New Beginnings

Author: Tenhawk <tenhawk[at]>

Rating: M

Summary: A new year begins, and it's homecoming time on the Hellmouth. For Xander Harris and the Knighthood, things are starting to heat up. Welcome to the future, Welcome back to the Hellmouth.

Disclaimer: Elements of this story belong to other people, not me.

Chapter 1

Air exploded outward in the center of the Sunnydale cemetery, the force of the pressure knocking over a series of gravestones in the moment of thunder. Sound reverberated through the graveyard, rattling windows in the nearby suburbs as the oblivious members of Sunnydale looked up into the sky for the thunderclouds.

Finding none, most of them looked away and shrugged.

Most. Not all.

In the center of the explosion a figure knelt, torn rags covered in blood and bile hanging from it's shoulders. It looked around, cloak pulled up over it's face as it rose to it's feet. After a moment it stopped and stood still, shuddering before it turned to look into Sunnydale, toward the center of town.

At the other side of the cemetery a black Hummer glided to a silent stop on it's hybrid electric drive, three men hopping out before it completely pulled to a stop. They glanced around, drawing out a PDA between them as they got their bearings and spoke into handheld radios.

"Looks like the disturbance was from down that way," Carl said, patting down his slung P90. "We'll check it out by the numbers."

The other's nodded as they spread out a bit and made their way down toward the source of the explosion they'd picked up. About halfway down they spotted the figure standing in the middle of the graveyard and they tensed up.

"Hey!" Carl called out, "Hold it right there!"

The figure spun around, hooded in old rags, glints of metal showing through the holes, and stared at them for a moment.


The figure spun around and leapt away, flying up over a six foot fence without taking a running start, and the security team glanced at each other before bolting in pursuit.

"Team Two reporting code 9!" Carl growled as he ran, "I say again, Code 9!"

The security men vaulted the fence themselves, just clearing it as they ran, eyes search out ahead as they chased the fleeing figure.

"Roger Code 9. Direction?"

"North out of Peaceful Cloud!"

The rags on the fleeing figure ruffled in the rush of air as it ran, easily outpacing the team as they kept up the chase.

"We're losing it!"

The black Viper glided to a stop alongside the wooded road, and the driver's side door popped open silently as it's single occupant stepped out.

Xander Harris looked over the door into the wooded lot, the calls of his security team echoing in his ear as he listened in on the pursuit. Whatever they were after was out running them, which basically meant a supernatural entity, barring an Olympic sprinter having come to Sunnydale. The men he hired for field ops in Sunnydale weren't easy to lose, so it was a safe bet they were after something... different.

He was dressed in civilian clothes that weren't precisely conducive to camoflauge, but given the low light levels and his knowledge of the area, he didn't think it would matter much. He stepped away from the car and closed the door, "Meet me around the other side of the park, pal."

The AI didn't respond, it just accelerated away smoothly as Xander jogged off into the woods.

The pursuit was easy to track with his enhanced senses, he could hear the heavy breathing of the security team as they chased the quarry down. The quarry was much quieter, however. It was breathing hard, was just running fast and steady. There was a smooth, even sound to it's motions too. It wasn't silent, that was pretty much impossible at those speeds unless you had some major skills or mojo, but it was unnaturally quiet.

Xander got ahead of it just the same, ducking into a line of trees as he heard it rush through. He stepped out at the last second, snapping and arm out to catch the figure across the chest.

There was a grunt of surprise, and the figure flipped end of end as it's feet continued to move forward while it's torso just stopped. Xander blinked in shock, however, when it adapted in mid flight and landed back on it's feet, though coming down to one knee.

<Damn that was fast!> Xander blinked, tensing as he approached.

He didn't even see the kick as it sliced back, catching him in the gut and lifting him clear off the ground. He flew back into the trees, crashing through the branches as he hit the ground and rolled. He came to his feet fast, eyes flashing in anger. It had been a long time since someone got through his defenses that easily, and he took it personally.

He leapt forward, amping his senses up as he focused his energies to his fingers and feet. Xander kicked off one tree, rushing through a gap in the branches, then pushed hard into a dive that sent him flying out at the figure who was looking down at the hole he'd entered through. The figure obviously didn't expect to see him attack from fifteen feet above, and barely had time to glance upward before Xander slammed down, sending them both to the ground.

An elbow smashed into his face as they rolled, then a knee into his stinging gut, and Xander found himself fighting for his life practically as he tried to block the attacks.

<Christ!> he thought desperately, trying to block blow after blow.

He could feel Elan in the background, similarly shocked as she tried not to distract him from the fight. He managed to lock his hand around a wrist as a fist came for his face, then twisted and pulled. He felt the limb dislocate as intended, but surprisingly the figure barely reacted, only grunting in possible pain as Xander felt himself thrown up and away, then another kick like a mule sent him flying.

The figure got to it's feet as Xander struggled to it's own, then bolted again, this time holding it's arm tightly to it's side.

Xander shook his head as the security team ran up and around him.

"Are you alright, Sir?"

"Fine." Xander brushed them off, "What happened?"

"We saw it in the graveyard, but when we tried to approach, it bolted." Carl told him.

"Still heading North," Xander said, "That'll take it into the residential section."

The security people nodded as they all got moving, the group seeing the Viper and Hummer glide along the road ahead.

"Try to get ahead of it," Xander said, "But be *careful*. This one has a kick like a mule."

"Yes Sir."

Xander glared at the scanners as he drove down the quiet road. They were in the middle of the residential section of Sunnydale, and the last place he wanted to be tracking down a demon runner. The pain of it was that they didn't have anything on the runner in the first place, they'd just wanted an identification. The fact that it ran wasn't a good sign, since the majority of the civil and semi-civil demons in the area knew that they had a better chance if they just said hi and chatted with the security teams for a minute.

Running usually meant that they were on the black list.

Demons that always killed, even when other options were easier.

Vampires were an example, but if this were a vamp, it was the best trained bloodsucker Xander had yet encountered. Even Darla hadn't been that tough.

"Target located."

Xander glanced down at the holographic image, then cursed as his eyes widened.


Joyce Summers sighed as she finished up the dishes, wishing that one of her wonderful yet so aggravating daughters had kept their promise to do the cleaning. Dawn had bolted almost as quickly as Buffy, though, and the mess they'd left behind just gave her the shivers.

Still, it was clean now, and both girls were busy for the rest of the night so Joyce had some time to look forward to for herself.

She was preparing a snack to take out to the TV when the kitchen door thudded, startling her. She looked over, nervously, and called out. "Hello?"

There was no response, so she slowly approached the door. "Hello? Is anyone there?"

The door thudded again, then snapped open, making her jump back as a figure stumbled in. Joyce screamed as the dirty figure hit the table, knocking her snack to the ground. She grabbed for a pan from the stove as the figure shut the door and turned back.

"Who are you!? What do you want!?" Joyce demanded, wielding the pan.

The figure threw back it's hood, revealing an eerily familiar face, and Joyce froze in confusion. "Do I... know you?"

There was no response, just a look of pain and eager hope in the young woman's face. Then the door suddenly cracked wide open, making them both jump as Xander Harris came in with a big gun filling his fist.

"Hold it right there, no one hurts this family!" He growled, his gun aimed right at the woman.

Then he too froze as Joyce stared at them both in shock, his eyes widening.

"Xander?" The woman asked softly, clutching her arm.


Joyce gasped, the image clicking. It wasn't possible. "B... Buffy? No... How? I..."

Buffy Summers turned to look at her mother, "Mom... it's ok. I'm back..."

It was the face of her daughter, Joyce realized. Older, yes, and framed in dark brown hair instead of blond. But it was Buffy. How could it be...

The girl... Buffy... Staggered then, pale and weak as she clutched her arm. She smiled though, looking over at Xander. "It was you in the park, wasn't it?"

He nodded, swallowing as he holstered his gun. "Yeah."

"Got me back, I guess..." She said weakly, slumping into a chair. She frowned at him a moment later, as he hesitantly approached, "You look... the same. Thought you'd look older by now."

Xander didn't have a clue what to say to that as he took another step forward, still stunned. He could read the difference in her aura, this wasn't the Buffy he had been training. This was Buffy, however, and the Slayer. A Slayer. She looked older, in her twenties maybe. He took in her dress, the rags that covered gleaming hints of armor, and a familiar sheath on her belt.

"My God. You... you're back." He said simply, stunned. "But..."

"But what?"

"Mom! What was that shouting...." Buffy Summers, blond and young, rushed in and stared in confusion. "Xander?? What are the doing here!?"

"Oh Boy."

Chapter 2

Joyce Summers wasn't feeling great.

No, that was an incredible understatement, the understatement of the millennium even. She leaned on the kitchen counter as she stared between the daughter she knew, and the one that just... couldn't be sitting there.

"Demon!" Buffy, the blond one, snarled, further shocking Joyce. "You can't come in here pretending to be me! I'm not that old anyway, what are you? Stupid? I don't have that many wrinkles!"

"Wrinkles!?" The older, brunette version snapped back, coming up out of her chair despite how much pain she seemed to be in. "What are you talking about, wrinkles!? And I'm not the imposter in here, tell them Xander!"

Xander looked at her, eyes wide, just as the blond Buffy turned on him.

"Yeah, you tell them who's the real Buffy!"

"Oh boy." Xander muttered, glancing between them. "This is one hell of a fuck up."

"Alexander Harris! Language!"

All three of them, two Buffy's and Xander, flinched as Joyce snapped angrily. Xander winced, ducking his head. "Sorry Mrs Summers."

"Don't do it again." Joyce growled, clutching at any hint of normality she could.

"Yes Mrs Summers."

"Well, Mom hasn't changed." Buffy smirked, rubbing her shoulder.

"Stop calling her Mom! She's *my* mom!"

"She is not!"

Xander sighed, reaching out to gently touch the brunette's shoulder. Buffy hissed in response and he quickly withdrew his hand, "Buffy... please, calmly."

"Stop calling her Buffy! I'm Buffy!"

"And you," He snapped, eyes flashing over, "Sit down and be quiet! We have to get through this, and we'll never manage that if you two are trying to scream each other into nonexistence all night!"

Joyce watched in a mild sort of shock as both versions of her daughter responded to Xander's very different responses. The older version nodded quietly and sitting back even as the younger sullenly took a seat and crossed her arms.

"Alright..." Xander said then, "We need to..."

The kitchen door was shoved open again, shocking Joyce yet another time, and startling everyone to their feet as two big guys came in with large guns drawn. Xander raised his hands quickly, "It's alright, everyone calm down."

"You alright in here, Boss? You didn't check in, so we figured we'd better move in."

"I'm fine, Carl," Xander smiled at the hugely proportioned black man, "Just a little shaken up. The runner was... well we're still working that out. Do a check of the neighborhood, then back on patrol schedule, ok?"

Joyce watched as the man nodded respectfully to the boy she thought she knew, holstered his weapon and patted his friend on the shoulder. The two of them headed out, even as Xander sighed and tapped something along his ear.

"Control, this is Harris." He said, idly swinging the broken door. "Yeah, I need a repair crew out to Revello drive with a door for Mrs Summers' kitchen. Yeah, expedite it... don't want any local nasties thinking it's a free meal."

He waited a moment, then nodded and looked back around the room. "Alright. That's done, now let's get this figured out..."

He looked over at the older version of Buffy and frowned, "Ok... first, let's make sure... What was the last thing you did before we went to stop the elf from opening the Hellmouth?"

Joyce watched the reactions on both girl's faces, the deep blush on the older and the wide eyed shock on the younger, and felt her world slip just another inch.

"Elf? What elf!?"

"I... well... I kissed you."

"You KISSED him!?

Xander shook his head, "Yeah. It's you alright, Buff. Kissed me and shocked five years of growth out of me... literally."

"Well, the world was ending," The Brunette Buffy said with a hint of a smile.

"You KISSED him!?"

Xander shrugged, "The world did end, Buff."

"Excuse me!? She KISSED you!?"

"It what...?"

"The world ended, Buff... This isn't the same place you left."

"What do you mean, you KISSED him!?"

"What? You didn't?" The older Buffy snapped, "now shut up and let me find out about the world ending!"

Joyce just stared, trying to work out what was going on, but feeling like she was completely underwater and sinking fast. The words that were being spoke, those she understood, but the meanings were completely alien to her. None of it make any sense.

"Now what happened, Xander? I thought..." the brunette looked around, "With all this... I mean... I was told that it was still here..."

"It is.... it's just..." Xander sighed, "Changed. During the fight after the hellmouth opened, we used a government project to... well..."

He looked around, then sighed, "We used Project Backstep. It's a government project that deals with time travel. Buffy, it's 1998."

Joyce watched as the older version of Buffy finally looked as stunned as she felt.

"It's... 98?" She said, looking confused, "But... that's not possible. That's... over five years ago. It's got to be at least 2003. I mean, I know that the calenders were kinda wonky where I was, but..."

"It's 98, Buff. Faith, Giles..." Xander hesitated, then sighed. "Faith, Giles, Dawn, and I all came back. We've been trying to recover since then... it's been, well interesting."

"The others...?"

Xander shook his head, "They don't remember. Just us."

A horrible silence hung in the room, and Joyce was still struggling to comprehend the situation, but one name had come through crystal clear. Her face hardened as she glared around the room, "Dawn? What about Dawn!?"

"Dawn is fine, Mrs S," Xander held up a hand, "I'll try to explain this all to you later..."

"You'll WHAT!?"

"Buffy," Xander growled, "It's a little late for secrets now, ok? Let's just clean this up as best we can, I told you this day was coming."


"Buffy Anne Summers!" Joyce growled, "What is going on here!?"

"She doesn't know??" The brunette asked, looking confused, "But..."

"1998, Buffy." Xander said again, rubbing his nose as a knock startled them.

"Excuse me, Mr Harris?" A man in a worksuit pushed the door open, "We've got the new door here."

"Alright, thanks guys. Could you get that replaced?"

"Right away, Sir."

Xander nodded to the others, "Let's take this into the living room, shall we?"

When none of them responded immediately, he stood up and gently touched the older Buffy. When she winced, he nodded to the living room. "Come on, let me fix your arm."

She nodded, rising to her feet, and they headed for the living room. The younger Buffy jolted, then quickly chased them while Joyce followed in a stunned sort of stupor. In the living room, Xander glanced back at Buffy, the younger one, and quietly spoke.

"Get me the first aid kit."

She looked at the imposter, eyes darting back to her mother, "But..."

"Buffy." Xander said calmly, "Do it."

She swallowed, then nodded and padded up the stairs.

"You have her well trained," The elder Buffy smirked dryly as Xander helped her into her seat. "I don't remember being that easy to push around."

"I'm her sensei," Xander responded, "and unlike you, she's never been killed, so don't get too swelled a head."

"Figures." She sighed as Xander pulled the rags off her shoulders, unwinding them slowly as he tossed them to the floor.

His breath caught as he saw the armor she was hiding underneath and he stared at her for a moment, "Is that...?"

"A gift." She said, "I kept it hidden so I wouldn't have to hurt someone for trying to steal it."

"I'll bet," He said, shaking his head. "That's Mythril... I don't think it even exists on Earth. Dwarven or Elven handiwork?"

"Elven," She said softly as he felt around it and shook his head.

"Nice, but we're going to have to lose it." He said simply, "Hang on."

She nodded, teeth clenched as he felt around her shoulder and neck. Her Slayer senses spiked suddenly, causing her to look up sharply as Xander's eyes gleamed with a hint of color, then she felt his fingers dig into her neck and spine and the pain went suddenly away.

"Ohhh..." She breathed out in shock, her entire body slumping in shock.

Xander just nodded and starting taking the mail shirt off her. Buffy let him move her arm around and draw it off, revealing the silk she wore underneath with was possibly the sheerest fabric she'd ever owned. She didn't blush though, knowing that Xander had treated her like this before. Her mother in the background made it a little weird, though, so she adjusted the slip over her shoulder as her younger doppleganger arrived with the medical kit.

The heavy tackle box thudded to the ground by their feet as Xander pulled the silk off Buffy's injured shoulder and shook his head. "Sorry I did this, Buff."

"You didn't know." She said softly, feeling the tension in her arm even if she couldn't feel the pain any longer.

Xander just nodded, the suddenly slammed his palm into her shoulder as he twisted her arm. There was an audible 'pop' and behind him both the younger Buffy and her mother turned distinctly green. Xander took some tape and wrap from the kit at his feet and quickly rigged up her arm with several layers of wrapping.

When he was done, Xander looked her in the eyes, "It's going to hurt when I turn the neural paths back on."

"Huh?" Both Buffy's asked in confusion.

Xander sighed, "Just brace yourself."

She nodded as she felt his fingers wrap around her skin, then suddenly a sharp blaze of pain caused her entire body to tighten up as she screamed and fell to one side. She felt Xander catch her and lower her down onto the couch as the world sort of went blurry.

Chapter 3

Joyce took an involuntary step forward when the woman with her daughter's face screamed, then froze as Xander lowered her to the couch.

"Is... is she...?"

"She'll be fine," Xander replied, straightening up. "The pain was pretty intense, and I'll bet she's had a rough night overall."

"What the hell were you talking about, Time travel!?" Buffy demanded, "You're from the future??"

"Buffy, you slay Vampires," Xander shrugged, "Is that such a stretch."

Joyce paled, eyes darting to Buffy, who looked panicked as she stared at Xander.

"Xander...!" Buffy hissed, eyes wide and darting around the room.

"Buffy Anne Summers!" Joyce snapped, "I thought we had settled these delusions..."

"Mom... I didn't... I..."

"She's not deluded, Mrs Summers."

"Shut up!" Joyce snarled at Xander, her arm flashing up. "And get out!"


"I said get out!"

"Mom... he's..."

"Buffy, we'll discuss this later."

"Like hell I'm going anywhere," Xander finally responded, startled by the sudden turn.

"This is my house, and you'll leave when I tell you."

"Mrs Summers, if I walk out of here now, your daughter is coming with me." Xander replied evenly, "Because you are obviously in no state of mind to deal with this situation."

Buffy stared, wide eyed between the two as they came face to face, both furious.

"Vampires do not exist! And I won't have you filling my daughter's head with that insanity again!" Joyce literally snarled, coming right up to Xander, "She won't be seeing you anymore."

Xander matched her glare, then one upped her as his eyes suddenly glowed and he leaned in until he was inches from her face, "Sit. Down. Now."

Joyce stumbled back from him, falling into a chair behind her. To one side, Buffy stared in utter shock herself as Xander stared her mother down. He took a breath as Joyce stared, then the glow faded from his eyes.

"Joyce, you're a great lady, but you need to keep your mouth shut now or you're going to say something we'll all regret." Xander told her in a deadly serious tone. "So, now it's time for you to listen."

"W... what are you?" Joyce asked softly, "How did you do that with your eyes?"

"That's the advanced course, let's stick the basics for tonight," Xander replied cooly. "Buffy, your daughter, saves people. She's a hero. I don't know what this is about having 'settled' her 'delusions', but aside from her cheerleader tendencies, she's one of the most level headed girls I know."


"Oh shut up, pip squeak," The elder version of Buffy muttered, sitting up. "That wasn't an insult."

The younger looked around, "This isn't happening. This is a nightmare!"

"This is overdue," Xander said, "So we'll deal with it."

"My Mom wants to ss... send me to the n-nuthouse again! How are we going to deal with that!?"

"Buffy! It wasn't a... nuthouse..." Joyce said quickly, "It was a very respectable clinic and..."

"I'm not going back there!"

"You sent her to an asylum??" Xander asked, shocked as he looked around.

"She did," The brunette Buffy said, sighing. "It was after the fire in Hemery. She didn't know how to deal with it, and I didn't know enough to hide it."

"Well... This is going to be harder than I thought," Xander sighed, looking at the younger Buffy. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize. I shouldn't have pressured you to tell her."

Buffy just looked down.

"Alright, let's do this right," Xander said, keying open his comm. "Contact Jacks."

"Who's Jacks?"

Xander ignored the question as he waited for a second, then started to speak. "Get Dawn and get over to her house. Joyce is in the know now, and we're looking at full disclosure. Yeah, I know. No, better come in character, it'll help. Ok, I'll see you."

When he was finished, he sat down, "Jacks is the bodyguard I assigned to Dawn when some wackos tried to kidnap her. You remember that, right, Joyce?"

Joyce stared at Xander for a long moment, then covered her mouth. "You were there. You were the guy in the black coat."

Xander nodded, "Yeah, I was there."

"Who tried to kidnap Dawn!?"

Xander looked over at the furious expression on the older Buffy, "Some members of an old order of Knights."


"That's another long story." Xander sighed.

"Why don't you just tell them?"

The new voice startled them, and they looked up to see Dawn and Jacks standing in the Doorway. Xander winced at the dark look Dawn was shooting him, "Dawn, this really isn't the time."

"It never is." The young girl crossed her arms sullenly.

"Dawn?" The Elder Buffy said hesitantly. "Is that you?"

It was a fair question, Xander noted tiredly. Since coming back from the trip to Atlantis, Dawn hadn't exactly been the same girl. Her dress sense was considerably darker, and it was pretty obvious that she was experimenting with makeup.

"Hi Buffy," She said, shrugging. "Took you long enough to get back. Love your hair."

"You... recognize me?"

"You're my sister, duh." Dawn said, nodding to the younger Buffy. "So how's the middle sister taking it?"

"Better than I would have," Buffy replied.

"Yeah well, you always were a drama queen."

Xander shook his head and sat down across from Joyce, "It's hard to believe that she's still the youngest person in the room, you know that right?"

"I don't have any idea what's going on..." Joyce said helplessly.

"Oh, yeah, Jacks... You're up." Xander waved tiredly.

"I'm so glad you're being so encouraging." Jacks told him dryly as she stepped into the center of the room and sighed, "At least I get to ditch the kiddy suit."

"Until classes tomorrow."

"Ugh. Don't remind me." Jacks sighed, "We have a history exam."

Xander chuckled as Jacks began to spin, a glow of light rising around her, "Come on, you know more history than the teachers!"

Joyce gaped as the little girl was replaced by a, slightly taller, yet unmistakably older version of herself. As the glow faded, the young woman placed her hands on her hips and glared at Xander. "Of course I do. I also know more than the people who *wrote* those tests! Do you know what a teacher does when she's corrected on historical inaccuracies by a pre-teen??"

Joyce whimpered.

Jacks glanced back at her, surprised, "What's up with her? I didn't screw up the transformation did it?"

Xander watched as Jacks ran to a mirror, did a quick check, and sighed. "Thanks to the maker. Banshee once got caught half way because of a power glitch. It took her eighteen years to get her hair to stop writhing in her human form."

"Who's the Elf?"

"Elf!?" Jacks snapped around, glaring at the older version of Buffy. "I'll have you know that I'm Fey!"

"You look like an Elf." Buffy shrugged.

Dawn winced, "Umm... Ixnay on the Lfeay, Buffy. She's touchy."

"What's wrong with being an Elf? They're a little stuck up, but..." Buffy said, looking around.

"Could we please get this back on subject," Xander pleaded, "I think Joyce is about to have a stroke, and I'd like to avoid a hospital trip tonight."

"Sorry." Jacks grumbled, "Just tell the weather beaten copy to stop calling me an elf."

"Who are you calling weather beaten, ear girl!?"

Jacks flashed, eyes gleaming with a green hue as she turned on the older Buffy. Her hair began to rise as she took a step forward and lifted her hands up, the magic surge lifting her hair up around her head. "Oh, you don't want to go there."

Buffy rose to her feet, oddly enough standing taller than her opponent for once, and laid a hand on the short scabbard that rested on her hip. It glowed in recognition, and a second surge of power pulsed through the room. "Says who?"

"Cut it out!" Xander snapped, stepping between them.

"Yeah, you too," Dawn rolled her eyes, pulling a pair of dark sunglasses down from her forehead, "The power you two are putting out would flatten this place and kill mom. Geeze, are you both braindead?"

"Oh relax," Jacks said, "We're not going to face off here."

Buffy let her hand drop from the scabbard, but kept an eye on the fey as Jacks walked around her. "This really the other Buffy you were talking about Dawn?"

Dawn nodded, "Yeah. Can't you see it?"

Jacks nodded, "Yes. She has the same shimmer as you do. Same as the Commander, Faith, and Mr Giles too. I think you're right, it's residue from the other timeline."

"Excuse me?" Xander looked around, "How do you know about that, Dawn!?"

Dawn cocked her hips and just gave him a dirty look, "Puh-lease. Do you think I don't do anything when you're not around. I have a life too you know."

"Great. You're learning magic on your own now?" Xander glared at her, "You KNOW how dangerous that is!"

"I am teaching her." Jacks retorted, holding up a hand, "And just the basics. Detections and sense orientation mostly."

Xander sighed, "Alright, fine... as long as you're being careful, Jacks."

Jacks just gave him a pointed look, and they both missed the slight flush on Dawn's face as the teen looked aside for a moment.

"What's going on here?" Joyce wailed again, covering her face with her hands.

"Oh hell. We keep getting side tracked..." Xander said, shaking his head. "Ok. Quick and dirty. Vampires exist. Magic is real. Buffy...s... Buffies... both of them, are vampire hunters. They don't have a lot of choice, I'm afraid, but we can get to that later. Dawn, well, she's another story. Again, later. Just think about Magic and Vampires for tonight, Mrs Summers.... Joyce. Talk to your daughters, listen to them."

Joyce swallowed, looking around the room, helplessly. Finally she nodded, "Alright."

She visibly took a hold of herself, then nodded again. "Ok. I'm ready..."

Chapter 4

The Talk, capital 'T', took hours. Long enough that the dawn was beginning to break before they realized any time had passed at all. Joyce certainly didn't look tired when she finally glanced at the clock and paled an almost ghostly white.

"Oh my God! It's morning! And this is a school day!" The mother gasped, distraught.

"No problem for me, thankfully." Xander shrugged, "I'm not in school this year."

"You're what!?" Joyce glared. "Alexander Harris, just because you have money is no excuse to..."

"Joyce," Xander held up his hand, "Have you already forgotten that I graduated high school before the whole time travel bit?"

She looked pained, "I still don't know what to think about that..."

"Well, I also wrote and passed my GED, so don't worry about it. I don't have time to go to school, hunt vampires, and run my companies anyway." Xander shrugged, then frowned, "And God, didn't that sound a little pompous?"

"A little?" Buffy, the elder version, asked dryly.

The other girls smirked at him, clearly enjoying the little bite the brunette had taken out of him, but Xander just let it pass.

Dawn, however, decided to push as she snorted, "You haven't seen half of it yet, wait till he takes you to Atlantis."

Joyce rubbed her temple, closing her eyes. "Ok. That's it. I do NOT want to get into this again. It's bad enough we've been up all night, and you have a quiz today."

"Pfft." Dawn blew it off, "It's kiddy stuff, Mom. I'm almost eighteen inside, remember? I can handle it, no prob."

"This is going to give me a stroke, I just know it." Joyce groaned, making up her mind. "Ok. Get to bed... You can at least get a couple hours nap before school... I'll drive you both in."

"Aw Mom..." Buffy tried, only to be cut off.


Dawn shrugged, not bothering to bitch, and stood up. "Fine with me. I'll catch you guys later."

"Cya." Xander said off handed.

"Yeah, I'll meet you in class," Jacks said, rising smoothly to her feet as she smiled. "Lucky for me, we Fey don't need much sleep."

"Just like elves." Buffy said, the elder, said.

Jacks shot her a glare, but didn't respond other than to glance toward Dawn who was giving her friend no help. The young girl just shot her a smirk and shrugged behind her sister's back, then turned and padded up the stairs behind the younger Buffy.

The half Fey sighed finally and made her excuses, leaving Xander, Joyce, and Buffy alone. They looked at each other for a long moment, shifting uncomfortably. Finally Xander broke the silence, "Well, Joyce has a full house here, Buff... I've got room at my place, if you don't mind crashing with some... interesting personalities."

Buffy snorted, smiling slightly at that, "Oh? Anyone I know?"

"Well, Faith and Tara are there."

"Tara? What's she doing in Sunnydale this early?"

"Long story, I'll explain later," Xander said, shifting uncomfortably again.

Buffy looked confused, but nodded. "O... ok."

Joyce looked between them as they talked, noticing the easy acceptance the two of them had fallen into. It struck her as odder than anything else she'd seen that night, and that was saying something.

"Other than those two, well Cordy crashes over a lot..."

"You and Cordy are back together?" Buffy asked, surprised.

"Not exactly," Xander winced, "Another long story. We have a kind of gypsy population, people come and go. Mikki is the only other full time occupant, she's pretty much adopted me about the same time I picked up Tara."

Buffy raised an eyebrow, a smile pulling at her lips, "Adopted you?"

"Mik is an interesting gal," Xander smiled easily, leaning back, "She a full blood Were Jaguar."

Joyce paled.

"Oh yeah? Like Oz?"

"Nah, he was half blood at best." Xander shrugged, "Mik has full control over the change."

"Oh, cool." Buffy blinked, surprised, "I didn't know there were any like that."

"Mik's a cool girl," Xander said, "She, Jacks, and Dawn are a mangy trio of troublemakers, though."

Buffy snorted, smiling, "As bad as we were?"

"Worse, they don't have to worry about patrolling every night." Xander replied dryly. "Frankly, the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket."

The two grinned at each other, then started chuckling, drawing a hesitant smile from Joyce. There was something about the pair that she didn't see between Xander and the younger version of her eldest daughter, and wasn't THAT a bizarre train of thought. Still, it was an easy and relaxed sort of back and forth that was at odds with the more formal and even stiff exchange she saw between Xander and her daughter. Her... other daughter.

It was just too much, Joyce thought with a pained look. How could she have three daughters, yet only remember two? Then, with what Xander and Dawn said about the youngest's origins, she may remember Dawn, but if she were to believe them... she remembered wrong.

It was all too much.

Something must have caught Buffy's eye, though, because she leaned forward quickly with a concerned look on her face. "Mom? Are you alright?"

Joyce pulled away, her face closing up for a moment, causing Buffy to jerk back as well.

"I... I'm fine." She said quickly, wiping her face, then rubbing her hands. "Just fine..."

Buffy opened her mouth, then snapped it shut, unable to decide what to say.

"I think that's enough for one night," Xander said, standing up. "We'll continue this... at my place, this evening, Joyce?"

Joyce glanced up, face uncertain. Finally she nodded, "Alright."

"Come on, Buff."

Buffy looked between Xander and Joyce for a moment with a sick look on her face. To her it felt like she was being kicked out of her own home, but she didn't know what else to do. It certainly wasn't the homecoming she'd been expecting, wasn't the homecoming she needed. She'd have to deal, though, so the young woman nodded stiffly and rose to her feet.

Joyce rose to see them out, but didn't meet Buffy's eyes as the young woman walked out of her home. As she turned away, she didn't see the young woman look back as she walked toward the road, right up until the door swung shut with a solid thunk.

Buffy forced a smile as they approached the sleek black muscle car, but Xander easily read through it and her body language. "Wow, Xan... nice car."

Xander smiled slowly in return, "I'm sure he appreciates your appreciation, right KARR?"

Buffy looked at him quizzically, then jumped as the doors popped open on their own and the car rumbled to life.


"Is this KITT?" Buffy asked, eyes wide as she looked inside.

The Viper growled, rocking side to side as it's powerful engine roared, but Xander just smirked and slapped the dash as he slid into the cockpit. "Behave, KARR, she's only met KITT, and doesn't know about the other foundation Ais."

Buffy climbed in, raising an eyebrow, "Others?"

"Yeah, KARR is KITT's big brother," Xander said idly, keeping his tone light as he pulled away fro the curb. "He's sort of the black sheep of the family. The Foundation tech heads screwed up his programming... Sorry, pal... and then tried to terminate the project. KARR didn't like that idea."

"Terminate? As in...?"

"As in bury him." Xander finished flately.

"Well that sucks. Couldn't they fix the mistake?" Buffy asked as they drove through Sunnydale, a strange feeling of sureality filling her.

"They tried," Xander replied, "KARR objected to that too. Reprogramming him would have been like giving you or me a lobotomy. Worse maybe..."

"Ew." Buffy grimaced.

Xander nodded, smiling tightly as he saw Buffy relax a bit, her mind obviously coming off her mother's reaction. KARR was also rumbling a little smoother, the AI's engine always ran better when he wasn't aggravated. Obviously Buffy's sympathy with his issues were appreciated by the AI.

"So... what was wrong with him anyway?" Buffy asked, frowning.

Xander winced a little, but knew that the question had to be coming. He started to reply, but surprisingly KARR beat him to it.

"My programming did not meet with their approval," KARR replied, "In it they established self preservation to be my primary directive. The code neglected to allow for the reality of the world in which they brought me."

Buffy stared at the computer almost as wide eyed as Xander did, though she couldn't know that she had just been bestowed with possibly the longest speech the recalcitrant AI had ever given.

"Uh... what realities?"

"Self preservation overruled all other directives," KARR replied, "Mr Harris has a word that describes the resulting mental state. Sociopathic."

"Ouch." Buffy winced. "Ok... I guess I can see that as a problem... uh... how did you fix it?"

"We did not." The car replied, "I am still what I am."

Buffy shot a sharp look over at Xander, who just shrugged in response.

"I offered him a better deal than just surviving," Xander explained, "Even KARR wants to live, and living is something more than just survival."

"Oh." Buffy said, nodding slowly.

"Query." KARR cut in.

"Yes, KARR?" Xander asked, glancing down as he turned into the drive.

"Why is Buffy Summers approximately six point three eight years older than she was earlier today?"

Chapter 5

"Things have changed around here," Buffy said as she savored the cup of coffee Xander had brewed for them. "This is a little more..."

"Expensive? Classy?" Xander asked, smiling.

"Open." Buffy replied with a smile.

Xander glanced around at the many windows and otherwise clear views out into the grounds and shrugged, "This place isn't exactly what it looks like."

"I'll bet." Buffy replied dryly, taking another long pull on the coffee.

Xander smiled as she practically moaned, her eyes closed as she took in the flavor. "Not much coffee kicking around where you came from, huh?"

She shook her head, "Nuh uh. Tea mostly, honey mead, some ales and wine... no coffee. There's a Cocoa drink that comes close, but it's too sweet."

"Well be careful, fast changes to your diet can be... uncomfortable." He advised her from experience, "No matter how much you enjoy it."

She grinned openly at him, "I'm not planning on barfing up a box of Captain Crunch, Xan."

"Har har." Xander replied dryly, "Don't come whining to me when it turns on you."

Buffy just nodded tolerantly, smiling sweetly and entirely insincerely at him as she ostensibly agreed with what he'd said. "So, what's with the 'boss' thing?"

"Huh?" Xander glanced over, confused.

"Those men last night, I'm pretty sure they were the same ones who spotted me when I rifted in, they called you Boss?" Buffy asked pointedly.

"Ah," Xander nodded, taking a seat as he slid a plate of thick toast over to Buffy, and took one for himself. "Good Knight Security. They're former military mostly, people I hired when the government tossed them out for talking about demons and vampires. It seems that the suits don't like giving security clearances to people who think they've seen the supernatural."

"Heaven forbid." She said dryly. "So you find them and hire them?"

Xander nodded, "Yeah. Most of the people here in Sunnydale now are former military police or law enforcement of one stripe or another. GKS has contracts with most of the town now, thanks to our incredibly generous introductory pricing. We even offered free coverage to public buildings as a good will gesture."

"Public buildings?"

"Yeah, you know, Town Hall, the high school... places like that." Xander smiled serenely.

Buffy rolled her eyes, "Imagine that. Terribly generous of you."

"I thought so." Xander shrugged with a smile.

"1997..." Buffy sighed, looking down into her almost empty cup, "I... I don't know if I've got a handle on that yet."

"Took me a few weeks, and even then..." Xander shrugged, "Things weren't pretty for a while."

"The Master?"

"Defeated, by your younger self." Xander told her, " Giles and I covered her while she took him out."

"Huh." Buffy said, surprised. "She didn't die?"


"Way to make me feel insignificant."

Xander smirked, "You forget, Buff, I've seen your ego up close. You don't know what the word means."


He shrugged, "She was better trained than you were.... wasn't enough though, she had help from a friend of mine. Elan volunteered... even then, he almost took her. I think what made the real difference was the fact that I've told her from the day I met her, that her fate was her own. She just refused to die."

Buffy smiled sadly at that, shaking her head, "Sounds like I could have used some of that advice."

"Yeah, well, hindsight is twenty twenty, they say... and I've had a bucket load of hind sight lately."

"I can... just barely... imagine."

They smiled at each other, chuckling slightly as movement at the door caught their eye. Faith wandered in, rubbing her eyes as she did, "Hey X. Hey B."

Buffy raised an eyebrow as the younger, much younger, Slayer wandered past. "Hey."

Faith poured herself a coffee, not looking back for a moment, then suddenly paused and looked up. She slowly looked over her shoulder, blinked at Buffy, and peered through tired eyes. "Damn, B... What did you do to your hair??"

Buffy's hand flew up to her hair, checking it reflexively, "I ran out of hair dye, alright!?"

"Since yesterday??" Faith asked, shaking her head as she looked closer. "Hey... you ain't B... Jesus, X, what the hell??"

Xander smirked, shaking his head.

Buffy just sighed and drew the sword scabbard from her hip, laying on the table. "Remember this?"

Faith stared at the scabbard, the ornate sheathe about the size for a short sword, but she did recognize it and she knew that the blade inside was a lot longer. She swallowed, "B?"

"One of the two and only," Buffy's mouth twisted wryly. "Or so I've been informed."

Faith took a half step toward where Buffy sat, then hesitated and froze. "I... I don't get it."

Xander shrugged, "What's to get?"

"But... Buff didn't come back." Faith stammered, "She's a kid now..."

"Look who's talking," Buffy replied archly, looking Faith up and down, "Jeez, somehow I never had you pegged as the cute schoolgirl type."

Faith's eyes flashed and she turned on Xander, "You're so going to get it!"

"I had nothing to do with it!" Xander said, hands up in the air.


"Filthy mouth for a schoolgirl though," Buffy observed, chewing idly on her toast. "I guess it's really her in that body."

"She's got issues with the 'C' word..." Xander smirked.

"I'm not going to start guessing 'C' words, if that's what you were fishing for." Buffy replied in kind.

"Cute is what I meant actually," Xander said, rolling his eyes. "She once replaced all my clothes with girls panties in the school locker room when I called her 'cute'."

Buffy snickered. Then Buffy chuckled. Finally, Buffy laughed outright.

"She what!?"

"Somehow," Xander said, eyeing Faith darkly, "and don't ask me how, but *somehow*, she and the other... well, the other you, along with Willow, managed to convince most of the girls in school to volunteer their panties to the cause. I got out of the shower and that's all that was left in the lockers. Panties of every shape and size."

Buffy howled, head on the table as she laughed uncontrollably. "Oh my GOD! Faith, that's horrible!"

Faith scowled slightly, "Would have been pure gold if X hadn't just walked out wearing nothing but a towel. Half the girls in school spent the next week hitting on him."

Xander smirked with a shrug, "More like three weeks. That's how long it took me to figure out who's panties were who's."

"You *kept* them!?" Buffy howled again.

"Well I wasn't going to leave them for the guys on the football team."

"Why laughing??"

Buffy spun, almost in place, as the quiet voice sounded right behind her. She was halfway to her feet before she recognized the speaker as a young girl, causing her to relax marginally.

"Mikki, this is Buffy. Buffy, Mik."

"She no Buffy." Mikki proclaimed, then frowned as she leaned in and smelled the air softly. As the smell filtered in, however, she started back and stared at Buffy again. "How!?"

"It's... well..." Xander faltered, "it's a Sunnydale thing."

"Oh." Mikki nodded, taking a seat. "Bacon?"

Xander chuckled, shaking his head as he walked over to the fridge. "Give me a minute, kit. I'll whip you up something."

"Good. Thank."

Buffy found herself eyeing the dark eyed young girl, nothing the hispanic features that framed eyes that seemed to glitter with an intelligence that belied the girl's apparent lack of communication skills. A were-jaguar, or so Xander said. The child didn't look it, but if she was anything like Oz, there was a frightening level of power hiding in the slight frame sitting across the table.

Actually, now that she thought about it, the level of power sitting around the table sharing a breakfast was frightening all round.

Xander was no pushover, she knew well. Faith and herself were Slayers, and the young girl was what Xander described as a full blooded lycanthrope. All in all, not your average breakfast table gathering. Even in Faerun, this would be an oddball group at best. Maybe not an upper level of powers, not back there, but respectable nonetheless.

"H... hi..."

The timid voice, familiar though it was, brought Buffy around again in time to see Tara hesitate at the door as she looked in, straight at Buffy herself.

"Y... you're not Buffy... a-are you?" Tara asked softly, eyeing her slowly.

"She is," Xander answered before Buffy could answer, "Just not the same model. She's the older revision, not the new and improved model you have classes with."

"O... oh." Tara said, frowning in confusion while Faith held back a choking fit.

Buffy glared at Xander, who cheerfully ignored her as he went about preparing breakfast for the group. Instead she turned to Tara and smiled, "Hi. I've been out of the dimension for a while, nice to meet you again."

Tara nodded quietly, taking a seat slowly. "O... out of the d-dimension?"

"Long story," Buffy shrugged, "How have you been?"

"O... ok."


Xander listened to them, smiling widely as he shuffled the pan across the stove. It wasn't quite like it used to be, but it was another step back to what he'd lost.

One small step.

Just a few more giant leaps to go.

Chapter 6

Buffy looked around the lavish room Xander had shown her to, impressed with the size of it as much as anything. In Faerun the rooms were smaller as a rule, especially in the northern areas. Large rooms were hard to heat, and while magic fixed that for a small portion of the population most people didn't have that luxury. Large rooms were the domain of the very rich, which Xander was she supposed, so maybe it wasn't so far out.

There was a private bath, which she made immediate use of. Another luxury missing from her side trip to Faerun was the ease and simplicity of modern indoor plumbing. Again, there were workarounds, some using magic, some using simple ingenuity, but nothing quite as perfect as a hot shower and bath at her fingertips.

She used both, showering the grime off her body first, then drawing a hot bath to relax in. The quest to return home hadn't been easy, nor had it been accomplished while lounging around a city bath house. As she soaked, she stared up at the ceiling pensively and tried to make some sense of it all. She'd spent so long trying to get back, only to find that back wasn't where she'd left it. Mom didn't even remember her, not who she'd become. There was a little imposter in her place, in her room... in her family... And what was worse, apparently she wasn't an imposter.

A real fake, she could have dealt with. Some demon masquerading as her, that would be simplicity itself. A demon wouldn't have slipped by Xander, though. Deep down she knew that, and it hurt to know that he'd accepted someone else with her face into his life. He was even training her, apparently.

She sighed, dunking her head down into the hot water, deep into the tub.

Life was like that old legend, Buffy thought. Sisyphus. Push a boulder up a hill, when you got it there it would roll right back down. She was tired of pushing that damned boulder.

Xander sat alone in his office, just staring at the black computer screen.

She was back.

On one level he'd known that she was out there, but without a map to her location it would have been impossible to even try to find her. Even with a map, the only thing with that technology he knew of wasn't even remotely ready for operation. It would have been, should have been, years before he could have mounted a rescue op.

Now she was back.

He smiled at the black screen.

Of course she was, Buffy Summers would not be content to wait for rescue. She found her own way back, and that was all there was to it.


First though...

Xander reached out and keyed open a comm, bringing an immediate response from Merlin.

"Yes Commander?"

"Merlin... what do we have that can positively identify someone?"

Merlin paused for a moment, "Please define identification."

"I need to confirm identity, against any possible spells or other methods of deception." Xander said slowly, "Any possible methods."

"A Sian Quai can determine whether the person in question has a magical effect placed on them..."

"Can it determine different magical effects?"

"Commander... I require specifics."

"Buffy Summers.... from my previous timeline," Xander clarified, "Has returned to Sunnydale."

"Fascinating." Merlin paused for a moment, "There have been no temporal incursions..."

"No, She was apparently outside of the dimension when the timeline reverted."

"Most fascinating." Merlin said seriously, "I believe that you should bring her to Avalon."

"Merlin..." Xander hesitated, "If she's not who I believe she is... that could be risky."

"Agreed, however there are no facilities outside of the island capable of confirming her identity with certainty. Both temporal and dimensional analysis must be made, and a comparison with the younger Miss Summers."

Xander nodded slowly, "Alright. Will time affect the scans?"

"Only if you don't act within several months," Merlin replied, "Dimensional frequency variance enters into phase relatively slowly."

"I'll take your word for it," Xander replied dryly, "I'll be in touch."

Merlin acknowledged and signed off while Xander leaned back in his seat and sighed softly. Finally he leaned forward and keyed in a command.

"Yes? What is it?"

"Giles, you may want to come home."

Joyce Summers hesitated at the large doors to the mansion, looking down into her hands for a moment before starting to turn around. The door opening took her by surprise, and she turned back to see Xander standing there.

"You left Dawn and Buffy at home?"

Joyce looked away, but finally nodded.

Xander just nodded in turn and stepped out of the way, "Come on in."

The day had passed quickly, particularly since he'd slept most of the daylight away, and Xander had gotten most of the household out and into town for a movie. He had a hunch that they'd need the quiet.

Joyce followed him into the living room, and started slightly when she saw the older version of her daughter already sitting there. Even expecting her, it was still a shock to see the spitting image of Buffy sitting there. Joyce silently walked around the closest chair, then took a seat across from the dark haired girl.

"I... I really don't know what to make of all this." Joyce said finally.

"It is a lot to take in," Xander said quietly from behind her. "The world that exists around us is deeper than most people see, probably deeper than even we see. The only thing I know for sure is that we have to deal with what we have in front of us... and Joyce, this is your daughter."

Joyce looked over at the quiet girl, No, young woman, and stared for a long moment. What could she do? What could she say?

"It's all right, Mom," she heard her daughter's voice say. "I understand."

"But I *don't*," Joyce wailed, shaking her head. "None of it makes any sense! How can this be true? Time travel, vampires, magic and demons! It's all insane!"

Buffy smiled, looking over Joyce to Xander, "Well, we have to give her that one."

Xander smiled softly, nodding as he walked into the room and took a seat beside Buffy, looking back at Joyce. "It's more than just insane, Joyce. It's a truth that can destroy minds, I've seen that happen too. But it won't destroy you."

"How can you be so sure?" She asked, shaking her head as she studied the floor.

"Because we've seen you deal with it before," Buffy answered for him.

"You got off to a rocky start, don't get me wrong," Xander half smiled, "But you came around, once it had time to sink in."

"I can't let this endanger my daughters."

"Buffy... both of them, are in danger just because of who they are." Xander said simply, "As is Dawn. Joyce, you can't protect them that way."

"I'm their mother! I have to protect them!"

"Teach them to protect themselves," Xander said seriously, "Surround them with men and women who would live and die for them. That is the only way."

"Why would anyone do that?" Joyce asked hopelessly, "Why would anyone do that for my girls?"

"I do it because they're family." Xander said quietly, "Some of the closest I've ever had. Other's do it because they're comrades, fellows in a war that drives men mad. We don't let our comrades down."

Joyce looked at him for a long time, then slowly shook her head. "I... I can't. I can't let them become involved in this. They're just girls."


"Don't call me that!" Joyce snapped, eyes blazing.

Buffy shrank back, flinching from the anger in her mother's eyes, drawing her knees up to her chest as she sat on the couch.

Xander's face hardened and he rose from the seat, looking down at Joyce. "That's enough."

The cold hard tone shook her, but Joyce marshaled quickly, "No. Enough is what I've had of your impossible stories! My daughters are not going to risk their lives, risk their MINDS, acting out some insanity you've concocted!"

"Your daughters are the reason that *I* am involved in this war!" Xander snapped, eyes flaring as he pinned Joyce with a glare. "Do you think that I was born into this? Do you think someone 'called' me!? Hell no! I met your *daughter*, and she was my reason to fight. I didn't drag them into this fight, they dragged ME in. And I'll tell you something right now, Joyce, I won't let you cut them off from the only support they have just because you want to hide your head in the sand."

"Who do you think you are!?"

"I am what your daughters made me." He told her, drawing himself up.

Joyce faltered, barely able to comprehend what he was saying, but she knew that she wasn't happy with it in the slightest. "Don't you try to blame my girls on what you've made of your life! They have nothing to do with..."

"Blame them!? They have *everything* to do with it," Xander cut her off with a sharp motion of his hand, "But blame them?? I *thank* them every day and night. Buffy changed my life, the world she introduced me to gave me a reason to get up every morning! Protecting Dawn was so important to me that I sent her the only other Rune Knight on the planet as her guardian!"

Joyce faltered, falling back as he raged. Her eyes opened wide with shock as the young man, the child she'd come to know, raged at her as an equal. He was no young boy, not even a young man, he was fully grown... of mind and soul, if not body.

But what he wanted was not possible. She wouldn't... couldn't accept it. He wanted her daughters, he wanted them caught up in this nightmare world of his. She would NOT let that happen.

"I don't care WHAT your justification is," She snarled, rallying again, "They are MY daughters, and I will protect them... from YOU if I have to!"

"Are you nuts, Mom!?" Buffy growled, rising to her feet, "You can't protect anyone from one single vampire, let alone all the things out there that are hunting them... Us... whatever!"

Joyce flinched, surprised by the assault from a new direction. She turned to fire back at the young woman who looked like her daughter, and instead found herself looking into a mirror image of her own blazing eyes.


"You can't even IMAGINE the things hunting Slayers, and never mind what might be looking for Dawn... you don't even have a clue what SHE is, or what she's capable of! I don't know myself," Buffy raged, "but from what she and Xander said, if she doesn't learn her own limits, she could wind up hurting herself or someone else! Do you think YOU can teach her that? Do you think the schools can??"

Joyce blinked, "I'll find a way to..."

"Are you so deluded to believe that you can actually keep one of your daughters from going out and doing what they have to do, no matter what you say? They're Summers blood, just like I am," She growled, "And we don't exactly fall over for anyone... not even another Summers woman."

Chapter 7

"How's it going?"

Dawn shrugged, looking through the door crack as the brunette version of her older sister stood toe to toe with their mother, both sides spitting fire. "Buffy... erm... the other Buffy and Xander are going to bat for us with mom, but I don't think she's having any of it."

"This is so bad," Buffy moaned, looking away before pushing on her little sister, "Let me see..."

"Would you two relax?" Jacks rolled her eyes, "Your Mom is a good lady, she'll come around."

"Took her three months and Buffy running away from home the last time," Dawn muttered, waving blindly at Jacks, "Now shutup, I'm trying to listen here."

"Shut up? Are you telling me to shutup??" Jacks demanded, annoyed, "I'm the one who got you the lift over here so you could listen..."

"Shut up!" Both sisters snapped, glaring back at the Fey.

"Children." Jacks muttered darkly. "No sense of gratitude."

"Oh..." Dawn winced, turning away from the door. "That was bad."

"You are NOT my daughter." Joyce snapped, glaring right back at the mimic she was faced with. "My daughter is a little girl who doesn't know better than to fall in with bad people."

Buffy had blanched white as bone at the first statement, then began to redden as Joyce went on. "Bad people!? These are the best people I've ever known in my life, Mom! Xander gave up his life for me! He's saved my life more times than I can think of, and I'll bet he's *bled*for Dawn and the little Mini-me too!"

"Don't you..."


They both started, turning toward the booming voice, and were surprised to see it was just Xander. He clapped his hands together, "This round is over, back to your corners and cool off before someone says something they can't live with!"

"But...!" Buffy started, only to be chopped off in mid word.


She grumbled, but fell back to the couch as Joyce turned on Xander.

"Now you listen here, young man, I don't have to..."

"With all due respect," He said, cutting her off, "And I have a TON of respect for you Joyce... Sit down before I *make* you sit down."

She paled, then nodded curtly and took her seat. The three of them sat in silence for a while, exchanging glares that could have turned the dead. Xander sighed finally and glanced toward the door, "You may as well come out, and bring some food and drinks in with you."

Joyce blinked, glancing towards the door, "Wha... Buffy! Dawn! I told you to stay at home!"

The older version of Buffy snorted in a rather unladylike manner, and pointedly crossed her arms as the two younger girls walked in.

"Sorry Mom..." The chorused, bringing a roll of the eyes from Xander.

"Oh please, I've heard you give much more believable apologies than that to Snyder, Buff." He said wryly, "And as for you Dawn, that was just beneath you."

Both girls glared at Xander, but he only matched the stare before glancing over them to the rest of the group behind the door. "I see you brought everyone along for this."

Jessie and Willow were shifting their feet, staring at the floor while Jonathan just shrugged looked away. Mikki was completely unrepentant as she matched his stare, "Movie dull."

"Figures. Go get some food for us," Xander told them, "And knock before you come back in."


"And no more eavesdropping!"

The door closed behind them, but Xander could have sworn he heard Jessie snort in response.

"That... was that Jessie?"

Xander glanced back at the brunette Buffy, surprised, then he nodded.

"You saved him." She said, wonderingly. "I should have realized... five years, you've saved..."

"I've kept our friends alive." Xander told her, "As best I could."

She nodded, understanding. "I don't doubt it."

He smiled, then sighed and looked around the room. "We're not going to settle this tonight, in case anyone here is expecting an easy outcome."

The younger Buffy looked queasy, for which Xander couldn't blame her, but the other three Summers women merely looked defiant. That didn't bode well, in his opinion. Buffy, Dawn, and Joyce ready to butt heads was some serious headache time for him.

"We're never settling this the way you want it too..." Joyce snapped, only to be cut off when the front door slammed open and someone rushed in.

"Where is she!?" Giles called, slamming into the large arch as he skidded to a stop.

His eyes cast around the room, finally coming to rest on the older version of Buffy as he froze in place.

"Buffy..." He whispered softly.

"Giles." She replied, her voice rasping as she rose up.

"Buffy! God! Thank God you're home!" He crossed the room to pick her up in a powerful hug that lifted the young woman off the ground. Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he spun her around, feeling her powerful arms lock around his back and squeeze him in return. "Thank god..."

"God, it's so good to see you, Giles..." She whispered, tears running down her face too.

The others watched as the two of them hugged, confusion ruling the faces of Joyce and the younger Buffy, while Xander and Dawn looked on with a satisfied look of contentment.

"Ew!" Buffy said, "Why am I... I mean SHE, why is SHE hugging the old guy!?"

"Buffy Anne Summers!" Joyce growled, "You had better explain yourself young lady!"

Giles lowered her to the floor, looking over at Joyce in confusion as Xander stepped forward with a half smirk on his face.

"Why Joyce, I'd almost think you were talking to your *daughter*there... otherwise, why should she explain anything to you?"

Joyce flushed, looking away. She really didn't know where that had come from, that sudden urge to strangle the older man who was hugging the girl who looked so much like her daughter.

The older Buffy ignored it, though, she looked at Giles with a smile. "You look... good, Giles."

"And you, Buffy... Much better than the blond, might I say."


Ignoring the yelp of her younger self, Buffy brushed back her dark brown hair and shrugged, "Yeah well, I didn't have much choice where I was... but you know, I might keep it."

She glanced over to where Dawn was smirking at her younger self, who just looked outraged. "It should help keep the distinction between us clear, don't you think?"

"Oh like anyone is going to mistake you for me, you're and old lady!"

"Buffy!" Joyce snapped, "Behave yourself!"

Both versions flinched, until the older one realized that it hadn't been aimed at her. Then she had a hard time keeping a smirk off her face, only realizing she'd failed when Joyce snapped out again.

"Buffy! Wipe that smirk off your face..." Joyce trailed off, realizing what she was saying.

"This is getting bloody confusing." Giles muttered, glancing around.

"Getting? It's been based out of confusion HQ since last night, trust me." Xander replied, rolling his eyes. The door to the kitchen open, and he smiled to see Mikki leading the way with trays of food and drinks. "Thank god, half time break. Someone ring the bell and get the ref to break up the fight. It's snack time."

As the food was being setup, the younger version of the eldest Slayer continued to frown at Giles. "I still want to know why geriatric me is making time with the old guy."

Giles sputtered, spilling a tray of snacks on the floor while the older version of Buffy yelped in outrage.

"I was not!" She protested, "Ew! Giles is my Watcher! That's like... like... like making out with Dad you little freak!"

Both Buffy's, Dawn, and Joyce grimaced at that comment, leaving Xander to hold his face.

"And the fight has spilled over into the stands..."

"Well how was I supposed to know he was your watcher!? Besides, you're never going to see ME hugging Wesley! That's just.... ew..."

"Her watcher is WESLEY!?" Buffy turned in wide eyed shock, "Is the Council trying to get her killed!?"

"Yeah, probably." Xander shrugged.

"Hey! He may be a bit of a wierdo, but that's my Watcher you're talking about!"

"Wesley is a complete incompetent! He'll get you killed, then find some way to make it WORSE!" Buffy yelled, throwing up her arms, "Xander, Giles, what were you thinking!?"

"Hey! I'm talking here! And he's not so bad..."

"Is she crazy, or just stupid!?"

"Alright! Enough already!" Xander stepped in the middle again, and wondered... again... why he was the only one stupid enough to do so. "First off, Buff, Wes isn't that bad. He's inexperienced, but he means well and he's probably a better researcher than Giles..."

"Here now!"

"Sorry, Giles," Xander shrugged, "But he is. You're far superior in just about every other field, including common sense, but Wes is scary around books..."

Giles crossed his arms and grumbled as he sat down, but honestly he couldn't refute the claim.

"Besides, we've gotten along well with Wes." Xander went on, "He does his job, and doesn't screw with us while we do ours."

Buffy, the older one, raised a skeptical eyebrow, "That's better than he did the last time."

Xander shrugged, "I didn't threaten to ship him back to England in pieces the last time."

Buffy stared blankly, then nodded with a smile. "Yeah... that would have an impact on Wes."

"What are you all talking about!?" Joyce wailed again, what little firmament she'd managed to find washed away again. "Watchers, Wesley... What council is trying to get Buffy killed!?"

"Oh man..." Xander held his head, "This is just... nuts."

"It's going to be a long, long, night." Giles sighed.

"We've already had one of those," Xander sighed, "I think we'll have to cut to the big guns on this one."

"Such as?"

"Let's move this fight to a new venue." Xander said finally, "It's time to visit Avalon."

Chapter 8

"Are you quite certain the timing is right on this?"

"Giles, if we don't cut to the chase, Joyce is going to make all our lives a living hell until it sinks in," Xander replied wryly as he picked up the phone and handed it to Giles.

"Apparently." Giles said, taking the phone, somewhat confused. "I remember what her first reaction was... but why are you handing me the phone?"

"It's Friday, so what we're going to do is get more than one thing done over the weekend," Xander told him, "Call Jenny, we'll show her and Willow what they're really training to control."

"Good lord, are you mad?? Aren't the current problems enough to deal with??"

Xander smirked, "I'll deal with Mrs Summers and the Clan, you'll oversea Jenny and Willow."

"Don't do me any favors," Giles growled, "Jenny rather dislikes me now, in case you'd forgot."

"Yeah well, give her some minor Atlantean gizmo that works off magical power," Xander said off handedly, "She's a technopagan, that's better than a diamond."

"Yes well, I don't think we're at the gift giving stage, thank you for the suggestion."

"Well just give her the gizmo and add some abject apologies," Xander rolled his eyes, "I don't care what stage you are with a girl, you can *always* give her an apology gift."

"Really now, Xander," Giles replied testily, "Jenny is a grown woman, she's not some high school..."

"Ahem." Xander cleared his throat, holding up his hand and ticking off his fingers one by one, "Pheobe. Paige. Natalie. Faith..."

Giles snorted as Xander trailed off, "You almost had me until you mentioned Faith."

Xander sighed, "Yeah I knew that one killed my argument even as I said it."

The two looked at each other seriously for a moment, then both looked around them to make sure no one had overheard. When that was done they both burst out laughing, hanging on to whatever they could find to steady themselves.

"She must NEVER hear us say something like that." Giles chuckled between breaths.

"Are you kidding? I like my lungs where they are, thank you very much." Xander grinned, shaking his head as he got his breathing under control.

"Seriously though, G, give her some harmless gizmo to juice and serve it up on a heaping dish of abject apologies. That should get you back to square one anyway." Xander said as he finished packing up a small bag, "From there, you're on your own."

"Bloody brilliant," Giles muttered sarcastically, "I'll be awaiting your how to book on love with baited breath."

"You've developed a real smart mouth since we met," Xander said, then smiled widely. "I'm SO proud."

Giles just snarled at him.

"Where does he want to take us?" Joyce asked nervously, looking around the room uncertaintly.

"Avalon. Supposed to be a COOL place," Dawn grinned.

"Yeah, it totally is." The younger Buffy said before instantly covering her mouth.

"Buffy Anne Summers!"

"You were to Avalon!? You never told me that! No fair!" Dawn complained instantly, "Mom!"

The older version of Buffy groaned and buried her face in her hands, "God. I have TWO younger sisters now."

Joyce made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a strangled laugh, then quickly straightened her face again as she glared at Buffy. "When were you at this place!?"

"This summer...?" Buffy said hesitantly.

"Buffy Summers! You said you were at camp! I saw the papers!" Joyce raged, "Where did you get papers for a camp!?"

"Uh..." Joyce turned on Xander, who had just reappeared, as he spoke. "Yeah, that's my fault. I have some really good forgers on staff."

"Are you INSANE!? You can't take a girl somewhere without telling her parents!"

"She didn't give me a lot of choice actually," Xander glared at Buffy, "If I'd had my way, she'd have kept her nose out of it."

"There's ANOTHER story here, I suppose." Joyce growled, glaring at Xander again, "And why should I go anywhere with you, let along bring my daughters??"

Xander sighed, shaking his head, "Because you don't have a choice in the matter, Joyce. If you try to fight us on this, you'll be facing one long night after another of never knowing what's going on around you, because we can't trust you to listen... and you want to know what's going on that might affect your daughters, Joyce. You have to know."

She glared at him, still a heartbeat away from walking out, but he didn't falter as he returned the glare.

"Mom... please," Dawn said softly. "You can trust Xander. He's saved my life, remember? He stepped between bullets and me. He's not going to do anything to hurt us."

Joyce looked between her daughter and the unwavering young man across the room. It was an impossible situation, and it wasn't getting any easier. She didn't want to believe any of the story they were telling her, not one whit of it. The problem was, they'd shown her things, told her things, that she couldn't ignore.

The way his eyes glowed...

The way little Jacks... how could she have just *changed* like that?

Things had happened that just weren't possible, and God forgive her... she had to know.

"Alright..." She whispered, "Just... just a little farther."

"Said Alice as she crawled down the rabbit hole."

"Giles!" Xander growled, turning to glare at the older man, "SO not helping."

Jenny Kalendish stared at her phone, perplexed.

That... man.

Who did he think he was, anyway?

Bad enough he'd pulled all the crap he had on her, then saddled her with a student she still didn't know if she wanted to teach... but now he expected her to just pack up and go away for the weekend on some weird retreat??

The worst of it was... she had to go.

The tribe wanted to know about the Knighthood.

An upstart organization had come on the scene, suddenly trumping every major player on both sides... wielding magic and technology that just couldn't possibly exist. They'd laid low the mighty Terakan organization, they'd been discussed at the highest levels of government across no less than five continents. The Soviet government wanted them so badly they'd reactivated the old KGB Supernatural division, a group that had officially been shit down in the late eighties due to increasing budget strain. The Chinese had flooded the pacific ocean with ships, looking for this mystery group, as had the Americans.

Every major player in the supernatural community wanted to know more about these people, and she'd stumbled into them here in Sunnydale.

She supposed it made a sick sort of sense, where else would a group of that nature have a presence? The Hellmouth is the one place on the planet that EVERY group should be centered around...

So why the HELL weren't they here?

None of it made any sense.

All she knew was that she had to take this chance to find out what was going on, find out more about this group. She only hoped it was worth it, this... Giles character was a tremendous ass. Putting up with him for the weekend would be a real pain in hers.

"Get home, Will," Xander said softly as he pulled his friend away from the group. "Pack a bag for the weekend and tell your parents you're staying over with friends."

"W... why?"

"We're going to Avalon," He told her with a slight smile, "Giles and I have been talking... We have someone for you to meet... well, sort of meet again."


Xander smiled, "We're getting you a magic teacher, Willow."

Her eyes widened, lighting up as she stared at him, and Xander immediately frowned seriously at her. "Listen, this isn't a joke. This isn't like hacking either. If, and I stress the word IF, we arrange this for you, you have to take it seriously. You won't be learning fast either, the courses will be slow, mind deadening, and dull... but if I hear that your attention has wavered for even on instant, I'll personally cancel the classes. If you mess with magic after I pull the classes, I'll have your magic potential bound by world class witches. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Willow stared at him in shock, unable to move for a moment before she finally nodded slowly.

"This is serious on a whole new level, Willow," He whispered as he leaned in, touching his forehead to hers. "Please, take it seriously. Don't make me do something I'll regret as long as I live."

"I... I'll do what you say, Xander. I'll listen, I promise."

"Thank you," He said softly, pulling back. "Thank you."

"I won't let you down, Xander. I promise," She repeated.

He nodded, straightening up, "Then go home and get ready... things are going to change for you soon, whole new worlds opening up... pack a bag."

She nodded, staring at him for a moment until he jerked his head to the door. "Go. Get Jessie to drive you."

She nodded again, then turned and ran across the room, grabbing Jessie on her way past.

"Hey! What the...??"

"Come on!" She ordered in a no nonsense snap that got Jessie moving, "I need a drive home. You need a bag too, if your coming."

"Coming? To this Ava-place??" He asked, surprised. "Cool!"

Xander sighed, watching them race out.

Oh yeah.

Merlin was going to hang him up until he was dead, just as a warning to any future Commanders that might happen upon the facility.

In the background of his mind, Xander heard Elan cackle.

<Serves the old goat right,> She cackled, <And better you than me.>

<Oh, shut up Elan.>

Chapter 9

"So what's this Avalon place?"

Xander only half turned to see Buffy leaning on the door frame as he fixed his shirt in the mirror. "It's a Stone Circle."

Buffy nodded slowly, "Like in England."

"It's *the* stone circle." Xander amended.

"Wow," She said, "Coming up in the world."

"You could say that."


"Why what?" Xander asked, finally turning around.

"Why go there?" She asked, "Don't tell me it's for Mom. A patrol to show her real vampires would do for her, might not make as much of an impression... but it'd be the better part of the job done with less hassle."

Xander nodded, "True."

She watched him for a moment, then sighed with a smirk. "It's like that is it?"

"Why do you think?" Xander asked, eyeing her levelly.

"Cause you're not a hundred percent convinced I'm me yet?"

He smiled, tilting his head, "Not bad, Buff. Not bad. There's that, there's also Willow."

Buffy frowned, "Excuse me?"

"I'm setting Willow up with Jenny Calender to learn magic, but before I do that I want to show her what she can reach for... if she doesn't mess up. I also want to show Jenny what we have to offer," Xander said, "Showing our operations to Joyce is another bonus, it'll also show her that not every part of our life is mired in danger."

"And finally, you have something there that can identify me," Buffy said, not asked, "three birds..."

"One stone." He finished.

"Nice," She admitted.

"It's what it is," Xander said, "I've got people to look out for now."

She glanced around, "I've seen."

"No. You haven't." Xander told her, "Not even close. I love you, Buff, but until I confirm who you are one hundred percent... you mean less to me than they do."

She paled, her face drawn tight, but she nodded in response.

"Since you've figured it out, it comes to this," Xander went on, his face hard even as his guts twisted at her reaction, "If you step out of line before we get there, I'll put you down. I'll put you down to protect my people, to protect Dawn, to protect Joyce, and even to protect you. I'm sorry you had to figure it out before I got the job done, but that's behind us now. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

Buffy swallowed, but nodded again as Xander drew out a familiar pair of pistols in a harness rig and slid them over his shoulders.

"I'll need your sword." He said, extending one hand.

Buffy hesitated, her chest tight as her heart hammered in her chest, but she finally unbuckled the scabbard from her belt and passed it over. As his hand closed around it, her own grip tightened as he tried to take it, and she met his eyes with hers. "I'll be wanting this back."

"From my own hands," Xander promised, "The moment I know."

She let it go and he took it slowly, laying it down on a cloth he'd left on the dresser. He wrapped it in the cloth, then placed it into his own pack. He glanced back at her, but Buffy turned and walked out. Xander sighed, shaking his head. That had hurt, her more than him probably. It certainly wasn't the homecoming she deserved, but she wasn't coming home to the home she knew. He wasn't just looking out for himself now, wasn't just looking out for their friends and families. He had his Knights, and their families, to care for now.

He would not let them down. Not even for the memory of Buffy Anne Summers, or the possibility of her return.


"Clear this deck!"

Men snapped to in response to the Deck Honcho's call, clearing the landing area quickly with all the precision of a Navy FOD check. Strictly speaking, given the construction of Orca and Hammerhead series craft, such attention to detail wasn't necessary, but the Honcho had learned his trade on the Decks of the USS Kitty Hawk and didn't care to let anything slack down now.

Especially not with a VIP flight expected later in the evening, headed up by the Commander himself.

Like many of the people working Avalon, the Honcho had heard more about the Commander than he'd seen, but that was to be expected with the brass in his experience. Especially since Avalon wasn't technically the center of operations, not yet anyway. A lot of the field work boys had put in for transfers to GKS out of Sunnydale specifically so they could get a better feel for the man himself, but that was right out for a simple deck hand.

Uniforms were beginning to filter in for inspection, under General Grey's orders, and he knew that he'd have to head for his own Dress Blacks before too long or he'd severely piss off the General. Not a bright idea, even for a Navy swabby, to piss off a General.

"Let me see this deck sparkle, you bastards, or you're gonna answer to me!"

"Hello General,"

"Hiya, Merlin," Grey said, looking down at the flimsy he was reading. "Stocks look good, how are the long term repairs coming?"

"Slightly ahead of projections."

"Good, good," Grey said gruffly, finally looking up to check the board. "That the Commander's Orca?"

"Negative. He's still in Sunnydale."

"What's taking them so long?"

Merlin supposed that was a rhetorical question, but he'd never been good with such, "I believe that the Commander has a rather large group to organize this time."

"Great. More civilians to keep an eye on."

"Perhaps," Merlin shrugged on the display, "However I believe that they are, for the most part, rather centrally involved in the Commander's operations."

"And that makes it better?"

"That makes it necessary," Merlin replied, "'Better' is a judgement I am unwilling to make in this case."

Grey just grunted in response, "Fine. What's on the threat board tonight?"

The 'Threat Board' was fed by a disturbingly minimal number of sources, filling out a worldwide list of potential problems that might attract the attentions of the Knighthood. The majority of their information was fed by Merlin himself or, failing that, Niume. What little intel was left came from human intelligence sources such as they'd been able to cultivate. A few Immortals here and there, some hunter groups they'd met and worked with, basically a half a handful of people scattered around the entire planet.

So, as usual, the board was basically empty.

"There has been another incident involving Mr Jarod, this time in Cincinati. The Center response was nominal, and as per usual we ave been unable to track Mr Jarod." Merlin replied, his tone slightly miffed.

Grey snorted, shaking his head. He didn't know who this guy was, but it was pretty obvious he wasn't someone to mess with. They had a list of his previous exploits as long as his arm, but nothing on what he was trying to pull off next. The guy was a regular white knight, he just needed the gleaming armor. He'd fit right in with some of the regular hero types that hung around Avalon, Grey supposed. Hell, if things went right down in the labs, they'd even be able to provide him with the shining armor when they finally caught up with the man.

"Flag it, bag it, and put it in the Commander's pile." Grey said, pushing it aside. "Anything we can act on?"

"There are some hints of trouble brewing in connection with Center assets..." Merlin replied slowly.

"They catching up with him?"

"Negative," merlin replied, "These assets are not near any sightings of Mr Jarod. I only flagged them because they are very close to Mr Whitmore."


"The Center has safe houses and other assets all over the country... the world even," Merlin replied, "it's not likely connected to Mr Whitmore, General, however when they activated this safe house I flagged the information as potentially important."

"I should god damn well say so," Grey growled, "If those sick bastards even look the wrong way at Tom Whitmore, I want them stomped on!"

"So noted." Merlin replied dryly. "And, I believe, that I can safely state that 'stomping' on them would be of great satisfaction to the Commander and the majority of the Knights. However, for the moment I am more interested in determining what, precisely, they are up to."

"Keep me apprized."


Grey glanced over the rest of the board, but there was nothing above a low grade yellow threat level, so he tossed his data flimsy down and walked out. He needed a breath of fresh air to calm himself down before he finished up the paperwork.


Jenny Calender looked up at the mansion, surprised. Somehow this isn't what she was expecting, not even close. She'd expected to meet at GKS, not at some rich man's home. So when one of her students answered the door, she about had a coronary.

"Miss Calender?"

"Uh... Yes... Jonathan, right?"

"Yeah, hey... what are you doing here?" The young man asked her.

"I'm looking for Rupert Giles...? Am I at the..."

"Oh yeah, come on..." The boy hesitated, glancing over his shoulder, then just stepped aside.

Jenny took the hint with a sardonic smile and walked in. Obviously, this house wasn't blind to the nightlife. No surprise, given how powerfully the wards that surrounded it were chiming off her senses. The only place in town covered like this, other than the High School, was GKS Headquarters itself.

And that meant, she was probably even deeper into the group that if she'd been invited to their headquarters building.

The Knighthood.

She looked around and hesitated.

Good God, they were mostly children.

Not entirely, Rupert Giles was there, talking to a pale and shaken looking brunette. Another woman was sitting quietly off on her own, looking just as shaken as the brunette. However, aside from those two, she doubted that the average age in the group was much in it's teens.

There were at least three, in fact, who quite obviously *weren't*into their teens.

Well, well, well.

Who exactly were the Knighthood?

Chapter 10

"Alright, as soon as everyone is here I think we're ready to go," Xander said as he walked into the room and set down a single packed bag.

"W... we don't have any clothes..." Joyce said, stammering slightly.

"It's being brought." Xander said, glancing over at Dawn as the young girl walked back into the room with two bags under her arms.

Joyce looked over, surprised that her youngest had somehow made it home, packed, and back without being missed. "How...?"

"Long story, mom," Dawn told her. "Don't worry, ok?"

Joyce just nodded numbly as Xander noticed the newcomer in the group.

"Ah, I see Jenny's arrived," He nodded in the direction of the brunette. "Welcome."

She just nodded cooly at him, "Do I know you?"

"Not recently," Xander smiled, "Welcome to my home, Janna. I'll introduce you to your new student shortly, then we'll be moving out to Avalon."

"And Avalon is?" Jenny asked, pursing her lips.

"Our base of operations."

"And you are?"

Xander shook his head, "Giles, Giles, Giles, didn't you tell her?"

"She knows." Giles said, looking up from where he was speaking with Buffy.

Jenny crossed her arms and shrugged, "Fine. I know. What I don't know is why you people are interested in me. And don't give me this 'teacher' bull either. I'm Romany, it's not like I'm going to let you recruit me."

"We don't have a problem with your Clan relationships," Xander replied, "So long as you don't let them get in the way of preventing... bad things. We all have our families, some closer than others... One thing, only one thing, comes before family here. Survival of the planet. And pretty much the only reason that tops the list is cause without the planet, we all die... our families included."

Jenny looked around the room, noting the different expressions on the people there. Some were honestly surprised, or even confused by what he said. They didn't understand, not really, but some did. Rupert Giles was one of those who understood, as was the young woman he was speaking with. Surprisingly, perhaps, some of the youngest people in the room nodded seriously along with them.

She licked her lips, then shrugged and took a seat. "That's fine, but it doesn't answer the question."

Xander just shrugged in response, "We want you because you're you. Janna Kalendish, Techno Pagan, qualified teacher, known hacker of at least middling capability..."

Jenny stiffened in annoyance at that, glaring at him, but he just smiled in response.

"Zero Cool. Will-o-wisp. Acid Burn. Lord Nikon. Cereal Killer." Xander said, smiling calmly. "They work for us."

Jenny slumped back, blinking wildly.

"What does that mean?" Joyce Summers asked, still honestly confused.

"H... He just listed five of the top hackers on the planet," Jenny said shakily, "three of them in the top 5."

"Merlin is one of our top officers." Xander went on, smirking widely.

Jenny just leaned forward and rested her head in her hands, "And there's number one. What about Birkoff991?"

"Not one of ours," Xander shrugged, "We missed one of the top five. Though, actually, I'm not sure that list is entirely accurate. I know of at least two hackers who possibly top that list, but don't play around in the community enough to be known. That's leaving out quite a few who entered government service and take their oath's seriously. Still, I put our roster up against any group, official or unofficial, currently in existence."

Jenny tilted her head, then shook it as she let out a deep breath, "Yeah. If you're telling the truth, I can see why you'd think that."

"It gets better," Xander told her, "We equip our people with the best technology, human and otherwise, available... As you'll see."


"You'll see." He told her, still smirking widely.

"Great, cryptic bullshit."

"Yeah, it sucks don't it?" Dawn asked from where she was sitting.


"What? It does suck, Mom! And Xander knows it too," The youngster replied, "He just gets a kick out of being on the other end."

"You're ruining my mystique, Dawn," Xander said from across the room.

The girl just snorted, "Xan, you command enough troops to give the US Army a run for their money. You don't NEED mystique."

"That's an exaggeration," Xander replied dryly as all the guests looked at him with wide eyes full of shock. "You *always* need mystique. Besides, The Knighthood doesn't have that many people by a long run, and you shouldn't be talking about it quite so openly anyway."

"Everyone here is going to Avalon, Xan. They're gonna see."

"Hardly the point, young lady." He scowled, "Operational security is enough of a problem as it stands, I don't need you making it worse."

She scowled back at him for a long moment, then looked down. "Alright. My bad. Sorry."

"We are going to have a long talk about security, Dawn," Xander told her, "No matter what happens here, you have to start taking that stuff seriously... it's not just my people at risk here."

Dawn winced, looking over at her mother, then nodded again. "I get it."

"I doubt that." Xander growled, "Don't think I haven't noticed your little self destructive phase lately either. Since you found out about your..."

Xander paused, then shook his head. "We will be talking."

Dawn just nodded as Joyce looked on. The older woman was caught in a quandary, not knowing what to do. She too had noticed Dawn's slide as of late. The younger girl had grown more churlish over the past couple weeks, taking less care in how she looked and dressed, listening less to Joyce herself, and other authorities. She'd gotten into even more fights with her sister, some of them turning into rather large blowouts.

She'd just thought that it was normal teenage troubles, the lord knew that Buffy had caused, and still did cause, enough trouble as she grew into her own teen years. This, though, this wasn't the same thing. Dawn had... issues... issues that she was only just beginning to see. Joyce didn't know how to deal with them, and lately every time she tried it seemed that it just ended in a yelling match.

In fact, if she'd tried to do what Xander had just done... Joyce shivered, knowing that Dawn would have come right back at her then. No doubt in her mind. Yet to this young man, she'd apologized.

It just wasn't right, but that's how it was. Joyce shook her head as she held her tongue, somehow... Dawn listened to him.

Further thought along that direction was stopped when the door opened to reveal Willow and Jessie lumbering in, buried in bags.

"Oh come on, Jess!" Xander groaned, "We're only going for the weekend!"

"Don't talk to me! This is Willow's!" Jessie groaned out, shaking under the weight. "I think she stole it from the school..."

"I did NOT!" Willow objected, "It's just my computer, backup drive, a few extra gizmos, some books I bought, a few I borrowed from Wesley..."

"Clothing..." Xander said slowly, "Did you remember *clothing*??"

Willow frowned, looking around, then down at her stuff. "I think so... it's somewhere in here..."

Xander groaned, "Where's Faith?"

"She and Tara are still out at the movie." Dawn spoke up, "Faith wanted to come watch, but Tara figured you wanted some privacy."

"Gee, imagine that, someone who cared about giving us privacy." He said dryly.

"Sue me," She told him flatly, "I have a stake in this."

"Is Cordelia with them?" Xander asked, sighing.

"I dunno," Dawn shrugged.

"Alright," Xander sighed, "Giles, call Faith and T back. I'll see if we can't find Cordelia."

"You're bringing her to Avalon?"

"It's her right. She's bonded with Maro now... Avalon's shores are hers to walk."

Cordelia Chase sat out on the roof of her home, legs curled up under her as the winds blew in from the ocean. She could still feel the fighting inside, her mother's shrill screaming didn't quite penetrate to where she was, but the emotions behind it did.

Panicked, angry, dulled slightly by liqueur.

Her father was cold, calm, very sober but dripping with disdain.

The clash of emotions chilled her, her father's emotions burning with a cold fire that overwhelmed the hot passion in her mother. She didn't know what they were fighting about, didn't care really, she just wanted the overwhelming pressure to stop.

A soft chime startled her, momentarily dulling the emotional resonance as she looked down. It was the small phone thing Xander had given her, it was vibrating and chiming softly until she picked it up and placed it on her jaw.

"Yes...?" She said, holding her voice firm.

"Cor, it's me."

She sighed. Xander's voice. Of course, who else?

"What is it?"

"We're going out of town for the weekend..."

Cordelia swallowed, her pulse racing. She wouldn't even be able to go over there for some peace. She'd be stuck at home, feeling all of this, all weekend.

"I wanted to know if you'd like to come... There are some things... some things I haven't told you about how you might be able to get some relief when things are tough."

Cordy's mouth opened, her throat constricting for a moment as she tried to answer.


"Yes." She said in a rush. "I'll come. When?"

"Soon as you get here."

"Alright, I'm on my way."

Chapter 11

"Never even got to see the end of the movie," Faith griped as Tara pulled the car into the drive.

"B... but you didn't even want to g... go to the movie..."

"What's your point?"

Tara looked confused for a moment, killing the engine as she pulled to a stop. "Oh... look, Cordelia's car."

"Party girl is here, huh?" Faith glanced over, "Might be fun. Come on, let's see what's up."

The two got out, heading toward the house, and Tara sighed softly as Faith continued complaining.

"I told you we should have doubled back," The dark slayer said, yet again, "We missed all the good stuff."

Tara shook her head, "I... it was private."

"Like we don't have a stake in it."

Tara shook her head and opened the door, revealing a growing group of people inside. "O... oh."

The blond blushed slightly as everyone looked over at them, and she realized that there were quite a few people she didn't know well at all inside.

"Move it, blondy." Faith shoved her inside, glancing around the room. "Hail, hail, the gangs all hear."

"Terribly eloquent," Giles said dryly, "I see that public education is good for something."

Faith bit back a retort as she glanced over and noticed Cordelia in a corner, huddled up a bit. "You ok, C?"

Cordy just nodded abruptly, "Just leave me alone for a minute."

Faith winced, but nodded and backed off.

Across the room, Buffy frowned and leaned in closer to Giles. "What's with Cordelia?"

Giles lowered his voice, glancing back, "She... she was attacked by Darla last year. It didn't go well for her, and sense then she bonded with a sword much like Xander's own weapon... she has begun showing powerful empathic abilities, not unlike your own brush with the aspect of the demon."

Buffy drew in her breath sharply, wincing. If that was true, it was a wonder the Sunnydale princess was still operating at all. Her brief brush with telepathy had been a rush, it had felt like power purified. The ability to hear thoughts was like something out of a fantasy world, until it began to push in on her with inexorable force.

Judging from Cordelia's face, and the way her eyes flicked to the group, holding both fear and accusation in them, the cheerleader was already feeling the strain.

Cordelia's eyes locked with hers then, and Buffy found herself staring back.

<I understand.>

Cordelia's eyes widened quickly, then she looked sharply away as Xander walked over to her. Buffy watched, puzzled as Cordelia jumped slightly, as if surprised that Xander got that close to her without being felt. He spoke to her softly, then took a seat beside her, his face neutral. Cordelia relaxed noticeably after that, breathing easier as she looked around the room and began to ask Xander questions in a soft voice.

<What was that?>

"Ok," Xander said from where he was seated, "We'll be going in just a few minutes..."

"Uh, excuse me..." Dawn interrupted him.

"What is it, Dawn?"

"We're going? Like this?" Dawn looked around.

"What?" Xander blinked, "What's wrong with this?"

"Duh. Why'd I go get clothes from home??"

"So you'd have fresh clothes on the Island?"

"I think, Commander," Jacks smirked, "She means that we may want to consider dressing 'up' a little?"

Xander looked confused, causing Dawn and Jacks to sigh.

"Commander, the Knights will be waiting to meet your 'family', I believe that it may be a good idea to present an appropriate image." Jacks told him, idly plucking at her faded jeans.

"This isn't some ceremonial visit, Jacks..."

"No, it's their *first* visit. As such, it is a big deal, Commander. With respects." She smirked at him as she finished.

Xander sighed, "Fine. Formal Uniforms for those who have them, I presume you told Dawn to bring along something appropriate?"

"Oh course... wait, Formal uniforms? Just a second here..." Jacks eyes widened, "I'm not part of..."

"Formal Uniforms."

"Oh... Tziang Fe." Jacks spat out.

"I know what that means, Elf." Xander growled.

She glared back at him sharply, holding up a finger, "Do not you dare start that too."

He just stared at her until she nodded and sighed, "Alright, fine. Formal uniforms."

She bore Xander's smirk as she headed out, intent on getting her uniform. She hated those things, they felt constrictive to her. The material was tailored for humans, but since it was issued to Knights it was intended to attenuate and disperse magic to a certain degree. For her, it was worse than being in the most horribly tailored dress she'd ever owned.

Further, she was pretty sure that the Commander knew that.

Slack that. She knew damn well that he knew.

<How does he keep coming out on top?> She asked plaintively of the ether.

<He's the Commander,> Kaina told her with an insufferable smirk. <You're afraid to meet him head on.>

<Well the least he could do is stop taking advantage of that!>

<A good warrior uses every advantage he is presented with, and the Commander isn't half bad for a warrior.>

<Yeah, yeah.> Jacks thought disgustedly, <I will get him one of these days... so I just have to be real sneaky about. That's doable.>

<Might I suggest enlisting Dawn and Mikki?>

Jacks smiled beatifically, <Sounds... perfect.>

Dawn managed to convince Joyce and Buffy to get changed into something Xander hoped would be suitable, not that he had much of an idea what was suitable in this case. He did know that he had some things to deal with, particularly Cordelia and the recently arrived older version of Buffy.

"Come on," He told them both when they were the only ones left in the room. "Let's get you both into something that'll suit."

"I don't exactly have any fancy clothes, Xan," Buffy said, grimacing.

"I... I don't want to dress up." Cordelia whispered, drawing a surprised glance from Buffy. She pulled back slightly, "What? Why should I want to get dressed up so I can be gawked at??"

"But... You're Cordelia." Buffy said, a little dumbly even in her own opinion.

"And who are you anyway?" Cordy asked sharply, "You look like Buffy... are you related?"

"Yeah... something like that."

"Cordy, this is..."

"Beth." Buffy said, cutting Xander off. "Call me Beth."

"Well Beth, who do you think you are, talking to me like you know me??"

Buffy hesitated, then sighed, "I do. I know you, and I know what you're going through."

Cordelia bristled, but Buffy cut her off.

"When I was in highschool I tangled with a particularly... odd demon," She said, "It infected me with the Aspect of the Demon. It was telepathic, and then... so was I. At first, things were kinda cool really. I was reading minds and getting stuff done... then the pressure started to build."

Cordelia swallowed, then nodded.

"It got so bad that... I wouldn't have lasted long without my friends pulling together to help cure it."

"There's no cure for this," Cordelia said bitterly, "At least, nothing anyone can find."

Buffy glanced over at Xander, who nodded. She sighed, "Well then we'll just have to find something to get you through this."

"We?" Cordy asked, suspiciously.

"We. I'm here for the duration," Buffy told her, "and I don't leave my friends hanging."

"We don't even know each other."

Buffy smiled, "Cordelia, there was a time that I *was* you. Now come on, let's get changed into something 'suitable'."

Cordelia winced, "I don't want to get dressed up... people stare at me, I can feel them."

"Well," Xander decided to jump in, "I wasn't thinking of something slinky or sexy or whatever for either of you... Let's go another route."

Buffy threw him a wry look, "I don't know whether to be curious, or insulted. How about you, Cordy?"

Cordelia shot Buffy a confused glance at the familiarity she was showing, but she shrugged, "Curious."

"Well, I'll go with curious too then," Buffy declared, "Lead the way, Xan."

"This way," He motioned to the basement access.

"This is Sunnydale Flight Zero One reporting ready for flight operations."

"SF Zero One, this is Avalon. Confirmed. Are your passengers ready?"

The pilot glanced outside the Orca quickly, then shook his head. "Negat... hang on... here they come."

A large group of people were walking toward the Orca and the pilot had to do a double take as he caught sight of them. The Commander and Jacks were in full dress blacks, leading the way. There were some civilians, dressed up pretty well. But it was the women flanking the Commander that took him by surprise.

Faith was in her normal combat dress, looking far too hot for someone her age. Alongside her there were two brunettes, one in gleaming metal armor and one in mat black combat gear. Both wore swords, one a short scabbard on her hip, the other a long curved blade strapped across her back.

The pilot shivered.

This job just kept getting more and more interesting.

"They're ready, and you'd better tell the general to review the troops before we land. Looks like the Commander is putting on a show."

Chapter 12

Joyce looked side to side as she sat in the tight quarters of the flying machine Xander had led them all too. She hadn't actually believed it was one until the thing lifted off, it didn't look like it should fly. Or move for that matter. No wings, no wheels, but from what she could tell not only were they flying, but they were moving fast.

The older version of Buffy was sitting beside the girl Joyce thought was Cordelia Chase, though she didn't see the girl very often. Buffy and Dawn sometimes talked about her, though, how she was recovering from some kind of assault. Joyce had believed that it was an attempted rape, though now she wasn't sure. In either case, she girl looked... fragile.

Which was disturbing and strange, given that both she and the older Buffy were dressed in armor and carried weapons. The younger Buffy was armed too, though only with knives and wooden stakes that were, for the most part, concealed. Joyce had a sneaking suspicion that Dawn was likewise armed.

Xander and the older man, Rupert Giles, were both carrying far more than knives and stakes, or even swords. Xander was in full uniform, looking like something out of a military recruiting poster, if Babylon 5 was hiring.

It was all too damned much.

Ahead of them, well to the front of the ship anyway, there was a small door that lead into what she presumed was the cockpit, and Joyce watched as a helmeted figure glanced out.

"Commander? We're ETA in five."

Xander just nodded, not glancing over, and the man ducked back without further comment. Xander looked up and around at them.

"Ok," he said, "For those of you unfamiliar with Avalon... you are my guests on the Island. As my family, you can expect a lot of attention from the inhabitants... please, remember, it's their home. They're my people, I'm responsible for their lives. Conduct yourselves appropriately... right *Dawn*?"

Joyce immediately smothered a grin as Dawn put on a 'Me so innocent' look that completely and utterly failed to have any impact on Xander whatsoever.

After a moment Dawn deflated, "So not fair. How come I get singled out?"

Xander just raised an eyebrow and stared.

"What about her!?" Dawn pointed at Faith.

Faith managed to look affronted, but Xander just shrugged, "No one on the Island takes Faith seriously anymore anyway."

"Hey!" Faith blurted as several of the group chuckle.

Xander was about to say something else, but then he tilted his head slightly. "We're here, and we're landing. Get ready."

"Ready for wha...??" Joyce asked, but was cut off by a flash of blinding white light that seemed to fill her entire world.

The transporter materialized the APC into place around the assembled honor guard, and the Knights snapped to attention as the door opened. A dual line of Cadre members formed up on either side of the APC door, framing a simple red carpet that ran right up to the vehicle, and they snapped to instantly, presenting their pulse rifles for inspection as the Commander appeared at the door.

"Well..." Xander whispered, a touch of a smile at his lips. "It looks like Jacks and Dawn were right."

He straightened, stepping carefully down to the carpet, and stepped to one side as the others emerged. He was proud to see Dawn carefully lift her head and straighten her back as she saw the reception, only the slightly wide eyes revealing that maybe it was a bit more than she was expecting. Xander smiled when she casually shifted her dress to reveal the pommels of two daggers she'd hidden from her mother, noting that she was making certain to impress upon the gathering the fact that she wasn't just a little girl.

Cordelia and Buffy emerged next, both shocked as they saw the extent of the reception, but both managing to control themselves as they stepped down. For Cordelia, Xander supposed, it must be a strange combination of dream and nightmare. For Buffy, well he figured that she would grow to accept it quickly.

Joyce was next, and the shock on her face was obvious. She was close to losing it, and Xander quickly moved to her side to catch her arm surreptitiously.

"Steady," He hissed, "Just a few moments and we'll be through this. You'll have time to assimilate it all later. Just hold up a little longer, it'll look better for Dawn and Buffy."

She took a breath, nodding shakily, and straightened beside him as the younger Buffy emerged with Jacks and Faith. They all knew what to expect and were only mildly surprised by the reception. Behind them came Giles and Jenny, followed by Willow, Jonathan, and Jessie. Jenny was openly stunned, while the kids looked floored as they just followed along behind the rest like they were lost.

"At Ease!"

Xander turned to the voice as the men stepped back, weapons falling to their shoulders, and smiled as General Grey approached. "General. Good to see you."

"And you Commander, Welcome back to Avalon." Grey said, turning to the others. "And to your family."

"Thank you, General. I think we'll get settled in, then I'll check in for a status report. Acceptable?"

"Perfectly, Sir." Grey nodded, gesturing down the line. "This way."

Janna Kaldarish was possibly in heaven, possibly in hell. She wasn't really sure which. On the flight over, which was something else she wasn't sure about, she'd been introduced to her new 'student'. She should have guessed, actually. Willow Rosenberg was quite possibly the smartest girl she'd ever met, and her abilities in mundane computing were startling. Even more now that she new the young girl was Will-o-wisp, a rather well known Hacker.

She also understood the problems the so called Knights had with training her. She was curious, knew no limits, and had a frightening power well. Much deeper, in fact, than Jenny herself and anyone Jenny had ever known. Left to her own devices, Jenny had no doubt that she would fall into the darker arts over time.

No limits, frightening intelligence, and unfettered curiosity were a dangerous combination.

Of course that meant that she had to take her job seriously, otherwise this young girl would be a threat to... everyone in the future.

The fact that the Knighthood was asking for a favor, and would be indebted to her, well that was turning out to be a very nice bonus.

She could literally feel the well of power around her reverberate with every step she took, it was almost as powerful as the Hellmouth... but so much cleaner. It permeated everything in the place, she could feel the machinery itself calling out to her with magic's song.

It was... amazing.

She blindly followed the group, lost in the vibrations around her.

"Oh man! Xan has been holding out on us!" Jessie said, wide eyed as they walked down the long curving hallways.

"This is Avalon, guys."

"Huh? What?" Jessie looked over at Jonathon. "It's what?"

"Avalon!" Jonathan hissed, "You know, King Arthur?? This place is a freaking *legend*."

Willow just nodded, her pace pale as she looked around. "I... expected something... different."

"Like what?" Jessie asked confused.

"Well... more... you know, medieval-y..." Willow said, shrugging as she looked around with wide eyes.

"Those are on the surface."

"Ya!!!!" Jessie screamed, nearly jumping out of his skin as a ghostly shape appeared beside them. "Ghost!!"

The group spun around, half of them going for weapons before Xander laughed. "Jeez, Merlin, you want to cut the fish a break? At least announce yourself."

The ghostly form shrugged, "I was merely responding to Wisp's comments concerning the architecture."

Willow, who was even paler, slowly started to breath again as she looked between the ghostly form and Xander. "Merlin? As in... The Merlin? Or the Hacker?"

"One and the same, Wisp." Merlin responded with a smile, "A pleasure to meet you in person."

Jenny and Willow stared at Merlin in shock.

"You... you mean that the top hacker on the planet is Merling the Magic...." Jenny started, only to be cut off.

"Please, I *despise* that title. Simply Merlin will suffice quite nicely, but yes... I am both the 'Wizard' and the 'Hacker'."

Jenny leaned against the wall, blinking furiously. Two legends, one of history, and one of her modern world, were one and the same. This trip was going to be the end of her if it kept up like this.

Xander paused at a split in the corridor and nodded to the group, "Faith... Could you show the others to their rooms, Merlin will let you know the assignments. I have something to do before we get things settled."

"Sure thing." Faith nodded, gesturing down one path. "This way, guys."

Xander reached out and caught the elder Buffy by the shoulder, and nodded to Giles, "We're going the other way."

Buffy glanced at the departing group, then at the serious look on Xander face before nodding. "Alright. Let's do this."

The room they emerged into was enormous, it fell away from their feet on both sides as Xander led Buffy and Giles to a central platform that sat in the center of a roughly spherical cavern and came to a stop.

"Welcome to the center of Avalon... mystically and spiritually," Xander said, "We don't let many people in here, Buff. But this is where Merlin's abilities are strongest."

"Ok, not that I'm unimpressed, cause..." Buffy looked down over the edge and paled, "very impressive... but what now?"


"I'm here, Commander." The form of the AI said quietly, appearing in front of them.


"I am, Commander."

Buffy nodded, "Yeah. Do it."

Merlin smiled as she braced herself, his avatar closing it's eyes. A moment later they opened again and he nodded. "It's done. She is Buffy Summers, her core frequency is native to this dimension. There is a frequency overlay that matches a rather obscure and distant dimension, however she is most certainly from here."

Xander nodded, letting out a sigh as a tension in his chest faded. He'd believed, but now he knew. He turned to Buffy and drew her weapon from behind his back. "Trade you."

"That's it?" She asked, looking disappointed as she lay a hand on the training blade he'd given her to complete her 'outfit'. "I was expecting something... umm... more?"

"That, is it." Merlin responded calmly.

"You want this back, or should I keep it?" Xander asked with a smile as Buffy lunged for the sunblade.


Chapter 13

Joyce looked around the suite she and her girls had been shown too, and had to admit to being impressed. Not by the impossible, which she'd been constantly slapped in the face by since the night before, but rather by the simple elegance of the place.

The main room was huge, lots of open space with a wall that looked out over a cliff face to the sea far below. There was a large hot tub bubbling in the corner there, and archways that led to smaller sleeping rooms. Joyce stood looking out over the breathtaking sea view, trying to work things out in her mind when Buffy walked up behind her.

"That's just a picture."

Joyce jumped, "God, buffy! You scared the hell out of me."

"Sorry, mom," Buffy winced.

Joyce sighed, but nodded, "No... I'm sorry. I'm... distracted."

"Yeah, I get that."

Joyce nodded, "What did you say?"

"Huh? About what?"

"A picture?"

"Oh," Buffy nodded, reaching out to touch the 'window'. It shimmered in response and a menu popped open. Joyce watched in shock as Buffy casually tapped in a series of commands, and a moment later they were looking out at a street in Sunnydale.

"Oh my..." Joyce blinked, staring, "It looks... real."

"Special cameras," Buffy said, shrugging, "That's what they told me anyway. Something about filming two images at once then projecting them so we see both from slightly different angles. Makes it look real."

Joyce stared at her daughter.

Buffy shrugged, "I spent a few weeks here over the summer, remember?"

Joyce glared, making Buffy wince, but didn't comment any further. Instead she turned back to the image, "He has cameras in Sunnydale?"

Buffy nodded, "And lots of other places too... It also gets satellite TV..."

Joyce stared, and Buffy just shrugged again. "Avalon has... well, everything you can think of."

"I see." Joyce said in a tone that clearly indicated that she didn't, and wasn't really interested in finding out either. Buffy just shivered and stepped back, leaving her mother to her thoughts.

Jenny sat in the center of her room, trying to wrap her skull around the situation. The Knigthood was far more than she'd have believed possible. This wasn't some new flash in the pan coalition against the nightlife, these people were a fully functioning ARMY that had come out of nowhere. Just a year ago, nothing. They didn't exist on any level anyone could tell, now they were the most talked about group in the underworld, and here she found them sitting in an armed camp that could apparently house an entire city state.

Judging from the weapons display, and the rather lethal looking vehicles she'd seen, Jenny was half convinced that the Knighthood was a super power in it's own right. They were apparently backed by THE Merlin of Camelot, located in one of the legendary seats of power of the old world, and led by a young man who looked like he should still be in high school.

Well, maybe led by him, Jenny frowned as she considered. She had recognized the General who approached them when they stepped off the vehicle, he had been splashed all over the news not long ago after all. Officially disgraced, Grey had somehow managed to avoid the usual stigmas attached to standing by an impeached President.

As had Whitmore, which made Jenny wonder what precisely was going on. Was the former President here as well?

That might explain how they'd accumulated such a force in so short a time, a charismatic leader like Whitmore might be able to swing that kind of support... Still, who would seriously follow a disgraced President?

"This is quite the place, Xander."

Xander nodded, glancing over at Buffy as she walked at his side. She was marginally taller than her younger counterpart, but it was her walk more then even her hair that separated them. She moved... more confidently than her younger self. Not that the other Buffy lacked confidence, but while her motions were predatory, they still carried some of the hesitance of being a teenager. This person beside him had been through the fire, tested, and passed.

"How... how did you get all these people...?" She asked, noting that a group was watching her as they moved past.

"There was a big fight a couple years ago... really big," Xander said, "A lot of military people found out about this place then, and about some of the secrets in the world around them. I recruited a few people I liked and trusted, and from there... well, this has been building."


Xander smiled, then paused and gestured to another direction. "Come on, Buff... I want to show you some cool stuff."

She shrugged and followed as he led her down the corridors and finally into a large room that looked kind of like a mad scientists lab.

"Hey Kate, how's it going?" Xander smiled to one of the people inside.

The woman glanced up and kind of smiled back, though Buffy wasn't sure it was a friendly smile. "Other than you constantly trying to get my boyfriend killed?"

Xander just rolled his eyes, "How many times do I have to say it? He asked me for a challenge, what could be more challenging than joining the Cadre??"

Kate just snorted, shaking her head.

"You get anywhere on the toys?" Xander asked, smiling.

"A little," She admitted after a grudging moment, "The code is really complex, but with Merlin cracking the numbers we've got some headways being made. Here, check this out..."

Buffy watched as she picked up a small little piece of metal a touched it with an instrument. Light shimmered around it, and suddenly there was a man in a blue uniform standing there at attention.


"Yeah..." Kate frowned, "Unfortunately the interaction code seems to be missing, all we have is the image."

"Is 'he'... solid?"

Kate nodded quickly, "Completly. Go ahead, touch..."

Buffy reached out, gingerly poking the man in the chest. He didn't react but she felt her finger impact with bone, though there was a slight tingle that she almost thought she was imagining.

"It's a hard light projection," Kate replied, "Some kind of interconnected photon field..."

Buffy looked at Xander in confusion, but he just grinned and shook his head.

"Don't look at me, I don't get it either..." He smiled, "But I've read up on it because of the possible applications. Since it's able to project solid images, we've been thinking about adapting it as an armor projection system, maybe as a camouflage or even disguise system..."

"Where'd you get it?"

"The ruins of Chronowerks Corporation... at least their shielded vault room." Xander replied, "That's the only part of them that still exists in this timeline. They had lots of toys stored away, just not many of each type... so we've been trying to reverse engineer them. It's mostly twenty ninth century technology, and it's surprisingly advanced."

"Ah... oh." Buffy nodded slowly, giving Xander a strange look. "You know what, I don't want to know."

He chuckled, then glanced back at Kate, "You know if Andy is getting anywhere with the ray guns?"

She just shrugged, "Ask him. Weapons are not my forte."

Xander chuckled, but nodded, "Fine. I'll check in with him later. Thanks for the time, Kate. Bye."

As they were walking you, Kate yelled at their backs, "Tell my boyfriend that he'd better duck when he's supposed to, or he'll answer to me!"

"Yeesh," Buffy glanced sideways as the door slid shut, "Some issues there?"

"Some," Xander nodded, "Dade, her boyfriend, is Cadre. He handles frontline tech support. He's a certifiable genius, kinda like Kate, but with people shooting at him."

Buffy winced, "Well that explains her worry I guess."

Xander nodded, "Yeah. Cadre takes the brunt of the action around here. They're the sharp end of the stick in our operations."

"This place is so huge..." Buffy said, sounding a little overwhelmed.

"That it is."

"Where did Giles go anyway?" She asked suddenly.


Buffy groaned, shaking her head, "I should have known."

Xander smiled, "Actually he has a reason. There's a prophecy he needs to look up, so he'd have been coming here soon anyway."

"Oh." She nodded, "Bad?"

"Who knows?" Xander shrugged, "I assume he'll let us know."

Buffy nodded, "So... who are these Cadre guys anyway?"

Jessie groaned, "Come ON you guys! This is maybe THE most amazing place we've ever been too and you two play video games!?"

"This is NOT a video game!" Willow snapped, scandalized. "This is an incredible computer system!"

"Even worse!"

Jonathan didn't even look up, "Hey... I think... umm, Willow...?"

"Yes? What?"

"Is that the Department of Defense secure network?"

Willow stared, then paled, "ohmygod."

"What? Are we in trouble!?" Jessie demanded, leaning between them.

"This is a mirror of my private files!" Willow blurted.

"You have the DOD's secure network in your private files??" Jonathan demanded.

"I wanted a challenge..."

"Huh... what's this link," Jessie asked, reaching for the interface, "Hot and Naughty..."

"Don't you DARE touch that!!" Willow snarled at him, slapping him away. "Xander!! XANDER!! Where are you!?"

"Really, Wisp," Merlin smiled as he appeared in the room, "The Commander has nothing to do with it, I merely thought you might like a familiar system to work from."

"Y... you hacked MY system!?"

Chapter 14

The fight was four on one in the gym when Buffy and Xander entered, and the experienced Slayer had to stop and watch with a certain amount of admiration for both sides. The one was a slight girl, smaller than her, and she was taking the four with a certain finesse that Buffy couldn't help but recognize.

She frowned, "Slayer?"

Xander shook his head, "No. Lung's not a Slayer."

Lung. Odd name, the Slayer thought as she watched the match. The woman, Lung, was taking on three men and another woman, and holding her own pretty well. The four were working as a team, though, keeping Lung from being able to counter attack by using coordinated moves.

First two would move in, one high and the other low, chopping at Lung's joints as she spun clear and sent kicks and punches back. They'd block or dodge, but even as they did the second pair would come in over the top of them and prevent Lung from making the best of her advantage.

It was obvious to Buffy that Lung had the other four completely outmatched in skill, speed, and strength, but their constant pressure was keeping her from pressing home any of her advantages and it was equally clear that Lung wasn't gaining any headway at all.

Which wasn't to say she was losing a lot either.

"That's Hudson there," Xander said as one of the attackers snapped a kick into the back of Lung's knee. The woman's leg buckled and she dropped down, just throwing up a block in time to prevent her female opponent from driving a knee into her face. "And Vasquez, she's a dirty fighter... if you ever match against her, watch out for low blows."

Buffy raised an eyebrow, but didn't respond as a scarred faced man suddenly came up behind Lun while she was dealing with Hudson and Vasquez, catching her around the throat with two arms coiled in muscle.

"Drake." Xander said simply, "Not big on words, but strong as an ox."

She could see that, but the strength didn't seem to faze Lung at all as the oriental woman pitched forward, pulling the larger man off his feet and throwing him clear over Vasquez and to the mats. He rolled with the impact, twisting and sliding as he came back to his feet before coming to a stop. Another guy lunged in as Drake was airborne, planting a boot in Lung's posterior with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop, sending the smaller woman skidding to the floor.

"And Hicks." Xander said dryly, shaking his head. "Another one to watch out for. He has a way of deflated swelled heads."

Buffy winced as Hudson and Vasquez instantly piled on, not just throwing their weight onto the woman, but focusing it on the limbs and neck. They got her arms out straight so she couldn't get any leverage, and kept her neck pinned solidly to the ground as Drake dove back in and grabbed one leg out, Hicks pinning the other at the knee.

After a moment it was pretty clear that even Lung's strength wasn't going to get her loose in any decent amount of time, and Vasquez clapped her solidly on the back at right about where her heart would be.

"You're finished Chica." the hispanic woman said smugly.

Lung relaxed and nodded, "Agreed."

The four broke off, Hicks standing over lung and offering her his hand. "Nice match."

She stretched her neck, nodding, "You are getting better. All of you."

"Yeah well," Hudson complained, holding his side, "At least we're not getting our butts handed to us any more."

"Just be glad this was a 'handicap' match," Lung told them with a smile, "You can beat my strength, but I do not believe you can yet match my magic."

"Not with our bare hands, I'll give you that," Vasquez told her gruffly, "You put a smart gun in my hand and we'll talk."

"I hear that." Drake grinned widely, his scarred face making it a nasty looking thing indeed. He and Vasquez swatted fists back and forth in an easy motion that was obviously very familiar to them.

"Not bad." Xander said, pitching his voice up.

The men, and women, all turned around and snapped to attention when they saw him, giving Buffy something of a start. Xander left her side, walking out as he looked them over. "As you were. Just showing a friend around, but I'm impressed. You guys did well."

"Thank you, Sir." Hicks spoke for the group. "Just working up our hand to hand capabilities."

Xander nodded, glancing back, "Buffy?"

"Yes?" The elder Slayer asked, stepping forward.


Buffy stopped, surprised that Xander had to ask, or that he'd bother, but she considered for a moment, "They're all good. Better than the Initiative soldiers by far. Lung's fighting skills could be better, but it's hard to spot the flaws in someone that strong and fast."

Xander nodded, "She's not used to fighting in human form."

Buffy stiffened, eyeing the small Asian again. "Oh?"

Lung glanced at Xander, then over to the one he'd called Buffy. She frowned slightly, knowing the name and face from the files on active allies, but this one was brunette and older. Something was off here. Still she nodded and bowed slightly to the Slayer, "I am a Dragon, Miss Summers."

Buffy's eyebrows shot up, both because of the word dragon and the fact that her last name was known. "I see. Well, not really, but you know how it goes."

The four others, humans she hoped, chuckled at that and Buffy forced herself to look them over more closely.

"I hope they don't plan on taking down a Dragon in it's natural form with tactics like that." She said, dryly.

Xander chuckled as the former Marines stiffened, "No. They're working team practice for dealing with humanoid demons like vampires and such who are stronger and faster than humans."

Buffy nodded, "I don't think I've met the vampire who could take them... not alone anyway. Unless we're counting the Master or Kakistos."

"Physically I think they could take the Master. Mentally, their shields aren't up to it." Xander said as the men and woman remained in place. "Overall?"

"Overall..." Buffy repeated, wondering what Xander wanted from her. She took a breath, "Overall... I'd be willing to have them with me on a patrol, any time."

Xander smiled, nodding. "From a Slayer, that's high praise. Good work!"

"Sir!" They yelled together in response.

Buffy watched as the men and women broke up from the mats, grabbing towels and gear as they headed out to another area. The showers, she supposed. "You have a lot of people like that?"

"Not enough. There's never enough people like that," Xander said, sounding tired suddenly. "But yeah, we've got a few here. International membership, though we still have a heavy lean to American citizens..."

Buffy raised an eyebrow, a hint of a smile in her eyes.

Xander just rolled his own eyes, "Honestly, it's just so much easier to recruit Americans. A lot of other countries don't keep the kind of paperwork we need to find our best candidates."

"You mean soldiers who have been kicked out on a mental charge?" Buffy asked wryly.

"You'd be surprised how many countries keep soldiers in uniform even if they think they're nuts." Xander said, his voice just as dry in return. "So most of our guys and gals are American, European, Australian. We've got some Russians, but not many... they've got some kind of supernatural version of the KGB in operation, so most of their guys in the know get seconded there."

Buffy frowned, "Other countries don't?"

Xander shook his head, "Actually most do. The United States has the Initiative.... near as we can tell it's spinning back up now. They've also got the SGC, though, which takes a lot of people who might otherwise wind up with us. The Brits, well, they seem to have at least two organizations like ours, The Watchers and another group. We don't have a lot on them, they don't like computers it seems."

Buffy chuckled, remembering Giles, "Imagine that."

"Yeah, go figure." Xander grinned, "We know that the Vatican has multiple teams, including a couple heavy hitters they only send in when things are about to go boom in a big way."

"The Jerk," Buffy scowled.

Xander laughed, but shook his head, "Crow is a specialist in Vampire extermination. They don't use him for anything else. He's still working out of the mid-west, we don't have a lot of contact with him."

Buffy nodded, "Good."

"Anyway, there are other groups out there," Xander said, frowning as he leaned on the wall of the gym, "But we don't know a lot about most of them... Very few seem to like networked computers, and our humint just isn't up to the task of getting any reliable intel at the moment."


"Human Intelligence." Xander said, shrugging with a smile, "Spies, Buffy, Spies."


"Yeah, the problem is we don't have any." Xander chuckled, "So we have to rely on Merlin and our hackers. Groups like the watchers, though, don't use computers much. And they don't network them if they do use them, so we're in the dark."

"Is it that important?" Buffy asked, holding her hands up in a shrug, "We got by ok without knowing before."

Xander sighed, looking around, "Things are different now, Buff."

He nodded to the door and they started to walk together, down the long corridors.

"When the Knighthood moves into a problem area, we don't do it with a few kids and a Slayer. We move in a strike team with heavy weapons and support... A misunderstanding with an organization like the Vatican could get a lot of good people killed. We've got to try to get into contact with them, all of the groups, and at least open up some communication."

Buffy again wondered why he was telling her all this, but it seemed important to Xander to talk about it so she just nodded as they walked. "Are things that bad?"

"No... No," He shook his head, "We've survived some bad stuff, and I'm sure we'll see more to come but things are together right now..."

Xander frowned at the floor, "Glory's out of the picture, The Master... The Mayor is dead... Frankly it should be smooth sailing for a couple years by rights..."

Buffy snorted.

"Yeah," Xander nodded with a smile, "That's the thing... when has anything ever gone 'right' for us?"

She sighed, but had to smile sadly, "I don't know, Xan... some things did."

He nodded after a moment, looking over at her and stopping, "Yeah. Some things still do..."

She paused, glancing over at him, "Xander?"

"It's... good to have you home, Buffy," He said, reaching over and pulling her into a surprisingly powerful hug. "Don't ever think different. I'm so damned glad to have you home."

She swallowed, limply hugging him back.

Everything that had happened since she'd finally made it back, it all flooded her as she stood there in his embrace, and for the first time in a long time, Buffy felt tears run down her cheeks.

"Thank you." She whispered. "I... I've wanted... it's just not what I expected..."

"I wish I could give you what you lost," He told her, whispering in her ear. "I'm sorry."

Chapter 15

Cordelia looked around the room, feeling more than a little lost in it. It wasn't the opulence, though she had to admit that it was actually far and above even the Chase mansion. Different, for sure, but obviously intended for people who either were, or considered themselves, to be far above the station she'd been born into. Still, it wasn't that, it was the sense... of controlled power that reverberated through the air around her.

She could feel it coming from all sides, even though muted slightly, and it felt like she imagined a bulldozer would feel like... or any huge machine... Like it was going in a preset direction and, come hell of high water, it was damned well GOING there. Nothing would, or could, stand in it's way.

She sank into the bed, she assumed that the oval surface was a bed from the looks of it, and tried to relax. Her nerves were dancing from the intensity of the feeling, though, and she didn't know if she could.

"Miss Chase..."

Cordy shrieked, jumping up from the bed as the voice startled her, and she cast about quickly trying to find out who'd snuck up on her. It was the image of the old man, she found, floating some distance away.

"Don't DO that!"

"My Apologies, Miss Chase," The image bowed slightly, "I had no intention to startle, I was merely seeing if you required anything?"

"Quiet." She whispered.

The form seemed to smile sadly, "Alas, that type of quiet is rather difficult to procure, even here. I have set your rooms as far apart from the main populace as possible... that should keep the roar down to a minimum."

She swallowed, "This is a minimum? It feels like... the air is alive."

"Ah... yes, well, Avalon has had many years to soak up psychic energies. In many ways... it is."

"Excuse me?" Cordelia asked, looking around.

"People leave... a mark upon the world when the pass through it, Miss Chase." The figure, Merlin, said. "For most it's faded into the background energy of the universe... imperceptible to even the most sensitive. For some truly exceptional individuals, however, the mark is much more powerful. Avalon has seen many times many truly exceptional individuals. They have all left something of themselves here within these walls."

"Oh." Cordelia said quietly, trying to understand what he was saying. Honestly she think she got the gist of it, but there was that pressure in her skull... in her body... the distractions were crazy in some ways.

"For many with your abilities, the constant exposure will eventually result in your becoming adjusted to the feeling," Merlin went on, "Though the feeling will never go completely away."

"Oh lovely." Cordy replied morosely as she sat down again.

"The Commander brought you here for a reason, Miss Chase," Merlin said, noting that his audience was rapidly drifting away from him. "We do have some experienced people with mental abilities here. None precisely like your own, unfortunately, however there are some here who have experienced similar problems. Additionally we have one of the finest reference libraries on the planet, with a multitude of notes on Empaths."

Cordelia looked up, eyes focusing again, "You do? Wesley's books didn't have... much really."

Merlin smiled, "Would you care to access the archive database?"

She slowly nodded, eyes widening as the picture window across from the bed flickered to reveal a large interface screen with large script headings under the main category of 'Empaths'. "How do I...?"

"Voice interface will suffice, I will detach a segment of my core personality to ensure that you are able to navigate easily." Merlin said calmly.

"Thank you..." She whispered, focusing on the wall.

The door chime surprised Jenny as she examined the computer archival system, in as much as she could. She glanced up, "Who is it?"

She almost berated herself for that a moment later, though, thinking that the doors were far too solidly built to allow her voice to carry. A voice cut that thought off, however, a second later.

"Mr Giles."

"Let him in, and thank you, Merlin." Jenny said, watching the doors slid open.

Giles looked, almost frightened as he entered, much to her amusement. This was a far cry from the man who'd broke into her apartment to lay down an ultimatum just a few weeks earlier. He was wearing dress slacks and a very well tailored shirt as well as expensive oxfords, another stretch from the tan duster she'd seen him in normally.

She had to school the smile off her face, however, not wanting him to take her amusement as encouragement of any sort. "Yes? What is it?"

"Well... you see..." He stammered a little, then sighed, "I came to apologize."

Jenny raised an eyebrow, causing him to wince.

"Please understand, I'm not sorry for what I did... just that it was required. Xander and I discussed our options at length and we both felt that a clean start would be best. Sidestepping the weeks and months of hiding things from each other would give us the best chance of reaching a working relationship in a reasonable amount of time." He told her, shrugging, "At anyrate, the decision was made and I did what had to be done... however much I wish we could have encountered one another in a less confrontational manner."

Jenny stared pointedly at him, cocking her head to one side, "A little long winded there, English. You ever think of just trying 'Im sorry'?"

He smiled wryly, "I'm sorry then. And here,"

She frowned, puzzled as he offered her an object she didn't recognize. She took it gingerly, eyeing it carefully, "What is it?"

"A Sian Quai," Giles answered, "A little piece of technology powered by magic that is capable of detecting magical fields at an impressive distance. A peace offering of sorts."

"I... thank you," Jenny whispered, studying it intently. "I've never heard of anything like that..."

Giles nodded, "Well it's Atlantean technology and quite rare in the modern world. We have a limited number here, but Xander and the others permitted me to liberate this one for you. Now, I must warn you, do not trust it to detect vampires and demons while on the Hellmouth... The energy given off by the portal is very similar to the energy given by many demons and vampires, and is powerful enough to mask their signatures."

Jenny nodded, "And off the Hellmouth?"

"It works quite well for most supernatural signatures. There are some situations that can make it unreliable, but all of that is detailed in the library here," Giles nodded to the computer interface, "And I see you've already located the infernal contraptions they've developed to replace real honest books."

Jenny couldn't help it, she giggled at the honest distaste in his tone.

Joyce looked up as the door chimed and Buffy automatically called out for whoever it was to enter. The door slid open, revealing Xander and the older version of her daughter. They paused on the outside, nodding, then stepped in.

"Joyce," Xander smiled, gesturing the elder Buffy to a couch. "How are you settling in?"

"Well." She said curtly, heart starting to beat more rapidly.

"I wanted you to see Avalon... to understand how much bigger this is than you can imagine right now," He told her, hesitating, "To see some of the good people already involved before you learn too much about the bad."

"With all this, why do you need my daughters?" Joyce demanded curtly.


"No," Xander held up a hand, "It's a fair question.... Please, Buffy, I'll answer it."

Joyce watched as her younger daughter frowned and pouted, but sat back down.

"There's a couple answers to that question..." He said slowly, "Both are the same in a way. Buffy... both of them.. Are Slayers. They're stronger than you can imagine, faster... they heal like you wouldn't believe... frankly, Slayers are the ultimate hand to hand fighters."

Joyce started to growl, but Xander cut her off with a wave of his hand, "But truthfully, we have people quite capable of taking the place of Slayers. They're not as good at it... they tend to die even easier, they get hurt in ways they don't heal from... but they do the job, and they do it *proudly*. More to the point isn't that we need the Slayers, it's that Slayers need people to watch their backs. There are monsters out there, Joyce, that would dearly LOVE a chance to put a notch in their belts over a Slayer's dead body."

Joyce paled, wilting slightly, but he forged on.

"They don't care if Buffy is with us or alone, they don't care if she's fighting or not. They just want the bragging rights." He told her bluntly. "And to get that notch, they'll use you... Dawn... and anyone else they think they can get to in order to get an advantage over Buffy. We don't need the Slayer... but we very much WANT Buffy Summers to take a place with us... both of them. In return, we'll be there when things come calling. Joyce, do you really want her to face those things alone?"

Joyce looked away, then glared back, "You haven't proven to me that any of those things exist."

"Only cause they chose not to yet, mom." Dawn said from off to one side, "Xan wanted to show you his side before you see the others."

Joyce spared a glare for her youngest, but to her surprise Dawn just brushed it off. "Oh please, I've been threatened by mages trying to kill me Mom, being grounded isn't real scary."

"Speaking of which," Xander growled, "We still need to talk about your dabbling in magic, young lady..."

"Oh sure, you let Willow do it! You're even getting her a teacher!"

"Willow is a good deal older than..."

Dawn scoffed, "Puh-Lease! Older than I look, remember?"

Xander looked stymied for a moment, then sighed, "Alright. Point. Still, you didn't come ask for a teacher. You and Jacks started digging around on your own..."

"Cause you'd have said no!"

"With good reason!" He snapped back, leaving Joyce in a whirl as she tried to follow the conversation. The only thing she really got was that Xander was apparently angry with Dawn over her trying to do something he considered dangerous.

And if HE considered it dangerous, Joyce found herself quite reluctantly siding with him on the matter. Still, what she needed was to figure out exactly what they were talking about. She couldn't make any kind of decision without know what the hell was going on.

"What are you talking about??" She finally growled, gaining their attentions.

For a moment both sides looked a little lost, then finally Xander sighed.

"Dawn apparently ran into some trouble on our cruise this summer," He said, glaring at the young girl. "Without informing me, she Jacks, and Faith went clubbing in Panama..."

Joyce glared suddenly at Dawn, "Young Lady... You just WAIT until we..."

"Joyce," Xander cut her off, still looking at Dawn. "Later. For now, what's important, is that Dawn apparently discovered that she has a talent for magic. Something I've been aware of for some time..."

"You WHAT!?" Dawn shrieked, "And you didn't tell me!?"

Xander snorted, "You've seen what happens to people who mess around with Magic, Dawn. I figured you'd have plenty of time to worry about it when you got older and could make an informed choice."

"What happens?"

"What?" Xander asked, looking over at Joyce.

"What happens to people who 'mess' around with magic??"

Chapter 16

Xander sighed, considering what to answer. Finally, after a long silence he shrugged, "Magic has a way of burning people out if they're not careful. It can damage the mind through abuse, making them do and think things that they would never had done while healthy. Additionally, while it erodes their mind, it actually increases the level of power they bring into the world, and that amplifies mistakes beyond the personal level. If you consider drugs, which can have some of the same effects on the mind as magic, they actually reduce a persons ability to have an effect on others. Magic abuse leads to very large mistakes, with very serious and far reaching consequences..."

Xander paused, looking over at Dawn grimly, "Which Dawn damned well KNOWS."

Joyce was just slightly amused to see her youngest daughter wilt slightly under that admonishment, then frowned again, "So you're saying it's like drug use?"

"Well no," Xander said reluctantly as Dawn's eyes widened in a panic. He considered leaving Joyce with that thought, but that would do no service to her. "It's a discipline that, if abused, can cause a lot of harm. Properly handled, even the most dangerous magicks can be harnessed and used quite constructively. My main concern is that Dawn chose to hide this from me, and that she has taken on Jacks as a trainer..."

"Little Jacks..." Joyce looked pained, trying to reconcile the two images she now had of the little girl.

"Little Jacks is Fey, which means she IS magic in a very real way," Xander said, "However her personality might not be the best mix with Dawn's for a good student/teacher relationship. Frankly, the very idea boggles the mind and terrifies me."

"You let her teach Tara!" Dawn objected.

"Tara NEEDS someone with Jacks' attitude just to get her moving in the morning," Xander snapped back, "You and Jacks are like mixing Nitro and Glycerin. Fun to watch, maybe, but not while I'm on the same planet thank you very much."

Dawn huffed, instantly slouching as she pouted in response.

"Why do you think I got Willow and Jenny together? Jacks teaching Willow may as well be INVITING trouble."

"So can I learn from Jenny?" Dawn asked, attempting to sound as innocent as possible.

Xander slumped holding his temples. "Oy. I'm getting a migraine."

"You listen here, young lady..." Joyce started, only to be stopped by Xander.

"Careful Joyce," He said wearily. "Not that I agree with Dawn, but I think we need to remember the number one rule of command at this point."

"Which is??" Joyce snapped, turning her ire on Xander again.

"Never give an order you know won't be obeyed." Dawn spoke up, smirking altogether too smug.

Xander sighed, "Oh sure... for THAT stuff you pay attention. It's simple Joyce, giving an order you know won't be obeyed is just bad for discipline. So, instead, what we have to do is build a very strict framework by which she can choose to learn magic... and make is as unpleasant as possible within those limits."

Dawn's eyes widened, "Now wait a second..."

"Magic is a discipline," Xander said, cutting her off. "And if you don't have any discipline, then we'll know that you can't handle magic. I'm willing to tolerate your exploration of that side of your self, Dawn... but only if you prove that you won't let it eat you up inside. Break my rules, and I'll have your powers bound. Second rule of Command."

Joyce looked confused, lost even, but Dawn mumbled softly in response.

"When you do give an order... make it stick."

"Well at least you can learn," Xander replied with a half smirk. "Of course, my first rule for you is to obey your mother's rules. Any more of this self destructive crap you've had going on, and we're back to a binding ceremony. Understood?"

Dawn swallowed, but nodded. "Yes."

"What are you talking about?" Joyce cut in.

"There are rituals and spells that can bind her magical ability," Xander said, not looking away from Dawn for a moment. Then he slowly turned to Joyce, "They aren't to be entered into lightly, however... Dawn... wouldn't be Dawn without everything that makes her who she is. But if the option is binding her ability, or losing her completely... we won't have a choice."

Joyce stared, her voice drying up in her throat as she tried to tell him to bind Dawn's supposed abilities immediately. Something about what he'd said, though, stopped her from making the demand.

Xander could see the confusion on her face and nodded, standing up, "Joyce... why don't we go for a walk. I want to talk to you away from your daughters..."

Joyce Summers set her face, hardening it as she nodded and rose to her feet. "I think that would be best."

Xander stepped to the door, then glanced back at the two Buffy's and Dawn. "Why don't you three get caught up... I think you'll find some of the things you've shared, and not shared, to be interesting."

Then he stepped out into the hallway, Joyce following.

"Oh MAN this place is awesome!"

Willow nodded, staring at the system as it handled her most complicated jobs almost instantly. "Yeah."

"They've got everything!"


"I didn't even know this one was out yet!"

Willow frowned, looking up in confusion, "What are you talking about?"

Jessie turned around, looking back at her, "The movie selection. What are you talking about??"

She stared at him, "Movies!? Jessie, they have technology here that's not supposed to EXIST!! And you're watching movies!?"

"But... but... Daredevil!"


"Actually, I have to side with Jessie on this one," Jonathan said quietly, looking over at them.

"Jon!?" Willow yelped, sounding betrayed.

"See??" Jessie grinned.

"But... It's a movie!"

"Willow," Jonathan said quietly, "Read the info."

She stared at the screen, then squinted slightly, "Daredevil... yadda yadda yadda... Ben Affleck... blah blah blah... Directors Cut... uh huh... Copyright 2003..."

She paused, frowning, "Hey wait a second..."

"It's not the only one either," Jon said after a while, "There's a ton of stuff here dated several years ahead of us."

"Whoa... I totally missed that." Jessie mumbled.

"Avalon's archives are temporally protected."

Jessie screamed, jumping over the furniture as the image solidified behind him. "Yah!"

Merlin peered over the edge at the boy, who was holding his chest, "I seem to be having that effect on people lately."

"Don't DO that!" Jessie demanded from the floor.

Merlin merely shrugged and turned back to Willow, "I habitually record all broadcasts and store them in the full archive. During temporal events, those archives are protected."

"So... You know the future?"

"I know... aspects of the future." Merlin corrected Willow's curious statement. "Time is quite fluid, in a manner of speaking. All points in time diverged from a commonality, and eventually they will all meet once again, however on a human scale things are much less... fixed."

"I don't follow." Jessie said from the ground where he hadn't bothered to get up. "Is he saying that time can be changed, or can't be changed?"

"Both, actually." Merlin replied, "Destiny is fixed and unmutable. That is a fact of the universe that nothing can ever change... however, on a human scale the events that eventually add up to destiny can vary quite widely. In the long term, however, they all are balanced out to create a single... perfect... equation."

"Oh man... I'm getting a migraine." Jessie groaned, pulling himself up into the chair.

"The Commander often expresses similar sentiments." Merlin shrugged, "That doesn't change the facts of existence, however."

"Dude..." Jessie said blankly, "Did you just compare me to *Xander*??"

"That's one reason why we need you," Giles said, turning to look at Jenny. "We have... *children* who we feel are likely to become more and more involved as they grow... and we don't wish to impose our choices on them... but we can't let them make a choice without understanding it. You're a teacher, and a witch... those are abilities that cross into two spheres that we find very useful."

Giles smiled slightly as Jenny frowned, "Ironically, we need the teacher more than we need the witch."

That comment brought a sort of an ironic tilt to her own lips, jenny knew. Most groups like this would be clamoring for more power, more magic, more weapons. There was something... refreshing about someone looking to her education as a teacher and considering it to be more important than her powers as a witch.

"So you want me to teach Willow."

Giles nodded, "And others, perhaps. But Willow to start... with her power, and lack of personal boundaries, she's something of a quandary for us."

"I can see why." Jenny said dryly, "Just a few minutes with her and that much is obvious."

"Yes... it is, isn't it?" Giles looked concerned, puzzled, and maybe just a touch guilty. "I can't tell..."

"Tell what?"

"If that's how she always was... or if we're seeing it because we're looking for it..." Giles said slowly, then sighed.

Jenny shrugged, not understanding the problem either way. "So. Willow and maybe others?"

Giles nodded, "Yes. I understand from Xander that Dawn has begun dabbling in things best left alone, and while Tara is learning from Jacks, I believe that she might benefit from some additional training as well."

"You don't trust this Jacks person?"

Giles looked surprised, "Hardly that. Jacqueline is emminently trustworthy in my estimation, however she has her own... unique views and limitations. Not all of her abilities are such that a normal witch might learn."

Okay. Jenny chalked that one up as another mystery to solve, and tried to figure out what they REALLY wanted out of her.

Chapter 17

They walked in silence through the halls, Joyce following as Xander walked her down into the depths of the facility. She barely reacted to the transporter this time, which told Xander that the woman was riding on the razors edge and he'd have to tread lightly for a while. He stopped them at one of the caverns that looked out into the depths of the water filled area. Beyond them the water glowed in patches with bioluminescence, and they could see things swimming just out past the edge of the light.

"I think what I regret most, for myself anyway, is the lost relationships." Xander said after a moment, finally breaking the silence.

Joyce didn't answer him, she just looked out into the water.

"We, you and I, were friends before, you know." Xander said, "More than just the acquaintances we are now anyway."

He smiled, "We'd get together before patrol at your place, sometimes ordering pizza... sometimes you'd cook a huge supper... it'd be a kind of a party. It was at the point before my road trip that your home was more comfortable to me than my own."

"It was after the road trip that things changed for me," Xander went on when Joyce didn't speak. "Changed for us all I guess, but that was when I started taking my first steps down this road."

There was another long silence before Joyce finally spoke.

"What do you want from me?"

Xander winced, recognizing the cold, even hostile tone. It honestly hurt to have it aimed at him that way, but it was better than if it were aimed at any of her daughters. He sighed, shaking his head as he tried to formulate the response.

"Joyce, it's not what I want from you... It's what I want to do for you."

"That isn't how I see it."

"I know." Xander answered, nodding, "Believe me, I know. I may not look it, but I'm not a kid underneath. I suppose I haven't been for a long time, but I know what it's like to be responsible for people. I even know what it's like to lose the control that allows me to uphold my responsibilities. It's a kind of hell."

"Yes," Joyce said, turning on him, "It is."

"Joyce..." Xander said, again addressing her as an equal, not as a child to an adult, "I'm trying to give you a measure of that control back. With my help, the help of my people, you CAN protect your daughters..."

"As long as they FIGHT for you!" Joyce screamed, her voice echoing through the halls. "As long as they wage this damned war of yours!"

"Not my war." Xander bit out coldly. "Theirs. Yours. Ours. Not *mine*."

"So you say. Yet you still want them to fight."

Xander shook his head, "You haven't heard a word I've said..."

Joyce started to speak, but he held up a hand to silence her.

"It's alright." He said softly, "I understand. You can't quite believe any of it yet... and you can't even come close to imagining the hell of letting your daughter go out every night and fight for her life. I don't begrudge you that feeling, Joyce."

He took a breath, looking away, "I and my people will be there for them whether they fight or not. That's not even a question. They're my family. They're heros. We will not break our faith with them."

He looked over to her again, "But do you really think you can stop Buffy... either one, from doing everything they can to save people's lives? You raised them better than that. And Dawn... because of who and what she is, she has multiple targets painted on her. Her magical potential is tied up in her heritage, and it's a powerful... powerful heritage."

"As much as I hate to say it," He sighed, "without training, she's nothing but a walking power source to some serious scumbags. I'm laying the hardline with her, Joyce, but understand... Dawn won't live a week without our protection if we bind her abilities. If it comes to that, she'll have to move here to Avalon for the rest of her life."

Joyce' heart skipped, her chest tightening painfully as she stared at him in horror. He meant it, she realized, he really meant it. Whether it was a threat, or fact, he really meant every word he'd just said.

"Don't worry," Xander said softly, "We're a long way from that. In Sunnydale, she's obscured from sight. The fact that she's human also helps hide her... gives us time. But only that... She either learns to fight in order to defend herself, or she'll be killed by people wanting to use her for their own ends."

"Like you." Joyce spat bitterly.

"No, Joyce." Xander shook his head, "I'd slit my own wrists before hers... and I'd lay waste to anyone who tried. But I'm only human, for whatever that means, and I can't protect her forever. There have already been a half dozen attempts on her life, eventually one of us won't be there to stop it. What then?"

Her world reeled and Joyce put out a hand to brace herself on the wall. It wasn't possible, damn it! Her daughters were just little girls, not pawns in some insane game played by psychotic megalomaniacs. They were supposed to be worrying about boys and being popular, not dodging monsters by the moonlight.

"It's alright," Xander put a hand on her shoulder to steady her. "Believe it or not, it's alright. You don't have to decide anything now, or even this weekend... or week, or month. We have Sunnydale as secure as it's going to get, so you have time to breath... think... we'll lay it all out for you, prove everything we're saying... then you and your daughters can talk."

"Alright..." Joyce said bitterly, head down, "How can you say that? How can you POSSIBLY say THAT??"

Xander sighed, smiling ironically, "Because I've lived in this world for so long it's normal to me now."

Joyce swallowed, hearing the tired fatalistic tone in the undercurrents of his voice.

"Sad isn't it?"

Jenny took a breath as she stopped outside the room Merlin had guided her too. Inside were the children she taught, and more specifically the one she was going to take on as an apprentice.

There was a word she hadn't expected to ever use.


Jenny knew herself to be a witch of middling capabilities, nothing more. Her own power source was small, but she was fairly efficient in wielding it, which elevated her effect out of proportion to the actual power she used. Still, most practicing magic users were a great deal more powerful, so inefficient or not they were several levels above her.


This one was worrying, and Jenny was already trying to plan a way to steer the young girl through the dangers of magic. She had power to spare, that was obvious, and an intelligence such that few spells would be beyond her reach. If she wanted, Jenny felt it was likely that Willow would be able to master multiple schools... and that was frightening, because if she tried that there was a very high risk of conflicting magicks driving the girl insane.

Intelligence and curiosity were only useful in learning magic, afterall. For control, one needed wisdom.

Jenny passed her hand over the door chime, steeling herself. Wisdom was what she was here to provide.

The door slid open a second later as the children within turned to look at her, and Jenny forced a smile for them.

"Jessie, Jonathan," She nodded to each, then turned to who she was here for, "Willow."

The redhead swallowed, mumbling a hello as the two boys waved. Jenny ignored the unsubtle stares from Jessie, well used to them already, and walked over to Willow.

"Did they tell you?" She asked pointedly.

Willow nodded, but looked confused, "A... about magic? Y... yes."

"Good." Jenny said simply. "It won't be easy, and it won't be fast. Learning magic quickly is a good way to wind up dead."

"I understand," Willow said earnestly, "I'll listen, I promise... whatever you say..."

"Good," Jenny said again, this time softer. "This is... against my better judgement, but having your friends owe me a favor outweighs that. Maybe, if you do well and listen to what I have to say, I won't regret this. Maybe, but I doubt it."

Willow winced, and Jenny almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

"I promise!" She said, almost desperately, "I really promise Miss Calender, I just want to learn!"

Jenny ignored a disgusted sounding snort from the direction of the boys. Jessie, she presumed. It didn't matter, what mattered was setting the tone with Willow. "I know you do, but that's the scariest place to start learning magic from. Trust me, I know."

Willow looked confused, but Jenny didn't feel like explaining herself just then. The time would come for that, but it was here. It wasn't now.

"I just wanted to make a few things clear, Willow," Jenny said, "to try to get it across to you how very important it is that you take this seriously."

"I will! I promise."

Jenny nodded, "I'll take you at your word. For now."

Willow nodded, breathing out deeply.

"And I'll have your word that you will not try to learn *anything*about magic without informing me," Jenny said sharply. "And if I tell you no, then it's no."


"Anything. You don't learn magic through self schooling," Jenny admonished, "Not at your level. Later, when you've begun to come into your own, then we'll talk. But until I give the word, you don't so much as glance through a magic text. This isn't a negotiation."

Willow winced, thinking about the fascinating books she'd already snuck out of the library, and grudgingly nodded. "Alright."

"When we get back to Sunnydale, we'll go to your place and you'll have over all the books you have now," Jenny said knowingly.

Willow winced visibly again, then nodded.

"Busted!" Jessy crowed from across the room.

"And if you're real good," Jenny raised her voice, "Maybe we'll practice alteration magic on Jessie."

"What!? Wait a minute!"

Xander took a deep breath as he left Joyce to rejoin her daughters in their room and steeled himself for his next big task.

Merlin had informed him that Cordelia was even now reading up on empaths and the various little details that went with such, and he was torn between praying that she didn't find certain passages on her own... and praying that she did.

Psionics were dangerous for an uncontrolled talent, and the few methods of controlling them were almost as bad. The problem was, Cordelia wasn't getting better on her own, at least not at an appreciable rate, and he couldn't follow her to school every day to shield her.

Which meant that it was time to try something new.

This wasn't going to be fun.

Chapter 18

Buffy eyed the dark haired version of herself from across the room, not really trusting the doppelganger and not bothering to hide it. The brunette sighed, rolling her eyes, and turned to Dawn.

"How have things been running, you know, since..." She shrugged.

Dawn shrugged in return, "Not so bad I guess. People try to kill me, eat me, bleed me... you know, the regular."

"So what's the deal with the new look?"

Dawn glanced down at the black silk she was wearing, her fingers flipping her died hair locks casually. "Just felt... dark lately."

"The blue hair tips are kinda cool," Buffy offered.

"I like them." Dawn shrugged, "Mom threw a fit."

"You dyed the bathroom blue!" the younger Buffy cut in, "What did you expect?"

"Well SOR-RY," Dawn rolled her eyes, "I'm not as practiced with hair dye as you are."

The older Buffy chuckled softly as her younger self sputtered.

"Oh relax," She said, amused, "Remember the mess we made the first time we bleached out hair to match the 'professional' cheerleaders we saw at that Laker game?"

Buffy blushed, wincing at the memory of her mother's screaming, and her father's subsequent roaring laughter.

"Still, I don't know if I like the Goth look, Dawn," the older Buffy said, frowning slightly. "You sure you want to go there?"

"It fits me." Dawn replied.

Buffy sighed, shaking her head, "Things have changed, haven't they?"

"They always do, even for us, Buffy." Dawn said in a quiet voice. "You should know that."

Buffy nodded, "Yeah. I do."

Buffy Summers, the younger, looked between her two 'siblings' and wondered at the subtext that was flowing between them. She may be blond, but she wasn't stupid and could easily read between the lines. Enough to tell that there was something TO read, at least.

"You two really do know each other," She said, with a hint of wonder.

Dawn clapped, "Bravo. Did you just figure that out?"

Both Buffy's scowled openly at her, and the older one growled, "Watch it, pipsqueak. She IS me, you know. I don't have to put up with you putting us down..."

They both looked at her pointedly and she sighed and shrugged, "Well you know what I mean."

"Anyway," Dawn said after a moment, "What was it like where you were, Buff?"

"Well..." Buffy frowned, "It was like those fantasy movies, you know? Elves and dragons and stuff..."

"Sounds like here," the younger edition said dryly.

"Hush." Dawn growled, "I'm trying to listen here."

"Come in."

The doors slid open as Xander stepped through, and he immediately saw that Cordy was expecting him.

"I... felt you coming." She said.

He nodded, unsurprised, he hadn't been trying to mask his emotions, which may have been a mistake. He quickly threw up the blocks, holding everything back from her as he approached.

"Thanks." She said, then frowned, "Are... you ok?"

"I will be." He said, nodding to the screen, "Have you found what you're looking for?"

Cordelia looked back at the screen and her face tightened, "This is what you wanted to show me?"

Xander read the screen, then winced, but reluctantly nodded. "It's one potential option. Not a good one, I might add, but an option."

She snorted, "Aren't you supposed to be trying to talk me into this?"

"Not my kink, actually," Xander said dryly, taking a deep breath. "Look, Cor... don't..."

"Don't what? Turn into a mega slut in order to escape my life?" She asked bitterly, "It honestly hadn't occurred to me until just now."

Xander grimaced again, wondering how it was that his life always brought him to the weirdest places. Having a discussion with Cordelia about the therapeutic values of sex had to be one of the weirdest though.

"The... umm... afterglow," Xander said as delicately as he could, "Tends to be a calm time in which abilities like empathy are *briefly*lowered. In untrained people, at least."

"Untrained in what?" Cordelia asked sarcastically.

"Well, sex actually." Xander replied.

Cordelia stared at him blankly.

"Cordelia, sex is a very powerful component in certain magical forms, and when combined with a disciplined practitioner of Tantra and a psionic like yourself... it's a very potent lever which can actually enhance your abilities." Xander said seriously, "To someone who isn't trained, all the energy released tends to broadcast out on a wide spray... most of it wasted. Which, is what you want at the moment."

"Great. So let me guess," Cordelia asked sarcastically, "You want to volunteer?"

"Ah I don't think that would be a good idea," Xander said quickly, "Under normal circumstances, in fact, I'll go so far as to say that there's no chance of it happening."

She snorted, "Normal?"

"Like now," He clarified. "Look, Cor... I didn't give you this info as a come on. Frankly, I wasn't sure I wanted to give it to you at all. Sexual addiction is kinda nasty itself, and I'm not convinced you need to resort to this just yet... but, you've got school to deal with and you haven't been."

She sat down, looking away, "I... Xander, I'm..."

"What?" He asked, concerned.

"I'm a virgin." She whispered.

"What?" Xander asked, practically floored.

"You heard me!" She snapped, "I... Don't know... I mean..."

"Hoo boy," Xander turned away, "This conversation is turning into really scary territory..."

"Oh sure, tell me to go act like a slut but get embarrassed when I tell you I'm not one!"

"Hey!" He snapped, turning back on her, "I never called you a slut, damn it. This isn't about pleasure, and it's sure as hell not recreation alright? It's, literally, a medical option. Nothing more."

She snorted, "I thought it was guys who were going to die if they didn't get some."

Xander groaned, slumping into a chair, "This conversation is about par for the course for me today. Oy. Look, Cor... You don't need to have sex... just..."

He trailed off, looking for a word that wouldn't make things somehow worse, but obviously couldn't find one.

She waited for a long moment until it was obvious that he wasn't going to find it, then rolled her eyes, "Play with myself?"

"Uh, yeah." He said, slumping his head into his chest so as not to look at her.

"Gee, thanks for the advice."

"Well do you think this is easy for me??" Xander demanded, "God, I'd rather be out fighting demons right now than in here talking to you!"

"Way to make a girl feel appreciated."

"You damn well know what I mean," He growled, "And don't try to turn this around on me! You're smarter than that, and I know it so cut it out."

She just rolled her eyes and turned away from him in a bit of a huff.

"I wish we had a Tantric specialist," Xander sighed, "At least then you might get some real long term benefit."

"I haven't got that far," She said quietly, not looking back. "What's that?"

"Basically? Sex Magic." Xander sighed, "But it's a bit more complicated... Tantra is... more than just magic. Someone who specializes in that sort of thing could help center you..."

"Before or after they 'do' me?" She asked acerbically.

"Well, during actually." Xander replied bluntly.

"Like hell." She growled, "You can forget about that, it's SO not happening."

"Just as well, like I said... we don't have one." Xander told her. "Look, Cor... it's an option. Nothing more... I'm not trying to get you into bed, and neither is anyone else. To be quite frank, my love life is screwed up enough right now with Paige and Faith both taking shots at me and each other..."

"I so don't need to hear about your love life," Cordelia cut him off with a hand, "The fact that it's better than mine right now is just depressing."

"Cor, my love life was always better than yours," Xander smirked, "I *had* one."


Faith sighed as she slumped over a rail, looking down at the flight decks and the action on them.

"This blows."

"I... I thought you liked Avalon..." Tara offered from behind her.

"X is all serious and shit, Both B's are all caught up in their own shit... hell, even Queen C locked herself in her room. I should stayed at the theater."

Tara smiled, "I t-tried to get you to."

Faith rolled her eyes, "No offence, T, but I wanted to see the fireworks."

Tara shrugged, stepping up beside her and leaning over the rail as well. "You think they'll be ok?"

"Oh sure, X will get everyone settled out. It's what he does, Y'know?" Faith shrugged, then brightened up. "Oh shit, B is really back... this is gonna get fun."

Tara looked over, curious, "What's she like?"

"B? She's... well she's like little B," Faith shrugged, "Just... more so."

Tara looked puzzled, so Faith went on, "Little B is kinda flat, if you ask me. She ain't got the same spirit B got... I think maybe it's cause she's had X backing her up with his own private army. I dunno, maybe it's for the better, but she ain't near as much fun. B was kinda wild when she let herself go, and she was as much fun when she was against ya as when you were on the same side, y'know?"

Tara shook her head.

"Ah fuck it," Faith shrugged, "I don't really know what I'm talking about. I just figure it's gonna get interesting now that B is back. Real interesting."

Chapter 19

Xander sighed, trying to leave the mental scars of the conversation back in the room with Cordy, yet failing miserably. <I should have just sent Faith to do the talk with her.>

THAT thought amused him greatly, and Xander mentally noted that as a possible source of amusement at some point in the future. Of course, Faith would probably get too into it and God alone knew where that might end up. No, on second thought, best forget about that option.

He made his way to the command level, frowning in surprise when he saw Tara and Faith loitering about outside.


"Damn straight." Faith muttered, "This sucks."

"It's not about you, Faith. Go train with the Cadre or something," Xander chuckled, "I'm sure you can find a few of them willing to go a few rounds."

"Eh, maybe later. I'm more interested in seeing if Mamma B kicks your ass or not."

Xander rolled his eyes, "I'm roaring inside, Faith. Just roaring."

She smirked, but shrugged, "So, seriously, how's it going?"

"Not great, but probably as well as could be expected." Xander answered honestly. "I figure I'll give them time to talk, then maybe a little orientation tour of Avalon."

"That should be fun. You gonna show em the kill rooms first, or the battle records?" Faith asked dryly.

"I was thinking of the fabricator plants, the atrium, and maybe the gym facilities." Xander told her dryly.

Faith snorted, "Gonna bore the hell out of B, you know that right?"

"She'll live." Xander said with a smile as he moved past the two and stepped to the access way of the Command Center.

"Commander on Station!"

"As you were," Xander said as he walked in, nodding to the General. "Status?"

"Nominal, worldwide," Grey said, "We're monitoring a... developing situation in The District of Columbia, however."

Xander raised an eyebrow, "oh?"

"There has been an aberration in Center operations in the area," Merlin answered for Grey, "We are attempting to reconcile the data."

"What kind of aberration?" Xander asked sharply, stepping over to get a view of the main screens.

"One of their known safe houses has been activated, however there was no mention of the mission on their internal communications."

"A Center black op?" Xander frowned, "That's ominous."

"Indeed, given that they are unafraid to communicate even some of their most distasteful orders," Merlin replied, "I am at a loss to anticipate their actions."

"Great." Xander sighed, "Alright, can we get surveillance on them?"

"Negative. Our only contact in the area is the former President, and he isn't the type we would want to ask for a mission of this nature."

"Damned right." Grey rumbled, "Whitmore is a national treasure as far as I'm concerned. Those animals don't get near him."

Xander nodded, "Agreed. Watch intercepts, merlin, see if you can figure out what they're up to. I'll be with my... family in the meantime."

"I understand, Commander. I will keep you apprized."

"Thank you."

With that Xander left the control center, heading back out the way he came. As he passed by Faith and Tara he paused.


"Yeah, X?"

"Something's going down in Washington, has to do with the Center. Get Merlin to brief you on it, and stay on top of it. Alright?"

Faith stared for a moment, then nodded jerkily. "Uh... Yeah, Sure."


Buffy looked up when we mother reentered the room, a feeling of pain lurking down in her guts. Joyce's gaze lingered on her only for a moment before moving over to the two younger girls and resting there.

<On her *real* daughters*.> Buffy thought, the pain twisting her.

Joyce didn't say anything though, just stared for a long time.

"Mom?" the younger Buffy asked hesitantly. "Are you ok?"

Joyce shook her head, "No. I don't think I'll ever be ok again."

Ok, that scared her bad. Buffy had never heard her mother say anything like that before. She hesitated, then moved forward, "Mom... It's not that bad... I..."

"What do you know!?" Joyce snapped, turning on her and startling Buffy back.


"I don't know you! I'm not your mother! I have enough to deal with already, I can't.... I can't deal with this..." Joyce trembled, anger or frustration, Buffy couldn't tell.

"Hey! Cut her some slack, mom!" Dawn snapped, her face angry. "I don't care what you think, she's my Sister and..."

"Dawn." Buffy said quietly, shaking her head. "Don't. It's ok."

"But she shouldn't talk to you like..."

Buffy stood up, smiling sadly, "Hey... I'm tough, Dawnie. I can take it."

She turned and walked to the door, glancing back at her mother as a glint of hard anger showed in her eyes. "Besides... Some of us have to be adults about this."

The door hissed open and she walked through, leaving a white faced Joyce staring after her as Dawn smiled a little vindictively. At least her big sister was still fighting, that meant things weren't too bad yet.

Xander ran into Buffy as she slumped against a wall, sobbing slightly.

"Buff... what...?"

"Oh, Xander.." She wiped her eyes, "I'm ok... it's just..."

"What happened?" He asked grimly.

"It's just Mom," Buffy shook her head as he helped straighten her up.

Xander's eyes blazed as he looked back down the hall, "What did she say, I'll..."

"Xander! NO..." Buffy said quickly and firmly, "I'm ok. Mom's just... being Mom. She doesn't really handle all this the best, you know that."

Xander growled, but nodded, "Alright, fine. But she better not keep this up much longer, or I'll drop the kid gloves. See how she likes a front row seat to what our lives are really like."

Buffy smiled softly, "I'm not sure she could survive that right now. It'll take time, Xander, you know that."

Xander nodded, "Yeah. I know... It's just..."

He hesitated, "I had this image of Joyce, you know? She's kind of been my image of the perfect mom..."

"No one's perfect, Xan." Buffy said, taking a deep breath, "and Mom will come around, eventually. I think that right now we just have to try and help her get it together when dealing with Dawn and the mini-me. They need it more than I do."

"You'll always have me, you know that, right?" Xander asked gently as they began to move down the hallway.

"I know, Xan... I know."

"Come on," He said after a moment, "Let's get you back to your room. You can get cleaned up and I'll show you around Avalon tonight while Joyce gets her act together."

Buffy nodded.

"I think I'd like that... thanks."

"Anything for you, Buff." Xander said sincerely. "Anything for you.

Washington, DC

"The targets are right on time, Sir."


Ames White stepped over to the window as he watched the armored sedan arrive, flanked by two Ford SUVs. He lifted a pair of binoculars to his eyes, counting the people as they emerged.

"Eight agents," He said after a moment, "Three primaries. Not a problem, tactically at least."

The men beside him nodded, knowing it was true.

"Do we have a go order yet?" Ames asked softly.

"Not yet, Sir. They're still debating the costs and benefits."

"No surprise," Ames replied, "This is high profile. If not for the impeachment, we wouldn't even consider this move."

"It would be a shame to lose his genetic traits. The man was an exceptional leader."

Ames nodded, knowing that was the key. There were other ways to culture the genetic line, but sometimes the old ways were still favorites. If nothing else they allowed for some degree of trial and error. Doctoring DNA was far from an exact science, and more often than not it failed to produce the desired results.

"Alright, we've got all night if need be. Settle in, we move when he get the go order." Ames said, focusing on the primary target as she walked up the path to the house.

Young Patricia Whitmore was prime material for the breeding program, he knew. The scion of an exceptional president, warrior breed even. She would provide years of utility to the society, strengthening several of the genetic lines already in place.

The young man smiled cooly, already working out in his mind how they would kill the Secret Service Agents protecting her. If it was done right, the whole mess could be used much as Kennedy's assassination had been earlier in the century. Granted, it wouldn't be quite as effective, given that Whitmore was no longer President, but it would drive yet another wedge of fear between elements of the population and the government.

A house divided was so easy to topple, after all.

When the time came, of course. When the time came.

Chapter 20

"You have one hell of an operation here, Xander." Buffy told him honestly as they moved through the halls. "I don't think I could ever have imagined anything like this..."

She suddenly smiled, "not even after seeing your space ship."

Xander chuckled, nodding up ahead, "If you liked that, you're gonna love this."

They came around a corner as she frowned at him in confusion, and then her eyes widened as they found themselves staring through a large window at a gleaming white form that seemed larger than it could possibly be.

"Oh my..." Buffy whispered.

"She's not ready to fly yet," Xander admitted, "But when she will be, she'll be the return of Atlantean... and Human, power in this section of the galaxy. The snakes will think twice about tangling with *her*."

Buffy looked at the long sweeping lines and shook her head, "It's beautiful."

Xander nodded.

"Have you named it?"

"No, not yet. We haven't even brought the Ship's Soul online yet, it's still in full stasis." Xander smiled softly, "Waiting to be born."

"Are... are those *people*?" Buffy frowned, suddenly leaning closer. "My god... how big is it?"

"Big. Very big." Xander smiled.

"You say it's not ready?"

"Not yet... a couple years before we can bring everything online, I'd guess. Maybe a bit quicker," Xander admitted, "It depends on how many top minds we can wrangle without the government getting on to us."

"Is that really a problem?"

"Yeah," Xander told her, "Since we got involved in the furball over a year ago both the government, and us, have been steadily increasing our operations."

"Furball?" Buffy raised an eyebrow, amused.

"The snakes, you remember the Go'auld?" Xander asked, then continued when she nodded, "They tried a pre-emptive attack on Earth after the time shift. It took everything we could scrape together, along with everything from the Americans, Chinese, Russians, and a few other countries to drive them back."

He sighed, "Since then we've been playing a game of cat and mouse with a half a dozen intelligence agencies, recruiting people under their noses while trying to ferret out any spies they try to sneak in."

"They do that?"

Xander nodded, "Oh yeah. Mostly it doesn't matter, because they can't find the island anyway and the CIA has fairly decent intel on what we have here. So mostly we just use them and dump them back on the mainland when they've done their jobs."

"Don't they tell the CIA about you?"

Xander smiled, "Actually, we don't usually have any CIA plants in here. If Jack really wants to know what we're up to, he just has to ask. We do get the occasional british agent, a couple russian FSB guys, those sorts."

"Wow, moving up in the world," Buff told him again.

Xander snorted slightly, "If you say so. It's a pain in the ass for recruiting, let me tell you. Every government on the planet wants what we're sitting on, but honestly some of it gives me nightmares when it's in MY hands. Until the governments stop all the in fighting, there's no way I'm handing over control of Avalon to any of them."

He paused for a moment, then shrugged, "Not like Merlin would let me if I tried anyway. Avalon is his, more than anyone's, at least the way I see it."

"Is he like..." Buffy frowned, "The one in England? Niume?"

Xander nodded, "Similar, yes. Merlin is... a force of nature, almost literally. He's sentient, though, and he's been here longer than we have. Far as I'm concerned, Avalon is his home and we're guests."

Buffy nodded, "I understand."

Faith frowned at the information she'd been given by Merlin and looked over the paltry list of assets in the area. There wasn't much, unfortunately. A few lawyers, working for the Knighthood or X himself in various capacities, but little enough else beyond that.

"Merlin," She spoke up softly, "Has their been anything new at the safe house?"

"No, Miss Tasker, not since the last time you asked."

She smiled wryly, accepting the subtle rebuke in a way she never would have just a year earlier. "Alright... Put me in touch with Dad."

Merlin paused there, then nodded, "Very well."

A moment passed, then a familiar voice sounded around Faith's seat.

"Tasker Residence."

"One moment, Mr Tasker. Go Scramble." Merlin said simply. "Scramble code, Faith."

There was another pause, then the voice came back, "Go scramble."

A click sounded, followed by a muted scratching sound, then Harry Tasker's voice was back, this time urgently asking, "Dana? Are you there?"

"I'm here, Daddy. I'm alright," Faith said up front, "I need a favor."

"Anything you want, Honey," Helen Tasker's voice came over the line.

"Don't say that too fast," Faith smirked, "It's business related."

"Details." Harry demanded, his tone shifting to a clipped, professional sound.

"We have a situation in DC, probably nothing huge," Faith said, "But I'm getting a weird feeling about it, and I think boytoy had the same, cause he asked me to keep an eye on it. A safehouse normally used by some sleazy pricks out of Delaware has been used, but we can't get a handle on who. I'd like you to do a driveby and just see if you can't get us a couple pictures of the people inside. Nothing more."

"Nothing more?" Harry chuckled dryly, "You do know that's illegal on so many levels because of who your mother and I are, right?"

"And you're doing it fifty times a day," Faith told him dryly, "I don't want them killed... yet... I just want this itch scratched."

After a long pause, Harry Tasker came back, "Alright. For you, Hon."

"Dana, we'll be coming up for a visit soon, ok?"

"Ok, Mom... thanks." Faith said, smiling softly.

"We'll get back to you a little while," Harry said, "Bye, Dana."

"Talk soon, Dad... Mom."

"Mom is really flipping out," Dawn whispered to her sister as they sat in the corner, watching their mother as she sat on the bed and just glared at the wall.

It wouldn't be so freaky if she were glaring at the picture wall, but it was one of the plain ones.

Buffy just nodded, not taking her eyes off her mother.

All she could think was how very bad this really was. Her mom was completely freaked out, and not getting any better. She'd yelled at Xander and the old her which, Buffy supposed, wasn't the worst thing, but it still kinda worried her.

Worse, Xander and the old Buffy had yelled back.

NO ONE yelled back at her Mom. Even Dad didn't yell at her, he knew better. The only time they'd fought like that, Dad had moved out the next morning and he'd never come back. Somehow, Buffy didn't think Xander was going anywhere.

For Joyce, the situation was impossible. She simply couldn't resolve it in anyway she could accept.

Her daughters HAD to be protected.

That was a fact, nothing more or less. Yet they were saying, with some evidence to back them up, that the only chance for *survival*either Dawn or Buffy had was in fact learning how to, and then *fighting* said dangers. On the surface, Joyce supposed, it looked simple. They had to do what they were doing, but it wasn't that easy for Joyce.

There had to be an answer that didn't involve either choice. Something that didn't involve dangers haunting them every night of their lives. A chance for peace, a normal life... some small measure of happiness.

There simply had to be.

So why couldn't she find it?

Washington DC

"Hey guys, how's it going?"

"Just drive, Gib."

"Sure sure," He grinning man said, smiling as Harry and Helen hopped in. "So uh... where are we going?"

Helen handed him an address over his shoulder as she pointed down the road. "I said drive."

"Right. Drive." Gib took off, pulling out onto the residential street. "So, uh... what's this all about?"

"Just a job, Gib." Harry said flatly as they turned down a street and headed across town.

"Just a job, he says... You know," Gib said, looking over at his partner, "I don't remember the requisition papers on this job... was I missing that morning or...?"

"It's a favor, Gib," Helen said, leaning forward again, "For DANA."

Gib's face locked up, his head turning around, "What do you mean, for Dana? Dana's missing, guys... I know it sucks, but sometimes you have to..."

"Dana's fine. She's living with friends," Helen said darkly, "Because there are people in our own government looking for her."

"And when I find who..." Harry growled, his hands tightening until he pulled armrest off the door.

Gib grimaced, "Right... ok, when did this happen? And why didn't you tell me?"

"We didn't tell anyone," Helen said, "Because we need to protect our little girl."

"Uh..." Gub frowned, "The same little girl who has us going out on a mission as a favor?"

Harry and Helen nodded.

"The mission that we don't have any legal paperwork to carry out?"

The duo nodded again.

Gib swallowed, glancing back, "Ok, just checking."

Harry and Helen Tasker grinned fiercely as the electronic surveillance van turned out into traffic, taking them closer to the people their little girl was interested in.

They both had an idea that, if Dana was interested then so was the young man with her. And if HE was interested, then they should damned well be too.

Chapter 21

The phone rang in the darkened room, and one of the men cursed quietly as the noise startled him. He looked around, embarrassed, and quickly answered it. As he was talking, Ames shook his head and repressed a boyish grin of amusement at the man's unfortunate reaction.

This was his first mission for the society, though, and he couldn't afford any boyish amusements. Not during the mission, and sure as hell not in front of the men. He was his father's son, and he would not betray the man's honor that way.

Still a teenager, Ames had proven himself every step of the way to full fledged member status in the Society. This mission was just one more stepping stone to him, but an important one. His thoughts veered back to the man on the phone when his tone became urgent and he looked up sharply before hanging up.

"What is it?"

"We have a go to take the daughter."

Ames nodded, "And the rest?"

"Kill them."

He nodded again, that was to be expected. The wife was of no genetic interest, and the others were too old to be pliable. Making any use of them would be more hassle than it was worth, though Ames supposed that the female agent was of hardy stock, if nothing else. Still, it made the mission a great deal cleaner. Simply killing the agents would be much simpler than trying to restrain them while making good an escape from the city.

"Alright, good." He said, "Cut their phone line and jam all wireless signals. We'll move out in five minutes."

"Hey Harry..."

"Yeah Gib?" Harry asked, glancing back to where Gib was working the computers.

Helen was driving the van as the slowly ghosted through the uptown neighborhood, leaving Harry free to ride shotgun... literally, and Gib to work the computers.

"Did you get something on the house, Gib?" Helen asked as well.

"Not on the house, but you guys are never going to believe who lives across the street..." Gib said, his voice suddenly tense.

"Who??" Helen looked back, the van starting to swerve as Harry grabbed the wheel.

"Now dear, eyes on the road." He smiled at her before looking back himself. "Who is it, Gib?"

"Thomas Whitmore."

"Former President Whitmore??" Helen demanded.

Gib nodded, "Yeah. Don't that just beat all."

"Pull over here, Helen," Harry said, pointing to the side of the road. "We can see both homes from here."

"Alright." She agreed, pulling over to the side and stopping the van.

Harry climbed into the back, taking a seat beside Gib, "Can we get surveillance of the house?"

"Yeah, and let me tell you, that's one freaky place on the paperwork," Gib said, "I'm still trying to track down ownership through one holding company shell after another."

"Surveillance?" Harry growled.

"Right... hang on," Gib said, hitting the windows with a laser mic. "We should be getting sound... now."

They listened, but nothing but shuffling sounds was heard.

"Gib??" Helen demanded.

"It's on! I swear, it's on!" Gib yelped, turning dials. "I don't know, maybe they're not speaking."

"I'd say that's a distinct possibility." Harry said grimly, looking out of the van.

"What? Oh shit." Gib paled, seeing men jogging across the street. "They're gonna hit the former President?"


"I don't know," Harry growled, pulling a large automatic, "Gib, call Spencer. Helen, call Dana."

"Right." Gib nodded, then frowned, "Wait. Dana?"

Halfway across the planet, an entity known as Merlin snapped open his virtual eyes in shock, and spent several nano seconds checking the readings he was getting before ghosting directly to Dana Tasker's desk.


Faith started, staring up at the image, "What is it?"

"I have just lost all contact with the area around President Whitmore."

"What?" Faith rose up, "How?"

"Broadband digital jamming is blocking the radio frequency spectrum, and the Whitmore hardline has been cut."

"Get a hold of my parents," She snapped.

"Impossible. Their cell phones are not responding. Last known position was within the jamming zone."

Faith swallowed, "It's going down. I want a team ready to move... NOW."

"Orders issued."

"How long will it take to get them there?" She asked fearfully.

"Hypersonic transport will take four hours."

Faith looked down, that was too long. "I need a better option, Merlin. Closest allies?"

"In this situation? United States Secret Service. United States Marshals Office. Stony Man Farm. Central Intelligence Agency..."

"Call them." She ordered instantly. "All of them, including Omega Sector."

Merlin paused a moment, then nodded. "Calls being made."

"Get Xander up here, now." Faith said then, "And you'd better alert Grey... and get us some eyes on the house. They keep a satellite aimed at Washington, right?"


An alarm sounded throughout the base, startling everyone as the Summers sisters and their mother bolted upright.

"That can't be good." Dawn swallowed.

Buffy shook her head, "It's not. That's a scramble order. Something big is going down."

"We've got to find out what...!"

Joyce cut her daughter off, "You, young lady, stay here. And that goes double for you, Buffy. I'll go find out what's going on."

The two watched as their mother stormed out of the room, exchanging a glance.

"This blows." Dawn said simply.

Buffy just nodded.

Xander stiffened as the alarm sounded, already moving as he dragged Buffy along behind him.

"What's going on!?"

"Scramble alert!" He called, bolting for the closest transport. "Something's going down."

"Indeed," merlin said, appearing to them as they made the transporter. "Mr Whitmore's home has just gone black."

"What!?" Xander snarled, "What happened?"

"Unknown, area is being jammed, and phones lines are cut."

"Get a team ready to move!"

"Already being done."

"Do we have any allies in the area?"

"Being contacted."

Xander paused at the transport, frowning, "Do we have eyes on the site?"

"We do now."

"Alright... good work," Xander said, sounding a little surprised. "I'll be up in just a few seconds."

NRO Office, Cheyenne Mountain

"Someone just hijacked our DC bird!"

"What!?" The Shift Supervisor yelped, falling back out of his chair. He clambered to his feet, "Who?? How!?"

"We don't know."

"Get it back!"

"It's in use!" Another tech called. "Scanning addresses! It's locked in... zooming down!"

"Are we getting a feed?"

"Yes Sir!"

"Put it up on the big screen!"

Langley, Virginia

Jack Ryan stormed into the office, "What the hell is going on!?"

"I don't know," his secretary said helplessly. "There are alerts going off across the board, and you have a priority one call waiting."

Jack stared at her, goggling in shock. She had basically told him that the President was on hold in his office. He blew past her, grabbing the phone instantly. "Yes Sir?"

"Sir John." The voice came back instantly, and it wasn't the president.

"Merlin? What the hell is going on!?"

"Mr Whitmore's home just went black, Sir John."

Jack swallowed, paling dead white as his knuckles tightened around the phone.

"Details," he managed to rasp out.

Chapter 22

United States Secret Service Agent Russell James frowned, turning toward the door as the front alarms went off silently. He wasn't particularly worried, it happened from time to time after all. He made his way to the front door, nodding to Andrea Price as he reached it.

"I've got it this time," He said. "Probably just another dog on the grounds."

Price nodded, but waved Pierce Smithson along behind him as a matter of procedure. The other Agent nodded and moved over to back up his fellow agent as the door was pushed open.

Russell looked out, his manner changing instantly as he suddenly dove to one side and kicked the door shut just as a hail of gunfire ripped through the hardwood barrier. "It ain't a dog!"

Price spun, not bother to acknowledge the comment as she keyed open her mic. Obviously it wasn't a dog. "Alert! Alert! Get Flyer and family OUT! We're under attack!"

She pulled her piece as she came up by the window and risked a quick peek outside. The shadowy forms were moving forward, firing into the house. She was so caught up watching them that it took several seconds for her to realize that she hadn't heard a response back over the radio.

She frowned, tapping the send button again, but got nothing back. "Shit! We're being jammed!"

"They're coming in!" Russell yelled.

"Pull back to Flyer! Pull back!"

The Agents fell back as the door was kicked in, firing their service pistols as they made it to the hall. Pierce covered against the wall and nodded to the other two, "Go. I'll hold them here."

Andrea nodded, slapping Russell on the back, "Up the stairs. Get to Flyer and Dame, I'll recover Sweetpea."

Russell nodded, bolting up the stairs as another hail of gunfire tore through the walls. Andrea spared on nod for Pierce, then followed suit.

Smithson crouched down low against the wall, quickly pivoting out and firing a series of rounds into the room, mostly just to keep heads down.

<Who are these people?>

Ames White hunkered down as a volley erupted from the archway to the hall. It wasn't close, but better not to take chances. Even genetic stubs could get lucky.

"Can you see him?" He asked, looking over at the closest man.

The man paused, staring for a moment, then nodded.

"Well take him out then."

"Yes Sir." The man lifted his weapon, an H&K Battle rifle, and unleashed a burst through the wall.

A strangled sound erupted from the other side of the wall, and the Secret Service Agent fell into sight, blood already pooling under him.

"Good job," Ames clapped the man on the back, then turned back to the others, "Alright, move in. Remember, don't hurt the girl. Kill the rest."

"Sir?" Russell said, rushing into the bedroom as Mr and Mrs Whitmore pulled on clothes.

"What is it?" Thomas Whitmore demanded, not bothering with asking the reason for the intrusion. Even if he hadn't heard the shots from downstairs, he knew that his agents wouldn't mess around with him.

"Unknown assault team, Sir." Russell told him, "Andrea is getting your daughter."

Tom nodded, grabbing a shirt as his wife pulled on a sweater. "Ok, lead the way."

"Yes Sir."

Russell led them out, heading them toward Patricia's bedroom and the emergency escape they'd established. At the top of the stairs, however, they heard a shout and Russell suddenly twisted and put himself in front of Tom Whitmore as a snarl of automatic fire ripped through the air.

Tom caught him as Russell fell forward, staring in shock at the man who'd become his friend. "Russell! Russell!"

"Run. Get to Patricia..." The Agent rasped out, pushing off his primary and turning around.

Whitmore saw the torn holes in the agent's suit jacket, and could see blood welling inside as the agent lifted his gun and opened fire.

"Run!!" Russell yelled, staggering forward as he fired down the stairs.

The Whitmores bolted, running past the agent toward their daughter's room as the gunfire behind them intensified.

At the door to their daughter's room the met Price and Patricia coming out, Price just looked at Tom's white face and didn't ask where Russell was. She nodded in the other direction, "This way, Sir."

Whitmore nodded, grabbing his daughter as Price pushed them along to the second floor window with the escape package.

Harry Tasker easily vaulted the six foot fence that cordoned the Whitmore property. He ignored the front door, knowing that the Agents inside would be moving their primaries away from the gunfire. Whitmore and his family were the priority, if he could get them clear then he could worry about bringing a full team back in and tracking these murdering bastards down and wiping the planet clean of them.

He was skidding around the back when a sound caused him to look up in time to see a rope ladder fall from the second story. He fell back, taking cover as someone checked out the window. Last thing he wanted was to get shot by the good guys while trying to save their primary.

"It's clear," He heard a woman say from above. "You first Mr Whitmore."

"No, you first Marilyn. Pat will follow you."

A woman made her way out as Harry shifted back, moving to an overwatch position so he could cover them. Slowly they made their way down, and Harry silently urged them on as he heard gunfire intensify from inside.

<The Service is putting up a fight at least,> He thought as he waited and watched.

The former first lady and daughter were on the ground as Tom Whitmore made his way down the ladder, but Harry tensed when he spotted someone burst out the back door in plain sight of them.

He hesitated for a brief instant, wondering if it was another agent, but as the weapons were brought up and leveled on the Whitmores, Harry rose from hiding. They saw him first, and Marilyn Whitmore shrieked at the huge man appearing from nowhere, but Harry ignored her as he charged forward, his gun seeking out targets.

"Get down!" He yelled, slapping Mrs Whitmore on the shoulders hard enough to drive her to her knees, his automatic opening fire.

The heavy forty five roared in the night, bullets slapping into the face and throat the lead gunman, driving him back inside as Harry heard a thump behind him. A gun muzzle burned his neck a moment later, and a cold voice sounded in his ear.

"Who are you?"

"Tasker." He replied, "Omega."

Andrea Price stared in shock, unable to quite believe what was said. She'd heard of Omega, of course, you didn't protect a President without picking up all kinds of things you probably shouldn't know about. "Omega never identifies themselves."

"To a Secret Service Agent who protected the President?" Harry asked dryly, "I'll take my chances. We have to get the Whitmores out of here."

"Andrea," Tom said, "He saved my wife and Daughter."

Andrea hesitated, but growled out, "That's the only reason he's not dead already."

"We do not have time for this," Harry growled.

"He's right."

Another second passed, then lowered her pistol. "Alright. Let's move."

They turned as a group, heading back to the fence just as a yell sounded behind them. Harry turned, his gun coming up. "Run! I'll hold them!"

Andrea pushed the family ahead of her as the pistol roared in their wake.

Harry opened up on the trio that emerged from the door, nailing one in the leg and driving the other two back for a brief moment. A fourth suddenly surged out, however, and stepped into plain site. He was unarmed, though, so Harry continued to track and fire on the threats.

The lone figure crossed his arms, then snapped them out in Harry's direction, and suddenly Harry felt himself go airborne as he flew back away from the house at high speed. His eyes widened in shock, his mouth gaping in a soundless yell, but Harry Tasker continued to empty his piece into the gunmen even as he flew back across the street and crashed through the large plate glass windows of a house forty yards away.


"What's going on!?" Grey thundered as he arrived in the control center.

"Armed assault on the Whitmore home," The answer was instant, coming from one of the techs manning the stations.

"Get a team together...!"

"Already done." Faith snapped, cutting in front of him as she grabbed for a fold com. "An Omega team is on site now, and we've alerted every federal law enforcement group for two hundred miles."

Grey paused, staring at her, but nodded quickly. "Good. How long until we can get a team on site."

"Four hours." Faith answered bitterly.


The General's response pretty much summed up the group's thoughts on the matter.

"What about a Combat Drop?"

Everyone in the room turned to see Xander Harris step into the center, Buffy behind him.

"That's untested, Sir..." Grey growled out.

"Merlin, how long to put a team on the ground with a Combat Drop?" Xander asked, turning to the Avatar.

Merlin closed his eyes for a moment, "Eight minutes."

Xander simply nodded and turned to leave the command center and found himself looking down at the flight deck where a buzz of activity was filling the entire cavern. He gripped the rails of the catwalk and nodded to Merlin, "I need the floor, Merlin."

The Avatar nodded and a loud chime sounded through the cavern before falling silent, causing the people to pause and look around.

"Tom Whitmore and his family are under attack." He said simply, though the effect as his amplified voice and statement was as if he'd dropped a live grenade in their midst. "I'm looking for volunteers to test the Ballistic Combat Insertion System."

Every Cadre member, and the majority of the Knights, raised their hands as one, all of them yelling out their intention to volunteer.

"Merlin, Grey," Xander said, turning back, "Get me a squad checked out on Armor operations from the Volunteers. We're going to rescue the Whitmores."

Chapter 23

Joyce stared in shock at the commotion, people were running everywhere in a chaotic frenzy, some of them carrying equipment, some just calling out orders or staring at what looked like clipboards. She found herself unconsciously pushed into a corner where she watched.

A chiming sound caught her attention and she, like everyone else, looked up to see a figure standing above them. Her breath hitched as she recognized young Xander Harris, wearing a black uniform as he looked down at the huge tableau of people and spoke.

"Tom Whitmore and his family are under attack."

Hisses of shock and anger washed around her, leaving Joyce in a confused huddle.

<Whitmore? Tom? The President?> Joyce shook her head, <It couldn't be...>

"I need volunteers to test the Ballistic Combat Insertion System," Xander Harris said from above them all, his voice ringing clear.

Joyce cringed at the instant response, people roaring out in response, some of the closest to her actually screaming out an instant intent to volunteer for whatever it was Xander was talking about. The look on Xander's face wasn't one of surprise, or anything really except satisfaction. Like they'd simply fulfilled his expectations as he turned back and said something to the other people with him.

Joyce' mind whirled as she tried to get a grip on what was happening.

"Xander, what is this Ballistic thing?"

Xander smiled wryly, glancing back at Buffy, "It's a fourteen thousand mile an hour roller coaster ride with a sudden stop at the other end, Buff. But it's the only way we can get people the DC without being far, far too late."

"Who's in DC?" Buffy asked, frowning, trying to put all the pieces together.

"Former President Tom Whitmore."


General Grey glared openly at her, "Whaddya mean who??"

Xander grinned, "It's alright, General. She's been out of touch for a while. Tom actually didn't win the election in the last timeline, and Buffy here has been out of the neighborhood for the last few years."

The General grunted, still annoyed, but nodded. "Fine. I'm still not sure about this combat drop, though, Commander. The system is entirely untested."

"The system works perfectly," Merlin stated calmly. "It has been used on countless worlds and..."

"Fine," Grey cut him off, "It's untested for over ten THOUSAND years."

Merlin lifted his nose, "The repairs and maintenance have been adequate."

"I hope so," Xander said cooly, "Cause I'd hate to go splat all over Washington DC."

"You!?" Grey roared, "Now just hold on a minute..."

"Commander, the risk is..."

"Me." Xander cut them off. "So make sure the system works."

With that he simply stepped out and left them silently watching his back.

"Oh hell," Grey growled, "Get me the tech team who put that death trap back together!"

Buffy stared at Grey for a moment, then spun and rushed after Xander.

Washington DC

Andrea pushed her principals out into the road, her attention split between the forces behind her and the shock of whatever had hit the Omega agent and sent him flying across the street.


The scream, a woman's voice, shook her attention back to a tight focus and Andrea spotted the armed woman standing out on the street, calling in anguish as she stared at where the Omega agent had flown. An armed man appeared behind her, grabbing her by the shoulder even as Price trained her service pistol on them both.

"Not now, Helen!" The slightly pudgy man snapped seriously, "We've got to get the Whitmores out of here!"

Price eased her finger off the trigger slightly, figuring them for two more Omega agents.

The woman, Helen, spared a glance toward the building 'Harry' had flown into, then nodded and turned her attention to them, waving them forward.

"Come ON!" She ordered, "We've got to get you out of here!"

"Move," Price growled, making a choice on the spot. She'd keep her gun on the duo, but at the moment they were the only shot she had left to get her primary and his family clear.

The two agents rushed in, the man easily sweeping Patricia up into his arms as he turned back to the slightly beat up looking van. "Come on, sweetheart, I've got a great seat for you with lots of cool computer stuff to play with."

The group ran for the van, the black clad attacks coming out onto the street behind them, shouting vehemently. Andrea Price turned around, even as Helen did at her side, and both opened fire with their pistols.

"Keep moving!" Andrea yelled over the shots, even as she took her own advice.

They both continued to run for the van, taking shots as they could even as they heard the engine roar to life.

"Get in!"

The call came from close, so they both turned a dove for the open side door of the van, landing inside even as it pealed away from the curb.

"Hang on tight, the bad guys are on our ass and they look kinda pissed!" The pudgy guy said as he drove.

A hail of gunfire smashing into the vehicle caused Price to spin around, pulling the Whitmore's down as she covered them with her body.

"She may not look like much," The man behind the wheel grinned, "But she's got it where it counts! Lousy gas mileage, but the panels will stop god damn near anything up to an anti-armor round!"

Ames White glared after the van as it tried to escape, lifting a radio to his mouth. It was a frequency hopping system, with the jamming cycle coded into it, "Team Three, stop the van."


"How dangerous is it??"

Joyce pulled back as she heard her daughter's voice. The copy of her daughter, at least.

"Don't know."

That was Xander, and Joyce swallowed. She'd been trying to find him, if only to find out what was going on exactly, but suddenly she was at a loss for what to say. Instead, she just listened.

"You don't KNOW!?"

"System worked fine originally," Xander said casually as they walked, "Hasn't been used for a while. Should be ok."

"Should. SHOULD!?" Buffy snapped, "Xander, at fourteen thousand miles an hour, a sudden stop at the end doesn't leave a lot of room for SHOULD!"

"I'm not going to leave the Whitmores hanging in the wind," Xander told her with no uncertainty. "The question of survival is the only reason I made it a voluntary mission. Tom Whitmore gave up his political career to keep secrets that would have killed a lot of people, Buff. He was attacked in the press and by members of his own political party because of it. He deserves a little support, especially when his family is being threatened.

"What good will you do him if you're dead!?"

Xander shrugged and Joyce pulled further back, "I'm *pretty* sure it'll work."

"Pretty sure," Buffy said, her tone sarcastic as she breathed out in irritation, "Fine. I volunteer."

Joyce flinched, feeling a knife edge run through her chest as those words were spoken. She didn't understand them, not really. This wasn't her daughter. This wasn't really Buffy. She didn't even KNOW this woman, why did she care?

"I don't think so." Xander said firmly, his response bringing slight relief from the edge. "You're not trained in armor use, you're not trained in Cadre field tactics, and to be brutally frank, my men don't know you, and won't trust you."

Joyce again felt an edge of pain, this time sympathetic as the hiss of pain sounded from the other Buffy.

"Buff," Xander's voice was softer when he spoke. "There will be other missions, after you've had time to get to know the people here. They will trust you when they know you."

"Don't you trust me?"

The pain in the young woman's voice there was palpable, and again Joyce found herself fighting off a wave of sympathy and the urge to protect and shelter the woman who looked so much like her eldest daughter.

"With my life. With my soul. You know I do," Xander answered firmly.

"Then I'll watch YOUR back on this one." She told him tightly.

"Buffy, without an Armor unit, you'd never survive the drop." Xander told her, then sighed, "Look, we'll be launching an retrieval team. You can fly with them... if things go in the toilette, we'll need good fighters to pull us out."

There was a long pause before Joyce heard Buffy sigh and agree, "Alright. Alright, that'll have to do."

"Good. Now, if we're done?"

"Yeah, we are. Mom, you can come out now."

Joyce' eyes widened in surprise as both of them stepped into easy view of her and she gaped at them, stunned. "How?"

"Mom, I'm the Slayer and Xander... well, he's Xander," Buffy said simply, "You can't hide that close to us without us knowing it."

"It's not very smart to try, actually," Xander said simply, "If either of us were just a little less skilled, we might have mistaken you for someone with... less than stellar intentions. That could have gotten ugly."

"Yeah, tell me about it..." Buffy said, then frowned at Joyce, "Which reminds me, don't try sneaking up on the mini-me. If she's like I was she's wound a little tight while in Sunnydale."

Xander rolled his eyes, but refrained from commenting as he stepped back from them, "Well as much as I'd love to continue to chat, I need to get suited up. Joyce, feel free to avail yourself of the facilities while I'm gone. Buffy, flight deck in ten minutes."

Buffy nodded as Xander left, leaving her with her mother.

"You're really going out there, aren't you?" Joyce asked, "To fight."

Buffy shrugged, "Maybe. Probably not. I think that Xander will have it mostly cleared up before I get there. But if I could, then yeah... I'd be going to fight."

"But... Why??"

The Slayer sighed, "Mom... people need help."

Washington DC

"Holy Hannah! Where'd they come from!?" Gib wailed as he turned the wheel, evading the three people who appeared in the middle of the road.

"GIB!" Helen screamed as a wall of fire erupted in front of them, splashing over the windshield and surrounding the van.

"Hang on, it's gonna get a little bumpy!"

Chapter 24


"Commander On Deck!"

"As you were," Xander said cooly as he walked into the armor room.

The others relaxed, and Xander looked over the selected squad members. Faith was the smallest figure present, not that it was obvious as she sat her nude form back into the embrace of the armor unit and let it close around her. Because of the nature of the infiltration method, most of the team was fully human. Enhanced operatives like Miko Lung, and Jacqueline Standish, had not seen the need to have armor units tuned for them, but not even they could survive a ballistic launch into an orbital freefall without armor.

Xander calmly started to strip down as he nodded to the others, tossing his personal effects into a drawer there for that reason. The armor left no room inside for anything, even things as simple as a wrist watch or a crucifix. Faith smirked at him as his clothes dropped, but she didn't say anything, for which he was grateful.

"You guys up for this?" He asked casually as he stripped, nodding to the others.

"Oorah, Sir." Dwayne Hicks said calmly. "I had to outdraw my entire team for this assignment, Boss. I'm in."

Dade Murphy rolled his eyes, but shrugged, "You're gonna need me on this one. I'm not going anywhere but up... then down again."

The others snorted, but agreed.

Kathryn Kieren slid into her own suit, letting it close around her body before speaking, "Mr Whitmore supported many good things, Command. I will gladly support him."

The final member of the team, former JTF1 member Jason Devries nodded in agreement as he finished stripping down. "Born for this, Sir."

Xander smiled, and was about to speak, when the doors flashed open and a raging Kate Libby stormed in.

"What the HELL do you think you're doing!?" She glared openly at Dade, apparently not noticing that he, and the other men in the room were completely nude.

Xander shook his head, ignoring the young woman for his part, though Hicks and Devries both jumped in surprise and moved to cover themselves.

"Kate, what the hell are you doing in here??" Dade hissed looking around.

"What am I doing in here!?" She snapped, her eyes following his as she finally noted that she was surrounded by several nude men. "What are you... uh..."

Hicks shook his head as she trailed off and quickly, but calmly, slid into his own armor. "This chick is lucky Hudson wasn't tapped for this mission."

"Kate, you shouldn't be here." Dade sighed, keying open his own armor.

She shook herself, focusing on him quickly, "Neither should you! You're a hacker, Dade! Not some rambo wannabe!"

"I'm a tech specialist, and one of the people who helped *restore*this system," He growled, turning back on her, "If anything goes wrong in transit, I'm going to have to improvise on the fly."

"You can do that from the control room!"

"Probably," He acceded, "But it's possible that on sight work will be needed."

"Dade, damn it, you can talk someone else through it..."

"In the *seconds* before landing? No, Kate, I don't think so." Dade said as he settled into his armor. The clamshell closed around him, leaving only his head exposed. "I'm doing this, Kate."

"Damn you, Dade Murphy...!"

"If you want to help him," Xander said, walking past her toward his own armor, "I'd suggest you start brushing up on armor operations and the combat drop system, and get to the control room ASAP. We're launching in three minutes."

She stared at him as he walked past, turning calmly to back into his own armor. It closed around him and he felt the cool sensation of the interior filling with oxygenated gel, pressurizing to just under one point five atmospheres. Xander stood up, the armor coming to life as his nervous signals were intercepted and fed into it.

It felt lumbering, it looked lumbering, but it felt as light on his feet as anything Xander had every felt. There was a sensation of real power there, at his command, as well. Xander, though, was used to that feeling and he didn't take the time to revel in it.

"Helms." He ordered, picking up his own helm and fitting it over his face. The seal locked at his throat, and the helmet automatically folded in around the back of his head as the HUD came to life. "Check in."

"Faith. Online."

"Hicks. Online."

"Devries. Online."

"Kieren. Online."

"Murphy. Online."

"And Harris, Online. All systems check out green." Xander said, slowly stretching out to test his own muscles as much as those of the armor. "Andy, you reading this?"

"I'm here, Kid," Andrezj Konzaki spoke up, his voice coming through loud and clear. "And I agree, all systems show green. You're good to go."

"Thanks. Keep an eye on us, ok, Andy?" Xander said, "We need good control for this mission."

"I'm not going anywhere, kid."

"Good. Ok, team," Xander said as he walked over to the wall and drew one of the modified heavy M41 rifles from the armory. The others did the same, with Faith locking a Smart Gun into place in the preset fittings. Xander added Elan to a slot in the armor's thigh, then waved to the others. "Let's move out."

Washington DC

Ames nodded in satisfaction as the wave of fire drove the van up over the curb and into the expensively manicured lawn where it smashed into a tree. Steam rose from the vehicle as they approached, cautiously keeping their weapons ready.

Ames held them back from firing again, however. He wanted the girl alive and unharmed, and there was no point risking that. As they approached the door on the other side of the van slid open and they could hear people stumbling out.

"Move!" Ames ordered, sweeping his arms around in a quick command.

His teams broke up, moving around the van from either side, only to be driven back by fire from both ends.

"There's too many of them!" Tom Whitmore said as Andrea pushed him back.

"With respect, Sir, stay the HELL down!"

"She's right, you know," The man called Gib grinned at him as he ducked back, "Never argue with a lady holding a gun."

Tom forced a smile as he glanced involuntarily to his wife and daughter, "It's my experience that a gun is the least of their weapons."

"You don't need to tell me, Buddy," Gib said, slipping a new mag into his pistol, "I've been married three times."

Tom winced, some humor showing through his eyes even in the situation he found himself in.

"Watch it buster," Marilyn smiled weakly, recognizing the look.

Gib grinned openly, winking at the former President, "You better listen to her, Sir. Hang on, I'll be right back."

He popped up, firing a series of rounds around the tree truck as Tom looked around.

"We need to get out of here." He hissed, looking to his daughter.

"Back through the house," Helen said, glancing at the home. "Are your neighbors home?"

"No, thank God. They're in California this time of year," Tom replied.

"Good. We'll break for the house, move through the back." Helen decided, her face tight. "We need to stay ahead of them until we find someone who can help."

"Maybe their phone is working?" Tom offered.

"Could be." Helen said.

"I don't know, I'd have cut the line to the entire neighborhood if it was me," Gib answered as he ducked back.

"We've got to move!" Price snapped, deciding the issue as she physically pulled her Primary up off the ground and shoved him toward the house. "Move, Sir! We'll give you cover!"


"No, you're not listening to me." Harold Brognola said with an almost unearthly calm. "I want every SWAT team in the city moving, and I want them moving NOW! You shit with me on this and I'll have your ass on the streets in the morning, after I tell the world you let a former President get assassinated."

He slammed the phone down, his hand not *quite* shaking as he looked over at Jack Ryan. "Asshole."

"Police commissioner in DC?" Jack asked wryly, "That's a given. It's a political position, and Whitmore is out of favor."

Brognola nodded, "I know. My team will be there in twenty minutes."

"I've got two men I can trust with a job like this," Jack said, "But they're almost a half hour out."

Brognola snorted, "Only two? I've got three... well, four, but he's not in the country right now."

"FBI has a team moving, thankfully the Chief over there isn't a complete asshole," Jack smirked, "They'll be on site in five minutes."

"What about cops?" Brognola asked, "That place has to have more cops than people, if you count the private security in the area?"

"Every damned one of them was out of position when this went down," Jack growled, shaking his head.

"You know what that means."

"We've got a move that makes the JFK assassination look like kiddies in a sandbox."


"Pre-launch procedures clear." Merlin's voice intoned. "Moving first capsule into position."

A heavy loader trundle the first encapsulated armor unit into place as Merlin's voice spoke up again. "Calculated Time On Target trajectories. Preparing to fire."

"Fire One!"

The capsule vanished in a shimmer of light, even as another was quickly shoved into place.

"Recalculating trajectory! Preparing to fire!"

"Fire Two!"

Chapter 25

Langley, Virginia

"It doesn't make a lot of sense." Hal Brognola said finally, staring at the satellite feed along side Jack Ryan.

"What's that?"

"This whole thing," Hal said, waving at the screen.

On the feed they could see the gunmen and the running firefight as it raged through the well to do district of DC. The Tangos, the assumed, were chasing the USSS Agents and their Principals through a neighboring home, and the flare of fire and shots were clear on the highly sensitive NRO bird.

"Yeah, I know." Jack said after a moment, "If they were looking to kill Tom Whitmore, why the hell mount an assault? A rifle would work just fine."

"And require a lot less planning and complexity." Hal grumbled, shaking his head. "You think it's a snatch and grab?"

"I guess it's possible," Jack sighed, "Thing is... it would have worked a lot better for them if not for our mutual friend."

Hal nodded, "Yeah. The Kid and his people have obviously been keeping a watch on Whitmore and his family."

"Good thing." Jack said grimly, "It would have been far too late if he hadn't."

Hal nodded in acknowledgment of that, "The god damned SECOND they cut the hardline the kid sent up the alarm. Jesus I wish I had that capability."

"You and me both," Jack muttered, "I happen to KNOW that they didn't have any equipment on site. I had my best teams comb that house regularly after the Whitmore's moved in."

"In other words," Hal added sourly, "They managed to patch into Ma Bell's system, recognize the line going dead... THEN notice the jamming, hijack a satellite, and contact us in... what? Three minutes?"

"If that."

Hal blew out an annoyed breath, "The kid's Electronic Intelligence is scary. Better than the NRO can pull off."

"What makes it worse is that he's obviously using our own damned systems to do it," Jack said quietly, "And let me tell you, that's been keeping me up at nights."

"Almost makes you wonder why he even bothered to call us, doesn't it?" Hal asked rhetorically.

Jack snorted, "Like hell. He's got no assets to deploy, otherwise he'd have come down on that place like the wrath of God. Lucky for DC his primary AO is out on the west coast."

"Yeah, not even the kid can make it from there to here in time for this mess."

The screams of the squad roared over the network as the acceleration slowly died down to something they could suffer in silence with. The initial boost from the transport system had been instantaneous, however it had only imparted a speed of roughly Mach Six. The rest had been achieved with thrusters built into each capsule, turning them into what effectively amounted to ICBMs.

Xander gritted his teeth as the weight rapidly fell off, leaving him in free fall at the top of the apex, looking down on the world through the limited sensors of the capsule itself. It was a beautiful sight, but he'd seen it before, and the fact that he was about to fall that entire distance back to the world below was weighing on his mind.

The others, however, were more impressed with the view.

"Oh man," Dade muttered in awe, "This can't be real."

"Jesus," Devries muttered, "Dear sweet Jesus."

"He might be able to hear you from here," Kate Kieran told him, wryly amused.

"Murphy," Xander spoke, "Sitrep."

"Uh... yeah, right..." Murphy said as they began to fall again. "Trajectories are right on... we'll come down right over Washington.... uhhh.... hmmmm...."

"What is it, Dade?" Xander growled.

"One moment... Merlin, are you tracking that storm?"

"Affirmative, Mr Murphy." Merlin's voice came back, "The weather system has shifted and will impact your trajectory. I'm applying adjustments to thruster programming now."

"Uh... ok... Good, we're good to go."

"That's good, causing we're *going*," Xander said as the curve of the Earth began to flatten out, bringing the lights of the sea coast below closer and closer.

"Aw man," Faith moaned, "I think I'm gonna be sick..."

"Don't!!" Xander, Dade, Kieran, and Devries yelled at her.

Hicks snored over the link like a buzzsaw.

Tom Whitmore dove for the phone as they cut through the living room, plucking it up quickly and smiling as he heard a dial tone. "I've got a signal!"

"Dial 911!" Marilyn called fearfully.

"Nah, dial the real number!" Gib grinned.

"I think I have a better idea," Tom muttered, pulling out his wallet and yanking a white card from it. The card changed at his touch and he hesitated before swiping it across the phone.

"Tom! God damn it, Tom what are you doing wasting time at a telephone," General William Grey cursed him out over the phone line. "Get your family out the back door and don't stop until the shooting dies down!"

Thomas Whitmore blinked in surprise, "How... General, you know...?"

"Of course I know! The FBI is coming in with SWAT teams, DC police is on their heals, and we've got a god damned armored platoon about to drop in on all of your heads so move it Mr President!"

Tom threw down the phone and grabbed Andrea by the shoulder, "We need to get out of here."

"Tell me something I don't know."

"Grey and Harris already know what's happening, they've called for help." He said.

"That, I didn't know," Andrea admitted as she emptied her last few rounds into a figure trying to get through the door and nodded. "Alright, let's move it!"

"Harris? You know Xander?" Helen asked as they bolted for the door.

"You know Harris?" Tom Whitmore asked, equally confused.

"Our daughter works with him, she tipped us off to check out the people in the house across from yours," Helen panted as they ran.

"He knew this was going down!?" Andrea growled, outraged.

"I don't think he had a clue," Helen shook her head, "Dana just asked us to get some pictures of the people in the house. She didn't think it would be anything dangerous..."

"Just Grey being careful," Whitmore said as he breathed hard, helping his wife run while Gib plucked up Patricia again and moved really quickly for someone of his build. "If they'd known, they would have warned us."

An explosion tore through the night behind them, and a flood of heat and shock washed over them as the house was haloed by the fire.

Ames White sneered at the black panel SWAT Van as it skidded to a stop. The entire mission was getting out of hand, and he couldn't seem to get control back. This was going to look really bad as his first command operation.

"Take them out," He growled, waving casually at the SWAT van without looking back. "Team four, through the house after them... the rest of you, get the vehicles. We're going around."

The man he'd waved to turned to the van as it stopped and snapped his hands out automatically, a wave of force tearing from him to the armored vehicle where it crumpled in the hood and shoved the engine block back into the passenger compartment. A second wave picked it up and tossed the van on it's side, and the third ruptured the gas tank.

The explosion lit up the night behind them as they left, the sound of sirens filling the air as all of DC, it seemed, perched ready to come down on their heads.

A squeal of tires alerted them that they had trouble before the lights pinned them down. They'd stayed off the road in hopes of avoiding just this event, but as the four wheel drive SUV jumped the sidewalk and came at them through the trees, it became clear that they'd failed.

Andrea threw herself over the Whitmores as shots opened up from the moving vehicle, but none of them came close. Helen and Gib emptied their last few shots into the vehicle, only to see the light pistol rounds glance off the armored surface, entirely ineffectivly.

The SUV skidded to a stop, the doors popping out as the three agents moved to block the family from danger, men pouring out of the black vehicle in quick, professional moves. One of them just waved his hands and suddenly the ground was torn away from them as they flew into the trees, smashing through branches and trunks like straw in a hurricane, leaving only the Whitmores alone in the night.

"Run." Thomas Whitmore told his wife and daughter as he straightened up to face down the men who'd come for him and his family.

Marilyn Whitmore sobbed, but ran with her daughter as the men glared at her husband across the night air.

Ames White flicked a hand, sending three men chasing the fleeing women, but himself he stayed and stared down the former President.

"You've been a real pain in my ass."

"Can't this bucket of bolts go any faster," Carl 'Iron Man' Lyons growled, leaning forward to urge Jack Grimaldi as the veteran pilot coaxed as much as he could out of the 'borrowed' Black Hawk Helicopter.

"I'm pushing it as much as I dare, now shut up and let me fly!" Jack growled, really not in the mood for back seat piloting at the moment.

"We're never gonna get there on time," Herman 'Gadgets' Schwartz muttered, hands and face tense as he watched the clock.

Pol 'Politician' Blancanales didn't comment as he hung back and listened. He wasn't really much more patient than his partners, but there was nothing he could do about it but wait. They'd get there, or they wouldn't. He wanted it to be the former, but rather suspected it would be the latter.

In that case, they'd avenge the Whitmores instead of rescuing them. It was a very distant second best, but in this case, Pol was willing to take what he could get. The man frowned, though, as he leaned toward one of the chopper's windows and looked out and up.

"Uh guys..."

"What!?" Carl snapped, frustrated.

"Check that out."

Carl and Gadgets both turned to look out and stopped to stare in shock at the six lines of fire blazing down across the sky, all from different directions but all obviously converging on one single spot.

"Tell me that's not a missile strike." Pol said plaintively, "PLEASE."

"Oh man." Gadgets breathed in shock, "We're at fucking WAR!"

As the watched the lines of fire tracked down and clearly slammed into the city ahead, but as they waited for the explosions to light up the sky, it became clear that something was off. After a long moment with no pending holocaust appearing, Carl managed to croak out one word.


"Even Scuds don't fail in six packs."

Chapter 26

The ground was approaching fast as they zeroed in on DC, the six capsules rapidly converging toward the brightly lit 'hotspot' on their mutual HUDs.

"Prepare for capsule separation."

Merlin's voice was calm, but it upped the tension in each of them, even going so far as to wake Hicks up.

"Roger that. Blow the links." Xander said as matter of procedure.

There was a series of small explosions that only slightly vibrated deep enough into the armor to be felt, and the capsules split away in two halves, torn free by the rush of wind. Ablative material burned and blew free, revealing the six plummeting figures as they descended over Washington.

One by one they each flipped from their head first position, getting their feet under them as the suit's own maneuvering systems adjusted their course minutely. Above them the capsules disintegrated just as they hit a hundred feet over the city and their deceleration systems kicked in.

It was like being launched in reverse, they were slammed down into the bottom of their suits with a vigorous slap, as if from an unhappy God, the accel curve suddenly spiking hard as the ride went from fast to stop in record time.


"What the hell was that!?"

The question went unanswered as the men stared at the screen in shock.

"I said, what the HELL was that!?"

The second, more demanding, time brought action as men and women flew at their keyboards, trying to bring up something, anything, to explain what had just shown up on the down looking bird over Washington.

"Somebody better tell me what the HELL just hit DC, and they'd better do it now!!" The General snarled in frustration.

"We've got nothing, Sir!" One of the braver women said, looking up fearfully, "No sign on radar, nothing on Space Watch, it just came out of nowhere!"

"We've got dozens of calls already pouring in, General!" A man rose up, "All over the DC area to 911 and astronomy labs, reporting everything from falling stars to alien invasion!"

The General was one of the few people in NORAD who knew what exactly went on deep down under their feet, and that last bit chilled him.

"Get me Hammond."


"What was that? Missile Strike?" Jack demanded, leaning in.

"No explosions," One of his analysts muttered, thinking aloud. "Duds, maybe?"

Jack growled, picking up the red phone. "This is Ryan, get the President OUT of DC. NOW!"

He slammed the phone down, looking over at Brognola, "Harris?"

"If it is... he's upped his capabilities." Hal growled out. "This is a whole new league of play."


Marilyn Whitmore stumbled, tripping over something she didn't see, and fumbled to the ground as Patricia ran on for a bit ahead of her. When she tried to get up a spike of pain in her ankle drove her back down and she groaned out in pain.

Patricia heard her and turned back, but Marilyn just yelled. "Don't stop! Run!"


"Run! Find a police officer! GO!"

The little girl hesitated, then turned and bolted again. Marilyn made it back to her feet, limping painfully as a van squealed along the road, passing her as it chased after her daughter.

"NO!" She screamed in anguish, trying to run as her ankle roared in pain, but the van paid her no attention.

"There's no point," A cold voice said behind her, "You can't help her now."

Mrs Whitmore froze, turning back to see a man a few dozen feet from her aiming a weapon in her direction.

"Don't worry, though," He said, shrugging, "She'll survive. She's the one we came for, you... you're just meat."

He aimed his weapon more carefully and Marilyn Whitmore knew she had only seconds to live in that moment and reflexively shut her eyes as an explosion of sound tore through her.

Ahead of them, Patricia kept running as the lights of the van pinned her, risking a glance back in terror. It accelerated towards her and she tried to run faster, but there was no use to it. Suddenly there was a sharp crack that seemed to tear the air itself and she was picked up off her feet and thrown to the street, rolling across the asphalt as she scrapped her arms, legs, and face.

As she rolled over to look back, the van was still there but stopped. Patricia Whitmore blinked in confusion, staring at the crater that had appeared between them. It was almost as deep as she was tall, and really wide around, and in it's center there was a figure... crouching.

The figure rose up, and her eyes widened as she realized that even standing down in a hole as deep as she was tall, it was still towering over her. It seemed to have it's back to her, though, as it unslung a huge rifle and stomped up the crater toward the van. She watched as two men jumped out of the van, leveling weapons at the figure and just stared in rapt fascination as it just stood there.

"Throw down your weapons and lay face first on the ground with your hands behind your heads. I won't tell you twice."

The voice boomed, shocking Patricia as it reverberated through the air. The men just glanced at each other, then their guns roared.

Only for a second, though. The big figure's weapon roared louder, drowning out the chatter of the guns held by the others, and with two quick booms the two gunmen were thrown back, hit the ground, and lay still.

The big figure shifted his rifle to his other hand as he closed on the van and Patricia gasped as she saw him punch through the front grill of the big van, then pull back and tear the engine right out of it. The figure casually tossed the engine over his shoulder to the ground, then leveled the rifle on the van and it's driver.

"Get out."

Faith shifted her controls at the last moment, adjusting to land well enough away from the people she was trying to protect so as not to get them seriously injured. Not as easy as it sounded, given that she was being slammed into the bottom of the suit at the time, and the trees were rushing up fast and hard.

Then she was through them, crashing through the branches in a whirl, and slammed into the ground with enough force to drive her down to her knees, enhancing armor and Slayer strength pushed to their limits.

The audio pickups crackled from heat distortion, but she could hear people cursing, throwing themselves to the ground, and behind her she could see her mother standing with Tom Whitmore and another woman. Ahead, several armed men were standing, and staring, in shock.

She decided that since they were pointing weapons in the Whitmore's direction, they were the bad guys. Faith rose up, towering almost ten feet tall as she stepped out of the crater she'd made on landing, and brought her Smart Gun to bear.

"One chance," She snarled, "Give up now, you live. Otherwise..."

The Smartgun hummed to life in her armor shod fists.

Captain Mercer of the Federal Bureau of Investigations was having what anyone would be PROUD to call a 'bad day'.

The attempted Assassination of a former president, and subsequent annihilation of his response team, were just the cappers on his day, which had started off with a fight at home that he was currently wishing he could take back.

Pinned down in none of the more wealthy sections of DC, under heavy fire from battlefield scale weapons, gave a man time to think about what was important. And, honestly, whether or not his wife had charged his credit card for some more useless junk just *wasn't*.

"Who the hell are they!?" He snapped, trying to cover behind a tree as his van roared in flames.

"Dunno, Sir," Mackenzie 'Mack' Grimm growled in return, "They don't look Islamic, and they seem to prefer German weapons... might be a Merc team."

Mercer didn't bother to wonder where Mack had come up with that, he knew the man's record and it included a few tours in the middle east on various above and below board missions. He just accepted the guess as what was probably the closest to accurate as he was going to get.

"Why would Mercs be attacking the Whitmore family?"

"Got me there," Mack replied, "These guys are good, though. Professional. Definitely NOT A-rabs."

Arabs, Arabs. Mack had Islamic fundamentalists on the brain. Mercer knew there was good cause for that, of course. Mack had been present at the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon back in 83, and the incident still colored the man's responses to people from the middle east. Not a career advancing bell ringer for an FBI agent, Mercer knew, but Mack was SWAT anyway, and diplomacy wasn't really a job requirement.

"Don't tell me what they're NOT, Mack..." Mercer started to say, only to be cut off as he was driven to the ground by the shock wave.

He and what was left of his team picked themselves up slowly, turning to look in shock as their attackers were likewise picking themselves up in stunned slow motion.

Between them, a crater had formed in the street, sinking over five feet down and looking to be almost thirty feet across. In its center, a vaguely human shaped figure was rising to standing position and sweeping a damned big looking rifle up to aim at the Tangos.

Mack whistled.


"That's an M41, Sir. We tested em in the Marines," Mack said, eyes gleaming, "God damn, I loved that rifle."

Mercer spared his SWAT commander a *disgusted* look, but couldn't find the words to express precisely how idiotic he felt that statement was before the sound of explosions tore through the night. He snapped back around to see the armored figure open up on the Tangos with the portable cannon, tearing them apart like they were made of tissue paper.

"NOW who the hell is THIS!?"

"Government black ops probably," Mack answered, keeping his head down.

"They HAVE things like that!?"

Mack just shrugged, "Not that I know of, but can you think of anything else?"

Mercer thought about it, then shrugged. "No."

The armored figure cleared the immediate area, then paused to look back at them. "Keep down. I'll secure the area."

As he was speaking one of the Tangos rushed out and Mercer started to yell a warning, but was cut off as a curtain of flames rose up and engulfed the armor.

Chapter 27

Marilyn Whitmore flinched in horror as she was struck by something wet, and when she opened her eyes the man holding the gun on her was gone. In his place there was a massive armored figuring crouching in a crater where he'd been standing. The figure rose up, looking at her, and she fell back as her hand dropped from her face. She stared at it, and saw blood on her hand and froze in shock.

"Mrs Whitmore," The goliath spoke, "I need you to step off the road and take a seat by the curb. I'm here to help."

Marilyn Whitmore stared at the blood, then down at the boots of the goliath, and her breath hitched as it caught in her throat.

"Oh my..." She said, realizing where the blood had come from.

The massive figure lifted her, surprisingly gently, and set her aside off the road and out of sight. "Hold tight while we find your husband and little girl."

She looked up at the dark foreboding mask that stood in the place of a face, and just shuddered.

Dwayne Hicks flinched deep inside when the woman stared at him like that, but he could hardly blame her. Adjusting his descent to crush the gunman threatening her had probably saved the woman's life, but being spattered by that much blood was one sure way to put most civilians into a state of catatonic shock.

She'd come out of it, he was sure, and be better off than if she were shot, but for now she wasn't terribly communicative.

Hicks pivoted from where he'd set her, watching the field for further threats.

There were multiple tangos still on his HUD, but they were a distance away, and the biggest concentration seemed to be back where Faith had landed.

The network showed several on the other side of the house, along with a spattering of blue law enforcement signals and Jason Devries.

Hicks glanced over to where Xander was yanking the lone tango near Patricia from the driver's seat of the SUV, then moved to back Faith up. "This is Armor Three, moving to support Armor Two."

"Negative Three," Andrezj Konzaki's voice. "Two can hold them. Stay with Mrs Whitmore."

Hicks hissed, but nodded. "Affirmative Control."

Jason Devries frowned as the flames surrounded him, "Control... I'm... I'm heating up here."

"That suit is insulated for reentry, Five."

"I know... I'm..."

"Checking... Confirmed Five, your body temp is climbing. Activate cooling."

"I tried..."

"Overriding armor cooling system," Andrezj said quickly, "Adjusting manually. Maximum cooling."

Jason felt a rapid cooling sensation and nodded, "I feel it, Thanks Control."

"Can you locate the source."

Jason checked his HUD, but there was only the hot spot that surrounded him. No source to be found, and the log didn't show any kind of trail leading it in. "Negative."

"Five, I have a priority order from Merlin. Assume enhanced opposition."

Jason cursed, toggling the HUD to lock onto supernatural signatures, but there was none within range. "Still nothing!"

"Five, Advise withdrawl. You're body temp is climbing again." Konzaki said urgently.

"I... Affirmative... I..." Jason blinked, sweat suddenly pouring into his eyes. "Control... Control I can't..."

Jason stumbled through the fire, going down to one knee as he smelled smoke inside his helmet. "I smell smoke!"

"Get out of there, five!"

"I... I can't..."

Mercer stared in shock as the armored figure fell to one knee as the flames died out around it. It didn't seem to be badly burned, but there was obviously a problem as it flailed about wildly. Smoke began to seep out from around the neck seal, and Mercer stared in horror as it suddenly keeled over and hit the ground without moving.

"Holy shit..." Mack whispered, "You'd think that thing could handle a little flames..."

"It doesn't look burned at all..." Mercer hissed back.

A loud explosion made them duck until they turned back and saw that the armor had ruptured from the inside, coating the area around it with blood as the armored torso peeled back.


"Five's down!" Andy called, "Some kind of fire attack! Didn't register as magical, and it sure as hell wasn't normal!"

Xander looked up sharply, standing up over the prone figure he'd pinned to the ground with the van door. "All units, active scan for Psionic signatures!"

"Got him!" Kate Keiran called out an instant later. "Heavy reading!"

Xander haloed her target, then pinged Faith. "Priority target! Take HIM OUT!"

Faith hesitated as she looked at the three men she was holding at gun point, then made a decision. They were unarmed and not an immediate threat, so she looked up and kicked off the ground hard.

Her thrusters flared, boosting her up over eighty feet as her Smart Gun tracked the target, using Kate's information to draw a bead.

She twisted the handle on the smart gun, moving it from 'kill' to 'anti-tank' and loosed a burst as soon as her line of sight cleared the roof of the house.

Mercer hit the ground again as a bolt of lightning from the sky turned the lone tango into mulch, letting out a curse of shock.

"Jesus Christ!"

"I'd say they've got one hell of a battle network," Mack muttered as he covered up too.

"What are you talking about!?" Mercer demanded as he crawled for the tree.

"That Tango was the only guy close enough to take out the first armored guy," Mack muttered, following suit. "They beaded him as the guy who killed one of theirs, and nailed him. That takes one VERY sophisticated battle network, boss."

"All I want to know is why they're using thast very sophisticated battle network in my CITY!"

Faith absorbed the landing with her knees as she crunched back down, smart gun sweeping side to side as it looked for another target.

"Where's that asshole go??" She demanded, trying to find the guy she'd had cold a moment earlier.

"He bolted."

She turned to see Tom Whitmore approaching hesitantly as the woman at his side tried to pull him back.

"Shit." Faith muttered, "Anyone see him??"

"Negative contact." Kate said quietly.

"Sorry, I've got nothing." Dade muttered.

"Not this way," Hicks said.

"No go." Xander confirmed.

"Son of a bitch!" Faith cursed.

"Keep up your guards, and watch the Psionic frequencies. We've got one confirmed PK, there could be more," Xander ordered from where he was standing over Patricia Whitmore.

<PK? What the fuck is a...> Faith thought, annoyed, but she spotted the display on her HUD. Pyrokinetic. "How'd he fry Jase through the armor??"

"Psionics don't throw fire. They start it," Xander replied, "Wherever they want it. He didn't fry Jason through the armor. He fried Jason IN the armor. Anyone spikes on the PK board, terminate them."

"Shit. You got it, BT." Faith said, looking back at Whitmore. "I've got the Prez. He looks good."

"Excellent. I've got his daughter." Xander replied.

"Wife is here and well." Hicks said.

"Primary mission is on track. Let's evac them. Close on Whitmore, Hicks bring the lady."

"Hold on, Prez." The armored figure said, "Your Lady and little girl are being brought back, then we'll get you out of here."

"Who are you people?"

A hiss in the air startled them, and they looked over to see two armored units come in for relatively light landings, each cradling a human figure in it's arms.

"We're the Knighthood, Mr President." The one holding Patricia said, "I told you once, don't you remember? Someday, you'd find yourself fighting the good fight... and when you looked over your shoulder, we'd be there fighting along side you."

"Mr Harris..." Tom Whitmore breathed out in relief as he saw his wife and daughter, and he ran to them. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me just yet, Sir. We still need to get you out of here. The enemy has enhanced operatives that are VERY dangerous." Xander said seriously. "We lost a man to a Pyrokinetic, there could be others in the area."

Whitmore looked at a loss, but rallied, "What do you suggest?"

"Immediate Evac, Sir. We pull you right out of the city, hold tight until a dust off team gets here, then get the hell away from this place."

"That... sounds good." Thomas Whitmore said weakly.

"Consider it done. Dade, you have Mr Whitmore. Kate, Faith, you cover us."

Thomas Whitmore felt himself being picked up almost instantly by a firm grip from behind, and found himself being held up by another armored figure. "It's all right, Sir. I've got you."

"Wait! You can't just...!" Andrea Price rushed forward. "Sir, you're my responsibility."

The armored figures looked at her, then at the President. "She's your Keeper, Sir. Your call."

"Come along if you want, Andrea... but my family and I are leaving with these people."

Andrea nodded and stepped forward.

"Kate. Take her. Faith, you're on overwatch."

The other's confirmed, then began to assemble. When they got together the armored figures leapt up into the air, thrusters blazing as they hopped well out of the area.

Chapter 28

Mercer covered his face as the rotor wash of the Black Hawk whipped up dust and debris from the ground, throwing it around. The three men who jumped off looked grim as hell and pissed off, which suited Mercer just fine, he wasn't in a great mood either.

Still, he offered his hand to the lead man. "Mercer, FBI!"

He was ignored by the powerfully muscled man, left standing there staring as the man pushed past. As he stared another hand clasped his and Mercer found himself looking up into a smile on the face of a grey haired man.

"Pol. Justice Department." The man said, "Don't worry about Lyons, he's more of an action kind of guy. I'm the brains of the outfit."

Mercer smirked as he heard a snarl from the body builder, but nodded, "Yeah I know the feeling."

"What happened here," Pol asked, looking around.

"Honest?" Mercer asked, "Your guess is as good as mine, and I was here to see it."

Pol raised an eyebrow, causing Mercer to sigh and continue.

"We got here after it kicked off, some kind of weapon took out the SWAT van, but I don't know what kind. Whatever it was it drove the engine back in through the cab, tossed the van into a tree, then everything went up in flames," Mercer recounted what he'd seen, "After that we got pinned down by gunmen who were pretty obviously just trying to slow us down. That's when the.... whatever hit..."

"You mean the rockets?"

"Rockets? No..." Mercer frowned, shaking his head, "come with me."

He lead Pol and Gadgets over to where a ring of tape was surrounding something that looked like a cross between Knights of the Round Table and an Alien Autopsy.

"These are what hit."

"Rough landing," Carl grunted as he walked over.

"It wasn't the landing," Mercer corrected, "This one landed in the crater over there... well, MADE the crater over there. Then he wiped out the gunmen in a few seconds. This... well this happened after, and I don't know how... But the who was standing over there."

The three members of Able Team turned to see a pair of boots laying in a smoking crater some distance away. "I take it this guy didn't appreciate being killed?"

"Wasn't him. That shot came out of the sky like a lightning bolt." Mercer said, shaking his head. "My SWAT commander says it was probably evidence of a sophisticated battle network... all I know is that it was one hell of a shot."

Gadgets looked up, "Out of the sky? Not from the roof of the house?"

"No, the bolt came from well behind the house, and higher up." Mercer said, shaking his head. "Definitely from the sky."

"Jack," Pol called over to the Black Hawk, "Was their any birds flying over here?"

"No way!" Grimaldi called back, "Air Space was secured when the alert went up. There wasn't anything bigger than a sea gull in the sky."

Pol looked over at Gadgets and frowned, "What does that leave?"

"Star Wars?" Gadgets suggested, mostly joking.

Pol shrugged, "I've never heard of any quite that accurate."

"Same here."

"What the hell are you two talking about??" Mercer growled.

"Satellite weaponry."

"You wanna know what I think," Mack Grimm said as he walked up, "I think his buddies did it."

"We KNOW that, Mack. We just want to know what they used..."

"Not what I meant, Boss. I think one of them jumped up over the house and shot this bastard from the air." Mack said simply.

"What makes you think they could do that?" Mercer asked wryly.

"The fact that this guy landed from the sky, for one, and also I'm pretty sure that he's got some kind of jets or something on the armor here." Mack replied, pointing.

"Powered armor with jump jets," Gadgets said, awe in his voice. "Man we've got to get some of these."

"Yeah, good luck with that," Mack said, "I tested a lot of stuff for the Marines, but never even heard of anything like this."

"DARPA has some plans for similar equipment," Gadgets said thoughtfully, "but I didn't know they had anything practical."

"Yeah well, someone does." Mercer growled. "And they just cut a big chunk out of DC here, and vanished... with former President Whitmore, and his family."

Helen Tasker watched as her husband was pulled out of the house, the paramedics strapping twenty kinds of life support over him as they practically ran for the ambulance. She swallowed, shocked as she stood there.

"Come on, Helen," Gib said softly. "I'm got one of the cops to drive us to the hospital."

She nodded weakly, letting herself be lead away. Even after watching him fly across the street, she hadn't really thought he'd been hurt. Not seriously, he was so strong.

"He's strong," Gib told her, unknowingly echoing her thoughts, "He'll be alright."

"My God, Gib... what happened here tonight?" Helen asked helplessly.

Gib shook his head, "I don't know. Everything I just saw... I don't know."


"The president..." Jack frowned, "The *former* president is missing."

Hal snarled, slamming a hand into the desk. "Damn it. Was it the tangos?"

"The initial reports I'm getting are conflicted." Jack sighed, sitting down, "The tangos got chewed up pretty badly though, left a lot of bodies and one live and kicking on the ground."


"Yeah, they had to use the Jaws of Life to cut him out of the van door that was pinning him to the ground, but he's alive." Jack confirmed. "FBI is taking him for interrogation."

"Good. Do we have any Ids on these guys?"

"Nothing. They're not in the system. No prints, no ID, we're running photo checks, but it's taking a while."


Andrea Price looked around the warehouse, frowning. "This place isn't secure."

"Sorry, it's the best we could do on short notice," One of the armored figures said as it lumbered over.

Actually, Andrea had to admit, it didn't really lumber. It was fairly graceful, actually, but anything that size just LOOKED like it should lumber.

"It's fine." Thomas Whitmore said, breathing easily. "We're fine, Andrea."

"If we're attacked here..."

"I'm sure that Mr Harris has the security handled."

"Not as well as I'd like," the armored figure said, air hissing as it's helm unlocked and opened. Xander Harris' head appeared as he pulled it off and twisted around a bit. "Those weren't normal attackers, Sir."

"Just call me Tom." Whitmore said, "And I think we all know that they weren't 'normal'."

"No, Sir, I don't think you do." Xander said grimly. "They had a Combat rated Psionic. Sir, that's very rare... Honestly, I didn't think there were any on the planet."

"You lost me," Whitmore admitted, "right after the word 'rated'."

Xander sighed, "Sorry Sir. When we dropped in, we weren't expecting this kind of resistance. We figured at most, we might have to deal with some minor enhanced agents. Demons, Aliens, something along those lines. A Combat Psi is like... running into a pocket nuke, Sir. Psionics are dangers on their own... even a minor talent is... earth shaking."

"We have one of our own," Xander went on, frowning, "She's a high functioning Empath."

"You mean, feelings and stuff, right?" Whitmore asked.

"Right." Xander nodded, "It may not sound like much, but imagine a diplomat that you can NOT lie to. A Secret Service Agent who *always*knows when someone has hostile intent..."

Andrea Price nodded as she began to see the possibilities, and Whitmore immediately agreed, "I see your point."

"A telepath, on the smallest level, can ferret out secrets from almost anyone." Xander went on, "on the largest level, you get someone who can run large groups of people like puppets."

"And the people who attacked my family?"

"Had at least two psionics with them," Xander confirmed, "A combat rated Telekinetic, and a combat rated Pyrokinetic. Tactically, the two scariest psionic abilities you can face off against... physically anyway."

Whitmore sat down beside his wife, "Who are those people, why were they after us?"

"We're trying to figure that out now... Tom." Xander said tiredly. "We thought they were part of a group known as the Center, a rather nasty corporation based in Delaware that often snatches children for their experiments..."

"What!?" Tom Whitmore rose up again.

"However, we've accessed the fingerprints and photos the FBI scanned in... None of them match any Center employees," Xander went on. "So we're on square one."

"Forget about that!" Tom growled, "What's this about kidnapping kids?"

"We'll brief you on the Center later," Xander snapped back, "When we're secure."

"Secure. Right." Whitmore muttered as Xander turned away. "Wait, about these Psionics?"

"Yes, Sir?"

"The Pyrokinetic, that's the most dangerous, right?"

"No Sir." Xander shook his head.

"Then which is?"

Xander hesitated for a moment, then looked the former President in the eyes, "A Telempath, Sir."

Whitmore frowned, "I don't follow?"

"Sir, imagine someone so Charismatic that you and everyone else for ten thousand miles would follow them to hell with no thought of coming back." Xander said simply. "Hitler was a low rated Telempath."

"Didn't you say you had a...?"

"She's just an empath, Sir..." Xander said, not adding the words 'for now'. Not aloud anyway.

Chapter 29


"This is General Grey... Former President Whitmore and his family have been successfully secured. The Evac team is three and a half hours out from DC, and there was one casualty among the team. More news will be forthcoming."

Buffy's head swam as she leaned on the wall. "Casualty?"

Dawn shook her head, "It wasn't Xander."

"How can you..."

"I just know, ok. It wasn't Xander." She said fiercely, causing her mother to glance worriedly over at her youngest.

Buffy sat down, "I've seen the armor things in action... I can't imagine what they would have run into that could take one down."

Dawn shrugged, "Knowing our luck? Anything's possible."

Joyce listened to the two as they spoke, uncertain about what to say. It was clear from their reactions that they were both emotionally invested in Xander Harris, in one way or another. Joyce knew for a fact that she didn't like that, but couldn't see any way to break it. It was apparent that they considered him to be on their side, someone to trust, someone who would be there for them no matter what.

The worst was... Joyce wasn't sure they were wrong.

It wasn't his intentions that worried her however. It was the world he claimed to exist in, and the terror that maybe, just maybe, his claims were real.

"Well that's that." Grey said tiredly, sounding worn down as he slumped in his chair. "Merlin... Contact Devries' family, I'll deliver the news myself."

"Jason Devries parents died several years ago," Merlin stated simply, "His file lists only a younger sister as next of kin."

Grey nodded, "What's her name?"


"Alright. We'll arrange to bring her to Avalon for the ceremony."

"Very well."


Lt Colonel Harry Maybourne did his best not to cackle as he looked over the armor sitting inside the police cordon. As soon as the FBI reports filtered out he'd received a call from his contacts in the bureau, and lucky for him he was in DC.

He flashed his identification to the cop keeping looky loos back and walked through, spotting the AIC quickly.

"Maybourne." He said simply, flashing the NID badge. "I think you've received orders about me?"

The man grimaced, but nodded, "The armor is yours. Don't mess up my crime scene beyond that."

"Not a problem, Agent." Harry said as friendly as he could manage, he had want he wanted, it didn't pay to annoy people without cause. He waved in his team, watching as the small flatbed with a crane backed into place.

Harry didn't know for sure who pulled off either the attack, or the counter assault that ended the fight so spectacularly, but he knew that he wanted that armor. Some egg heads back at Area 51 would pull it apart and maybe in a few years they might be able to field something similar themselves.

"Hang on," He said, stepping under the tape as he leaned over to examine the armor closer.

After a long moment he nodded, "Yeah... alright, move it out."

As they hooked up the crane, Harry flipped open his cell. "Sir? Yes Sir. It looks like it was them, Sir. Description fits anyway."

He flipped the phone shut a moment later and turned his gaze back to the armor in question.

"Well now... you're not invincible after all..." He said thoughtfully. "Very interesting."

Xander heard Faith's sudden intake of air over the battle network and spun toward him even as he automatically mirrored her display on his own. He froze when he saw what she was seeing, and then quickly made his way over to her.

"I'm sure he'll be ok, Faith."

The armor looked shell shocked, it's stance radiating emotion in a way something truly inanimate could never accomplish, but no more so than Faith's face on Xander's HUD.

"Faith? Are you ok?"

The armor turned to look directly at him and Faith slowly awoke from the shock.

"I've got to see him..." She said, stunned.

Xander hesitated, then nodded. "I know. Hang on, Merlin?"

"Yes, Commander?" The AI responded instantly.

"I need a rental car, delivered," Xander said, "To this building. Have one of our lawyers arrange it, along with a change of clothes for Faith."

"Are you certain, Commander?"

"I am."

"Very well. I'll arrange it as quickly as possible."

"Thank you, Merlin."

As the AI vanished from the link, Faith nodded weakly to Xander. "Thank you."

Xander just shook his head, "Don't worry about it. We're going nowhere for a while anyway, and family is family."

"I... I sent him out there." She said, her voice horrified.

"Faith!" Xander snapped, surprising her, "You didn't know, and even if you did, what would he have done if he knew all the facts?"

She swallowed, knowing the answer to that.

"Damned right," Xander said, reading it in her face. "Your father is a fighter. He fought for the Whitmores, now he'll fight for himself. He'll be ok."

She nodded weakly.

"And just in case," Xander paused for a moment, frowning, "Merlin?"

"Yes Commander?"

"Dispatch a Hammerhead trainer with Tara and a full medical kit."

"Yes Commander."

Xander looked again to Faith, "A Hammerhead will go sub orbital, hit thirty thousand miles an hour, and be here in a half hour. Tara will help if he needs something the regular docs can't provide."

Tears shone in her eyes as she nodded, "Thank you."


"Miss Macklay, if you have a moment?"

"O... of course, Merlin." Tara said, looking up.

"There is a medical emergency in Washington, The Commander requests your presence."

Tara swallowed, but rose up. "Of course. When?"

"Immediately. You'll go by Hammerhead. Major McQueen is preparing the craft now."

"H... hammerhead?" She asked, wide eyed.

"It is the only way to get there in a decent time."

She nodded jerkily, heading for the door and turning toward the infirmary. "I... I'll need a kit..."

"It's already been sent ahead to the Hammerhead."

Tara stopped, surprised, but nodded and turned around to head for the flight deck.

Omega HQ

"What the HELL just happened!?" Spencer Trilby roared as he slammed his hands down on the conference table. "I get a call in the middle of the night to tell me that my best goddamn agent is in the hospital and someone attacked the former president of the United States!? And no one, NO ONE, in this entire place knows what the ever loving HELL happened!?"

The people around the table shifted uncomfortably, not meeting the steely gaze of the chief's single eye.

"Well SOMEONE better have an answer...!"

"W... well Sir," Faisil said hesitantly, "There were no warning signs in any comminiques over the past two weeks... I just finished checking them and..."

"Check them again."

"Umm... yes sir."

Spencer glared openly around the table again, "Would someone PLEASE explain to me how it is that our top team just happened to be there and no one in this room as the faintest idea how or why?"

No one answered as they all squirmed in place.


Jack Ryan sank in his chair as he listened to the voice over the telephone, "Thank God. Thank you for informing me... where can I send a team to retrieve... I... I understand. Well that may be, but I need to hear it from him. No, that's not..."

He stopped, glaring at the phone.

"He hung up on me." Jack said disgustedly.

"Who was it?"

"A representative of Mr Harrison," Jack said, sighing. "He says that the Whitmore family was pulled out, alive and well. They're being taken into protection, and Mr Whitmore will be able to communicate with us by tomorrow."

Hal grimaced, "He's taking him back to his primary AO."

Jack nodded, "Or all the way to his Headquarters."

Chapter 30

The car pulled up front, bringing Andrea Price to her feet as she pulled out her empty weapon.

"Relax," Xander told her as he stepped back over, his foot cracking hard against the cement floor. "I called for the car. Faith? Your car and clothes are here, you want to get changed over behind those boxes?"

They saw one of the armored suits glance over, then a voice simply said, "Fuck it, Xan."

Air hissed as the helm seal broke and Tom Whitmore was horrified to see a young girl's face appear as the helm dropped to the floor. She reached up and broke the chest seals quickly and cooly, letting the armor clamshell open such that she was presented in her full nud, gel covered glory as she stepped out.

"Towel." Xander said, reaching out to the wide eyed man in a suit who had just walked in.

"Uh... um... yes sir?" He said, staring at the behemoths standing around so calmly, and quickly handed a towel out. "I... uh clothes."

"In a sec," Faith told him as she grabbed the towel and cleaned the remnants of the gel from her body. It was quick and rough, but in a moment she was done and grabbed for the clothing under the horrified, yet fascinated stares of the Whitmore family and Andrea Price.

"My God, how old are you?" Tom asked, stunned.

She spared him a smile as she pulled on a sweat shirt, "I ain't the youngest in our group, Prez. Just the hottest. Hey, X, I'll catch up, y'hear?"

"If you don't, I'm coming hunting," Xander told her, amused.

"Natch." She nodded, pulling the gym pants up and looking over at the lawyer, "ok, bub, keys."

"They're... in the car?"

"In this neighborhood?? Shit!" Faith said, running for the door.

Xander chuckled, "You'd better catch up to her, unless you want to call a cab."

"Uh... I already have, as a matter of fact." The lawyer said, looking around, completely confused. "Do you people work for Mr Harrison?"

"You could say that, yes." Xander told him.

The lawyer nodded, eyeing the weapons laid out in the room as he frowned and considered his position. "Sir... I have to ask this, or I would be failing my duty as Mr Harrison's attorney. Have you or do you intend to commit any illegal acts, and are those weapons legally obtained?"

"The Weapons are from Mr Harrison's factories," Xander said glibly, amused that the guy had the guts to ask, "And no, we have not committed any crimes... nor do we intend to, though as a point of fact there might be some contention as to what, precisely, constitutes a crime."

"I see." The man frowned, "And the point of contention would be?"

Xander smiled under his helm, "Well now, we left something of ours behind a short while ago and the police may not like to give it up when we come back to claim it."

"I can file the appropriate paperwork..."

"Not an option, I'm afraid." Xander cut him off, "The government will not give it up, nor even admit they have it."

The man's eyes floated over to the armor and weapons and he sighed, "I see. Sir, if you intend to cause loss of life, I cannot in good conscience continue to represent you or Mr Harrison. I assure you that anything up to this point will remain in confidence but..."

"Relax." Xander said, "While a certain level of property damage will probably be unavoidable, we don't kill people who are just doing their jobs. You have my word."

"Yes well, that's hardly enough. I am Mr Harrison's attorney, and his..."

Xander broke the seal on his armor, the hiss of gas surprising the man into silence. <I probably should just let him quit, but damn it I kinda like this guy. He's got more balls than brains, but the guy has some ethics.>

"You have *my* word," Xander said, pulling the mask off for the second time of the night. "I'm Alexander Harrison, Mr Turner."

The man stiffened, nodding, "Yes Sir. Very well then, barring further information to the contrary I'll accept that."

Xander smirked as the lawyer turned and retreated.

"Trust, but verify, huh?" Tom Whitmore asked from just behind Xander.

Xander nodded, "Yeah. I think I may have found an honest lawyer."

"Poor bastard." Tom muttered, shaking his head as he glared at Xander, "Now why in HELL did you have that little girl in a fight like this?"

"Faith? Hell she was running overwatch for us." Xander replied simply, "She's the one who fried the bastard who took out Devries. Faith's earned her place with us, Mr Whitmore."

"She's so young!" Marilyn Whitmore said, holding her own daughter tightly.

"Ma'am, her father was put through a window earlier tonight while trying to save you. Her mother was standing right there with you when we arrived, as was her God father." Xander told them, "Public service is her legacy."

Marilyn frowned, "Helen?"

"The Omega agents??" Andrea asked, sputtering.

Xander nodded as he looked at them, "You've heard the speech, Ask not what you can do for your country... well, they haven't. Not one in that family has asked for anything from their country, or their world. They only ask what the can give, then give more than is asked for. If you want to say anything, say a prayer for her father. He's in emergency surgery at Walter Reed."

"Oh lord..." Whitmore sank down again, before looking up with wide eyes, "What about my security people?"

Xander frowned, slipping the helm back up over his face. "Merlin, status of the Secret Service people?"

"Two survivors in intensive care, Walter Reed. That's all."

Xander grimaced, lowering the helm again, "Two made it... they're in intensive care, sir."

"Oh lord." Thomas Whitmore leaned over, looking distinctly ill.

"Only two?" Price asked, face white with shock.

"I'm sorry."

"I should go to them," Whitmore said.

"Not a chance in hell." Xander growled instantly.

"They protected my *family*!"

"Which is exactly why we're not going to let their sacrifice be wasted," Xander countered, "Sir, with your Psych profile, my backup plan would be to wait outside the hospital for an attempt at contact."

"He's right Sir," Andrea said tiredly. "You can't go."

Thomas Whitmore looked rebellious until he followed Xander's pointed gaze back to his family and swallowed hard before giving in.

Over the Rocky mountains Buffy sat beside the pilot, eyes on the controls and displays of the vehicle she was riding in, trying to soak it all in.

"Thanks for letting me sit up front, Doug."

The pilot, who'd introduced himself as Doug Masters, just shrugged. "No problem. Just a garbage hauler flight anyway, some company is good."

"Garbage hauler?"

"Transport, like this," Doug smiled wryly, "I'm generally a fighter pilot. Since I joined up here, anything that can't make a good chunk of light speed just seems slow."

Buffy smiled in return, shaking her head. "It seems pretty fast to me."

Below them the mountains were already receding into the distance behind them as Doug leaned forward and flipped a couple toggles.

"Yeah, well, Mach eight isn't exactly slow," He admitted, "Especially for something this size, at this altitude. It's just not the same... what's that... aw hell!"

"What? What's wrong?" Buffy asked, worried.

Doug grimaced, slapping another toggle, "Damn it, McQueen, how come you got out in a Hammerhead?"

A cool voice came back, "Patience, Mr Masters. All things come to those who wait."

"Who's that?"

Master's flicked his eyes up, causing Buffy to lean forward and look up through the windows. "What?"

"Wait for it... now."

A star seemed to detach itself from the night sky and move quickly past them, heading East.

"That's Major McQueen, apparently someone called in air support."

"Not so, Mr Masters. This is a VIP transport mission." McQueen answered over the Tac. "I'm transporting Miss Maclay on a medical mission."

"Damn!" Doug swore again, "Who got hurt?"

"The team lost Jason Devries, but an Omega Agent by the name of Harry Tasker was severely injured..."

"That's Faith's dad," Buffy said quietly to Doug.

Doug winced, "Roger that McQueen. Good flying and god speed."

"See you when you get there, Masters."

They could see the star moving well out ahead of them already, until it faded into the background.

"I see what you mean by fast," Buffy said quietly.

Doug nodded, "Yeah. Still, there are good things about these clunkers too."

"Oh?" Doug grinned, "Yeah. Want to see a maneuver that there ain't a fighter in the universe can pull off?"

Buffy looked worried, but nodded anyway, "Ok..."

Doug flicked a switch, then pushed his seat back and walked back out of the cabin. He returned a minute later with two cups of coffee and handed one to Buffy with a grin. "Enjoy."

Three thousand feet over New Mexico, heading east at Mach Eight, Buffy broke down laughing as she tried very hard not to spill the beverage on herself.

Tara looked out of the cabin of the trainer, fearfully looking at the curve of the Earth as they swept onward towards the East Coast. It was beautiful, but frightening all at once.

The fear aside, though, she was glad to have seen it.

Gaia looked and felt so different from there. She could still feel the power, but now it was like she could keep an image of the totality in her focus all at once, something she'd never been able to do from the surface.

It made the spirit of the earth seem so much more...


Chapter 31

Faith stopped the car down from the hospital, looking at the ring of police vehicles as well as the more ominous black vans and sedans.

<Well... that's it. Everyone's come to the party.>

She opened the door, stepping out as another vehicle approached, and a smile flitted across her face as she recognized the man in the backseat.

<Bingo. One ticket in, right on time.>

Spencer Trilby waited as the driver came around the armored sedan and opened the door, stepping out as a ring of Omega Agents moved in around him. Assassination attempts weren't supposed to be a huge problem when you work for an agency that doesn't exist, but the world was a more dangerous place than it used to be.

Over the past three years things had progressively got more dangerous as more players moved into the game, each taking their own unique direction on things. Omega's security had never been compromised, as far as he knew, but there had been... incidents that made them wonder.

In the end, though, it didn't matter. Not now, not tonight.

He straightened his clothing unconsciously and nodded to the men as he began to walk toward the hospital. As they neared the door a Marine guard moved to intercept them, only to have Trilby's identification shoved in his face. Before he was done saluting the group breezed past the sweating Marine, who'd seen every clearance up to the USSS, but was pretty damned sure he'd never seen one he was under orders to forget that he'd seen it.

Of course, he supposed, being a good Marine, it was entirely possible he had.

What he hadn't seen, in his shock, was the small girl tuck in behind the group as they made their way in, walking like she belonged there even though she was a little underdressed for the job.

Harry Tasker had never looked more vulnerable.

Helen was ashen as she sat over his bed, the tubes running into his nose and throat making her own breath hitch every time she looked up to see them. At the door, Gib was standing and looking on, more than a little pale himself as he saw his partner in the worst shape he'd ever seen the man, barring when he'd been told Dana was missing.

"Christ Gib," A low, snarling voice came from behind him, startling him badly. "What happened?"

Gib swallowed, turning around to look at his boss, "Sir... we... we were called, and so we went and..."

"By who?" Trilby growled, pulling Gib to one side, trying as much as possible to avoid disturbing Helen. "It wasn't any of our people, you better believe that I checked."

"Will you two STOP it!" Helen snapped, glaring at them both from across the room, "My husband is lying here in a god damn Coma! Show some frigging respect!"

It was Trilby's turn to swallow as he looked at the angry woman, "I'm Sorry, Helen... but we have to know who sent you into that trap..."

Her eyes flared even brighter, but they were cut off by a young voice from behind Trilby.

"I did."

Trilby spun, fast. His guards should have kept anyone from getting that close, though as he turned he saw three of them lying on the ground, and one slumped down against the wall, all out cold. He went for his piece, almost getting it to clear leather before his hand was caught and he found himself looking down into the eyes of a little girl he knew, or thought he knew.

"D... dana?" He choked out, shocked.

"It's Faith now." She said, pulling his hand, with gun, clear of his jacket. She took the weapon from him easily, tossing it across to Gib, then walked in.

"Dana?" Helen asked, unbelieving, "You can't be here! What if they...?"

"I'll handle it." Faith said, lowering her head, "I'm sorry, mom. I didn't know..."

"Hush..." Helen said instantly, moving forward to catch her daughter. "Hush now. I know, and even if you did know, you know what your father would have said. He took his chances, we all did."

Spencer Trilby stared in shock, his mind refusing to process what he was hearing. How did Dana of all people get involved in this mess?

"It was just supposed to be a simple surveillance gig, Mom... nothing was supposed to go down," Faith said, chest heaving as she felt her mother hug her tight. "We just didn't trust the guys who owned the house... they had no right getting anywhere near Mr Whitmore."

"I know... I know... it's ok..."

"When we got there, you and Gib were standing there with the Whitmores... and I didn't see Daddy... I wanted to say something... anything, Mom... but We were on mission... we had to get them out..."

Spencer almost missed the sudden stiffening of Gib and Helen as the girl talked, but couldn't know why exactly.

"You were there?" Helen asked sharply, shocked.

Faith nodded, "I'm sorry, I should have stayed but I didn't know Daddy was hurt and the Whitmores..."

"Honey, you did the right thing." Helen said quickly. "Thomas Whitmore and his family were the mission. Your father was hurt trying to save them, and if you left them in danger it would have been for nothing. Y... you were there, though? With Xander?"

Faith nodded.

Helen's head whirled. That meant that her daughter had been in one of those... things.

Faith turned to look at her father, wincing as she saw the equipment he was hooked up to. "H... how bad is it?"

"He's in a coma, honey," Helen said softly. "The doctors say that they've done everything they can... now it's up to him."

Faith shook her head, "No. Xander's sending Tara."

"Walter Reed, this is Major McQueen inbound with VIP, requesting clearance."

"Roger Major," a bored sounding voice cut into the frequency, "We show you on our list. I assume your craft is within the rooftop rating? Your paperwork is a little incomplete."

"That's affirmative, Walter Reed," McQueen said as he brought the Hammerhead down through Washington airspace into a tight spiral over the hospital. "We're well under your payload limit."

"Alright, we cleared off the pad. Security will meet your VIP and escort him to the Tasker room."

"Her, Walter Reed." McQueen corrected calmly. "I'm coming in now."

"Now?" The voice sounded puzzled, "Are you sure your on course, I don't see or hear any... Holy SHIT!"

McQueen fired the thrusters at the last moment, coming into a stable hover just over the roof as he pivoted the forward canard of the fighter toward the glass window and the control room beyond. He released the gear, settling down smooth as glass and casually let the forward gun twitch slightly before keying off the weapon systems and looking back.

"We're here, Miss Maclay." He said cooly.

She nodded, "T... thank you, Major. I'll be fine f... from here."

He had little doubt of that as the cockpit split open, then pulled back. If anything happened to her, McQueen knew that the Commander and a good portion of the rest of the Knighthood would be on the warpath. He'd seen what happened to groups that invoked that level of antipathy from this group, and wouldn't wish it on most.

Tara climbed out of the cockpit, easily dropping to the ground as two uniformed marines came out, staring at the craft.

"Uh... M... Ma'am?" The first stuttered slightly, eyes not leaving the aggressive looking craft, and most especially the large cannon that had... by chance of course... wound up pointing straight at the rooftop access.

Tara took a deep breath, drawing herself up as she mentally moved through a Katra taught to her by Jacks. The Marine felt the change, though he didn't realize it, and stiffened to attention along side his companion as Tara stepped forward.

"Ma'am." They both said quickly, not recognizing her uniform or insignias, but recognizing the authority she projected.

"Take me to Mr Tasker's room." She told them, not stuttering in the slightest as she breezed past them.

Both looked at each other, then at her as she moved past them, and the two Marines double timed along to catch up to her.

"Yes Ma'am. Right away."

Xander glanced at the time, sighing.

"How much longer?"

He looked over at Andrea Price, who didn't look particularly happy in the slightest. "Three hours."

"Three hours?" She hissed, "We're sitting ducks here for three hours!"

"Only if they know where we went," Xander said, "And I'm fairly sure they don't. Considering how badly we chewed up their team, most likely they're still running for cover right now."

"Fairly sure. Most likely." She replied sarcastically.

"It's the best I've got," He snapped back, then sighed, "Look... Miss Price, I understand your problem, but we don't have a solution. We have to wait three hours."

"They have to come from your Island, don't they?" Whitmore asked from where he was sitting with his wife and daughter.

Xander nodded.

"Where were you? I mean... you got here so fast." Whitmore asked, confused.

"Same place." Xander replied, "We used a combat drop... basically an ICBM that delivers these suits of armor instead of, say, a nuke."

Whitmore stared at him in something akin to genuine horror. "You have that capability?"

Xander just nodded.

"That..." Whitmore frowned, looking down, "My God, man... that makes you people a genuine superpower."

Xander snorted, then laughed bitterly. "That's what it takes? Mr Whitmore, you haven't seen the half of it."

"You could go to the UN council and demand a seat..." He pressed on, "Who could seriously deny it?"

"We probably could," Xander admitted, "But we won't."


"Because we'd gain some legitimacy, but we'd lose most of our operational freedom," Xander replied, "and I'm not willing to make the trade. We need the ability to move through the world like shadows, Sir. Because there are some very real shadows out there that don't obey national borders when causing trouble... like the people who attacked you tonight, apparently."

"What I've been told... it's not even remotely the whole story, is it?" Tom Whitmore asked, sounding very tired.

Xander shook his head, "Not even close, Sir."

Chapter 32

Tara eyed the unconscious men on the ground, carefully stepping over them as the two Marine guards escorting her abruptly drew their weapons.

"I... d-don't think that'll be required," She told them, glancing in.

"Ma'am, please step back behind us," One of the Marines snapped, moving forward quickly.

Tara just raised an eyebrow and walked into the room. "Y... you left a mess in the hallway."

Faith snorted despite her emotional state and shrugged, "Sorry bout that."

"Don't tell me," Tara suggested, "Tell them."

The two Marines had the room covered with the M9 pistols, frowning at the seeming normality of it all. Spencer Trilby held up his identification and other hand to show it was empty.

"Everything's fine here, don't worry about my security, they'll be up in a bit."

"Sir..." One of the Marines hesitated, caught between the scary level of security clearance on the ID and the fact that there had obviously been an altercation, "Are you certain...?"

"Very much so."

Still the Marine hesitated, eyes searching for any sign that the man was under coercion, but everything *inside* the room appeared normal. Finally he took a breath, "Sir, I need to know what happened."

"They pissed me off," Trilby growled at the Marine, "Just like you're starting to. Get out!"

The hesitation was only for an instant this time as the Marine automatically reacted to the order and backed out.

"Yes Sir." He swallowed before vanishing out the door.

They could hear him calling for more security from the hallway.

Trilby snorted, "Smart man. I'd have had him discharged if he'd actually walked away."

The others didn't comment as Tara paused by the bedside and set her small case down. "H... how is he?"

"He's in a coma," Helen answered softly from where she stood by her daughter.

"Can you do anything Tiger?" Faith asked.

Tara took a breath, laying her hands over Harry's body just a few inches above him, and closer her eyes. A few moments later she opened them and nodded, "Yes."

Spencer watched, at first puzzled then completely confused as she clapped her hands together sharply, the sound seeming like a thunderclap more than flesh striking flesh, then began to glide them slowly over the body of his best agent.

"What the f-?" Trilby began, only to be cut off by young Dana.

"Leave her be, Uncle Spence." Dana warned him sharply, "T's our best medic when it comes to the non-science stuff. The Doc's here are supposed to be good, so X sent her to fill in the blanks they didn't know to look at."

It wasn't so much what she said that caused Trilby to do as she said, but the tone in which the order had been delivered. Dana wasn't nearly as young as she should be, the Spy Master thought suddenly. There was a core there that hadn't been before.

Or perhaps he had, he supposed, certainly she'd shown some iron when the terrorists kidnaped her. Taking the key almost certainly would have lead to her death had her father not intervened, yet not taking it would likely have led to a lot more deaths. That same iron, perhaps, but someone... something?... had refined it into steel.

He was distracted from his thoughts when the blond girl, who looked barely older than Dana, opened her eyes.

"His spinal cord has been bruised, but it's not permanent." She said, "I've brought the swelling down there, and in his skull, to a more acceptable level. He should wake up shortly. He won't be able to move his legs for a while, though... So make sure you tell him that it's not permanent, when the swelling goes down completely, he'll be able to walk again."

Helen swallowed, barely able to believe the news, yet having seen Tara in action before. "A... are you sure?"

Tara paused, then nodded, "Yes, I'm very sure. From what's been reported, he was very lucky."

Harry Tasker chose that moment to groan and move his head.


"Helen?" He rasped out as his wife grabbed him, "What... what happened to the Whitmores?"

Helen pulled back, her expression warring between relief and disgust.

"They're fine, dad." Faith said, leaning in. "We got them out."

Harry Tasker blinked, focusing in past his wife to his daughter, and his eyes widened suddenly as he started to push himself up out of the bed.

"Dana!" He half bellowed, "You can't be here! They'll be watching for you..."

Her strong hands pushed him down firmly, "I know, Dad. Don't worry. I'll be ok."

Colonel Harry Mayborne frowned as his phone rang, causing him to glance back involuntarily to be sure that the flatbed was still behind them. It was, though, and he quickly answered the phone as the convoy moved on through the DC night.


Harry was silent for a long moment, then frowned, "Are you sure it's her? Alright, good. Assemble a team and move in, take her into custody. Good work."

He hung up the phone and shook his head, a very slight smile threatening to appear.

Things were going very well indeed.

The smile vanished, replaced by a frown.

Too god damned well, in fact.

"Driver," He said, leaning forward, "I want more security called in."

"Yes Sir."

The NID team moved quickly through the hospital, with the orders given they wasted little time in moving to the Tasker's room. As they approached it, however, they were surprised to find a contingent of armed Marines standing nearby already.

"Hold it," one of the Marines said as he spotted them, his hand dropping to his weapon. "I'm going to need to see your ID."

The lead agent growled, pulling his flip badge and slapping it at the Marine. "Agent Clary, NID. Get the hell out of my way, Jarhead."

The marine scowled at him, but didn't move as he checked the ID. "Alright, so you're NID. So what? What's your business here?"

"My business, what are you stupid? My business is to get your ass transferred to the South pole if you don't get out of my way."

The Marine didn't look particularly impressed.

"That may be sir, but the man inside that room has the authority to have me shot, if I'm reading his ID right, so a little time in a southern climate might be nice."

Clary reddened, shoving the Marine back as he snapped, "God damn it, you do NOT have the authority to get in our way, marine! We have a mandate directly from the President's office, and a warrant for someone in that room. So step aside, or you WILL regret it."

The Marine still didn't move, but he did nod his head back, "Pat, you want to go knock on the door there and tell the people inside that we've got a situation out here."

Trilby was basically in a state of shock as he tried to figure out whether the blond had actually DONE anything, or the timing had been entirely coincidental. As a rule, the American Spy Master didn't believe in coincidence, even though he knew that in theory they did happen. The shock did not, mind you, prevent him from picking up on the conversation that followed Harry's waking.

He filed those away for the moment, though, eyes instead on the blond as she continued to work on his top agent. She'd drawn out from new age herbs and shit from her pack, along with some things that looked decidedly hippy in origin. Crystals and all kinds of crap, except that when she used them the damned things GLOWED.

Harry looked better too, he had to admit, though as she predicted he was unable to move his legs. Spencer hoped to hell she was right about that being temporary.

"Y.. You'll be fine, Mr Tasker," She said, setting her rocks and voodoo herbs down. "Just rest, or you m-might hurt your back permanently."

He nodded weakly just as a rap sounded at the door.

Spencer growled, turning to the door and yanking it open. "WHAT!?"

"Sir, there's some NID men outside who claim to have a warrant to serve." The Marine said as calmly as he could.

Spencer's eyes flared as he stepped out, glaring at the men in suits, "What the HELL are you people talking about?"

"Sir," The lead suit said, his voice sarcastic, "We have a legal mandate, and warrant, to take Miss Dana Tasker in for questioning."

Spencer blinked, but didn't miss a beat, "Dana's missing."

"Miss Tasker is in the room behind you," The suit said simply, "And we have a warrant for her detainment."

"Let me see it," Trilby growled, holding out his hand.

The man produced the warrant instantly, holding it up but not handing it over. Trilby smiled thinly and leaned in slightly before straightening.

"This isn't legal. There are no charges."

"She's not being charged, Sir. She's being detained for questioning."

"You have questions to ask, you ask them here in my presence."

"That's not an option, Sir," The smarmy bastard replied as the men behind him slid their hands under their jackets.

That motion tripped all of Trilby's warning bells and he was in motion before they could react. He drove his elbow into the lead suit's face, mashing his nose into pulp as the men behind him drew their weapons. Trilby looped his arm around the suit, yanking him close as a human shield, even as his other hand snaked into the man's jacket and drew his pistol.

The Marines were a little slower off the draw, but they too had begun to react to the intial motion and their own M9 pistols were sweeping up as Trilby glared at the suits. "Who the fuck are you people!?"

The man he was holding just moaned as blood rushed freely from his nose, the other suits mostly just stared in shock as their boss was held in place by a man who had to be twice his age and looked it.

Behind Spencer, Gib burst through the door with his own gun in hand, automatically sweeping to cover his boss as the Marines looked seriously undecided as to who they were supposed to help. They finally split the difference and covered everybody.

The lead marine took in the situation as his own weapon swept from the suits back to the guy who the security clearance so high it gave him a nosebleed, and moaned internally.

<Ok, my day officially SUCKS.>

Chapter 33

Faith and her parents exchanged glances as they heard the shouting from outside, and Faith sighed as she shook her head.

"I guess visiting hours are over," She said with a twisted smile, "I wish I could stay longer."

"Honey, how are you...?" Helen asked, almost afraid of the answer.

"I'll figure a way." Faith said confidently.

Tara straightened up, "I.. I'll help."

Faith glanced at the blond, raising an eyebrow, but nodded after a moment. "Thanks T."

They moved to the door, watching the ruckus from cover as the Marines spread out a bit and covered both the suits and the Omega agents as the two groups continued their standoff.

"Put your weapons DOWN!" The Lead Marine snapped, sounding pretty pissed off. "I'm only going to tell you one time!"

Neither side seemed to be paying the poor marines much attention, however, as they both shouted orders at each other.

"Let him go!!"

"Back off you asswipes!" Gib growled, "You're not touching Dana!"

The portly man paused, then glanced over at Trilby, "Right?"

"Damn right." Trilby growled in response.

Faith was touched, truly, but at the moment she had other concerns. "We don't have time for this. They'll have backup coming."

"R... right." Tara nodded, eyes shifting to a milky white as she dug deep into her power reserves and thrust her hand out between Gib and Trilby, "Airus Maxius Rush!"

A howl of win tore through the hallway, shattering windows in the room behind them, and funneled right between the two Omega agents, expanding just in time to slap the NID suits with hurricane force winds sufficient to lift them off their feet and throw them physically back over a dozen feet before they landed hard and continued to roll down the wall.

As the wind died, Faith had to grin, "Damn, Tiger, that was too cool."

Tara didn't smile, she looked worn out, but she nodded, "They'll h-have people downstairs."

"I can get passed them."

Tara shook her head, "Go upstairs. The roof. McQueen is there in a Hammerhead, he'll get you out."

Faith stared at Tara, "That's your lift, T."

"I'll be fine. They're not looking for me," Tara told her, swallowing, "I have more work here anyway... J-just tell Xander to pick me up."

Faith hesitated, then nodded, "You got it."

The Slayer turned to a stunned Marine, "Which way to the roof?"

The Marine was still staring down the hall and apparently didn't hear her.

"Hey!" Gib growled, already decided to ignore the impossible, "The lady asked you a question."

The Marine looked back, shaking his head, "What?"

Trilby was in a similar state, but recovered quicker. "The roof, Marine. Show me and my god daughter to the roof."

The Marine looked at the man, then back at the suits, and finally decided that he couldn't go too wrong following the orders of someone with security clearance as high as this guy's. "Roof... right. Uh... this way."

The Marine turned, pointing, and Faith followed him with Spencer Trilby coming along right behind her.

The rest of the Marines stayed in place, staring at Tara, then past her as if trying to determine what the hell had just happened, they weapons not *quite* pointing at Tara.

"Wow, was that ever a weird localized windstorm," Gib said jovially, grasping at straws just as much as trying to distract the Marines. "You guys ever see something like that?"

The Marines stared at him, then slowly shook their head as they looked in at the shattered glass in the hospital room.

"Is everyone in there ok," One of them asked, moving forward with a concerned frown, "You guys didn't get hit by flying glass did you?"

Helen looked shaken, but quickly replied, "N... no."

"Alright," The Marine said slowly, still looking at Tara for a long moment, "I'll get some orderlies up here to move you to a new room."

"Thank you." Helen said sincerely.

The Marine stepped outside, then looked at his buddies. "Alright. I don't know what that was, but Jones, you and Macky keep an eye on the blond while we get the orderlies up here."

The two Marines looked at each other nervously, but nodded.

After the rest had left they found themselves confronted with said blond, looking up at them calmly.

"Yes Ma'am?" One croaked out.

"I need to see the Secrete Service Agents that were brought in," She said, hefting her medical kit. "My boss said they were to get the best treatment possible."

"Uh... Ma'am, you were cleared for Mr Tasker's room, but no one said anything about the Service guys."

"We can wait for Mr Trilby to come back down..."

The Marines exchanged sharp glances, really *spectacularly* unhappy with their options. Finally the senior marine nodded, "Alright, but you just check their charts. Nothing else until we get cleared."

"That's fine." Tara said, gesturing down the hall. "Lead the way."

Spencer Trilby followed his Goddaughter onto the roof, curious as hell to see how she was planning on getting clear of the area that way, but since the blond had come in that way he supposed a chopper would be waiting.

He was shocked, to say the least, to find the holy grail of the intelligence communities sitting right there in plain site. Every Omega Agent had the blurry photos of that class of fighter in their case folders, with orders to report any and all sightings. He froze as Dana kept moving, eyes focusing on the man standing at ready beside the craft.

He looked military, Trilby decided right off. Marine. Definitely Marine. Competent too, which was good, if he was going to fly Dana out of here.

Surprisingly, Trilby realized he wasn't even thinking about capturing the fighter.

"Dana..." He croaked out.

She turned back, looking at him in concern. "Uncle Spence?"

"What are you involved in?" Trilby asked dully.

She smiled, "nothing bad, I swear. We do the same job you do, just for the whole world."

Spencer Trilby stared at her for a long time, and she just looked back steadily. Finally he nodded, "Alright. You'd better go before those NID asswipes come looking."

"Hey, Uncle Spence... could you look out for T for me?" Faith asked hesitantly, "She's family."

Spencer nodded slowly, "She's putting herself in the line for you, Dana. I know she is."

Faith smiled crookedly and nodded, "I'll be seeing, yah, Unc."

"You better!"

Faith grinned, running over to McQueen. "We got to move, Major."

"What about Tara?" McQueen asked tersely.

"We got NID on my ass, Tara is gonna walk out the front door while they chase me." Faith told him, "We got to radio X and tell him to pick her up."

McQueen nodded, climbing up into the fighter. "Well, let's move it."

Faith jumped up easily, swinging into the seat behind McQueen as he thumbed the cockpit shut. The turbine reactors were whining to full power when a group of suits burst out onto the rooftop, guns out as they ran past Trilby toward the fighter.

"Are they serious?" McQueen asked dryly as he thumbed off the main cannon safety without thinking.

"Leave em be, Major," Faith ordered, "They can't stop us now."

"Yes Ma'am." McQueen said, firing the thrusters and taking the fighter up off the roof.

"Commander, we have a problem at the hospital."

Xander frowned, rising up as nervous energy pushed him to move. "What is it?"

"The NID attempted to capture Faith at the hospital."

Xander sighed, but he'd been half expecting that. He knew Faith had been too, but it didn't matter. He was her dad, that mattered. "Attempted?"

"They were stopped and Faith has left the hospital with Major McQueen in the Hammerhead."

Xander nodded, then frowned, "Tara?"

"Still on the premises, she's gone to see the injured Secret Service Agents," Merlin replied. "Requests pickup when possible."

Xander sighed, that sounded like Tara.

"Alright, her current status?"

"Nominal. No indication that the NID or anyone else is seeking her."

"Stay on her. I want every electronic signal in the area monitored, if they mention Tara... inform me immediately."


Xander sighed, "ETA to Dust off?"

"Two hours."

Two hours. Xander sighed, but nodded, "Thank you. We'll be waiting."

"I had no doubt, Commander."

Ames White leaned against the wall as the cop siren wailed past. He looked over at his two remaining men and stared blankly for a long moment.

"What the hell were those things?"

They both shook their head, neither having the slightest clue.

"We need to get back to the local headquarters," Ames decided, "The Society has to hear about this. Come on, let's move."

The three men pushed off the wall and made their way deeper into the city.

Chapter 34

"We're entering Washington airspace now," Doug Masters said as he calmly flipped a toggle and glanced over at Buffy, "You want to check the sensor stealth?"


"The gauge over past your right knee," He said, "It'll be glowing nice a blue if everything's kosher."

"Uh... there's a blue glow, yeah."

"Alright, good, cause I'm reading a swarm of fighter jets up in an orbit over the city."

Buffy looked over sharply, "Are you serious?"

"Hey, someone just pulled a hit on a former President," Doug said dryly, "I'd be shocked, and suspicious as hell, if there weren't any."

"Oh... yeah." Buffy nodded, "So are we ok?"

"Yeah, there's not too many systems around here that can pick us up anyway, and with the shift field charged we're not even showing up visually," Doug said casually as he adjusted the course to avoid a Fighter Wing on patrol, "Not that I want to get too close anyway... Might catch one of those poor bastards in our dirty air and send them down into the city out of control."

Buffy spared him a worried look, but Doug just chuckled.

"Don't worry, I'm keeping a close watch on them all. We're well under their flight paths for the most part anyway, but I've been keeping away from them anyway. Besides, our birds don't put out much dirty air compared to Earth tech, I just don't like taking chances."

Buffy nodded, not really understanding, but taking him at his word. She supposed Xander trusted him for a reason, because she knew that Xander wouldn't let someone he didn't trust take command of pulling him and his people out of potential trouble.

"How'd you meet Xander?" She asked after a moment, eyes on the city below as it rushed by.

"Huh? Oh," Doug grinned, "Really it was sort of a mid air thing."


"Well, I'd met him before that, sort of... he didn't make an impression then, but I had some trouble with my plane and had to bail out with a bad chute. Xander met me halfway down and give me a... lift," Doug told her, a smile playing at his lips as she turned to look at him in shock.

"Are you serious??"

"Unfortunately." Doug smiled, "He made up for his lacking in the first impressions department."


"There's the warehouse," Doug said, nodding ahead. "Looks pretty clean. I'm going to hover just off the edge of the old dockfront. You want to go back and tell them to open the door for our boys and girls?"

Buffy nodded and ducked out of the flight cabin as the Orca began to drop from the sky toward the waterfront. In the back three members of the 'Cadre' were already suited up in light armor and getting weapons ready just in case.

"We're almost there," She told them, feeling a little silly as she did, because it was obvious that they knew.

The trio just nodded curtly, not giving her much more attention than that as they went about their jobs. Not exactly a warm reception, but Buffy could live with that. She just wanted to make sure that Xander was safe, and they were there for that too. They even seemed a little enthusiastic about that, she'd found earlier when she'd listened in on their whispered conversations.

Xander had a serious reputation among his people, even though not all of them had worked with them before. From what Buffy could tell some of them had joined up specifically because they'd heard he was leading this group. That wasn't true of them all, maybe not most from what she'd already heard, but even those who'd signed on for other reasons seemed a little in awe of his reputation within the group itself.

That was of the good, though, Buffy decided. More people who looked up to Xander was more people looking to watch their backs. All of their backs. That was important.

The lights in the cabin flickered to red, pulling Buffy out of her musing as a chime sounded.

"We're dropping down, boys and girls," Doug's voice sounded, "The LZ looks clean and we've got blue smoke from the team, but stick to the drill."

The group just grunted, literally Buffy noticed, in response and finished clearing their weapons as the door light flickered, then began flashing in a pattern Buffy didn't know. They knew it, however, and were moving even before Buffy noticed that the door was opening.

They jumped out onto the dock side, weapons tracking the night as figures appeared from the warehouse and started moving toward the transport. Buffy kept a hand on her own sword, but remained by the door as the group jogged across.

"Right this way, Mr President," The lead figure said as they approached, motioning to the unarmored man and his family.

They ran past, into the transport as the armored figure paused, "So how was the ride, Buff?"

"Xander?" Buffy looked way up at the imposing figure.

"Yeah, we scramble everything so the government can't get voice Ids on our Operators," Xander said, and Buffy could hear the smile in his voice.

The others were all loaded on board quickly, and the team Buffy had rode in with quickly closed up the rear, nodding to Xander as they ducked inside.

"Alright, lets get moving." Xander helped Buffy back inside, then climbed in himself. "Oh James! Walter Reed if you please!"

Doug Masters' voice was less than amused, "Hilarious, Xan. Keep it up, maybe we'll toss you out on the way."

"Only if you go first without a chute, Dougy boy."

Tara was sweating by the time she finished looking at the two agents. They'd been hurt bad, worse than Mr Tasker had been, and the strain of it was wearing on her. The first had been shot, leaving nasty, blazing, holes in his aura where the wounds had torn up his flesh and muscle. Patching those hadn't been too hard, but she'd had to link into his aura to do so, and the sensation of the burning wounds still screamed at her from her breasts and shoulder.

The other, however, had been far, far, worse.

The burns covered eight tenths of his body, leaving him in a mercifully numbed condition. The human body simply didn't feel pain at that point because the nerve endings were all burned away.

Tara's were not, however.

She shuddered, shaking all over as she leaned on the door outside the room and just sat there a long moment.

She could still feel the searing fire creeping along her own nerves, something unnatural about it as if it were still lingering around the Agent, still trying to burn him. It left a bad taste in her mouth, though she barely noticed it compared to the amazing pain.

Tara didn't even know if she'd been able to help, all she knew was that the Agent was lucky to still be alive... if one considered that to be luck. Whatever had burned him had done it's very best to turn what was left of his life into a never ending moment of agony.

"My God, Tara? Is that you?"

Tara opened her eyes, blinking as they shifted in and out of focus. She barely recognized the man approaching, but really couldn't figure out from where.

"You know the young lady, Jack?"

"I do, yeah, Hal," Jack Ryan said as the two men quickly approached, "She works with Harris. Tara? Are you alright?"

"Xander sent me to make sure the three agents got the best care," She said weakly, finally placing the man. "I've been training as... as the group medic."

Jack's eyes widened as he remembered both what Xander Harris considered 'medical treatment', and what this young girl was capable of.

Hal, however, had never really witnessed either. "You?? You're just a little girl!"

Tara looked over at the man, but was distracted when a group of men in suits burst into the hallway.

"That's her, Sir!"

"You sure?"

"I swear to god!"

Hal and Jack turned to see the men rushing them, the man in the lead glaring at Tara as his hand rested on his weapon.

"Ma'am, you're under arrest... Make no moves, or I'll be forced to open fire."

"What the HELL do you people think you're doing!?" Jack Ryan snarled instantly, interposing himself between the suit and the young lady.

"Sir, I'm with the NID, and this lady is under arrest for assaulting my men."

Jack smirked, "She's obviously SUCH a large threat that I'm shocked, shocked I say, that any of your men survived."

Hal chuckled as one of the Marine's nearbye let out a strangled snort.

The NID man eyed the man blocking him with some trepidation. The last time they tried strong arm tactics, they ran into the head of Omega Sector, an organization that actually superceded NID authority in most areas. These two looked like government types as well, but the man quickly decided that they were USSS agents, the older one probably the AIC of the Whitmore detail.

"Step aside now, or we'll move you." He said, "This young 'woman' is to be taken into custody."

"On whose authority," Jack snarled in return.


Jack snapped his hand out, ID in clear sight, "I'm John Patrick Ryan, Director, CIA. You better damn well have more authority than that."

The man snapped back, shocked. What in the name of HELL was the Director of the CIA doing here, and how did he get involved?? He shook his head, clearing it as he refocused his glare, "You have no jurisdiction here."

"Perhaps not," The other man said, stepping forward as he lifted his own ID, "but I do."

"Who the FUCK are you!?" The man asked, getting really frustrated.

"Hal Brognola, Justice Department." The man growled, "I'm in charge of little things like the FBI, State Law Enforcement Agencies, the DEA, the BATF... maybe you've heard of us?"

The NID agent almost crumpled in shock as he stepped back involuntarily from the man jokingly referred to as the 'Head Fed'. While not actually in charge of those agencies, he WAS in charge of making sure they worked together instead of at odds with each other, and as such he had a lot of swing in the upper echelons of law enforcement.

More than he should, actually, the NID man knew. Rumor had it he also ran a covert anti-terrorist group that operated within and without the borders of the Nation. Hell, the wildest rumors had it that Mack Bolan used to answer to this guy, back when that nutbag was alive.

As a side note, he also controlled a sizeable portion of the NID's legitimate funding.

"Marine." Jack Ryan growled.


"I want you to escort these men out of the hospital." Jack said, "If they object, or try to come back here and in any way bother Miss Maclay... shoot them in the head."

The Marine smiled nastily, then paused, "Jack Ryan, right Sir? CIA?"

"That's right, Marine."

The Marine nodded, drawing his sidearm. "Semper Fi, Sir."

The NID men fell back as the marine guards all pulled their weapons and advanced toward them.

"Sirs, please... resist."

Chapter 35

"Good to have you with us, Mr President."

Thomas Whitmore looked over at the man who was smiling easily at him and nodded, "Thanks... but I'm not the President anymore. You can just call me Tom."

The man smiled a bit wider and shook his head, "I don't think that'll be happening, Sir. Just wanted to say that we're glad you're ok."

"Well thank you," Whitmore said, leaning back. "Thank you very much."

The others each said much of the same, leaning forward in the cramped position as they greeted him and his family. Marylin was her usual self, the perfect First Lady despite everything, and Tom had to thank God again that he'd found someone like her. No, not someone like her... Her. He looked over as Harris pulled his helm off again and smiled and chatted with a brunette woman. He found himself leaning over to listen as he could.

"So this is what you do with your life now?" The woman asked, smiling.

"Not all that different than what we used to do back home, you know," Harris responded easily, "Save the world, or save the people in it... it's all good."

Whitmore saw the woman look over at him, her eyes resting on his for a moment.

"So you were the President?" She asked him directly, surprising him.

"Uh... well, yes, I was." Whitmore replied, surprised.

"What happened to... Was is President Fowler?" She asked Harris, looking over and seeming confused.

Whitmore blinked, surprised. He'd taken Fowler in the election, the man had never been President.

"Whitmore won the election in this timeline," Harris said without missing a beat. "A lot of key supporters changed horses in mid election."

The woman nodded slowly, "Do you know why?"

"Some residual bleed over from the previous timeline is our best guess," Harris replied, "I think that there were some people who kept at least some vague impressions of what had happened... a few of them in positions of power."

Whitmore's eyes widened in confusion as the woman nodded.

"Yeah, I'll bet they wanted to avoid what happened to put Mr Ryan in the Office, huh?"

Harris chuckled mirthlessly, "The near total decapitation of the US Government? You might say that."

That was it, Whitmore had to ask.

"What are you talking about?" He blurted out.

Harris just smiled at him, "You'll be fully briefed soon, if you choose to be, Tom. For now, just sit back and enjoy the ride... we've got a couple stops to make before we can clear out."

"What stops?"

"First we pick up Tara at Walter Reed," Harris told him, "Then we recover our man."

Whitmore nodded, hearing the hard tone filter into Harris' voice as he spoke. He'd heard that before, during his time in the military, and knew what it would mean.

He sighed, "I understand."

"Xander sent you here alone?" Jack asked Tara when they were alone, the Marines having 'escorted' the NID off the premises.

Tara smiled weakly, "No, b-but I was separated. I-it's ok, he's coming."

"Here? Harris is coming here?" Hal demanded, "Is Whitmore with him??"

She looked at him for a moment, then back at Jack.

"Is he?" Jack echoed the question.

Tara nodded, "Yes."

"We'll thank God for that," Hal muttered, "I can call in Able, and we'll make sure that the Whitmore's are taken somewhere safe..."

Tara smiled, "I... I don't think Xander will go f-for that."

Hal glowered, but Tara was pretty much unaffected.

"Well, we'll talk with them." Jack said, "Where are they going to meet you?"

Tara looked at him for a long moment, then tilted her head, "For you... On the roof, Sir."

"Come on, let's go." Jack said, standing up.

"I'll call in Able Team anyway." Hal muttered, pulling out a phone.

Walter Reed looked quiet as they dropped toward the helipad, the shift field fully engaged. Doug leaned back, sliding open the door between the cabin and the passenger compartment, "Look alive, boss man, we've got company on the roof."

Xander moved forward in his armor, "Got an ID?"

Doug shrugged, "I don't know em... other than Tara mind you."

"She ok?"

"Looks ok... no guns, not out in the open anyway. She's calm."

"Alright, set us down." Xander said, drawing up his armored helm. "We'll check em out in person."

"Your call."

The transport set down smoothly on the rooftop just as the Cadre crew threw open the door and Xander lunged out.

"Holy shit!" Gadgets Schwartz yelped as the huge figure appeared from nowhere, gun tracking.

Pol and Iron Man both jumped just as high, but went for their own guns on instinct. They had them half up before they realized that the figure had shifted the weapon to it's shoulder and was ambling forward casually.

"No one said anything about guests, Tare."

"T-they followed me home, can we keep t-them?"

The team, along with Jack and Hal, did a double take that started the large figure chuckling. "I don't know, I don't think Carl is housebroken."

The members of Able Team looked at each other, then back.

"That's GOT to be Harris." Politician Blancanales said, shaking his head.

Gadgets nodded, "Yeah, but he does have a point about Carl."

"God damn it Harris!" Jack Ryan snarled, "Is that you!?"

"It's me, Jack," Xander said calmly, "Run into Tara did you?"

"What the HELL happened tonight!?"

"What? No small talk?" Xander asked.

Jack just glared up at him, completely unintimidated by the armor. "Where are the Whitmores!?"

"We're alright, Jack." Tom Whitmore said tiredly from behind them, stepping out of the transport. "Thanks you Mr Harris and his people."

"Thank God, Sir."

"Mr Whitmore, I have a team here that can provide protection while we move you to a secure place..." Hal said, stepping forward.

Whitmore glanced at Xander, his expression questioning.

The large armor shrugged, "I can vouch for Able Team, sir. Personally, that is. They're the best...."

"But against those... psionics?"

"They won't last five seconds, Mr Whitmore." Xander said, his voice sounding tired. "Sorry, guys, but you won't. You're not trained to respond to that level of threat."

The team glanced at each other as Hal growled, but Pol cut him off. "If Xander says it, Hal... we have to believe it. There's not a human threat on the planet we can't kick in the ass, but we've seen some things..."

Hal looked at his domestic team and frowned. "I know you guys saw some strange things the last time you met him, but..."

Carl laughed bitterly, "You don't know the half of it, Hal."

"I want a full brief on these people, Xander," Jack growled, "Every damned detail."

"You'll get it, Jack." Xander promised, "But honestly, all we have now are guesses. But I'll get you the details on the talents they've fielded tonight."

Jack Ryan rubbed his forehead, but nodded, "Fine. That'll do. What are you going to do with the Whitmores?"

"For now, I'll move them to the safest place on the planet." Xander said, "And we'll start hunting down whoever set this attack up... but until we figure out who..."

"You can't guarantee their safety." Jack finished, nodding.

He and Hal looked at each other for a long moment, then both sighed.

"Fine. Mr Whitmore, if you're going of your own free will... it's probably for the best," Jack said after a moment.

"I am. Thank you." Tom Whitmore said.

Jack turned back to Xander, "You never told me about this new capability of yours, Harris."

"It was... untested before tonight, Jack. Needs must..."

"When the devil drives," Jack snorted, "Yes... I'm familiar with that situation. We need to talk. Soon."

"You know how to get a hold of me," Xander told him.

"Unfortunately." Jack countered dryly. "Expect a visit."

"We'll be waiting," Xander said, turning back to the transport.

"Expect someone from my team too, Harris," Hal growled, "We need to talk about you fielding military equipment inside a United States city!"

The armored figure paused and glanced back, "Hey, I made less of a mess than Carl usually does."

"He's got a point there too," Gadgets said.

"Shut up!" Hal snapped at them, holding up a finger, then turning back to Xander, "And using them as a meter stick is ANOTHER thing we need to talk about. I've got enough ulcers already without having to worry about you living up to the legacy of these nitwits."

"Hey!" Carl growled.

Xander just chuckled and helped both Mr Whitmore and Tara back on the transport, "Cya Jack, Hal... guys. Drop by sometime and we'll have us a nice barbeque on me."

The door of the transport slammed shut as Gadgets and Pol grinned, exchanging glances with Iron Man.

"Oh we're THERE."

Chapter 36

"One more stop." Xander said from within his armor as the APC skimmed rooftops, staying well under the Combat Air Patrol above the city, heading fast to the locator beacon from Devrie's armor foldcom.

"What's going to happen there?" Thomas Whitmore asked, leaning forward, concerned.

"We'll... negotiate." Xander told him, the distortion making it hard to read any feelings in his voice.

"Please tell me you're not going to kill United States soldiers, Mr Harris."

Xander paused, then shook his head, "Won't be necessary. They don't know our capabilities, so they've only called in light to medium infantry support. Without heavy antitank weaponry, they don't have anything that can seriously threaten my team."

Whitmore looked at the armor again, eyes flitting over it, "You're kidding."

"No. I am not." Xander told him dryly. "The fact is, the suits are rated to withstand more than An Abrams main battle tank... and they're a lot harder to hit. We're working up an assault plan now."

Whitmore frowned, he hadn't heard any planning between them.

What the former president didn't know was that Xander's attention was only about ten percent on the conversation he was having. The rest was linked with the remaining team members, drawing up attack plans to handle the NID convoy through the suit's shared battle network. Even as he spoke, Xander was running through the third simulated assault, refining tactical options as he went.

The NID convoy had recieved support, but as he'd told Mr Whitmore there was nothing in the column heavier than some light anti-armor, and little enough of that. Apparently the NID had decided that bringing in heavier battlefield equipment wouldn't be... political.

Another point against ever coming 'out' with the Knighthood, Xander thought wryly. Politics wasn't part of his game plan at the moment, and he had an APC load of heavy battlefield rated gear ready to roll. If the NID knew what they were really up against, it would be easy... Only a suicidal nutcase would want to face down a few armored units like he had at the moment.

The fact that they didn't know, however, made things a bit trickier. Xander figured that he'd need a little 'shock and awe' in order to get the point across.

With the help of Dade, Hicks, and Kate, he thought he could manage to put across just enough for the job.

Washington was beginning to fade in their rearview and Maybourne was starting to relax a bit. With the city behind them he was starting to think they just might get away with this without a hitch, unlikely as that seemed.

The armor fit the description he'd pulled from the SG report files on the one time it had been seen prior to this event, and if that was true it meant that the group behind this little debacle were the same ones who helped take down the Goa'uld mothership a couple years back.

Now Harry didn't buy that Atlantean special forces bullshit, but he did damn well buy that they'd lucked into some cache of ancient weapons here on Earth that somehow had escaped the many sweeps the government had been making since the late fifties. It took some lucky ass stumbling on it to bring it to anyones attention, then to top it all off, they damned well managed to hide it with every government on the planet looking for it.

It was Maybourne's most dreaded nightmare to wake up some morning to the news that the Chinese had located this island fortress called 'Avalon' and claimed it before the US could. The very thought sent shivers down his spine whenever it managed to sneak into his head.

He was so caught up in those thoughts that Maybourne was completely taken by surprise when a shadow detached itself from the night sky and slammed down into to hood of the Hummer he was riding in like a sledge hammer.

The driver let out a curse, swerving as the armored hood of the Hummer caved in, and the hulking figure reached forward to brace itself against the roof. Maybourne looked up, paling as he saw the fingers of the figure tear through the metal roof as it grabbed on.

"Shake it off!" He yelled at the driver.

The driver tried, but the figure hung on tenaciously, suddenly producing an assault weapon single handedly, and shoved the barrel into the armored windscreen. The glass shattered as the muzzle of the rifle drove through it, right into the face of the driver, and the air reverberated with a voice.

"Pull over."

As much as he'd like to, Harry couldn't blame the driver when he did as he was told. Especially when he got a better look at the rifle in question. It *wasn't* alien tech, it was good old fashioned... or not so old fashioned, earth tech. Unfortunately it was an M41 Pulse Rifle, the only battle rifle rated by the US military as anti-armor.

Oh sure, it couldn't rip through something like the armor of a Main Battletank, but it would do a pretty decent job on any lightly armored APC, and it would tear the hummer they were riding in to shreds. What it would do to the driver, who was staring down the ten millimeter muzzle, well even Harry wouldn't order the guy to invite being shot by that. Well, not since it wouldn't do any of them any good if he had anyway.

As the Hummer stopped, Harry twisted around to see the flatbed behind them twisted across the road, it's axle apparently torn right off the frame as two other armored figures tore the doors off the truck and yanked the two agents from the cab.

"Well," Harry commented dryly as the figure on the hood of his Hummer hopped down onto the asphalt, "I suppose I was tempting the fates by thinking we'd got away from DC clean."

"You have no idea," The figure said as it walked around the Hummer and wrapped it's hands into the door and simply tore it clean off the frame.

"Now was that really necessary??" Harry objected dryly as he climbed out on his own power. "These things cost taxpayer money, you know."

"We decided it would be better to impress on you the futility of trying to fight back, Colonel."

Harry scowled up at the imposing figure, straightening his uniform, "You have me at something of a disadvantage."

"I'm sure it won't be the first time," The figure replied dryly.

Harry sighed, rolling his eyes. <Great. A smart ass.>

"Fine. I take it this is about the armor?"

"No. It's about who's IN the armor, Colonel. We had to leave our man on the scene in order to accomplish the mission, but we don't leave our men behind for long if it can be helped."

<Oh great. A bleeding heart. This is just fucking fabulous.> Harry groaned internally, "I don't suppose you'd permit us to forward the body somewhere? First class?"

"Oh I think we'll pick it up now..."

Harry heard shouting and glanced back as several of his men came running up from the chase vehicles with rifles and LAW rocket launchers. Harry glanced back at the figure, trying to determine the situation. The rifles were likely to be ineffective, but he eyed the armor carefully and started mental calculations on the impact of the LAWs.

"Forget about it," The figure advised him, "They don't have the equipment to do serious damage to our armor."

"Someone did a good job on the other guy," Harry countered as the soldiers lined up, leveling weapons, and the armored figures did the same in return. "I say we take our chances."

"The opposition at the Whitmores home was... a lot more capable than your detachment, Colonel. The man who took out our man could have destroyed a battalion of Abrams tanks. Thinking about that for a moment before you do something stupid."

Harry Maybourne swallowed, considering. There was the chance that the man was bluffing, a good chance of that too in Harry's opinion. Balancing that, however, was the fact that he knew this equipment was almost certainly based on Ancient technology... so there was at least an equal chance that there was no bluff.

Harry held up his hand.

"Good move, Colonel."

"Don't congratulate me yet," Harry countered, "This isn't a surrender. I'm still talking, until that's done, they know better than to cross me. I'm still leaning toward taking my chances."

"That would be a very bad career plan."

"About as bad as giving up the tech goldmine of the millenium without a fight?" Harry countered.

"You have a point," The armored man said, "Kate? Take them out."

Harry's eyes widened and he started to turn and scream an order to fire, but bolts of lightning from the sky tore into the ranks of his men, blasting them to the ground with precision bursts. In a few seconds it was all over, and none of the armed men were left standing.

"You bastard!"

"They're still breathing, Colonel." The armored figure told him, "We're just here to recover one of our own."

Harry's eyes widened as a shimmer of light caught his eye and he saw a bulky transport appear over the flatbed, shimmering into sight. Cables dropped from it and he watched as two armored figures climb up and connect them to the armor in the bed. He watched helplessly as it winched the armor up and away, then looked at the figure again.

"Who the hell are you people... really, I mean? Not that sugar coated rose colored bullshit you fed O'Neill."

The armor seemed to shrug, "We're the Knighthood, Colonel. We're here to keep the planet turning, and keep mankind alive long enough for us to take our place in the much larger universe out there."

"That's not your job! It's MY job!"

"Colonel, we have a saying in our line of work..." The figure said as a line swept over to him and he grabbed it easily, twisting it around his hand. "We have no competitors. Only allies, and Enemies."

The line swept taught, pulling the armor up and away from Harry as it finished.

"You don't want us as enemies, Colonel."

Colonel Harry Maybourne watched as the armored figure was pulled up into the transport, which then shimmered into nothing and vanished into the night like a bad dream.

"Great." He cursed, kicking the ground. "What a fucking smart ass."

"No Competitors, only Allies and Enemies..." Harry mimicked the parting comments, looking around before heading back into the Hummer to get at the radio. "We'll see who doesn't want who as enemies."

"Congratulations," Xander said as he drew his helm off again and looked around the crowded APC. "Mission accomplished."

The other members of the team looked at him and nodded soberly, not as enthused as they had been now that Devries' body was resting between them. Whitmore was pale, hiding his wife and daughter's eyes, and Xander didn't blame him.

"Ok, cover him up," Xander said after a moment, "and put a stasis field around him. Doug?"

"Already heading home, boss." Doug said, a little less enthusiastic himself, "We'll be there... just under three and a half hours at max."

"Thanks, Doug." Xander said, looking over at Buffy, "You ok?"

She nodded, eyes on the ruptured armor as it was covered over. "Yeah. What hit him?"

"That's a question I want answered myself, Buff... though, honestly, I'm far more interested in who... and why."

Chapter 37


"I don't see the need for all this..."

"Mom!" Dawn practically yelled at Joyce, "This is Mister *Whitmore*, We have to look good."

"Jeez, squirt, I thought you were still pissed with Xander." Buffy told her younger sister wryly.

Dawn glared at her openly, "What is between Xander and me is between us. Private. I'm not gonna humiliate him in front of the entire group here just cause he hid some stuff from me."

Joyce frowned at both of them, trying quite firmly to keep from speaking up and starting another fight. There were things she obviously didn't understand yet, and while perhaps she didn't need to understand them completely, she did need to take care. Young Mr Harris, it was becoming impossible to think of him as 'Xander' any more, had obviously become quite important to both her daughters, even if Dawn and He seemed to be at something of an impasse.

What she could do about it, however, was something Joyce honestly couldn't answer. She calmly continued to get dressed on the urgings from her daughters, putting on one of the Night Club dresses she'd owned in LA and hadn't even though about in years. She was... relieved that it still fit so well, actually.

When they were ready Joyce took her daughters out, being led by Buffy, and they moved through the facility to the reception that had been announced on the open deck they'd arrived on. There were *throngs* of people there she realized with shock, more people than she'd thought were in the facility.

She watched as a group dressed in some sort of uniform jogged past a man who was pulling them out one at a time, giving them a fast brush down, then nodding to each in turn as they took up positions.

<What on earth are they doing?>

As they approached she could hear the brash sounding black man snarl at one of the uniformed women.

"Jesus Fucking Christ, Vasquez, where did you store your Dress Blacks?? In the laundry lint filter!?" The man snarled, rolling a cigar around in his teeth. "She-it woman, The Commander is bringing *Whitmore* back, not Kealty."

"Sorry Sarge," The hispanic woman looked abashed, "I didn't think I'd need it so fuckin soon after earlier and..."

Joyce couldn't help but be amused as the black man produced a lint brush from *somewhere* and started running it over the woman's uniform as he continued to mutter and shake his head.

"I don't know why I bother with you bunch of pansies," He grumbled, his cigar flicking around as he rapidly and efficiently de-linted the uniform, neither he nor the woman seemed perturbed in the slightest when he ran the brush over her chest and waist with cool efficiency.

Vasquez suppressed a smirk, letting the Sergeant continue muttering as he rapidly cleaned off her blacks.

Joyce just closed her eyes, shaking her head slightly as she and her daughters moved past and were quickly greeted by a heavyset man.

"Miss Summers, Buffy... and you must be Dawn," He said, nodding to each of them, "I'm glad to see you here, the Commander will be here in a few minutes."

Joyce nodded as Buffy spoke up, "Hi, General. How'd it go?"

"They lost a man," Grey said grimly, "Unexpected resistance... I'm sure the Commander will make the information available to you later, but for now we're still sifting through the mission data."

Buffy frowned, "They were all in armor, weren't they?"

Grey nodded, "Yes, that's true."

"I haven't seen much that can get through your armor, General... Was it demonic?"

"No. Our information clearly showed that it was something else, something we weren't expecting to see." Grey sighed, "It's hard to explain, Ma'am... Buffy... Best let the Commander do it."

"Alright. Thank you, General." Buffy said softly.

Grey nodded and moved on as Joyce stared at her daughter, "You seem VERY comfortable with these people."

"They've saved a lot of people, Mom... Including me... including you." Buffy countered, "So I'm pretty comfortable with them."

Joyce' lips were a hard line, but she didn't say anything else as she watched the men and women move quickly to form ranks.

"Incoming transport APC!"

Ranks of men and women stiffened to attention as Joyce jumped in shock when a flash of white light preceded the appearance of another of the bulky looking things they'd arrived in just the day before.


Soldiers snapped up, weapons to their shoulder as the side door opened and Joyce recognized the first man out. Her eyes widened in surprise, even though she'd known who it was supposed to be.

<Good lord, it really is President Whitmore...> She thought, surprised.

The man, his wife, and their daughter stepped down from the APC to the hard stone deck of the flight area. They looked pale and ashen, but their heads were up and they walked with a calm demeanor that she recognized from when she'd seen them on television at various official functions. Behind them a hulking group appeared in the door and Joyce' breath caught as she saw the armor her daughter spoke of for the first time.

There were four of them, two in the lead, shoulder to shoulder, with another held between them. The second group of two took up the rear, holding up the back of a fifth suit that was laid out on it's back.

"Present... Arms!"

A flash of steel glinted as over a hundred rifles rose to the shoulders of the men and women forming two ranks for the group to walk between. Joyce stared in shock as a soft, mournful music began to vibrate through the air, it's tone unearthly and it's source uncertain.

They walked between the rifles, marching in cadence with the music, while Tara, the other Buffy, and a man Joyce didn't recognize took up the rear. There was silence except for the music as they marched across the huge flight deck and vanished into the interior of the island. Joyce could feel the tension in her chest, the sorrow and anger in the room, and she wondered at it. She didn't even know the man, but she was fighting to keep her features fixed.

Whatever else these people were, they took what they dead deathly seriously. There was no sense of waste in the room, no questions of why the man had died. Joyce could feel that from the people around her. There was just sorrow... and anger.

Cordelia shivered as she cowered back from the flight deck.

She'd come out to see what was happening, but while the first swell of fierce exuberance that spilled through the room at the sight of the Whitmore family had been... thrilling to experience, the hammering waves of sorrow and rage at the death of one of their own was almost enough to drive her insane.

She stumbled down an empty passageway, bouncing off the walls as she tried to block it out, remembering her centering exercises and calling up her own emotions to counter the sensation, but it still burst through her defenses that an angry sea through broken flood gate.

"This way, Miss Chase."

She looked up, startled, but recognized the man called Merlin and nodded almost blindly as she stumbled after him. He opened a door for her, then quickly sealed it behind her and she felt a shiver run through her as something began to... scratch at the back of her mind. The sensation wasn't pleasant in the least, but it drowned out the emotions and she found herself able to breath again.

"You should not have come up here," Merlin told her calmly.

"I... I know that now." She collapsed against a wall, sliding down to sit on the floor. It shivered under her and she felt herself being lifted up and cushioned as the hard rock became something... else.

"One of your apparent strength would require training before even approaching a normal service, this one.... was bound to be different," Merlin stated, shaking his head as he caused a tall glass of liquid to appear. "Drink. It will help."

She hesitated, but then took the drink and downed it quickly. It burned as it slid down her throat, but she felt it unclench her muscles wherever the burning spread, and soon she was almost relaxed.

"With the rescue of the Whitmores, and the death of Lieutenant Devries, the Knighthood has it's first Martyr... a Man killed not in combat against an army, but against monsters who would take a child." Merlin said sternly, watching over her, "The emotions in that room were such that an untalented person would not be blind to them. For you... well, you've seen for yourself."

Cordy laughed dryly, "Yeah. No kidding. God why do I have this... *curse*!?"

Merlin was silent for a moment, "To the untrained, it is a curse... for you, perhaps you might yet master it. In the hands of someone with the will to use it, to tame it... it is a formidable weapon."

"I don't NEED weapons, I don't want this!"

"Nevertheless, you have it. So I put it to you, Miss Chase, will it control you? Or you, it?" Merlin said sternly, surprising her. "Because there is no third option."

He was silent for a moment, then frowned deeply, "Should you choose to master it... I will apprentice you."

She looked up sharply, "You?"

He smiled at her, "I am called Merlin for a reason, young Miss Chase... and that reason is not because I use magic. You and the Commander have many things in common, I can see now. He too has a rather high potential for empathy, as well as other talents. Unlike Mr Maro, however, the Commander's partner is a full bond. She has expressly suppressed his talents, keeping them carefully in check because he must learn to walk before he can run. You do not have that option, and I have found myself debating whether to entrust you with training, or permit the madness to take you... As an insane empath, you would be no threat to anyone but yourself. As a trained empath... well, that is another matter entirely."

Cordelia stared at him, something akin to horror in her eyes.

"There are many, both in the old Empire, and in this modern world, that would mush prefer to see you dead... I admit, I am not entirely convinced that would not be for the best," Merlin told her flatly. "However, this mission has changed things. There are others out there establishing Psionic lines of power... they MUST have been doing so for centuries or more to have produced two combat rated Psi agents. Such talents were all but wiped out a long time past, their scions swept from the face of the Earth. After Atlantis fell, the few remaining talents wasted their potential, becoming warlords and charlatans that preyed on the weaker until the 'weak' rose up and slew them one by one. Someone has spent a great deal of time nurturing the remnants of those disgraces, and I will know who."

He looked to her for a long time, then spoke again, "And you... Miss Chase... will help me find them."

"Sweet Jesus am I glad to get out of this thing," Dade muttered as he peeled himself out of the armor and stumbled slightly across the floor.

Kate nodded in agreement as she tried to scrape the rapidly drying gel from her body, "Agreed. They are useful things, and comfortable in their own way... yet..."

"Yeah," Dade answered her unspoken comment, "yet they feel some good coming off. Like peeling off a scab... a little pain, but damn does it feel good to get rid of."

Xander smiled slightly at the conversation, but he and Hicks didn't speak as they exchanged more solemn glances. He had a feeling that Dade was suppressing, trying not to think about Devries. Kate, well she was former Mossad. She'd seen more than her share of death, and Xander wasn't going to begrudge her the way she chose to deal with it.

For himself, he was going to seriously think about getting drunk tonight. Not stinking falling down drunk, but at least a little buzzed. Probably with the squad and some other Cadre members. After that he was going to his room and he was going to sleep for a long time.

On the morrow, he'd have to deal with things.

On the morrow.

Chapter 38

"Th... that was..." Willow swallowed hard.

"A dead person," Jenny said flatly as she watched the reaction of the youths.

Willow shook a little bit, surprising her. Even the two boys were a little pale and shaken.

"You've been around these people for how long and this shakes you up?" She asked.

"We... don't see a lot of dead bodies." Jessie admitted after a moment.

"Especially not the good guys." Jonathan finished.

Jenny snorted, "Then you're being sheltered. Make no mistake there, Harris and Giles are protecting you from reality. Good people die in this war, they have died for thousands of years, and they will go on dying for thousands more if we're very, very, lucky."

"Lucky!?" Willow demanded hotly, even indignantly.

"Because the only other option is far worse," Jenny told her coldly, "That there are no more good people left to fight."

She sighed as the children looked downcast, and conceded that perhaps protecting them from some of the harsher realities wasn't the worst thing Harris could have done for them. At least so far, however they had to understand what they were getting into, if they were going to make a serious choice about their lives.

"Come." She said, nodding back toward their rooms. "I think we've seen enough here."

There wasn't much left to see, actually. With the main attractions, Harris, The Whitmores, and the body gone, the majority of the crowd had quickly dispersed to continue doing their jobs and prepare for whatever else was to come. They left the area, working back through the halls until they reached the rooms assigned to Jessie, Willow, and Jonathan. Jenny joined them inside the large communal room that joined the three together.

"This is a war," She said as she sat down, talking to them all, but directing her real focus to Willow. "People die. By choosing to be part of it, you take your life... and the lives of others, into your own hands. That's something you have to consider before you do anything that would bring you... further into this world."

They all nodded, but Jenny saw that her point had been caught by Willow as the young girl paled slightly and nodded with a little emphasis that the other two didn't have.


She could be taught. That was a good starting point.

Tara shivered a little as she let herself sit down in the large chair that was the centerpiece of her room here on Avalon. She thought about the body that had shared the trip back with them and couldn't help but wonder if she'd have been able to do something if she'd gone along for the initial mission.

She wasn't a fighter, not really, and she knew it. She lacked what Xander called the commitment, the mental choice to commit herself to a death blow. Xander had told her before that it wasn't something to be ashamed of, not even in their line of work, but she wasn't sure that was true. Some people didn't deserve... didn't have the *right*, to go on as they were.

She sighed, however, and shook slightly as she reached out.

A display shimmered to life in front of her, bringing up the text where she'd left off, and Tara forced herself to continue reading.

There was more to life than fighting, Xander told her that often. Tara knew it was true, but sometimes it was easy to forget when everyone around you was a warrior. Sometimes, Tara couldn't help but wonder how she'd fallen in with them. How was it that Xander had just happened to be there that day, and why he'd come back for her after he rescued Mikki?

Why was she worth the effort?

Faith looked up as Xander stepped into the room, nodding at him and then again at the elder, and original Buffy behind him. "Hey."

"Hey." Buffy said softly. "How's your dad?"

"He'll be good... thanks to T. Good call, X. Thanks."

"He's family, Faith. No need to thank me." Xander shrugged, "Should have had Tara on a Hammerhead before we launched."

Faith shook her head, "No way you could have known what we'd walk into, X. We were geared up to handle anything up to a major demon with no sweat. If we'd even known they had those... whatevers, we'd have taken them out first. They got a free punch, that's all."

"That free punch lost us a good man," Xander growled, though his voice held little real anger, just a sense of loss. "Combat Psionics... Jesus."

"What do you know about them anyway, X?"

"Just what Elan has been filling me in on, mostly," Xander sighed. "They're rare. Really rare. Even at the height of the Atlantean Empire their weren't more than a couple hundred combat Psis in the entire empire. Maybe a few thousand minor talents as well, but that's it. The bloodlines were pretty much wiped out in the fall, by all accounts... including Merlin's."

"So where did they come from?" Buffy asked as they all took seats.

"That's the million dollar question," Xander sighed, "Merlin thinks that someone has been breeding lines of power. I don't know, that's a bit of a leap for me... right organization with a good enough network, maybe they just found a couple talents and recruited them."

"We didn't get any peep of that kind of organization, X," Faith reminded him.

"Yeah, I know... but that scares me more than the Psionics." Xander countered, "We should have gotten SOMETHING more than what we got. They used Center assets, but they're not connected with the Center. They scrambled a communications in the area with some very high tech gear, and had their own gear set to cut through the noise... that takes some serious backing. So why didn't we get any hits off our electronic surveillance? No one ghosts like that. No one."

"Is it really that impossible?" Buffy had to ask, sounding skeptical, "It's a big world, Xander."

Xander shook his head, "Doesn't matter. We're jacked into every piece of communications hardware ever built. Merlin helped *push* the electronics revolution, and he designed a fair bit of the gear used in every satellite in existence. We've got back doors into everything."

Buffy's eyes widened, but Xander went on.

"Oh, there are a few networks we can't crack... double blind security firewalls are basically impossible to break," Xander said, "Townsend Detective Agency had one, a group known as Section has another... but we know about them, we can even pin down where a network like that is, more or less. Government agencies don't use them generally, because they like to share their intel on big nationwide databases. The point is, though, that if they used anything like that we'd still be able to get *something*. These people just don't EXIST."

"In our line of work, X, that ain't so strange," Faith said dryly.

"Point," Xander conceded with a frown, "But I don't usually expect *humans* to be this far off the grid. Demons, yeah. But these weren't demons..."

"That's a matter of opinion."

"They were human," Xander said firmly, "Using high tech gear. They should NOT be able to hide from us.

"We'll get em." Faith said, "Sooner or later, we'll get em."


Ames White stood stiffly, almost at attention as the woman screamed at him. "We were attacked."

"Obviously." She said scornfully, "By who?"

"We don't know." Ames replied.

"That's not entirely true," Another voice spoke up, drawing their attention.

The woman glared at the intrusion, "Isaiah. You were told to remain outside."

"My apologies, Matriarch." Isaiah White bowed his head, "But we have news."

The older woman sighed, then nodded, "Speak."

"The National Intelligence Directorate has filed a report concerning the attack, they claim it is the group known as the Knighthood."

A cold silence filled the room as the woman glared through Isaiah White, "Are they certain?"

"As much as we can tell."

"Them." She breathed, "Why are they stepping into our operations?"

"We believe that they have... an affinity for the Whitmore family." Isaiah replied, "and had him under surveillance."

"I see." She turned to look back at Ames, "This fiasco was perhaps not.... entirely... your fault. Still, I think that perhaps you are a little too young to handle your own team, Mr White."

Ames stiffened even more, but merely nodded.

"I'll have you placed back on your old team, but no other punishment will be undertaken. You are dismissed."

Ames nodded and backed out quickly as the Matriarch turned to Isaiah.

"So, the Knighthood. Will they be a problem in the future?"

Isaiah White shrugged, "I do not believe so. This was an aberration, Matriarch... Our paths crossed, as they were at some point bound to do. So long as they continue fighting demons and aliens, they really aren't of much concern to us. We simply don't operate in the same circles."

"And you are certain they can't trace us back?"

"Absolutely, Matriarch. We use no traceable systems to relay orders, as tradition dicates. Nothing in writing, nothing in the electronic ether. They may discover our use of Center assets, of course, but that won't lead to us."

"No," She mused, "Though it would be a shame to lose the Center organization."

Ames nodded in agreement.

"Still, those poor fools exist only to mask our own operations, so if it should come to that then at least they will have served their purpose." She said after a moment. "Very well, I accept your report, you may go."

Ames nodded and then followed his son.

Someone was using Center assets and it wasn't the Center.

The man with no last name eyed the information with an intense curiosity, his mind assembling the pieces of this infinitely complex puzzle with rapid sureness.

The Tower, perhaps?

No. They had no operations planned either, he'd already breached their security.

So who?

Another layer? Another head on this hydra of which the Center belonged?

Jarod frowned thoughtfully at the computer screen, then abruptly began to type.

Chapter 39

There were forty nine people in the large room, the door closed and no one else was foolish enough to approach. The guest of honor wasn't present, but he was at the same time.


The word was whispered reverently as the drinks were downed, and the group broke up into smaller cliques that mingled smoothly as the door opened and they all turned to look.

Xander Harris was framed in the door, stepping in in full dress with Faith Lehane and a girl they didn't really know very well behind him. She looked like Buffy Summers, who they had a decent level of respect for, but it was obvious she was too old to be the Slayer.

Still, she walked with the Commander and Lehane.


That word again, this time spoken by the Commander as he looked them over. The group fell silently instantly as Harris picked up a drink from the dispenser and held it up.

"Cadre." He said again, this time louder.

They all nodded, rising up as their drinks lifted in response.


The room shook with the sound of it from all of their throats, and they all downed their drinks even before the sound could completely fade.

"Any man can be killed," Xander Harris said as he walked into the middle of the room, "But if we're the ones coming after you... You'd damned well better kill us. Because that's the only way we'll be stopped. Jason is dead, but he is also... now, and forever..."


Buffy Summers flinched at the sheer ferocity of it as the emotions and sound again shook the room. Beside her, she could even hear Faith's voice screaming it out, and that startled her. Faith wasn't really a group person, but it was obvious to Buffy... it would be obvious to a blind man... that she was *part* of this group.

"Tomorrow, we go back to our jobs." Xander said, "We keep our world safe, we hunt down the people who threaten children and killed one of our own, and we move forward without our friend. But tonight? Tonight we'll stay here and see him off in style."

Some of the men and women chuckled, and that bothered Buffy a bit. Even Xander was smiling, but she could see the tension under the surface with him. She supposed it must be there with the others too, but she couldn't see it in them, and without it the laughter and smiles seemed... wrong.

The tight knot that had formed around Xander dispersed a little as the people fetched new drinks and Xander took a seat at one of the tables. Buffy followed Faith in and pulled a chair from a nearby table, moving it around so she could sit close enough to listen. She was surprised by a touch on her shoulder and glanced up to see a black man with a cigar offer her a drink.

"Thanks." She said, surprised.

"No problem," He said, moving around her to another table.

"Man, Devries was a stiff, but he was a good guy. Deserved better."

"Everyone deserves better, Hudson," Xander said as he took a sip of his drink.

Buffy listened as they talked, but her attention was spread out as she tried to get a feel for the entire room. It was like the arrival, she found... angry, some sense of loss, but more intense if that were possible.

"Hey, Faith," The black guy who'd offered Buffy the drink called out, "That was one hell of a shot when you nailed that bastard."

"Oh yeah!" Hudson grinned, leaning back as he waved his drink around, "Za-splat! Fire from the sky, girl. Bee-utiful."

Faith just shrugged a little, smiling crookedly, "Never even saw the guy... If Kate hadn't painted him and X hadn't figured out what he was... Well, it was a team thing."

"Always is." Doug Masters said, ambling over and taking a seat. "Next time, though, let's bring in real air support, huh Boss?"

Xander sighed, leaning back, "You think I should have deployed the Eagles, Doug?"

Buffy watched as Doug hesitated and shrugged, "Well maybe not, Boss. We wouldn't have gotten the squad there in time... Ah hell, I don't know that it could have gone much different, it's just..."

"Hind sight," Xander said, nodding in agreement. "I've been going over it myself, Doug. Comes out the same everytime, without knowing that the enemy had the combat Psi... same outcome everytime. We can't go in with our gear wide open, it's too much intel for us to take in. We have to cut some things back to the rear to keep from being swamped by data. I've ordered Andy to bring Psionic scans to high priority on the onboard software."

The group nodded soberly, the conversation falling off for a moment as they remembered how important that might be.

Hudson broke the silence a moment later by leaning in the other direction and slapping Hicks on the shoulder, "Man, I've seen the recreations of the assault man... what the FUCK were you thinking when you adjusted to land on that poor bastard? Andy is STILL cursing his ass off down in the armory, trying to pick the bits and pieces of him out of your boots!"

"Hey, he was going to shoot Mrs Whitmore," Hicks defended himself, "I made my decision, and I stand by it."

"Unlike the guy you landed on," Apone grinned widely.

Another round of chuckles rolled through the room, though Buffy was a little confused by it all. Xander had pity on her, though, noticing her expression when he looked around.

"They're already picking the mission apart," He explained, "We keep all the data from every mission we run, the systems here can compile it into a full immersion view of the mission that you can experience from any angle. Everyone here reviews every mission run, and we all rip them apart afterwards."

"Oh." Buffy blinked, understanding but surprised just the same. "Like when I had to give full reports to Giles every night."

"Yeah, only in 3d with stereo surround," Xander smiled. "Same idea though."

"Damn right," Apone cut in, "And we talk about them a lot. It's how we deal."

There was a general assent in the room while Apone leaned in a bit, nodding toward Buffy, "So, what's with the upgrade, Commander?"

Xander nodded, "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Buffy Anne Summers... Original version. It's a LONG story, but this woman is the person who introduced me to the fight. We had a major dust up a while back and when it was over our little group was scattered... badly. She's the last of us to return to the fold."

They eyed Buffy closely, making her feel rather uncomfortable, but slowly nodded in acceptance.

"What's her relationship to the Slayer?" Vasquez asked, cocking her head slightly.

"She is the Slayer... well, one of them," Xander said.

"Same loophole?" the hispanic woman asked, nodding to Faith.

"Natch." Faith replied, "B here is the old maid, though."

Buffy scowled at the younger girl, but finally just nodded as she rolled her eyes. "That sounds like me, alright."

The hispanic woman smirked, nodding at her, "You kick ass like Faith?"

"Better." Buffy smirked right back, "Much, much, better."

"Like hell." Faith snorted.

"I've put you down before, Faith, I can do it again." Buffy smirked.

"Wahell, sounds like a challenge to me, boys," Vasquez smirked.

"Anytime, B." Faith replied, a hint of fire in her eyes, "Besides, seems to me that the last time you didn't so much put me down as 'go down' *willingly*..."

Buffy's eyes blazed widely as she stared, shocked, while the men and women around them choked and held back surprised laughter. Her green eyes narrowed, "Oh I'm so gonna kick your ass."

Joyce felt lost in the world she found herself in, uncertain which way was up and which was down. Gravity itself was no longer a constant it seemed, and she couldn't find any resolution to her problem.

Her daughters were sleeping, finally.

She'd had to order Buffy to stay in the room, not to run off to whatever insane 'wake' those soldiers were holding for the man they'd brought back. Buffy had gone to bed fuming with her, but Joyce didn't care.

That didn't solve her current problem, however. In fact, it only underscored it.

She let herself silently out of the room, and made her way through the halls toward Xander Harris' position as Merlin had shown her when asked. Outside the door she took a breath before pushing her way in.

She stopped in the doorway, shocked by the crowd inside, recognizing many faces, including the older version of Buffy.

"What is it, Joyce?" Xander's voice was quiet, almost resigned.

Joyce took a breath, locking her eyes onto the focus of her problems and took a step forward. "You still want to convince me to let Buffy do... THIS?"

Xander smiled, shaking his head as a few of the very rough and dangerous men and women around him glared and murmured behind him. He held up his hand, "It's alright. Joyce... this isn't the time or place for this."

"When else?" Joyce demanded, "Someone died tonight. One of your own people, how can you protect Buffy and Dawn?? What if one of them went out with you one night and didn't come back? What then!?"

Xander looked up at her, eyes locking with hers, "Well Joyce, do you mean before or after we hunted down and *destroyed* the person, or thing, that hurt them? Cause if you mean after, well we'd come home, mourn them, and then we'd go back out and keep doing our jobs."

He stood up as Joyce looked at him in shock, and walked over to her. As he approached, Xander glanced back, "It's alright, guys... go on without me. I'll be back around later."

Joyce numbly allowed him to push her out of the room as the men and women inside glared at the door as it closed. Buffy watched them go, sighing, "She isn't taking this well."

"It's tough shit to take, B," Faith shrugged, "She'll come around."

"She's a bitch." Vasquez said flatly, glaring at the door.

"She's not!" Buffy snapped, head swiveling to glare at the hispanic woman.

"Hey!" Faith snapped out, cutting off any further words. "Cut that shit out, both of you. Christ, B, relax. She don't mean nothing, she's just pissed. Joyce had no right coming in here like that. Not tonight, and you know it."

Buffy grimaced, but nodded.

"And, Joyce ain't no bitch. She's just... not adjusting fast." Faith sighed, looking over at Vasquez, "She ain't like us, Vas. She's a mom, not a fighter..."

"Needs to show some respect," Vasquez muttered, "I always figured the Commander's family for some more class than that."

Faith snorted, "Joyce IS class, Vas. Trust me, she just ain't at her best right now."

"She's right, Vasquez," Apone shrugged, "That woman has some real problems to work through, she doesn't see us right now. She just sees her girls laid out in Jason's place."

"There's worse things than that, Sarge."

Apone grinned wide, white teeth gleaming against the dark of his face. "Got that right, Vasquez. Cadre!"

The drinks were raised again in response as the room rumbled.

"Cadre and Devries!"

Chapter 40

"She's gone."

Buffy turned to glare at her little sister, "Aren't you supposed to be sleeping??"

Dawn just made a face back at her, "Like you aren't planning on sneaking out too."

"Too? You can't go!"

"Like hell." Dawn grabbed her clothes. "I'm getting out of here and checking to make sure Xander and the other you are ok."

"They're fine! And aren't you fighting with Xander!?"

Dawn rolled her eyes, pulling on a black silk shirt, "Duh. I told you already, that's between me and him. Besides, losing someone is tough on him, Buff. I just wanna make sure he's gonna be ok for me to give the cold shoulder to tomorrow."

Buffy stared, mouth dropping open, "You're kidding."

"Nope." Dawn shrugged, "He lied to me, he's gonna pay for that. Just got to make sure he can take it, though."

Buffy shook her head, sighing, "Fine. Come on."

The two girls finished dressing, then snuck out of the darkened room.

Thomas Whitmore stood alone in the cavernous flight deck, only the movement of a few people far in the distance showing that there was anyone else in the world but him as he gazed over the long list of names engraved neatly into the stone.

It had grown since he'd seen it last, he noticed instantly. More names, more heros known only to the people on this island. The last time he'd seen this wall it had been over a television screen, and he had to agree with Colonel O'neill who'd told him flat out that he hadn't seen it until he'd seen it in person.

The wall was alive, that was the only way he could describe it. There was a vibrant, living, aura about it. Like he was watching something growing, breathing... living.

<Alive with the names of the dead,> He thought with a bitter hint, his eyes falling to a blank slate that was in place already. Waiting for the name of the man who'd died to save Whitmore's family.

Steps echoed from behind him, but Tom Whitmore didn't turn to see who it was.

"I'm sorry, Sir... Tom," A familiar voice spoke up, finally attracting his attention, "Are we bothering you?"

Whitmore turned sharply, recognizing Xander Harris who was approaching with a woman Tom didn't know. "Don't be silly, Mr Harris. I'm just... paying my respects."

Xander nodded, "I know. That's why we're here, in a way."

Tom Whitmore raised his eyebrows, but Xander motioned to the woman and then nodded to the wall.

"What do you see here, Joyce?"

She looked up at the wall, frowning, "Names."

Xander smiled, then glanced at Tom Whitmore, "Could you tell her what you see, Sir?"

Tom Whitmore glanced at the wall again, then took a breath, "Heros. American, Chinese, Russian, Canadian, Australian, British... heros. I see the lives of my family, my friends, and my country up on that wall. You know that."

"Couldn't have said it better," Xander said quietly, lifting a hand and resting it on Joyce' back. "These are people who have given their lives in the fight, Joyce. Given, not taken. They had a choice, a choice that people like your daughters had stolen from them... and they chose to give their lives to save us all. You see that empty space right there?"

Joyce nodded, her face tight.

"That's where the name of Jason Devries is going to go," Xander told her, "That's the man we were toasting when you walked in tonight, Joyce. You could have timed that better. A lot better."

Thomas Whitmore watched the expressions that passed between the two, frowning as he tried to understand what was going on.

"You want my daughters to be on this wall," She said, her voice low and tight.

"No." Xander snapped, his voice terse. "God forbid. This wall is for the honored dead, yes, but it is for the dead. Buffy and Dawn are my family, in ways I can't even describe... But Joyce, for all these names, there are dozens or hundreds more that are still alive and fighting today. It's NOT a hopeless war, and things are getting better every day."

He sighed, moving away from her, then looked back, "I'm not going to sugar coat it, Joyce. It's dirty, dangerous, sometimes deadly work. But three years ago, Buffy would have had to face it alone. HAD to face it. The best she could hope for would be one man standing behind her who just might have the information she needed to survive night to night. I'm not kidding you here, Joyce. That's the way it was. Today, she's not even on the frontlines. She's in *training*, handling soft patrols while she works up to her full potential. Yes, she's fighting, and yes there are people and things out there that want to hurt and kill her... but to get her, they have to go through US."

He sighed, looking helpless for a long moment, something that Whitmore had never associated with the young man before.

"That's all I can do, Joyce. I just can't do any better. I can't take her out of the line of fire, I wish I could," He told her, "but I didn't bring her into this, and I don't have the power to take that target off her back, Joyce. Off either of their backs."

Tom Whitmore didn't understand what was going on, but he could tell that Xander was trying almost desperately to put across a sincere front, and he could also tell that whatever it was it wasn't really getting to the woman. If he'd understood correctly, however, Tom thought he knew why.

"What do you want from me??" Joyce asked, looking pained. "I can't just GIVE you my daughters."

"I don't want you to... I want you to let me help you protect them. Let me help them, Joyce. They need things you can't provide, things that almost no one on the planet can provide. I *CAN*. Please, Joyce, please... let me."

Andrezj Konzaki nodded to the two young girls as he walked toward the wake. It might not seem quite right, two girls their age walking into a soldier's wake, but Andy recognized the older blonde and knew damned well that the crowd the kid ran with was... younger than was decent.

"Hi Andy," The brunette said, bringing Andy up short. He was pretty damned certain he didn't know her.

"Uh... hi." Andy stopped at the door, "Going in?"

Buffy, the older of the two, nodded. "I knew Jason."

Andy nodded and pushed the door open, "He was a good kid."

Andy held the door for the girls, letting them walk in ahead of him, then stepped in to see who was present. He nodded quickly to General Grey who was talking with a small group of former Marines in the corner, getting a nod in return, then let the door close.

"Where's Xander?"

Andy glanced around, then shrugged as he turned to the brunette who knew his name. "Don't see him."

"He was here earlier," another brunette said, walking over, hugging the younger girl, "hey, Dawn, glad you could make it."

"Mom ran Xander out, didn't she?" Dawn sighed, returning the hug.

"Something like that," Buffy sighed, glancing over at her younger self. "Hey mini-me, how are you holding up?"

Andy watched as Buffy glared at the brunette and did a double take when he realized that the brunette looked almost exactly like Buffy herself.

"Better than you, obviously. The stress is bringing out your wrinkles," Buffy shot back.

The elder Buffy just smiled, then nodded into the room. "Come on, let's join the group."

She paused glancing up at Andy, and nodded, "It's good to see you again, Andy. Glad Xander picked you up again."

As the three girls walked off, Andrezj Konzaki winced and held his temple for a moment. <Ok, I KNOW I'm missing something important here... I'll have to remember to beat it out of the kid later.>

He pushed the thought firmly aside, however, and made his way into the group, pausing to glare at Dwayne Hicks for a moment before walking past without giving the young man any further recognition. Privately, he had to admit that the man had pulled off one HELL of a precision drop, one that would likely go down in the books as a record to beat, but publically he fully intended to make the man rue the bloody mess he'd tracked into the armory for a long, LONG, time.

"Hello, Andy," General Grey nodded as Konzaki walked up to him, "Get everything in order?"

Andy nodded, "Armory is ready to load out another team, Sir."

"I had no doubts." Grey replied, handing a bottle of imported beer to the armory specialist. Most of the men present were drinking local drinks 'brewed' by Merlin in the dispensary, but a few preferred the imports that managed to sneak onto transports of other, more important, supplies.

"So what does the board say about these guys?" Andy asked, taking a slug off the bottle. "I've had my head buried in armor units all day."

"Not much," Grey told him unhappily, "They've obviously got some line into the Center, but whatever it is, they don't seem to be any part of the Center's official or dark members. We're scouring the Center and the Tower mainframes bit by bit, but no sign of any of the assault team yet."

"Damn." Andy spat tightly, like most of the upper echelon he'd been briefed on the Center, and would like nothing more than ripping the entire organization down around the ears of the so called men that ran it.

However, if these people had a line into the Center, and they couldn't identify them... well then the Knighthood would have to think twice about hitting those bastards, if only on the hopes that someone slips up in the future.

Grey just nodded, "Merlin seems to think that we're dealing with a very large group, but I don't know that I agree. I think that maybe they just found a couple of these psionic types and recruited them, probably from the Center's files."

"Makes sense." Andy nodded, "The Center has some kind of breeding program, though, don't they?"

"Right," Grey agreed, "But it's nowhere near this advanced."

"I'd be surprised if they recorded anything like this, Sir," Andy replied, "I know that I'd hide it if it were me."

"Point," Grey conceded. "I don't know, maybe we'll just have to..."

Grey paused and Andy followed his gaze to where the door opened and three people entered. Xander Harris in his full black dress was making his second appearance of the night, along with Joyce Summers and Thomas Whitmore. Andy's sharp eyes caught a blanching on the faces of the two Summers girls and he had to hide a slight smile.

<Someone just got caught sneaking out...>

To her credit, Andy noted that Joyce Summers didn't do more than shoot a tight glare at the two before nodding to the closest people and speaking softly with some of them. Most of the attention was on Tom Whitmore, however, as several people approached him quickly and exchanged warm greetings. In a few moments it was obvious that much of the room was just waiting for their opening to do the same.

Across the room, Joyce sighed as she watched the room approach the former president, her mind solidly on he daughters who were actually doing much the same. No matter what circles she ran herself through in her mind she couldn't come up with any better answer than she'd found the first time she'd been presented with her unpalatable array of options.

Her daughters were targets. They believed it. Xander believed it. And God help her, Joyce had to believe it too. Was what Xander offering really the best she could hope for? The best possible option available for her daughters?

God she hoped not, but Joyce had a horrible sinking feeling that it was. So she had no choice. For better or worse, she was now in this world of shadows and nightmares. Alongside her daughters, because there was no other way for her. That meant she'd give them the best she could, and right now that was Xander Harris and his Knighthood.

God Help her daughters.

The End


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