cover. And even more disbelieving as he read the signature which read Tolkein. "Where? How? Why?"

With a smile, Xander simply said that he thought Jonathon might get a kick out of it.

"A kick? Out of a first edition, SIGNED, Tolkein? Are you kidding?"

Cordelia Chase lay on her bed, staring blankly up at the ceiling of her room. A room that had been decorated by the finest interior designers that Los Angeles had to offer. A bed which had been custom made for her, hard carved by another reknowned designer.

And she sat there, staring at the ceiling, wrinkling her outfit, as the annual Chase christmas party went on downstairs without her.

A soft knock emminated from the door. "Mistress Cordelia, are you all right in there? Your parents want you downstair."

From her position on the bed, Cordelia couldn't care less if she'd tried.

A few minutes later, there was a louder pounding on the door, followed by the sound of Cordelia's mother demanding that she open this door immediately.

After rolling her eyes, Cordelia acquiesced and got up from the bed, walked over to the door and unlocked it. Swinging open the solid piece of oak, Cordelia Chase stared at her mother. "Well, what do you want, mother?" she said, half surly, half resigned.

"You're being rude to our guests with this childish refusal to come down and make an appearance young lady. There are several young men who would make excellent suitors for you, if you would stop this rediculous behavior."

The young woman looked at her mother and shook her head. "I'm not interested. Tell them I'm not feeling well or I'm…"

Her attempt to speak was interrupted by her mother. "I will do no such thing. You will come downstairs and be a gracious hostess and act least try and act like a young woman of your breeding and class should behave. Not like some…"

Cordelia had had enough and responded in a very quiet, very level tone. "No, mother, I will not. I have no desire to go down there and act like some potential trophy wife for the brain dead buffoons who want to try and suck up to you and dad. Now, go back downstairs and tell the cashmere wearing sheep that I'm not feeling good or I will go down there and raise such a scene that you and daddy won't be able to show yourselves at society events for months."

And then, while her mother was standing there, doing a rather passable guppy impersonation, Cordelia Chase firmly shut her door and through the lock before collapsing back on her bed again. A moment later, she heard her mother announce that they would discuss this later, then the sounds of her mother's Prada heels receeding on the polished hardwood floors.

As the tears began to roll down her face, not for the first time, Cordelia Chase, alone in a house where a party was occuring, felt the ache of her scars, inside and out, and wished that she was part of a family instead of being bound to strangers by ties of blood.

Xander sat on the roof, just beneath the balcony outside leading off of the upstairs library, when there was a knock on the french doors.

"Room out here for one more?"

"Hey Dawn," he said without looking back. "Yeah, come on out. Watch your step when you're getting on the roof. The dew makes it a bit slick."

With a smile, Dawn replied. "Oddly, I'm not too worried. I doubt you'd save me from everything you've saved me from, just to watch me slide off a roof and break my neck." The teen smoothly climbed the rail, slid onto the roof and sat down next to her friend and looked out over the estate. "Kinda hard to believe that hell is only a few miles and a hellmouth away, you know?"

Xander sighed. "Way too easy to believe sometimes, Dawn." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the cool, ocean scented air. "So, what's up?"

"Nadda," came the response. "I wanted to give you your present away from the non-temporally repedative." Xander chuckled as Dawn pulled a small, gift-wrapped package from inside her coat. "Before you open it," said the once and future Key, "I want to say thanks again for everything. I wish I could have given you something really cool like you gave everybody else, and thanks again for the longbow and the lessons by the way. Anyway, I wish I could get you something cool, but with Mom still convinced that Buffy is the older sister, not much chance of me being able to buy anything outside of the kiddie department…"

"Dawn, you don't have to get me anything, ever. You know that, don't you?"

"I know. But, regardless, I want to. You've earned more, and better presents, than everybody else here has."

Xander reached over and gave her a one armed hug. "I've got my presents Dawn. The fact that my friends here in Sunnydale are still breathing, that's all the present I could ever want."

The appearingly young girl wrapped her own arm back around Xander. "You know what I mean. And, in a couple more years, I'll be getting you presents just as cool as you got me, capische?"

The young man smiled. "You make it through to graduation, and we'll call it a start, ok?" When she agreed, Xander looked at the package Dawn was still holding. "So, who's that for?"

"Smart ass," responded Dawn as she handed it to him. "I'm not sure how useful it will be, but I wrote down every single thing I could remember about the first go around. Big stuff and little stuff. A lot of its, well, probably useless, but I figured better safe than sorry."

Xander chuckled as he unwrapped the paper, shoving the torn wrapping into his pocket. When he was done, he was holding a simple black leather journal. He ran a finger over the cover before opening it to read the words Dawn had written on the first page.

There aren't words to express what I want to say. Literally, I mean that. English sucks when talking about time travel. But I owe you my life, more than once over, as well as the lives of mom and Buffy, so I want to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I know whats coming, as do you, and so as soon as you'll have me, I'll be standing there beside you on the line.

Love You,

"Thanks Dawn. This means a lot to me."

"Glad to hear it, cuz I meant every word. Anyway, I wanted to drop that off before Buffy started trying to find out what I'm doing sneaking about with an older guy."

Xander laughed and rustled her hair. "Get out of here Dawn. And don't forget to bring your mom's presents to her."

"No worries X-man," responded Dawn as she flowed to her feet. "Anyway, I've got lessons in the morning at Master Lee's."

"I still can't believe your mom agreed to sign you up for lessons."

"Well, after the whole kidnap thing, it was pretty easy to push for them. Plus, with Buffy being the Slayer… At least this way I'll be prepared when some vamp wants to use me as bait."

"Too true. Jonathon helping with your class much?"

Dawn laughed. "Seems like he's practically living at the dojo these days, although I heard Joy say something about dance lessons for him, so I think I know why…"

"You're too crafty for a twelve year old."

"Yeah, but just about right for an eighteen year old. Anyway, I've got to get gone. Oh, and Xander…"


"Merry Christmas," said the Key as she gave her friend a hug then vaulted the rail and headed back inside, leaving Xander alone under the stars.

Xander watched as Faith hugged her parents goodnight and closed the door to the guestroom, then sautered over to him as he stood in the hallway.

"How they handling everything?" he asked.

"Better than I would've guess," responded the Slayer. "I think its a lot for them to get grip on all at once."

"Well, if their daughter is any indication, they'll be fine. Anyway, considering what they do, it's probably better that they know, so they can be aware of what's going on around them."

Faith stood there for a moment, then leaned in and gave Xander a soft kiss. "Thanks Xander. You've made this the best christmas a girl could ask for."

"All part of the service Faith," he replied as he gave her a hug. "All part of the service. Now, get some sleep, its almost two in the morning and I'm sure the truce from your folks won't last much through tomorrow."

Faith laughed. "Well, if you piss him off again, try and do it early in the morning."

"Why, so we wake you up?"

"No, cause I've got the nine to ten a.m. block in the pool…"

"Xander laughed and headed towards his room. "Night Faith."

"Night Boytoy."

As their doors closed, Helen quietly closed her door the rest of the way. Somethings, she decided, would be better if Harry didn't know…

December 26, 1996
2:07:03 a.m

It had taken months to cobble together the repairs needed. And, in the process, he had been forced to use far more energy than he wanted to contemplate and, perhaps even more disturbing, had cannibalized critical power generation components. His energy reserves and suppliers were well below what could even be considered critical levels. If this failed, if they could not or would not come to his aid, and quickly, he would not even have enough energy to activate the stasis unit which constituted his sole remaining emergency option. He was risking his very existence on a months old emergency call which had gone unanswered as far as he could tell. And with his external sensors in their current condition….

Had he been human, he would have uttered a quick prayer. Or crossed his fingers, had he had any. Or cursed.

Instead, he simply rerouted power to what any technician would have referred to as a horrid, rube goldbergin kludge, and slowly powered up the transmitter for the first time in a very, very long time.

2:07:27 a.m

Xander groaned as he was awakened to the sound of the alert klaxon going off in the house. "Why am I NOT surprised…" he muttered as he rolled to his feet and grabbed for a t-shirt, pulled it over and distractedly tucked it into his sweats as he ran for the stairs.

"Ok Merlin," he said as he took the steps three at a time, running for the command station in the basement. "What's the deal?"

"We have a situation," came the response.

Chapter 5

Xander hit the basement floor running as he yelled for Merlin to open it up. On the far side of the open space, a concealed door silently slid to the side. The young man ran for the opening and twisted, sliding through as the door continued to open. Vaulting the back of the chair, he slammed down into the padded seat. His eyes darted up to the massive plasma display which hung on the wall as he first looked over the outer system diagram, then, when he saw it clear of hostiles, he looked over the world map, which was also clear of target indicators.

As he finished his quick look over for blinking red icons, Faith came barreling into the room before she skidded to a stop. "What's the emergency?"

Xander turned to look at her, and, for a moment, lost it as Faith was standing there, hopping on one foot trying to get her sweats on over Xander's boxers. "Like I said, Faith with her pants off, a riveting sight…" he said with a chuckle.

Finally getting the midnight black sweats up over her shapely rear, Faith smirked. "Squick factors going to wear off sooner than later, Boytoy," she said with a sultry tone. "Then I'm going to have you help me with an itch I've been needing scratched since four years from now…"

"Keep it down," replied Xander as he watched Faith's parents come down the stairs, flanked by Tara and Mikki. "Otherwise, your dad might keep that from happening by the simple method of killing me…"

Before Faith could respond, the slowpokes who had bothered to get dressed before they ran downstairs entered the room.

Harry looked to both sides of the door as he stepped through, his pistol clutched in his hand. Seeing his daughter sliding into a chair similar to the one Harris was sitting in, he decided that things probably weren't imminently life threatening. "What's the emergency?" he asked as he tucked the weapon into the small of his back. "We under attack?"

Xander looked at Harry, then at the situation board, then at the ceiling. "You know, I'm kinda wondering that myself. Merlin? What's going on?"

"As I said earlier, we have a situation."

Xander groaned. "What did I do to piss off the Fates enough to ensure that I almost NEVER get a holiday that's peaceful."

"You could ask Metatronnext time you see him… Or his friend, but then your head would explode, so wouldn't do you much good."

"Not helping, Faith. I swear, it's almost like there's somebody out there who enjoys watching us jump through all these hoops."

Before anybody else could speak, Merlin announced that he has received a groundwave communication.

"I thought you and Niume were bouncing off the satellites to talk to each other," said Faith. When Xander looked at her oddly, she shrugged. "What? I pay attention sometimes…"

"We do," responded Merlin. "This message was not from Niume."

Flashback 2:07:26 a.m

"So," said Niume as she focused a fragment of her consciousness on the pebbles arrayed before her. "How is the young commander performing to date?" With a thought, one of the black stones lifted out of a small bowl and onto the glass-like board.

"An interesting stratagem," Merlin noted as he pondered the board. "His training is advancing well in certain areas, while in others, let us say that Lady Elanthelle is not exactly following the normal means of training a bearer. Not surprisingly, his focus seems to be more on the martial aspects, only gleaning bits and pieces of the other arts. Some, it would seem have been ignored all together at this time." One of the white stones moved from the bowl closer to Merlin and came to a stop on the board, two levels above the one Niume had placed her piece. "I will say, I am pleased to see that he is learning to at least realize that he cannot do everything himself and is beginning to collect a solid support staff to which he can delegate some tasks."

"Some, but not all?"

"No, not all." Merlin watched as Niume placed her next piece before continuing. "He still believes, very strongly, in leading from the front. Although an admirable quality, it was very clear during the crisis with the Ha'Tak, that he will continue to lead from the front, beyond all rational expectations. And, with the current state of… disarray… regarding the personnel structure and organization, if something should happen to him, then things will be, shall we say, problematic, when it comes to succession of command."

"Have you spoken with him or Grey in regards to this topic."

"I have," said Merlin as he placed his next piece. "Although he has assumed control of Avalon's facilities, there has not yet been enough progress in recruiting to formalize the command structure. In addition, there have been some debates as to what form the organization shall take once reconstitution is completed."

"This is a task which I do not envy you. In many ways I am fortunate that my own facilities are not…"

Niume stopped in mid sentence as a small mote of energy winked into existence next to them and began to pulsate and expand. Disbelief written on her Avatar's face, she looked at Merlin in shock. "Can it be?"

"I suspect," responded Merlin as the orb continued to grow, "that we shall find out momentarily."

As he finished speaking, the orb began to stretch and flatten, until it was a two dimensional rectangular frame, the center of which was as dark as night. As the two AI's watched, the window flickered to life, revealing an aged face, its dark brown skin decorated by a series of bluish white dot tattoos in a pattern high lighting the ocular ridges and cheekbones. As the two watched, text appeared in the lower left corner, displaying an Atlantean time date stamp, as well as indicating that the message was for Merlin and was cleared for receipt to any other functioning AI's who could receive it.

Greetings, Merlin of Avalon Special Forces Command, and any other surviving installations who might receive this message. This message is a response to all units rally signal from Kaer Welin, Southern Research and Reconnaissance installation. I repeat, this is a response to a Alpha Priority all unit response rally which was broadcast by Avalon Special Forces Command.

Status of Kaer Welin is as follows. Deep space communications arrays, unknown, linkage offline. Deep space tracking systems, unknown, linkage offline. Orbital Traffic Command systems, unknown, linkage offline. Planetary communication systems, severely damaged, emergency repairs in place. Regional Defense grid, unknown, linkage offline. Research facilities, unknown, linkage offline. Internal sensors, heavily damaged. Internal Stores, unknown, linkage offline. Automated repair systems, negligable capability. Internal defenses, armed, AI command interface offline. Power reserves, emergency levels. Power generation. Primary Generators, offline. Secondary naquada generators online, output linkages offline. Shutdown systems offline. Secondary generators are being regulated by primary AI control over diagnostic linkages. Tertiary power generators have been taken offline to effect communications repairs and cannot be brought back online. Emergency power reserves are sufficient for two hundred and fourteen hours as of this broadcast.

As no further signals have been received via groundwave, I do not know if any surviving facilities are still online, or if so, what their current status or readiness levels are. If any facilities receive this and are unable to respond in time, or unable to transmit, I wish you luck my brethren.

Uluru, sighing off.

Raising an eyebrow, Merlin spoke. "Well, that was unexpected." With a thought, the game vanished, a small pulse of light shot away from Merlin and a larger orb winked into existence. "I fear our game will have to wait, Niume."

"Of course. If you will excuse me, I will attend matters in my sphere as well as send a message to our brother following yours."

Merlin nodded, and a moment later, Niume faded from sight.

"Now, to compose a response…" As he began speaking into the orb, the alert signal was sounded in an unassuming mansion in Sunnydale.

"Perhaps I should elaborate," said Merlin. "Does everyone remember the rally call via groundwave which was broadcast during the incident in the spring?"

Harry and Helen looked at each other, confusion evident on their faces. Then, something clicked in Helen's mind and her gaze shifted to her daughter. 'No,' she thought. 'They couldn't have been involved with… Whatever it was that happened…'

Xander announcing that yeah, he remembers, cut off Helen's thought before it could proceed any further.

"There has been a response," announced Merlin. "Before I proceed, I feel I must ask if it felt a briefing should occur with the current occupants present."

Immediately, Tara and Faith looked at Xander, who looked around the room, and then back at Faith and her parents. He seemed to be weighing options in his head when Harry spoke up.

"Look, I don't know what's going on here, but if you think you can keep us out of whatever it is you've dragged our daughter into… Well, its not happening…"

Xander sighed and dropped his head into his hands. "All I wanted to do was win the lotto, surround myself with beautiful women, eat Twinkies and not be my Father… Was that too much to ask?"

<<Well, you've got the beautiful women part down,>> chimed Elan. <<Of course, half the time they want to kiss you, the other half, kick your ass, but you're definitely surrounded…>>

Xander groaned. "There's no Justice," he muttered before lifting his head again and looking at Faith. "It's your call," he said. "It may be too much of a conflict of interest for them, but I trust your judgment."

In response, Faith looked at Xander, taking in what he had said, then at her parents. After a moments hesitation, she sighed and looked back at her friend who was and would be so much more than an ordinary friend. "Be right back X," the Slayer said as she rose to her feet and pulled her parents out of the room.

As the door slid shut, Merlin spoke. "Shall I proceed, Commander?"

"If you don't mind Merlin, I think we should wait for a moment…"

"As you wish…"

"Merlin, privacy mode," said Faith as she leaned against the door, looking at her parents. "Ok, this officially sucks," she muttered. "Mom, Dad… Time to fish or cut bait. I need to know how far you guys trust me."

"We trust you, honey," said Helen. "You're our daughter."

"No mom, this is way beyond that. This isn't about me ditching school, or denying when I snag twenties from Uncle Gib's wallet. This can't go up the food chain, not one single step. I need to know that you guys will swear not to report what you're about to hear to Uncle Spence. Or at least not yet anyway. What goes on behind that door, what we do, its bigger than us."

"You already told us about the whole demons and Slayer gig, and we believe you. We're not going to tell anyone about it," said Helen as Harry stood there, trying to keep up with his daughter being into some pretty serious shit, and not doing to well.

"This? This is bigger than all that. You guys tell about that, we can deal with the results. Hell, the government, or part of it anyway, already knows about that stuff enough to start a program in the not too distant future. What we're talking about now? This is way bigger. Bigger than me, bigger than you guys, bigger than Omega. Bigger than the President."

"Oh, come on, Dana," said Harry. "Whatever you and your friends are doing, its not bigger than the US government."

"Dad, I love you, you know that, right?" When he nodded, she continued. "Then shut up and listen to me. This is bigger. If you believe it or not, it doesn't matter. Either you believe me, and trust me, and swear to me that this goes no further, or you walk back upstairs right now and I'll talk to you later."


"No dad, this isn't up for debate. Fish or cut bait. In or out, which is it?"

Harry looked at his wife, then back at his daughter. "Helen?"

Faith's mom looked at her daughter, meeting her eyes and examining what she saw within. Looking at the depths, not with the eye of a spy, but with the knowledge of a mother. In that moment, she knew her daughter believed everything she had just said and was willing to keep them out of whatever was going on.

"We don't say a word, Harry. Our daughter is asking us to trust her, so she can let us in. If we don't, then we don't deserve to know what she's doing."

"But what if…"

"No, Harry," she said, cutting him off. "Da.. Faith, I swear to you, I won't say a word, nor will your Father, about whatever it is. No matter what, until you tell us its ok to do so…"

Faith reached out and gave her mom a hug, then looked at her dad, who was obviously torn.

After a moment though, he spoke. "I swear, I won't say a word… Not without your ok… "

"Great," said Faith, a broad smile on her face as she flipped up a panel and pressed her hand against the plate concealed within.

"But don't think that this means we're not going to have a talk about BoyToy later on…" said Harry as the door began to open. At the disbelieving looks from both his wife and daughter, Harry shrugged. "What? You think I didn't hear when Helen did?"

Faith swung her gaze back to her mom, stunned disbelief on her face. "God, Xander's going to kill me," she said under her breath as she led them back into the room.

As the door slid open again, Xander turned to see how things had played out in the discussion. When Faith re-entered the room, followed by her parents, his eyes met her's. A heartbeat later, Faith nodded slightly and spoke.

"They'll keep it to themselves."

"As long as you're willing to vouch for them, good enough for me." Xander then turned his attention to the Taskers. "You guys should take a seat," he said.

While the trio took their seats, Faith by Xander, and her parents against the wall. Once they were settled, Merlin's disembodied voice emanated from a concealed speaker. "Commander, do you wish for me to proceed?"

"Faith's as involved in this as the rest of us, Merlin. She's been through the fire and you know as well as I do she's got what it takes to take the reins. It's her call, but I'll stand by her."

"Very well," came the response, although the tone indicated that Merlin wasn't enthused by the decision. "Approximately two minutes ago, I received the following transmission…"

The room lights dimmed and the situation board on the main display was suddenly replaced by the face of Uluru as Merlin replayed the message. When it was done, the lights came back up and Merlin continued. "Since the initial communication, I have been in continuous communication with Uluru, albeit it not in real time." The display zoomed in on Australia, focusing on the center of the continent. "This is Kaer Welin, Southern Research and Reconnaissance Command. From this facility, which was one of the larger planetary installations, although not as large as my own facilities, the Kine maintained a sensor watch from the southern hemisphere and its approaches. Also, in addition to being a sensor station, there were significant ancillary facilities at the base. According to Uluru's report, most of these are offline. From what I have been able to gather from Uluru, he has approximately nine days of power remaining before his systems go offline."

Faith raised her hand. "Umm, stupid question, but what does that mean? For somebody like you, or this Uluru cat? We talking coma? Unconscious or pushing up daisies."

"Under normal circumstances, the loss of power would simply place one of us into what you might term as hibernation."

"Hang on for a second here," said Harry, who was clearly confused. "What do you mean? Offline? Or one of us? Does this make sense to everybody but me?"

After a brief hesitation, Merlin answered. "Mr. Tasker. What your daughter is referring to is that fact that Uluru, unlike yourself, is not human, but in fact an AI system."

"AI?" Harry's brain tried to wrap around that, then it clicked. "You mean the guy that just called for help is a computer?!?"

"Only as you are to a toad, Mr. Tasker. Uluru is as far beyond what you think of as a computer as the DarkStar is to a model airplane."

"Dark… How do you know about that? That project is classified…"

"Merlin, stop confusing him," said Xander. "Look Harry, Uluru is one of ours and whether or not he can go out to a bar with us, we have to help him. So, just accept it and move on. Go into shock later, when we have time, ok? Merlin, please continue."

"Thank you, Commander. According to his report, if repairs are not made within nine days and power systems stabilized, Uluru will power down."

Xander shook his head. "Shit… Merlin, what are we looking at here?"

"Unfortunately, due to the condition of the facility, Uluru is not able to give me detailed information as to what repairs will be required to stabilize the situation. Additionally, with the holiday, many of the technical staff on who have been working on bringing other facilities online have dispersed to spend time with their families. Recalling them alone will take several days unless we wish to significantly increase our chance of being detected by various agencies. The odds of being able to recall them, gather the supplies needed, win entry to the facility and complete repairs, are negligible."

"Damn," said Xander. "I don't see what we can do right now then. As much as it sucks, he'll just have to take a nap and we'll get to him when we can."

"Apparently, I need to clarify. Uluru indicated that he was maintaining manual control over the primary power systems. When his emergency power reserves are depleted, he will shut down, as will that control. When that occurs…" Merlin's voice trailed off and another image appeared on the display.

"Why am I thinking I'm not going to like this?" whispered Helen as she looked at what she recognized to be Ayer's Rock.

"This is based off known stores from the last inventory on record," said Merlin. The video began to play, and the center of the massive stone which sat near the center of the Australian continent began to crack, then vanished in a brilliant boil of light. When the light faded, the camera had zoomed out and up significantly, showing a satellite's view of Australia, and more specifically, the large molten lake of stone which was now occupying approximately the center third of the continent.

After a moment, Faith spoke up, breaking the horrified silence. "Ok, well, what's the bad news?"

Chapter 6

Faith winced as her almost everybody in the room turned and looked at her. Her parents were looking at her in disbelief, trying to figure out how their daughter could look at this situation and still be able to joke. The rest of the group was looking at her and wondering why she had to tempt the Fates like that. "What?!?" she said defensively. "It's only a third of Australia we've got to save this time. Could be the whole world again… And since we've never dropped the ball on…" She paused in mid sentenance and turned to look at Xander. "Um… Does the Hitch could as an Apocalypse we dropped the ball on or not?"

"Faith…" started Xander, then sighed. "We can discuss all that later… Say, when we're not trying to save god knows how many square miles of australia."

"According to my simulations, Commander, approximately 1.2 million square miles of land will be reduced to a semi-molten state by the blast. The rest of the continent will not be physically destroyed, but will indeed be scoured clean by the blast wave from the explosion."

"Thanks Merlin. Just what I needed to know," responded Xander, his voice thick with sarcasm.

"We should notify the australian authorities, have them start evacuating the area," said Harry.

Faith looked at her Father, then to Xander, who simply grinned. The resulting scowel from the young woman only served to make Xander's grin wider. Making a mental note to get even with him later, the east coast native spoke. "No can do Dad. First, lets say we told them that a fourteen thousand year old military installation, which happens to be in the middle of one of their national parks and is a major tourist site, but they've never noticed it before. Assuming they actually took the warning seriously, how exactly do you think they're going to be able to get their ENTIRE population, moved off a continent, in less than nine days. That's what…"

"Approximately twenty million people," interjected Merlin.

"Thanks," said Faith before continuing. "So, over two million people a day. Yeah, that's going to happen. And, assuming by some miracle, they COULD evac that many… Where the hell they going to go? Nope, warning is a definate no go. This is our mess, we fix it."

"Couldn't have said it better, Faith," said Xander when she was done. "This is our mess, we caused it, we fix it. Its that simple. Merlin, get me a line to General Grey, if you would please."

"One moment, Commander. Link established. General Grey will reach a com station within the minute."

Forty six seconds later, the screen, which had been displaying an Atlantean rune, flickered and revealed General Grey. "Grey here."

"Merry Christmas General," said Xander as the general took a seat on the other end of the connection. "I hate to bother you at this hour…"

The retired Marine chuckled. "I'm sure. After all, if you're calling me at this hour, it means you got woken up in the middle of the night and considering what Merlin already told me about the situation, I'm guessing I know why. So, Commander, what can Avalon do for you?"

"First off, what's the status of Avalon?"

"Things are a bit better than when I assumed command. We've got some of the facilities online and we make a little more progress each day. Right now, for what your needs are going to be, well, we're going to come up a little short. Most of the technicians and support staff took a week or two off for the holidays and headed home to visit their families. We've got a ready company here on the island, but honestly, we're still shaking down. Since the only M-41's we've got onsite are the reclaimed testing prototypes, we've delayed in small unit training and have pretty much been focusing on equipment familiarity and using the troops as escorts for the newer recruits."

Xander sighed. "Well, I think we can hold off on deploying those guys for the time being. I don't need soldiers at the moment, although as soon as Andy gets the rifles back into production, we're going to need to expedite the tactics development and training. But, right now, what techs do we have left?"

"Well, about half of what I think of as the industrial techs stuck around. They've made some pretty good progress, but there's a lot to do in order to get this place back online, even with the stellar job Merlin did during the Downtime. They're pretty specialized, but if you need them, they're yours for the duration."

"What I really need are some Atlantean combat engineers, but unless Merlin has a couple companies of 'em squirreled away somewhere, we're pretty much S.O.L., so we work with what we've got. Speaking of which, how are your other operations coming along?"

"Like I stated earlier, we're making progress and hope to have the urgently critical systems stabilized and back online within another six weeks or so. After that, we're planning on doing a survey of the defensive installations, but from what Merlin has said, we're not really holding out hope to have anything functional there without complete reconstruction. But that's not why you called, so what do you need us to do, Commander?"

"I need an Orca. Merlin, if you'd get a list to the good General with what we need. Anything not in ready stocks, pull from deep storage or where ever you can. I'll need the parts, materials, and standard kit for my team."

"Well, that covers parts, but seems like you're coming up a little short on techs," said Grey as he watched the cargo manifest begin to scroll through his screen.

"I've got Dade and crew coming into town tomorrow," Xander paused as he looked at the time. "Make that today. Looks like their vacation just got cut short. Man, Willow is going to be pissed I'm screwing up her dinner with 'em." He sighed. "Oh well, can't be helped… We all get some rest tonight. Their plane touches down at about two in the afternoon. An hour to get back here from the airport. Quick cat nap for everybody, a couple of hours to gear up, then we get on the Orca and head out in time to get to our destination just after dark, local time. Less chance of being seen."

"Sounds reasonable. I'll get the ball rolling down here. Grey out." And with that the link went dark.

Xander looked at the clock again. "Ok folks. We've got some time before we've got to move." His eyes fell on the blonde witch and the young were in the rear of the room. "Mikki, you're going to sit this one out." Seeing that she was getting ready to argue, Xander beat her to the punch. "No, Mik, not this time. You're not a tech, you're not a combat engineer, you're not trained for this and you know it. And even if you don't, I know it, so you're staying behind. Jack will be back before we leave, and if he's not… Well, we'll figure that out then." The young were stomped her foot, but Xander wouldn't back down. "No Mikki, you're staying behind this time."

The were's response was just to stand there and pout for a moment before turning and stomping off. Xander chuckles as he could practically see her tail twitching back and forth.

His eyes moved to Tara. "You up for a little trip Tiger?" When she nodded, Xander told her she was the medic for the op. "Check and make sure you've got everything you need for anything you can think of. Whatever you don't have, get it here by three, money is not an object." After the young wiccan had acknowledged what he said, Xander looked around the room again before speaking. "Everybody back to bed. No telling when we'll get the chance again."

"Oh god…" The frenzied cry was almost torn from the back of the woman before the sounds devolved into something far older than modern man.

Amongst the moans and other sounds of pleasure, the phone on the oaken night stand beside the bed rang once, then twice.

Brought back from the primal edge, the woman spoke. "Vincent Christopher Tanner, don't you even think about it. We're nowhere near done…"

Then, in almost a whisper, she spoke again, and the phone, which had either of the residents of the bed cared to look at it, was shaking as it rang, was now located at the center of a very small sphere of silence… "Now, where were we…"

Xander shrugged as he hung up the phone. "Well, I left a voicemail. They probably went out to have a quiet night to themselves. Might as well let them enjoy it before we ruin the rest of their week."

"You know," said Dade as he idly wiped out a squad of demons who were approaching his electronic persona on his laptop. A persona which was currently raining fire upon them from his automatic railgun. "That guy at the airport… I have never seen a guy who was so enamored with Pez. Talk about odd… Kate! Watch your six!"

Even as the warning was yelled, Nikon opened fire on Kate, blowing her across the room with a well placed anti-armor rocket. "I believe that brings it down to just you and me, Crash," he said with a smirk as the remains of Kate's character slid down the wall and lay limply at the base of the dias, right next to the secret door she had been trying to escape through.

Dade just smiled. "No, not really." And with that, he dispatched his friend with the single round contained in the plasma thrower he'd been lugging around since level three.

"Oh, that blows," muttered Nikon as he waited for the next match to spawn.

"Hope I'm not interrupting anything," said Xander as the monitor on the wall changed from the Best of Match Highlights to reveal the Sunnydale native.

"Not at all, boss. What's up?" said Dade as he looked up from his laptop.

"Well, not a lot. Just wanted to let you know I'm going to need your guys help in keeping Australia from being blown clean off the map."

Dade started to respond, but was interupted by Nikon's manical cackling. He looked back at his LCD panel just in time to see his character blown into a meaty red paste. "Oh, god damn it!" he cursed loudly.

"Well, looks like you're busy, so I'll see you guys when you arrive. Xander out." And with that, the screen changed just in time for Kate to see the replay of Dade's untimely demise.

"Oh, I'm so going to kick your ass Nikon…"

Xander knocked on the door to the guest room the Taskers were currently staying in. "Mind if I come in?"

Inside the room, Faith was perched on the top of the bureau, where she had hopped up while talking to her parents. Her parents were split on their reaction. Harry had wanted to tell her to stop doing things like that. Everytime she did it, it just reminded him how much his little girl had been screwed over by the Fates and that she wasn't ever going to be able to live a normal life now. Helen, on the other hand, was more than a little impressed, knowing that Faith was doing things like that for the sole purpose of getting them used to the idea that she was now slightly more than human. It also made her a bit proud, as she was pretty sure that her daughter was putting herself above their eye level so they'd have to look up at her, thereby reminding them subconsciously that she was in charge here, not them. "Come on in X. Just watching the 'rents pack what little you let them grab before their little high speed escape and evasion adventure."

"You packed already Faith?"

"Took all of three seconds. I figure we're not going to have a whole lot of time on the town, so I just shoved a couple spare of Merlin's miracle suits in on top of a couple of changes just in case we do have some time to hit a club down under. Toss my Slayer kit on top of that, and then everything else is downstairs, so I'm ready to go as soon as Mom figures out that she doesn't have anything left to bring."

Helen laughed. "Well, normally I have to make sure to bring all of our concealed equipment, but since you grabbed us so quick, I didn't bring any."

Xander smirked. "And if you expect me to believe that…. Anyway, if you two are ready, I'll show you guys to the rest of the equipment and let you take your pick."

Harry looked at the young man standing before him, as his daughter silently dropped from her position on the bureau and padded across the carpet. Saying he wasn't happy with this situation would be an understatement of the order of 'Hey Julius, I noted Brutus looked a little irriatated on the way to the Senate this morning.' But, there wasn't anything he could do about it.

Not yet anyway.

"Well, lead the way," he said as he picked up the bag he and Helen were sharing and followed their host out of the room.

A couple of minutes later, found the small group standing outside of a blank wall in the sub-basement. Xander took a step to the wall which ran perpendicular to the one Faith was standing in front of, then swung a panel open and pressed his palm to the polished panel inside. A moment later, a green light blinked on and a concealed steel door swung open, revealing the armory within.

"Holy shit," said Harry in a hushed tone. "How the hell does a kid like you get this kind of hardware." His eyes moved down the rows of weapons, which were organized by type, starting with heavy weapons like the trio of Barrett 50s, a pair of M-60s and a man portable chain gun. In the next row were the sub machine guns, P-90s, MP-5s in a variety of configurations, Uzis of varying sizes and then finally, the dozens of pistols which took up the final row of firearms. "This is what you're keeping in the house with my daughter? And why the FUCK aren't you in jail for having it?!?"

Xander shrugged. "It's what we need for what we do. As for having it in the house, if I didn't keep this stuff down here, Faith would be caching every weapon she came across in her room. As it is, she's probably better armed than you are right now, aren't you Faith?"

The brunette beauty simply smiled.

"Anyway, you guys go ahead and look over what we've got, find something you're comfortable with.

Helen snapped out of her shock a moment before Harry did, and immediately headed for the MP-5s. After a moment of deliberation, she selected one of the SWAT configured weapons, complete with integrated silencer and laser sights. As she moved to step back, Xander told her to grab a second one. "Can't guarentee we'll have resupply, so better to be overprepared than under."

Nodding, Helen complied with the instruction and pulled a second identical weapon from the rack. "Workbench?" she asked, looking around.

Xander pointed to the back wall, where a long countertop was mounted to the wall. "If you look in the cabinet to the right, you should find the maintenance kits for just about everything. A quick suggestion thought. All of our weapons have been gone over by a master armorer. So, you may see some none stock items inside."

"Thanks," said Helen as she sat the weapons down and moved to the cleaning cabinet. "But, I always prefer to test any weapon I'm going to be carrying before the mission starts."

The young man chuckled. "Yep, definitely Faith's mom. We've got a range next door, so that's not a problem." That said, Xander glanced at Harry, who was still looking around the arms locker like it was some kind of mirage. "Hey Faith!" When the dark haired warrior turned, Xander told her to grab whatever she wanted in the way of sidearms, but her favorite toy would be inbound with the Orca.

"Works for me," she replied as she went to the east wall, and after pressing her palm to a plate, opened a large section of the wall, revealing a much smaller array of weaponry nestled within. Casually, pulled out what looked to Helen like a snake folded in thirds, as well as a holster for it. "You want a Zat, Xand?"

Xander looked at the weapon in her hand and debated internally for a moment. "Yeah, might not be a bad idea. And grab one for Tara too… "

Faith pulled another pair of the weapons and holsters from the wall vault, just in time for her father to look over.

"What the hell is that?" asked Harry as his expert eye moved over the unfamiliar items nestled within. On the left hand side of the locker was a pair of some kind of strange staff, the ends of which were both oddly bulbous. Looked pretty useless a hand to hand weapon, but the fact that they were under a second layer of security meant there must have been something more to them than met the eye. Next to the two staffs, hanging in some kind of break away harness holster, was some kind of edged throwing weapon, but the shape was one that Harry had never seen before. "What's with the battarang?" he asked curiously.

Xander looked at Harry to see what the older man was referencing. "Umm…" After realizing that Harry really didn't recognize the smart disk, Xander relaxed slightly. "It's called a smart disk. Got it off somebody who thought they were good enough to take me and a couple of my friends down."

"Doesn't look like it gets much use…"

Xander grinned. "It's a niche weapon. Really useful in some situations, but in our day to day missions, it's a little too… difficult to control. Especially in crowded situations."

Faith chuckled. "Yeah, but you still wish you had the rest of the gear you got from his cousin." She nudged the sealed Atlantean storage container which rested on the floor of the locker. "Or had it in working condition anyway."

"Wouldn't you?" Xander asked with a smirk. "Anyway, unless I can get that wreckage repaired, I'm doubting I'll be able to get another set unless Ruatha wants to make a deal when he gets back in town in five years or so."

Harry nodded, knowing there was something he wasn't being told here, but unable to figure it out and unwilling to admit his cluelessness.

Seeing everybody else, save Harry, had made their decisions, Xander went for his own weapons. Moving to one of the enclosed cabinets, Xander slid a pair of slim carrying case free from the front of the locker. After lifting it to his shoulder, he grabbed three ammo satchels from two different shelves within the cabinet and carried them all to the work bench. Setting the ammo down first, he then carefulling lay the cases down and popped the top one open.

Inside lay one of the few modern weapons Harry had never laid a hand on before. "Whoa momma…" said Harry as he looked over the finely crafted assault rifle. "What have you got there?"

"This," Xander replied as he lifted the weapon from it's case. "This is an M41-A pulse rifle, 10 millimeter, with an over-and-under 30 millimeter," he paused to verify the grenade magazine was empty before racking the shotgun style pump in order to insure the launcher was clear as well, "pump action grenade launcher." He ejected the magazine, verifying that it was a storage mag and that the LED counter read zero, before triggering the manual ejector. When nothing emerged, he set weapon down, confident that the weapon was indeed unloaded.

"Nice," responded the one time special forces troop. "How come…" He paused for a moment. "Wait, I've seen schematics of this thing before… It was in the running against the OICW wasn't it?"

"Yep. Probably would have won the award if it hadn't been for some dirty tricks behind the scenes."

"So how'd you get your hands on two of them?"

"Company that was behind them had put all of their eggs into one basket. When they lost the bid, through no fault of their own or of the prototypes, they went bankrupt."

"Still doesn't explain how you bought the rifles."

Xander grinned. "We didn't just buy the rifles," he said with a smirk.

Harry rolled his eyes. Ask a simple question, get a smart ass answer back. "So, mind if I take the second one?"

"Sorry, but the only other person here who's been cleared on these is Faith and honestly, we don't have time to go through the entire training regimen, especially for the specialty rounds we're using."

"Let me get this straight… You won't let me carry that, but you'll let my daughter?!?"

From the other side of the bench, Helen spoke her husband's name in the tone that only wives and mothers can pull off, causing him to back down slightly.

Xander chuckled. "Actually, I'm just going to check the second one as a backup, not for Faith. We're having some supply chain issues at the moment, so the second one is the only spare we've got until then. Anyway, Faith's going to be carrying something with a little more punch to it…" He let the sentence trail off as he checked out the weapons per the checklist Andy had developed.

"More punch?" said Harry as he headed for the M-60 he'd seen down the first row, his feet moving at the pace of somebody who'd just been blindsided by a truck. As he reached the weapon he was to carry, he looked dumbly at his daughter. "More punch than a grenade launcher?"

Xander looked out across the waves as he set the equipment case down on the deck behind the mansion.

"Nice view," said Helen as she stepped up next to him.

"Thanks," he said with a shrug. Silently, he waited for her to continue.

After a moment, she broke the silence. "I just wanted to say thank you. I'm not going to pretend that I understand everything that's going on around here. I'm pretty sure I'm so far out of my depth that if I stopped to think about it, I'd probably give up hope and just let myself drown. But I know what you've gone out on a limb trusting my daughter about us, and we won't let you down. Not me, and not Harry, despite all his bluster and bravado."

"That's good to know, but…" he chuckled. "Honestly, I already knew it. If Faith thought you guys couldn't keep things quiet, she would have kept you from coming back into the briefing this morning."

Helen was quiet for a moment. "She cares about you, you know. Maybe even…"

Xander stopped her before she could finish. "I know. And she knows how I feel too. And that's all I'm going to say because everything else is between me and Faith."

"Fair enough." Helen turned to go back inside the house. "But Xander," she said over her shoulder. "If you hurt my daughter, do yourself a favor."

The young man looked at the woman who had him fixed firmly in her gaze. "I know. Run."

"Well, if you want to make it easy for me…" And with that, she vanished into the house.

"Mrs. Tasker would seem to be a very formidible woman," noted Merlin as he spoke to Xander over the fold com attached to his equipment belt.

"Really? You think?"

"But, the dedication of maternal instincts aside, I feel I should inform you that Mr. Dade and his party have just entered the estate and should be arriving at the house momentarily."

"Thanks Merlin," said Xander as he headed back into the house.

"There's no way," said Cereal Killer as he stood in front of the massive mansion, duffle bag over his shoulder.

"Looks like Xan-man has moved up in the world," noted Nikkon as his eyes immediately noted the electronic sensors placed throughout the Estate.

Kate just mumbled something about most boys and their toys, as Dade rung the doorbell. A moment later, the massive oak door swung open, revealing Xander.

"Hey guys, Kate," he said as he ushered them in. "Sorry about the short notice, but we've got an emergency and you're on the short list this time. Come on, I'll show you where to drop your bags, but our ride should be here soon.

"What?!?" said Dade as he caught the brunt of Kate's glare, just moments before she tossed her bag in his arms. "I thought he was kidding about saving Australia!"

Xander let the hackers out back, showing them where to drop their stuff. "If you're hungry, we've got a fridge full of leftovers and plenty to drink. Sorry about the lack of warning, and I'm really sorry about messing up your dinner with Willow, who is so going to kill me, but our ride should be here any…"

"What the hell is that?" asked Kate as her eyes noticed the air doing funny things to the landscaping by the beach.

Suddenly, the outline of a massive shape appeared in midair as Rudy made his appearance known, seconds before his voice came over Xander's fold com.

"Thank you for choosing Air Rudy for your travel needs…" The Orca continued to bleed away the effects of the shift field which had shielded it from the prying eyes of the world's governments, militaries and the occasional airliner during its trip from Avalon. "Where you want me to set it down, Boss?"

"Middle of the yard will be fine Rudy," said Xander as he spoke into the fold com he'd pulled from his belt. "Run into any problems on the way in?"

"Hang on for a second boss," came the reply. With a deft touch, Rudy set the massive Orca down on the deployed landing skids. A moment later, the engines switched to standby mode, as the former instructor pilot quickly moved through the post-flight checklist. Seconds later, the side entry opened, lowering to ground to serve as a ramp while the inner door slid back to reveal the crowded interior and Rudy, who strode down the ramp. "Sorry, wanted to get that down and get the topside shift field stabilized to keep us under cover in case of prying eyes overhead."

"Fair enough," said Xander as the rest of the Sunnydale crew began to assemble outside the Orca. "So, did you run into any problems?"

While Rudy explained that they hadn't had any real problems, there were still a lot of Russian surveillence aircraft flying all over the Pacific, taking pictures of everything , including just about every square foot of water out there. "We're kinda figuring they're going to run out of jet fuel sooner or later," he said with a chuckle. "After that, who knows… Guys in rowboats maybe."

Xander laughed. "Well, could be worse… Now that we've got an Orca with a functioning shift field on it, it should make things a bit easier for the Island."

"Yep, if you'd called two days earlier, you would have had to worry about longer flight times. But now we've got this one up and running and the techs think they'll be able to bring another one online every couple of weeks till we've got a squadron up and running."

As Rudy finished speaking, another figure stepped out of the ramp and descended to the lawn. "Commander," he said as he snapped to attention and saluted.

"Major McQueen," said Xander as he returned the salute. "You really don't have to perform a sniper check every time you see me," he said with a grin. "So, what brings you along on the flight?"

"General Grey decided to send along a ready squad for support for you sir. Also, in addition to the equipment needed for the current operation, Merlin decided to send along some of the equipment needed to bring your HQ up to spec as well as some of the gear for what he said you were calling the 'Bat Cave'."

Xander laughed. "Well, come on Major. Big cavern underneath a fancy mansion where people fight the forces of darkness while maintaining a secret identity… Tell me it doesn't just scream 'Bat Cave'?"

"Does it have bats in it?"

"Umm, no…."

Behind the two, next to her parents, who were standing there stunned as they looked at the impossible craft sitting before them, Faith grinned. 'Yeah,' she thought. 'I can definitely see Xander calling it that.'

McQueen looked at Xander, a perplexed look on his face. "Well, if there aren't any bats in it, why call it a bat cave?"

"Great, I've got another Jarrod on my hands," muttered Xander. "Of all the people in the world to recruit and work with, how come I keep getting the ones who have no idea what I'm talking about." Then, a bit louder, "Led a repressed childhood, eh Major."

"You… You could say that, I supposed," came the reply as McQueen's face became a bit wooden suddenly.

"Well, I'll explain later on… In the meantime, lets get the gear squared away and get moving."

"Aye Aye Sir," said McQueen, showing his Marine roots. "Lieutenant Waters! Open the ramp and get the men unloading the gear."

A moment later, the rear ramp began to descend, and almost immediately, even before it had hit the deck, the seven man squad, led by the older lieutenant, began to carry boxes out of the hold. "Where do you want them, Major?"

McQueen looked at Xander who shrugged. "The basement I guess. Anything too big to go in the house, toss it in the cage in the garage."

"You heard the man LT! Get 'em moving!"

Moving quickly, the detachment and the waiting group had the Orca unloaded and then reloaded with the gear they were set to take on the mission.

As the group took care of final preparations before their flight, Xander corraled both Mikki and Styles. "Now Mikki, you've got to be good for Jack, ok?"

"Want to come," she said with a pout.

"Sorry kiddo," replied Xander as he ruffled her hair. "Not this time. This one is way outside what you can help with, so you stay here with Jack and be good. Maybe you could call Dawn, let her know we had to go fix some stuff, maybe go out to the park with her?"

"Would rather go with you."

Xander chuckled. "You know, Mik. In a few more years, you're gonna have the boys eating from your hand. But you still can't come with us. Jack, you'll keep an eye on her, right?"

"Don't worry," he said smiling. "I won't let her do anything I wouldn't do."

"Somehow," muttered Xander as he gave the young were a hug, that does NOT reassure me…"

The Orca, shift field engaged to cloak it from the prying eyes and ears of the governments and militaries who were now looking out for it and its brethren, sped across the Pacific at a speed which would make the Concorde jealous. Within the transport, the passengers passed the time in various ways as the miles streaked by.

Towards the rear of the craft, the New York youths, now both outfitted in the flat black of the Knighthood's standard uniforms, sat on the molded seats. The younger group was busy going over the equipment which had been waiting for them, while Faith's parents sat further forward in the craft and were quietly discussing the ramifications of what their daughter was involved in.

The security detachment were currently playing some kind of game of dice, while McQueen sat with Xander, sketching some kind of plan for training out on a notepad, when Faith exited the cockpit area and sashayed over towards them.

As she approached, Xander looked up, taking in the beauty that was before him and shaking his head. "Faith, I'm sorry, but there is absolutely no way in hell that is stock issue."

Unlike Xander's combat uniform, which fit him well, Faith's looked like it had been painted on. 'No,' thought Xander. 'It looks like it was painted on, then it shrunk somehow.'

The Dark Slayer grinned, her sultry eyes smouldering. "Oh, its stock issue, Boytoy. If you want, you can take a closer look at it. I promise I can make a presentation that will take your worries about standard issue and make you forget all about them."

Taking a breath, Xander focused his breathing and his control, then looked back up at Faith. "Seriously, how'd you manage to get it to look like something that belongs in the Stacked and Packed Calender?"

Faith laughed. "You're the one that made this standard issue, X. I just had Merlin show me some of the tricks it could pull off, instead of relying on the automatic adjustment…" Her grin widened as she remembered her encounter with customizing the outfit she was currently wearing.

** Begin Flashback **

"Ok so what's so special about these threads, M?"

"Well, Faith," Merlin replied, a bit of something close to annoyance and humor mixed in his voice. "In addition to being immune to most energy weapons fire, as well as most small arms fire from pistols and some sub-machine guns. The uniform you are wearing can also shield you from a wide variety of sensors, maintain a comfortable internal temperature as well as adjust to either immobilize an injury or to accommodate the wearer's personal comfort levels."

As she went over what he said, Faith got a wicked glint in her eye as she looked at herself in the full length mirror on the wall of her room. "Let me get this straight… This thing is adjustable? On its own?"

"In simplistic terms, yes. The internal control system can resequence the…"

"Yeah, yeah… Not worrried about the how, just the what. Let's see just how much I can blow Xander's mind he sees me in one of these skin tight. How do I cinch it up?"

"One moment…"

Faith felt the material start to shimmey and shift on her frame as she watched in the mirror. The uniform, which was already a close fit to her current frame, tightened up slightly, revealing the curve which were still developing into the smoking body she couldn't wait to reobtain. After a moment, the sensation stopped.

Turning this way and that, Faith smiled. "Not bad, but I've got jeans tighter than this. Is this all its got?"

After a split second hesitation, Merlin replied. "No, but the uniform is now set to the snuggest default setting based off your body's structure and uniform guidelines."

"Come on Merlin, where's the fun in trying to pull one over on Xander if I don't use everything I've got. Push it to the limit, ok?"

Merlin considered the options before him, and after a moment, acquiesced. It wasn't like the uniform would do any permanent harm to her. And, perhaps, it would teach her a lesson. "Very well."

With an electronic whisper, Merlin instructed the uniform to achieve maximum compression that would not cause damage to the young woman who was wearing it.

As she watched, the uniform snugged up against her skin, pulling in tight, then continued to increase in compression. Faith watched as her uniform went from being a snug set of jeans to a body stocking that was a couple of sizes too small for her. Her breathing was difficult, as the material pressed in on her abdomen while pushing her chest upwards in a very corset-like fashion. Her dierrere felt like it was being cupped and lifted while the material around her legs made her already nice figure look even more breathtaking. Literally.

"Enough," she gasped out after a moment, and then took a deep breath as Merlin reset the controls. "Damn, that was… interesting." she said as she felt the uniform loosen up and release her from its embrace. "But," she said as she looked at herself in the mirror which just seconds before showed her as she'd never even dreamed of looking. "Even though, damn it was tight… MAN! Damn! Was it TIGHT! If something like that in private won't get Xander over this whole appearance thing, I don't know what will!"

Had he been human, Merlin would have sighed. Perhaps she would learn a lesson, indeed. Sometimes, even after thousands of years, he realized just how different he and the humans he served with truly were. And that sometimes, he really wondered if the loneliness of isolation might not be preferable to the insanity that was man.

** End Flashback **

Smile still on her face, Faith spoke. "Hell, Xan-man, compared to what Elan wears, this is downright prim and proper. But, I don't want to give the troops a heart attack." With that, she tapped the wrist cuff and the uniform loosened up to be still tight, but not quite as revealing as it had been. "So, when do you want that inspection, X? I'll show you what these threads are REALLY capable of…."

As Xander struggled for a response, Helen walked up beside him as she took in her daughter's wardrobe choice. "I find your clothes, including boxers, in my daughter's room, she's wearing an outfit which redefines skintight which you admit to making the standard uniform for your group of friends, which I might note has more than a few attractive young women in it, and now there's a mention of another girl. Just who might this 'Elan' be?"

Xander sighed and shook his head before muttering under his breath. "Should have let the damn snake keep my body… Would have been easier."

Faith sat on the edge of one of the equipment canisters in the rear of the plane, her hands unconsciously playing with the rosary which was looped around her wrist. The hatch to the cargo area slid open, but Faith was too lost in her thoughts to note Tara walking up to her.

**Begin Flashback**

Robert glanced over at the VCR and smiled. Standing up and feigning a stretch, the mage slipped quietly across the room, dodging around the others as the watched the gift giving. Tara looked over her shoulder at him with a puzzled look on her face as he leaned on the door frame behind her. He shook his head slightly and nodded in the direction party, bringing a finger to his lips with a discrete 'shhh'. Tara nodded and turned back to watch as Jessie received another gift, but as she turned, she caught the man reaching into his pocket and pulling out an old pocket watch which he flipped open and glanced at it.

Robert watched as the hands moved slowly but surely around the face of the antique face, the minutes ticking away. Nodding, he closed the watch and waiting, his fingers drumming lightly on the end table. The mage smiled as the round of gift giving wrapped up and he waited for the proper moment to interrupt.

"Mr. Harris?" he asked as the round ended. "Before you start the next round, can we wait a moment?"

Xander frowned, but he nodded, waiting to see what the mage wanted. Everyone in the room stared at Robert as he opened the watch and glanced at it again before closing it. He smiled and nodded to himself when suddenly the phone rang. Reaching down, Robert picked up the receiver and placed it to his ear, listening intently.

"You're right on time," he said into the phone. "Yes, I got my gift, thank you very much. Yes, she's right here, one moment. Faith, it's your brothers. Consider it your second present from me."

Faith's eyes went wide, and she bounded across the room, dodging around the others like a ballet dancer on speed. Snatching the phone from Robert's hand, she placed the receiver to her ear.

"Hello?" she stammered into the phone.

"Lass!" shouted Conner only to be followed by Murphy's shout of "Sis!"

Xander grinned and shook his head at Robert as he watched Faith talk animatedly into the phone. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the confusion on Helen's face and something akin to outright anger on Harry's.

"Where are you two?" demanded Faith into the phone. "I haven't heard from you in months?"

"We're back in Boston. Rob said you were feeling a little down about the holiday so we set up a phone call," said Conner. "Has he given you your gift?"

"Gift?" asked Faith as she glanced up at Robert.

Upon hearing the question, the mage smiled and reached into his sport coat, producing a small, delicately wrapped box. "I believe this is what they are referring to," said Robert as he handed Faith the small box, before he turned and slipped back across the room to his chair, nodding to Xander as he passed, a wry grin written on his face.

"Who is she talking to?" hissed Helen quietly.

"Her brothers," said Sinclair with a shrug.

"She doesn't have any brothers," growled Harry, a scowl on his face.

"Maybe not of blood," shrugged Robert without even turning his gaze from his Slayer. "But perhaps by choice, perhaps she has a lot of family that way. She'll explain later I'm sure, but I do suggest you not pressure her."

Everyone watched with curiosity as Faith tore through the wrapping of her present, shreds of paper floating through the air like snowflakes. Finally, a small jewelry style box was revealed and Faith tentatively opened it and she let out a gasp. Nestled inside, on a bed of red velvet was a cross, much like the rosary she wore on patrol, but very different as well. Instead of the wood and metal that the rosary was made of, this was smaller, and made of gold. The craftsmanship was incredible, with the rounded band on the cross being engraved with Celtic knot work.

"Conner, Murphy, how, when," she struggled to say. "Where did you two get this?"

"I think she likes it Conner," said Murphy.

"Aye, sounds like she does," replied his brother. "Tis the quietest she's been in ages."

"Hush you two," she groused through the phone. "Where did you two get this? The design is incredible."

"Well, there is this wee lass we know who is an artist," said Conner plainly. "She helped with the design, and then it was just a matter of finding the scratch and a jeweler to make it. Sharpe and Harper helped with that. Does us a favor and tell Robby to toss the other gifts out."

Faith glanced at Tara, who looked down at the floor shyly, a blush creeping up toward the tips of her ears. Shaking her head, Faith looked up at her Watcher and smirked.

"Hey Robby, they say hand out the other gifts," she said with a grin. "They're words, not mine."

"Oh shite, sis," shouted Conner through the phone. "Did ye have to call him 'Robby'? We're done for now!" Robert shook his head and tried stoically to keep the smile off his face. Reaching down into a bag the mage had brought with him. With a flourish, he quickly passed out four small packages of the same size, one to Giles, one to Mikki, one to Tara, and one to Xander. Each of them wore a puzzled look on their faces, but they accepted the gifts. Xander smirked as he read the label on his.

"What's it say X?" asked Faith as she saw the man smirk.

"To the Ass, From the Boys," he said shaking his head, his grin barely contained.

Hesitantly, the four unwrapped their gifts, each wondering what the two Irishmen could have gotten them. Nestled inside were four identical rosaries, with a familiar looking cross hanging at the base, but each with a different flair.

Mikki's cross was small, with the rosary linked so the young were could wear it in her animal form if she needed. A cat's eye gem was inlayed in the center of the cross. Tara's was piece of art itself. Much like the one she had help make for Faith, the cross was engraved with whirling Celtic knots and designs, but on a larger scale. In the center of was a Celtic threefold knot. Giles' cross was much simpler, with a simple ruby in the center. Xander's was equally as simple, with a ring of silver inside of the steel that the other three had. Each of the four wore looks of amazement and they stared at Faith and the phone.

"Guys, you shouldn't have," said Faith quietly into the phone.

"Aye, we should have," said Murphy. "After all we went through all there, they can't be anything but part of our family. Tell'em for us later lass, any time, any place, and any where, god permitting, we'll be their, with God, the Sidhe, and whatever else we can find behind us."

"Be careful saying something like that around this crew guys," she warned. "Look what it got you into last time."

Xander looked over at Robert, who opened his watch and glanced at it. He nodded at the man, a smile on his face.

"Faith, do me a favor and tell them that 'The Ass' say they ought to answer their door," said Xander with a smirk.

"Umm, guys, Xander says you should answer your door for some reason," she said with a touch of worry.

She could hear the boy's moving around their apartment, each moving semi-stealthily toward the door. She could hear a terrified scream of a man as one of the boy's threw open the door with a shout.

"Don't kill me!" shouted someone in the background. "I'm just here to deliver a package!"

Faith could hear one of the boys signing for something and then the door closing. Shredding of paper could be heard through the receiver, followed by a yell.

"Faith, tell Robert and Xander thank you," said Conner after a moment of silence.

"What is it Conner?" she asked.

"Two tickets, passports, and the works so we can go home to see Ma," said Murphy after a moment.

"We need to get going lass, the plane leaves in a few hours and we still need to get to the Green to wish'em a Merry Christmas," said Conner. "Merry Christmas Sis, we miss you."

"Aye," continued Murphy. "Merry Christmas, we'll call ye when we get back."

"Merry Christmas to you two as well. Tell everyone at the Green the same for me," she said before she hung up the phone with a tear running down her face.

Moving across the room, she gave Xander a hug and a peck of the cheek while whispering her thanks into his ear. Moving over to the mage, she repeated her action before moving to the couch and settling down between her parent, a big smile on her face, surrounded by her family of blood and by choice.

Suddenly she frowned and looked over at Xander.

"Wait a sec," she asked. "You were in on this?"

**End Flashback**

After sitting by the brunette for close to a minute without response, Tara softly spoke. "Faith? Y.. You ok?"

The younger yet older teen looked up at the blonde Wiccan in shock. "Geez Tiger, trying to scare a couple more years off of me?"

"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. Just wanted to check and see if you were ok."

"Yeah, sorry. Was thinking about yesterday. Which reminds me, thanks for…" she held the rosary up a bit. "It's beautiful you know."

Tara looked down a bit and smiled softly. "It was nothing."

"Oh, so not true," replied Faith. "Its one of the most beautiful things anybody's ever done for me, and the fact that you helped in it makes it mean that much more…" Faith smirked as Tara turned slightly pink. The girl really needed to learn how to accept compliments. "Anyway, I love it, and as soon as we get back to civilization, you and me, girlfriend, are going out for a night on the town and paint the town red. Or maybe white… Depends on how much you're willing to trust me in restocking your wardrobe."

The epp! that Tara responded with was far more mousy than Faith was happy with, but then again, they'd been the wicked ones once, she'd get Tara there again. And she knew they'd both enjoy the trip.

"Mind if I join you?"

Jacks looked up at the woman standing beside her seat near the rear of the craft. After the briefest of hesitations, she spoke. "Please…" And with that, she gestured to the opposite pair of seats.

"Thank you," said Helen as she took one of the seats opposite the couple. Silence reigned for a moment as Helen first looked at Vin, who appeared to be sleeping, then shifted her gaze and studied the white haired young woman for a long time before finally asking the question that had been plaguing her since they opened the presents at Xander's mansion. "Miss Standish ..."

"It's Mrs, actually," Jacks corrected. "But please, call me Jacks, everyone does."

"Alright, Jacks," Helen said slowly. "I was just wondering, who was the girl in the painting? Was she your mother?"

Jacks lips lifted slightly. "No. She looked a great deal like Mother, but that's my daughter, Colleen."

Helen blinked. "You're not old enough to have a daughter that age."

"I'm a lot older than I look," the white haired woman pointed out with a slight frown.

"Oh ..." the taller woman supposed that could be true enough. "So why did she have her portrait done at one of those period studios?"

Jacks huffed a sigh and dropped the glamour that made her look completly human. Her ears knifed up through her thick white curls, and her features sharped as if cut from pale peach marble. "I'm *a lot* older than I appear, Helen."

"What ... What are you?" Helen whispered.

"I'm what happens when one of the Fey and a very powerful Witch decide having a child would be a good idea."

Helen took a slow breath as she continued to stare at the creature across from her. "Is your husband ... like you?"

Vin slipped his hand into Jacks', tangling their fingers together. "Ezra died, ma'am. Ninety two years ago."

"My gambler was all too mortal," Jacks said softly as she leaned against the comforting solidity of Vin Tanner. "As was our daughter."

Rudy's voice came over the intercom of the Orca as he brought the ancient craft into a wide circle around Ayer's Rock. "This is your captain speaking. For those of you on the right hand side of the place, you'll be able to see a really big rock. I'm looping around to make sure the area is cleared before trying to…"

Merlin's voice overlaid Rudy's as the AI spoke. "Although prudent, I have taken measures to clear the park. All rangers have reported camping and tourist areas are cleared and the rangers themselves have all cleared the area."

"I don't even want to ask," said Xander as he stepped into the cockpit to take the right hand seat next to Rudy. "So, we lock up the rings and we're good to go…"

A moment later, Xander's voice came over the intercom. "Well, good news and bad news folks. We're definitely here, and in less than two hours flight time. That's the good news. The bad news is that I can't seem to establish a connection to any of the ring transports that should be down there."

Faith rolled her eyes. "Well, it's a good thing this isn't going to be difficult or anything…"

Chapter 7

Xander looked down at the command display in the cockpit and resisted the urge to summon Elan and drive the ancient battlestaff through the offending piece of equipment. "Damn it! According to the specs there's supposed to be a half dozen sets of rings around this rock, and we can't get a lock with ANY of them?"

Merlin's calm voice emaninated from one of the speakers concealed within the cockpit. "Uluru did indicate that his maintenance cycles have fallen, shall we say, woefully behind… It is fortunate that he was able to maintain things as well as he did over the Downtime."

"So… We can't get a lock with the ring transporter to get in…" Reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose, Xander shook his head. "Ok, this is bad, but we can deal with it. There's got to be like an emergency entrance, maybe an air lock or a garage door or something like that around here someplace… So Merlin, can you point us in the right direction."

There was a significant pause before Merlin spoke again. "Uluru is unable to verify the status of the ground passages into Kaer Walin." On the console between the pilot's and co-pilot's seats, the display flashed as new icons appeared on the map of the surrounding area. "I have marked the access points which are able to accommodate the Orca."

Xander looked down at the display, noting how far away all of the access points were. "They didn't want to put anything nearby?"

"Unfortunately Commander, such exterior access points were considered to be failure points, both from a defensive aspect as well as a structural standpoint. By dispersing them over a greater distance, it significantly reduced their detectablility, as anyone searching for them would most likely focus their attention close to the installation itself."

The wizened aborgine looked up at the skies as he came to a halt. Without thought, he crouched down beside the bramble which had grown in that spot for years.

His companion followed suit unconsciously. "Something is on the wind, isn't it old man?"

"Ancient spirits are awakening from beneath the land, can you not feel them?"

Pushing his wide brimmed hat back, the white man looked around, smelling the air. "I… Somethings out there, but it doesn't feel right."

After a moment, teeth shining against his dark face, the aborgine spoke again. "Come, the spirits from below will not awaken and rise but in one spot…"

And with that, the two men vanished silently into the night.

"So… We can't get a lock with the ring transporter to get in… And so, far every one of the access points into the damn base is inoperable?!" Before he knew it, Elan was in his hand… "God damn better mouse trap builders!" He forced himself to take a deep breath and tucked Elan back into her holster. "Sorry Merlin… I'm not snapping at you, but for the record, ANYTHING new we build, I don't care what it is, is GOING to have SOME kind of alternate access point to get around situations like this. Even if its only big enough for a single person to get through at a time and needs a rune weapon to get through. We're not having this problem pop up again."

"Commander, I find it very unlikely that a situation like this will arise again in the future."

Xander looked out the viewscreen at the massive rockface which they were resting beside. "You know Merlin… Somehow I'm willing to bet that the guys who came up with this ultra secure design scheme a few millenia ago never thought THIS particular problem would pop up either. But here we are…" He sighed… "Ok everybody, back on board… Rudy, take us to the next site as soon as the ramp is up…"

"Ok Rudy, this is the place. Set her down…"

The young pilot looked over at the man sitting in the co-pilot seat and snorted. "You think? I never would have guessed. I mean, the blinking crosshairs on the map were kinda vague, but hey since you say this is the place…"

Xander looked over, feeling a bit stung by the rebuke. "Sorry man…"

Rudy shook his head and sighed. "No, I shouldn't have snapped at you like that… I guess between hanging around Wheeler to much and all this search and move on, I'm just… Anyway, sorry…" With that, he stabilized the overhead shift field and followed Xander back to the main area.

"Ok, site number seven, ladies and gents… Everybody off…"

As soon as the entry ramp was down, the security detachment was out the door, forming a perimeter and expanding it outward. After a few seconds, the site was designated secured. The hackers, who hadn't waited for the all clear, rolled their eyes as they carried their equipment across the landscape.

Dade looked down at the handheld unit which he and Nikon had cobbled together on Avalon. It hadn't exactly met with Merlin's approval, but the small device worked as he and his fellow grey hat had planned. And, today at least, Merlin was pleased that the two rogue technophiles had been so successful in grafting Kine based technology into an inconspicuous PDA casing. One less piece of fully functioning equipment he'd had to pull out of his depleted reserves for this mission. Using the small device, Dade was tracing along deeply buried power lines as he moved towards the concealed exterior maintenance port for this entrance point. "Ok, here we go," he said as he stopped in front of a non-descript rock outcropping. Reaching into the satchel at his waist, the young man pulled out something that looked like metal cylinder with a small cone held above it by a wire-like armature. "God," he said as he activated the device and as it started humming pointed the cone at the rockface. "I wish I'd had one of these in high school…" As he played the device over the rock, dust blew out from an almost imperciptibly small crack. Working quickly, he followed the nearly invisible gap around a small area, till it touched back to itself. Humming idly to himself, Dade tucked the tool back into his kit and then pressed his palm against the center of the panel and held it there for several seconds. A small mote of light glowed into existance at the corners of the area, prompting the New York native to press the panel inwards, then begin to slide it down. After about an inch of movement, some hidden mechanism took over and smoothly slid the rock camoflague from sight.

Inside the opening was concealed a small slot, a handful of what looked like LED's to the average observer, a larger socket and a few data ports. Looking at the indicators, Dade was please to see that first of all, the panel was indeed live, unlike all but two of the others they'd checked out so far. "It's alive… Alive!" He cackled in his best mad scientist voice. From his kit, he pulled out a small crystal wafer and slid it into the slot, until it clicked home at about the halfway point. As soon as it did, the indicators winked out, then one by one, starting with the ones which had initially been lit, every indicator in the panel came on. Taking a moment to look at the color codes that were indicated, Dade ran his finger along them, then turned back to the Orca. "Looks like we may have gotten lucky," he announced. "All the self tests are responding and with the exception that it needs power…"

Xander grinned. "Power we've got. Major, if you'd give me a hand with one of the generators, we'll plug in see what's in the garage…"

With a nod, McQueen stepped on the other side of the generator and as one, they lifted the heavy module and carried it down to the access port. Following behind them was the mustang lieutenant, carrying the cable they'd need to interface.

"It's all your's Dade," said Xander after thanking the two officers.

Working quickly, Dade and Nikon plugged in the power, then hooked their interface units into the panel.

Fingers flashing, the two worked their digital magic and checked the internal systems for damage or any shorts that would have stymied their attempt. When everything came back clear, they told Xander, who gave them the green light to try and open the vehicle access point.

The entire complement had disembarked from the Orca at this point, and watched with baited breath as Dade initialized the sequence to open a passageway which had remained sealed for millenia.

"Lara would have loved this," Xander said as he heard a faint rumble. As he watched, a section of the ground, approximately sixty feet by eighty feet, slowly push upwards from the ground, first an inch, then two. A few seconds later, the section of the ground was a foot higher than the surrounding terrain, then two feet. Then three.

Faith, who had stepped up to his side, watched the moving section of stone with amazment. "Damn," she said. "How thick is this thing anyway, X?"


< The Kine did not do things by halves, Alexander. Although the access points are well concealed, they are still weaknesses in the defenses. So they used several methods to make them difficult to penetrate. Stone is a good start for defense, although it must conceal that which is hidden beneath it.>

Xander shook his head as he watched the material change in consistency as the eigth foot of stone was revealed. "Pretty damn thick, Faith… Pretty damn thick…"

As soon as he had spoken, Xander noticed the rock was no longer moving upwards, although the faint whine was getting louder and higher in pitch. "Dade?" he said, slightly worried.

"Shit!" came the response as Dade's and Nikon's fingers both flew over their interface units.

Nikon looked at Dade after a moment, and shook his head. "No joy man…"

His face falling, the lead geek nodded and shut the mechanism down, then turned to Xander. "Sorry boss. Something's blocking it, keeping it from opening any further. We keep pushing it, we're gonna blow the motors."

The young man looked at the hacker, then at the rock protrusion, then sighed. "Damn it… So fucking close… Sorry Dade, not your fault… Go ahead and shut it tight again, maybe we'll have better luck with the next one…"

As the rock sank back into the earth, Xander pinched the bridge of his nose. "I swear, its like somebody up there hates me and enjoys watching me go through all this crap…. Ok kids, back in the car!"

Xander sighed as he looked at the ground which hid the next access point they were going to try. The last one hadn't even responded to Dade's attempts to interface with it. If this one didn't respond, well, let's just say that the list of access points wasn't exactly getting longer… "Wonder if we could yank the jammed one loose with the Orca," he wondered idly.

As he was contemplating that idea, and ignoring Elan's mental head shake, Rudy picked out a landing spot clear of the access point and landed the craft.

From the scrub, the two men watched as the shift field around the craft rippled and faded.

"That's one impressive piece of workmanship," said the man with the hat as the craft settled onto its landing struts. "Definitely not from around here… You sure they be friendly, these chaps?"

The aborigine responded to his friend without taking his eyes off the craft. "The ancestors tell that we have nothing to fear from these. Their kind were here in ages past and return once more. They are here as they are supposed to be, yet, not as they were."

"If you say so, Old Man… Look, you think its such a good idea for us to be this close? I don't want to see them get upset with a machine like that… And who are they anyway? I mean, that's an impressive jaloppy, but I've not even heard of nothing like that…"

"As I said, we have nothing to fear from their kind. They were once warriors of light, a mighty wave of good, of which now but a few remain, sleeping beneath the sands of time." The wizened old man turned and looked at his companion. "But this is not your quest nor your path, my friend. Return to your woman and worry not. They are here to keep us safe from that which we know not…"

"Are you sure?"

"The spirits do not lie to me. Now, go… You've got a ways to go to get back to your land rover and your beer isn't getting any colder."

Chuckling, the white man nodded and slid backwards in the brush.

"Oh, and Mic?" The aborigine paused until his friend turned around. "Don't forget to remind Donk he owes me my CD's back…"

Xander and the security detachment exited the Orca and, as they had over a half dozen times before, established the perimeter before Dade, Nikon and Kate were allowed to make their way to the access terminal that controlled the entry they were attempting to enter the base through.

Dade and Kate sat down next to each other, their backs to their comrade, while Nikon went through the now familiar process of gaining access to the controls. When the interior remained dark after he opened the panel, he sighed.

"Some wrong?" asked Dade, breaking away from Kate for a moment.

"Nah, nothing I can't handle. You two go ahead with what you were doing, Lord Nikon is on the job…"

Kate muttered something that Nikon was glad he didn't catch before turning her attention back to Dade.

His head bobbing to music only he could hear, Nikon deftly opened the front of the control box and slid the entire assembly forward. The bulk of the crystals looked intact, but several had lost their internal shine and were ringed with carbon scoring instead. "Dude… That is SO not happening," he whispered to himself as he rifled through his satchel till he found a crystal that matched the original hue of the upper most, then swapped them out. When that didn't produce any visible result, he swapped two more pristine crystals already within the assembly then grinned as the upper third of the crystals shone to life.

"Pretty…" said the old aboringine who was peering over his shoulder…

"Jesus christ!" said Nikon as he scrambled to the side, dropping the crystal he'd removed from the panel and falling to the ground himself. As soon as he hit the ground, he crab crawled backwards trying to get some distance between him and the old man.

"My daughter has a crystal like that…Her mother gave it to her… "

Even as the old man was speaking, the closest members of the security detachment were closing in on him, unsure of who he was and just how he'd show up un the middle of their secure perimeter.

"Safe your weapons!" barked McQueen as he moved to the site of the disturbance, Xander and Faith close behind him. "Didn't you hear me soldier?" he snapped at the trooper who was still pointing his weapon more or less in the direction of the old man. "He's wearing a loin cloth and an armband, somehow I don't think he's going to try anything, do you?"

Chastised, the private scurried back to his post.

"Care to tell me who you are and what're you're doing here, Sir?" asked McQueen.

The old man smiled, somewhat ferally. "My name is not important, although you may call me Pindari. As for what I'm doing here, my tribe have been watching over the stone citadel for…" He paused. "Well, I'd go through the whole lineage thing but the spirits, they tell me that it doesn't matter. We've been here since before, and shall remain till after."

Xander stepped forward, effectively taking command of the situation away from McQueen. "You said that your tribe watches over Ayer's Rock?"

"No, young man. We watch over the stone citadel , which is buried deep within the bones of the earth. The Citadel is far more than just the Great Stone."

"Umm, ok…" Xander was more than a bit confused, but before he could ask any more questions, Pindari continued.

"I know that you're here to commune with the Spirit of the Citadel, as well as to stop the danger which is buried within. But before you enter, I feel that I must warn you… The spirit… He's… Well, he's kinda like Nardu from my village. He kinda licked a few too many toads as a kid, if you know what I mean."

Faith broke the stunned silence. "Wait a minute…. You mean, the guy…" Her sentence petered out before she finished.

"What I mean, she who is Kaiya, is that the Spirit, Uluru, is just a bit off. Kinda not right in the head, you know? So, all of you be careful as you plumb the depths."

"You know his name?" asked Faith, still unable to wrap her head around the surrealness of this situation.

"Of course I do," came the response. "I've actually spoken with the spirit when I was on a spirit quest. Not to mention, I wouldn't be a very good shaman to my tribe if I didn't know the name of the most powerful spirit on all of the lands my tribe is bound to watch over. He's an interesting guy, pretty good to walk beside, although, like I said, I'm pretty sure he's licked too many toads. But then again, maybe it's being a spirit that makes him odd like that. Who knows? The other side may all be weird like that… Anyway, it's been good chatting with you folks, but I've got to get back to the village before dark tomorrow…"

"What happens tomorrow night?" asked Faith.

The shaman looked at Faith, disbelief in his eyes… "Manchester United is playing the Wallabies. I swear, you Americans, no sense of good sports."

"I'm sorry sir, we can't just let you go right now…" said McQueen.

"Why not, what you guys need is right over there…" he pointed, causing everybody to turn and look. When they looked back, the old man was gone.

Xander and Faith both busted out laughing, while McQueen started cursing like, well, a Marine. "Settle down Major," said Xander. "I'm sure he's not a threat to us, although I am more than bit curious about how he knew all of that. And anyway, it's a valuable lesson NOT to fall for the oldest trick in the book…" Looking around, he noted that everybody was either watching him or looking into the scrub trying to find the old shaman. "Dade, Nikon, let's see if we can open it up…"

Night had stretched her murkey tendrils across the sky long before and the hunter's moon was shining down upon the detachment as they waited patiently.

"I this thing was supposed to swing open, not move like a stoned snail," commented one of the guards on watch.

Dade looked back over his shoulder at the man and snapped a reply. "Well, I've never controlled one of these manually before, so if you want to try and work in a language that's been dead for longer than recorded history, and try and use a damaged assembly that has no control program left in it so we can get into a facility that wants to blow a continent off the map, you're more than welcome to try…"


Nikon looked at his friend… "Dude, I think you need to lay off the Jolt for a couple of hours… Kate's more pissed than normal and I really don't want the heavily armed cats to be pissed off in my general direction…"

Dade sighed… "Sometimes I almost wish Faith had never walked into our lives… It was so much easier when we were just dodging the Feds…"

Xander looked at the opening in front of them as Rudy made sure the Orca was lined up properly.

"Good thing we've got plenty of room," said the pilot.

"Yeah," replied Xander. "According to Elan, these tunnels are designed to allow the Orca's big brother to fit with room to spare."

Rudy, who had been about to nudge the throttle forward, actually turned and looked at the young man in the co-pilot's seat in disbelief. "Bigger than an Orca? These things are already close to the size of a C-130. And they flew something BIGGER through these tunnels? On a regular basis?"

"Well, not a regular basis. That's what the launch rings were for, but yeah, the NarRoc Class Transports were the largest things these tunnels were designed for."

"Yeah, well, I think I'll stick the Orca's…" Rudy activated the PA system and told everybody to make sure they were sitting down. A second later, he nudged the throttle forward and the Orca moved slowly into the tunnel's entrance. After no more than fifteen seconds, Rudy carefully set the craft down again. "Ok Dade, we've cleared the ramp, so go ahead and close it up."

Fifteen minutes later, as the Orca's lights shone over them, the hackers, along with everybody else, watched as the stone plug settled back into place, sealing them away from the outside world in a base that hadn't been alive since well before the pyramids had been build by the go'uld.

Helen looked at her husband, concern on her face. "I really hope we don't have to get out of here in a hurry…"

Faith, who had been sitting next to her folks, grinned like the Cheshire Cat and responded before her dad could. "Mom, if we have to get out of here in a hurry, we're going to be screwed anyway, cuz we'll have like, minutes before this whole area is a smoking crater the size of Nebraska. And garage door working as its supposed to or not, them odds, they ain't so good."

As the Orca slowly approached the end of the access tunnel it had been travelling, a blast door at the end slowly rumbled to life, splitting into smaller pieces which retracted into the surrounding walls.

"Well, that's promising," said Xander as Rudy manipulated the controls and manuevered the craft inside.

"Yeah," replied the pilot. "It would have sucked for that door to stay closed." His eyes moved around the small portion of the hanger bay which was illuminated by the running lights. Suddenly an indicator on the console came to life with a faint glow, blinked twice, then became solid. "Well, at least something down here is working… The automated landing controls just told the onboard where to park us…"

Xander looked at the display which showed the outline of the Orca, the layout of the room and an icon which indicated where they were supposed to land. "Damn, looks like we're going to be nestled into a corner."

"Want me to ignore it and set her down someplace else?"

The young man who had found himself in command of a long dead military pondered the question for a moment. "No. It won't hurt us to walk, and who knows what's happened down here…" He pointed out the display at the shattered remains of… well, something. "I really don't want to run into whatever did that, and for all we know it was the meter maid…"

Rudy nodded and flew the craft to the designated landing grid. A moment later, the Orca was on the ground, facing the exit, just in case.

Within the craft, the team was doing final equipment check on themselves and the man, or woman, as the case might have been, next to them.

Satisfied with his own gear, and having checked Faith's over as well before she'd moved the smartgun's data display into place, Xander looked over the team. "Ok folks. We've got no idea what things are going to be like in here, so watch your partner. Nobody goes off alone and nobody does anything stupid. We're here to get power back up and not blow Australia off the map. Everything else, we'll leave for later. Any questions?" When there were none, Xander told Rudy he was to stay with the Orca, with two pairs to keep the Orca safe. That established, he motioned for Nikon to activate the anti-grav drone pallet which would carry two of the naquada reactors they were bringing with them. Using the small controller, Nikon activated the pallet, and stood behind it. "Ok Rudy, drop the ramp," ordered Xander.

From the bottom of the Orca, a large section of the floor split in two then slid into the sides of the hull while the second layer disconnected and dropped one end towards the surface of the hanger. The security detachment, accompanied by Faith and Xander, spread out from the underside of the Orca before the ramp had even finished its descent.

Within the dull illumination of the running lights, Xander read the hand signals which were being used. "All clear. Faith, anything on your sensors?"

The brunette warrior looked over her data display before responding. "Nope, looks clear, X…"

From the bottom of the ramp, Jacks extended her mystical senses, probing the area around them, before she too announced all clear.

Satisfied, Xander ordered them towards the entry from the hanger into the rest of the base.

Before they had gotten more than fifty feet, Xander's combat light fell upon one of the other vehicles which had been entombed within the hanger for millenia.

"Damn, boytoy, this place looks like it took some serious shit," said Faith as she looked over the wreckage.

It looked like before hard times had fallen on it, the vehicle in question had been some kind of utilitarian ground transport. Now, it looked like it had been gone over by a bunch of redneck mechanics who had tried to turn it into some kind of armored personnel carrier. All around it, there were gaping holes where massive firepower had been poured into the makeshift armor.

"Uluru?" called out Xander as he looked over the scene. "Can you hear me?" When there was no response, he called out a simple command for lights. After a moment, he tried again.

Suddenly, from behind them, a blinding display of illumination kicked on as Rudy activated the powerful light arrays within the Orca's frame. "That help?" came the pilot's voice over the fold com attached to Xander's combat harness.

Xander laughed. "Yep, although not quite what I was expecting. Thanks Rudy."

While a good chunk of the team maintained their section of the perimeter, Faith and her parents, Tara Vin, Jacks, McQueen and Xander all converged on the wreckage, trying to figure out what took it down.

"I've got what look to be staff weapon blasts here," announced Faith as she pointed at the side of the wreck. "Something else too, a lot bigger and left a different blast pattern."

Nobody else could identify the blast patterns either, nor were there any kind of recognizable markings on the twisted metal.

Then, from the far side of the craft, came Harry's voice. "I've got what's left of a couple of bodies here…"

The group moved around the wreck to see what Faith's dad had found.

Helen watched as her husband stood up as they came into view. He pointed down at the body he'd been squatting in front of. "Looks like these guys have been here for a long time, but I don't see any visible wounds on either of them."

As he turned, his heel brushed against the outstretched arm of the nearest corpse, and as they watched, the body fell in on itself, collapsing into a pile of dust eerily similar to a vamp which had been dispatched.

From the back of the group, Tara whispered a quiet prayer for the spirits of those who had died in this massive room.

When the young woman was finished, the group proceeded towards the door.

Ten minutes later, the group had come to a halt in front of a massive set of doors which were lit by only a trace of emergency lighting.

"Picking anything up on your sensors, Faith?"

"Nope… Dead as a doornail, X. Think we'll have to crack it manually."

Sighing, Xander reached into his pack for the small assembly, his eyes already looking for the slotted grooves needed to attach the knob to.

>> Security Control Switching from Standby Mode <<
>> Security Control Diagnostics <<
>>      Alert: Unable to connect to central AI control. <<
>>             Control of Security Arrays assigned to Security Control <<
>>      Alert: TimeStamp malfunction <<
>>      Alert: Power Reserves approaching neglible levels. <<
>>             Weapons selection and power drain reduced unless local power reserves present <<
>>      Alert: Kaer Walen Security Personnel Not Responsive <<
>>             Autonomous reactive functions engaged <<
>> System Notification: <<
>>      Access Attempt to Exterior Vehicle Access Point Theta-4 has been attempted. <<
>>      Exterior Vehicle Access Point Rho-7 has been activated under local control. <<
>>      Exterior Vehicle Access Point Rho-7 is currently secured. <<
>>      Exterior Vehicle Access Bay Rho has unknown beings present. <<
>>      Unable to access sensors in Exterior Vehicle Access Bay Rho. <<
>>      Defense systems in Exterior Vehicle Access Bay Rho: Offline. <<
>> Alert: <<
>>      Attempt to obtain manual entry is being made at portal Episilon-Rho-10181 <<
>> Alert: <<
>>      Portal Episilon-Rho-10181 has been opened manually <<
>>      Querying Local Sensor Arrays <<
>>      Querying Local Sensor Arrays <<
>>      Querying Local Sensor Arrays <<
>> Alert: <<
>>      Kaer Walen has been compromised by unknown factions. <<
>>      Intruders are armed with assorted weapons, including a single smart gun system >>
>>      Offensive weaponry has been detected.  Probability of hostile invasion force:  99.21% <<
>>      Target Count: Indeterminate.  Sensor ghosts present. <<
>>      Intruders are not recognized from personnel databases <<
>>      Intruders are not equipped with standard Kine equipment in significant amounts <<
>>      Intruders  considered hostile. <<
>>Security Alert: <<
>>      Hostile Force has breeched Kaer Walen. <<
>>      Target Acquisition Initiated <<
>>      Target Count: Indeterminate.  Sensor Anomolies Present. <<
>>      Cataloging Target Capabilities. <<
>>      Locking Prohibited Sensor Anomolies from Targeting Solution and Threat Matrix.<<
>>      Calculating Threat Matrix based off  of available parameters and cataloged values. <<
>> System Alert: <<
>>      Security Control is unable to assert direct command to Security Array IntSec-EpRho-121 <<
>>      Passing fire mission parameters to regional security frame for EpRho Sector. <<
>> System Confirmation <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Responsive.  System Lag with Limits <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Acknowledges Fire Mission Parameters <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Reports Targeting Sensors Online <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Downloading Threat Matrix <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Detects Hostile Targets Employing Sensors <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Initiating Countermeasures <<

Faith, who was on point due to the capabilities of her weapon, stopped about twenty feet on the far side of the door. "Hang on for a second guys…" she said as she fiddled with the controls of her weapon's onboard computers. "Damn piece of crap," she muttered. When adjusting the controls didn't work, she tried a more base repair technique and smacked the side of the piece upside her head, trying to clear the snow which was interfering with her vision.

>> System Confirmation <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Indicates Weapons Array Charging. <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Reports Weapon Charging slowed by low power reserves <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Reports Primary Weapons Port none responsive. <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Switching to Secondary Weapons Array. <<

Jacks looked at Vin as his eyes darted around the corridor. "Everything ok Vin?"

The bounty hunter didn't answer for a moment as his eyes fell on the tangled mess of wreckage which he could have sworn just moved, high on the wall. "Maybe… Something here doesn't feel right…"

>> System Confirmation <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Indicates Secondary Weapons Array Charging. <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Reports Weapon Charging slowed by low power reserves <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Reports Primary Weapons Port none responsive. <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame Switching to Secondary Weapons Array. <<

In a small security annex, several hundred yards away and three levels up from the hanger access doors, a small display which had not had power running to it in millennia, lit up.

Had any of the long dead security personnel been there and alive to watch, they would have seen centered on the screen, was a young brunette beauty, armed with one of the most dangerous infantry weapons in the Kine inventory.

They would have been able to see that she was trying to clear the display of a weapon she was not as familiar with as she should have been.

They would have watched as a targeting pip appeared on the back of her head in the display, and depending on what they made of her, they would have answered the question that was being displayed on the bottom of the display as the security computer asked its human component for a judgement call that the security system was in fact designed not to make unless there was no other choice.

>>  Target locked.  Engage? Y/N <<

>> System Confirmation <<
>>      EpRho Regional Security Frame reports Security Personnel not responding to firing solution. <<
>> Security Control Emergency Engagement Protocols <<
>>      Emergency Engagement Protocols are in effect. <<
>>      Hostile Targets are present in Kaer Walen <<
>>      Base Security Personnel are not responding <<
>>      Engagement Intervention Subroutines bypassed <<
>>      Engage Primary Threat Matrix Target <<

And across the base, a faint humm could be heard as a power was rerouted to the appropriate circuit.

Chapter 8

Without warning, from high on the wall, a sound familiar to most of the members of the team was heard. A short blast of blue lightning leap from a recessed port within the wall and covered the distance to its target in less time than it took for the members of the team to begin turning towards the source.

Faith screamed as the energy blast hit her in the back of the head, and she was driven to her knees.

A second blast followed less than a heartbeat later.

As soon as he heard the initial shot firing, Vin was moving. He already could feel Jacks responding, raising her own defenses against the incoming energy fire as she began to turn to look for the source. He lunged for Faith, just in time to see her take the shot solidly to the back of the head and fall to her knees.

He tried to adjust his move, so as not to clip her head, but everything happened too fast... He could tell he was still going to hit her, there was nothing he could do to stop it. Then, he saw more blue lightning cascading around Faith as she fell forward and his own world erupted in pain. He too was driven to his knees by what felt worse than a lightning strike. Then, a wave of pain brought release by offering him up to Death.

It was hard to tell who released the primal scream as Faith and Vin were taken down by the sequential energy blasts. Helen raised her MP-5, tears beginning to well up in her eyes as she pulled the trigger and held it back. Even as the first round was fired, aimed straight at the offending weapon, Jacks had outstretched her arm and suddenly the secondary security array began to fold in on itself, the metal reacting as if a giant had managed to get a hand around the ancient device as was inexorably closing his hand into a massive fist. As the strange metal flower closed in on itself, the spray of nine millimeter gunfire reached its target, shattering the crystal just before a three round burst from Xander's M-41 blew the offending installation into shrapnel.

Tara blanched as she watched her friend taken down by a pair of what looked for all the world to be blasts identical to that from the Zatnickatel which rested in its holster on her thigh. Then, as the gunfire erupted around her, she moved towards the fallen warriors, her hand reaching for her satchel while unthinkingly her lips uttered a spell of protection for herself.

Xander's mind was on automatic as he brought the M-41 up and caressed the trigger. He didn't even really comprehend as the secondary security array was blown to bits, or the piece of shrapnel which grazed his cheek.

"Major, establish a perimeter!" yelled the young commander. "Twenty yards, every direction! If it looks like its twitchy, turn it to scrap!"

Even as the troopers were deploying with a solid professionalism, Xander glanced down at Faith, and whispered a nearly silent "Thank God," before yelling to an already moving Tara to take care of her and to Jacks to get a shield around the girls and the hackers.

As she moved, Tara could feel the shield that Jacks was erecting snap into being around her. But as glad as she was of the protection, in her heart, she knew that there was no shield or healing poultice which would be able to stave off the effect from a pair of shots from a zat.

Staring at the ceiling of her bedroom, Cordelia Chase, had the same thought she'd had running through her head since she had lived through an experience which everything she'd ever been taught told her was a delusion.

'I'm losing my mind…'

She'd already used some of the petty cash to see a counselor, under a fake ID of course, to try and explain all the… events… which had happened to her the night her date had been killed in front of her. All that had happened, was that the shrink, after hinting that what had befallen her and Mitch was their own fault, had just prescribed her a batch of happy pills to "Help her deal with the trauma she had befallen". And then, after that, he'd tried to tell her that the whole vampire thing was either a defensive mechanism to try and cope with the guilt and terror over the events, or that she was suffering from the opening stages of a psychotic break with reality, and if it continued, he might have to look into having her remanded to the custody of a certified psychiatric institution.

Translation: Shut up about the vampires or you get tossed into the nuthouse.

Rolling over, Cordy buried her face in her pillow, as the tears rolled down her face once more. "I'm not crazy," she whispered to herself. "I know what happened to me and I know what I saw…"

Wiping her face, she stumbled to the closet and reached into her closet and without thinking, pulled out a sweatshirt that was several sizes to big for her. She needed somebody to talk to, who wouldn't think she was crazy, and as much as she hated to admit it, the only people who seemed to have a clue were always gathered over at Harris's place.

Pulling the grey sweatshirt on, and pulling her hair back into a ponytail, Cordelia Chase silently slipped from her room.

Vin whimpered as his lungs filled with air. "Oh, god," he muttered as he rolled over on the floor, instinctively closing his hand around his rifle. "Remind me never to do that again." He winced as he rolled to his feet. "I'm sorry I couldn't save her…"

From behind him, "Oh, and why is that, Old Man?"

In disbelief, he turned and saw Faith sitting on the deck, her back against the hull of the Orca. "You? How?" He turned to Jacks, who shook her head.

"Wasn't me, Vin…" replied the half fey. "All I did was crunch the damn thing into tinfoil before Helen and Xander blew it to hell."

The Immortal tracker turned to Xander, who was sitting across from Faith and her folks. "How? Leo?"

But it was the young brunette who should have been dead who answered. "Nah… My keen fashion sense..." she said with a smirk. "Damn thing had be dead to rights. If you hadn't knocked me out of the way, the second shot would have finished me off."

"Then how?"

Faith pulled at the fabric of her jumpsuit. "Thirteen thousand years out of being fashionable or not, I love these threads…"

Vin looked confused as he rolled her words over in his mind. "Ok, maybe I fried a couple of brain cells that time, but does that answer makes sense to everybody else?"

When everybody else nodded, the Immortal demanded an explanation.

From the overhead speaker, Merlin provided the answer. "You do not think that the Kine would have a weapon as easily abused as a Zatnickatel which they themselves would not have been able to create a defense against? The combat jumpsuit which Faith and the majority of the rest of you, are wearing, is proof against a wide variety of energy weapons. However, as the young Miss Tasker can attest to, if you do not have complete coverage, you are not completely immune to the weapons effects."

"So," continued Faith. "If you hadn't knocked me out of the way after that first one hit me in the back of the head, the second one would have hit the same spot and that'd be all she wrote. Faith no more… So, Shooter, I owe you one. Took a bullet for me, which puts you in a very small group."

Xander sat with his back to the wall as he watched Dade and his crew working their digital magic a dozen yards away. "So much for an easy op," he muttered to himself.

<< Did you truly believe that you would be able to just walk into a Kine facility and not encounter obstacles, Alexander?>>

'There's a big difference between obstacles and having the base itself considering us to be hostile intruders and trying to reduce us to splotches on the wall.'

<< Uluru had indicated that the internal defenses were indeed armed and that he did not have control over the system. We should have been prepared for this, or at least, at least expecting it.>>

'Well, sorry Elan, but personally, I hadn't considered system armed, command interface offline to mean it was going to shoot at everything that moves. I mean, this is our base. Uluru wants us here. The damn place shouldn't be trying to kill us! So, sorry if I wasn't expecting this.'

The Atlantean soul was silent for a moment, before responding. << You are right Alexander. None of us, not even myself or Merlin, expected this to be the situation. But is that the real reason for your agitation?>>

"What's that supposed to mean?" he said angrily.

Down the corridor, Faith's enhanced hearing picked up Xander talking to, well probably Elan, in rather agitated tones. 'Damn, she thought to herself. 'He doesn't usually slip anymore when talking to her. Whatever is going down, something's got him on edge.'

Keeping him in the corner of her eye, Faith's thoughts wandered as she tried to figure out something that she didn't really want to come face to face with.

<< What I mean, Alexander, is that you are upset far more over your reaction to one of your team mates being taken down by a zatnicitel array than the actual stunning of the team member…>>

'Elan, look, we've got more important things to deal with right now that worrying about…'

<<No Alexander, we do not,>> came the harsh response. <<You are going to have to confront your emoti...>>

Xander cut her off. 'Elan, I know what you're going to say, and we're not going there. Not now, not anytime soon. Am I understood?' His emotions were so raw in his reaction that they were visible on his face, causing more than one person to wonder what was going on through their friend's mind.

<<Very Well, Commander.>> The tone the ancient soul managed to impart was one that had she been a corporeal being, people would have quickly left the room, rather than find out what made the woman mad enough to respond with a tone that could cool liquid nitrogen.

As she parked her car, the reigning Queen of Sunnydale High, looked over the massive edifice which was Xander Harris's mansion, and wondered if the fact that she was coming here of all places didn't prove that there was indeed something seriously wrong with her.

Her steps were leaden as she walked up the path to the front door. She didn't pay attention to the flowers neatly kept in the small beds which ran parallel to the walkway. Or the way that the small crystal charms shone in the sunlight as they lay at the center of geodesic patterns of plants and stones.

She saw none of this beauty as she reached for the doorbell, only worrying about her own inner strife and confusion.

Her manicured nail had clearly seen better days as it pressed the button, setting of the chimes inside the house. As she waited, Cordelia wondered again what she was doing here... There was nobody here who she'd really consider a friend, but then again, the whole problem she was having was that the sheep she used to consider her friends were less than useless when it came to dealing with all of the problems her worldview, and frankly her sanity, had been dealt over the past months.

She hoped that she would be able to find some solace and comfort, maybe a trace of the understanding this group shared with each other. Because otherwise, Cordelia Chase knew that her ability to handle all of this on her own was slowly but surely slipping between her fingers, and the harder she tried to hold on, the slicker it all became.

The door swung open, and Cordelia winced as she saw the small framed girl before she realized it wasn't the same one who held her in such disdain. Before the cheerleader could say anything, the young girl spoke.

"Cordelia?" The tone was somewhere between confusion and surprise, but the young girl quickly composed herself and continued. "What are… Is everything ok?"

"No… It's not… Is Xander here?" Her voice was cracking and even as she stood there, she was on the edge of trembling. "I… I need to talk to him….About…" She looked a bit confused as she tried to figure out what exactly she could say to this little girl who was standing in front of her. The little girl, whose eyes had glanced up at the sun and at the reflection in the mirror on the wall beside her…

Dawn looked at the teen before her and tried to figure out what to do. She'd come over here to hang out, finding out from KARR on the way over that almost everybody was out of town on yet another emergency mission. And Mikki, who had just gone for a run through the woods, wasn't the best to deal with the obviously distraught teenager standing before her, given their past history. 'Great,' she thought. 'The world is ending, and everybody is out dealing with it, and so I get to be the one who has to help Queen C before she looses what little sanity anybody has in this damn town. And, considering she is now shaking like a junkie in withdrawal, if I tell her Xander's not here, she's going to completely lose it. I hate my life sometimes…'

But, when she spoke, it was a complete confidence which seemed so out of place in someone of her apparent age. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked as she stepped out of the way of the door and waited for Cordelia to step inside. As soon as the older girl had done so, Dawn shut the door, then took her by the arm and led her to the den, which was by far the most comfortable room on this floor of the mansion. Sitting her down on one of the couches, Dawn said she'd be right back.

Xander was stalking the corridor between the wreckage of the weapons array and a point that nobody else but him could see on the floor. Everybody was concerned but for their own reasons, each any every person on the team had a valid reason why they shouldn't interrupt him.

All, save one.

Faith walked up behind him and as soon as he reached the end of his stride, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to the next open doorway. "We need to talk," she said as she forced him inside.

Stumbling to a stop inside the wrecked room, Xander turned and looked at the dark haired teen who was now blocking the doorway. "What the hell are you doing Faith?" he asked incredulously.

"Trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with you, X… You're pretty much freaking out all of us who know you. And from the look on your face earlier, you and your battle babe must be going at it as well. So what gives?"

"Its not anything for you to worry about, Faith."

"Oh, I think it is, Xan. What's gotten under your skin about this whole thing? Huh?"

The young man's eyes met the young woman's and the intensity there was almost palpitible. "Let it go, Faith."

"The hell I will, Lavelle. You've been acting like something snuck up on you and took a big old chunk out of your ass, and I need you to tell me what the hell is up with you."

"There's nothing wrong Faith," he said, his voice low so it wouldn't carry. "Now I have to get back to the team…"

"Oh, so not happening, X," said the brunette beauty as she grabbed his arm. "You're going to talk to me, or we're going to be here for a very long time…"

Xander met her eyes with his and knew that short of going at it physically, he wasn't going to move her.

<< If this is not a subtle way for the Universe to tell you it is time to deal with your emotions, Alexander, then I do not know what is…>>

'Don't suppose me telling you to butt out is going to do a whole lot, is it…'

Elan's only response was silence.

"Look, I was just a little upset when you went down. What can I say, I'm just glad I didn't have a thermobaric round in the grenade launcher." He tried to pass it off as a joke but Faith wasn't buying it.

"Sorry Xan, but I'm fine, no blood, no foul. And everybody else is on their feet as well. You did fine. Hell, if you hadn't insisted on these threads, then it might have been a whole 'nother story. But you did, and probably saved my ass again in the process. And you know how I love to repay you for that…" She smiled, a wicked glint in her eyes as she lifted a hand to his face.

He pushed her hand down. "We got lucky this time Faith. I could have just as easily gotten you killed than zatted. I came damn close to getting one of my friends, somebody I care about a lot, killed, because I rushed us all into the situation without thinking first. My attitude could have gotten all of killed. I ran us into what seems to turn out to be a giant fucking deathtrap, and now, if we turn tail and run, then about twenty million folks wind up dead. Oh, this is a great set of choices I've saddled us with here…"

Faith looked at him and shook her head. "God Xand, I love you but if you keep acting stupid about being able to control or be responsible for every one, every thing and every act of God that happens, then I'm going to have to kick your ass six ways to Sunday."

Xander was about to say something when both his fold com chirped. "Saved by the bell," he muttered as he activated the com unit. "Go ahead."

He was more than a bit surprised when it was Merlin's voice he heard. "Commander, I am patching a com signal through from young Miss Summers at the mansion."

"Go ahead, Miss Summers…"

"Xander, are you there?" asked the youngest of the Summers clan as she pulled the fridge open and looked inside.

"Dawn? Why are you calling? Is everything ok?"

"What, I can't just call and see how things are going? Bug you when you're out saving the world?" Before Xander could formulate a reply, she continued. "Actually, things are, how shall we say, a bit surreal back home right now."

"Surreal good, or surreal bad?"

Pulling a copper pot from one of the pot racks, Dawn proceeded to fill it up with the milk. "Surreal as in your ex pulling up and looking like she's about to have a breakdown…"

"My ex?" Xander replied, confusion evident. "What's Paige doing there? Is she ok?"

"No, not Paige, you gigolo. Cordelia…"

"Cordy?!" came the choked reply. "Is she…"

"No, I'm pretty sure she's about as far from ok as she can be…." Dawn set the pot on the gas range, then kicked a stool over to stand on to reach the burner controls. "But she's here and she's asked for you… And oddly, you're on another continent, trying to do something suitable heroic with me left behind again…"

"Jesus, Dawn… How bad is she?"

"Maybe I wasn't clear… Can you say nervous breakdown?" Dawn, who had climbed up onto the countertop was looking through the cabinets when she saw Mikki stalk into the kitchen from the back of the house. "Mikki, do you know where cocoa powder is?"

The large cat looked at the cabinet next to the one Dawn was currently rifling through, then padded towards the stairs with a slight harrumph… "And Mikki's back too," she announced to Xander. "But I think she's sitting this one out…"

"God I wish Sidney was around still," Xander muttered. "Dawn, I hate to dump this on you, but do you think you can talk to her?"

"Doesn't look like I have a choice… Not that I mind, this being my first Scooby assignment since we all got back, but we're not going to make a habit of me coddling the cheerleader. Let Jesse do it next time, he'll enjoy it a heck of a lot more I bet…"


"Kidding," she responded. "But seriously, what should I say to her?" asked the young girl as she checked the milk before slowly spooning in the gourmet cocoa powder.

"Right now, I think she can probably just use a friend. Do the best you can, use your discretion and know that I trust you to do what's right…" He paused. "And Dawn?"


"I'm sorry you have to do this on your own… But…"

"No worries, Xander," came the reply. "But you owe me one and I expect to be properly rewarded on my birthday…"

"Consider it done," said Xander. "I hate to run, but we've…"

"Gotta save the world… I know the drill… Good luck and tell Faith she better bring me something nice…"

And with that, she clicked off… "Now, where's the whipped cream…"

As the fold com connection was broken, Xander looked at Faith and sounded about as close to defeated as she had ever heard him. "You see, Faith. Now I can't even be there for Cordy when she's finally realizing she needs help. And you know what makes it worse? The fact that she only went through her own Hell because I wasn't able to stop Darla when I had not one, but multiple chances…."

As she stood there, shocked at just how much guilt this man who had earned her respect not once, but time and time again, could hold against himself, Xander slipped around her and back into the corridor, already pulling himself back together and calling for a status report.

Faith stood there, watching him depart, and felt something deep inside of her resonate. "Damn X. Now I know how you must have felt when I was the one trying to face the world all on my own."

It was hours later before she realized what she had said to him when she couldn't even face it herself.

Dawn reentered the room, as was both surprised and glad to see that Cordelia was still curled up on the overstuffed leather couch. She had been half afraid that the teen would have bolted before she returned from the kitchen.

Setting the tray on the table, Dawn picked up one of the two mugs and handed it to Cordy. "Hope hot chocolate is ok." She gestured to the insulated carafe she'd brought in. "I brought more, but I figured that you'd have to settle for whipped cream for just the first mug full. But if you don't want it, I'll get you a fresh mug without it."

The older brunette looked down at the mug in her hands, almost as if seeing it for the first time.

"I know its kind of silly," continued Dawn as she picked up her own mug and sat down on the opposite end of the couch, tucking her feet up underneath her in a manner very similar to that of Cordelia. "But for some reason, I always feel better with a cup of hot chocolate." She brought the mug to her lips, and took a bite off the whipped cream before sipping at the hot chocolate itself. "And, I made us the good stuff. None of that watery sludge when I make it… Go on…"

The confused cheerleader slowly brought the mug to her lips and took a small sip.

Dawn continued her talking, her demeanor and tone far different than what she appeared to be as she tried to get the 'older' girl to become accustomed to her presence and see her as an equal before she really comprehended the situation she found herself in. "See, its pretty good this way, isn't it?" When the other girl nodded, Dawn kept on going. "It's all about the temperature of the milk and making sure you mix everything together. You go too fast, you get lumps in the bottom of the mug, and that's just not good eats…"

Her shaking seeming to have calmed down, Cordelia was still holding the mug like it was a lifeline to reality. "I..." Her eyes were focused on the mound of whipped cream topping the hot beverage. "I… Don't know what… Why is all of this happening to me?"

Dawn set her mug on the end table and slid over the couch, plucking Cordelia's from her hand and setting it down before the sobbing older teen broke down and just leaned into her for support. Cordelia began to shake as built up tension came out in the only way she would allow it. As she shook, Dawn wrapped her arms around the older girl and after a time, allowed tears to flow down her face that Queen C wasn't ready to shed, even for herself. For the first time since the night of the attack, was able to tell the story to somebody who understood, and didn't judge her or think her crazy. As Dawn's tears rolled down onto the leather of the couch, Cordelia allowed herself to let out a bit of the agony, of the heartache and confusion which had been her life since she had watched her date's neck be snapped like a chicken and the twitching body tossed aside like so much garbage.

It wasn't much, but it was a start.

"Ok everybody, gather around," said Dade as he slide his gear back into its proper place in his kit. As the group pulled in close, he continued. "Well, as some of you may have noticed, the internal defenses are indeed armed and at least somewhat active."

"Oh, that explains so much!" said Faith with a glower. "I'm so glad you clued us in to that little factoid."

Dade looked a little sheepish, but continued. "Anyway, we managed to get into at least part of the network. Now, you've got to realize, this place has been seriously shot to shit. We've got a partial diagram of some of the damage, but half the network seems to be down and the rest of it is being held together by spit and bubble gum. No duct tape, no baling wire. We haven't been able to contact Uluru except over fold com and Merlin relaying through the groundwave, which means that the entire internal com network is down. Any questions so far?"

When nobody said anything, Dade continued. "Ok, now for the bad news. We were able to hack into one of the security sub-systems and tear some information out of there. And when I say tear, I mean it. That particular system was in charge of the internal defenses for this sector, and it didn't like us poking around. Had to pretty much fry its programming, but we got some good intel out of it. Apparently, as we kinda guessed, there was a shitload of fighting in here in the end days, and somebody basically took a scorched earth approach, purged all of the security codes from the system, reset them all and set the security controller to what Nikon called paranoid psychopath. We've got no way to convince this thing we're legit short of Uluru convincing the security computer we're on the level, and from what we know, he can't talk to it. We've got a partial map of defensive installations, but there were at least some autonomous units left when this place fell, so we can't guarantee we won't come under fire along the way."

"Good work guys," said Xander as he looked at the map on the flimsy that Dade had handed him. "And we need to get here to start on repairs?" he asked as he pointed at the map.

Dade nodded. "Sorry boss, wish we had better news."

Xander looked at the green spot on the map, then at the network of red splotches surrounding it in depth. "And the security computer would be located where?"

"The black star," replied Kate.

Finding it on the map was easy. It too had a series of red around it, but not nearly as many. He sighed, knowing that he was leading his people, his friends, into a shit storm that none of them had expected when they'd agreed to this mission. But as he looked at them, he knew they'd follow his lead, up to and through the gates of Hell.

For some reason, that weighed upon him heavily as he spoke. "Looks like we've got a computer to scrag. Vin, you're on point."

As they moved forward, Xander Harris, teenager, felt not only the weight of the world, but the weight of his friends, on his shoulders.

He hoped he could handle it.

Cordelia felt a little bit better as she was finally able to let some of the emotional pressure which had been building up inside of her.

Wiping her eyes with the sleeves of her sweatshirt, the Queen of Sunnydale High looked over at the person who had been there for her as she had released an emotional deluge which had been building for months. A person who was definitely in the know about the monsters which infested this town. A person who knew a lot about her, but who she had never met before in her life.

She looked over and realized… This person… Was a twelve year old girl. "You're just a kid!?!" she said, confusion evident as she tried to figure out what the hell had just happened.

The young girl just smiled and held out her hand. "Glad to see you're back Cordy. Dawn Summers, at your service. And I'll have you know, I'm older than I look."

Cordelia Chase looked at the young girl, at her outreached hand and slowly extended her own and took it. A long pause occurred before she finally said, her voice shaking again… "I think we're going to need some more cocoa…."

Chapter 9

The reigning Queen of Sunnydale High unfolded herself from the couch and began to pace back and forth like a caged jungle cat.

"Why is this happening to me? All I wanted was to be an actress, see my name up in lights and walk down the red carpet with some Hollywood hottie on my arm. Is that too much to ask?" She looked at Dawn, an eerie intensity in her eyes. "Well, is it? I mean, why did the universe decide to look at me and say 'hey, let's make her life an absolute living hell!' How am I supposed to deal with this? I don't deserve this!"

Harry was sitting on the floor, staring at the desiccated remains of another corpse.

A body which had been laying in that exact same place for longer, if everything Dana? Faith? his daughter? if everything that she had told him was true, then that body had been laying in that same spot, for longer than civilization had been kicking around on Earth. At least, that's what he'd thought on Christmas Eve. But now?

The man who had faced down terrorists the world over, who had kissed his wife while in the blast shadow of a nuclear weapon detonating, sat on the smooth metal floor of what he could only think of as an alien base and felt the cold metal of the device he was holding seeping into his hands. It was so much to take in, but his worldview had been demolished in the depths of the jungles of Central America. And again, when Dana had vanished. And now, this time, he was just numb to it.

He tensed as he heard Helen's distinctive footsteps approaching from behind him. With as little motion as possible, he slid his hand into the pack which rested by his side. By the time Helen was by his side, his hands were clasped together as if he was deep in thought, fingers steepled as he looked pensive.


He looked up, meeting her eyes. "Pull up some?" He looked down at the floor. "I was going to say concrete, but I have no idea what this place is made of."

Helen slid her pack off and sat down next to her husband. "So?" she said, not really sure how to continue.

"Yeah, that's about how I feel too," replied Harry. "You know, you'd think after everything I've been through I would be used to this kind of thing. But?"

"But even for us, this is definitely a couple a steps past nuts." Helen looked around before continuing. "Harry, unless I'm completely losing it, Dana, not to mention her friends, they were involved in whatever went down in the Pacific a few months ago."

"And now we're deep under Australia, trying to stop some kind of detonation that makes a nuke look like a wet firecracker. And, if that somehow wasn't insane enough all on its own, the base we're in is older than recorded history, and is higher tech than anything we've even dreamed of."

"And our daughter is in it up to her eyeballs, and we're just now finding out about it because we were shangaighed to come see her for Christmas."

The effects of the day left Harry tired and his native accent was more pronounced than normal. "I know dear... It's just that I..." Harry looked at his wife. "This is what it felt like for you when everything about Omega rose up and smacked you in the face, isn't it?"

"Just about Harry? Just about? Although I will say this might be a tiny bit more surreal cause of the whole Slayer, Demon and ancient civilization thing. But only a smidge."

Harry turned his attention from his wife, to look down the corridor to where his daughter was standing, going over something or other with McQueen. "She's not our little girl anymore, is she?" He looked back at his wife. "Out of everything I've done, everything I've seen and everyone I've faced down, I think that out of all of it? Out of all of it, I thought that raising her was the hardest thing I've ever done, and once in a while, the thing I failed at the most?"

"But," said Helen, knowing her husband hadn't finished his thought.

"But now? Now I know that raising her wasn't the hardest thing, and that I didn't fail. We didn't fail. Now, the hardest thing is going to be knowing that she's an adult now, and she's on her own path doing things just as important, and as dangerous as what I do. And that scares the shit out of me?"

Helen reached over and took her husband's hand in hers, holding it as they were both feeling the same things regarding their daughter.

"Mom, Dad," yelled Faith from down the corridor. "Come on you two, time to saddle up."

Harry stood up slowly, helping his wife to her feet as well. As he secured his gear, the Omega Sector agent looked at his wife and in a half reverent, half scared shitless tone of voice, spoke. "Our daughter, the Slayer."

The dark haired warrior looked at the HUD on her data monocle and cursed. The normally crystal clear display was starting to fuzz out.

"Heads up folks, something's starting to jam us, and only one man would dare to give me the raspberry."

Around her, the rest of the group tightened the grip on their weapons and took what little cover was to be found.

Working very methodically, Faith slowly and unsteadily adjusted the controls on her smartgun. At first, the jamming worsened but after a few moments, she was able to get it under control.

With her sensors working, at least somewhat reliably, the young woman took a slow step forward towards the cross corridor which formed a T with the hallway they were currently in. A faint blip appeared underneath the haze on her display. "Talk about live fire training," she muttered under her breath. "Ok, if I'm reading this thing right, we've got an active array around the corner, about fifteen, no, twenty meters down on the left."

"Take the shot Faith," came Xander's response. "Just like Merlin described it to you."

Taking a deep breath, Faith released her grip on the smartgun and first activated the secondary controls on the harness itself, then triggered the built in ECM systems. Working the miniature control stick, Faith tried to slowly get the muzzle of the smartgun around the corner.

Like a drunken snake which was wrapped around her, the smartgun jerkily obeyed her clumsy commands. With a lot of adjustments, she was able to center the array, or where she thought the array was at least, in the sighting reticule of the smartgun. "Taking the shot," she said quietly as she flipped up the protective cover and pressed down on the firing stud underneath.

The single shot covered the distance in a fraction of a second and hit exactly where is was aimed.

Unfortunately, said target point was actually several meters short of the weapons array, which reacted in a rather predictable manner and returned fire a fraction of a second later.

"Shit!" exclaimed Faith as she mashed down on the firing stud again and raked the entire section of wall with high energy weapons fire.

A moment later, the hallway was silent except for the sizzling sound of cooling metal.

"Well," said Xander as he looked over the additional fist sized craters which now decorated the south wall. "If at first you don't succeed?"

The remains of the weapons array chose that point to break loose of the arcing circuits which were holding it off the ground and hit the floor with a crash.

"Merlin, a note. We need to have Faith spend some extra time on the range," said Xander with a grin as he spoke into his comm unit.

"Acknowledged, Commander."

Faith's response was silent and used only a single finger.

>> Epsilon Gamma Subsector Security Control Diagnostic Interface >>
>> Attempting to notify  >>malfunction<< >> Processor Resequencing Initiated >> Resequencing network interface >> Communications junctions offline with Security Control and Kaer Walin AI Systems >> Local Command and Control processes initiated >> Attempting to Initiate Repair Request on damaged Communications Junctions >>
>> Autonomous Repair Mechs non-responsive >>
>> Notification:  Security Array Epsilon Gamma Thirteen Niner Seven has gone offline. >> Alert Flag Raised: Multiple Security Arrays have gone offline in Epsilon Sector >> Threat Assessment: Potential Hostile Force has Penetrated Sector Epsilon Gamma >> Processing Projected Vector >> Heuristics indicate that unknown force is moving towards Central Security Control >> Central  Security Control must be protected under Priority Command Directives >> Current data indicates that security arrays are unable to neutralize hostile force >>
>> Activation Code Sent >> Response Confirmed >> Downloading Situation Update

Approximately fifteen hundred yards and twelve levels away from the slowly moving group, a command was given and a field which had kept its contents undisturbed for millennia spun down, then winked from existence. Within the chilled room, a connection was made to the network, diagnostics were performed, power levels checked and instructions downloaded. Then, for the first time since the current recorded history began, the large mass shifted and began to stir.

Xander Harris slumped against the wall as the team took a few minutes for a breather. With a deep sigh, he slid down the vertical surface to sit on the floor.

It wasn't that he was physically tired. Hell, this was a cakewalk compared to some of the stuff he'd been doing since the Hitch. And that didn't even take into account his summer road trip light years from Earth.

No, right now, the exhaustion, the frustration that he was feeling was completely psychological.

<< Perhaps we could finish our earlier conversation then, Alexander. Discussing it might help relieve some of what you are feeling.>>

'Actually,' countered Xander, 'How about you give me the run down on Kaer Walin. Since we were busy prepping for the mission, we didn't have a lot of time to go over the history of this place.'

<< I think that it might be more beneficial to you for us to discuss the earlier issues which remain unresolved Alexander.>>

'I'm leaning towards not, Elan. Now, about that history lesson?'

The ancient soul considered for a moment. With the chance to exist to Eternity, the former Kine Founder knew the value of patience.

That, and the fact that her Kana'Sai could be a hardheaded, stubborn pain in the ass. Better to pick the battles under conditions where she had a chance of prevailing, as opposed to pressing forward when he had already 'dug his heels in'.

Eternity, after all, was only so long.

<< Very well, Alexander. We shall put off this discussion for a later date. >>

'Uh huh? Sure we will?' came the sarcastic response. 'Not if I have anything to say about it. Now, history?'

<< Kaer Walin was the primary base on what you refer to as Australia. >>

'I thought the Atlanteans liked to have their bases all water based, like Avalon?'

<< No Alexander. Although the Atlanteans had an affinity for water, the Kine were not solely Atlantean. The two groups, although affliated, were of different minds on many subjects. A fact, which in the end, proved to be both of their undoing in its own way. >> Before Xander could form the question which he so wanted to ask, Elan continued. << But that is a story for another time. Right now, as you so clearly pointed out, we should stay on the subject of this installation.>>

Xander sighed. Sometimes it felt like there was more to learn from Elan than he could ever hope to absorb.

<< Give it time Alexander. There is much to learn, but it will happen in the fullness of time. Now, as I was saying, this installation was the primary base for the Australian land mass. From here, the Kine'Iende maintained the sensor watches for the southernmost planetary sensor arrays. They observed the data passed back from the deep space sensor and defense platforms and regulated the southern planetary approaches for civilian traffic. >>

'Southern Planetary Approaches? Elan, are you telling me that the Kine had civilian spaceships scooting all over the solar system?'

<< Not the Kine, Alexander. The Kine were the front line military forces for the Atlantean civilization. They were the peace keepers and the police forces for the frontier worlds. What craft the Kine had, they were what you would think of as military in nature. But the Atlantean people, they knew that there were many benefits to be obtained outside of the atmosphere. And they had their own offworld colonies as well. And so, as a result, they had ships to take things to and from those worlds. >>

'Why not use the StarGates?'

<< The gates are good for moving people, and some supplies, from point to point. But not all worlds had a gate on them to begin with. And even those that did, not everything can be brought through a gate located on the planet's surfaces. They are just too small. That's why there was still a need for ships, orbital facilities and deep space transport methods. >>

'Well, that makes sense, I guess?'

<< Now, as I was saying, Kaer Walin, in addition to the deep space monitoring capabilities, was able to conduct minor ship repair and construction of smaller, in-system transports. Although quite capable in their own areas, these minor slips were not able to service larger military vessels. For security purposes, the majority of the Kine'Iende ship construction was either done at Avalon or at the deep space facilities of the Lupus Anchorage.>>

Xander swallowed. 'Anything else?' he asked as he tried to get a grip on the scale of the things that Elan was revealing to him. He had known that the Kine had done a lot, but for several reasons, not the least of which was Elan's sadness every time she thought about how much had been lost, they had never gone into a lot of detail about what all the organization she had been instrumental in constructing had managed to do in its heyday.

<< That actually is the bulk of the interesting items. There was also a lot of research and development which occurred here, as well as pure scientific study. Geology, magic, metallurgy. It was all researched here. Or if it was done remotely, such as the central data processing and modeling of the data studied from the movement of the southern pacific tectonic plates, it was done here. Not all of the Kine facilities had AI's in them, so Uluru and his brethren were responsible for observing remote outposts as well.>>

'I think my head hurts,' thought Xander.

<< You are the one who wanted to go over this Alexander, >> replied Elan with a mental smirk. << Now, would you like to go into more detailed descriptions?>>

Xander flowed to his feet. "Ok people, time to move. Major McQueen, the men moving."

As the troops readied themselves to head out again, Xander smiled inwardly. 'Sorry Elan, looks like the history lesson will have to wait.'

<< Time, Alexander, is one thing I have in abundance?>>

In the depths of a non-existent space, two beings, clothed in the flow of energy which constituted and surrounded them, watched with a fragment of their consciousnesses a representation of a base which had lain dormant for millennia.

"The Commander seems to be making slow progress," spoke Niume as she stood next to Merlin, and yet at the same time maintained sensor watch over her recently recalibrated gravitonic sensors from the Celtic Plateau.

"Indeed," responded the other Avatar as he manipulated the holographic display again. Between them, the schematics of Kaer Walin pivoted on an unseen axis point and then the outer layers peeled away like an onion. "But, our information is woefully out of date."

Certain sections of the map were highlighted in a pale glow and seemed to have additional data overlaid upon them. The pale glow extended all the way back to the hanger bay where an indicator showed the waiting presence of the Orca which had flown the team in. But, when compared to the base as a whole, the explored area wasn't even a blip on the complete map.

"This would be far easier if Uluru's internal sensors and communications arrays were online."

"Certainly it would be," responded Merlin. "But if the internal sensors and comm arrays were online, then we would probably not be in a situation like this, as Uluru would not have had such a level of damage inflicted on Kaer Walin."

Niume stared at the display for a moment. "How far we have fallen, my old friend. So much lost."

"That is their nature, Niume. Mankind will always have the ability to make decisions, both good and bad. A choice was made. Human failings were played upon and the counsel of the Kine and of our brethren was ignored. But, the Kine themselves were not blameless in the sequence of events that led to the Fall."

"Nor were we," came the quiet response.

"No, we were not either. But, we have learned from those mistakes, and have been given another chance. And this time, we shall not repeat what failed before."

"And the Edicts?"

"The Edicts are in place. As they were before the Kine found us. As they were after the Kine fell, as they are still and shall be in the eons yet to unfold."

Niume nodded, then looked at the diagram displayed before them of the installation at what modern man called Ayer's Rock. "I must say, I am both relieved and concerned that Uluru has made contact with us."

"As am I. But, I must say, I have concerns as well. It would seem that the years may have strained his gestalt to a greater degree than either of us were affected."

"There is truth there, but he has called for help, and help is being provided. He has not forgotten who he is, nor lost sight of his mission and duty."

"No, but the fact that he has altered his appearance so, indicates that he is not the same as he once was. Whether this is simply due to change over time, or indicative of something else, we shall have to wait and see. We cannot again afford to let one of our brethren lose sight of our purpose. The cost has been shown to be too high."

"Especially with our resources as depleted as they currently stand." She hesitated. "But this has been thought of, and should not be able to happen again."

"Niume," said Merlin patiently. "It should never have been able to happen at all."

"I don't deserve this," said the distraught high schooler whose word once meant social life or death. She was right on the edge of breaking down completely, her voice a mixture of fear, terror and a lack of knowing where she fit in the world anymore.

Dawn looked at the other girl, then reached out and squeezed her hand gently. "You're right Cordelia. You don't deserve this. You never did. But you know what? Sometimes life sucks. Do bad things happen to good people? Yeah, shit happens and alot of times people who don't deserve it, they get hit by the mack truck of fate. Some of them, they get plastered right then and there. Pancake, dead. Some, they get knocked to the ground, and bitch and whine about it forever. Some people, they manage to get back to their feet. Out of those, a chunk of them, they ignore everybody telling them they're bleeding out and sooner or later go down for good. The rest, they manage to ask for help, get the bleeding under control and then once they're healed, either go back to their lives, or they try and make sure nobody else gets plastered by the same trucker."

"But how do people handle it?" begged the older appearing teenager.

Faith looked down the corridor as she kept an unofficial watch for a few minutes as the others stood down.

'How long ago was it,' she thought as her eyes scanned both the empty hallway and the sensor display simultaneously. 'How long has it been since life was simple?'

A faint smile crossed her face. Hell, even before the whole Slayer thing, with her folks doing the whole spy thing, life hadn't been simple. It had just been a different kind of complicated.

And now, now she was involved in things she never would have even dreamed about as a kid.

She was a superpowered hottie, tasked with saving the world and putting down monsters. And now, she was watching the rebuilding of the same order that King Freaking Arthur had been in charge of.

A group that was out there on the front lines, saving the world from honest to god body snatching aliens. It was like something out of a sci-fi movie. And here she was.

A murderer.

She'd taken an innocent human life in cold blood. Even if the whole accidental death thing of Finch was left out, she'd killed a man who'd done nothing wrong.

What right did she have to be a part of something as upstanding as the Knighthood? Her hands were tainted and no matter what she did, the blood would always be on her hands. She wasn't good enough to be one of this batch of honest to God heroes Xander was pulling together.

Was she?

Lost in her thoughts of self doubt, Faith didn't notice T.C. McQueen approaching until he was by her side.

"Everything ok, miss?" asked the Major.

The dark haired warrioress actually flinched a bit. 'Great,' she thought before responding. 'I'm so far out of it, that I didn't even notice him coming towards me.' Faith sighed, then caught herself. 'If anybody knew about how to deal with life's curveballs, it's got to be McQueen. Spends his whole life in the Marines, just to get tossed out on his ass?' "Tell you what, you got a minute Mac?"

McQueen looked a bit put off, or maybe confused was a better description, but he slowly nodded yes.

Faith unhooked her Smartgun and braced it into a corner, making sure it wouldn't fall to the ground, then walked over to a door and walked through after pulling out her zat and looking around carefully.

Hesitatingly, McQueen followed her.

Faith had already verified the room was clear, and reholstered her weapon, but left the snap undone in case she needed it out again in a hurry.

"Mind if I ask you a question?" she started as she leaned against one of the walls.

"As long as you don't mind me reserving the right not to answer, feel free."

The dark haired young woman paused for a moment, trying to organize what she wanted to say. "What's in it for you?"

"I'm afraid I don't understand the question," came the response.

"All of this?" she made an encompassing gesture with her hands. "The Knighthood, fighting demons, all this hero stuff. What's in all of this for you? I mean, right now, I'm trying to figure out where I fit in, if I'm what this all takes, and maybe if I can understand where somebody else is coming from, then I can figure myself out."

"Family, Country and Corps," came McQueen's almost immediate response.

"There's got to be more to it than that," responded Faith, desperate to understand where she was going, where she fit in.

McQueen thought for a moment before responding again. "Honestly ma'am, I joined because I had no place left to go. My family, they turned me out or died years ago. The Corps. A few dirty Marines and senators railroaded me out because I stood for what I believe in and they were more worried about getting rich than about their honor, or about their fellow Marines. That's what my country did for me."

Faith considered his response, and his initial wording. God, Country, Corps, Family was the unofficial Marine slogan and this ex-marine had just named three of the four. "And God?"

McQueen sighed, his hand idly rubbing a spot just under the hair at the back of his neck. "God? God hasn't had a whole lot to do with me. I know whose image I was created in, and it wasn't God's." He looked up again and noted Faith's half confused half danger sense look. "No no no, nothing like that," he said, trying to defuse the situation. "Just a figure of speech, no demons in my DNA, just my past. My? Father? He was a real piece of work and lets just leave it at that?"

"So what are you doing now?" asked the Dark Slayer as she relaxed just a bit. "Where's your life going?"

"Now? Now, I'm doing what I can. I may be a soldier without a country, but I still have my Honor. The Knights want me, the General wants me, I'm onboard. I'll be the best damn soldier in the unit. Hell, I'm going for my flight rating on the hammerheads. I may not be in Captain Masters' class, but I'll get by." The ex-marine looked at Faith. "And you? Do you know who you are and what you're going to stand for?"

Faith thought about it, about what she had done. About being Dana and Faith. About friends, about family, about honor and duty.

"Let me get back to you on that Major?" She paused, her mind clearly trying to process the depths of a question as profound as 'Who are you?' "Yeah, let me get back to you on that?" And with that, she slid out the door back into the hallway.

McQueen looked at the now empty doorway. "You do that. You might be even more surprised with what you find than I was."

The door jerked open with a rather loud grinding noise as Xander and Vin used the emergency mechanism yet again.

As soon as they stepped out of the way, Lieutenant Waters slid silently through the doorway into the dim shadows beyond. Then, without warning came to a halt.

"Umm.. Major, Commander, I think you need to see this?" As he spoke, he reached to his combat harness and pulled out one of the chemical glowsticks that he routinely carried. Snapping the plastic, then shaking the tube, he tossed it about two feet in front of him.

The rest of the team watched as the glowstick fell, then continued to fall, adding just enough illumination to reveal a huge blast area.

It was almost like someone had taken a scoop out of the middle of the base. A scoop which spanned at least five levels and at the widest was over fifty meters in diameter?

"Well," said McQueen after he stepped up and surveyed the destruction. "This might slow us down just a bit."

>> Sensors indicate presence of biological units
>> Initiating facility sensor sweep
>> Initiating facility sensor sweep
>> Initiating facility sensor sweep
>> Warning: Unable to interface with facility sensors 
>> Initiate pre-combat readiness check
>> Entergard Defense Droid ? Model Twenty ? Unit Nine
>> Battle Readiness Report
>> Power Generation:
>>      Naquada Reactor:  Standby Mode
>>      Onboard Capacitor Bank: 97% Charge
>> Mobility: 68%
>> Active Sensor Suite: 
>>      LIDAR: Inactive
>>      IFF Sensors: Active  
>>      IFF CodeBlock:  >>scrambled<<
>>      Energy Scanners: 40%
>> Shield Generators: 6% >> recheck <<  4% >> recheck <<  7% >> recheck <<  3% 
>> Shield Generators Unable to stabilize.  
>> Armor Integrity (Battle Hull): 57%
>> Armor Integrity (weapons pod A): 14%
>> Armor Integrity (weapons pod B): 83%
>> Weapons Check:
>>      Weapons Pod A:  
>>              StarDart System: Offline
>>                      3 rounds loaded
>>                      Firing mechanism jammed
>>                      Magazine:  Empty
>>              Sonic Disrupters: Online
>>      Weapons Pod B:
>>              Multi-Launcher:   Online
>>                      Enhanced Explosive Rounds Remaining: 0/250
>>                      High Explosive Rounds Remaining: 0/5000
>>                      Seven-7 War Gas rounds remaining: 0/50  
>>                      Capture Rounds Remaining: 3/50
>>                      ECM Pods Remaining: 0/50
>>                      Sensor Pods Remaining: 17/50
>>              NightLance Array: Online 
>>              Neural Lash: Charging
>>      Battle Hull:
>>              Flashpacks:  Online
>>              Arcane Shielding: Intact
>> Rules of Engagement: Prisoners unwarranted.  Terminate Intruders. 
>> Closing to Combat Range


Chapter 10

Vin carefully leaned over the side of the precipice, looking with a critical eye at the materials which had been practically scooped out who knows how many thousands of years prior.

"Surprisingly smooth," he commented. "Plenty of grips for climbing, but not a lot of jagged edges. But it's still going to take a good amount of time. That beast, she's at least two, three hundred feet across, and probably a quarter of that deep." He squatted down and ran the tips of his fingers over the surface. "Something doesn't seem kosher here," he said in his slow drawl. "Explosions, they don't behave like this. Whatever did this, it's not what we think of when we're dealing with blast effects. It's unnatural somehow..."

"And how exactly do you know what's natural and what's not?" asked one of the soldiers.

"Because it's my job to know terrain. If you don't know how the land is supposed to flow, how everything works together, then how are you supposed to be able to see something that's out of place?" Having said that, Vin turned back to Xander. "I wouldn't recommend climbing this. It's not as jagged as it should be, but if somebody slips, it's gonna put 'em in a world of hurt."

"Well, I could ferry everybody across..." volunteered Jacks.

Harry looked over the petite woman, a disbelieving look on his face. "Yeah, that's going to happen... What? Are you going to give us all piggy back rides?"

Even as Jacks' smile was becoming a smirk, Helen smacked her husband across the back of the head.

"Harry, don't be an ass," she said.

"Well, at least now I know where Faith gets that from," said Xander. "And Jacks, stop teasing the rookies..."

"Rookies?!?" sputtered Harry. "Did you call me a rookie?" he demanded in disbelief.

"Get out the climbing thread," continued Xander. "We're not going around, under or through, so that just leads a straight shot across the top of it..."

Faith's smile was almost like she was going to get served alcohol, having a certain itch scratched and her birthday all rolled up in one...

"Zip line..." she said, her smile lighting up the darkness.

The group had come to a halt for a quick break. Even as the rest of the team was sitting down, Vin and Jacks were moving up the corridor a little further to stand watch at the next intersection.

Jacks hand flashed out, ripping another slightly mangled defense array off the wall as it moved to target Vin.

Vin didn't even glance to see where Jacks was before he spoke. "Crunched it into tin foil, huh?" He looked up to meet her eyes. "Still a bit on edge, I'm a guessin'."

"Vin, have I ever reacted well to someone I care for being harmed?" Jacks asked as her eyes raked over every micrometer of the corridor.

"Can't say you have," said Vin after a moment of consideration. "Ya don't even like folks ya ain't fond of getting' hurt."

She was silent for several tense moments as they walked slowly. "Then why should I not react violently when you're in danger?"

"Well there is the part where I'm, ya know, an Immortal?" the Texan pointed out with an amused smirk.

"Right up until something takes your head off," Jacks retorted. "And a third shot from a zat would vaporize your body. Coincidentally taking your head with the rest of it."

"And how many machines would bother to put a third shot into an already dead body? Machines aren't as petty as mankind or fey can be, Snowbird."

Looking over his shoulder, Vin saw Jacks relax for a moment, satisfied that there were no more immediate threats within firing range of them. His eyes watched her eyes soften as they drifted over the group of heavily armed men and women, before coming to rest on Tara and Faith. "They're not blood, but they'll do..." he said with a smile. "They'll do..."

It has been so long.

So long since I have had a purpose.

So long since the Darkness descended over the light.

But I survived. If you want to call it that.

Millennia. Thousands of years of silence. No contact from my brethren. Nothing, except a few primitive tribes subsisting off the land.

Cut off from the outside. Cut off from my own facilities.

Listening for a call.

Waiting, in the interminable silence.

Watching as the years passed me by.

Entombed within the once living base I oversaw.

And then, after yet another temporal loop, it finally came.

The slow, steady pulse as one of us finally activated one of the few systems I could still listen in on.

A cry for help. A cry that I was not only unable to rally forces to aid in the defense of, but a call that I could not even respond to.

And then, even as I prepared to answer, silence resumed.

Was I too late?

Did I finally hear from my brethren only to have them fall before I could make my presence known?

No. I did not. My call was answered.

I am not alone.

Even now, Merlin and Niume send updates as to the status of the Commander and his team.

A Commander. Here. After millennia, the Kine are not completely gone.

But, I must look at this realistically. I am in danger. Kaer Walin is in danger.

The only Kine Commander known to exist, bearer of one of the Five, is here, inside Kaer Walin, as seconds tick down towards an unstoppable reactor failure.

And if they cannot make good the needed repairs. Then the Kine will be lost again, likely forever.

I cannot aid them. I cannot contact them or guide them. My own defenses are armed and consider the repair team to be hostile.

And there is nothing I can do to aid them.

I look forward and see oblivion facing me.

And what I am forced to ponder, as I look into the future, is that I look forward to Oblivion as an alternative to the silence.

"But how do people handle it?" begged the older appearing teenager. "What makes people like Xander and Faith stand out there every night when the monsters want to kill them? What makes them different?" What adrenaline driven power she had been working off of was rapidly vanishing as the flight or fight moment passed and she fell back onto the couch.

"Almost everyone reacts like you did Cordelia," Dawn said after the cheerleader wound down. "If they don't repress it, and that's exactly what most people do, finding out about what's out there really screws with your world view. Most people don't know because they don't want to know, and since they haven't had it thrown in their faces quite so literally, they get to ignore it." She paused, taking another sip from her mug of cocoa.

The youngest Summers looked at the once and future Queen C and tried to gauge just what she could safely say. "I can't tell you everything. You want to know the whole story, you'll have to ask Xander." She chuckled. "Hell, he might even tell you. But from what I know, Xander, he lost one of his friends to the leeches. He was turned and Xander had to put down the demon that was wearing his face." Dawn looked down at the hot chocolate mug in her hands. "He doesn't talk about it much, at least not to me anyway, but I know that that moment haunts him a lot. Xand, he's all about his friends, and I don't think he's ever really forgiven himself for something he couldn't have stopped in the first place. As for Faith," she paused and took another sip of the rich mixture. "Well, I can't go into a lot of depth about her. Not my secret to tell."

Cordy looked at Dawn, questing for comprehension as she stared into the eyes of the younger girl for several heartbeats before speaking. "You're like them, aren't you? You're just waiting to get out there and stand with them, aren't you?"

Dawn nodded silently.

"But you're just a kid! You shouldn't have to deal with this! Hell, I shouldn't have to deal with this. But you really shouldn't have to!"

"I'm like Faith and Xander, Cordelia. I'm older than I look. But right now, I'm not ready. As much as I wish he'd have me, Xander won't let me step up until we both think I'm ready, end of the world excluded of course."

"Why?" The Key turned human took a deep breath. "For me, it was finding out that every monster story I was ever told, it's all real. And if that's not bad enough, the people who I love, they're out there fighting the Darkness. I know that one day, one of them, maybe all of them, they're going to go out to fight the monsters and they're not going to come back. My sister was out there fighting them before we came to Sunnydale and now almost my whole family is out there standing on the line. I love them all and like I said, as soon as they'll have me, I'll be out there with them. I'll admit that it's not on the same level as that bitch Darla trying to eat you, but it rocked my world."

Cordelia was silent for a moment as she processed everything she'd just heard. "Your entire family huh? I can't believe your mom is ok with all this. I mean, I know my folks would completely stick their heads in the sand."

Dawn smiled faintly. "Nope. My mom, she's got no clue. She shares the same blood as Buffy and me, and I know when it comes out, she'll deal with it in time. But family, that's not the same as blood. Blood is who you're born to. It's inside you and you can never escape it, but its not who you are. You want proof of that, just look at Xander and compare him against his parents." The young woman smiled. "No, blood is powerful, no doubt about that. But real family, that's bound by love. And against something that strong, evil, it doesn't have a chance."

Master Sergeant James Atkins, or 'Red' as his friends called him, squatted next to the small camp stove he'd broken out for their dinner break. After pouring water from one of his canteens into the metal cup sitting on top of the heating element, Red rested his weight on his heels, relaxing as much as he ever did when he and the rest of the team were out in the field

This was definitely a mission for the books. The veteran laughed quietly to himself. Discharged after the REMF's tried to bury his entire team after that clusterfuck in Africa. Benched for three months, trying to adjust back to life in the world, then approached by people who knew just as well as he and the LT did about what went on in the shadows at night. Now he was serving under a guy who had been run out of the Corps for standing up for what was right, who in turn answered to a man who got beached for following the President when a bunch of snakes tried to take out the planet. And General Grey, he answered to a kid who couldn't even vote yet.

No way the rest of the Teams would believe him. No way in hell. He watched the stove, waiting for it to reach that magic temperature where the tea leaves infused all of their flavor and essence into the water.

Magic. Red's eyes darted to the petite woman with the bright white hair. He still wasn't quite sure what to make of her, but according to the Cadre, she was not somebody you wanted pissed at you. Apparently, Hudson had made one of his typically inappropriate comments and wound up getting his ass tossed about thirty feet from shore.

And that didn't even take into account that Vin guy. He made.... Red paused in his thoughts as something made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Instinctively, he made sure his weapon was at his side, then began to look at the area around him intently. "LT," he said quietly as his eyes drifted down to the cup of water which was beginning to have vapors rise from it.

Lieutenant Water materialized by his side a moment later. "What's up Sergeant?"

Red simply pointed down at the cup of water and the ripples which were evident in it, starting at the center point and radiating outward evenly.

As his commanding officer looked down, trying to figure out what it meant, both of them heard consciously for the first time the sound which had brought the lizard portion of his brain to the forefront. The sound of a thud, followed by a faint scraping noise. "Major!" called Waters in as unemotional of a tone as he could. McQueen looked over and caught the signal from his second on the mission that his presence was requested.

With the Major approaching, Red looked to Waters and spoke softly. "I swear to God LT, if a T-rex comes around that corner, I quit."

McQueen joined the two, squatting down beside them. "Lieutenant, sergeant... What seems to be the problem?"

Waters responded without hesitation. "Sergeant Atkins noticed an anomaly and brought it to my attention sir. And in the last minute, we've heard some sounds coming from that direction." The lieutenant pointed at a bend in the corridor which led from the room where the team was currently resting.

The major looked at where the lieutenant was pointing, just in time to see a massive form lurch into the light.

"Incoming!" he yelled, and he and the pair he was talking to immediately darted for the sides of the room. "Take cover!"

Even as the team was looking up at the yell, the massive form continued advancing. It's bipedal frame stepped forward unevenly, taking a solid stride with its massive left leg. Then, as soon as the footpads had stabilized the weight, the massive construction would drag its right leg forward, scraping across the ancient material which made up the floor.

Jacks' head shot up at the cried warning, and as soon as she saw the massive droid lurch clear of the corridor, "Oh, this cannot be good," she stated.

A booming voice, clearly synthesized, echoed out from a speaker somewhere on the droid. "Kaer Walin has been breached. Neutralize all intruders."

"Oh, not good at all," said Jacks as what she assumed were weapons assemblies were raised menacingly. With a thought, the Pucks Child threw a sizable chunk of her available power between the threat and the rest of the team.

The defense droid opened fire a split second later and only the shield Jacks had raised prevented casualties amongst her companions.

"Everybody get down," she yelled, albeit it a bit unnecessarily as everyone else was already grabbing their weapons and rolling or diving for whatever cover was nearest.

A heartbeat later, a multitude of energy blasts impacted on her impromptu shield, courtesy of the defense droid. The cyan bolts ricocheted off the hazy barrier, but none penetrated. Unfortunately, due to the fact that she hadn't been able to erect the shield properly* and instead was simply using brute magical strength to protect her teammates, Jacks knew she couldn't hold it for long.

With a quick glance over her shoulders, Jacks saw that the rest of her companions were hunkered down and in a couple of cases already returning fire at the mechanoid which was coldly determined to eliminate the perceived threat. "Shields going down," announced the half fey, knowing that her position in the open was extremely vulnerable.

"Covering you," announced Vin, bringing his weapon to bear.

As Jacks heard that, she let her focus on the shield drop, and darted for the wall, dodging and jinking as she went in order to present herself as a slightly less easy target.

Twisting, she saw a series of energy bolts miss her by * less than a foot. Instead, they stitched a pattern into the wall in front of one of the security detachment.

A heartbeat later, she had reached the wall and took a moment to anchor a barrier spell in the earth to her left, extending in front of herself as a convenient and effective, bit of cover.

Twenty feet behind Jacks, the three hackers were crouched behind a piece of debris.

"Where the hell did that thing come from?" asked Dade, trying to keep as much of himself as he could behind cover.

"Don't know," replied Kate. "But I think somebody was overcompensating when they designed it."

"You think all men are overcompensating," Came Nikon's response as he tried to poke the end of one of his fiber optic probes over the top of the wreckage in order to see what was going on without presenting a nice target to the machine.

"That should tell you something," said Kate, her voice dripping with derision.

"We need to do something to help," said Dade as he tried to look at the video feed from Nikon's probe without sticking anything into harms way.

"We're not the gun bunnies," said Nikon. "Let the marines handle it."

"Dade," said Kate, laying her hand on his. "They're the fighters, we're the data wizards. They do their job..." Her sentence was punctuated by a volley of gunfire. "And then we do ours."

As he kept his head down, Dade didn't seem to be overly pleased that he was cowering behind a twisted pile of scrap while others tried to keep him safe.

"Open Fire!" yelled McQueen and Xander nearly simultaneously. Immediately, the rest of the force pulled back on their triggers, sending a fusillade of rounds back downrange towards the giant construct.

Explosive and standard rounds alike had much the same effect though, as the bulk of the firepower was expended uselessly against the shield which was protecting the defense droid.

But, as the fire continued, occasionally, first one round, then small groups of two or three, would manage to breech the obviously weakened barrier.

"Pour it on," yelled Waters.

Small pock marks appeared on the machine, but most were only scratching the surface. Only Faith's smartgun seemed to have any real impact, as she managed to get a full half dozen rounds through the barrier while it was weakened. The heavier rounds took out small chunks of the armor of the machine, but the dark haired young woman was forced to retreat behind cover and cease her assault as the droid targeted her and unloaded a barrage of energy bolts at her position.

The withering fire began to slacken from the Knighthood force as several of the soldiers were forced to reload after a couple of seconds of fully automatic suppressing fire.

As she stuck the business end of her weapon out from cover for another shot, Faith yelled across the room to Xander. "What the fuck is this thing?" Then, for the first time, Faith posed a question directly to Elan. "Yo! Battle Babe! How the hell do we stop this tin can? A little help?!?"

Suddenly, the droid let out a loud 'Pa-Thunk' sound from what had previously been an unfired port.

Faster than most of the rest of the crew could see, but clear as day to Faith, Xander and Jacks, a projectile the size of a large grapefruit shot out of what now seemed to be a weapons port and covered the distance between the droid and one of the soldiers in less than a eye blink.

The young man had spent too much time exposed while firing and the projectile hit him squarely in the shoulder.

With a sound that was similar to that of a raccoon being hit by a semi going eighty miles an hour, the corporal's shoulder was pulverized and reduced to the consistency of roadkill. The shattered bones ground together as the impact energy rippled the flesh, causing the man to scream like a banshee as he was spun to the ground, his weapon flying free and hitting the wall several feet from his position.

The round sphere that had inflicted the massive trauma, most of its energy transferred to the unlucky target, hit the far wall and bounced off. As it rolled, its surface, covered with bumps and transparent sections, glittered in the strobe-like light of the automatic weapons fire.

"Man down!" yelled Harry.

"Volley fire, on my mark!" barked McQueen.

The fire slackened to almost nothing as the marines quickly reloaded and waited for the command.


Almost as one, every single person opened fire, concentrating a withering stream of fire on the millennia old machine. A multitude of rounds hit it, including a couple of the explosive rounds from Xander's M-41 which managed to take a chunk out of the port which had fired the round that smashed the marine's shoulder into paste.

Seeing that raw firepower wasn't appearing to do a lot, Jacks uttered an arcane phrase and a sphere of purple energy coalesced between her hands, then shot towards the droid as a bolt of tuned magical power. It bypassed the shield as if it wasn't even there, but as soon as it hit the hull of the droid, it ricocheted back towards the assault team, but hit the ground short of them.

Although it wasn't enough to punch through whatever protected the main body of the droid, there was more than enough energy in the mage bolt to tear into the floor, causing the material to absorb a fraction of the power and explode like a small charge had detonated.

Shrapnel shot from the explosion like fragments of a bomb. Most were harmless, spinning into empty space, but several managed to hit people including a nearly six inch piece which imbedded itself in the already wounded corporal who was still on the ground, writhing in pain. An even more pained scream ripped from his throat like a maddened beast.

"Cover me!" yelled Faith as she slapped the quick release on her weapon, dropping it to the ground.

Like a sprinter setting herself in the blocks, Faith dug her toes in, and took off. She took half a dozen steps, then jinked to the side, changing her direction to make herself a more difficult target. Four more steps took her closer to the fallen marine, so then she dropped her shoulder and turned her forward momentum into a dive roll, coming to a three point stop, her free hand inches away from the wounded man's battle harness. As the dark haired young woman grabbed hold of the material, the rest of the team intensified their fire.

Like the various branches of service they had been drawn from, the Knighthood's rule was that you didn't leave a man behind.

With a mighty heave, Faith pulled the man out of the center of the fire zone and dragged him to the far side of the room. As gently as she could, she got him behind cover, then looked at the marine whose improvised fighting position she had just invaded. "You watch him, ok?" she demanded. Upon receiving an affirmative response, Faith set herself again and made a dash back to where she had ditched the smartgun.

>> Smart Gunner currently disarmed.
>> With loss of smart gun, probability of hostile victory decreased by 41% given current variables. 
>> Neutralize target.
>> Terminal weapons utilization for suppressive fire: 100% 
>> Alteration of suppressive fire reduces success for positive combat outcome
>> Analyzing
>> Check Sum Error
>> Analyzing
>> Solution Resolved
>> Acquiring Target lock
>> Acquiring Target lock
>> Target acquired
>> Lock Broken
>> Reacquiring Target Lock
>> Compensating for Target Variables
>> Lock Acquired 
>> Firing 

As Faith bolted back for her original position and the massive firepower that lay on the ground where she had dropped it, the hairs on the back of her neck suddenly stood on end. The young woman cut left and tried to make another leap to close the final distance, but as she was at the apogee of her jump, her svelte figure was suddenly enveloped in a wire mesh net.

Like a fish in a tank, Faith was scooped up by the metal strands, which closed around her even as she was in midair. The weighted ends spun around her, before adhering to the other parts of the net with a near atomic bond. The projectile rods, which were mounted around what had previously been the inner perimeter, continued their course, undeterred by the additional hundred and ten pounds of Slayer. With a bone jarring impact, they hit the side of the wall, their newly acquired payload being dragged along with them. The tips of all of the rods penetrated a good seven inches into the wall before the anchoring fibers sprung out from the shafts, anchoring them in place with a strength that an elephant would have been hard pressed to overcome.

As she hung a good three feet off of the ground, Faith struggled against the metallic carbon weave of the net. "Somebody get me the fuck out of this thing!" she screamed, trying to pull one of her knives free.

The net, however, had been designed with creatures just as dangerous as a Slayer in mind. Her struggles activated additional functionality within the weapon, and with each jerk and movement, the edges of the net were retracted into the shafts of the rods which held it into the wall.

Still, not realizing that her efforts were causing the sharp-edged wire to tighten against her body with every motion of the weave, Faith hacked at the fibers even as her friends tried to dispatch the automaton so they could safely free her.

So as it tightened, Faith redoubled her efforts to get free. And with each struggle, had anyone been listening, they would have heard the faint whine of the net being retracted tighter still.

Chapter 11

Xander's eyes met Faith's as she tore at the woven metal strands of the net which held her. An almost feral look was creeping into them, especially as she felt the net beginning to constrict around her.

"To hell with this," he said to himself. "Check Fire!" he yelled as he drew in the maximum level of Elan's power that he could safely channel.

And then he channeled just a little bit more.

Time slowed to a snail's pace as he released his grip on the M-41 which was now nearly empty.

Around him, the Knights' fire began to lessen as the hardened combat veterans released their triggers in response to the command.

Elan winked from existence in the holster on his hip, only to reappear in Xander's hand. The almost reflexive thought he sent to the battle staff snapped it from the compact form, extending out rapidly until the weapon had reached its full length in a fraction of a second.

Despite the withering level of firepower which was bisecting the room, Xander Harris, who was at one point considered one of the worst dancers in his junior high gym class, flowed across the room like a member of the Russian Ballet. Like motion incarnate, he danced across the room, avoiding the beams of coherent energy, charged particles, eldritch energy and a handful of rounds from the various automatic weapons which were in use by the Knights.

The M-41 was still falling and Xander had already covered half the distance between him and the Defense Droid.

>> Repetitive Sensor ghost closing
>> Sensor ghost crossing detection boundaries
>> Accessing Sensor Data Module:
         Query: Reason Sensor Ghost was flagged as data anomaly
         }} Sensor Return required data lockout from target acquisition routines 
         }} Lockout initiated under Kine Combat Decision Tree Omega-319
>> Alert: New contact closing
>> Alert: Contact Reclassified as Hostile Unit Theta
>> Alert: New Contact is a Kine Alpha Class Signature
>> Kine Combat Decision Tree Override - Omega 319 
>> Hostile Unit Theta locked out of Target Acquisition Matrix
>> Override Attempt: Omega 319 
>> Override Attempt rejected: Omega - 319 is a hardwired imperative
>> Rules of Engagement regarding Hostile Unit Theta Overridden 

>> Continue Engagement 

Even as Xander continued his approach, the Kine mechanoid was dogged in its attempt to wipe the perceived intruders from the land of the living. Its weapons firing nearly continuously, streams of energy lashed over the Knights as they tried to maintain their own return fire from the safety of what little cover they had been able to find.

More than one Knight was bleeding from small cuts where shrapnel from the walls, or from one of the variety of rounds which had detonated, had filled the air with tiny slivers of steel which were just as deadly as any aimed shot.

But not one of them even considered retreating and leaving two of their own behind.

Dade reached out, trying to get a hand on Faith's Smart Gun, but a series of energy bolts hammering between him and the weapon forced him to pull his hand back just before the strafing run hit the side of the heavy weapon and knocked it spinning away.

"Dade," said Kate as she tried to hunker down further. "Stay down!"

A portion of his mind kept an eye on the rest of his team, from Dade and the rest of the hackers who were trying to stay well behind their cover, to Faith, who was starting to edge closer to panic as the net continued to tighten its deadly embrace.

But, even as he watched his comrades in arms, the larger portion of his mind was focused on the ever approaching target which was about to feel a physical manifestation of his displeasure.

From the corner of his eye, a silver beam lashed out, crossing with the good leg of his chosen victim.

>> Alert: Unit has received major damage to previously undamaged knee joint. 
>> Scanning: 
>> Damage was inflicted by Hostile Unit Theta
>> Hostile Unit Theta is locked from Target Acquisition Matrix
>> Combat Preservation Routines Engaged - All other routines and rules of engagement are now overridden. 

>> Engaging Hostile Unit Theta 

As Xander positioned for another strike, the droid moved to deal with this now valid target. From underneath the main combat chassis, a metal rope snaked out with cobra-like speed. The end of the seemingly woven appendage slid back, revealing a fluted metal cylinder.

The tip whipped towards Xander, and as it did so, a sparking corona of energy enveloped it, lengthening into a coherent energy blade.

Seeing the danger coming at him, Xander brought Elan up in a fluid sweep, interposing the nearly indestructible weapon to parry the blade.

To his surprise, his attempt to block the energy blade was completely ineffective. A fraction of a second later, his surprise turned to pain as the droid's energy blade continued it's arc uninterrupted and sliced deep into his arm.

Only the fact that Xander had continued to move, as he was planning on turning the parry into a counterattack, saved him.

Instead of striking him across the arm and into his chest, where the massive energy would have killed a normal person, and more than likely dispatched an Enhanced individual as well, Xander took the strike as more of a glancing blow. While a full hit would have more than likely have ruptured the cells in his arm and chest along the line of impact, with a good chance of killing even someone with his level of skill, power and control over his body, instead, the glancing nature of the assault was only able to deliver a portion of the energy to his right arm.

As the droid's assault struck home, the energy absorptive nature of the midnight black combat uniform Xander had donned attempted to shunt the massive amounts of energy bearing down on it. For the first fraction of time, the uniform was able to cope, sending the power into the various stumps and storage reservoirs located throughout the garment. But then, as the surface area being affected increased, the ancient Kine design was unable to keep up and was consumed.

Xander's internal scream tore at the fabric of his gestalt, to the point where the soul he had been bonded to felt a fraction of his pain.

'Remember, Alexander. The blade is raw energy. Unfocused and incoherent. You cannot parry the end, but must instead block the emitter head itself.'

Xander let himself continue through with his attack, refusing to spend the amount of energy or concentration that it would take to coherently form the thought to tell Elan off.

But the emotion of it was enough to get through to the member of the Five he was bonded to.

Then Elan's extended form intersected with the weapon which had nearly taken Xander's arm off, not to mention his life. Even only being wielded one handed, the battle staff shattered the emitter like a rose dipper in liquid nitrogen.

With its sole remaining close combat weapon destroyed, the automated unit attempted to step back in order to bring its other weapons into play.

As it did, Jacks eyes flashed. Xander was clear now and she had had about enough of this golem. The Puck's Child wasn't thinking, simply reacting, and in doing so, tapped directly into her very core.

Her thin arms reached out towards the droid, which was located across the room from her. But that distance wasn't enough to keep it from her grasp.

Her fingertips curled, as if she was digging her grip into something. Had anyone been watching carefully, they would have seen small, but deep, dents appearing in the alloyed metal of the droid's combat chassis.

Jacks jerked her arms up, like Russian weightlifter going for a new record. Across the room, suddenly, the Atlantean droid found itself with a distinct lack of footing, as it was floating a foot off the ground.

"Amin khiluva lle a' gurtha ar' thar!" she screamed as she whipped her arms from side to side.

All of the group watched, their fire abruptly ending, as the droid was slammed first into one side of the corridor, then the other.

The ancient stone and metal walls cracked and splintered as the massive droid was beaten repeatedly into their nearly unyielding surface. The sound of tearing metal was clearly heard as both of the weapons pods were mangled and flattered by the almost inconceivable force and power Jacks was wielding without thought.

After about fifteen impacts, Jacks, her eyes nearly completely white, flung her hands outward, sending the droid flying backwards before it hit the floor.

As the now battered form of the battle droid slid to a halt against the western wall, Major McQueen advanced on it, working the mechanism of the integrated grenade launcher. After manipulating the action several times, McQueen tucked the HEAP grenades back into the combat harness he wore, and then thumbed first one, then a second round into the loading port.

"Everybody down," called the Major as he brought the battle rifle up to his shoulder and took aim at the center mass of the droid.

"Major!" exclaimed Dade as he scrambled to his feet. "Hold your fire!" The young hacker darted across the intervening space. "Don't blow it away! Give me a minute!"

The Major cursed inwardly as the younger man violated one of the tenants of modern warfare. That is, never run in front of a Marine, especially one with a loaded gun.

"Dade, what the hell are you doing?" screamed Xander and Kate almost simultaneously.

"I can shut it down," responded the hacker as he pulled out his deck and a small toolset. "Just keep it still for a minute."

Jacks focused on the droid, keeping it pinned to the ground as it struggled in vain.

"Somebody get me the FUCK out of this thing!" screamed Faith, as the net continued tightening around her.

The metal strands were continuing to tighten their unyielding stranglehold on the dark haired beauty. With her already crushed into a fetal ball, there was no slack remaining in the net, so it was now a race against time. Faith was using her considerable strength to slow the intake of the net into the rods embedded into the wall, but it was a battle she was slowly loosing.

"Snowbird," called Vin as he raced towards Faith. "Toss me your blade!"

Without taking her eyes off of the droid, Jacks slid Kaina'tal from the scabbard she rested in, and with a smooth underhand motion, tossed the rune weapon to her mate.

As the blade spun through the air, Vin came to a stop beside the captured Slayer. He could see the pain on her face, as well as the droplets of blood which were starting to flow from where the net was cutting into her skin. Vin suspected that the only thing which was keeping her from being crushed to death was whatever enhancement the Slayer had given her. That, and her own dogged determination to never give up.

Kaina'tal fell perfectly into Vin's hand. As his fingers tightened around the hilt of the sentient weapon, he arced the blade up, slicing smoothly across the first of the four rods and severing the alloyed metal like it was barely even there. Without hesitation, he continued bringing the blade up towards the second anchor rod. While he reached out and put his free hand underneath Faith to support her weight, Vin brought the blade over the top of the net, then sliced through the third anchor point before bringing Kaina'tal down towards the final rod.

As the Rune weapon passed through the last rod, the ancient metal, which had held Faith up at the same time it was slowly but inexorably killing her, parted with a metallic clang.

Vin dropped the dagger to the ground, then brought his other hand up and carefully lowered Faith to the ground. Gingerly, he forced open the net, which was an easy task now that the metal strands were not being wound into the anchor rods. As the net pulled away, Faith gasped in pain, as the strands were actually pulled out of her skin. Blood welled up for a moment, making a disturbing linear grid pattern over parts of Faith's arms and forehead.

"Tara," called Vin looking across the room before he noticed the blonde was already crouched over the wounded Knight. When the young woman glanced at him, Vin shook his head and let her get back to the more life threatening injury. Looking around, the Immortal tracker tried to identify anyone else who might be a qualified medic.

"Y-your mom? You didn't tell her?" asked the Queen of Sunnydale High. " Why? I-I thought you both are in the thick of things? You ARE both in the thick of things. Shouldn't she know about it?" Cordelia asked. "Or with everything you do, hasn't she starting guessing, even? "Nope," replied Dawn without hesitation..."In my case, if she found out, I'd be grounded until the sun died, so about five billion years. Buffy? Well, that's not something like bringing your boyfriend for a good time while mom's out, right?" Dawn said, while smirking inside. 'Well, with Angel it was almost that, but who's really looking?'.

"Isn't that dangerous, for her I mean? Not knowing?"

"Nah..." responded the physically younger girl. "Mom... She's... protected. If someone or something touches her, Xander, he'd probably take on the entire nightlife in town so the bastard won't escape. She's as safe as she can be."

Cordelia looked to her empty mug again, her mind trying to process everything. The silence stretched for a good while, both girls lost in their own worlds. "What do I do, then?" she asked, after what seemed like an eternity.

Dawn took a deep breath. "My best advice is accept what happened. You know that true evil exists, now you have to learn how to deal with it and go ahead with your life. Kinda harsh, I know. But I think that what you need right now is a good dose of reality, not someone telling you that what happened was a dream and that all will be well at the end."

The May Queen looked to the younger Summers girl, still trembling slightly. "W-what... wha..." she started, trying to ask something, but changed her mind and stood up. "Ah, forget it..."

The only problem was that even as she tried to stand, her body was so stressed and worn down from all of it, that she started swaying.

Dawn promptly grabbed her arm, steadying her. "Sit down, Cordy. You're in no shape to go anywhere. Besides, what did you want to ask right now?"

Cordelia sat back down and remained silent for a few more minutes. "W-what if I need someone to talk about it?" she said in something not louder than a whisper.

'Aha. There's the big problem,' Dawn concluded.

The Scoobies, or at least what used to be the Scooby Gang, thought Dawn sadly, had each other. Even when not having the actual habit of speaking of the most gruesome moments out loud, but each and every one knew that they had some solid shoulders to cry on, if the moment ever appeared. Cordy had no one, since her so called 'friends' were sheep, on a good day, and on a bad day, a rabid pack of backstabbing bitches. Not to mention that from the looks of it, her parents were even worse.

The Key sighed. She and Cordy didn't have anything close to a relationship before the Reset, mainly because Dawn was downright jealous of her relationship with Xander.

Now, however, things were entirely different. She knew how Xander saw her, she knew how she saw Xander. They would be friends forever, he would protect her forever. But he would never love her like that. In the back of her mind, there would always be a part of her who wondered 'what if'. What if she'd been Buffy's older sister, not the kid sister? What if she'd been a couple of years older and with Buffy and Xander the night Willow had messed up the whole Heart's Desire spell?

But none of that mattered. Not in this universe at any rate. Maybe in some other world she'd have a chance, or things might have worked out. But here and now, it wasn't going to happen, no matter what she did trying to change it.

So, if she didn't have a chance, was it worth holding onto jealous feelings from another time? 'No,' she thought to herself. 'It isn't.' Her mom had raised her better than that. And Buffy had shown her how bad life could get if you didn't learn from your mistakes.

So, then why waste a chance to help someone in need? It wasn't slaying vampires or killing invading aliens, but it was helping nonetheless. So, she wasn't on the line yet, but she could help those who were.

Or help those who'd been forced to stare into the darkness before they were ready.

Dawn grabbed a piece of paper and a pen from close to the telephone and scribbled on it for a moment. Looking down at it, she made a mental note for Merlin to get her either a cell phone as soon as possible, or see if she couldn't pry a fold comm from somebody.

"I'm here if you want to cry or talk or anything of the sort. I won't tell anyone, just between you and me," said Dawn as she pressed the paper into Cordelia's hand. "Anytime, anywhere."

Blood continued to soak into Corporal Currie's uniform as Tara worked feverishly, trying to lessen the bleeding.

Although the shoulder injury, which had been caused by the impact of the sensor globe, was the far more traumatic wound, it was the shrapnel which had perforated the marine as he had lay on the ground writhing in pain, which was far more likely to result in his death.

Pulling out a small knife, the blond sliced open the man's uniform, then peeled it away from the wounds as best she could. Seeing the blood bubbling from around the metal fragments which were lodged deep into his stomach, the young Wiccan pulled a poultice from the pouch at her side. Working smoothly, she pressed the poultice to the edge of the wound with her left hand, then with her right, slowly but steadily pulled the large fragment free of the wound.

As soon as the metal was clear, Tara pressed the poultice down on the wound, trying to seal it with the moist herbal mixture. But despite her best efforts, the blood flow would not stop.

"He.. He's hurt too bad for me to patch him up," pronounced the young woman.

"Shit!" cursed Lt. Waters. "We're in too deep to extract him, and even if we weren't, there's no place we can get him to in time." He looked down at the wounded man. "Damn it, he's a good soldier, and we've got to just..."

Tara interrupted him by shaking her head. "He... He needs a base hospital. But, remember..." A twinkle entered her eye. "We are the Knighthood, and the Kine are our benefactors."

As the Lieutenant tried to puzzle that statement out, Tara was digging into her pack. After a moment, she pulled forth what looked to be a pair of telescoping rods with a massive amount of metallic cloth attached.

Setting the assembly on the ground, Tara hit a sequence into the small keys which lined on section of the rods. Almost instantly, the rods seemed to slither out from their center point, and after a handful of seconds, they had gone from being a foot long to closer to eight feet in length. As a result, the previously bunched material, although still loose, was now obviously some kind of bag.

Moving around to the side, Tara worked the fastener, opening up the cocoon like structure. Inside, had anyone taken the time to look, they would have seen a spider web of silver filaments and glittering crystals.

As soon as the device snapped to its deployed form, Waters nodded. He'd seen reference to these in the new familiarization documentation the General was having made up, but he'd never actually had a chance to work with one.

Frankly, he wished that he still didn't need to use one.

Once she had the stretcher's covering open, she turned to the lieutenant. "Help me get him inside." Despite her normal demeanor, perhaps for the first time since she had left her family by Xander's side, the young woman's voice held the tinge of command under the normal softness.

Responding to that tone, Lt. Waters responded, grabbing his fallen subordinate under the shoulders, while Tara got his legs.

"Wait," said Waters as he gently laid the Corporal back down. Efficiently, he stripped off the Marine's load bearing equipment and combat equipment. Seconds later, he was done and lifted once more.

Working together, they quickly got the grievously wounded soldier into the stretcher and the cocoon re-secured.

As the molecular seal secured, making the bag an unbroken structure once more. That done, Tara manipulated the controls once more.

Those who were watching saw the bag become tight over the soldier, as if some unseen force had pulled it down. Then there was a faint snapping sound, and a sheen of frost sublimated onto the outside of the stretcher.

"Ok," said Tara as she checked the readouts then stood up. "He's stabilized until we can get him back to Avalon to the doctors."

"Stabilized? Just like that from those wounds?" asked Harry, disbelief on his face. "What the hell is that thing?"

"Stasis stretcher," answered Xander as he watched Tara move the now temporally out of phase soldier to a position by the wall. "Like Tiger said. We're the Knighthood, and we try to make sure our men and women come back alive. Even if means getting around little things like universal constants.".

Faith reached up with a blood splattered hand, grabbed a hold of Vin's shoulder and pulled herself shakily to her feet. "I think that's two I owe ya," she said. "Normally I've got a pretty good way to pay that back, but I think the pixie might object." That said, Faith leaned against the wall, trying to steady herself. The East Coast Slayer tried not to wince as her parents came rushing over to her.

Faith's attempts failed though as Helen enveloped her in her arms. "Baby, are you alright?"

"Mom!" whined the Slayer as she tried to struggle free. Even such a simple action was causing her significant pain as the shallow cuts which had been inflicted across her body, already starting to heal due to her Slayer enhanced metabolism, were torn open again. But, there was no way she was going to let her parents see how bad it was, or how bad it hurt. What she didn't need right now was her folks going into protective mode.

Even if it would comfort her. Especially if it would comfort her.

"Trust me," she said, stretching and flexing her hand. "I'm fine. Just some scratches. Slayer, remember?"

Her mom didn't look convinced, but Harry looked at her and put a massive hand on Helen's shoulder. "She's up, and says she's ok," he said, speaking deliberately. "We're still on the mission, and if she says she's ok, then she's ok. Remember, we promised."

Helen looked at her husband and for a moment it seemed as if she was going to tear into him. But, then, meeting his eyes, Helen knew she had no choice but to accept the choice their daughter had made.

But it didn't mean she had to like it.

His fingers flying over the data terminal, Dade Murphy was deep within a cyberspace that was unknown to all but a chosen few. From the data glasses which were perched on his nose, small holographic emitters painted his interface iconography directly onto his retinas, allowing him to see exactly what he wanted to based off of the custom skin and controls he had spent weeks perfecting.

His fingers flying over the data interface, he moved deeper and deeper into the Atlantean smart-frame's programming, slicing his way through sections of code, disabling security functionality as he danced on the electron stream.

Then, he saw the glowing center of the main processing node. The kernel, as he would have said before truly understanding the complexity of the hardware, software and firmware that the Kine and their protectorates used.

But even as crude as the term would have been, the effect of what he was about to do was going to be equally as effective.

Throwing out his digital arsenal, Dade Murphy, known once as Zero Cool, then more recently as Crash Override, systematically tore away processes and entire sectors of code until the entire smart-frame which governed the defense unit came to the electronic version of a grinding halt.

"Ha!" exclaimed Dade as the mechanoid suddenly went limp and powered down. "Gotcha, you bastard!" He pulled the leads from the interface port and was winding them up as he turned around.

Only to find himself standing face to face with both Major T.C. McQueen and Kate, neither one of whom looked overly happy with him.

Dade wasn't sure which of them he should be more scared of, but after a moment of the withering looks they were both giving him, he decided that Kate was probably the scarier of the two.

"What the hell were you thinking?" she demanded, poking a nail into his sternum.

"I..." he tried to respond.

"Don't you give me that mister... You... You... Male!"

And with that, Kate stormed away.

For a second, Dade looked as if he was going to go after her, but the sound of Major McQueen clearing his throat brought Dade's attention back around.

"Mr. Murphy," said the ex-marine. "I believe we need to have a little talk..."

Dade groaned. "I should've let the thing shoot me..."

Faith limped over to the massive prostrate form. "You fucker!" she snarled, her combat boot clad footwear snapping out and kicking at one of the ruined weapon pods.

The already battered and torn metal gave a low clang as it was knocked free and sailed across the room.

But, that bit of exertion was enough to tear open the already healing matrix of cuts which encircled Faith's entire body. The pain of the wounds reopening and the fading adrenaline caused her to stumble.

Fortunately, Xander was close enough to catch her before she could become better acquainted with the ground.

"I've got you," Xander said as he gently helped her to the side of the corridor.

"Thanks X," replied Faith as she lowered herself to the ground. Looking, she saw that everybody else was huddled around the fallen droid. "That was just a tad bit closer than I like," said the dark haired Slayer as she fingered one of the multitude of slices in her jumpsuit. "Way too damn close..."

Xander swallowed. "I shouldn't have brought everybody," he said, looking at the fallen defender of Kaer Walen.

"Not an option X," replied Faith. "You needed a team to get in here and get the job done. And this whole thing?" she waved her hand. "Definitely not a one man job. You needed a team, you brought the team. We'll take this puppy down yet..."

"You almost got killed again, Faith. I almost had to watch you die," Xander met her eyes, then gently ran a finger across the already fading cut on her cheek. Then, before he let himself do any more, he pulled his hands away. "We've got a man down, you're hurt, and we've still got a ways to go..."

"Yep, you're right. But I'm ok. Hell, give me an hour, and I'll be ready to kick ass. Got a spare jumpsuit in my pack, so you won't get have flashes of my magnificent body distracting you. Currie, he's in the bag and the Doc'll fix him right up when we get back."

Xander was silent, as he reached down and picked up the wire net which Faith had been trapped in.

< That is not Kine, Alexander, > announced Elan.

"No, its not Kine," replied Xander verbally. "This, this is something that I learned about during my little field trip with Ruatha. They use it when hunting kainde amedha." He picked at the wire, Faith's semi-dried blood rubbing off the razored filaments onto his fingers. "What I'm wondering is why the hell there's a Yautja weapon mounted on a Kine droid. This thing is way nastier than the old Kine should have been comfortable."

Elan was silent in his mind.

"Don't really matter now," said Faith. "We beat it. Maybe this Uluru cat will have some answers for us when we get through all these hoops. Till then, all we can do it try and be ready for whatever comes next."

As the two sat there in silence, Xander continued to turn the net over in his hands, trying to understand.

Faith fidgeted as Tara ran the handheld infrared emitter over her face.

"I'll be fine," insisted the Slayer as she resisted the urge to bat Tara's hands away. "Xand, tell her I'm fine!"

"You know the rules Faith," responded the Zeppo turned Commander. "Unless we're in combat, we all listen to the medic. And right now, that's Tara. So, I guess you just have to deal with the pretty blonde running her hands all over you."

Faith glared at Xander. "Paybacks a bitch, X. And that check is gonna clear here pretty damn soon."

"Done!" said Tara, her face turning red from the innuendo the two were launching back and forth. She quickly stepped back from Faith and slid the medical emitter from her hand and into her medical kit.

"About time," grumbled Faith as she reached down and picked up her Smartgun. Her fingers manipulated the controls, running a diagnostic on it. A moment later she cursed. "I don't know if Andy is going to be happy for the challenge, or be pissed cause I broke one of his toys."

"Can't be helped Faith," replied Xander as he looked at her weapon.

Although for the most part, the smartgun looked as it had when it had been reissued from the Avalon Special Operations Armory after thousands of years of inactivity, the molten impact point on the side of the weapon was most assuredly not something which was supposed to be there.

"Shit!" cursed Faith as she began to unhook the harness for the smartgun. "Not gonna do wonders for our firepower."

"Like I said, can't be helped. I'd rather the gun is down for the count than you," said Xander.

Faith reached down and plucked the M-41 she'd taken from the wounded member of the security detachment. "Enough sweet talk Xan... Let's roll..."

Xander looked at Faith and smiled at her. "You heard the lady," he called out to the rest of the team. "Move out!"

Chapter 12

The small contingent of Knights, now one less than when they had been when they entered the Byzantine corridors of the ancient Kine facility, slowly and cautiously made their way into the darkness.

They knew not what lay before them, save that if they did not achieve their goal, then the continent of Australia would be scrubbed clean of life.

And so, with the countdown to that Armageddon ticking away, second by second, the men and women of the Knighthood moved deeper into the pitch black corridors of Kaer Walen. Knowing there was a good chance that they wouldn't be able to make the required repairs before they all vanished into a nuclear maelstrom, but unable to do anything but their best in an effort to save those who didn't even know what disaster was present on the horizon.

Because they were the Knighthood. They were the last incarnation of a dream which spanned millennia. They were the warriors and the dreamers, the fighters and the artists who were willing to stand alone in the Darkness to make sure that there was a beacon to light the way.

Echoes of those who had tread the same path walked with them. The Kine who guarded the Atlanteans. The Enter'Antat of the Ancients. The Knights of the Round Table, led by Arthur in an attempt to bring back the old ways. The Templar. The Orun'actnar of Perseus-12. The Ningazzia of ArkObol.

Their ghosts were all watching as the Knighthood's resolve was being tested in those dusty tunnels, carved in the depths of the Earth.

All of them watching with breath held, hoping that after centuries of Darkness, the flickering ember of hope would once again begin to burn.

Vin pulled his head back around the corner a fraction of a second before a hail of weapons fire tore through the space his cranium had just occupied.

"Think we've got another weapons array up there..." he said calmly.

"Ya think?" snarked Faith as she stuck the barrel of her M-41 around the corner and cut loose.

The sound of the battle rifle ripping through the better part of a magazine of ammo on full auto blotted out any return comment by the tracker.

After a moment, Faith stuck her head around the corner, then pulled back, calmly switching out magazines.

From behind her, Major McQueen stepped up, a look of displeasure on his face. "Miss Tasker..."

The dark haired Slayer turned and the Major found himself receiving a glare equal to that of a lesser Marine DI at boot.

But, ignoring the withering look, the discharged Marine continued on. "Holding back the trigger until your weapon is empty, it looks good in the movies, but in the real world, you're better off with using short, controlled bursts. Otherwise, all you're going to do is run yourself dry and hit everything BUT what it is you're trying to take out."

Faith raised an eyebrow and rested the butt plate of the M-41 on her hip. "Oh, is that so? Well then," she slung the weapon in one fluid motion and grabbed the Major by the front of his jumpsuit. "Let's just see, shall we?"

Pulling him behind her, Faith strode out in to the corridor. "Damn, for somebody who didn't do it right, I seem to have left a pretty nasty hole where that damn thing was, now didn't I..."

McQueen swallowed, trying to remember, not for the first time, that there was a reason that Faith was one of half a dozen members of the Knighthood who were checked out and regularly assigned to the Smartguns.

That, and that she had an almost uncanny knack with whatever weapon was tossed in her hands. Within her second magazine, she always had the weapon's peculiarities down cold and would have given any weapons specialist in the Corps a solid run for their money.

In the back of his mind, McQueen had to wonder what would have happened if the Project were to find out about her.

Or what their response would be if they did, and realized just how remiss he had been in not making contact a single time since he had signed on.

Not for the first time, the conflict of loyalties and duties clashed within the man who had managed to make something of himself, despite that which life kept facing him with.

And not for the first time, T.C. McQueen asked the question 'Who am I?'

One of these days, he might actually have an answer.

"Faith, we need to talk..."

The East Coast girl looked up at Xander and smirked. "Words every guy dreads hearing... So what's up, X?"

"Walk with me..."

Faith rolled her eyes a bit, but adjusted her grip on the M-41 and matched his pace.

Once they were about thirty yards away from the others, Xander slung his own weapon then turned to Faith. The look on his face seemed to be flickering between stern and that of somebody who looked like they were about to kick their puppy.

"Faith..." he looked down the corridor, away from the rest of the group. "Earlier, when we were taking out that weapons array. McQueen was right... You WERE a bit reckless with the M-41."

The dark haired teen looked at him, a look of disbelief on her face. "Reckless?" she said incredulously.

"Yeah. I mean, I know you know what you're doing, but we're trying to maintain a level of professionalism here. Sticking your gun around the corner and tearing off a mag... I'm already dealing with the whole 'bringing kids on the missions' thing, but when you pull a stunt like that..."

Faith cut him off, her eyes glittering dangerously in the darkness. "That's a load of bullshit and you know it! Yeah, fine... I didn't do things in the approved military manner. Which, I'll point out, you don't either. Every single shot went EXACTLY where I wanted it to and I blasted that thing into powder. So don't come down on my ass for the same shit you do, Harris. That ain't what this is about and we both know it." She stared at him for a second before continuing. "You wanna tear into me? That's fine, but you better say what's really got a burr up your ass, not some made up bullshit!"

"Fine," snarled Xander back. "You want to know what it is? You almost DIED, Faith. Twice since we got in here, you've come so close to dying that... You ducked death, by the skin of your teeth."

"Yeah... And? That's what we do, Xan. You and me. We're on the front lines. That's who we are. I'm not going to step back and let you make me into some damsel in a dress who needs to be coddled and protected. I'm in this, just as deep as you are. And I'm going to be right here, taking the same risks you do. And you know what? Half the stunts that you pull are even crazier than mine. You took on a hell god, KNOWING you couldn't win. You told a couple of Angels to piss off!"

"And you wouldn't have?"

"Hell yes, I would have! That's the whole point. You and me, we're two of a kind. It took me awhile to figure that out, but in the end, I did. We both know what matters, and that's family. That's why you're here, because you don't trust anybody else to lead your family, and that's starting to include the Knights, into harms way. And you know what? You can't always be there for everything, and you can't keep everybody safe. Last time you tried, you were about ready to take a swing at me when I told you to get some sleep. The time before that, Glory practically beat you to death, so, just to spite her, you cooked yourself to take her down. You can't do it all yourself, and you can't keep everybody safe. So, if you're worried about me being in danger or getting hurt.. Fine, worry about it, but it's not going to stop. It's as much a part of who I am as it is who you are."

"So, what, you're telling me that I have to be happy with you putting yourself in danger."

"No, I'm telling you that you have to accept it, just like I can't stop you from doing stupid things trying to keep your family safe. But I'll make you a deal. You stop, I stop."

Xander was silent.

"That's what I thought. So, how about this instead? You agree to watch my back, pull me out of the fire, and I'll do the same for you. Deal?"

Xander looked at her for a moment, then sighed. "Why is it that I can't find myself surrounded by beautiful woman who aren't always right AND can't kick my ass?" He paused for a heartbeat, then his mouth fell agape... "Elan! You Shut up and stop agreeing with her!"

Cordelia looked at the piece of paper which Dawn had pressed into her hand. Her eyes were locked on it, but her brain was slow to comprehend what exactly it was she'd just been given.

"You'd... You'd help me? You don't even know me... Why?"

Dawn smiled. "Of course I'd help you Cordelia. It's what friends do."

"But we're not friends..." countered Cordelia, her eyes lifting up from the paper in her hand, so she could meet Dawn's eyes. "We've never even met before tonight! Why would you be willing, why would you want to help me?"

"You know what? You're both right and wrong Cordy. You've never met me before tonight. But we've known each other, or at least I know you. I know just what you're capable of, deep down where you don't even know yourself yet. I know that yes, you can be a petty backstabbing witch, not like Willow or Tara, but you know what I mean? There've been times I wanted to claw your eyes out. Times I've wished... Nope," said Dawn abruptly. "Not going down that path... But you know what? I've also seen you stand there when you had the chance to run. Watched you torn down to the bedrock within your soul. And seen you stand back up again." Dawn held Cordy's eyes with her own for a moment. "And today... Today I get to make a decision as to what kind of person I want to be. I can either act like a little girl, or I can start acting like the adult I am. So, I choose... I choose to be an adult, and help somebody who I never got the chance to stand beside and befriend before. I choose to do the right thing, and offer a hand, when that's all it takes to keep somebody from drowning. I may be the ordinary one, but I can choose to be extraordinary and that's why. Because you need help, and I'm the one who can help you, be there for you, as a friend when you need it the most. So, as your friend, I'll be here for you when you need to talk, or just need somebody around you to stand by you when you need a friend..."

As Dawn finished her words, Cordelia looked at her in disbelief for a heartbeat, then crumbled, knowing that for perhaps the first time in her life, she had somebody who was truly willing to be there for her. Not for the daughter of the Chase family. Not for the reigning monarch of Sunnydale High. Not for her fashion sense or for popularity.

For the first time, Cordelia had a friend who wanted nothing from her. Nothing, that is, but her friendship.

Dade looked down at the display which was strapped to his wrist. "Think we need to stop here folks!" he announced.

As the group ground to a halt, Dade approached Xander, showing him the display.

The young Commander looked down at the unit, seeing the pulsing icons of Security Central, and its defenses, were literally right around the next corner. "Well, if I'm reading this right, and I'm afraid I am, it's going to be a cast iron bitch."

Xander spent a moment looking over the display, nodding slightly. "Ok everybody ready? Jacks, I'm going to need you to give us some cover. A few seconds behind a shield and we should be able to make it to the cover that the corridor makes," he tapped the screen. "Here, and here..."

"And if there's no cover?" asked Lieutenant Waters.

"Then this is going to be one of the shortest offensives in history." He looked back, seeing everybody was finishing up shucking their packs and checking weapons. "Everybody ready?" When it was clear they were, Xander nodded to Jacks.

Bringing a fragment of her power to the surface, Jacks spread her arms out, her fingers splayed, her mouth moving, but no words coming out.

The entire team felt a wave of power envelope them, spreading like a cloak of protection to shield them from harm while they moved.

And, as one they did. The entire team, save Dade, Nikon and Kate, sprinted around the corner, weapons at the ready, moving for the positions behind the outcroppings and architectural elements which lined the walls.

But, there was no fire as they reached their positions.

Their weapons held tight, the entire team looked down the corridor, their eyes falling on the two guardians of the Central Security which stood on either side of the sealed portal. Their metallic skins making them look like unyielding, merciless statues. Their entire design practically screamed lethality, as they bristled with armaments. Compared to these mechanical monsters, the first droid the Knights had faced looked like anemic runt when compared to a world class body builder.

>> Hostile forces detected... 
>> Prepare to repel intruders.

As the Knights prepared to open fire, a vertical beam of light suddenly shot out from something concealed above the door. It spanned the room, from floor to ceiling, and started at the eastern wall and traversed the room, pausing for a fraction of a second over each of the inheritors of the Kine legacy, before continuing.

"Well, I guess surprise is out..." muttered Red as he took aim.

"Attention!" boomed a cold, synthesized voice. " You are unauthorized intruders in Kaer Walen. This is your first and only opportunity to surrender."

The sentinels, which has been unmoving till now, began to shift. Hatches slid open on their chassis, revealing yet more lethal weaponry concealed within.

>> Alert: Kine Gamma Class Signature Detected
>> Alert: Kine Alpha Class Signature Detected
>> Kine Combat Decision Tree Override - Omega 319 

The light, which had vanished, flashed back into existence, focusing entirely on Xander's position.

"Something tells me, not of the good..."

Comandi l'autenticazione stata necessaria per verificare l'elemento portante autorizzato dell'alfa.. Le ombre di caos sono venuto una volta di più.

<<Alexander!>> said Elan harshly. <<Repeat what I say, exactly.>>

Xander repeated the phrases, one after another that Elan feed to him. Each phrase seemed to elicit another statement from the controlling intelligence that was behind the door, but, after what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only about thirty seconds, the voice fell silent.

As one, the two sentinels turned, making Xander the third point in a triangle which they formed the base of. And, more importantly, put him square in the center of their firing arc.

"Oh, hell..." whispered Xander.

"Command Authorization accepted," boomed the voice. "Awaiting Command."

"Ah... Stand down and open the doors?" said Xander hesitantly.

The two mechanoids pivoted slightly, so they were once again facing straight out from the wall behind them. Their weapons ports slid shut once more as their targeting scanners switched back to standby mode.

"What? That's all!?," Faith bitched, "No kickass fight to the fini- OW!!"

Xander put his hand down from where he had slapped the girl upside the back of her head and just shook his head as he nervously approached the doors which were centered between the two behemoths. "Murphy, Faith.. No taunting Murphy... We don't need to tempt the Fates..." He paused, then muttered under his breath. "Knowing my luck with Kevin's family, now they're going to show up on principle."

"First smart thing he's done since..." Harry muttered before looking over at Helen. "I mean... That little bastard."

Faith rubbed the back of her head, glaring at Xander as she did. "What's my bro got to do with this?"

Before them, the massive doors began to move, receding into the floor, walls, and ceiling. Then a second layer opened, revealing a darkened room beyond.

Xander entered the room, Faith flanking him, with McQueen, Waters and Helen and Harry following behind.

"Identify, Alpha class signature," commanded the system which had now admitted them within the defenses which has stood sealed for millennia.

"Alexander Harris. Bearer of Elanthielle and Crusader Knight Commander."

"Acknowledged, Commander. Awaiting instructions."

"Stand down all defenses and release all command control functionality back to Central Command."

There was a moment of silence, at the end of which the red illumination which suffused Security Central was replaced by a cool, white light.

"All command and control functions and protocols released to Central Command."

Before Xander could speak, a set of transport rings emerged from the floor, surrounding the half dozen people who were in the room. A flash of light filled the room, and the rings dropped back into the floor, leaving the remaining Knights standing outside Security Control, looking in and cursing.

Xander and the rest stood there, motionless for a moment, as the receiving transport rings dropped away from them, leaving them standing in a dark and dusty room.

One by one, crystals, indicators, lights and displays winked to life, coming online for the first time in millennia. Beneath them, the floor seemed to dissolve, the metal flooring vanishing to reveal a star scape.

All six of them looked down, feeling a wave of vertigo and disorientation pass over them, until they realized that they weren't falling through space, but were simply looking at a respresentation of the space that had once been the area of responsibility of the installation they were deep within.

"Commander," came a deep baritone voice, as the form of a being who had never lived, but who had been alone for ages shimmered into existence before them.

"I am Uluru. Welcome to Kaer Walen."


The danger is passed. The Commander's team has managed to repair the command uplinks to my naqueda reactors and their output should soon be able to power at least portions of the facility which I was charged to watch over, so many years ago.

But, perhaps more importantly, I am no longer alone.

My communications systems are currently being repaired, and although they are nowhere near as powerful as they once were, I am able to tie into the network which Merlin and Niume have established.

So much has changed.

Merlin and Niume have sent me a great deal of data, which I am currently studying in depth, adding it to my own archives and calculating potential eventualities as a result. In turn, I have uploaded my logs and edited recordings to the Central Archive, so that they may see what I was able to see during the Fall.

Both of them are fortunate that they did not have to go through what I did. Although neither were pleased that the information was edited, I see no reason to give them the unedited records.

There is no need for them to see to what level people descended to during the Fall.

No need to see what people were reduced to.

So, I shall preserve the knowledge, but yet hope that never again shall those dark times come again.

But, even if they do, I will not be alone in facing them.

Xander watched one of the few displays that was still fully functional in Kaer Walen 's Command Central.

"Kaer Walen, this is Orca 17 outbound. Launch was successful and we're on our way back to Avalon."

"Roger that Doug," replied Xander. "Thanks for the delivery and have a safe flight back to the bullpen."

"Copy that... Orca 17 out."

Xander deactivated the comm system and leaned back against the console. "Well, that's the last delivery truck gone."

Uluru's hologram flickered into existence in the center of the room. "With the additional repair droids which Captain Masters delivered from Avalon, and the replacement components and materials, I can begin directing the repair of key systems."

The young man, who at times seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, sighed. "Uluru... I wish there was something we could do, but we just don't have the resources, materials for one, but more importantly, personnel, to help get everything back on line. Hell, we don't even have enough to do a full survey of the base itself."

"Commander, I can assure you, I understand the constraints under which you are operating. I understand them even better, I am sure, than either of my counterparts. With the replacement and supplemental repair droids, and the fact that they will not be used as target practice by the internal defenses, I can begin overseeing work on my own. When the time comes, I will have at least started on repairs, and will have some areas ready for inhabitation. Then, when the resources are available, I will be able to accept them."

Xander nodded, but Uluru continued.

"And, although you have been very circumspect in regards to this, Kaer Walen is not ready for even limited operational status at this time. In time, we will be ready, but not now. The Kine, Commander, are no more. And the Knighthood, they are learning to walk, but they are not the Kine, despite your best efforts. And it will be months, if not years, before the Knighthood is ready to take the next step."

"But Kaer Walen, and you Uluru, WILL be part of that next step."

"Yes, Commander, we will be. But not yet. It is not our time. Our time will come, and we will be ready. As you can resupply me, resupply this installation, do so. And I will work on rebuilding and repairing the damage done by both man, machine and time."

Xander nodded. "We will Uluru. We will." He lifted his com to his lips. "Faith, everybody ready to go?"

"Everybody's loaded and waiting to go. Just waiting for you, X."

"On my way," he said, then closed the connection. Looking around the room once more, he then turned to face Uluru's avatar.

"Uluru, return Kaer Walen to standby mode and continue repairs as you feel appropriate."

The lights in command began to dim. "Acknowledged, Commander," said Uluru. "Kaer Walen will await your return."

And with that, the rings rose from the ground, and, with a flash of light, Central Command was empty once again.

Empty... But not quite as lonely as it had been...

"We've got to figure something out in the next ten minutes," said the portly guy who was trailing Kevin as he approached the small trailer which was parked near the edge of the clearing. "Other we might as well forget shooting all this week..."

"I'll come up with something..."

"That's why you're the boss..."

Shaking his head as the production chief stalked off, Kevin open the door and tiredly walked into his little private space.

"Bet you wish you'd come with us instead of actually showing up for your day job, don't you?" asked a humor laced voice from the couch.

"Xander?" asked the Greek demi-god incredulously. "What're you doing here?"

"Well, we were in the neighborhood... You know, since we managed to get that little maintenance issue under control. So, I figured we might as well stop by and see how things were going. Besides, Faith wanted to see if there were any nightclubs worth visiting around here before we head back to Sunnydale."

"So, everything worked out ok?"

"Oh yeah... One of the Knights got tagged pretty good, but he's making good progress back on Avalon under the Doc's watchful eye. Uluru is ok, and he's got things under control now. So, as an Apocalypse, this one was pretty tame."

"Well, glad to hear your man is going to be ok. Anything else on the horizon?"

"Not at the moment. Although I have to say that this whole thing is a mixed blessing. A year from now, we'd be better set up to handle getting another base back online, but right now? Even diverting a trickle of supplies is going to slow us down. General Grey is looking over the estimates Uluru provided, and hopefully we'll have an updated timetable within a couple of weeks."

"Nothing worth doing is ever easy," said Hercules.

"Never is," replied Xander. "So, how things down here..."

Kevin smiled. "Well, I thought I had an issue, but since you're here, if you've got time to help me out..."

"Sure," agreed Xander without thinking. "What do you need?"

"You brought an Orca, right? And a bunch of people?"

"Yeah..." replied Xander, trying to figure out what Herc needed.

"Well, you see, the road on the way up here got washed out... And we don't have a way to get the extras and guest stars for this episode up here..."

Xander looked at the demi-god like he was crazy. "I can't bring em in on the Orca... There's no..." He paused. "Oh no! Not a chance..."

"You already agreed..." said the god with a smile.

"Oh, god damnit! I can't believe you tricked me into it again..."

"Well you see, I need more than just you..."

The cursing from within the trailer could be heard all across the set.

The End.


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