Author: Tim Knight

Title: Scooby Snacks 2001: A Slayerette Odyssey

Copyright: May 2003
Rating: PG to NC-17 (varies by story)

Spoilers:
Buffy: Season 2 until Phases. Specific Episodes: Homecoming.
Highlander: Season 5 until Season finale. Richie Ryan lives.
Bureau 13: Doomsday Exam.

Keywords: Buffy/ Highlander/ X-Files/ Xena: Warrior Princess/ Bureau 13/ SERRAted Edge/ Forgotten Realms.

Summary: Yet another group of ficlets detailing interesting moments in the lives of some of our beloved heroes. The twist here is, they pretty much occur at the same time.

Legalese: All characters except those noted below with their respective rights, properties, and copyrights are the property of the respective creators, authors, owners, producers and agencies. These characters are used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended or meant, and no money will be made from this story. This story may be copied in its entirety, and may be distributed as long as all copyright information remains.

The characters Shaw Hunter, Marion Pryce, Zara Worthington, Peggy MacDonald, Roger Lincoln, Ian Wilder, and Sebastian Starsmore are mine. Anyone wishing to use them may contact me at doobytim@aol.com.
The characters Steven St. Wolf, Felicia Standing, David Standing, Page Standing, Celene Parrish-Standing, William Cauldwell, Heather Cauldwell, Constance Parrish, Caroline Parrish, Belinda Parrish, as well as numerous other characters and the universe in which this story takes place, are property of Steve Pantovich. Steve can be reached at steve711@concentric.net.
The characters Edwin Giles and Etriel are property of NorJC. He can be contacted at NorJC@aol.com.
The characters Professor Burton, Horace Gordon, and Kensington Sanders are property of Nick Pollotta, author of the Bureau 13 series, as is the B13 Academy and Hell House. His books can be found at Amazon.com or at www.wildsidepress.com. Also see his website at www.nickpollotta.com.

Author's Notes: These stories take place in the summer of 2001, sometime between the equivalent of the end of Season 5 and beginning of Season 6 of the "official" Buffy timeline.

Dedications:
To Steve, He Who Shall Be Obeyed In The Wandererverse At All Costs, for giving the "do it" command on these ideas.
To Jack, He Who Shall Correct All Errors and Walking Kama Sutra Of The Wandererverse, for making these stories even better, getting co-author credits for Etriel’s tale, and offering suggestions that do help you enjoy them even more.
To Mike and Anne, fellow authors whose IM discussions helped me flesh out these ideas, despite the time differentials (Anne being 16 hours ahead of me and Mike, which of course means she gets to celebrate holidays a day before WE do). Couldn’t have done it without you.
To Tenhawk, with whom a talk from months ago turned out to really help with the second fic. Thanks, Oh Grand High Poobah-J.

Here are the changes from your regular shows, which might play a part in this story:
Buffy:
1. Buffy is an Immortal in the tradition of the Highlander movies and series, having become Immortal when she was drowned by the Master in Prophecy Girl. She continued Slaying and didn’t know about her Immortality for almost a year before Steve St. Wolf came to town and explained her nature to her.
2. Kendra was summoned by Buffy’s (first) death as in Buffyverse continuity. With the split from Buffyverse continuity in February 1998, Kendra didn’t come to Sunnydale to fight Acathla. Instead, she came to help out against Katherine Plantagenet in Los Angeles in July 1998. She suffered life-threatening injuries fighting a sixth-circle demon and temporarily flat lined on the operating table, but was revived by the surgical team.
3. Faith was summoned a month later in the Wandererverse, and lies spun by the Council ensured that she and her Watcher, Linda Pryce, would not encounter Buffy or her Sunnydale team. Her Watcher lived until January of 1999, when vampires working for Kakistos killed her. Faith was found by Mulder and Scully, who teamed up with the Sunnydale team to vanquish Kakistos. Faith moved to Sunnydale and joined the team, moving into the Summers home with Joyce. In November of 1999, Faith made contact with her natural father, who had retired from the Army and was living in Virginia, and the two committed to getting to know each other when Faith’s Slaying duties permitted.
4. Dawn arrived a year earlier than in the Buffyverse, and unlike the stupid monks from the Buffyverse, in the Wandererverse the Key was put at least 2,500 miles AWAY from Glory, not in the SAME TOWN. One of the alterations to the Wanderer timeline is that in Halloween, Dawn was turned into her costume just like Buffy, Xander, and Willow. In her case, she became a half-pint Warrior Princess, complete with chakram and neck shot.
5. Xander and Cordelia are still together. Xander remembers the things that he got from his tour of duty as Private Harris and uses it to full advantage on patrols. Cordelia accidentally summoned Artemis in late February of 1998 and became an Amazon warrior, allowing her to do something other than be vampire bait. In May of 1999, Cordy’s mother ran off with the money that the IRS should’ve gotten as tax payments, but as a result, Cordelia moved into an apartment with Xander and the two still live together.
6. Willow and Oz are also still together. Willow is still the Super Hacker, but also has her witchcraft. While not as powerful as Season 6 or 7 Buffyverse Willow, the Wandererverse Willow has greater skill and control than the Willow of Season 4. Oz is still a werewolf, but can control his changes at will except during the full moon. He’s still laconic and a Zen musician.
7. Jenny is still alive and engaged or married to Giles. She is the formal teacher to Willow and Amy in their witchcraft, and she is also a High Priestess of Artemis. She still teaches Computer Science at Sunnydale High, where Giles is still Master of the Book Room.
8. Amy joined the team in February of 1998 and started taking lessons from Jenny to hone her powers. She has not become her mother (who in fact, eventually got out of the trophy and redeemed herself), and the two have patched up their relationship. Amy is still blonde and hasn’t had the misfortune of spending three years in a cage.

Highlander:
1. Richie is still alive. Nuff said.
2. Connor is still alive. He never entered the Sanctuary and has been dragged into a few Boy Scout missions by Duncan and Steve. He is still running his antiques shop in Upper Manhattan.
3. Amanda is still dating Duncan and living with him in Seacouver. Thus, there is no Highlander: The Raven continuity. But she still gets Duncan into trouble and still occasionally "keeps in practice" with her thieving skills.
4. The Watchers pretty much now know that Adam Pierson is really Methos, although he still works for them on that "Methos Project," sifting through his Chronicles and telling them what’s real and what’s not. But he still loves a good beer over taking a head any day.

X-Files:
1. Mulder and Scully are married. They’re Immortal. Skinner’s their Watcher. Nuff said.

Xena:
1. When Xena and Gabrielle were separated during a battle in 500 BC, Xena couldn’t find Gabby’s body. Ares offered her godhood a few months later and she became a Demigoddess in the Greek Pantheon. She eventually left Earth sometime before 1000 AD and fell in love with Tyr, a God in the Norse Pantheon (the same Tyr from the Forgotten Realms). She only returned to Earth in February of 1999 when she discovered that Gabby was still alive.
2. Gabrielle is a Highlander-type Immortal. She was found by Red Sonja, who took her as a student and the two eventually moved into a relationship. Gabrielle was the Queen who disbanded the last tribe of Amazons, sending some into hiding while 200 older warriors gave their lives to make the Romans think they had been obliterated. In February 1999, Gabrielle was named as the Queen of the reborn Nation by Artemis and has since made strides in repairing her relationship with Artemis.
3. In 504 BC, Xena and Gabrielle trained a Spartan woman named Alika, after she had been invested with power by the Greek Gods to become the first Vampire Slayer in Wanderer mythology.


A Lot Of Potential

Sunnydale High Library
Sunnydale, California
20 July 2001

Giles was slightly surprised when the phone rang at this time of the morning. He’d just arrived forty minutes ago and had just completed sorting through some order forms for new books when it jingled. Putting the forms aside, he picked up the phone.

"Library, Mister Giles speaking. How may I help you?"

"Good afternoon, Giles," a dignified, elderly voice came back. "Or is it still morning there?"

<Sir William?> Giles was surprised; most of his contact with the Council was through Tanner or Marshall these days. The call must be very important to have the head of the Council himself on the line. "Sir William," he said carefully. "How are you?"

"I’m well enough. How are your Slayers?"

"They’re all doing splendidly." Giles allowed a tiny smile to form as he looked at a picture frame sitting on his desk. It showed Buffy, Kendra, and Faith standing side by side, arm in arm, smiling widely at him, with Buffy totally oblivious to the rabbit ears Faith had propped up behind her blonde head. "Buffy’s on vacation with Steve, and Kendra and Faith are visiting their families. I heard from Kendra two days ago; her sister has been giving her pointers on zombies and other forms of undead through her voodoo powers."

Appleby’s next comment was tightly controlled, but still tinged with disbelief. "All three of your Slayers are away from their duties, Rupert? Who is patrolling the Hellmouth?"

The man, who’d been widely known around the seedy parts of London as the Ripper, sighed. "Sir William, the Hellmouth is more than adequately defended. Sonja and Gabrielle are as good as a single Slayer by themselves, while the other members of the team are skilled enough in their own right to protect Sunnydale. In fact, I had to work to convince Kendra that the town would be safe if she went to Kingston while Faith was away visiting her father and siblings."

"Of course, you’re right," the head of the Council during the past seventeen years sighed tiredly. "I apologize, Rupert, but I’m still old fashioned at heart."

"You’re more open-minded than you give yourself credit for." Giles had to give the man that much. When the chips were down, William Appleby cared more about the Slayers’ welfare and the fight itself than anyone could have imagined. "I assure you, things are well in hand right now. In any event, Kendra is due back next week to add her skills to our patrols."

"Very good," William added. "Very good. But to the reason I called. We have recently divined that there is a potential Slayer in Spartansburg, South Carolina. However, every time a Council member has tried to contact the girl, he has been warned off by members of her family."

"What happened?" Giles asked. He had a good idea; the girl’s family probably didn’t think that strange British men approaching and asking to meet with the girl was a sign of anything benevolent.

"Actually, the Council member was very polite the first four times he called on the family, which is quite large from what I’m told. But the fifth time, they chased him away by brandishing automatic weapons at him."

<Oh dear. Even I think that might be a tad extreme.> "So you want my or Steve’s help in approaching the young girl’s family?"

"It would be appreciated," his comrade in the Council said kindly. "Rupert, by the way, the way the Watcher assigned to finding the young woman had explained the way they’d handled their weapons, I began to suspect that they might be one of those Amazon families you’ve had contact with."

<Or they could just be American gun nuts,> Giles thought. But he had to at least admit to the possibility that Sir William might be right. "Of course…do you have a name for the family, Sir William?"

"One moment…" Giles could have sworn he heard papers shuffling in the background. "Ah, here it is. The family’s last name is Parrish."

That did sound familiar, but Giles couldn’t rightly remember where he’d heard that family name before. But it was a start. "I think you might be on the spot, after all. I’ll check with Jenny and Gabrielle and see what I can accomplish on this end. I’ll give you a progress report as soon as possible."

"Thank you, Rupert. Godspeed."

"God save the Queen." He hung up and wondered just which Queen he’d meant. He wryly smiled and leaned back in his chair. <If they are an Amazon clan, then this should be pretty easy.>

*****

VAN Ltd. Headquarters
Sunnydale, California
20 July 2001

"Those British idiots couldn’t have made this any harder if they’d tried," Gabrielle groaned in despair.

Giles shared a look with Jenny, who was just as stunned by that proclamation as he was. But this being an Amazon family matter, he allowed Jenny to air their mutual thoughts.

His Gypsy princess gave the Amazon Queen her most serene look. "Gabrielle, what makes you think that this will be difficult? Surely once the Parrish family understands the significance…"

"The Parrish family is not the ideal family to have a potential Slayer in, Lady Jennifer," the Queen of the Amazon Nation retorted with a hard voice that sent shivers down his spine. She couldn’t hold her anger though, and the bard sighed softly before apologizing. The wielder of Purity folded her hands together and gazed at them both with her deceptively innocent blue eyes. "The Parrishes are hardliners, Rupert. As you know, Artemis ruffled many feathers when She made Her proclamation to train the male members of Amazon families as warriors for the Nation. While most families either accepted it with aplomb or enthusiastically cheered, like the Standings, there was more than one clan that found the draught of Artemis’ decree to be somewhat bitter."

Jenny and Giles quickly caught on. "And the Parrishes are one of these families."

"They’re among the most ‘traditional’ clans, to put it mildly." Gabrielle reached for the keyboard to her computer and started typing. After ninety or ninety-five seconds, she apparently pulled up the information she wanted. "The Parrish clan, Spartansburg, South Carolina. Current fighting strength, one hundred twenty-three women, thirty-five men. Of course, the men are somewhat undervalued by Constance, their matriarch."

She clicked her mouse a few times before continuing. "The file suggests that Matriarch Constance isn’t as hard-line as most of her relatives, but still believes that Amazon females are superior to their male relatives. She faced a lot of flak for giving into Artemis’ decree, but she is loyal to the Goddess. Her family’s overall profile isn’t so polite about their leanings. In fact, they were amongst the clans who were most vocal about Felicia’s so-called ‘traitorous’ actions of training her men as equals."

"Oh bloody hell," Giles muttered. Gabrielle nodded, but she did smile a bit. "So why are you smiling if things are going to be so difficult?"

"Because while they’re elitists to this extent, there is one member of the clan in particular who doesn’t hold to the party line. If we contact her and explain the situation, she might be able to get in to meet them." Her smile faded as she looked between them. "But it’s not going to be easy by a long shot. I’m just saying it’s the only chance we really have. After all, she’s likely on the outs from the clan for her opinion on male warriors."

"What is her opinion on male warriors?" Jenny asked with shining eyes. Giles knew that she liked the idea of the woman’s open mindedness.

"She married one."

"So who is she?" the librarian asked, hoping that this potential Slayer wouldn’t have happen to her what had happened to so many others two years ago.

"Celene Parrish-Standing," Gabrielle announced, her eyes becoming vicious with good humor.

Jenny groaned, instantly recognizing the direction of her Queen’s thoughts, but Giles knew that he would be the one to bear the brunt of whatever wrath came from the oldest and most volatile of Celene’s husband’s offspring. With a sigh of utter resignation, Giles muttered, "Oh, dear Lord…I’ll place the call."

*****

Standing Estate
Curtis County, Virginia
20 July 2001

"I’M SUPPOSED TO BE ON VACATION, YOU SLAVE-DRIVING LIMEY!!!"

Just as quickly as she shouted at the top of her impressive, uhm, lungs, Seth Gecko watched as she deflated and her eyes clouded over with concern. That almost made him launch himself from his post against the wall and take his girl into his arms.

Her voice was subdued as she regained control of her Irish temper. "For real?" her husky voice queried, much quieter. At that moment she looked more like a caring mother than the fiery Slayer everyone knew. Funny thing was, he liked that look on her. Maybe that was why she took the college major she’d chosen; she had a gentle side if you knew where to look. "Okay. I’ll talk to my NES and tell her the sitch." More words from Giles. "Okay, Alfred, I get the point. Since when do I ever expect somethin’ to be a cakewalk with this gig? Worst case scenario, I kick my way in via their asses and tell the girl straight up."

Her eyes lit up and Seth barked out a laugh at what he and his hot little Slayer had both imagined; the look on Giles’ face at the scenario of Faith trashing a bunch of Amazons and making a tense situation worse. Faith just grinned and purred in that voice he loved so well, "Look, G-man, don’t worry your stuffy Brit head off, okay? I’ll get the job done. You know I can handle SIT’s. Heck, done it before, probably will again. Okay. I’ll be careful, Giles. See ya later, Watcher Guy."

She hung up the phone and stared at the floor for several seconds before she mumbled, "Is it too much to ask for some quality time with my honey at my folks’ place without Slayer shit getting in the way?"

Seth blinked as he considered her question. At first, he’d been a bit nervous…actually, scared shitless about meeting her dad and his family. He couldn’t imagine that any father would be okay with a thirty-five year old ex-bank robber dating his twenty-year old daughter. And hearing that the Standings had more firearms on their property than Fort Ord did nothing to relieve his tension about meeting them. However, the trip had been exactly what he’d needed. Virginia was beautiful and the Standing property was serene. The entire clan had welcomed him with open arms, especially Faith’s Dad. He and Seth had gotten along splendidly, though Seth expected some of that was due to the fact that another guy in the clan was a good thing in Dave’s eyes. And Seth liked Dave; he was a nice guy without the annoying-as-Hell, Boy Scout attitude that Steve possessed. Plus, the Standing gals were all lookers and pretty easy on the eyes, but none more than the Slayer standing before him.

"You got through two weeks of summer vacation last year without any trouble," Seth pointed out. She shot him an evil look. "I know, you’re remembering Coda assassins and the Nationals in Sunnydale. But you did get some."

"Up yours," she snapped sourly. She shook her head, her dark brown hair flying about. "You know, Dad is not going to like this. I’ve heard his and Cel’s horror stories about her folks. They make Will and Heather’s grannie’s ϋberbitch turn with Frank and Cassie look like a fluffy kitten."

"That sounds bad." Seth folded his arms, his tattoo flexing a bit with the action. "So let me see if I’ve got this straight. There’s one of your possible replacements with this family that doesn’t like men, and you’re getting drafted to go find her and do what?"

"Hell if I know," she said, helplessly waving her hands about. Her brown-green eyes gleamed at the challenge ahead, though. "But you heard about what’d happened when I met most of the girls who could get my gig. I felt like I do with Dawnie; like we were tight, you know? Now I find out there’s a new girl that needs to be brought in from the cold."

Seth grunted in agreement. He knew that Faith took Slaying and everything it entailed very seriously. So she’d do whatever it took to make sure that this possible Chosen One didn’t remain ignorant of her destiny.

"So how do we do this?" he asked. Wherever his girl went, so did he. It was one thing they never argued about.

"It’s not gonna be a picnic, baby. I told you about Celene’s family." He nodded; they were not into the whole "men can be good fighters" idea. Faith started pacing a bit. "I’ll talk to Cel and Grandma, see what they say. I’m not stupid enough to just go barging in there." She turned and skewered him with a glare that would have made most people nervous, but he found quite cute. "No comments from the peanut gallery, if you please!"

"Who, me?" he responded with a smirk.

She shot a deadly look his way, then broke into a laugh. "All right, smartass. But you might not find it so funny if what Giles says about how they treat men is true. You’ll be lucky if they don’t make you strip down to a loincloth and serve us grapes while we’re there."

Somehow, he didn’t mind that idea so much, provided his baby was the one wearing a fur skin bikini to match his loincloth. She must have realized the direction his thoughts had traveled. "You really are a perv if you get off on that picture…"

He watched her hips wiggle as she strutted out the room, then he patiently waited about twenty seconds before her head popped back through the door. "Come on, you doofus! If I’m going to South Carolina, you’re not gonna be stuck here where my cousins are gonna check out the goods while I’m busting some Rebel ass!"

*****

"So that’s the sitch," Faith said, conscious of the looks coming her way from Dad, Grandma, and her Not-Very-Evil Stepmom. The Slayer Supreme glanced at Boss Lady Standing. "Believe me, I already yelled at Giles for putting the kibosh on our vacation time together. But since Cel here has connections and I’m the closest, it does make sense, much as I hate to admit it." She paused and then added, "But then again, I know the kid’s situation. Right now, she doesn’t know she’s a Potential. If the boogeymen find her, there’s no telling what’ll happen. They’ll make her a target just because. Just like I would’ve been if someone had known about me before I found out."

"She’s right about that much," stepmom added. "My family knows about vampires and demons, but they were like us, Mother. They hoped the fighting would bypass them. They didn’t go out of their way to fight until we received Artemis’ plea to take on the Darkness. Of course, Spartansburg is not high on the monster scale of things that I know of, so their experience is probably minimal compared to ours. We actively go out and take the offensive. My mother’s family takes a more defensive posture, but it does make them specialists in defensive tactics."

The way she said that caught Faith’s attention. She combed her hair back with her fingers and asked, "What do you mean, your Mom’s family, NES? You’re a Parrish, right?"

"They would rather I didn’t admit it," Celene said with a wan smile and hard blue eyes, "and I’d rather not admit it either. I consider myself a Standing first, Faith. I’d moved to North Carolina before I met David, but kept in touch with the family. Needless to say, when my mother and grandmother found out I intended to marry a Standing, they were furious." A slight tinge of pain crossed her face and Faith knew how that felt. "When they declined to come to the wedding, I cut all ties with them. I patched things up with my Grandmother before she passed on to Olympus, but Mother and I haven’t spoken to each other in over fifteen years."

"Prodigal thing, huh? Like I don’t know how that feels," Faith drawled. It drew a chuckle from Celene and she turned back to Grandma. "Look, I know this isn’t going to be fun or easy by a longshot, but I don’t care. There’s a girl there that has a big-time destiny in front of her, and it’s my job to fill her in. But I’d like to do it the official, diplomatic type way, rather than go in there and kick some ass on people I don’t want to hurt. Can you help me?"

Felicia smiled warmly at her granddaughter. "Of course, my dear. I’ll do whatever I can to help you." Grannie Felicia folded her hands together and smiled. "I do like the idea that the Queen is allowing us to handle this matter rather than pulling rank on Matriarch Constance. I’ll tell you what." She looked at Celene and asked, "I have a way that might get you and Faith in, but it depends on you."

"What is it, Mother?" Dad’s Girl asked, sitting up straight.

"How do you feel about your Mother?"

Faith realized what that was supposed to mean; she’d been through it with Dad a year and a half ago. She nodded in understanding, so did Dad and Seth.

"If you’re asking if I would like to repair the rift between us, the answer is yes. But we’ve ignored each other’s existences for so long…" She sighed in defeat. "How am I supposed to break that kind of ice?"

"I think that with your mother getting older, perhaps she might like to meet her grandchildren?" Grandma’s logic was so simple it was brilliant! Faith smiled at the idea but wondered if she was supposed to be included in that. Her question was answered right then and there. "I think Page should at least be exposed to a part of her roots, Celene. You can take Faith along as David’s oldest, and Seth as her mate." Faith shot an askew glance at her man and had to keep from snickering when Sethy winced. He could handle boyfriend, boy toy, or lover; what was so bad about ‘mate?’ "But I wouldn’t let them know she’s the Slayer until it’s needed."

Celene looked a little less than certain, but she got herself together. "You’re right about Page. She should be allowed to meet that side of her family. I just hope it doesn’t go as badly as I fear it might."

"If that’s your attitude, it will." Celene glared at her and Faith shook her head in defiance. "Hey, that was the same attitude I had before I showed up here. I had people telling me left and right not to act like that, and I finally pulled my head out of my ass just in time to play Rockem Sockem Hotties with Delilah."

"Good point," Grandma noted wryly. She looked at Dad and Seth. "How about you, David? Seth? You know your receptions are likely to be less than cordial."

"More like Boston in January," she idly noted. That earned her a glare from Grandma for interrupting.

"I’m in," Seth said, reaching over and taking her hand. <Oh Gawdess, he’s getting mushy,> she noted with a tiny smirk. But still, the touch of his warm fingers felt good. "I don’t care if they make me wear a loincloth and feed them grapes, I’m not letting Faith go on this mission alone."

Faith moaned as he turned her own smart aleck remarks against her, which brought confused looks from everyone else. She gave him a glare that she usually saved for vamps. "I am so gonna get you for that, you cradle-robbin’ perv!"

"I don’t want to know…" Dad muttered from two chairs down, barely enough for her Slayer hearing to detect. He brought the rap session back on track. "Mother, I think Celene’s family’s reaction might be less prejudicial if they learn just what Seth and I had done during our former careers. If you fill them in…"

"No," Boss Lady Standing said with a shake of her head. "I think we should save those particular bombshells…" She gave a meaningful look at Seth, who smirked back at her. "… for a suitable time. I’ll place a call to Matriarch Constance and arrange for your visit. I’ll let you know when we set the terms."

Dad and Cel nodded, standing up. Faith and her George-Clooney-Clone-Boy-Toy did the same thing, following them outside. Faith frowned. There was one thing still bugging her. She turned to her stepmom and asked, "Cel, why did Dad mention telling your kin about him being a Green Beanie? I thought you would’ve told them a long time ago."

Her Nominal Evil Stepmom shook her head and gave her a warped grin. "You remember what I said about them not approving of my engagement to your father?" Faith nodded, liking the sick look she got from her Dad for talking about him like he wasn’t there. <Hey, that’s what kids are for…> "It wasn’t because he was in the Army. It was purely because he was a Standing. They didn’t care to learn anything beyond that, so I didn’t care to tell them." She smiled wickedly again. "Just like I never cared to tell them that I eventually became a priestess of Artemis like Jennifer."

This told Faith again why she liked Stepmom so much, not that she’d replace Slayer Mom. They had the same "kiss my ass" attitude if someone didn’t like something. "So what’s gonna happen when they find out about him and his funny Army hat?"

Now Daddy growled and Cel’s eyebrow shot up. "Actually Faith, my mother’s family has a great deal of respect for the American military." A lopsided grin appeared and she muttered, "Even if the men did wear gray instead of blue."

"So much for the guys not being fighters, huh?"

"Hardly. This is what my family is like, Faith. The only reason the men got to go was because they were told to go. The Parrishes were diehard Southerners, but since the Amazons couldn’t fight…"

"They ‘let’ the men do it. Jesus Christ." She shot a smile Dad’s way. "No offense."

Daddy Dearest rolled his eyes and she and Stepmom laughed at him. "For someone who worships Artemis, you invoke HIS name a lot."

"Hey, he gave me the gig, I thank HIM for it. Besides, nothing in HIS book or Arty’s that says you can’t thank both of Them for caring about you."

"The Lady Goddess doesn’t have a book," Celene pointed out. "And before you make some joke about maybe she should have one, please remember that it means more to practice what you believe than to simply read it."

"Trust me, I do." Faith grinned again and asked, "So you wanna go tell Page what’s up so we can get ready to make any high and mighty Parrish girls look stupid when they try to tangle with us?"

"Faith…" Dad and Stepmom both growled.

"Hey, these are snobby Southern people; they’re almost as bad as English guys. I’m Irish and, oh Gawdess I can’t believe I’m saying this, a Yankee. You really think these Wild Eyed Southern Girls are gonna ‘cotton’ to little ole me at first sight?"

Dad, Stepmom, and Lover Boy all glanced at one another. Simultaneously, they groaned.

"Right," she said triumphantly. "You know Boss Man’s motto. Hope for the best, but prepare to kick hiney." She grabbed Cel’s arm. "Come on, Cel. Let’s go and talk to Little Sis about going to see her Carolina cousins."

*****

As Faith and Celene left to talk to her sister, Seth admired the way she walked as her hips twitched under her Levi’s. He sighed and said, "Since they’re going to talk to Page, I suppose that leaves us menfolk to pack the weapons."

"Who better?" Faith’s father chuckled, clapping him on the back. "Come on. I’ll show you to the armory, let you get a look at our toys."

"Sounds good to me." They started walking and Seth again marveled at how well he and David had hit it off. Of course, it all made sense when she’d explained how open minded the Standing family was when it came to relationships.

"All they care about is if you’re willing to make babies and you can hold your own in a fight," she’d said. And given that he and Faith had been lovers for months now, and he’d been fighting vampires for some time before that, he was on solid ground. They didn’t even hold his sordid past against him.

"So," Seth said, trying to broach the subject, "do you think there’s any chance this could go easily?"

"Not really." They descended the stairs, side-by-side. "But I don’t think our reception will be quite as chilly as you might think. Just the same, it pays to be ready for anything."

"No shit." Seth then glanced at David. "I take it Celene’s not your typical Parrish woman."

"Hardly." Seth saw the gleam that came to the ex-Green Beret’s eyes. "You should’ve been there when Bull and Tex tried to get us together at an Army function back around Thanksgiving of ’81."

"You didn’t hit if off?" he asked, surprised by that possibility.

"Hell no, we clicked right from the beginning! She was the base liaison to the media at the time." David stopped walking so he could keep his laughter from taking his breath away. "The thing was, because the set up was so obvious, I did everything I could to avoid it."

That caught Seth off guard. Faith’s father and stepmother were so much in love you couldn’t help but envy them. <Or hope to find something like that yourself.> Of course, he’d found it with his Irish angel. "How’d you try to avoid it?" <This ought to be good.>

"The usual ways for Green Berets. Going on maneuvers, dealing with sudden national emergencies, going on missions out of the blue. But let me tell you something. While Bull and Tex got more and more pissed off at me and Cherokee, Celene just bided her time. Finally, around Easter of ’82, just before I shipped out on one of my last three missions, she came and sunk her hooks into me."

Okay, he had to hear this. "Just how did she do that?"

"She arranged a meeting with Major Ritter when I was on office duty. While she waited for him, she decided to confront me about my avoiding her like the plague and did it in the worst way possible. She asked me…" He changed his voice to an approximation of Celene’s and said, "I thought that Standing men were supposed to be the equals of their Amazon sisters? So when are you going to stop acting like a coward and show me some of that vaunted Standing courage?"

Seth doubled over, laughing full, belly-busting laughs. He knew Dave enjoyed his reaction, because it showed how alike Celene and Faith were; if they wanted something, they went for it. As they pushed the doors to the Standing armory open, the former Section One "recruit" drawled, "She reeled you in by using your ego against you!"

"Actually, the fact that she was an Amazon cleared the second hurdle to my getting involved with her."

"What was the first? Soldier’s pride in avoiding the set up?" Seth asked jokingly.

David shook his head, his good humor vanishing. "No," he said sadly. "It was Erin."

Gecko’s mouth formed a thin, tight line. He wouldn’t say anything to belittle David’s memories of Faith’s mother, but he was curious about her. "What was she like? Faith doesn’t talk about her much, but I know she wasn’t just an alcoholic. I get the impression that underneath the problems, she was a good person at heart."

"She was," David said easily enough. His demeanor changed from his all-consuming affection for Celene to reminiscence about Erin Reilly. "She wasn’t frightened by my being a Green Beret or that I would eventually ship out. Despite the drinking, Erin liked to have a good time in normal ways. Why, I remember the time we went to a Red Sox game, she…" He started to laugh again. "We were in the first row in right field. When the outfielder from the other team tried to catch a deep drive and rob Dwight Evans of a home run, she reached out…"

"And snatched the ball away," Seth guessed with a grin.

"Nope, she stole his cap, taunted him, started spinning it around, and then put it on her head!" Seth’s eyes popped wide open at that, but David had tears coming out of his eyes as he laughed at the memory. "We were thrown out by security, but we just couldn’t stop laughing about it. God, if Faith ever heard that…"

"My lips are sealed," Seth said. He wondered how long he’d keep the promise if Faith got wind of this little scandal. But he pursed his lips; because that was something Faith would pull herself, loving every minute of the trouble it would cause. "Faith is a lot like her, isn’t she?"

"If you mean her temper, her Irish pride, and her tough-girl attitude, that’s where she gets it from." David gazed off into the distance, like he was trying to spy his oldest. "She has my hair, has her mother’s complexion and a mix of our eyes. Erin’s were seawater green, not too far off from Shaw or Tawnie’s eyes. She definitely inherited her mother’s sharp tongue, though." Seth smiled. He’d been cut to pieces by that tongue for over a year now. "But Faith has some traits that put her head and shoulders above either her mother or me. She’s more courageous, compassionate, and forgiving than Erin or I ever was."

Suddenly the smile ran away from David’s face to be replaced by a look of old sorrow. "I loved her so much, Seth. When we broke up, I thought I’d never find anyone like her, someone I’d love that much. But I did. I found it in Celene." David picked up a Glock 19 and checked it thoroughly, talking the entire time. "Celene had all of the same qualities that had drawn me to Erin; passion, gentleness, stubborn like a mule at the appropriate time, and a willingness to do what she wants, when she wants, and damn the consequences."

Seth paused his loading of a Remington 870 shotgun. "That isn’t always a good thing," he said, thinking back to the life he’d shared with Richard that had inevitably led to his brother’s horrible death at the hands of a vampire bitch…

And his own hands.

"I just meant her keeping after me despite how her clan would react, Seth." David gave him a sympathetic nod and gripped his shoulder. "But I know where you’re coming from. When she announced her engagement, her clan all but disowned her. Hell, her Mother refused to even come to see the grandchildren when they were born. I know she has some contact with her father, but her mother…through it all, Celene held her head high, but this rift with her family hurt her deeply."

Seth nodded. He couldn’t help but understand. He’d seen the ability to persevere in Faith so many times…

"She’s your other half."

"Yes, she is," Faith’s father said with a cracked voice. He placed the Glock down and clenched his jaw. "I told her how my romance with Erin had ended, but she refused to let me use it to avoid moving on. We proceeded at our own pace and I began to see things in Celene that Erin didn’t possess; a courage to work through her troubles instead of drowning her sorrows, a serenity born of being self-confident and avoiding emotional traps, and… happiness. You could see it in her eyes, Seth. She’s happy with whom she is as a person. Erin just…"

Knowing he didn’t want to speak ill of Faith’s mother, Seth put it in a way to give David an out. "I was like that too, Dave. I was like that before meeting your daughter and her friends. I got lucky, Erin didn’t."

David nodded. "Celene filled the hole Erin left in my heart, but she did more than that. She filled other holes I never knew existed. Like Sinead O’Conner said, ‘Nothing compares to her.’"

Seth felt his heart thumping against his rib cage. This guy could almost be him, talking about what his woman meant to him. For Seth, Faith was the one thing that had made his pathetic existence worth something. Oh, sure, he’d wanted to change before being captured by Section One, and he’d started making the changes in between debriefing with Michael and Nikita and going to Sunnydale. But it had been Faith, that beautiful bad ass who’d escaped the streets of Boston and drove both Steve and Buffy to drink heavily at times, that had shown him what kind of person he could be. Although the relationship he’d established with their friends was the icing on the cake, he doubted he’d ever have settled down and accepted his new life in Sunnydale if it hadn’t been for her. She was his guiding light. She had given his life meaning long before he’d realized he’d fallen head over heels for her.

He had just experienced his epiphany and the perfect person who’d truly understand was right there next to him. "David?"

Standing looked at him curiously. "Yeah?"

"I love her."

Dave just turned back to checking various weapons. "I know." He placed another Glock on the table and said, "This is the kind Faith uses, right?" Seth nodded, so David pulled out three magazines. "Celene also changed me, Seth. She makes me a better man, she makes my life complete, especially with the children… and we can handle the danger that comes with our hunting, even though it might separate us. But we both know, based on our love and faith, our separation would only be for a little while. I never thought I’d be able to recover from losing Erin, but I did. Celene saved me, Seth, and I can’t imagine her not being a part of me forever."

After a brief pause, David opened his mouth to say something, but Seth raised a hand, bidding him to wait. "David, I know how you feel. She is to me like Celene is to you. She…" <Why mince words?> "She made me give a damn about the world, about good, about what’s right. She showed me that I was wasting my life with the petty violence, the fast money, cheap women, and booze. She made me see how life is a gift and how I’d wasted it, by robbing banks to fighting vampires just for payback. Then she walked into my life, all sassy and fancy-free." He chuckled. "Our little spitfire isn’t a Pollyanna like her sisters--I’m talking Buffy and Kendra. Don’t get me wrong, they’re nice girls and all, just a bit too uptight and straight-laced for my tastes."

He bowed his head and mumbled, "She’s so giving, if you can get past her tough-act, you know?" David nodded. "Even after all the crap the world has pushed her way, all the bad breaks, she still finds it in her heart to be a hero. And damn it all, she kicked me in the ass and made me want to really be somebody… somebody worthy of her."

"If you weren’t, she wouldn’t have brought you here, Seth." David picked up an M-16 in each hand and handed one to him. "Personally, I think she sometimes wonders if she’s worthy of you. Funny thing is your respective histories give you both the perspective to understand each other. It’s the same with Celene and me. It’s what makes you and Faith perfect together."

Seth didn’t meet David’s eyes. Instead, he thought about everything they’d said and how things were going so perfectly between him and Faith. It made so much sense and it sent something buzzing in his mind, something he’d been thinking about for a while now.

<I wonder…> He looked at David, who pretended to be busy checking his rifle. "David, do you think I’m good for her?"

"I trust my daughter, Seth." He put the rifle back and gave him a grin. "And Artemis forbid I’d ever admit that to her. I’d never hear the end of it."

They laughed again and David started to head back upstairs, carrying the items they’d need for their upcoming trip. "And yes, Seth. I think you’re the right man for her. If I didn’t, you wouldn’t still be alive after your first night here."

The way he’d said it, and with what Seth knew of the missions he’d gone on with the Wanderer in the early ‘80’s, made the private investigator know that he’d meant every syllable of it.

<Like father, like Slayer.>

*****

Parrish Estate
Spartansburg, South Carolina
22 July 2001

"Not bad," Faith decided as she took in the scenery passing by as they approached the estate of Celene’s family home. "Not as nice as Grandma’s Ponderosa spread, though, Dad."

Celene chuckled at the name and offered, "No, it’s not bad. But then again, I consider the Standings my family now." She looked at her through the rear view mirror. "That’s my home. I only wish you could consider making it yours, too."

"Sorry, but I’m Boston Irish, not Scarlet O’Hara. I might be heavy on the O’Hara, but not on the Scarlet."

Seth and Page both laughed at her pun, but she reached up and lightly popped her grim-faced Dad on the back of his shoulder. "Hey, come on, Pops. The joke wasn’t that bad."

"Yes it was," he shot back. He leaned forward, probably so she couldn’t wop him again for saying she wasn’t funny. He reached into the glove box and pulled out a pair of holsters. "Faith, Page, take these. Being female members of an Amazon family, the Parrishes will expect you to be armed."

"Even Page?" Seth asked, eyes wide with surprise.

"Even Page," Cel said with the Mommy Voice she always heard from her Mom. "My mother’s clan expects their women to be ready to fight by the time they’re fifteen or sixteen."

"Geez," Faith sarcastically snapped, "that sounds really familiar!"

"I wonder why," Page snickered with a shit-eating grin. Faith looked at her and still couldn’t believe how her oldest little blood-type sib was growing up. "But remember, Faith, it’s ix-nay on the…"

"Ayer-slay. Yeah, yeah, I know. Daddy won’t let me have any fun." She and Page laughed at the way Dad and Stepmom rolled their eyes together.

"All right, we’re almost there," Celene said quietly as they turned the corner and drove toward the big gates that would take them onto Parrish turf. "Remember, my clan is formal and traditional. Let me do the talking and tell them why we’re here."

Faith nodded like the rest, but she wasn’t too keen about it. She tried to rein in her desire to just go in and find her Sister-in-Destiny. She jumped when Seth’s hand settled in her lap and gently squeezed. She gave him a look and he moved the hand to take hers. Her concerns melted away until Page harrumphed and muttered, "This is so bogus! Everyone gets to have their boy toy on this field trip except me!"

Three things happened. First, the Explorer braked and Stepmom started spitting and buried her head against the steering wheel, laughing her butt off. Her laughing got really loud! Dad gave Page a look that said, "You are so dead." The last was Faith patting Little Sis on the head and telling her, "Sucks to be you, kiddo."

Faith’s good humor ended when she noticed flickers of movement out of the corner of her eye. She glanced up and saw three decent-enough looking women her age or a little older coming their way. Very slick, very pro, she noted. But the Slayer could still tell they were reaching for guns under their jackets.

"Uh, Cel? Welcome wagon ain’t waiting for us to reach the gate."

She rolled her window down as the Charlie’s Angels rejects took up positions around the truck. The probable boss of the trio came near Celene’s door, but not close enough that Celene could smack her with it.

Her baby blues showing she could be a royal bitch if she wanted, Parrish girl asked, "Is there a problem with your vehicle?"

Celene shook her head and Faith guessed she was smiling, all friendly and Southern-like. "No, my daughter made a smart remark and I had no desire to roll the vehicle over because I was laughing too hard." Faith could see the Parrish lady was about to roll her eyes, but Stepmom made her sales pitch. "But I thank you for your concern. As it so happens, Matriarch Constance is expecting us."

Parrish Lady’s eyes grew hot. "I was not told to expect any visitors for the Matriarch." She backed up and got ready to draw. "State your names and business."

Celene took one hand off the steering wheel and touched herself on the chest. "I am Celene Parrish-Standing, daughter of Theresa Parrish of the Parrish Clan, descendants of the tribe of Yakut of the Amazon Nation, and priestess to the Lady Artemis. With me are my mate, David Standing of the Standing Clan, descendants of the tribe of Cyan; his daughter, Faith Pryce of the Standing Clan and the Pryce family of Boston; her mate, Seth Gecko, member of a team of vampire hunters based out of Sunnydale, California, hometown of our Queen; and my and David’s eldest daughter, Page Parrish-Standing."

Faith watched the Southern gal’s eyes flicker with different emotions. As quick as they were, the Bostonian could easily read them; surprise over Cel coming home (like she didn’t know how that felt!), color her not impressed with Faith, Dad, or Seth, and some interest in Page, who was technically half-Parrish girl. Southern Girl’s face went blank for a moment, then returned with a look that said she was polite but not friendly.

The girl in charge watched for a few more seconds before she nodded. "Very well, Aunt Celene. Your party may enter. Park your vehicle at the visitor’s area and wait for a detail to escort you to see the Matriarch."

She backed up, so did her partners. Celene put the truck in gear and started driving. Faith waited until they were away from the Terrible Trio to pop the question running through her head.

"Why’d she make us go to this ‘visitor’s area?’ Aren’t you family?"

"You heard her refer to me as Aunt Celene." Faith nodded and the light bulb went off the same second Celene kept talking. "That means she’s the daughter of my mother’s sister. I’m literally her aunt, so she probably knows all about the split I made with Mother. As far as she’s concerned, I’m a Standing, not a Parrish."

"Oh goody," Faith muttered under her breath. Her eyes gleamed with determination. "And the prison-guard type ‘detail?’"

"Actually, it will likely be a combination of security detachment and honor guard. We are here as the ‘representatives’ of Felicia Standing. And Matriarch Constance will be fully aware of how favorably Gabrielle thinks of your Grandmother."

"Politics," Faith and Page groaned together.

"Yes," Celene and David said together.

Her Dad’s Fair Lady pulled off to the side by the big ass house and followed the driveway to what was the spot they’d been told to stash the truck. The Slayer glanced at Page, who was peering around with more interest than she’d expressed since learning about the trip.

"Like what you see?" she asked teasingly. She had some idea of what Page might be feeling.

Page turned to her, blue eyes flashing. "It’s all right, but not as nice as back home. Give me Virginia any day."

"Because they don’t have the hurricanes hitting there as often?" Faith teased her.

Number One Sister smacked her with the back of her hand. "No, because I’ve seen people like Mom’s family before, and their attitude sucks."

"You’re right there, Sis O’Mine. But at least you’re not a ‘Damn Yankee’ like me. You got that Southern thing going for you here."

Page’s eyes went sapphire with nasty teen attitude. "Nobody’s perfect."

"Yeah… HEY!"

Seth doubled over with laughter while Faith glared at her lover. Then she smiled at him, her eyes half closed while she contemplated how to best gain her revenge. As soon as he sat back up, eyes watering, she planted a "gentle" elbow in the breadbasket, doubling him over again.

"Don’t puke in the car, lover," she said with a silken, honey voice. "Don’t wanna ruin the leather."

She scooted out Page’s side, leaving Seth to get both his wind and machismo back.

*****

Faith was ambivalent about this whole "Amazon procession" thang. With four Parrish Amazons on each side of them, all of them having mean-looking guns and swords on hand, they made the hike into the mansion.

Celene was in front, with her and Page next in line, Faith on her left. Dad was directly behind Page, while Seth was behind her. Seth was probably spending just as much time examining her booty as he was keeping his mind on business. She smiled sadistically, because every now and then, she’d twitch her hips just to tease him and push all his manly buttons.

The Amazon parade finally came to a halt in front of the kind of double doors Grandma had on her study back at La Casa Standing. The tough girl in charge pulled up and knocked on the doors. After a teeny wait, the doors opened and out stepped Constance Parrish.

She stood pretty tall, the way Amazons were supposed so, or so Faith figured. She wore a prim, business suit and Faith had to bite her tongue to avoid making some smartass remark. While the woman had strong cheekbones, a stern expression, and vivid blue eyes for someone in her fifties, her ponytailed hair was pitch black except for a silvery-white stripe down the middle.

<Oh Gawdess, all that’s missing is the Dalmatian coat!>

Constance examined them all before focusing on Stepmommy Dearest. She said, with a thin smile, "Welcome home, Celene. To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?"

Celene bowed her head just a little bit. "We have come to discuss something of a delicate, yet important nature, Matriarch. It is best discussed in private. As for the other reason…" For the first time since she could remember, Stepmom got real emotional in a sad-type sense! "The other reason, I hope to repair the rift between my mother and me if possible. I would like to see if we rebuild what we once had."

The smile faded just a bit, until you could almost think she was imitating a Fang Boy back in Sunny D. She looked them over again and nodded like Aunt Marion did when she was thinking fast and furious. "I see. Very well, Celene. I’ll have Theresa notified of the arrival of you and your family. But what do you wish to discuss with me personally? Matriarch Felicia told me this was something not to be discussed over the phone."

"That is because the details are that important. And with the Amazon Nation taking a more direct role in the battles against the Darkness, this information in particular could prove to be dangerous to your family in general and one member in particular."

<That’s a fancy, shmancy way of saying, when we say in private, we mean in private!> Faith moaned under her breath and fidgeted impatiently, chancing a look at the bodyguards that passed for Parrish muscle. They looked impressive, but she could take four of ‘em easily if they didn’t have time to draw their guns. She decided the Hell with being silent and raised her hand. "Excuse me, but can I ask you something?"

Celene turned her head to look at her, her eyes hard, like she was warning her not to start any trouble. But Cruella de Amazon actually seemed to like her speaking up. "Of course, child. What is it?"

"I was just wondering, why’d your muscle here treat Stepmom like a leper or something and make her park in the, what did she call it… the ‘visitor’ area?" She painted a confused look on her face. "I mean, maybe I’m not up on how your family does things, but where I come from, family’s treated like family, not like a door-to-door salesman or the dog."

Connie Parrish got real still, like she was a statue. But Faith’s shot hit home with the chick that’d told them to park in the boonies; she winced and Faith knew that she hadn’t told Boss Lady Parrish about that. Celene saw that look too but didn’t take in the Slayer Supreme’s victorious smirk.

"Now, another thing is, maybe it’s not her fault, because we didn’t tell her," Faith said, twisting the knife on the girl who’d insulted her Stepmom, "but we did kinda leave out some info about me, so you can’t blame her for this like you can for screwin’ with one of your family. You may not know me by name, but you guys’d probably know me by face if you bought a calendar back around Christmas of ’99. I was the cover girl. I’m also on the Board of Directors for VAN." She leaned forward like she was going to whisper something that was just for Connie. "Between you and me, treating family and a Board member like this, your bodyguards are totally ruining the image I had about ‘Southern hospitality.’"

She knew that wouldn’t go over well if she’d read Connie right. But Dad and Page were giving her the same kind of look Seth had given her; they liked her style.

Constance’s eyes showed she wasn’t happy with being dissed on how her people treated guests. She took a few deep breaths before asking Cel, "Is your stepdaughter always this…" She must have worked hard to find the "genteel" term. "Forward?"

<Nice way of saying ‘tactless’ or ‘rude.’ Can’t wait to use it on Cordy.>

"Only when she feels that doing so would cut through the bullshit and get to the point," Cel noted with a sigh. "Unfortunately, niceties are something she has never mastered."

"Oh?" That came out like she was looking at a dirty dog that’d traipsed mud on her pretty, clean floors.

Faith wasn’t going to stand for that, being treated like less than anything. "Yeah, that’s pretty much true. You see, knowing which spoon to use for the salad or the proper way to hold your pinkie out while drinking tea doesn’t help much when you spend your nights fighting vamps and demons. They really aren’t up on the social niceties." She cocked her head as she remembered the exception to the rule. "Well, ‘cept for Jules up in San Fran. But he’s a special case…"

"Faith," Dad said with a Giles-type warning. "We’re not here to insult Matriarch Constance."

"They insulted us first," Page snapped, seeing where Faith was going with this. She glared at her cuz in particular. "They knew who we were and they still treated us like crap."

"SHE broke off all ties fifteen years ago!" the Parrish bodyguard growled. Wow, that was almost as good as Seth when he… <Mind on business, Faith!> "She doesn’t have the right to call herself a Parrish!"

"And you do not have the right to make that determination, Caroline," Connie Parrish shot back. She turned to Cel and said, "I apologize for your welcome, Celene. As I said, we’ll let your mother know you and Page are here, and hopefully you can mend fences with her." She paused and glared at Caroline the Big Bad Bodyguard. "You and I shall discuss whatever it is that is so important in my study. The rest of your party can wait in the day room."

<With lots and lots of bodyguards, right?> Faith could read the writing on the wall. But she was not going to be left out of this little chat and she and Cel had had a long talk about just that. She decided she’d give Cel five seconds to bring that up.

"I will need Faith and David to come in with us, Matriarch Constance." Cel stood up straight and Faith knew this was a ‘moment of truth’ situation. "Faith is the reason we need to speak with you in the first place. She has critical knowledge of the subject we will be discussing and can offer insight no one else can provide."

Connie looked at her with a new interest but a little bit of reserve, like she knew what kind of attitude she had. <Good for her.> But then she looked past her at Dad. "And why does this meeting require the presence of your mate?" she asked.

Faith got the sneaky suspicion she really didn’t care about the answer. It was more politics and wheeling and dealing, Amazon style. Or would it be Southern style? But Dad gave her the reason. "Queen Gabrielle asked me to discuss your security arrangements when we tell you what we’ve learned about a member of your family. She felt I was best qualified to ensure the protection of this member of your family, in case her situation becomes known to our enemies."

As the Bad Girl had expected when Gabs had given her orders, the Parrish girls did not like hearing something like that. Gabs was hoping that her rep would keep any trouble from starting. Faith, well…she lived in the real world.

Connie looked like one of those dudes on the Cartoon Network, just before their head exploded with anger. You know, the whole top half popping off and steam shooting out the ears thing. In one of those voices that let you know someone was royally pissed, she talked through clenched teeth, "Our Queen does not think we are capable of protecting our own? Is that what you are telling me, Celene?"

Again, Daddy Green Beanie talked because this was his shtick. "The Queen knows of the potential problems that may arise if certain knowledge somehow escapes to those who should not have access to it. I am the most qualified of our party to determine what, if any, additional security measures should taken."

"And what would you know about combat, Standing?!?" Caroline snapped out loud. Yep, the shit was hitting the fan like they’d rehearsed for. Faith had expected them to get to it sooner. Caroline in the Country turned on Connie and lambasted her with a verbal smackdown. "What right do these traitors have to come in here, insult our ways, and then have the unmitigated gall to claim that the Queen of the Amazon Nation would infringe on our right to do things our own way!"

Cel calmly turned around, her face real composed. But Faith could tell she was just loving getting them to lose their cool first. She smiled at Caroline. "Who gave us the right was the Queen of the Amazon Nation! She has seen that things are now different because one member of your family is in a difficult situation which can either lead to glory and honor for your family, or result in your destruction, just to eliminate her."

"And who is this Parrish?" Caroline demanded. Faith saw how her people were slowly reaching for their heat.

"That’s on a need to know basis," Faith drawled. She knew that would get Caroline’s goat. "And with your attitude, you definitely don’t need to know."

Miss High and Mighty started to get into her personal space but Connie snapped, "Caroline!" Caroline snapped to attention like a good little Amazon soldier but she could read the hate in her eyes. She just knew, if anyone really caused any problems, it’d be her. Connie then got back to the matter of Dad. "David Standing, while I do not hold to the opinion that Amazon men cannot be trained to fight, do you truly believe that you are the equal of a fully trained, female Amazon warrior?"

Ohhhh, this was gonna be good. <Time for the bombshell!> Faith wished she had some munchies for this; it was gonna be like watching a Chevy Chase comedy. She turned her head to see what Dad did. He looked at one of the bodyguards, who carried his briefcase, the one with the info that Grandma had wanted to share with Constance for getting bigger and better guns and toys that made things go boom. But she had the feeling she knew what he was going to take out of it.

"In the top of my briefcase, there’s a brown folder with a unique seal on it. I think it will be obvious which one." He turned to Constance and respectfully told her, "The information in the file can be easily verified, Matriarch Constance. I think it’ll show you that when it comes to fighting, I could kill the average Amazon warrior in less than a minute."

Well, that was one way of putting it. The fact that it was pretty much true didn’t mean that the Anti-Men Girls were gonna like it. In fact, even Connie didn’t like it. Her eyes shot ‘phasers set at vaporize’ at Daddy but he just stared back, totally sure of himself. <Well, he’s got a right to be.>

"And just what makes you think you could possibly be the equal of any one of us, David Standing?!?" Caroline asked icily.

‘Here it comes,’ she mused. Dad nodded to the bodyguard, who opened the suitcase and took out the folder. Faith recognized the symbol in front and she figured Constance would, too. The thing was passed around and Constance’s left eyebrow twitched as she took it in her hands. She opened it and Daddy gave Miss High And Mighty the answer to the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

He looked at the girl who was barely her age and let his eyes go really, really cold. It almost made her take a step back. It was the look Stevie Boy got sometimes. "What makes me think I’m better than the average Amazon, Caroline Parrish? Just the eighty-six missions I participated in, completed, and survived with the 5th Special Forces Group of the US Army." Then he gave her the grin you might see on a skull. <Except with less funny in it.> "You’ve probably heard of the 5th SFG’s personnel. Civilians like you call them Green Berets."

Caroline’s eyes went wide with the news, and Faith turned to look and see how Connie was reacting. She had her eyes flick up at Dad for a minute before reading part of Dad’s Army record. She read off, "Silver Star, Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts." She nodded her head solemnly. "And you served directly under Carson Jamieson?"

Faith knew how she knew Steve’s old ID. Gabs had told the Boss Ladies of the Amazon families about Stevie and B, mainly the whole Sword deal and stuff. Heck, she’d been there when Gabby and She-Conan had made the calls.

"Forty-six missions," Dad confirmed.

"Very well," she said, but her voice came out real careful like. "I do not need to read any more." She handed the file back around and said, "Celene, your husband and stepdaughter can accompany us."

"MATRIARCH?!?" Caroline shouted, as did three of the other seven muscle. "How can you…"

"He is a former member of the Special Forces and an expert with almost every weapon known in North America, Caroline. He has been awarded some of the highest military honors our country can give." Faith looked between the two and she saw that while Caroline loved Connie like a Mom or Grandma, she didn’t like how Connie was doing stuff here. But Connie knew talent when she saw it. "So ask yourself this question; how dangerous is a warrior who knows both the most modern combat techniques and our ancient ways, and combines them? I do not care to find out."

She turned back and said, "Celene, bring them with you." She turned and walked into the study, leaving them to do what she’d told them. < Geez, like we’re the hired help or something.>

"Well, here we go…" she mumbled. Cel caught it and nodded, because they were thinking the same thing.

<Now comes the hard part.>

*****

She waited for Cel and Dad to sit down in front of the desk Connie was sitting behind. Faith had to admit it; she was surprised. Instead of the old, pricey type desk Gabs and Grandma had, Connie didn’t go for the antiques. She went for new, strict, and top of the line. She even had one of those expensive flat screen computer monitors.

She looked at Cel, who was running this show. She nodded that it was okay to sit down, but Faith was still wary of the potential for a set-up. She didn’t care that it wasn’t likely; both Celene and Constance both cared about her family. So she sat down and gave Constance brownie points for not making them dress up in fancy office clothes for this powwow.

As one of the security girls closed the doors behind them, Constance folded her fingers together and got down to the nitty-gritty. "While Theresa is being told about you and Page, let us get down to the real reason you brought these people here. What is so important, Celene?"

Celene folded her arms and crossed one leg over the other. She looked at her lap for a second before looking at her. "Do you want to tell her, Faith?"

Faith was surprised that Cel trusted her that much! So she nodded because she wanted to find her possible replacement. So she looked to Connie Parrish, who was now looking at her with interest. <Okay, it might be the interest of something new and shiny, but still, it’s better than High And Mighty’s ‘tude.>

"Okay, it’s real simple, least to me. But it might be a little complicated for you." Constance’s eyes went a little darker with what she might think was an insult, but Faith didn’t care. She was gonna go full bore and that was that. She just laid it out there with one question.

"What do you know about Vampire Slayers?"

The question seemed to catch her off guard, but she recovered quickly. Faith gave her a couple brownie points for it. "I know about the Slayers, all Amazons do. Or at least they should." She sat up straight and Faith had to avoid making some joke about good posture. "The tale of the First Slayer saving Amazons from the soul spirit is one of my personal favorites. Of course, the fact that Alika learned Amazon fighting arts from our Queen herself only raises the stature of the Slayer line amongst my family in particular." Faith knew that them being alone in a probably soundproofed room was the only reason Connie mentioned Gabby being an Immie. But she did look a little confused over why she was bringing up the Slayer thing. "What does the Slayer line have to do with you accompanying your father and stepmother here?"

"Well, two things. First off, you know that there’s three Slayers now, right?" Connie nodded and started to talk again before the bells started ringing in her head. She got really impressed with her now, and Faith knew that she’d scored some major points with her. "That’s right C… Matriarch Constance. I’m a Slayer. Or more accurately, I’m the Slayer. The current Chosen One. She-Who-Has-Alika’s-Ghost-Shacking-Up-In-Her. And the reason I’m here is mostly because I was closest to your spread, being on vacation with Dad, but partly it’s because I know what certain people go through."

"This is not clearing up my confusion, Faith Pryce. Please elaborate."

<Sure thing.> She started taking off her jacket and set it across the back of the chair. She asked, "Every girl that could become the Slayer has a little mark on their back, near their left shoulder. I have it, so has every girl who had or has the potential to be the Chosen One."

"I see. An easy way to tell who might inherit the destiny." Connie didn’t seem to be getting the point, but that was okay. She was open to the whole Slayer succession idea. "What does this have to do with my clan?"

Time for Connie to learn about one girl’s big moment in the spotlight. "Simple. There’s these witches across the Pond that usually tell when a Potential is born, using their witchy stuff. They inform the Watcher’s Council, who’s been training Slayers for Goddess knows how long. Now usually, they get to ‘em, the girls with the mark, somewhere between the time they’re two to six years old. But sometimes, like in my case, they slip through the cracks until they’re thirteen, fourteen, or older." Constance nodded like she understood that even magic wasn’t perfect. "I’m an extreme example. They didn’t get me on their radar until the second I was Chosen, when I was only a month or two from turning seventeen. Sometimes it’s that late."

She pulled her shirt off her shoulder and stood up, giving Constance a look at the official Slayer hairy mole. She said, "This is it. The mark of the Slayer. Anyone with it, before getting Chosen, is what we call a Potential." Constance nodded and didn’t seem to mind her lack of Southern manners. She put the shirt back in place and sat down, a smirk crossing her face. "Well, Mrs. Parrish, one of your girls, someone here on your turf, has that mark and a Lot of Potential."

She wondered how that would go over with Constance. As it turned out, Boss Lady Parrish was real quick on the uptake. "One thing we have in common with the Standings is that we home school our children. Of course, we also have some clansmen and women who do not train in the warrior arts. Rather, they train in medicine." She smiled and some of that pride in her family showed through. "We might be traditional, but like most clans, we know what century it is. So we keep full records of the health of everyone who comes here, whether family or members of the staff." Constance picked up the phone on her desk and hit some four-digit extension number. "Marshall, this is Constance." She nodded and sighed. "Yolanda’s flu isn’t getting any better? I know you’ll do your best. But I’m calling for another reason. I need you to have someone search the birth records going back the last twenty years."

She pulled back and Faith’s Slayer hearing picked up that little squawk at the end. She got back in control and you couldn’t deny she was giving orders now. "Marshall, you know that I do not do things on a whim. This is a matter of the greatest importance. Do not make me give you an order, little brother."

<Okay, that explains a lot…>

"I need you to find out something about a member of the family. Look under identifying marks and find any and all daughters of the clan with a birthmark on or near the left shoulder blade. Focus on the back, near the top of the shoulder. Yes, I know it’s a strange request. Just do it." She hung up the phone and her attitude went back to Miss Formal Southern Belle. "It’s done. As soon as we have the name, I’ll bring her in and you can explain everything to her. But I do want to know how you became aware of the girl being a… Potential, you called her?"

"It’s that or Slayer-in-Training, or Slayer-in-Waiting. But Potential is what fits here." Faith leaned forward and gave her a sneaky grin. "I mean, since she’s not an SIT yet because Miss Caroline High And Mighty and her gun-toting buds chased away the Watcher guy who was trying to tell you about her the first five times!"

"Faith!" Cel snapped, since she had a bit of attitude about this.

"The Watcher…" Constance put two and two together and her fingers got real tight together. She was literally going white in the knuckles. "The Englishman who kept calling on us… damn it, I do not believe this." She looked at Stepmommy Dearest. "So what happens once we learn who the lucky child is?"

"The first thing, based on what Faith and others have told me, is to get her a Watcher, who will train her in the ways of the Slayer." Faith had given Cel the whole shebang on the SIT routine and they agreed they had to convince Connie just how important it was, because even being Amazons, they couldn’t handle the training a Slayer got, with… "Not just in the arts of combat, but also in the strengths and weaknesses of vampires, demons, and other supernatural evils. The Watchers have over four thousand years of accumulated knowledge at their fingertips and a Watcher is the only way that your clanswoman can possibly be prepared in the proper manner."

<Translation, invite a perfect stranger, probably a man, into your place and let him teach your girl everything about the Slayer because you can’t. Yeah, that’ll go over good.>

"You do not think we could properly prepare her?" Constance asked, looking at a picture on her desk. "What are our choices, overall? What are all the avenues we could take?"

"Uhm, if you’re worried about it being a guy Watcher, there are lady Watchers you know. My first Watcher was a woman." Constance didn’t seem to have that being the bug up her butt. "But the choices are pretty simple. One, Watcher moves in and starts training her. Two, Watcher lives nearby and either he comes here to train her or she goes to his place. Three, she goes and lives with the Watcher, because the Council guys are right about one thing; if the bad guys find out about her, chances are they’ll try to kill her first thing, just because she could be a Slayer. It’s happened too many times, especially two years ago."

That perked her up as Constance’s face displayed her concern. "What happened two years ago?"

It was Dad that gave her the story; Drake the Immortal-hating demon dude had gotten an army together to take out the SIT’s and their Watchers and try to put an end to the whole Slayer gig. He didn’t spare her the details either; some of the SIT’s being tortured, killed, or turned, and how they still hadn’t accounted for one or two. Celene told them how girls and families across the planet had been killed, just because they could be Slayers. Faith added the coup de grace, talking about how they’d gathered the Potentials into one place to defend them, which led to the big fight where Drake had brought in a big time demon to help them wipe out the Council, SIT’s, Kendra and Faith in one fell swoop.

By the time they’d got done, Faith guessed that Connie Parrish was pretty much sold on keeping the kid and her family safe. She, Dad, and Stepmom just let the quiet time stew until Constance was done drumming her fingers across her high tech desktop.

"You are right. This is most important." She looked at Faith and the Boston Bad Girl saw some real wrinkles there, like she’d had to make hard choices more than once. <Maybe that’s why she’s running the Parrish Show.> "You will tell her what you have told me, to let her know the dangers and responsibilities that come with her destiny."

Geez, she didn’t even say "please!" But Faith just let it go, because she knew a major victory when she won one. "I’ll tell her, soon as your little bro gets the info we need."

Constance smiled grimly and turned to Dad. "I assume this is why you were told to examine our security. I hate to admit this, but the Queen is right in this instance. This news changes many things. I’ll make the arrangements to give you a tour of the entire grounds and facilities."

"Might I make one small request, Matriarch Constance? Your clan’s reputation, unfortunately, precedes itself."

Her good attitude went poof but she held her temper. The lady with a maybe Slayer in her camp coldly said, "I am not the rest of my clan, David Standing. I know how they feel and who will react in what way. And I know which ears to whisper into, to give them the information that you shared with me. I suspect it will mollify the majority of any resentment directed against you."

"Good enough. Thank you." Yep, Dad knew his little wins too. "I also have a list of contacts that might enable you to purchase stronger weapons, should you so desire." He smiled and Faith mimicked it. "You never know when rocket launchers might come in handy."

Constance nodded and for the first time, she smiled like a normal person might when they were really happy about something. "That is good to know. I will accept this information. But might I ask who some of these contacts are?"

"Besides Carson, my main supplier is a man named Frank Iverson." Constance shook her head; Frank’s name didn’t mean anything to her. So Dad filled her in. "His son is Page’s boyfriend. Frank is a member of the Order of the Grail."

Constance’s smile remained the same, but she didn’t have the look in her eyes anymore. "Felicia certainly has her connections, doesn’t she," she murmured.

Cel waved off her attitude. "William was kidnapped by a religious zealot and his father called in the Order to rescue him. Artemis contacted us, separately, and She asked us to provide aid to him because his Lady is one of her Chosen Champions. That’s how we first made contact. William and Page met afterward when he and his sister wanted to remain in Virginia for a while. They became involved over time, nothing more."

The old lady just shrugged then. No big deal. The phone rang and she immediately grabbed it. "Constance." She listened and smiled; this was apparently what she needed to know. "Thank you, Marshall. I’ll let you get back to work."

She hung up and looked at Faith. "We found her. It’s Belinda. She’s thirteen but her parents are dead; they were killed in an auto accident a year and a half ago." Her face became sad and she looked at the phone. "She’s living with one of her aunts, but it’s been hard on her." She stood up and they did the same. "We’ll find her immediately and you can tell her what she needs to know."

"Good." She waited for Connie to go by and fell in behind her, heading out to do what she’d come to do.

*****

After ten minutes of putting up with her constant glares at Page, Seth had finally had enough of Caroline’s attitude. He got out of his chair and marched up to Caroline Parrish, stepped between her and Page, and snapped, "If you don’t lose the attitude and start showing Page some fucking respect, you and I are going to have a real problem."

Caroline looked stunned that he’d use that kind of language, then she looked royally ticked that a man would dare to stand up to a heavily armed Parrish woman.

Being an Amazon, the fiery guard regained her attitude quickly enough to avoid any loss of face with her people. "How dare you," she angrily hissed. "How dare you speak to me like that?!?"

Seth’s only reaction was a smirk. "Let me tell you something, kid. I’ve seen a lot in my time and if there’s one thing anyone who knows me could tell you right off the bat… it’s that there’s very little I won’t dare when it comes to Faith and her relatives."

The woman stared at him for several seconds before the darkness in her face lightened a bit and her eyes mocked him. "You are brave, Seth Gecko, I’ll grant you that. To actually challenge an Amazon…"

"Lady, getting in your face is nothing compared to some of the shit I’ve done in my time. I’ve been a vampire hunter for a while, and I was a bank robber before that. I’ve faced things that would give you nightmares, make you wake up in a cold sweat and cry for your mommy. So think twice before you manage to piss me off." He cricked his neck and breathed very slowly. "Capiché?"

She didn’t look very impressed with his claims. In fact, she was downright laughing on the inside, he could tell by her body language. "And what kind of dark deeds scar your soul, Gecko?" she mocked him.

He raised one arm to show off the tattoo that read, ‘Richard.’ "I was forced to put down my own brother. The only blood family I had left."

Caroline’s face went from mocking to horrified; her reaction was copied by the other Amazons, whose faces combined shock and disgust. Only Page showed any sympathy, but then she knew the story. Caroline overcame her reaction and with the barest traces of self-control, she coldly asked, "How could you kill your own flesh and blood?"

Letting out the old pain he carried with him every day, he stared into her blue eyes and answered her question. "I drove a stake through his heart. That’s how."

He continued looking at her to see if she’d get the point that just because he was a guy, it didn’t mean he didn’t deserve some respect. At the same time, he knew she at least deserved the respect he showed any tough chick… no, a tough woman.

"Personally, I don’t give a damn what you think about me, lady. But Page is your Goddamned cousin; she’s family and she deserves to be treated that way. I know you have some issues with her mother leaving years ago, but Page isn’t Celene. She came here to meet her Grandmother and you. Page is another person entirely and she’s family. So start treating her that way."

He backed up and said, "One more thing, just between you and me. From the read I get off of you, you’re a decent kid, at least where it counts the most. You’re tough inside and out, and you’ve got guts. But the way you treat visitors… for what it’s worth, it kind of makes you come off as a real pain in the ass."

He didn’t say any more, but he didn’t need to. He glanced at Page, who grinned wickedly at him. He sat down next to her, protectively like a big brother, and let Caroline and her sisters stew on what he’d said.

Page’s cousin glared heatedly at them for a few seconds before gathering the courage to respond. "Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps. And I respect the courage it must have taken to give peace to your brother’s soul. But as for my cousin, I find it unseemly that a daughter of Artemis, particularly a Parrish and sister to one of the Lady Goddess’ Champions, chose to be a cheerleader."

"Never mind that I’m the captain of one of the top teams in the country, right?" Page asked sweetly, rubbing it in. "What does it matter that I’m a cheerleader? Give me a couple years, and I’ll be fighting vampires just like you."

"That is the point, Page. If you had been raised here, you would be ready to fight now," Caroline shot back. Her eyes gleamed with superiority again. "Unlike some clans, the Parrishes don’t coddle their children."

"You mean you don’t let them have a childhood, right?"

Seth turned halfway in his seat, startled by Faith’s voice. Her green-brown eyes were flashing; apparently she’d been listening for a few minutes. It was really obvious she didn’t like Caroline’s attitude toward him and Page and he was afraid his baby was gonna go ballistic.

Said Parrish woman looked down her nose at Faith and sniffed. "I am not surprised that a woman with the blood of the coddled Standings and Yankees resents the idea of being ready to fight at a proper age."

Faith’s eyebrows went up like she couldn’t believe Caroline had just said that. Sure enough, his babe just started laughing like you did when someone said something totally idiotic. Caroline not so absently began fingering the hilt on her sword, but she caught herself, flushing a bit at her loss of self-control.

<So much for the calm, collected Amazon warrior.>

His Irish angel stopped mocking Caroline but she was still grinning like a fool. "You know, ‘coddled’ is not the way I’d describe my childhood. My birth mom’s name was Reilly and we were dirt poor. I grew up in South Boston until I was eleven, when my mom died, then I grew up on the streets of South Boston for five years."

"But you’re a Pryce," another Parrish, Erika he thought her name was, said in mild protest. "They’re one of the oldest families in America. They put the ‘old’ in old money."

"I was adopted by Linda Pryce," she told them, folding her arms over her chest and Seth didn’t like that his view cut off, but oh well. "She took me in a couple months before I turned seventeen."

Caroline snidely asked her, "What, did she feel sorry for a little orphaned Amazon?"

"Now see, that’s where you’re all wrong, Caroline." Faith was making a sympathetic pout like she felt sorry for Constance’s head of security. She twiddled her thumbs and sweetly told them, "I’m not an Amazon."

Seth leaned back in his seat ready to enjoy the show as he waited for the fireworks that announcement would ignite.

*****

Faith loved how much Seth and Page were enjoying the way she messed with Caroline Parrish’s mind. The fact that she’d just told them she wasn’t an Amazon had really thrown them for a loop. She was Dave’s kid, and Felicia’s grandkid, and…

"How are you a member of the Board of Directors of VAN if you’re not an Amazon?" Miss Attitude demanded.

She just smirked for about five seconds until her hearing picked up the little pitter-patter of many Amazon feet. She allowed her smile to grow wider and just as the door opened wider, she said, "I’m on the Board because I’m already what your little cousin Belinda could be."

"What’s that supposed to mean?" a Southern accented voice said fiercely.

Sure enough, there she was when she turned around. It only took a few seconds for Beantown’s Best to decide she liked what she saw. Belinda was a little on the skinny side, but Faith figured she’d fill out in a couple years. Besides, she had a decent enough package to start with; long auburn hair running wild, brown eyes that were staring her down already, and a simple but good outfit; t-shirt, blue jean vest over that, blue jeans, and nice boots for working. The girl was examining her like she did vamps or drummers.

"So you’re Belinda, huh?"

The kid set her jaw, not giving an inch. "Yeah. What’s it to you?"

Faith cocked an eyebrow as most everybody started laughing at her. <I like the kid already!> "Actually, kiddo, it’s a lot to me. Seems like you’re up for something big and I’m here to fill you in. Besides, it’ll keep me from trashing Caroline here for constantly dissing my sis and boyfriend."

Faith felt Caroline start to stir but Connie put a stop to that pronto. "You would battle Caroline over mere words, Faith?"

She could tell Connie knew pretty much what a ticked-off Slayer could do to Caroline if she decided not to play nice. But she wasn’t gonna lie about it. "We wouldn’t fight, Constance. I’d just kick her ass."

It was the rugrat who folded her arms and came to Caroline’s defense. Definite hero worship there, Faith thought. "And what makes you think you could?"

Faith looked at Connie. "Mind if I tell her in private or at least with a minimum of gawkers? I want to explain everything to her and I don’t want to have to answer a dozen questions from an Arty-worshipping peanut gallery."

Cruella looked meaningfully at Caroline, who wanted soooo badly to go postal on her. "Caroline, when they’re done talking, please escort them to the dining room. Celene, Faith, and the others will be spending the night."

High-And-Mighty looked like she’d rather eat a worm than have her spending the night in her house. But she nodded like a good little soldier. The others started clearing out but Seth stopped next to her and rubbed her shoulder, giving her a chill up her spine. "Will you be all right?"

"You betcha. I don’t think Belinda here will kick my Yankee butt. At least not until we’re done talking."

She wanted to drown in his smiling eyes but just gave Connie one quick nod when she saw how concerned she was about her possible little Chosen One. The Parrish leader shut the door behind her, leaving the three of them alone. Faith turned back to the impatient teenager and smiled again.

"Constance didn’t tell you why I’m here, did she?"

"No," she said with a real confident voice. "She just told me someone came to see me."

"Okay, good. That means I can explain this stuff to you from the top, the way an insider sees it."

"Explain what stuff!" she shot back.

<Damn, she reminds me of me, or Cordy!> The Boston native took her jacket off. Then she reached inside and pulled out something she’d brought along. She gave it one fond stare and sighed. <I can’t believe I’m giving this up. But she’s gonna need it more than me at this point. > She looked back up and sat down in the chair opposite Belinda’s seat on the sofa. "First off, let’s get the intros out of the way. My name’s Faith Pryce, but you can call me Faith. The reason I’m here is because some Second Sight folks had a vision where you had the starring role. Sorta like the one they had of me three years ago."

"And just what was this ‘vision’ about?" Caroline growled at her.

She was still miffed. <Good.> "I’ll do better than tell you. I’ll show you." The Slayer stood up and repeated her earlier stunt; she pulled her t-shirt down on her left side and, upon making sure Belinda was watching, turned around and showed off her shoulder blade. "Take a good look, kiddo. See anything that looks familiar?"

The gasp coming from the younger Parrish throat confirmed that much. Releasing the grip on her sleeve, Faith turned back around and saw the girl’s eyes were wide with shock. Faith understood the feeling; Linda had pulled that one on her when they’d first met. She was going on what she remembered from her revelation about being Chosen, and hoped Linda approved of how she was doing.

"You have my birthmark," Belinda whispered softly, still trying to understand that. Her brown eyes came back up. "How do you have my birthmark?"

Faith’s smile turned more friendly than humorous. She shrugged and told the girl, "Actually, I don’t have your birthmark, and you don’t have mine. We have someone else’s birthmark, and that’s the reason I’m here."

"Stop confusing her, Pryce!" Caroline snapped, interrupting what was supposed to be serious and maybe special to her cousin.

Faith stood up and took on the smallest hint of her Slayer attitude. She let her eyes grow cold so she could show Miss High Falootin’ Southern Bitch what was what. "I’m going to get to the point, but I can’t do it if you don’t…Shut. The Hell. Up. You’re only here as a courtesy, lady."

Caroline was shivering with anger but Faith decided to ignore her instead. She sat back down and picked up the item she’d stashed inside her jacket before entering the room. "Okay, this is the big moment, Belinda. I’m gonna be up front with you and try to make it so you don’t get confused. You have any questions after this, feel free to shoot your mouth off, okay?"

Belinda’s eyes were dark with fury at her dissing Caroline, but the kid sucked it up and nodded her head. "Why do you have my birthmark, Yank?"

"I have it because once upon a time, I was like you. But now, I’m like the girl we get the birthmark from." She tossed the first present she’d ever gotten from Linda to the kid and told her, "You got the birthmark, and you get this because of it." The girl caught it and looked it over, but she had to turn it over to see the front.

The girl’s eyes went into surprise mode as she read the title of the book Faith had just given her, and the Boston Bad Girl gave her the oh-so-big-ass punchline. "The girl we get our birthmarks from was named Alika. That name ring any bells for you?"

Belinda’s eyes came up and stared into hers, not able to rip themselves away. Caroline’s gasp reminded Faith that she was in the room, and what Constance had told her in their private meeting. These Amazon girls knew all about Alika and just who and what she was.

"You’re the Slayer…" Caroline muttered. Faith noticed she’d lost a lot of the hostile stuff in her voice. Sometimes, being a Chosen One had the weirdest perks…

She looked at the head of Parrish security. "Yeah, I’m the Slayer. The current one, anyway." She looked back at the girl she wanted to talk to. "And you, kiddo, just might be the next one if and when I buy the farm."

"Belinda?!?" Caroline muttered again, only this time in awe. "Belinda is… she could be…"

"Yep, she’s one of probably a few dozen girls on the whole planet with that little spot on her back," she answered kindly, hoping the kid wouldn’t go spastic like, well, Will if she had to go on stage. "She’s what we call a Potential, as in potential Slayer. That English guy you and your Macho Women With Guns had chased away for the last couple weeks was a Watcher trying to let you know you had a Could-Be-Slayer in your family. But no, your stupid attitude toward boys kept him from doing his job and letting Belinda here know that’s she pretty special and knowing about the dangers she might face." She pointed at her present to Belinda. "He was supposed to be your Watcher and start training you. I got that from my first Watcher, Linda Pryce." She looked up at Caroline. "Remember that vamp cult in Atlanta in ’99? She died guarding my back. I couldn’t get to her in time to save her. Now I have another Watcher who’s like a dad to me. That’s why she took me in, because I was Chosen."

She looked back at Belinda, who was looking at the book again, as if she had some idea of how important it had been to her. "Page, that thing has a bunch of stuff to get you started on what you need to know in case you ever get the gig. But there’s only so much it can teach you. You need someone to teach you the stuff I didn’t get taught until Linda found me, after I’d gotten the nod from the Big Guy. The guy who would’ve tried to be your Watcher got chased off, so they asked me to come here and explain things to you. But with everything going on back home, I can’t teach you anything in the time I’m gonna be here." She looked at Caroline, wondering what she’d think of what she was about to say. "You need a Watcher, kiddo. It’s the only way you can be properly trained. Constance knows it, she admitted it herself." That was as much for Caroline’s benefit as it was for Potential Girl sitting here in front of her. "You’ve got a few options on how to do it, but getting a Watcher in your life is something you’re gonna have to do."

Faith stood up and watched Belinda’s eyes follow her. This was a bomb and a half fer sure, but at least now half the battle was done. She knew what she could be in for. But she looked at Caroline and said, "I know I’m probably gonna get shot down here, but can we have a little privacy? Slayer to Maybe Future Slayer?"

To her surprise, Caroline walked over to where the shell-shocked teenager was sitting, staring at the book in her lap. "All right. I’ll be waiting outside when you’re ready to go to the dining room." She ran her hands through Belinda’s hair and sighed. "I can’t believe it…"

She turned around and left, pulling the door open and closed real softly. The Dark Slayer gazed at the girl, who seemed like she wanted to open up her "present" but didn’t want to read what was inside. Faith knew that the girl would be asking her a ton of questions tonight and tomorrow, but she was actually looking forward to it. Again, like she’d thought just a second ago, Belinda knew the sitch, which put the kid one up on the Faith of three years ago.

She knew she could be the Slayer. She knew what being a Slayer might entail. She probably knew she’d have to maybe leave her home here and end up shacking up with some stuffy guy in tweed. But she had things that Faith hadn’t had until she’d moved to Sunny D.

She had a Slayer to talk about this stuff with. She had a loving family who might be able to help her with her training a little bit. And unlike Faith, maybe Belinda would actually get some use out of what was once her Slayer Handbook.

She sat down next to Belinda and said, "I know you’re shocked, kid. And trust me, it’s gonna be even harder once it really sinks in. But you have one thing here that you could really take advantage of, if you decide you wanna do it."

Belinda’s face came up and her troubled brown eyes shone with confusion, fear, and what Faith guessed was a big smidgen of actual hope. "What’s that?"

"I’m staying the night or until you decide what you wanna do, so you’re gonna have a hot-bodied Boston Slayer with three years of war stories to tell you." Her grin grew sinister. "That is, if you don’t mind listening to a Yankee."

Belinda grinned back at her, regaining some of her earlier attitude. "I’ll suffer if I have to."

Faith reached an arm around and laughed along with her potential replacement. "Smartass."

*****

"I still don’t think this is as nice as Grandma’s spread," Faith said, looking up through the trees at the stars twinkling above them. She had left her coat inside because it was a balmy July evening but the wind felt nice. "But overall, still not bad." She paused for a second before clearing something up. "Not that I’d ever live in the country, mind you."

"Of course not," Sethy agreed heartily. He liked buildings and people walking in and out of them to surround him, just like she did. "Even little old Sunnydale with its Hellmouth is better than all this wide open space."

"I don’t know if I’d go that far." But it did take some getting used to, all this quiet. She needed city sounds around her. But still, no vamps, no demons… She lowered her head to look at their feet as they walked along. "But still, it’s where Mom and G-Man and Dawnie are…"

"And Buffy, Kendra, Shaw, and Willow," Seth continued. He wrapped his right arm around her waist and she let him pull her closer. "You could live there forever, couldn’t you?"

"Uh-huh." She leaned her head against his arm and he tightened his grip on her. "And sometimes, I even find myself wishing Dad and Cel would move out there with the kids."

"Your entire family, all together." His voice sounded dreamy as he said it.

But she knew it’d never happen. Grandma needed Dad too much, Curtis County was his home like Sunnydale was to her, and Page and her sibs were happy there. It was just wishful thinking, anyway. <But hey, three years ago I didn’t even have the nerve to wish for good stuff.>

"So what do you think about Belinda?" her rugged boy toy asked. He stroked his fingers up and down her side and it made her breath catch a little.

She grabbed his butt and squeezed, making him yelp. She giggled and released a carefree, happy sigh. "She’s taking it a lot better than I did when Linda sprung the news on me. She’s got her head on straight, and a lot straighter than some girls in her family." She lifted her head, reluctantly leaving the comfort of his body to concentrate on her read of Potential Parrish. "She asked all the usual questions and some that weren’t so usual." Her mouth closed and she became thoughtful before nodding in certainty. "Thing is, I feel it in my gut, she was asking the right questions."

"Like what?" he asked, removing his arm and bringing it up to her shoulder. He squeezed her in support and said, "What did she ask you?"

"What will a Watcher do for her. What’ll happen if the bad guys find out about her. What should she do to keep her family safe." Faith shook her head at how up-to-speed Belinda was on this. They’d talked all through dinner and her opinion of the kid just kept growing. She looked at Seth and grinned at how impressed she, Seth, and Cel had been with her potential replacement. "She’s taking this seriously, but it’s not going to her head, Sethy. All in all, she’s quick as a whip upstairs."

He leaned forward for a quick kiss but she teased the poor slob by pulling her head back. He gave her the puppy dog look but she just wagged a finger at him. "Sorry, lover. That might work on Steve when Buffy does it, but not on me. Don’t you worry none; I’ll make it up to you later."

"Promises, promises," he joked, wrapping his arms around her waist. "But just between you and me, what do you think the kid’ll do?"

She chewed on her bottom lip for a bit while she mulled it over. Belinda was a smart kid. Not in Will’s class, but good enough with a good dash of common sense, what Faith would call street smarts on a city kid. But she was really tight with her clan here in the South. She might not want to leave them, and she could totally understand where the kid was coming from.

"I have no idea," she told him. She leaned her head forward, resting it against his chest. This close she could feel his heart pumping underneath her. She murmured, "I guess she’ll make the choice that’s best for her."

"Best you can ask of her," he agreed, moving his hands up and pulling her tight against his body. She melted into his embrace. "Like you said, the kid’s on the ball with this Potential deal. We just have to wait and see."

"Pretty much." She pulled back and smiled at him. She took in the love he shared with her, the all-consuming feelings he had for her. Not for the first time, she thought of how it had been Seth who’d gotten her over the one thing that had always plagued her; even after Slaying, Linda, and Joyce had come into her life. A fear of committing herself in that one way she so desperately wanted for her entire life; to a man. It still seemed so funny, but so right, that of all the Scoobs, it was she who got the one "normal" guy in the bunch.

Demon hunting commando. Knight of the Grail. Fuzzy rocker. Green Beret type joker. Fairy. Leprechaun. British magic casting librarian. Alien. But her? She found someone with a history not unlike her own.

And that made Seth her perfect guy.

She blushed a little and looked down at the ground. "You know, if she decides to leave, we’re gonna have to be on the ball to find a Watcher that can keep up with the her. Hell, Linda was barely able to control me, and Belinda’s only thirteen. She’ll be a real handful, a real challenge."

"We can try to find the right person for her," Sethy said, still hugging her just above her beltline. "I’m sure Giles will be more than happy to suggest the right Watcher for a teenaged Potential Slayer with Belinda’s kind of attitude."

She started laughing; the image was just too funny! "Oh come on! I see her ‘tude, and you know what? In a lot of ways she’s so like me. It’ll take someone with my attitude to deal with someone with her attitude."

"Like you and me?" he asked, suddenly changing the subject. She blinked, then smiled and reached up to rub her palms against his chest.

"Yeah, lover," she huskily drawled. "Like you and me." Her eyes gleamed. "That’s you and me as in you and me, not you and some pom-pom waving, back-flipping ripoff from San Diego!"

*****

Seth groaned as she buried her head against his chest, laughing her tight little ass off. "Christ, will you ever let that GO?!?" he shouted hopelessly. "Geez, baby, the girl even had your attitude! The only difference between you was she was still in high school!"

"Two words, cradle robber. Jail. Bait," she teased between snickers.

He simply sighed. Anytime he thought he finally had the upper hand on anything, she put him back in his place by bringing that up. So he brought his hands up to cup her cheeks and drew his girl’s face forward. Her eyes shined with merriment until he drew her into a deep, sensuous kiss. He watched her eyelids flutter a bit until she just let them stay closed, as she allowed herself to go along for the ride and enjoy it.

He closed his eyes then and flicked his tongue against hers. She responded and he growled deep inside his soul. The things his Slayer babe could do with her tongue when inspired during a French kiss…

<Viva la France…>

He felt himself getting hotter by the moment, but this one time, he didn’t imagine what might await him when he and Faith climbed into bed. This one night, he thought about how perfect his world was when they didn’t have to think about how people would react to the gap in their ages or anything else. In fact, what he imagined was the pleasant fantasy he’d been replaying over and over in his mind during the last few weeks, the one that had only grown stronger since the talk he and her father had shared a couple of days before.

The fantasy he would’ve dismissed as a tequila-induced lunatic dream three or four years ago. But now, it was the one he saw whenever she touched him…

He ended the kiss and gently stepped back a few inches, watching how peaceful she looked with her eyes closed. The image flew away when her eyes crept open and found his face, glittering with desire, joy, and amusement at the same time. "What’s the matter, pretty boy? Was I a little too much for you?"

"You’re always too much for me, sweetheart." He just watched her for a few seconds and she started to grow puzzled as to why he was just examining every inch of her perfect face.

"What? Did I get a smudge or something on my face?"

"No, babe. I was just…" One corner of his mouth twitched and she frowned, like he was laughing at her for some reason. So he started to explain before she decided to hurt him. "I had a talk with your Dad before we came here. We talked about how much Celene means to him and how they’re parts of a whole, you know, the whole enchilada."

She smiled as she thought about her Dad and Celene. She nodded and glanced over his shoulder, back toward the Parrish mansion. "Yeah," she whispered, probably to avoid letting anyone hear her drop her Teflon attitude. "They really do complete each other, Seth. She’s the best thing that ever could’ve happened to Dad. She’s like Steve for B, Joe for K, Lucky Charm for Spockette…"

"You for me," he finished. Her hypnotic eyes fixed on him again and he raised his voice so that if God were listening, He’d be a witness. "Babe, the thing, the only thing I thought of when your Dad talked to me was how you’re the one thing that makes me whole. You’re my other half."

"Uhm, if you’re trying to work your way up to saying, ‘I love you,’ we kinda been there, done that, brought home the t-shirt a while ago, studmuffin," she teased him with a smile. His smile reached ear to ear because he thought he just might have a way to stun his Irish angel into silence this one time. "I mean, if you wanna say it again, maybe along with some chocolate, or better yet, a new leather jacket, then hey, who am I to stop you?"

<Ohhhh, who could ask for a better setup than a line like that?> He brought her close and whispered in her ear, "Faith, I’m trying to say more than just, ‘I love you.’ But I’m not a poet or romantic. I’m just a big lug who got lucky in the scheme of things and found the one woman that’s the thing he’s been looking for his whole rotten life, when he didn’t even know he was missing it. You’re the one thing that made my life worth living, the person I wanted to be better for. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d never have fit in or found a home and a family. You’re my everything, Faith."

She just held on, tightening her grip a little and whispered, "I didn’t make you a better guy, Seth. You had it in you all the time. You just finally found it, that’s all."

"Because of you," he responded. They just stood there, rocking each other until he took a deep breath and said, "And just for you, I can do better than chocolate. It might not be as good as a leather jacket, but it definitely beats chocolate hands down."

She drew her head back, a goofy grin on her face. "Okay, this I gotta see. Whatcha got for me, lover?"

He reached into his jeans pocket, knowing as he did so that he’d never get a more perfect chance to surprise the woman who meant more than life itself to him. He let go of her with his other hand and brought his right hand up to show off what could best chocolate but perhaps come up a little short to leather.

"If you decide you really want to, you could trade this in for the jacket," he joked. <If she does, I’ll kick her ass.>

Faith just cocked her head and stared at it until she seemed to recognize just what kind of present this was. She started shaking her head, not in denial, he could tell that much. She was as shocked and speechless as he’d hoped. But just to make it official, and partly to rub it in by getting more "mushy" then she’d ever had to put up with, Seth Gecko followed sappy tradition and dropped to one knee, hope searing his heart and betraying the straight face he so miserably failed to wear as a mask.

"Faith…will you marry me?"

She just froze and stared at his outstretched hand, holding the plain, simple fourteen-karat gold ring with a one-carat diamond setting out to her. He didn’t ask again, because pushing her was not the way to go. He wanted it to be her choice. They loved each other, completed each other. But Seth had always felt that she was the one who gave him more than he had, or could ever give to this wonderful woman. But now, he offered the one thing he could and so much wanted to give her.

It took a full two minutes for her to comment, but did she ever.

"Oh. My. Effin. Goddess."

His eyebrows shot up as he tried to keep things light. He shifted his jaw and guessed, "Can I interpret that as a definite ‘maybe?’"

"You… you’re…"

"Proposing?" he offered, his smile growing more goofy by the second. <Damn my knee hurts.> But he wouldn’t get up, this was her moment in the… well, moon.

"You… you big goof! You’re really proposing to me?!" She was still shocked at what he’d done.

"Uh, yeah. So how about it?"

Again, he allowed it to sink in for her. She didn’t say anything for another two minutes until she gave him her answer in typical Faith fashion. She lunged at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. He almost dropped the fricking ring because of that!!! She leaned in and didn’t give him the chance to say anything more; she started smothering him with butterfly kisses all over his face.

While they weren’t the kind of kisses they normally shared, like the ones she used to express her more, well, extreme emotions concerning their love, these were just as passionate but tender, wholesome, and demonstrations of her soul-filling love for him. Her kisses, mixed with her tears of joy and her softly murmured "yes" that she repeated over and over, gave Seth both his answer and a greater sense of peace and happiness than he’d ever had any right to know.

<So why are you taking from her again, you jackass!>

He returned her kisses with interest, as a man and woman in love shared something precious that most people would never be lucky enough to find or understand.

Something perfect.

*****

En Route to Charleston Airport
Spartansburg, South Carolina
24 July 2001

"So what was your first patrol like?" Belinda asked her with a grin. Faith turned around in the back seat and grinned back at the kid. They really were two of a kind.

"You really wanna know? There’s a little that might not be for kids like you, real R rated stuff."

"Just tell me," Potential Parrish huffed at her. She folded her arms and glared at her, defying her to keep her adventures secret. She’d finally moved on from asking about general Slayer stuff to what she’d been through as the Chosen One.

"Okay, your call. You mind?" she asked Caroline, who was driving the second truck. Dad, Cel, Seth, and Page were in front of them, cruising along. Caroline shook her head; she’d lost a lot of the ‘tude toward her because of the Slayer thing. "Okay." She rolled her head back around to watch the trees fly by on the back roads highway. "My first patrol was okay. We found three vamps cornering two street walkers in an alley. Being the hot tempered Irish girl I am, I charged right into the fight." She waved her hands a bit. <Ah, the good old days.> "This was before I got the commando type recon training, I was still the street kid here. So me and Linda take out the three bad boys that we’re thinking were out for a little fun before killing the ladies. Oh, we were so wrong."

"What happened?" Caroline asked before Bel could. Faith liked that she was actually curious instead of hostile. CP wasn’t a bad girl, but that attitude toward guys needed adjusting big time.

"My vamp detecting powers, what B likes to call our Spidey Sense, kicked in. Told me there were two more vamps there."

"Reinforcements," Belinda guessed, wincing at the idea. "Backing up their friends."

"Nope," she said, grinning all the while. "The hookers."

"WHAT?!?" CP and Bel both shrieked at her. Faith started laughing and before they could accuse her of funning them, she held her right hand up. "Swear to God, girls. When the boy vamps were talking about ‘having fun,’ it was ‘having fun’ like boys want to ‘have fun.’"

"I’m getting a headache," Belinda complained. Faith had been giving her stories that had a bit of fun to them to show her that Slaying might be serious, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t have a life and family and especially be happy.

"Yeah, now you know how I felt at the time," Faith said with a sigh of remembrance of when she was a bit more innocent about the big bad boogeymen. She glanced at Bel again, giving her a ghost of a smile. "At least you got warned ahead of time, kiddo. You got time to get ready for the weird side of Slaying."

She knew how much that meant to her, and she got the feeling Caroline in the Country did too. Even though it was tearing CP up inside, and probably doing the same to the rest of her family, Bel had made the choice she thought was best. She was going to live with her Watcher.

"So Bel," she said, "just to let you know, I think you got one big advantage going into this. You already know how to fight ‘cuz you’re an Amazon, so you know how to take care of yourself. That’s gonna be a big help."

She felt the Parrish girls flash a little pride in their heritage. That was another thing she was still catching up on; she was still learning more about the Amazon thing and what it meant to her. Although she was still muchos Irishos, she had come to learn she wanted to know more about where her other roots came from.

"Will her Watcher be capable of training her sufficiently to survive if she’s Chosen?" Caroline asked. Faith liked that she wasn’t hesitant about asking questions that way. She and Belinda knew that to be Chosen, it would mean that Faith or her replacement had to die first, but she’d put it in terms they could understand. It’s part of the Slayer Gig that eventually, you bite the big one, but you do what good you can with the time you got. "How well do you know this particular Watcher?"

"I know him well enough. He trained a Slayer and he’s trained Watchers before, too. He fights dirty, which gives his kids a leg up on getting out of fights on top. He cares more about keeping his people alive than he does about ‘tradition.’"

"Tradition is important, Faith!" Belinda said with a bit of attitude. "It makes us who we are!"

"No, it gives you something to see where you’ve been and where you come from. But you shouldn’t ever let it hold you back." She turned around and jerked a thumb back toward the Parrish estate. "Do you follow Amazon tradition so much that you stick to bows, arrows, and swords?"

"Hell no, that’s stupid!" Belinda snapped before the bulb went off in her head. She pouted and rolled her eyes. "Okay, I get the point."

"Good for you, kiddo," she chuckled. Caroline joined in but suddenly there was a loud "POP" and she jerked the wheel of her SUV. The sound of a deflating tire told Faith what had happened.

She was thrown into the door and her shoulder wrenched a bit while Caroline tried to keep the truck under control. The Dark Slayer was proud that her Potential sister didn’t scream or yelp. Instead she gripped the driver seat and held on tight.

Caroline stopped the truck and unbuckled her seat belt. Faith was getting the heebie jeebies and she knew what that meant. "Caroline, Bel, pull out your toys!" she warned. She undid her seat belt and pushed the door open, scrambling outside.

Caroline shot her a confused glance until she saw Faith digging for the nearest weapon. She nodded and reached behind her back for the short sword sheath she’d hidden there. She knew Belinda was doing the same and nodded approvingly. Two low growls came from the trees and the screech of tires as Cel’s SUV stopped about a hundred yards ahead. Before Dad, Stepmom, Seth and Page could get out, two yellow-headed bad guys stepped out onto the road.

"Aww, crap." Faith rolled her eyes and shoved her stake back into the jacket’s hiding spot. It wouldn’t work so good on these guys.

The mean looking dino-demons looked at all three of them and the bigger one pointed at Belinda with a decent looking ninja-to he was carrying in his left hand. "There she is! The girl who wants to be the Slayer!"

<Oh shit.> Faith knew the shit was gonna hit the fan here. She barked, "Bel, Caroline, stay back. These assholes are mine!"

The demons, yellow skinned with stegosaurus plates running like Mohawks down the back of their heads, leather vests and jeans, and with little fangs, both took it badly, her calling them assholes. The second one, carrying butterfly swords in his hands, glared at her in particular. "We want the potential Slayer! This isn’t any of your affair!"

"The Hell it isn’t!" she shouted. She was not letting another SIT die on her! NOT like two years ago! She held a hand out to Caroline. "CP, do you mind?" She felt the smooth feel of a sword hilt touch her skin like the caress of Seth’s hand and closed her fingers around it. She twirled it around to get a feel for it and nodded. "Not bad."

"Not bad? I forged that personally, Faith!"

"Yeah, but I usually carry a genuine Musketeer sword," she countered with a devil may care grin.

"Good point," Caroline grudgingly muttered.

"The Potential is who we want!" Demon Number One shouted again. "Let us have her and we’ll leave you unharmed!"

"Yeah well, today’s menu doesn’t have Potential Slayer on it. In fact, if you can kill me, she just might not be Maybe Slayer anymore, she might be the real. Thing."

Both demons’ heads popped like they didn’t get the idea. Then again, they probably didn’t. "Huh?" they echoed.

<Sigh. I’m guessing this is the one time I get to fight an evil idiot instead of an evil genius.> She tilted her head and raised her voice to carry to Bel. "Okay, kiddo, looks like you get Demons 101 a little early. These are Miquot demons. Short version; warrior demons that look like a cross between Kojak and Spike from Land Before Time. Main thing you gotta worry about are these kick ass bone knives they shoot out of their wrists, sorta like Robocop’s computer jack thing. They’re not always evil, but basically shock troops and demon mercs for hire. They’re good fighters, honorable to the max, never break a contract, and they fight on the up and up. Downside, they’re not the sharpest swords in the armory. Little light on the gray matter."

She shrugged and relished the look of being pissed off in their eyes. "Basically, they’re like dino-demon Klingons, but without the brains."

The second demon, the dumber one, yelled in whatever gibberish passed for Miquotish and started to run forward. He didn’t get two steps before a gunshot rang out and he fell to the ground, screaming at the top of his lungs and grabbing at his right thigh.

Number One Demon whirled about, giving Faith a free shot at his back. <Like I said, Special Ed demons.> She looked back to see Dad and Seth holding Glocks on him, but Cel and Page were standing behind them, holding swords only.

She frowned. "I can handle these two without any help, you know."

"Sorry, Faith. But we have a flight to catch," Engagement Boy told her. He nodded at the fallen demon. "We’ll handle this one, you take the big boy."

"Sorry, I already got a man," she joked. She cleared her throat and the first demon turned back toward her, seeing that he was pretty much screwed. "Okay, nitwit, I can get you wanting to take out a Potential Slayer. But she’s under my protection, so you get to take me. But this should be right up your honorable alley." She twirled her sword about and grinned at the look of "what the Hell is going on here" stupidity on the Miquot’s face. "Let me put it this way, buddy boy… Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages! Degeneration X proudly presents, the demon ass kicking champion of the worlllllllllllld… the one and only, gen-u-ine, one hundred percent, accept no substitutes, Boston born, Irish bred, ass kicking… Vampire Slayer."

Demon number two got to his feet and he growled at her, but instead of bum rushing her along with his buddy, he turned and charged Dad and Seth!

<What a dork.> She moved forward and said, "Okay, buddy. I’ve heard you guys have a pretty good rep when it comes to brawling. So what say we drop the steel and go hand-to-hand, huh? Think you can take an active Chosen One with your bare hands?"

The demon growled and dropped the ninja-tos he carried. He flicked his wrists and his bone knives shot out. Faith was just glad he wasn’t that kind of uglier demon whose pointy bones had that drug in them that caused you to have wacky hallucinations. Faith handed her sword to Caroline and lowered her head a bit. "Okay, leather boy. Let’s rock."

She charged forward and the Miquot did the same. Just as they were about to hit each other like football players, Faith gathered her energy and jumped into the air, doing a somersault and landing behind him. He didn’t get caught off guard; he spun and tried to slash her with that bone knife with a backhand swing. Faith ducked and landed a right hook to his gut, followed up by a snap kick to his jaw. He staggered back but still had a lot of fight in him. He charged her again and this time, she stepped aside and gave him a hip toss that landed him on his back.

She backed off to scope out how Dad and Seth were doing. The demon they’d shot took three hits from them in like two seconds and the fight was over!!! Dad side kicked him in the breadbasket, Seth gave him an elbow to the back of the neck, and Dad finished him off by straddling demon boy’s back and breaking his neck!

Okay, now that was gonna be a blow to her ego! She wiggled her fingers, telling the demon to come on. He nodded to her like he was acknowledging her skillz. He swung his right arm in an overhead chop but she caught it by the wrist and brought it down, sending her knee up and cracking the bone knife off at the wrist. Demon Boy howled and she saw actual tears coming out of his eyes!

<Whatever happened to the days when demons just sucked up an ass whooping?>

She picked the Miquot up and put him over her shoulder. She took a couple steps forward and threw him, sending him flying between her and Dad’s team. He landed badly and growled, but Faith had to give him credit; he got back up and didn’t try to vamoose. He curled his hands into fists and started coming back at her, raising his other hand to use that pointy bony thing.

He stopped when a soft "phfft!" hit Faith’s hearing and the Miquot’s head got a little red spot between the eyes. Faith’s jaw dropped as the demon’s eyes rolled up in his head and he fell to the ground, deader than a doornail.

Faith whirled around and saw two things. The first was Belinda packing a .45 with a silencer, aimed past her and at what had been a dino-demon. The second was Caroline staring at her little cousin with the same open jaw that she had. She looked at her relatives and saw that they were less shocked and more approving!

"Okayyyyy…" She glanced back at the demon before turning her attention back to her Potential Girl. "Okay, at what point did I say you could get in my fight?"

Belinda just put her piece away and asked, "Do you keep yourself in the Middle Ages and only use stakes and crossbows to fight vampires?"

"No I don’t and what does that have to do…" She stopped when it sank through her thick Irish skull that Bel had just used her own Miyagi routine against her. "Okay kid, stop stealing my lines!"

Belinda just smirked and headed back to the car, leaving Faith to stare at her. <Damn I like this kid!> She heard Seth coming up to her but she held up a finger. "Ah!"

"But…"

"Not. A. Word. We got a flight to catch. Let Cel do her holy thing on the bodies and you grab the goodies."

She stooped over and picked something up. She looked at it and nodded in satisfaction. She walked back to the truck and climbed in, sitting in the passenger seat. "Surprised, CP?"

"I don’t believe she shot him," she moaned, lying her head against the steering wheel. Belinda giggled from behind her. "She gets more like me every day…"

"Not so much a bad thing, maybe," Faith decided. She smiled at Cel breaking out her holy implements and Seth picking up their swords. "By the way, what’d you think of how my Dad and boy toy took out the runt of the litter?"

"Goddess, they were…" She didn’t seem to want to say it, but Faith gave her an out.

<Magnificent? Superb? Skilled? Kick ass?> "How about, ‘efficient?’ That’s a good word and won’t puff up their egos." Caroline and Belinda nodded and Faith just sat back before tossing the thing she’d picked up to Bel. "Here, kiddo. You keep this; you earned it."

"What?!?" she asked, wrinkling her nose at the bone knife she’d picked up.

"Hey, my Watcher likes grabbing magic stuff and my sis Shaw likes antique swords. Consider it your first Slayer fight souvenir!"

Belinda said what Faith expected her to say. She threw the bone out the window and wailed, "Ewwwww!"

Faith shared a look with Caroline and the two broke out into laughter, letting kiddo shiver with disgust over what Faith called "souvenirs."

*****

Heathrow Airport
London, England
25 July 2001

"Okay, that takes care of Customs," Faith sighed, glad to finally be off that plane! She picked up her passport and smiled in thanks to the Customs guy she knew worked for the Council. They’d met two years ago during the exchange program. "Well, let’s get where we’re going and get you settled, okay?"

"Okay, Faith," Bel said eagerly. Faith noted she wasn’t as bad as Kennedy, who’d wanted to be the Slayer so bad it made her wonder if she wasn’t too into it. No, Bel had her head on straight and wanted to combine her Potential thing with her Amazon family thing.

<Like I’m doing the last two years…> She ruffled the kid’s hair and Bel shrank back like she thought she was too old for that kind of thing. "Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you in front of your Watcher. No fun in that." She leaned in close. "What I mean is that it’s not as fun as embarrassing your Watcher to keep him in line."

"Right," Bel grinned back; they’d been planning this thing for two days.

"I just hope I don’t get caught in the crossfire," Sethy said from behind them. It didn’t fool her for a sec; he was looking forward to it just as much as they were. "Because I know how much you like having the upper hand on Giles and Steve."

"Nice to be appreciated," she said, eyes twinkling. She didn’t want to admit to it out loud, but she was still on cloud nine over the whole engagement thing. She didn’t care anymore that he’d gotten sappy; at least he hadn’t done it over breakfast or at a ball game or something. "Okay." She looked around for directions to the car rentals. "We’ll rent us a car on Steve’s credit account, head to your Watcher’s place, and get you settled in." She looked at Bel, who looked really eager. Her voice became all gentle-like. "You’re gonna like it there, Belinda. This guy’ll do right by you."

"As your Watcher has done right by you?" a tight, Irish-accented voice asked. It sent chills down Faith’s spine and the Dark Slayer turned to see the last thing she’d wanted to see; Sister Margaret Elizabeth herself.

Faith quickly moved in front of Bel and stared down the Irish nun. Her eyes narrowed; she hadn’t forgotten the pain in the ass ME had been when she’d come looking for Randi’s magic pigsticker. "What are you doing here, lady?"

"Faith!" Seth hissed, although he had to know who she was. <If he doesn’t, some dick he is.>

"You know who this is, right?" she asked. She didn’t look at him for confirmation. She knew better than to take her eyes off the bi--- the sister. <Damnit, the one person I don’t like that I can’t bad mouth. This totally sucks.>

"I know." Seth moved forward, shifting the bag on his shoulder. "Sister Margaret Elizabeth, right?"

She raised one reddish eyebrow sitting below her head thingie. "Yes, my son, I am. You are one of Faith’s…" She seemed to look for the right word. "Associates from Sunnydale?"

"Yes, ma’am." She didn’t like him being respectful, even though it was the right thing to do. "Funny running into you here, Sister."

She gave them a little smile, like she knew something they didn’t. Of course, she didn’t let it show in her eyes. "I am on my way back from an… errand for his grace, Cardinal Bellarmine. I am waiting for my flight back to Paris. I am sorry we don’t have time to chat more, but from what I heard from my colleagues, you did well in protecting this young lady from a pair of hired assassins."

Faith stiffened at the blatant admission. She tensed almost like a cat with its hair going up and hissed. "Mind telling me how you knew about that, Sister?"

ME didn’t react to the sarcastic way she said "Sister." Instead, she took on a look of kindness. <Kindness my ass!> "My dear Slayer," she whispered conspiratorially, "there are sections of the Church that has those who can see the mystical, just as the Council does, just as Slayers sometimes do." She paused and became all sorrowful. <Gawd, she should win an Oscar for this performance.> "In fact, I was traveling to protect some of the Potential Slayers when you and Kendra rendered the point moot by preemptively moving them all here to England."

"Good for us." She wasn’t giving this lady an inch.

Seth gripped her shoulder to calm her down. Fat chance of that. "Thank you for caring, Sister Margaret. But I have to wonder, why you’d protect a Potential Slayer when you admitted two years ago that the Slayer was born of pagan powers."

She actually sighed as if she regretted saying that. Seth hadn’t been there then. "My children, we also know that some of the Potential Slayers are good Catholics, or the followers of other Christian faiths." She looked at Faith in particular. "We also know, from our own seers, that you gave these Potential Slayers hope as to how they may join our mutual struggle against the forces of Satan by giving them alternative suggestions, should they not be Chosen. Such as your excellent idea of them joining the Order of the Grail, who certainly do God’s work as do I. I myself would like to offer them places, should they accept it, within my organization in the Church."

"I can’t believe I’m hearing this," she snapped. There was no way she was letting any of her Potential friends get snagged by Margie Liz! She said so, but put it in her own terms. "You really think they’d wanna go around dressing up like The Flying Nun?"

"If they are as devout in their religion as you are in your gratitude to our Heavenly Father for choosing you to be His champion, then we could give them a similar purpose." She was really putting on the motherly charms. "I only ask that you think about what I have said and relay our offer to the Council, should we need to aid each other in the future."

"I’ll bring it up to Giles when we get back to California," Seth told her. Faith started to protest but he looked at her. "Faith, we can always use more good guys. We can only do so much by ourselves."

"Thank you, my son." She smiled beatifically at her. "Good day, Faith of Eire." She started to leave but stopped when she saw the ring Seth had given her. She smiled even wider and looked to Seth. "So you are her intended?" Caught off guard, her lover boy smiled as best he could. "Congratulations, both of you. I wish you God’s blessing on your nuptials."

She then walked away, leaving Faith confused over just what had happened. Before Seth or Bel could say anything, Bel having been really quiet during the whole shindig, she told them, "Let’s get out of here. The sooner we’re at your Watcher’s place, the sooner I’ll stop looking over my shoulder for demons and worse things."

*****

Margaret Elizabeth waited thirty seconds before slowly turning her head to look back in the direction she’d come from. The Slayer, her fiancée, and the pagan child were moving faster. Of course it was because they didn’t trust her.

She sighed in resignation; she actually respected the Reilly-Pryce child because of her heritage and the fact that she held herself up to the standard of the Slayer gift being hers because God had chosen her to be the Chosen One. She appreciated the girl’s motivation in that sense.

That was why she and His Excellency had been mutually relieved that she had been unharmed, despite their attempt to have the Miquot demons kill that little pagan bitch. After all, the more Potential Slayers that were honest, God-worshipping children, the less chance there would be of the Old Gods, the False Ones, gaining more of a foothold in the world that was His and His alone.

There would be other encounters. And while Belinda Parrish was beyond her reach for now and probably for good, there would be other opportunities to bring more warriors into the Congregation.

Perhaps, if she played her cards right, even that irreverent, disrespectful, yet indisputably effective, Irish Slayer.

*****

Giles Estate
Leicestershire, Great Britain
25 July 2001

Richard Townsend briskly paced to the front door of the manor, wincing at the loud, deafening volume of the knocks pounding against the old door. Who was so ill-mannered that they didn’t use the doorbell like anyone who possessed God-given reason?

He stopped at the door and the knocking suddenly stopped, as if by magic. <You never know when it might be magic, old chap.> He brushed away both his irritation and the wry smile that accompanied his thoughts like flipping a light switch. After all, he was a gentleman’s gentleman. Standing up straight and taking a deep breath to attain the proper image of the representative of a British Lord, Richard gripped the door handle and pulled…

… only to have someone "help" him by pushing it open from the other side and barging in like some uncouth…

"Hey, how’s it going, Richie?" an attractive but commonly dressed American, a woman in her late teens or early twenties, said with a charming smile. "Come on in, guys, check it out!"

The stammering butler didn’t have time to protest this blatant intrusion before the door was pushed open even further and two more perfect strangers barged in unannounced. One was a man wearing a blue polo shirt with a collar, blue jeans, and running shoes. He carried a suitcase in each hand and was what women might call ruggedly handsome, with short cut hair, piercing blue eyes, and a five o’clock shadow. The girl was barely in her teens and was dressed somewhat like the older American girl, but the man could tell that her items cost somewhat more than the other’s. After all, with three children and seven grandchildren, he’d been through those phases of child rearing when clothing was more important than good nutrition, scholastic achievement, and fighting demons.

Richard turned his attention back to the matter at hand and started to intercept the strangers, who were clustered in the middle of the greeting area, admiring Lord Giles’ home like the tourists that occasionally came through.

"Nice place," the unknown man said, whistling appreciatively while setting the suitcases down.

The younger girl looked impressed and Richard somehow got the impression that she was the type who wasn’t impressed easily, or often. "It’s even bigger than my clan’s estate!" she exclaimed. That actually made Richard smile; she appreciated the house. He did place her accent as someone from the Southeastern United States.

"English Lords are like guys from Texas. Everything has to be big."

The older girl’s voice was also American, but much like Lady Marion’s New England tones. The difference was that this girl’s voice was strictly lower class. He pushed his comparison aside and haughtily demanded, "Who are you people? Sir, ladies, please identify yourselves and your reasons for barging in like this."

Instead of taking charge, the man deferred to the older woman. The head of Lord Giles’ staff easily saw the affection passing between them and the old romantic’s heart beamed with pleasure despite them being total strangers. "Hey, you did answer the door, Rich." The young woman grinned as if he and she were old friends and cheerfully told him, "Nice to finally meet you in the flesh. Can you be a pal and tell Big Daddy G that his kid’s Boston Bad Girl is here to see him?"

<What?!?> His gaze swept across this strange trio of American youths and he tried to make sense of what was going on. "Pardon me if this sounds…well…rude, but who in God’s name are you?"

The dark haired girl blinked and Richard could tell the question truly surprised her. Her face plainly showed she was offended as she placed her hands on her hips. "Okay, the man’s kid has three of us and Aunt Marion’s dating him, and he hasn’t even bothered to mention me? Now I’m insulted!"

The instant she referred to her "Aunt Marion," the puzzle pieces fell into place. The wise old man broke into a happy, easy smile and offered his hand in friendship. "Of course! You’re Linda’s girl!"

Her young face displayed her confusion. "L-Linda’s?"

He bowed his head for a second to fondly remember the brave young woman that Lord Edwin had trained just over a decade ago, that spunky American Watcher who’d so selflessly sacrificed herself so that the young girl in front of him could continue to blossom into the fine woman standing before him today.

"I was the one who answered her call when she had found you, Mistress Faith. I’ve always thought of you as ‘Linda’s girl’ or ‘Linda’s Slayer,’ even after her loss in Atlanta." He sighed as he felt a second pang of guilt strike his heart. "And, I think that is how I always will think of you. Linda… was very special to us."

He raised his gaze again to see the appreciation in the Slayer’s eyes. They were slightly moist but she kept up her brave, confident front. "I can get used to being called that, I guess. Beats being called ‘Number Three Slayer’ like I’m in some old Charlie Chan flick."

Richard let out a dignified chuckle; he knew most, if not all, of the stories about Master Rupert’s trio of charges. His eyes glowing with kindness and dignity, he turned to the man and asked, "I presume you are Master Seth, young sir?"

"That’s right, Richard." They exchanged handshakes and Richard turned to the younger girl. "And may I ask your name, young miss?"

The auburn-haired firebrand bowed her head and had a grin much like Mistress Faith’s. "Belinda Parrish of Spartansburg, South Carolina, member of the Parrish clan of the Amazon Nation."

<An Amazon? A teenaged, American Amazon? Oh dear Lord…> "A friend of yours, Mistress Faith?"

The Chosen One’s eyes verily sparkled with enjoyment over her surprise visit. Richard imagined she had a few more surprises up her sleeve. "Well, Rich, seems Bel here has the same little mark on her back that me, Buffy, and Kendra have. Of course you know what that means."

Indeed he did. He nodded thoughtfully and bowed to Belinda as she had to him. "Are you the young lady the coven discovered recently? Lord Edwin told me about the discovery."

Belinda nodded and glanced at Faith before speaking further. "Faith told me everything she could about what being a Potential means. So I decided…" She paused and Faith gave her a supportive squeeze of the shoulder. "I decided it would be safer for all concerned to leave home and live with my Watcher, to avoid any further danger to my clan. We may be Amazons, but we have our limits. Including being unable to properly prepare me if I am Chosen."

"So you brought her to Britain to meet her Watcher," the butler reasoned. "And you dropped by to visit Lord Edwin and Lady Marion?"

"Sort of. Once everything got settled with Belinda, I called ‘my’ Giles and told him she wanted and needed a Watcher to stay with." She smiled at the Potential, who was swiftly gaining Richard's respect for her bravery in leaving the only home she'd probably ever known to take up her calling. "I 'kind of' told him that she's almost a younger version of me and that there weren't that many Watchers I knew that could keep up with her while she's growing up. You could say I told him I knew one guy that could handle this Mini-Me Potential, and I guess you could say that 'my' Giles told me he totally trusted my judgment." She shrugged and looked upstairs, as if trying to spy her aunt and his master. "So… here we are."

Some people might have been confused by that reply, but Richard Townsend was one who specialized in reading between the lines. His talent did not, however, protect him from being completely flabbergasted by what the current Slayer was hinting at.

"You… you decided to bring her to be trained by Lord Edwin?!?" he breathed hoarsely. "To put this young lady under his wing?"

"Well yeah." She shrugged again but her eyes were excited and the old gentleman could see the certainty in them that she had made the right choice. "My G-man’s done damn good work with all three of us, and look at how different we are. B’s a California girl, I’m Boston Irish, and Kendra’s your traditional Slayer. And he’s done all right by all three of us. I figured, who better than ‘your’ G-man to teach her, since he did so well in teaching ‘my’ G-man who’s done such a bang-up job. Come on, it makes perfect sense."

"But Mistress Faith… if he does take in Mistress Belinda, chances are he will be like he was with Mistresses Lillian and Linda. He will become…" He couldn't bring himself to say it because he knew how the tragedies had scarred Lord Edwin's soul.

However, Mistress Faith said it somewhat tactfully. "I know, Rich. That's why I brought her. I know how he'll feel. Rich…" She glanced at the top of the stairway as if trying to ensure that no one would hear them talking about his Lord. She turned back, her eyes soft with emotion. "He might hide it behind that stuffy surface, or behind the rogue grin that he could've copied from me, but retirement ain't for him. That's half the reason he got back on the Council pretty much full time. He wants someone to care about. He's got G-man back in Sunnydale, he's got Jenny, now he's got Auntie. But something's missing from the picture, you know? He wants a girl to love and train. And…"

Belinda flushed a bit when he and Mistress Faith looked at her. "My parents died two years ago. My entire family was taking care of me, but…"

Richard knew what both Potential Slayer and active Slayer couldn’t say, in order to avoid demeaning the emotions the Parrish clan had showered upon the girl. <It’s not the same; they’re not my parents.> And Richard didn’t doubt Faith’s estimation of Lord Edwin for a second. The man read the reports on all three of his son’s Slayers with relish and worry tearing at his soul, because he knew what a loss would do to Master Rupert. But at the same time, he often commented on how things had been done in his time. <Dear God, how did I miss it.>

Mistress Faith was right; Lord Edwin had confessed that retirement left him feeling somewhat empty. With his return to the Council, his reunion with Rupert and his Lady Jenny, and since he’d starting courting Lady Marion, he’d become the man he’d known so long ago; a happy man. She was right; having a child to train would complete the circle.

It would make Edwin whole.

Richard looked upon the thoughtful Slayer with a truly thankful smile. "He will be stunned, Mistress Faith…"

"Well, there’s that benefit too," she said with a chuckle. She looked at Belinda and rubbed her back like a sister or a confidante would. "And if you’d be a good ol’ boy and get him, then we can make the intros."

He stood up straight and told the Chosen One, "Of course, Mistress Faith. I shall inform him that you are here."

He turned and headed up the stairs, his heart lifting like it hadn’t for years. Lord Edwin was going to be ecstatic!

*****

She watched him go up and vanish from sight before leaning into Belinda. "Okay, keep in mind, he’s every bit the swashbuckler wannabe that he looks, but he’s a real stand up guy underneath of any stuffy Brit-show he puts on. He’s trained Slayers and Watchers, and it’ll make him that much more on your side, that devoted to keeping you alive. It’s a good feeling."

"Right. And don’t worry," she promised, crossing her heart, "I think I can handle him."

"That’s my ‘maybe take over’ girl." The Slayer laughed along with the kid. She let out a breath and looked over at Seth, who was laughing on the inside too. "You think he’ll be surprised?"

"No more than your Giles when he finds out," he shrugged. He looked around and said, "And to think, five years ago I would’ve been trying to figure out how much I could fence this stuff for."

"You mean you still don’t?" a familiar, cultured-type voice laughed from the stairs. Faith whipped around and saw her Auntie M standing at the top of the stairs. She was wearing her usual outfit; something prim, prissy, but pretty damn stylish for an older lady. She started coming down the steps and her eyes were shining with pleasure. "Faith, Seth! What brings you all the way out here!"

"Oh, just bringing someone to meet G-Senior." She folded her arms, cocked her head, and teasingly asked, "Or did he finally decide to let me call him Eddie?"

"He most certainly did not," she said with a frosty Aunty voice. Of course it was fake; she knew better than to try and order her around too much. It was when she was halfway that Faith spied the boulder on her finger.

"What the Heck is that!" she blurted, pointing at the rock on Marion’s hand. "Don’t be telling me…" She stopped when her happy Aunt stopped, looked at the ring on her finger, and stared back at her. She smiled widely and nodded. Faith felt her head start to spin. <Oh Goddess. If G-Man’s dad marries Aunt Marion, that would make G-Man… okay, something that makes my head hurt. My family tree gets more whacked every year. >

"Yes, Faith," she giggled like a kid! "Our dear Edwin proposed to me approximately six weeks ago. I know you’ve been busy and I wanted to wait until we visited you again before telling you. I wanted it to be special when you found out."

"You mean you wanted to see the look on my face and have it recorded for everyone," she shot back, grinning like a fool. This was great! Aunty was in love again! "So your Peter Graves clone popped the question, huh?"

Marion’s laugh sounded real good to her. There hadn’t been so many since they’d gotten back together two years ago. Faith wondered if she was seeing a reflection of how she’d be feeling over the next few months.

She reached the bottom of the stairs and Faith rushed up to her, giving her a big hug. "I’ve missed you," she whispered.

"And I you, little tyke." Auntie kissed her forehead and backed up to look at her. Faith could tell she was still proud of her. "We were hoping to visit you before your school year began."

"Well, don’t cancel on account we’re here. We can always find a place for you to hang your hat." She grinned and looked back up the stairs. "Or to stash the Brit Boy Toy of yours so he won’t hear you swapping details with us girls."

"Faith!" she hissed, turning pink in the face. She started laughing at how Auntie could be a little stick in the mud if you pushed the right buttons. She became "composed" and went all formal old Massachusetts girl on her. "So what brings you here?"

She turned back to look at Seth and Belinda. She held her left hand behind Auntie’s back and guided her along to say hi. "You remember Seth, right Aunt Marion?"

"Of course." Instead of shaking hands or doing something like a rich girl would, Marion took Seth into a hug; they’d gotten along okay enough since they met. "Are you keeping her under some semblance of control?"

"Hey!" she snapped.

Her man was gonna pay for it if he said the wrong thing! "Oh, I think control is somewhat relative where Faith’s concerned," he said, not looking at her to see how she’d react.

<Nice save, boy toy,> she drawled to herself. She did pick up the giggles coming from Belinda and mock glared at her. "What’re you laughing at, Jenny Reb? You’re the one’s gonna have to put up Aunt Marion and Eddie G on a daily basis."

Marion looked at Potential Girl with surprise on her face. "What do you mean, a daily basis, dearie?"

She just let Bel handle it. Kid’s brown eyes flashed and she said, "I’m a Potential, Miss Pryce. I came here to move in with my Watcher."

"Your Watch…" Yep, Auntie was quick on the uptake. She spun around and stared at her. "You brought her here so that Edwin could teach her?" Just as quick, she broke into one of those "you little turd" smiles that meant she was really happy about something. "Faith, he’ll be ecstatic!"

Marion looked at Bel and skipped the handshake deal, going straight into the "welcome home" hugs. "It’ll be so nice to have another girl here to train. I only hope you’ll be as happy as Edwin and I will be because you’re here."

"I hope so too," she muttered to Auntie. Faith just grinned. She wouldn’t show it to them, since she’d rather puke than look all mushy, but this was kinda… sweet.

Then they realized they didn’t even know each other’s names, so they backed up. Marion smiled like a kind old lady should. "Marion Pryce of the Pryce family of Boston."

Bel grinned back and held her hand out, just to make it official. "Belinda Parrish of Spartansburg, South Carolina, of the Parrish clan of the Amazon Nation."

"Parrish…" Marion’s voice trailed off. "Are you any relation to Derek Parrish?"

Belinda blinked at that. Now Faith was lost about that, although she remembered that some of the Parrishes knew who Auntie’s family was. Maybe this would explain it. "Uncle Derek?" she asked. "He went up north to study at college. He said he met Pryces there."

"I know," Marion said warmly. She took Bel’s hands in her own and smiled so sweetly it could’ve made its own sugar rush. "I taught a few classes at Boston College in my spare time. He’s a very bright man. How is he?"

"He’s well." She seemed to sense that maybe small talk wasn’t so much to go with right now, so she said, "I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Pryce."

"Please, call me Marion, sweetheart." They heard someone coming down the steps and Faith was the first to see Rich coming down with G-Senior. "Edwin," she went on, taking charge of the intros from her, "come meet Belinda!"

Eddie stopped at the bottom of the stairs and Faith just tried to read his face for a reaction. He was all composed like British guys were supposed to be, but she could see behind the wrinkles. He was crying on the inside. <But is it because he’s gonna have a Maybe Slayer on his hands, or is it because he’s wondering if she’ll get hurt like Lillian and Linda…>

Now Belinda got a little nervous, probably because this was the guy who she (and Faith) hoped would be like a new Dad to her. She stood up straight but Faith could read she was still a little nervous in her voice. "Lord Giles, a pleasure."

He eyed her closely before letting that tiny smirk she knew so well from her Giles make an appearance. "My dear," he said with that uppity voice, "the first thing I want you to learn is that between us, there is no ‘Lord’ or rank. I am your Watcher, your teacher, your guardian, and I would enjoy being your friend. Although hopefully, we might become… more than that."

He didn’t fool Faith for a second. He had fallen in love with her right off the bat!

Belinda’s eyes shined from what he’d said and she nodded; she clearly liked what she saw in the old fart. "All right. It’s a deal, G-Man."

He froze and his jaw dropped, which only made Marion laugh harder and cry even more while she laughed. Seth buried his head in his hands while Faith just grinned innocently as G-Senior glared at her, knowing he’d been set up.

"Hey, don’t look at me. I just told her you were like your kid," she said with a shrug. She was so proud of Bel, who was grinning like a hyena at her! "Not my fault she’s already got you pegged."

"And I wonder how that happened," he wondered dryly, looking up at Heaven for help. ‘Course he didn’t get any. He gave up and smiled at her. "Faith, a pleasure." He walked up and they shared a hug; two years ago it would’ve Wigged her out, hugging her Watcher’s old man, but now he was almost family, especially with the ring. Which reminded her… "Oh, something else you need to know. Auntie, you should hear this too."

"Oh God…" Seth muttered.

Before Auntie could ask her what else she was springing on them, she held her hand up and wiggled her fingers, letting her rock dazzle from the illumination reflected from the lights overhead. Marion’s jaw dropped like hers probably had and she whispered, "Oh my Lord…"

Eddie’s eyes lit up and he smiled at her and Sethy. He was just as happy for them as he was that he’d gotten a Potential Slayer to train! He took her into another hug. "Dear Lord, it’s about time you received some blessing in accordance with the work you do for Him! You must be so excited."

"Well, yeah," she admitted, a goofy smirk on her lips. She squirmed loose and went over to Aunt Marion. "Uh, surprise."

Aunty started smiling and giggling and they hugged each other. She wondered what Marion was gonna say and asked, "So what do you think? Think we should have the wedding in Sunnydale, Boston, or just have a small little thing in Vegas?"

"Hey!" Seth objected. Faith just giggled harder, although he couldn’t see.

"I just know one thing," Marion said with that tone Linda used on her when she was trying to keep her from pulling some stunt, "and that is I’ll tan your Slayer hide if you even think of trying to run away and elope instead of letting Joyce and I plan your wedding!"

"Are you kidding?" she shot back wickedly. "You think I wanna miss the sight of B and K looking all sick about being in those bridesmaid dresses?" Slayer Supreme looked at Auntie’s ring again and whistled. "Nice rock. So you’re gonna get hitched, huh?"

"It was only right, Faith." She looked at Edwin like Jenny looked at her G-Man. "Since I decided to move here permanently, it was only right that Edwin proposed to me."

Watcher Daddy’s face got a bit sour. "Besides the fact that I do indeed love your Aunt, Faith, there are certain… elements here in Britain that would see it as a scandal if I were living with a woman and was not at least engaged to her."

Now Faith got the point. She folded her arms and groaned, "You mean the Watchers."

"No," Edwin sighed, although he rolled his eyes dramatically. "The tabloids."

Faith felt her eyebrows go up a bit. She just looked at Belinda, who smiled and tried not to laugh at her. She grinned back and gave the kid a pat on the back. "You think you can keep his ego in check, kiddo?"

"I’ve got six years of Amazon training already, Yank," Bel shot back, although her evil eye was on her soon-to-be Watcher Guy. "And besides, he’s old. I can take him."

<Glad you think so, kiddo.> The Dark Slayer looked at Marion, who seemed to enjoy the first "argument" between Watcher and Slayer-in-Training as much as she. But her smile faded just a bit as she walked over to her betrothed Auntie. "So, you okay with this, Aunt Marion?"

Auntie smiled peacefully and gave her another Aunty hug. "I’m very ‘okay’ with it, dearie. I didn’t think I could be any prouder of you, and yet again you prove an old woman wrong."

"I have my moments," she chuckled.

*****

"Ouch!" Belinda groaned as she rubbed her thigh. She glared at Edwin but stifled any complaints. Faith had warned her the old Brit was good, but she hadn’t known that he’d taken a few commando classes from the Watchers’ sneaky types.

She leveled her quarterstaff and said, "One more time, Edwin?"

"No, I think that’s enough for today," he said with a smile. Bel could see that he already cared about her welfare and while it was still weird having that come from a near total stranger, it… <I haven’t seen that kind of caring since Mom and Dad died.> "We have time to learn the extent of your skills, my dear. We’ll take it slowly. Besides, I think it’s more important for now that you get used to your new home."

"Yeah, especially the hours. Jet lag’s a bee-yach."

Belinda laughed at how her Watcher and new guardian glared at the Slayer for her language. She looked over at Lord… at Edwin’s fiancée, Marion, whose face showed how much she loved both Edwin and the idea of having her there. Again, she wondered how they could care about her…

<Just take it and see if you can give something back,> she decided. "So what happens next?"

Edwin gave her that grin Faith had warned her about and walked up to her. He ran a hand through her sweaty hair. "Now, Belinda, we go to my office and call my son to let him know that you’re getting settled. I do think he’ll want to know how well you and Faith are doing. Then we’ll get cleaned up and have a nice lunch, and then we can discuss what you want to do this afternoon, whether it’s sleep, train, or otherwise relax."

She nodded and walked over with the man who reminded her of Grandpa, although the way he treated her reminded her of Daddy. She let an itty-bitty smile form as she placed the staff back on the rack next to his. "Thank you, Edwin."

"For what?" he asked, although she was sure he had a pretty good idea.

She wasn’t able to put it into words, so she just shrugged. He just rubbed her back; he understood. "Let’s make that phone call, shall we?" he offered.

She grinned again and walked over to Faith, who’d done her share of kicking her butt around the training room Edwin had set up. She knew that it would be helpful though, because having been thrown around by someone with super strength would get her used to the idea of how it would be if and when she went up against vampires.

"So how’d I do?" she asked, hoping the answer would be good.

"Not too bad. Your folks might be man-haters, but they know how to fight. You made him work harder than he’s letting on, though. So don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it."

She beamed at Faith’s praise. She knew that Faith didn’t impress easily or give anything that wasn’t earned when it came to her opinions. "So, shall we go listen in on my Watcher talking to your Watcher?"

Faith gave her a crooked grin. "Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this for the world." She put an arm around her back and they walked out of the training room toward Edwin’s office.

"Just keep in mind here, kiddo," Faith told her, "you’re gonna see another benefit of being an American with an English Watcher. Just be ready to enjoy the show."

<What is she talking about?> One thing that she and Edwin had already agreed on; Faith was one crazy Yank. <Who cares if it’s different meaning of Yank, at least we agree on it!> They got to the door and Faith knocked. Her Watcher gave them permission to enter, so they strode in, Faith doing it like she owned the place.

She saw Seth sitting there as well. He grinned at her and said, "Heard you did okay for your first time?"

She smiled and said, "I hope so." But she was all giddy inside! <Edwin said I did okay!> she thought happily. She really liked Faith and Seth, but Faith was also keeping a little bit of distance between them because she wanted Edwin and her Aunt to bond with her. <That’s okay. If we get together sometime, I’d like to think we can become real friends.> And she wanted to meet the other Amazons in California someday. So it was okay for now if Faith was acting just a little bit more like the Slayer teacher to her Slayer-in-Training student. She knew the truth; Faith liked her and her attitude.

They sat down and Edwin finished writing something down in a ledger of some sort. He looked up and smiled at her, making her heart soar a bit like he thought she was very special. "I’ll call the Council to inform them of your arrival after we talk to my son. I do hope to take you to Council headquarters to show you around soon; I think you’ll enjoy it."

"I think I will," she answered truthfully. One thing she had always enjoyed was learning about the mystical, because it was part of the Amazon’s heritage. They weren’t wizards or often witches, but they had a long tradition of their own mysticism that she’d always enjoyed studying, even if the actual practices seemed stuffy to her.

"Good, good." He picked up his phone and dialed a number. They waited for a few seconds until he grinned and said, "Hello, son. How are you doing?"

He quickly flipped the speaker button and set the receiver back in its cradle. The voice of Faith’s Giles, her Giles’ son, said, "Good morning, Dad. How are you doing today?"

<Funny, he doesn’t sound so stuffy…> Faith had told her some of the hi-jinks she’d pulled on Rupert, but she wondered if Faith had exaggerated a bit about how stuffy he was.

"Well, I just wanted to call and touch base to let you know things went along smoothly. First…"

"Things? What things? What are you talking about?" Rupert asked. Belinda’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement. Why had he asked that? Surely he knew…

Edwin chuckled a bit and Belinda got the idea that Edwin was having some fun at Rupert’s expense. The Earl of Leicester folded his hands together and gave her a fatherly look, which made her smile back and bow her head to keep him from seeing her blush.

"I’m talking about Belinda, of course." He leaned back in his chair, which squeaked. "They arrived this morning and we’ve been getting along famously! I tell you, son, I’m so grateful to you for caring enough about both this impressive young lady and me to send her here. I already feel like I’m twenty years younger. I only wish more Potential Slayers had her fiery disposition."

"Potential? WHAT Potential?" Rupert asked from California. It was then that Belinda began to get the sneaking suspicion as to what Faith had meant by not ‘missing the show.’ She glanced at Faith, who’d been waiting for her to figure it out, and received a wink for her troubles! <Oh my Goddess…>

"Dad," the Slayer’s Watcher said, and Belinda could swear the man was sputtering. "The only Potential I know anything about is…"

It took a full second before the explosion came, but to Belinda it seemed like it had been building for an entire year.

"FAITH PATRICIA PRYCE!!!"

Belinda and Edwin both cringed at the volume of the shout; it was worse than her boom box! She looked at Faith, who just leaned back, crossed her legs, and let a satisfied look form on her lovely face.

"Ahhhh, the sound of your Watcher’s frustration. It’s music to a Slayer’s ears…"

Belinda giggled and looked at Edwin, who was just as shocked as his kid. <So he knows we didn’t tell Rupert we were coming here.> For the slightest of instances, she hoped it wouldn’t ruin things, but she knew it was going to be okay when Edwin began to laugh from the bottom of his belly. She couldn’t help it; she joined in and couldn’t stop.

"How can you be so jovial about this, Father?!?" Rupert asked, his voice pleading over the connection. "I didn’t tell that bloody girl to bring her to you…"

She watched Faith get up and click the phone off. Edwin didn’t bother to stop her; he was too busy laughing at how they’d gotten one over on his son. "Oh my dear, this is absolutely priceless…"

The phone immediately rang again and the foursome glanced at one another. "Well, should I answer it or let the poor boy stew for a bit?" Edwin wondered.

"Nah, let him stew. Make him appreciate me more and teach him not to horn in on my vacation again." Faith looked at Seth, who just gave her the look Belinda’s Mom and Dad had always shared.

"I suppose this isn’t the time to share our tidings of joy with him?" he asked his Slayer, pointing at her engagement ring.

"Nah," she drawled as she crossed over to him, plopped down on his lap and kissed him tenderly. "Gotta have something up my sleeve for when he tries to get on my case after we get home."

"I just might move up our next trip to the States to see how this all turns out," Edwin managed to get out between laughs. He looked to her and said, "That is, if you’d like to accompany Marion and me, child. Would you like to meet the other Slayers and the Amazon royalty someday?"

She couldn’t get an answer out of her throat. He was asking her what she wanted already? Of course she wanted to meet them! But she just kept her silence; what right did she have to be part of his family decisions?

Again, her Watcher seemed to understand everything! He leaned forward and his eyes became sad. "Belinda, dear, you are part of the family in this household. That includes myself, Marion, everyone on the staff, and you. You are part of our family now. Please… don’t be afraid to let yourself be part of it."

Belinda’s throat had a frog in it. She realized just what he was telling her and it was just like at home in Spartansburg, but somehow… it was better. She couldn’t figure out why, but she decided she had time to figure it out. For now, she knew two things.

One, she was going to love it here. And two, she had the potential to love the people too. A lot of potential.

She smiled at her Watcher. "I’d like that Edwin. I’d like that a lot."

"Splendid! Now, how about a bowl of ice cream, my dear?"

<Yep,> she mused wistfully. <I’m really going to love it here… >


A Matter Of Humanity

The Academy
Bangor, Maine
(Sort Of)
Pocket Dimension
Location Unknown
21 July 2001

"Being the first peace treaty of its kind," the tall, academic-looking blonde woman said with an authoritative voice, "the agreement between Bureau 13 and the spiritual ancestors of the Chippewa and Patowatami tribes in Michigan laid the groundwork for similar accords with other Native American tribes, which often replaced the old treaties that were commonly broken by Presidential administrations during the latter half of the nineteenth century."

The Professor laid down her notes and stared at her class, her ice-blue eyes glittering with the passion she held for this particular subject. "Now, can anyone tell me some of the accomplishments spawned by the treaty with the Michigan tribes, besides the obvious answers of preventing the haunting of innocent farmers or shamanic curses on urban Michiganders?"

A few hands were raised, including hers. The professor slowly panned across the room with a sweep of her angular, Nordic face. Finally, she settled her eyes on her.

"Ms. Hunter?"

Shaw lowered her hand, as did her classmates. She folded her hands together and gave the first answer that came to mind. "The treaty in Michigan outlined certain areas of the state that were once territories, particularly sacred ground which belonged to the various nations as historical sites or state and national parks. In both cases, this provided safety for the tribal burial grounds while simultaneously creating small pockets of natural habitat for natural flora and fauna, providing a protected ecosystem." She paused and the professor nodded for her to continue. "The areas chosen for natural preservation were often the locations of centers of power for the brands of nature magic most commonly practiced by Native American shamans of those particular nations. This allowed the spirits to remain at peace and their descendants to have access to their forms of medicinal magic, if they were so gifted."

The lengthy answer caused a stir among some of her classmates, those who were still distant with her. She understood why, but she had been keeping her background a tightly held secret for the most part. She was afraid that if she expressed the truth about how she spent most of her time "on the job," they might consider her an elitist, rather than their current misconception that she was angling for a "cushy desk job" with the Bureau.

"That’s an intriguing answer, Ms. Hunter." The professor scribbled something down and Shaw wondered if it concerned her. Her blue eyes snapped up as the professor continued. "You are correct; this laid down foundations for historical site selections for Native territories in several states. But I would like to know how that particular view was in the forefront of your mind."

Shaw read between the lines; the records on her forwarded to the Academy were somewhat spotty, and she wondered what Horace Gordon had left out of her dossier. Of course, Shaw had voluntarily asked to take the Bureau’s Academy training, but she hadn’t been very forthcoming about her background.

Still, she saw no harm in telling the truth. "I am a priestess of Mielikki, Professor, and thus a nature priestess in my own right. As such, I am in a constant attunement with the balance of nature around me." A wry smile crossed her lips. "As such, I normally tend to look at the ecological side of things first, even after my time living amidst the urban sprawl of California."

Professor Hardin nodded in satisfaction and seemed to file the information away for later. Shaw got the tickling suspicion in her mind that Professor Burton, the self-titled Dean of Doom, would use that to her advantage if possible when Shaw was run through Hell House with the others.

She still remembered Robin’s little "pep talk" the day she’d left for Bangor. "Between being my baby sister, the soul sister to an Irish Slayer, and Liam’s fiancée, if you can’t outsmart anything that This Old House reject throws at you, then you’re going to cause me and Liam to lose five hundred bucks each to Merlin and JP."

Shaw was actually looking forward to it.

"Very good, Ms. Hunter," her Professor replied easily. "We’ll continue the history of peace accords and negotiations with spirits and souls tomorrow. Read pages one twenty-six through two-forty for discussions during our next class. You are dismissed."

The college sophomore-to-be closed her book and gathered her supplies. The sounds of books closing and students talking about homework and their free time that night blossomed, taking over the studious quiet of the last hour.

Her next class was even more important to her, at least on a personal level. She let her eyes half close as she thought about her temporary imprisonment a year ago. <If I had actually known about my civil rights as far as the Bureau went, I would not have been so frightened about losing everything I have found in Sunnydale.>

So here she was, getting ready to attend Civil Rights For Sentient Non-Humans. Unlike her classmates, who were in fact Bureau cadets, the ranger wanted to learn the law enforcement and legal sides pertaining to the "American supernatural" to enhance her Section training. And while she attended the same six-week course that all Bureau cadets took, she was already part of a unit. It was just that her classmates didn’t know that.

Plus, she wanted to ensure if she ever crossed paths with a rogue government agency again, her sister wouldn’t spend the next three months bragging about how she’d needed a Massachusetts born President to personally bail her out.

"Hey, Hunter," a female voice called out, penetrating her solitary thoughts. She turned to the buxom redheaded woman who’d called her name. It was Zara Worthington, one of the cadets who hadn’t given her the "cold shoulder." She flashed Shaw a grin and asked, "I wanted to know if you had any plans tonight. They’re showing the second run of Gladiator and we were gonna grab some dinner at the restaurant afterwards. You want to come with?"

Shaw appreciated the offer, although she felt her head growing a bit lighter. Suddenly, she found herself looking at Zara’s ample chest more closely. Realizing what was happening, Shaw marshaled her empathic power and turned it up a bit from the low setting she normally kept it on. It allowed her to drown out and ignore the Denver native’s pheromones. It wasn’t intentional on Zara’s part; her ancestry made it so she had to sometimes consciously work to control that power.

Zara seemed to realize she was accidentally projecting, because her eyes shined a shade of red for a second. "Sorry, Shaw. I just love Russell Crowe in that movie!"

"So I gathered," Shaw wryly chuckled. The half-elf deliberated for a few seconds, conscious of the scarlet-haired woman expectantly watching her. "I would not mind seeing the movie again. Maybe it will allow me to avoid withdrawal symptoms from my wrestling fix." <At least unlike Robin’s lifelong misery concerning A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the General said he found the movie quite accurate…>

"Great," Zara said happily. Shaw stiffened as a new wave of power washed over her.

This time, Shaw sighed and released the control she usually had over her animal empathy. Her power flared and Shaw quickly became conscious of every single animal and bird within three hundred feet, although there weren’t many, if any, in such close proximity at the moment. Although she only tended to use her full powers on patrol or during retreats to wooded areas, now she needed it to allow her to keep from seeing Zara as anything more than a fellow classmate. But still, Shaw could feel the hint of Zara’s pheromones hitting her psi-shields.

"Zar’ahn’ishl!" she hissed, using the cadet’s full name. Shaw shook her head again and wished painful boils on the sex organs of Zara’s incubus grandfather.

Shaw smiled at the image. "Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps the reason you made so much money stripping on Ladies’ Night was because of the pheromones you generate?"

"No shit, Hunter!" Zara sarcastically agreed with a snap of her fingers. She did blush a bit though. "But thanks to dear old Gramps, they only work on women or demons!"

Shaw just nodded. It was the peculiar nature of her parentage that had brought Zara to the Bureau’s attention. After beating off a demon hunter who’d attacked her for no reason, given that the girl was working at a strip joint to pay her way through college, the Bureau had sent in a team to investigate the reports of demon activity. Expecting to find a succubus, they had instead been surprised by Zara, who was only one-quarter demon and hadn’t even known about the pheromones she emitted when emotional. That is, until she unintentionally caused the female members of the Bureau team to become sexually obsessed with her and beat the living daylights out of their male counterparts. It didn’t help Zara’s embarrassment any that she was as straight as an arrow when it came to sexual orientation.

<Thank the Goddess they did not send the Thunderbunnies to find her…>

"I shall join you and the others. I could use a break."

"Good." Zara shouldered her backpack and the two walked out; they did share their next class. Her chocolate brown eyes took on a slight reddish tint, a dead giveaway that she was making the effort to control her attraction. "Shaw, can I ask you a personal question?"

After four weeks, Shaw was tired of evading her classmates’ questions. "Of course, Zara. What do you wish to know?"

"Is ‘Sir’ Sebastian right about you? Are you angling for a desk job?"

Shaw sighed at the attitude of the elven cadet, one of two who’d done their best to put her down because it was common knowledge that she was not going to take a field assignment with the Bureau. So Zara was really just asking her to set the record straight.

"Sebastian only gives his opinions based on surface information," she said, trying not to sound flippant. She turned the corner of the hallway along with Zara. "You know I live in California, yes?" Zara nodded easily, grinning at what she thought was a glamorous life on the West Coast. "What I have not mentioned before is that I live in Sunnydale." She glanced at her new friend. "Sunnydale happens to sit atop the largest Hellmouth in North America, perhaps the Western Hemisphere."

Zara’s eyes went wide with understanding and a little bit of concern. "I don’t believe this. You have Elfhames in LA and San Fran you could live at and you decided to live on a Hellmouth? Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you whacked?!?"

Since Shaw could understand the cadet’s reaction all too well, she wasn’t too put off by it. As they pushed open the door to their Civil Rights class, she said, "I have family there. Cousins, my fiancée, my foster father… my sister."

"You’ve got a sister?" Zara asked with shining red-brown eyes and a grin. This was also news to her. Shaw wondered just how long it would be before her other classmates knew this information. Zara’s smile became mischievous. "Half-elf, elf, or human."

Now her smile became mischievous. "Vampire Slayer," she said, watching through the corner of her almond-shaped eyes for Zara’s reaction.

The tiefling froze in mid-step and the priestess innocently said, "Are you all right, Zara?"

The former exotic dancer started breathing faster and Shaw paid for her joke. Her breath caught and she felt her ears growing warmer, and she could barely avoid staring into Zara’s chocolate eyes… She forced away the power and said, "Zara, she is not a killer. She had worked with souled vampires, good demons, Seelie elves, and even dragons. Granted, she has an Irish temper, but she is a good person."

The growing heat in her belly and ears faded with her reassurances, but Shaw was getting tired of having to protect against Zara’s uncontrolled powers. Not because she would succumb, which was unlikely, but because she didn’t want to always be on guard with this new friend.

"Sorry, but… well, damn!" The Broadcast Journalism major shivered dramatically. "I hope you don’t go telling everyone with a demon ancestor that!"

"Of course not." The two women sat down and Shaw started pulling out her books. "Besides, I love my relatives far too much to go bandying out my family tree on a whim. You did ask, remember?" Zara groaned at the friendly jab. "The truth is, Zara… she is not my sister by blood, at least not in this life." She was conscious of the raised eyebrow Zara sent her way. "When I was born, I had a twin sister named Silmakila. She was ill and died shortly after our birth. Twenty years ago, she was reincarnated."

"And she’s the Slayer," Zara softly finished. "So you are sisters. Nuff said."

Shaw shot her a thankful glance and smile. "So what time is the movie?" she asked, getting back to the subject they’d been discussing at first.

"Six-thirty." Zara shot her with a finger gun. "And Hunter, dress up. It’s summer, it’s hot, and so are we. This is one of the few nights here we’re gonna get to unwind, so wear something to knock the boys’ socks off!"

Shaw rolled her eyes. <Great. Faith as an ex-stripper turned Federal Agent…>

*****

Shaw walked into the small movie theater, the only one to be found in Bangor. Of course, having lived in California for three years, by American standards small meant one screen, one concession stand, and one hundred seats. But she found it to have a cozy atmosphere. And it did have one up on the Cineplex in Sunnydale: The Bureau’s theater had no visible gum on floors, walls, or seats.

She stopped by the women’s restroom and gazed at her reflection in the mirror. She checked her star sapphire earrings and examined her appearance. She’d brushed one lock of hair over the front of her ears on each side, letting them fall down over the front of her chest, while the rest of her mass of flat black hair fell freely past her shoulders. Deciding she looked much more than presentable, the Slayerette known as Religion Girl strode out to meet her classmates.

She found the five of them at the concession stand. Zara, Roger Lincoln, Peggy MacDonald, Ian Wilder, and… him. Shaw sighed. Sir Sebastian Alistaire Starsmore, full blooded elf and arrogant rich boy. Unlike some of the Fairgrove elves that she knew worked for the Bureau, Sebastian went out of his way to always show his comrades how talented, intelligent, and fashionable he was.

But as much as she might enjoy the fantasy of slapping the arrogant smirk off his face, Shaw had come a long way in two years. She would not create another Percy Williams if she could avoid it.

She grinned at the outfits they’d chosen, "dressed up" being the operative term. Roger and Ian both wore silk dress shirts, slacks, and leather dress shoes or loafers. Peggy wore a brown leather halter-top, black neoprene jeans that looked more painted on than worn, and black stiletto pumps. It set off her pale New England complexion, ash blonde hair, and baby blue eyes. Her claim for fashion superiority was contested by Zara’s blood red minidress like the ones her Amazon sisters had worn during their "infamous" case last Christmas. The only difference with Zara’s was, the neckline was even lower (if such a thing were possible) and the bottom barely covered her rump. Shaw chuckled at how Zara was teasing the men before the movie even started. Shaw could imagine her saying, "I dare you boys not to peek!"

Sebastian’s idea of "dressing up" during their off hours was to put on a custom tailored Versace suit that had to cost two or three thousand dollars. She would also wager that she could see her reflection in both his shoes and his manicure.

She decided not to wait and see if they would notice her, although it would have been nice. Of course, they were already waiting for her. "I apologize for being late," she said with her alto voice.

The cadets turned around separately. Sebastian decided to be a pain and snottily noted, "As you had plenty of time to prepare for our meeting, it smacks of being inconsiderate and socially inept that one cannot even arrive…"

He stopped and his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when he saw her. The other boys had similar reactions, although they were slightly less obvious. <Of course, part of that is because I’m engaged. There is nothing like a ring to kill potential flirtation. Oh well.>

As for her female classmates, Peggy plainly was busy appraising and likely critiquing her wardrobe, while Zara’s eyes beamed as she silently mouthed, "WHOA."

She just gave them a light smile, especially to Zara. Since Zara had "insisted" she dress up, she had put herself into a navy bra top tank dress that set off her cream color skin and gave her chest a bit of support. Her three-inch ankle wrap stitched sandals gave her the illusion of the height she and Faith might have had if they hadn’t been "preemie twinnies" as her soul sister put it. All in all, she was putting Faith’s lessons to very, very good use.

She had accented her outfit with her earrings, the three rings she customarily wore, her holy symbol, which lay directly between her breasts, and her family pendant, the four pointed ruby resting just above the unicorn’s head, lying against her white skin. She wondered how Sebastian would react to the obvious symbol of the daughter of a noble elven house.

"I take it by your reactions that I pass inspection?" she noted with a dab of Xander-style friendly sarcasm.

"Uh, uh…" was all that Ian could get out.

She must really be making an impression if the human males had forgotten she was firmly and utterly attached to someone. But Peggy and Zara, who’d become best friends since coming to Bangor, both gave approving compliments.

"Damn, Shaw. I didn’t know you had this much runway model in you," Peggy teased, grinning as Zara was. She eyed the dress and asked, "Okay, what is it? Prada? Gucci?"

"Victoria’s Secret," she answered with a light laugh. "Unlike some of our present company, I cannot ken any outfit I wish. Besides, it takes all the enjoyment out of shopping in any case."

Sebastian seemed very offended, by both her statement and the laughter it generated. "I assure you, Hunter," he sniffed, using her "human" last name. It could be considered an insult to some Sidhe when an elven knight refused to recognize a noble, but Shaw figured he was above such "gauche" and obvious tactics. "My clothing is most assuredly the genuine article and made of the finest silk."

"I was merely stating a fact, Sebastian," Shaw said easily, still wearing the same pleasant look but letting him take the comment as he wished. She turned to Ian and Peggy, who stood so close they almost looked like a couple. "Do we have time before the movie begins?"

"About ten minutes," Ian confirmed. He ran a hand through his brown hair. "But we were thinking of getting together in the common room at the guys’ dorm for a nightcap after the movie." Shaw folded her bare arms and cocked an eyebrow. He chuckled. "Nothing stronger than a beer or two: we have class tomorrow."

"Agreed. But I see no problem whatsoever in joining you. Maybe we can do what people in our position usually do under such circumstances; trade war stories."

There were murmurs of agreement and the sextet headed toward the concession stand to buy their refreshments. As they walked, Sebastian cleared his throat and gave her a questioning look. Shaw nodded and said, "Go ahead, we will join you in a minute."

The boys sounded "Okays," Peggy made a playful little "Oooo," but Zara looked between them, concern plainly shown on her face. Shaw nodded that it was all right to leave them alone.

As the Colorado native turned and left the two fey with a modicum of privacy, the half-elf pinned the elf with her gaze and neutrally said, "What do you want?"

He frowned at the lack of formality but bit his lip. "Zar’ahn’ishl told me about your soul sister and your… nighttime activities on the Hellmouth."

She arched an ebony eyebrow. "Yes?"

"She said…" He faltered and seemed to shrink in on himself a bit. "She said that being Sidhe, I might better understand the bond you share with this Slayer and how it explains why you are not going to accept a field position with the Bureau when we finish the course."

Her eyebrow stayed perfectly in place. "Really?"

She could almost imagine his teeth grinding at what she thought might be an eventual apology for his treatment of her. Seelie etiquette was very clear on how Knights, Lords, and Ladies treated one another. But he did keep enough of his ego to point out, "You are not going to make this easy, are you Mi…"

Shaw smiled fully at him, although the warmth of her lips most assuredly were absent from her jade-colored eyes. "Although I would enjoy making you squirm, as is my right as a Lady insulted by a Knight of the Seelie Court for four weeks, I will ‘deign’ to provide you a modicum of latitude." When he winced at her pointing out his violation of the Knightly code of chivalry, Shaw’s smile vanished. <I have a movie to watch and friends to spend time with.> "I do not prefer my status being publicly known, Sebastian. I am a priestess first, a warrior second, and a young woman third. Please do not call me Lady, Milady, whatever. I would prefer Shaw, Hunter, Shawukay, or ‘Kay as a nickname, in that order."

He was bright enough to take what little she gave him. He gathered his dignity and said, "Very well, Shawukay. Thank you."

"I am not finished, Sebastian. I am not asking you to respect me as a noblewoman. But I do expect you to respect me as a priestess, a student and comrade of the wielders of the Slayer Swords, or if it makes you feel better, as the Amazon Nation’s Ambassador to Elfhames Sun Descending, Misthold, Fairgrove, and Outremer."

She waited to see if he would comment further, and he obliged her. "You work for Queen Gabrielle?" he asked, sounding impressed.

So he did know about things that went on in Sunnydale! "Like Gabrielle, I am an active member of Section Seven."

When he bristled at what seemed to be an evasive answer, Shaw folded her arms again, impatient about getting to the business of actually enjoying herself. "I am a distant cousin to the Witch Princess and other, non-noble Amazons, but being Cha’Tel’Quessir, I have some limited ability to see the views of both humans and Sidhe." She gave him a grim, tight grin. "Although there seems to be little difference between the races when it comes to dealing with soulless vampires."

Starsmore took the comment and agreed heartily. While he was not happy about having to apologize or show respect to the woman he’d considered beneath him because he’d thought she was angling for a cushy desk job, she’d at least refrained from making him grovel. As he would say, that would be gauche.

"Now," she said firmly, making him straighten up as a noble Sidhe should, "if you will honor three small requests, I will consider the matter forgotten."

He was rightfully suspicious, because he’d seen her biting sarcasm before. "Yes, Shawukay?"

"First, you are to keep what you know from Arikars," she stated, referring to the elven fighter mage from Elfhame Avalon who’d been snubbing her as well. "Unlike him, you have no problems with my mixed blood. You disapproved of my apparent angling for something ‘cushy.’ But like you, I wonder if he will not react well to learning that he has been insulting a fellow noble."

"I didn’t know…" He stopped when he understood she’d left him off the hook regarding that. "Might I ask why you wish to keep this secret from him?"

"Tomorrow is our combat class. I have the sneaking suspicion that tomorrow will be the day that Arikars and I get to, shall we say, ‘air our differences?’"

Sebastian actually looked concerned about her! "Shawukay, I know for a fact that Arikars is a master swordsman. Everyone knows this."

"But how is he in unarmed combat?" she grimly asked. The nattily attired elf seemed to consider the question and shrugged. "I am the first to admit there is always someone better, but I am used to fighting superhuman opponents as a matter of course. After all, I fight vampires and demons while sparring with Amazon warriors and a Slayer sister of mine. We will see."

"Perhaps we shall," Sebastian allowed. He and Arikars got along well enough, but they weren’t "bosom buddies." "And your other requests?"

"The first is simple. I may not be taking a position with the Bureau, but that is because I am already committed to a unit, particularly the team commanded by the Sword Bearers. Moreover, I have my sister and cousins, and my extended family there. Surely you can understand well enough to explain to any who might ask."

"So why are you taking the course?" he asked interestedly.

"To learn the legal side, to add it to what I know from the military side of things, particularly how it relates to my rights as a half-elf living in America. I have been the victim of my own ignorance too often when it concerns governmental groups attempting to kidnap me for intelligence purposes." She leaned in and gave him a conspirator’s smile. "Besides, between Steven, Gabrielle, and Director Gordon, I will enjoy the looks of surprise on the faces of rogue elf hunters when they discover my genuine credentials as a Federal Agent, even if it is as an "independent operative" of the CIA. Unofficially, of course."

Shaw glanced at the doors to where the movie was playing and said, "And my third request is to ask if you would be my unofficial escort for the evening." She looked back to Sebastian, who had a very carefully neutral face. "Since I am hand fasted and you are a knight and gentleman, it will not be inappropriate. Anyway, our friends should be allowed to see if there is any attraction between them without our distractions, yes?"

A gleam entered his eyes and Shaw wondered if he was laughing with her or at her. "You do not strike me as the matchmaking type, Shawukay."

"Normally, I am not. But occasionally it is enjoyable to be on the opposite side of things."

The elven fashion plate nodded in agreement. She wondered if he’d been the target of such tactics before. They started to head into the showing room but Sebastian asked, "One question, Shawukay, if I may?"

"As my sister is so fond of saying, ‘shoot.’"

Sebastian’s eyes lit up in curiosity and ran up and down her body. Shaw recognized that he wasn’t checking her attractiveness, but rather with the critical eye of a noble Seelie warrior. "If you do fight Arikars tomorrow, do you truly think you stand a chance against him, with blades or without?"

She stopped and raised her chin so that she could stare at him, eye to eye. She honestly said, "One time, I stood at the side of my spiritual brother, Robin Goodfellow, my fiancée, Liam Danahure, and my friend Aideen of Tir Na Nog in Calamdu Un Starv. I defeated the warrior Lugad in honest, steel-to-steel combat during the trial. And another time, I traded blows with none other than Shang Tsung himself."

"I know of Lugad, Shawukay," Sebastian said carefully, seeming slightly impressed. "But I have not heard of this Shang Tsung. And I have heard much in my one hundred seventeen years."

"Shang Tsung was a former champion of the Mortal Kombat tournament."

His eyes widened and she realized that he knew what Mortal Kombat was. That was more than most people would ever know. Her estimation of Sebastian rose exponentially, since he obviously was not the wallflower he appeared to be.

"You faced a champion of the Mortal Kombat tournament?" he asked with a dry whisper. "How did you fare?"

Her face went blank and she let her hazel eyes become as cold as the stone they resembled. "I am here. He is in Hell." She turned and finally went in to see the previews ending on the big screen. "Take from that what you will, Sir Sebastian."

*****

Shaw confiscated the long sofa before either of her friends could, leaning her head back against the fabric of the couch and letting out a satisfied groan as she closed her eyes and carelessly threw her bare feet up on the table.

Right now, she couldn’t care less if it was rude or childish. Her feet ached from wearing those heels for six hours! She shifted a bit, stretching out to make herself more comfortable, lacing her fingers together and resting them on her flat stomach. Zara’s voice intruded on her relaxation. "If that dress rides up any further, you’ll flash us."

"I do not really care at this point…" she drawled. But her sighing in frustration and sitting up to adjust her tank dress to a decent if not modest position belied her uncaring comment. She glanced at Zara and Peggy, who were dropping or throwing themselves into the nearest chairs in unladylike positions like her.

"I. Am. So. Blitzed," Peggy moaned sourly. She covered her eyes with a hand.

"You are not," Zara countered with a tiny giggle. "You just can’t hold your liquor. You don’t have the constitution to drink straight vodka with two Budweiser chasers."

"I don’t have the constitution." Peggy opened her eyes and glared at them, ice blue beams hitting Zara in particular. "Easy for the half-elf Slayer sister commando vamp hunter and quarter-demon ex-stripper Connie Chung wannabe to say to the Bureau’s poor man’s Dark Phoenix."

She only held the glare for half a heartbeat before cracking up, joined by said quarter-demon ex-stripper. Shaw just chuckled under her breath and realized how much she missed her high school times with Faith, David, and Jessica. Somehow life wasn’t so… simple at UC Sunnydale. But she liked that tonight had been so fun.

Peggy’s head swiveled her way. "How about you, Shaw? You look tired and tipsy but you only had two Buds and those fruit drinks at the restaurant. What’s your excuse?" she asked with a crooked grin.

<Sigh.> "Elven thinness," she drawled. She crossed her legs at the ankles and closed her eyes to relax. "I’ve been fighting vampires for fifteen years, the last three of those with Section Seven. But no matter how much fighting, exercise, or gun toting I do, my weight never goes much past one oh five." She let her head lean back, relishing the sensation of the fabric against her body. "My friends still sometimes worry about my weight, but I am just destined to be a black-haired, pointy-eared, glowing-eyed, stick-figure Barbie."

Zara laughed even louder and Shaw gave into temptation, opening her eyes to see what was so funny. She still disapproved of Zara letting Ian cast a dampening spell on her to cancel her pheromone emissions, but it was still the girl’s choice to make.

"Spill, Zara," Peggy asked for both of them, grinning like mad. "What’re you laughing about?"

Zara’s eyes danced with amusement, while her cleavage bounced up and down as she kept laughing. She eventually spit out, "I just don’t see a Barbie doll having a body with those track runner type muscles and eyes that can give you a ‘Mess with me, you die’ glare, especially if she’s got a sword in one hand and a Beretta nine mil in the other."

Laughter burst from Shaw’s throat. After a few moments, she calmed herself and seriously said, "Besides my weight or lack thereof, I never drink alcohol or accept drinks from someone I do not know unless one of my extended family is present." Before they could ask, she settled down a bit and told them, "Once, someone slipped me a date rape drug. My sister Faith had to save me."

That sobered her friends for a moment until the cleric waved off their stricken looks. "It was two years ago. The men plea bargained and it was settled a long time ago."

Zara’s face furrowed over how easily Shaw could let it go, but she didn’t say anything. Shaw reluctantly sat up and leaned forward, eyeing her classmates with certainty. "Peggy, Zara, I have been through worse, believe me. Much worse. And… I have sometimes seen worse things happen to others because I was unable to prevent it. Things happen in life, sometimes for no reason. I just have to accept the things that happen, good or bad."

She realized that they knew she had things she still kept secret, but she honored Merlin’s old directives about revealing her dimensional origins. Her race, true age, and family connections were permissible, provided there was no other choice or she was working with people "in the know," so to speak.

But to Bureau cadets without any extradimensional experience, it was strictly verboten.

"So how’d you get involved with the Bureau in the first place?" Peggy asked with a concerned air. "You already told us how you met your team and all. But where does the Bureau get involved?"

Shaw rolled her eyes at the memory. "The Ghostbusters were hunting down the Headless Horseman and we had a case of mistaken assumptions. Since I was semi-possessed at the time and fighting the spirit inside of me, I did not take their attack on my cousin very well. I… almost killed them in my confused state of mind."

"Oh." Peggy curled up on the chair. Shaw’s story almost resembled her first brush with the Bureau, which was also a brouhaha. Knowing she was "special" while growing up, she’d gone insane with grief when a group of soulless vampires had killed her sisters while on a shopping trip.

Shaw thought about how Peggy’s story of going kill-crazy echoed her own chase of Aunsulaur. Peggy had succeeded in destroying a dozen vampires, but afterward she had no control over her telekinetic abilities. Fortunately, the Bureau team tracking the same vampires had a telepath among them who’d temporarily shut down her powers, allowing her to prevent any civilian casualties. Peggy was now over the events of six months ago, and dearly hoped to be assigned to the same team that had helped her so much over the four months before coming to the Academy.

"Sorry."

"Do not worry about it." Shaw glanced at Zara and gave her a soft smile. "At least nothing embarrassing happened."

"Oh sure, let’s relive my little adventure!" Zara moaned. The college senior stood up and stretched her arms out. "Just remember, Hunter, there are some people who know what happened in April of ’99! But at least I didn’t make the mistake of calling Oberon the son of a dopkalfar hooker!"

Shaw stiffened and tried to speak, but she couldn’t get the words out. Zara just smirked at her while Peggy seemed confused about it. Finally, the half-elf let out a snort she’d tried to hold in. She couldn’t believe Zara knew about that!

"I was having a bad week at the time," she offered as her feeble defense.

"Funny. A fairy friend of Gramps said that you had some… ‘God complex issues?’" She tsked tsked. "Not the best way to play avatar, Shaw."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," she sighed. She hoped she was just imagining the faint sound of Goddess type laughter in her head.

"Enough of the vaudeville act of the supernatural," Peggy sternly announced from her sprawled position in her chair. "Let’s talk about the hand-to-hand class tomorrow. I hear that they’re bringing in some big name Agent to watch and maybe…"

"Wipe the mats with our butts?" Zara finished glumly. She admittedly wasn’t the next Bruce Lee or Chow Yun Fat. In fact, she sarcastically said that her arsenal consisted of the nut shot, the Louisville Slugger, and the can of pepper spray.

The fact that the cadets were not allowed to use any "special" abilities during their sparring (that being a separate class) was to get them used to the occasions when powers were not the way to go. If a cadet inadvertently lost control or didn’t have full control of their powers, they weren’t so much penalized as put up against Professor Cheng, who besides being a former SWAT officer was a strong telepath, who could block access to one’s abilities. He didn’t use it as a rule; part of Bureau training was to get cadets to trust their entire package of abilities, physical or preternatural.

Zara did get caught up in the rumors spinning about their "special guest star." "I heard they’re actually bringing in JP Withers. I wonder what he’s really like? He can’t be the maniac they say he is."

Shaw just kept her mouth closed, trying to keep from laughing at the horror stories she’d heard from both cadets and Agents. While JP was even deadlier than everyone could ever begin to imagine, there was the simple fact that his gruff exterior hid a caring man who was simply one of humanity’s most important defenders.

But she knew the instant she mentioned the smallest of details about his softer side, he would teleport in and rightfully kick her ass for it. A tiny smile touched her lips.

Peggy caught the smile and her eyes narrowed. "What’s so funny, Shaw?"

"I have met him, that is all," she said, waiting for her friends’ reactions. They stared at her like she’d grown a new body part. <And eeew to that thought, thank you very much.>

"How did you meet… him?" Zara asked. It figured that she, rather than Peggy, would be courageous enough to ask that question.

"He has helped us in various battles," the half-elf said simply. "And he is everything the stories say and more. Let us… leave it at that."

While the cadets were anxious to learn more, the horror stories that were JP Withers’ reputation prevented them from indulging their curiosity. So her Cryptic Girl act would have them stewing for some time to come.

Peggy and Zara both saw how funny it was to her, because the looks in their eyes could have boiled water at thirty paces without magic. "You’re enjoying this far too much," Zara said pointblank.

"I grew tired of people looking at me like some lazy secretary wannabe," she shot back with eyes glittering with amusement. She leaned back again and checked the clock. <Twelve thirty. Goddess, I would be swinging through a cemetery or park on patrol right about now…> Her head shifted back to Peggy. "I am sorry that I actually surprised you by working for the unit that is to Delta Force what the Bureau is to the FBI or Justice Department."

"No you’re not," the girls snapped before chuckling over the argument. Shaw sighed and stood up. She stretched like a cat, thrusting her arms straight up, arching her back, and standing on her tiptoes to work the muscles in her lower legs. After working out the kinks in her body, Shaw looked to her classmates. "I am going out for a walk before turning in. See you in the morning."

"You’re going out like that?" Zara teasingly asked, giggling behind her hand.

Shaw gave her a faked look of annoyance. "For your information, I already have four silver daggers, three cold iron throwing spikes, and a fairy-crafted longsword on my body this instant, in addition to a full roster of magic. So I am not totally unprepared."

"If I were one of the guys, I’d ask you where you stashed all those blades," Peggy slyly hinted.

"If you were a guy, I would be a tease and tell you to use your imagination."

She, Zara, and Peggy, shared a final laugh before saying their goodnights. The priestess tied her shoes back on and headed for the door, walking out of the building that housed their apartments. She headed toward the nearby park, only three blocks away. Once she got there she stepped off the pavement and onto the grass. She closed her eyes, letting her sense of smell take in the rich bouquet of smells wafting in the summer breeze. She actually envied Oz his enhanced senses sometimes; he could sort through Goddess knew how many times the number of scents her own nose could ever process.

She stopped and looked up at the night sky. It had taken a bit of time for her to get used to the different starscape in the pocket dimension that Bangor had; it wasn’t different in terms of constellations, but it had some sense of… ‘wrongness’ to it. The young warrior put it aside and carefully knelt down on the dry grass. She said her evening devotions and asked Mielikki to watch over her friends and family back home. Once she was done, the fighter stood up and let out a sigh of contentment just for the heck of it.

So of course, it was at that moment that her empathic sense picked up a big anomaly coming inside the hundred-yard radius of her power. Shaw almost drew her sword on reflex before laughing at her own jumpiness.

<This is not Sunnydale, and everyone including myself would know if something was rotten in Bangor.>

Still, it paid to be on one’s guard. So she put her hand where Feasellityar lay and focused on the animal’s emotional signature. She knew it was probably a mammal, because it felt too ‘large’ to be a bird or rodent. And there was the fact that she felt "higher emotions" inside that mind, much like the loyalty and protectiveness Oz’s wolf had for the entire team, however primitive and uncomplicated it was compared to the human versions.

So the half-elven ranger stalked carefully, using both empathy and magesight to the height of her abilities. Finally, she found the source of the emotions and her eyes widened the slightest in surprise.

She didn’t see an animal; it was a humanoid of some sort. Not to mention that he was huge! She could tell it was a male; that much was obvious by the signals she received. Shaw removed her hand from the hilt of her sword and cast a know alignment spell. The instant it went into effect, Shaw learned two things.

First, the spell almost didn’t work, as if the male was resistant to magic somehow. The second was the reading she did get. His aura was even more brightly glowing in white and gold than Brian’s!

So he was on her side, that much reassured her. So she softly gathered herself and cleared her throat politely. The man whirled about with amazing speed for his tremendous size and again, Shaw’s instincts were to reach for the closest, longest blade available. He brought out a weapon and Shaw recognized the blue blur of a weapon.

"Cerebus!" he snapped with a strong voice.

Shaw groaned and it seemed to catch the mass of man in front of her off guard. With a bored voice borne of being inside the most heavily defended Bureau facility anywhere, she said in a bored voice, "Balder."

"Horatio," he countered, not to be denied.

"Right and I am so not a boojum," she said irritably.

He almost didn’t seem to believe her but he lowered the weapon. With the speed he had already shown her, she knew she wasn’t going to risk challenging him to a quick-draw contest anytime soon.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

Shaw’s lips curled a bit into a smile. "Do you mind if I cast a light spell to better see you in the visible spectrum? I like clearly defining the features of those I meet here." His orange-red head dipped into a quick nod but he tensed up in case she tried anything stupid. <Who, moi? > She cast the enchantment and eyed this stranger in the night with new eyes, so to speak.

What she saw set even her happily in love and firmly engaged ears aflame. The man she assumed was a Bureau Agent stood seven feet tall and probably weighed three hundred (and perhaps change) pounds of solid, rippling muscle that that had an animalistic grace to them. Add to that his dark brown hair, deep brown eyes, and the way he carried himself! The long, thin scar on his right cheek that was the only flaw in this Greek sculptor’s dream only accented what was so right about him. Of course, her hormones sarcastically added, that blinding paladin’s aura shows he’s on your side…

She shook her head to clear the uncustomary fire in her head. She never thought of any of the boys on her team like that! Then again, thinking like that about brothers would be akin to incest. But still, the man before her didn’t have a ring…

<But you dooooo!> She sighed and banished any possible fantasies before they could begin. She tried painted on a professional face and looked directly at the puzzled Agent. "Shaw Hunter, Section Seven Covert Operations."

"Section Seven?" he said in a bass voice that reminded Shaw of low rumbles of thunder. "Haven’t heard of that team."

Now it was Shaw who became puzzled; most of the Bureau knew who or what Section Seven was, at least in the basic sense. But she maintained enough presence of mind between that confusion over his ignorance and her own, ahem, professional interest in his anatomy to explain.

"Section Seven deals with the paranormal like the Bureau, only where you equate with the Justice Department, the Section equates with the CIA, Delta Force, or other Special Forces units. But like the Bureau, we have all types." She grinned. "For example, I’m just your friendly neighborhood half-elven warrior shaman daughter of an SAS Lieutenant and MI6 Agent."

His eyes perked up at the description of the Section’s status as well as the official line about her parents. He seemed to respect that. He nodded his head regally and introduced himself. "Special Agent Ken Sanders, formerly Lieutenant Colonel Kensington Sanders, United States Marine Corps."

"Good taste in military service," Shaw said with a smile. She knew of the rivalry between Marines, Green Berets, and Navy personnel, so she didn’t mention that her "boss" was a former Green Beret in his own right. "Pleased to meet you, Agent Sanders."

"And you, Cad…" His eyes furrowed again.

So, she gave a hasty explanation as to her decision to take the course after more than one attempt on the part of illegal government units to shanghai her for dissection, interrogation, or to recruit her with less pleasant blackmail methods. He seemed to understand her professional and personal reasons for taking the Bureau’s course and wished her luck when she went through Hell House.

That raised an eyebrow; what had it been like for him? But she didn’t ask. Sometimes the memories were less than pleasant or, like Zara’s grand first appearance on Bureau radar, totally laughable.

She started to leave and he cleared his throat this time. She turned back. "Yes, Agent Sanders?"

"I was just wondering why you’re walking around in the middle of the night dressed like that?"

She just couldn’t resist such an opening. So she folded her arms under her chest and struck a pose that she had of course copied from Faith. "Sometimes, a girl has to go that extra mile to get the vampires to come to her. How else do we make our jobs easier?"

His eyes expanded as he realized her tactic, but the joke was apparently dryer than Giles’ sense of humor, at least to him. So she told him the truth. "Some cadets and I were out tonight. I am used to being up late on patrols and vampire hunts, so I decided to get some fresh air and get a small taste of nature while I still can before class tomorrow."

He actually seemed like he understood her sentiment perfectly! He gave her a congenial nod and the touch of a small smile. "Well then, good night, Miss Hunter. Take care."

"Why? When we have such obviously strong Agents… watching my back?"

She just turned around and walked away, grinning like mad at the confused look on his face over her teasing. <Besides, who needs guns when he could rip a vampire in half with his bare hands?!?>

As she strode toward the apartments, her heels clacking on the sidewalk in a steady rhythm, her own observation brought up something she had to actually stop and think about, turning around and looking back at the park.

<If that is what he is like in human form… by My Lady, what Goddess blasted size is he in were form?!?>

*****

Special Agent Ken Sanders considered the strange yet friendly encounter with the half-elf girl, most of all that strange comment about watching her back and the weird smile she’d given him as she turned away. From his previous assignment, Sanders recognized the ring on her left ring finger as a sign of marriage or commitment, but the girl had not acted like she was involved.

Or perhaps it was more of that strange humor that came with the process. Of course, there were still things he was getting used to, especially after returning from…

Sanders’ eyes narrowed and he wondered. Where had he returned from? He put it aside, as Director Gordon and the people getting him used to being back with the Bureau directed him. One day at a time, which was how he took everything.

He put his .44 Magnum away and was glad he hadn’t pulled out the Thompson hidden behind his back. That might have frightened that small girl. Then again, if she was part of a unit like the Bureau, it might not.

So Ken Sanders shoved the encounter aside and headed to his quarters. After all, he had a martial arts class to observe tomorrow and possibly humble the cadets like he’d been humbled years ago.

<Now I see why Tunafish was wary of Katrina and I. They were right; we were full of ourselves. Well, now it is my turn to help them realize how hot stuff they really are.>

All part of the service of being a guardian of the human race.

*****

"Moonrunner. Worthington. Hunter. Starsmore. Wilder. MacDonald."

Shaw perked up at Professor Cheng calling her name, as did the cadets whose names had accompanied hers. As they stood at a rough approximation of attention, the Professor solidly said, "Today, you kids will have your own special, personal instructor for our first hour and a half. You’re going to get to strut your so-called ‘stuff’ in front of him with each other and then you’ll get to try it on him."

The Korean-American former SWAT officer and telepath didn’t keep up the drill sergeant routine, though. He clasped his hands together behind his back and kindly said, "This isn’t to embarrass you or deflate your egos. This is to let you face someone with an unconventional style of fighting, and see how his observations might point out holes in your skills. Like the old saying goes; you never stop learning." Professor Cheng then focused on her and Arikars. "Moonrunner, Hunter, your other Professors have noticed some… tensions between the two of you. Instead of settling it between yourselves, you’ve been letting it stew for four weeks. So you get to spar with each other and work it out. Understood?"

Arikars didn’t seem to like the idea but kept his temper. He just glanced distastefully at her and said, "Understood."

Shaw narrowed her eyes at the terse response. So she decided to make up for it. Shaw faced him, respectfully nodded, and replied, "I understand, sensei."

The Professor seemed intrigued by her use of the formal title but just tersely nodded. His point had been made.

Shaw did wonder why he’d hinted that the blame for her and Arikars’ lack of respect for each other was equal. She thought about it and she did have to admit to herself that she did put the man down in her own mind, because of his treatment of her. So she decided to try and respect the elven fighter for his skills and let the rest of the chips fall where they may. If he still had problems with her in any way, then it would be his problem, not theirs combined.

Professor Cheng stepped to the center of the room and said, "Agent Sanders, if you’d come in, please?"

Shaw’s eyes snapped more open as the door opened and Kensington Sanders marched into the gymnasium, dressed in an olive green t-shirt, dark green shorts, and looking very, very dangerous in this good light. The murmurs started rippling through the students and the general consensus amongst some of her classmates was best described by Zara’s whispered commentary.

"Hell-O, salty, sugary, chocolaty goodness!"

Shaw was as surprised as Zara must have been when Agent Sanders looked directly at her. <He heard that?> That only cemented her assumption that the Agent was a lycanthrope; they often possessed superhuman senses. She felt the animal emotions inside of him, just as she’d felt them last night. But she knew better than to try and guess what "species" his "beast" might be. <As lawful and good as he is, that is all that should matter.>

Agent Sanders stopped peering at the blushing Zara and Shaw could feel the traces of pheromones that were searching for ways through her shields begin to diminish. Funny, she’d thought that they’d increase. <I am just lucky I decided not to take chances with my shields…> The Agent glanced at the other students before settling his brown eyes on her. She saw the recognition but he didn’t overtly acknowledge her. Professor Cheng said, "All right, cadets, break into your assigned groups." He glanced at Sanders and chuckled, "Don’t hurt them too much. We’re understaffed."

Sanders seemed to get the joke and nodded. "I won’t bite."

Shaw moved over to the portion of the gymnasium where Agent Sanders headed. He stopped on one of the sparring mats and stood there, patiently waiting. As the six students clustered near that mat, they all started to remove their warm up gear and shoes. Shaw took off the pink, oversized dancers’ sweatshirt she wore as well as her sweatpants. She stepped over to the mat along with the other students who formed a circle around him and waited for him to start their lessons.

The behemoth of a man looked around him and politely said, "As you heard Professor Cheng say, I’m Special Agent Ken Sanders. Despite anything he might have said, I’ll play fair with you for this class. Now, I know your names but not the faces that go with them. So let me know who you are and we’ll get started."

They said their names in order, starting with Peggy to her immediate left. Each of the cadets used that word as a title, since Sanders was a full accredited Agent of the Bureau. The exceptions were Sebastian and Arikars, who put the honorific "Sir" in between cadet and their names, as was their right as Seelie Knights. Since Shaw had the "distinction" of going last, she gave her position as their honorary instructor had told her to.

Hoping it didn’t end up making her look like an egomaniac, the half-elf crisply said, "Shawukay Madison Hunter, member of the Slayerettes, Section Seven Covert Operations."

That brought out an involuntary snort from Arikars, which drew the full, undivided attention of the humungous ex-Marine. "Do you find something amusing, Cadet Moonrunner?"

He didn’t say no, because that would be a lie, and lying was beneath a Knight of the Seelie Court. So Arikars was caught between a rock and a Hard Bodied Agent. But just as quickly, Sanders backed off and said, "I am told that two of you have some kind of problems with each other. So let’s get that worked out right now, so that the two of you can start cooperating and stop detracting from the combined efforts of you and your classmates."

Shaw took the rebuke with good grace and wondered how Arikars would deal with the lecture.

"Now," Sanders said with a tone of authority, "you two line up."

Shaw moved onto the mat, her bare feet sinking into the covered foam. She wore a black Reebok sports bra and royal blue spandex tights, while Arikars had on a tank top and pair of loose cotton running shorts. His curly blonde hair was loose and fell around his Sidhe face like a waterfall in sunlight. His eyes looked disdainfully at her and she supposed that with any other person, likely Zara or Faith, this might lead to a joke about getting hot and sweaty together.

<Sorry, but the effect is ruined by you, Arikars.>

Sanders stood at their side and eyed both of them with a look of caution. "Do you two have anything to say before we begin? It would be better if you two don’t let your emotions take control during your sparring."

She looked Arikars in the eyes, allowing him to speak first. The elf’s slitted green eyes gleamed with feelings that were less than warm and fuzzy. "You are a half-elf. You are an abomination that does not deserve to be amongst normal people."

<Well, that was certainly subtle.> She’d heard it all before. At least Arikars wasn’t cursing, although you could not tell by the reaction of her friends. The fighter mage growled, "The only way for Sidhe to breed with a mortal partner is through the vilest of life stealing magics." He paused for effect. "Unseelie magics."

Shaw almost stepped back at the words this time. So that was the reason for his feelings. She saw the anger in Arikars’ eyes at the supposed way she had been born. <Well, time for me to burst his little bubble.>

"Perhaps that is how a child is born to humans and Tuatha du Danaan," she informed her hostile sparring partner, "but for the Tel’Quessir, like my mother, half-elves are actually quite common where I come from."

The elven male’s face went blank with surprise at the announcement, so she pressed her advantage. "Tel’Quessir not only can freely reproduce with humans, they can also reproduce with Tuatha du Danaan, or so I am told. So unless you consider the thirteen years I spent as a vampire-hunting vigilante, I am not the abomination you seem to think I am, never mind that you did not know anything about me at all. So you have no right, to coin a human phrase, to have the sins of the father fall onto the daughter. So whatever issues you have with those of half-elven blood, they probably do not apply to me. So my advice to you is… get over it."

The Sidhe’s eyes narrowed to dangerous slits at her telling him to "get over it." His fingers curled into fists and he said, "You were not born of foul enchantments?"

"Not unless you consider sex to be a foul magic," Shaw said from her relaxed stance. "My parents met, married, and bore two daughters in the natural course of things. Besides, a daughter of the House of Redstar would never channel Unseelie magics, at least not willingly." <After all, it is a moonblade thing.>

She left her portion of the debate there, for Arikars to chew on as he would. She looked to Sanders and said, "I am ready to begin, sir."

Sanders stood straight and asked, "You don’t have anything to say to him?"

"No, I have simply doubted his skills, not his devotion to duty. I will let his abilities speak for themselves and decide then if an apology is warranted."

She knew that might not go over well with her instructor or Arikars, but this was the time and place to find out just how skilled everyone was.

"I see," Sanders muttered. He looked at her opponent and asked, "Are you ready, Cadet?"

The elf stared at her, his view of her probably ripped to shreds by her admission. She wondered if he thought she was lying or if he was reflecting on her judgment of her. Either way, she now found that she didn’t care so much about his opinion. It just didn’t matter as much as working against the Darkness did.

"I am ready," he eventually growled out.

Sanders nodded and stepped back to act as referee. Arikars took a Sidhe fighting stance and said, "If I was wrong about you, let us see if you can fight as well as you debate."

Shaw smirked at his attitude. "Perhaps another time, we might cross practice blades, but for now I will settle for showing you a thing or two about hand-to-hand expertise. So please, bring it on."

The warrior-mage struck with that, throwing a right cross with very impressive speed. Shaw was faster still. She thrust her left arm up, her hand flattened out. As she blocked the blow, the Slayerette executed a side front kick as her counterattack. Instead of trying to strike his jaw with her heel, as she would a vampire or demon, Shaw let the flat of her foot smack him in the chest. It might leave a small bruise, but it wouldn’t do any real harm. Of course, her metahuman strength still enabled her to send her sparring partner flying five feet through the air before he landed with a muffled "Thump!"

Shaw resumed her favored defensive stance, waiting to see how Arikars would react. She had to give him credit though; he didn’t sit on his butt and gape at her. He rolled backward to gain distance and bounced onto his feet, settling into the same stance he’d used before. His eyes were wide with astonishment, so she knew she’d made an impression on him.

"How…" he stammered, losing a bit of his superior airs.

<Did I just knock you on your ass?> she finished the thought probably running through his head. Verbally, she answered, "I have good teachers."

Breathing hard through his nose, Arikars snarled, "I have been the student of the finest warriors Elfhame Avalon has to offer!"

She didn’t bother commenting on his claim; she believed it. Instead, the battle-ready half-elf inquired, "Are we to continue, Agent Sanders?"

Sanders looked between them and saw the tension still between them. The monster of a man nodded. "Again. Moonrunner, you’re the attacker."

Arikars smoothed out his clothes and prepared to launch his new assault. His eyes became cold and calculating as he deliberated what move to use. Shaw readied herself for his attack.

Arikars’ right leg snaked out at her stomach. Again, the move was virtually perfect in form, force, and overall execution. But as with their first exchange, Shaw’s reflexes automatically reacted with a proper countermove.

Instead of the Shao Lin routine she’d used before, this time Shaw responded with a Special Ops defense. She slid inside Arikars’ arc and wrapped her left arm around his lower leg, trapping the limb against her body. Her right hand snapped forward like the head of a cobra and grabbed Arikars’ Adam’s apple. As his eyes crossed in a vain attempt to view the hand holding his voice box in a grip of iron, she coldly said, "Normally, I would not grab and hold your throat like this. If you were a vampire, you would either have a blessed dagger or combat knife sticking out of your throat, or I would have ripped it out with my bare hands."

She hoped the way he reacted would be positive as far as estimating her skills. Realizing she’d won that round as well, he went limp in her grasp so she released the trapped man and backed up. Arikars seemed to see her for the first time and looked her toned body up and down. Shaw suspected he was using his magesight on her.

"You have fairy magic inside of you," he said suspiciously.

"An empowerment, courtesy of Robin Goodfellow," she replied honestly. "He gave it to me after I was nearly the cause of an invasion from Hell."

She knew that shocked the others, although Ken Sanders only seemed to raise his eyebrows at the confession. Arikars’ eyes took on a sinister light and his face became dark with hostile emotions. "A half-elf nearly caused an invasion by the hordes of Hell. Why does that not surprise me in the least?"

Now Shaw was the one whose face grew dark. She could tolerate his mistaken beliefs about the circumstances of her origins, but nobody insinuated what he was saying! <That. DOES. IT!!!>

Before anyone could react, Shaw stalked forward and closed the distance separating her and Arikars. As he tensed and opened his mouth to speak again, the ranger slapped him across the face. He staggered back a few steps until his eyes bored into hers, devoid of anything but hatred.

As she’d hoped, he charged her, all skill and discipline vanished. She waited until the last second before nimbly stepping to the side and snapping her right arm around his chest. As her greater strength brought his progress to an abrupt halt, Shaw braced her left hand against his back and lifted with as much power as she could muster.

With her empowerment, the one hundred eighty pound Arikars was not too heavy a burden. She found herself leaving the ground by a few inches, but then she laid herself and her opponent flat, perpendicular to the mat beneath them. They landed together, Shaw driving Arikars full force into the floor, so much that the mat provided no cushioning as the mage had the oxygen forcibly driven from his lungs.

Shaw could almost feel her classmates wince from the impact and she wondered if the floor underneath the mats might have been cracked. Oh well. She started to stand up but Arikars started to groan as he tried to catch his breath. <Before I let him rattle me again, I am going to try and end this!>

The frustrated Forestarm straddled him, sitting across his stomach to pin him to the floor. As his bleary eyes cleared and he started to sit up, Shaw pressed one hand across his sweaty chest, fingers splayed, and shoved him back into the prone position. She leaned forward, putting weight and fairy-enhanced power behind her muscles.

"I am only going to say this one time, and you are going to listen." She let her eyes go cold and filled with wrath, truly hoping that he would get the point that he had crossed the line. "I do not care why you hate half-elves so much, you have no right to condemn someone solely for how they were born. You call me an abomination, you dare to insinuate that I would willingly unleash demons on our world. Let me tell you the truth, Arikars Moonrunner!"

She took a breath before speaking again. She was halfway surprised that Agent Sanders and Professor Cheng had not broken things up, but she was bound and determined to lay out her argument.

Keeping her eyes on him, she growled, "I admit it, I was once a cold hearted vigilante, but that ended years ago. I have been a warrior in the cause of justice for almost my entire adult life, whether as an undercover agent, a vampire hunter, or as a member of Section Seven. I have fought vampires and demons. I have fought Black Mages and extradimensional armies. I have served as Avatar to my Goddess. I have fought in Calamdu Un Starv to have a minimal chance of rescuing my family from certain death. I have carried the Sword of St. Catherine. I have wielded two Swords of Destiny at one time. I have allowed myself to be tortured to save innocent lives. I allowed my first love to die in my arms because to save him would have violated his honor. I have been used as part of a vendetta against my betrothed, causing him pain. I have had my own blood used to open a doorway to Hell while I was helpless to stop it. And because I am so committed to the cause we both fight for, I do not know the joys of being a mother because I lost my unborn daughter because of injuries I suffered in a battle!"

She shifted and stood up, still over him and staring him down. She had a small urge to spit in his face, but she easily pushed it away. She didn’t hate him, she actually… Her dark look faded a bit, but she did give him her opinion of him.

"If you are going to have the gall to call me an abomination, then you will do it knowing what I have done. Judge me for what my experiences have been, not because you assumed I was born of dark powers. Now, you have some idea of the things I have been through. If you can ignore all that, if you can ignore the simple fact that like you and everyone else in this room, I am a warrior of the Light, simply because I am half-elven, then I pity you, Arikars. I pity you because your blindness will likely cost someone their life. You, a teammate, an innocent. I pity you because you will probably have to live with that on your conscience for eternity."

She shook her head in sadness and stepped over him. "I would hate to be you with something like that scarring your soul. Gods above know, I already have enough scars on mine."

She didn’t turn back to see his reaction, or those of her classmates. Shaw stepped off the mat, picked up her warm up clothes and shoes, and started walking to the exit. She knew that everyone was watching her, but she just didn’t care right now. She needed space and air, not sympathy.

Pushing the door open, Shaw stepped into the hallway and turned her head to and fro, trying to figure out which way to go. She settled on left. She walked through the hallways, rounding corners, until her instincts told her to just stop where she was.

Leaning against the wall, the Scooby slid downward until she was sitting on the tiles, her knees up to her chest. She dropped her clothes and just buried her head in her arms. She didn’t cry, but rather just sat there, emotionally drained. She was just so sick of when people couldn’t see past what they saw on the surface. Humans saw an elf, elves saw a human, or either saw someone who should not, in their opinion, be seen with "real" people.

That was half the reason she was taking the course, because one person who had looked at her background, her accomplishments, had saved her from who knew what fate awaited her. President Bartlett had known she wasn’t fully human but had personally done what he could for her, Oz, Faith, Alison, and Dawn. And because of what the President had done for her, she wanted to give something back, to get what official credentials she could to be a bigger part of what he represented in the fight. For someone who’d always put religion first, helping others second, and family a solid third, Shaw was experiencing something totally new and foreign to her, and was still trying to understand.

<Loyalty to a nation is so confusing at times.>

But again, like with the PDI and the Initiative, here was someone who served the American government who couldn’t reconcile the truth with his or her own preconceptions. And as she grew more and more emotionally exhausted with dealing with it, the more she wondered how else she was supposed to deal with it. <Maybe it hurts more because I have had the acceptance I have found, both from Sidhe and humans here. I just don’t know, and I am just so tired of caring about it.>

She was also increasingly certain that her reaction to Arikars’ statement was not the way she should have acted. She wondered what Steve, Buffy, and the others would say when they found out. She heard footsteps approaching but didn’t bother to look up to see who it was. She’d just take whatever medicine she had coming and deal with the consequences.

When the footsteps stopped a few feet from her, she hollowly asked, "Did I sound as high handed and self righteous as I think I did?"

"Only until you got to the part about being tortured and everything after. And between us, Professor Cheng said he couldn’t have asked you to do better than you did."

That answer in Agent Sanders’ softly booming voice completely stunned her. She raised her head and from her seated position, he looked even bigger. "You must be joking."

The giant shook his head. "Arikars is a good, caring man, and a fine fighter. He could make a great Agent with the Bureau. But he has one fatal flaw; he has problems with half-elves. Supposedly, it has something to do with the destruction of the original Elfhames Avalon and Sun-Descending, but he hasn’t been forthcoming. All we know is, he has a blind spot when it comes to all half-elves. He can work with humans or elves, but…"

Shaw now began to understand that there were deeper, more underlying reasons for his attitude and their specifically being matched up against each other. But still…

"And what is my problem?" she asked tiredly.

"According to what Professor Burton told me," Sanders rumbled, "the Psych profile from your psychiatrist in Sunnydale suggests you sometimes tolerate people’s racist attitudes toward you for too long, which can cause you to go overboard when you try to set the record straight. It says you should try nipping it in the bud rather than letting things fester, perhaps because of you being wary of your short temper."

<Do they have me pegged or what?>

She let out a tired sigh and said, "Does Professor Cheng even want me near his class at this point?"

The mass of muscle seemed to take pity on her, because he held a hand out to help her up. "He feels that if Arikars actually starts searching himself for the faults he has because of your little speech, you deserve a break. Although he did tell me to ask what kind of ‘good teachers’ you have?"

Shaw gave him a small grin and shrugged. "The usual. Immortals, Amazons, Slayers, Watchers, and ex-Green Berets, Navy SEALS, and Marine Force Recon."

Sanders seemed surprised but hid it quickly enough, his face going back to the serious expression that seemed normal for him. He said, "I’m going back to the class. Will you be all right?"

She was touched by the man’s concern and felt herself blushing a bit as she realized just how close he was. So she looked at the floor and humbly said, "As long as I don’t get suspended for my little beating of him, I will be all right. I’ll just get a shower and get ready for my next class."

He nodded and started to turn away. Her curiosity got the better of her and she said, "Agent Sanders?" He stopped and looked at her. Feeling her cheeks heat up at his attention, she softly asked, "May I ask you a personal question?"

He seemed confused but he faced her directly again, and Shaw had to fight not to make a teasing comment about his build and how it affected her. "I just wanted to know, why you are not in the field with a team at this time? You seem capable and experienced enough to be out in the field rather than living the academic life."

He looked past her for a second and Shaw knew the look of someone who was flashing through memories. He looked back at her quickly enough, his brown eyes neutral. "I was on a team, but I was killed in action. I’m… you could say I’m getting used to being alive again."

"Oh." She knew the feeling. "You died."

The big man nodded, smiling at her seeming confusion. "That’s right."

Shaw saw that he was humoring her, so she decided to do the same. She sighed with make believe relief. "It is so nice to know I’m not the only one it happens to."

He stared at her, but didn’t react otherwise. She laughed under her breath and told him, "I know how you feel, trust me. I envy that you have only gone through it once."

She stooped over to pick up her clothes and said, "Perhaps I will see you in another class?"

"Perhaps." As they started to head back toward the gym and locker rooms, he said, "Might I ask you something?" She nodded; quid pro quo and all. His eyes became puzzled about something. "What did Cadet Worthington mean when she talked about something salty, sugary, and…"

He faltered and Shaw started laughing. She couldn’t help it. But she gave him the straight answer. "In simplest terms, she finds you very attractive."

He froze in place and she stopped, wondering what prompted his surprised look. She figured he knew that many women would find him thus. Goddess, she did and she was in total love with someone else. But then, she also felt sorry for him if he didn’t realize just how many women might want to get, ahem, close to him. It would make him easy meat for a matchmaking attempt. <I hope for your sake, Agent Sanders, you never get assigned to Sunnydale.>

"She finds me attractive?" he asked, really surprised. Shaw just nodded, trying not to let any traces of humor show and failing miserably.

"Once she graduates," she teased the man, "there should be no claims of fraternization."

He got the point that she was kidding him and sighed as if he didn’t understand young people’s humor. She just smiled and started walking again. She looked over her shoulder. "Agent Sanders, I did want to ask you something else, if you do not mind."

"I don’t."

She nodded thanks. "I have worked with lycanthropes before, and I was wondering, what kind of were are you?"

"What?" He seemed completely shocked that she would ask that. But most weres preferred that it be known what species they were, so that people wouldn’t assume they were all wolves. "How did you decide that I’m a lycanthrope?"

"I am an animal empath. I can read the emotions of animals within a certain radius." He squinted at her as if this was something new. "This includes the portions of lycanthropes that most weres refer to as their ‘beasts.’ I read the animal emotions inside of you…"

He staggered back as it struck by a physical blow. His face became drawn and panic showed in his eyes. He started to retreat and Shaw felt the emotions in him again.

"Agent Sanders, is something wrong?" she asked, concern rearing itself. "I meant no offense."

He stopped and stared at her for several seconds. He then took a few deep breaths before looking at the ground. "None taken, Miss Hunter. It doesn’t matter. I’m going back to the class. Go ahead and get your shower, then head for your next class."

She nodded at the brusque order and felt a bit of sympathy for the man, for whatever had frightened him so. The idea of Kensington Sanders being afraid of anything was very, very hard to contemplate. If anything, he looked like the type to beat down anything that so much as looked cross-eyed at him.

She walked into the women’s locker room and headed toward the locker she’d used. She set her warm up clothes on the nearest bench and sat down, thinking about how she’d not only ripped apart an elven fighter mage, both physically and mentally, but now she’d gone and done something to hurt a good man who’d acted kindly toward her.

<I am not having a stellar day, am I?> she thought dismally. <I hate hurting others…>

*****

He heard the squeaking protests of equipment as it was strained by weight being inflicted upon it. It led Sanders to Gymnasium Three, where she was working out. He slowly stalked over, hoping his quiet approach would prevent any unintentional mishaps.

The sounds grew louder and the effect on his hearing was joined by the assault of scents being generated by her body and the intense exertions she was putting herself through. An ancient, primitive impulse to flee flashed through his mind but Ken Sanders just banished the irritating desire. He did know why he’d felt it, though.

Part of the girl’s unique scent was that of a predator. It brought to his mind the image, or perhaps primitive memory, of a large jungle cat. It seemed appropriate, since another part of her unique scent was that of leaves in the forest after they were assaulted by spring rains.

<Interesting.>

He still felt that annoying twinge of uncertainty because of the predatory portions of her smell, but decided that it might be enhanced by the fact that she’d been able to read that old aspect of him. She didn’t deserve his fear. Instead, he had come here to explain everything if he decided to do so. He’d been told that Hunter could be trusted with the truth.

He found her along one wall, performing a routine on the uneven bars. He stopped a respectful distance away to watch her perform. She was swinging on the upper bar, gaining momentum, swinging up and releasing the bar, flying over it back first, her legs separated, only to reach her hands out and grasp the bar with her superhuman grip so she could repeat the process.

After six repetitions, she switched maneuvers. She swung to the top of the bar and stopped, poised with her body fully extended, for about two seconds before swinging down and around again. When she reached the apex of her upswing again, Sanders took the opportunity to take in the profile she presented to him.

She wore very little in the way of clothing; she had on the same spandex bra that she’d worn in combat class earlier that day, but she’d changed into a very short pair of blue shorts that started well below her navel and barely covered any portion of her legs.

Ken moved past her clothing to the lines of the half-elf’s body. She was perfectly straight, her arms taut and legs fully extended. His eyesight, which was superhuman enough to let him read signs two hundred feet away in the dark, showed every definition of her much closer, five and a half foot frame. He easily saw the lines and definitions of her muscles, her softly pointed ears, flat stomach, jet-black hair tightly wound around her head, and the two black straps tied to her upper thighs.

In that sparse amount of time, he memorized every single aspect of her physical nature. He came to what he saw as the logical conclusion; she was the predator her scent made her out to be. She swung around again, but this time she turned around, one complete spin, shifting her grip on the bar to do so. This let on to Sanders that not only was this training and physical exercise for her, it was also an exercise in mental focus, to make her mind and body work as one.

That was something to consider. If it helped mentally and emotionally as well as physically…

Her routine shifted again; the girl pumped her legs and built up a dizzying amount of speed. She swung around three times, increasing her speed with each spin around the axis of the bar. On her fourth upswing, Hunter terminated her grip on the bar, flying outward and slightly above the level of the upper bar.

She curled her body into a ball, wrapping her arms around her legs as she rotated in two complete reverse somersaults. She began her descent and uncoiled, arching backwards one last time and reaching for the straps on her upper thighs. She landed with a loud "THUMP" and her feet seemed to literally stick to the mat, a perfect landing even to Sanders’ keen vision. But no sooner had she straightened herself then she burst into a forward flip, kicking her legs straight over her head. She did three flips altogether and upon her last landing, dropped into a split, her legs pointed forward and backward. The second she had touched the mat, her hand snapped forward. Flashing steel flew end over end and thudded into the practice dummy twelve feet away from her.

Ken squinted at the mannequin and noted the location of her strikes. <Sternum and right shoulder blade.> A normal assailant would be neutralized if he carried a weapon in that hand. "Not bad," he commented professionally.

She didn’t look in his direction; rather, the woman snorted in what he’d guessed to be disgust. "No, that is pathetic."

That was confusing. He took a second look at where the knife hilts stuck out from where the blades were embedded. "The hits are solid, so I don’t see the trouble," he admitted.

Her sour expression turned on him. "I was aiming for his heart and groin."

"Why his heart?"

She looked at him strangely. "Vampire hunter."

"And the groin?"

"To really hurt him if I missed the heart."

"Ah." That explained a lot. "I see."

Hunter leaned to her left and fell on her side. She brought her legs together, moved to a sitting position, and stood up to begin moving her upper body through various stretching exercises. "Is there something I can do for you, Agent Sanders?" she asked kindly.

He hesitated a bit and the smell of her perspiration entered his sensory input anew. It didn’t do much to change what he already got from her, but it would be slightly distracting until she bathed.

He stood up straight. "I talked with Director Gordon about your ability to sense emotions from me." She stopped her stretching and he saw the flicker of sorrow cross her face. What was she sorry about? "He told me that you have met him and worked with Bureau teams several times in the past, including some off-world missions." She smiled a bit and confirmed those reports with a simple nod. "He also said that you could be trusted with the truth."

Her eyebrows arched upward at that news. "I am sorry for upsetting you, Agent Sanders. I don’t want to invade your privacy." She looked to the side doors and her shoulders sagged. "My empathic powers are constantly engaged. I cannot turn them off; I can only adjust how intense they are at any given time."

"The Director told me that as well, Miss Hunter." He looked around because his words were only for her, not anyone else. "He gave me clearance to tell you the truth about my origins."

The young vampire hunter folded her arms and Sanders saw that she was uncertain about what she might consider invading his privacy once again. She settled on saying, "The choice is yours, Agent Sanders. If you do choose to tell me your story, then I will give you mine. Tale for tale, if that is agreeable?"

Hmmm. That was an interesting offer. The fact that he was intrigued was unusual for him. He decided to take her up on it. "Agreed," he said, offering his hand.

She briefly paused, considering the size of his massive hand. But she placed her slender fingers into his and they shook. "Very well, Agent Sanders," she said, turning and heading for the bleachers, "let us sit and be comfortable."

Seeing no reason not to follow her suggestion, Ken followed her over to the seats. Hunter picked up a towel and started to wipe off the sheen of moisture covering her body. After a few moments, she placed the towel next to her bag, sat down, and started to uncoil her hair. "Go ahead," she told him.

Sanders decided to start at what was literally his beginning. His face furrowed a bit. He wondered how this girl would take the truth. "I was not always a human being," he finally said. It seemed the easiest opening.

Her only response was to say, "Oh?"

"I was born in Africa, in the country people call Kenya. I was born to a tribe of gorillas." Now he received a genuine reaction from her; her eyebrows rose a bit. The strange thing was, Ken could not tell if it was surprise or skepticism on her part. He settled for nodding to let her see that he was being honest with her. "I was a gorilla, a young adult, when scientists took me and several other gorillas from the forests where we were born and brought us to America, to a secret research facility."

A look of dark anger passed over her pale, angular face. "I have had my own share of encounters with rogue government agencies," she replied icily. Ken noticed the way her eyes grew angry and the blue tinge of her cheeks grew darker.

That admission had been part of the news Director Gordon had given him about Hunter. He also remembered this was her main reason for taking the Academy course. He’d said, "It will give her some understanding of your origins, because she’s had dealings with groups like the one that had tested you."

"What did they do to you?" she asked, looking into his eyes.

He found actual sympathy there. A common ground in their experiences, perhaps. "The scientists were attempting to develop a serum to enhance humans, making them into what are commonly called ‘super soldiers.’ It was a secret project run by groups at the Pentagon. They needed test subjects to see if the serum was viable to test on human volunteers." He paused before moving onto the aftermath of being injected with the serum a few years ago. "Five of us were injected. After escaping from our cages, the others wanted to take the information about the serum and take the knowledge back to the forests we came from. They wanted to create more like us and try to make war on the human race. I had to kill them to stop them. They were… rogues of the tribe. And rogues of the tribe are killed."

He wondered how she would react to his description of the first moments of his evolutionary process. But she seemed to sense there was more to the story. "What happened next?"

"A fire started in the lab during the battle. I tried to escape but passed out." The smallest of rueful smiles crossed his lips. He noted how she perked up in interest in conjunction with the smile. "I woke up in an ambulance, being attended to. A Bureau Agent confiscated the vehicle and explained who he was, his undercover assignment, and everything about the Bureau’s mission."

"And here you are," she laughed easily. He was confused by her humor over this until he thought she might be comparing his recruitment to that of her classmates. He did agree that Cadet Worthington’s induction into the Bureau had been somewhat… colorful.

She did sober a bit and placed a slim white hand on his thigh. "So you were transformed from the form you were born in, into a human being, yes?"

"Yes," he confirmed softly. How would she react to the knowledge that he had once been… an animal? A beast?"

Her eyes closed halfway and she looked down at her lap. She let out a sigh and said, "So now they can do it with technology, too."

<What?> "What do you mean?" he demanded, somehow needing to have her answer that question. <But why?>

Surprise rippled across her features. "I know of other instances where natural creatures have been transformed, by magical means, into sentient beings such as humans or elves. You are simply the first person I know of who had this done to him via science rather than mystical powers."

He couldn’t believe it! There were…

"Yes, Agent Sanders," she softly whispered to him, squeezing his thigh gently, "there are others like you." She suddenly stiffened and seemed to notice how she was touching him. She blushed again and removed her hand, placing it on her own lap. "There are two cases that I know of, and I have met one of them in person. Both were… off-world, in another dimension, and both were through the use of magic by evil mages."

"More super soldiers?" he asked carefully. A tiny knot of fear rose within him, because he remembered how twisted his fellow subjects had been. What if he was the only one who had been willing to protect humans instead of…

Hunter seemed to understand his concerns, for her look of sympathy grew stronger. "Their histories begin similarly, but they diverge and grow very far apart. The first was a male, changed from his natural form and given false memories of childhood, adolescence, and an education. He was sent to seduce a rival wizard, a female. When they consummated their affections, the wizard responsible for his transformation canceled the magics, reverting him to his original body, a panther. He killed his lover and was horrified upon being changed back into a human for the second time. He fled from his creator, only to be transformed into a vampire." Her face became grim. "He is an evil terror, Agent Sanders, but it was fate or perhaps circumstance that led him to it. He was not evil from the beginning."

The fears he felt subsided a bit and curiosity beckoned him. "What about the other?"

Her face lost its hardness and transformed into a look of fondness. "Silessa," the elf fighter said with a smile. She brought her legs up and hugged them to her chest, then rested her chin on her knees. "She was used by the mage who turned her into an elf as a laboratory assistant, but without the common courtesy one should give such a helper. A Celestial disguising herself as a human warrior rescued her from her slavery. Today, she is a happy young woman with a large extended family, doing what she loves."

"What does she do?" he gladly asked her; not all with origin like his were evil.

A twisted smile crossed her face. "She is a carnival performer."

That was unexpected. "Oh."

"Those are the two I know about," she continued. Hunter shifted her legs and crossed them on the seat. She tilted her head in thought. "I do not think it mattered what their original forms were, or that each was made into sentient beings by evil mages. Their experiences eventually determined their outlooks and personalities. One is an undead horror, the other is a good person interested only in performing exotic dances while caressing snakes, for paying customers."

"And you are able to detect portions of their emotions?"

"No, I could not read anything from Silessa." She was as puzzled as he was. "Perhaps it is because your origins come from science that I am able to detect feelings from you. Of course, at the time I pretty much had my empathy on at full power." She shrugged. "I do not know; I am not reading as much from you now; it is almost like the smallest of contacts. It may be that I have to have it higher to read anything of significance."

Something from his first mission with Team Tunafish came back to him. <He said he could complete the process…> He rested his chin on his knuckles. Perhaps that explained some things. "There is a chance that I am still evolving. Someone said that the process was not complete before I died and came back to life."

The girl next to him nodded thoughtfully. "I did have my power at full intensity…" Just as quickly, the half-elf shrugged. "I do not see that it truly matters, Ag… Kensington." He was surprised by the use of his given name, but found that he liked it. "You are human now and you seem to have done well for yourself with that life."

"You consider me human, even knowing what you know?" he asked doubtfully.

"Of course," she said, sounding a bit offended that he’d doubt her. She scoffed, "I am half-human myself, yet there are those humans who only see the elf in me, while some elves see only the human side. Perhaps that is something we have in common, Kensington." Her eyes seemed to look at something far away. "You keep your origin a secret, while I keep my true nature a secret from all but my closest friends. We are part of the world, we protect it, we love it… but we are still stand apart from it."

She stood and crossed over to her bag. She rummaged through it and pulled out a bottle filled with water. "Kensington, the way I see things may differ from how others see them, I admit that. But here is what I think of your situation, given on what my own senses, physical and mystical, tell me about you."

She took a long drink and looked back at him. "When the others became human, they wished to harm other humans."

He knew she meant the other test subjects. "That is correct." He didn’t see why she’d brought that up; he’d told her already.

She walked back over to the seat and sat down next to him. Her face was thoughtful and her eyes glazed over as she replayed the events of his becoming human. "Your first thoughts were that what they planned was wrong. You took measures to stop them because you thought it was wrong. That action alone proves that you were, and are, a sentient human being."

"They were as convinced as I that their course of action was the correct one," he protested. The vivid memories of his combat with his fellow subjects returned too clearly for comfort. "And despite my regrets over killing them, it was necessary to protect those they wished to harm."

"Thus proving my point that you are sentient and a human being."

He couldn’t believe it was that simple. He tried to explain that to her by saying, "I acted as my instincts demanded, Ms. Hunter."

Her posture became straight and she looked triumphant. "No, Kensington," she said firmly, raising her chin. "You acted as your conscience demanded."

He tried to argue but she gave him no chance. "You said it yourself; you did not want to kill them, they forced your hand. You made a deliberate choice to protect those whom you owed nothing. All living things have instincts, many have emotions. But rational thoughts, deliberate choices and actions, and possession of a conscience, are another matter entirely."

When she put it that way, he could find no fault in her logic, but it was much to think about. The woman offered him the water bottle but he declined. She put it down and folded her bare arms. "Kensington, as someone who has lived five and a half decades and traveled between worlds, I have seen many things upon which to draw my conclusions on various matters. But one thing that I myself, someone who is the child of two distinct races, am living proof of… is that one need not be what one classifies as ‘fully’ human… to have the quality of humanity. And given my ability to see what kind of person one is, I know you have more than enough humanity for three people."

He was willing to accept that much; many at the Bureau found his Kirilian reading, pure white, to be unexplainable due to the fact that the reading was almost exclusively reserved for holy relics or divine beings such as angels. It was almost never seen in a person. How had Director Gordon put it? <I am almost ‘fanatically’ good?>

That did settle the question as to whether he was good or evil, but knowing about the elf girl who’d once been an animal gave him the peace that came from being certain that he was not alone in being what humans considered "good."

"You have given me much to consider," he admitted. But he stood up and confusion still reared itself in his mind. "But there is the undeniable fact that I am still evolving. I am not completely through the transformation into a human being."

The woman snorted in disdain and he turned on her, unable to believe she was making light of this. He felt the beginnings of emotional hurt in his heart because of her sudden shift in attitude. She walked up to him and stared at his face despite her smaller stature.

He saw the determination in her almond-shaped eyes. "Kensington, what if I told you there was a way that I could show you that you are undeniably human, and a sentient being? What if I had a way to lay your doubts to rest?"

Ken Sanders just stared at her in disbelief. He knew much about magic and science, because of his Bureau training. But this was something that was beyond anything he’d seen in the Academy or with Tunafish. "You can do this?" he asked. He regretted that he doubted her abilities; she did not seem the kind to make idle boasts.

"Possibly," she said, her face softening a bit. Perhaps she saw how his doubts affected him. "If you are willing, I can make the attempt."

He didn’t have to think about it for very long. He agreed heartily.

"All right," she said simply, as if that was all there was to it. She turned around and walked over to her bag. She picked it up and said over her shoulder, "Do you know where the sauna is?" He answered in the affirmative. "Good. Meet me there in one hour."

At the sauna? "Why there?" he asked, scratching his armpit.

She turned and looked at him, a bit of humor lighting up her countenance. "Because the Bureau do not have a sweat lodge here, that is why."

She spun and left the gymnasium, leaving him to puzzle that one out on his own.

*****

Sanders walked into the small room adjacent to the door leading into the sauna. He had stripped off all his clothing in exchange for a pair of trunks like those cadets wore for swimming, a required course at the Academy. He listened with his superb hearing and heard someone in the sauna itself. His olfactory abilities picked up the scent of herbs and plants of a nature unknown to him.

<What is she doing?> he wondered. He started for the door and reached out with one of his powerful hands, but the door pushed open before he could grasp it. He retracted his hand as Hunter stepped out amidst a cloud of steam.

She had also changed, but where he was only wearing a pair of red swim trunks, her suit was made of bright silver and covered her entire upper body, save for her head and arms. She stopped and stared at him for a few seconds before she blushed and his nose picked up the scent that hinted at interest… He put away the thought; she was attached to someone.

"Kensington," she said softly, averting her eyes. She gathered herself admirably and folded her arms. "Are you ready?"

"I am," he confirmed, although he still wondered exactly what she was going to do.

"Then step inside." She opened the door and stepped aside to let him enter. "Please do not knock over the ingredients. They are both rare and expensive. I was lucky that they had some here at the Academy."

The Bureau Agent stepped inside and was instantly struck by the blast of dry heat that permeated the room. He breathed the scents in to get used to them and turned to see his companion closing the door behind her. She pointed at one of the benches, indicating where he should sit. He obeyed and sat down in an Indian-style fashion.

She stepped backward onto the bench opposite him and sat down in the same manner. She settled her hands on her knees and closed her eyes. "Kensington," she said with a calm voice, not looking to him, "close your eyes and try to clear your mind."

"Clear my mind?"

"Yes." She took in a series of deep breaths. "You took classes on how to control your breathing to help you focus, yes?" He answered that he had. "This is the opposite. Control your breathing, but do not focus on any one thought. Let your thoughts wander until I tell you what to think of."

"Very well." It sounded easy enough. He began to measure the rhythm of his breaths and began to let the thoughts, mostly doubts and uncertainties about whatever was going to happen, flutter away over the course of a few minutes.

When his mind began to wander a bit into a dream state, Hunter’s voice whispered through the fog of his brain. "Now, think of the place where you were most at peace, were most content. Think of it and try to take yourself there again."

He tried to think of anywhere he’d felt at peace. His human existence had hardly been peaceful, even in the time since he’d returned. But there was something, a fuzzy, dim memory, which beckoned to him. Lacking any other choices, he went in that direction. He went deeper and deeper in search of that memory, trying to make it stronger, clearer. As he did so, he was barely aware of the low, deep chant of Hunter’s voice echoing above the level of his consciousness.

The dim light brightened gradually, beckoning him like the sense of duty he had to the human race when offered to defend it. He gladly raced deeper into the recesses of his mind, flying headlong into the light. The light grew stronger and finally…

It enveloped him.

He was shrouded in blinding, pure light for what seemed to be infinity, until it faded and Sanders found himself standing in…

His jaw dropped and he whirled around, staring at the trees surrounding him, mist swirling about as his legs disturbed it. He was… home. He was back in Africa, where he’d been born… as an animal. Stifling a jungle roar that was undignified in a human being, Ken turned on Hunter, who was still sitting down, her eyes shut tight. He noticed the sweat beading on her face but for some strange reason, his senses seemed less acute here. < Where are we?> "Ms. Hunter…"

"Just a moment." She let out a deep breath and stood up slowly, as if trying to concentrate. Sanders now noted the change in her clothes; instead of the silver, skintight bathing suit she’d worn in the sauna, she had on a pink sweatshirt, a pair of blue jeans, and what he knew to be slippers for some type of dancing. She stood up straight, raised her head a bit as if trying to orient herself, and then nodded in certainty.

She opened her eyes and smiled at him, but just as quickly frowned as if something were wrong. Her face involuntarily dropped and with all the speed she could muster, she groaned, closed her eyes even tighter, and whirled around to face away from him.

Concern rose up within him. He felt the need to protect her from whatever was threatening her! "Ms. Hunter, what is wrong?"

She groaned again and buried her face in her hands. "Kensington," she said through those hands, "how in Mielikki’s name could you come here like that?!?"

He looked down at his body and saw nothing wrong. "What is wrong with the way I am? You did whatever it was that brought us here. Should you not have the answers?"

A third groan, this one drawn out longer than the first two combined. Her hands dropped to her sides and she looked up at the sunny sky. "Kensington, did you study the theories of what Aborigines call the Dream Time?"

"Of course." He looked around and much of what she’d told him to do in preparation for coming to this place made much more sense! "This is the Dream Time?"

"It is like that, and in such realms reality is what you make of it." Her shoulders sagged and she looked at the ground. "So please make reality of some clothing!"

<Oh.> That was something that always confused him; humans liked to wear clothing that was provocative and appealed to the opposite gender, especially to their mates, but they were strangely hesitant to go around without coverings when not engaged in such activities. <Perhaps that is another aspect of humanity I must research.>

He pondered her words, that reality was what one made of it. So he concentrated and suddenly, Sanders found himself garbed in the jeans and t-shirt that was his customary clothing when not on duty. "I am dressed, Miss Hunter."

"Thank you!" she hissed, turning to face him and reluctantly opening her eyes. She looked him up and down and arched an eyebrow. "And somehow, I just know that Liam is going to hear about this incident and make my life miserable with jokes and sarcasm."

"Why would he do that?"

She shrugged. "He is Liam."

That answer didn’t clear up his confusion, but it seemed sufficient for her. So he focused on what they were doing in the Dream Time. "How did you accomplish this?"

Her manner loosened up a bit and became more relaxed. She shrugged and looked around. "I learned the basic elements of the ritual from a Native American shaman. We have fought together on occasion. But I had to adapt certain elements to work with my beliefs and power, so it is not as easy as it would be for him. So our time here will be somewhat limited."

She looked around and a smile came to her face. "This is where you grew up, isn’t it?"

He looked at her strangely, like she was talking about a human childhood. But he answered her truthfully. "Yes, this is where I grew up."

"It is beautiful." She started to walk toward the trees but stopped, as if she was trying to focus on something. "My apologies, Kensington. We are not here for me to explore the African wilderness."

"Then why are we here?"

"She brought you here to settle your doubts." Sanders turned at the sound of the unfamiliar voice, a dangerous growl rolling in his throat. He expected to see another human but was disappointed at his expectations not being met. What he saw, instead of another human, was a large, mature gorilla, a bull male, lumbering toward them. The gorilla opened his mouth but instead of an animal’s calls, he spoke in the manner of a human! "I mean you no harm, Kensington. I am here because you needed me."

Hunter placed a gentle hand on Ken’s arm and slowly pushed it down to his side. He didn’t resist because he saw that the bull male did not display any aggression. He was not making the posture of attacking.

"He is here for you, Kensington." He looked down at the small woman, who stared at him firmly, yet respectfully. "But really." That tiny, crooked grin he’d come to know formed again. "James Earl Jones?"

The bull male actually chuckled. "It comes from his memories. I thought it would make me sound more authoritative, dignified…"

"Wise?" she inquired, folding her arms together and grinning.

He was quickly becoming lost. "You know him?" he asked Hunter. He sent another look at the ape and somehow recognized a… connection between them. What he had once been, and what he was now.

"No." She took a breath and turned her head just a bit to look up at his face. "When you studied at the Academy, did you cover the concept of totem animals or spirit guides in Spiritual Studies?"

"Yes, a bit. It is the phenomenon of sentient beings having guides or mentors of a spiritual nature in various manifestations of the spirit world, or in dreamscapes. What does this have to do with our journey here?"

To his surprise, his companion sighed and shook her head in exasperation. She turned around and reached an arm up, bent at the elbow and with her forearm parallel to the mist covered ground. He was about to ask about her behavior when a screech from above signaled a new arrival.

He looked into the sky and saw a lithe, feathered form diving at incredible speeds, heading straight for the Hunter girl! He started to move to protect her but the bull male firmly ordered, "Look at her! She shows no fear!" He looked at the gorilla that approached him again. Ken shoved his uncertainty about this situation aside and allowed the beast to come near. The ape cocked his head, his dark eyes insulted. "A beast, am I? You should show better respect for someone like me, Kensington."

He grimaced at the rebuke, but did not know why. He focused on the diving… falcon. That was the type of bird it was. Just as it seemed like it would have no chance of avoiding a collision with the half-elf, it unfurled its wings and broke out of its dive. Instead of brutally crashing into her, the falcon gracefully landed on her outstretched arm. After gathering itself and shifting on her arm a bit, it looked at him and chirped in a female voice, "Greetings."

He returned the greeting and asked Hunter, "Who is she?"

The shaman gave her falcon a small grin as the bird preened herself. "I do not think she technically needs a name, or if any spirit guides do. But ever since we met, she has referred to herself as Yanaba." She shrugged. "I just perform the rituals, I do not control what happens."

"Ya-na-ba is your spirit guide," he guessed. While his intelligence was not as developed as his physical abilities, he was far from unintelligent. She nodded and looked over his shoulder, back to the bull male who’d greeted them first.

He turned around and the bull male chuckled again in that deep, baritone voice. "You are more rapid on the uptake than you sometimes give yourself credit for, Kensington." The gorilla paced closer and continued speaking. "And as you likely remember from your Academy training, only sentient beings have spirit guides of this nature."

"Yes." So he must be a sentient being as Hunter continuously told him.

"You are more than sentient, Kensington." The gorilla stood to his full height, towering over even his impressive frame. "You know enough about spirit guides, and feel enough of the beginnings of the connection between us, to know that what I say to you is the truth, plain and unadorned."

Ken did indeed feel the bond that this bull male shared with him. Thus he began to realize that this was his spirit guide. "What is it you wish to say to me?"

"For now, simply this." His eyes showed the wisdom that he possessed. Sanders knew that he could accept it without question. "You are human, Kensington. The level or speed of the evolutionary process is irrelevant at this point. You are a human male with all of the physical, mental, and emotional traits one associates with such." The bull male dropped to all fours and walked up to him, staring at him with intensity. "You are a human being in every sense of the word. It is time that you accepted it. And it is time that you embraced it. You have been given a special gift for reasons beyond our comprehension. It is up to you, Kensington, what you do with that gift."

The gorilla glanced at Hunter and her guide, the falcon sitting on her arm. "It nears its end, daughter of Mielikki. It is time to go back to the mortal realm. But you have done well this day, out of kindness and understanding. Thank you for bringing him."

"Thank you for coming," she countered.

His guide turned and started to walk back to the trees. Sanders started forward but his guide called back in that authoritative voice, "We will meet again, Kensington, someday. But for now, you have heard what you need to hear. You have duties to attend to. Attend them well, my brother."

And with that, he vanished into the woods. He turned around and saw Hunter stroking her own guide, who seemed anxious to be off. With a warm, content smile, she swung her arm up and the falcon became airborne, flapping its wings to gain altitude until it reached a height where she could simply glide.

"I never get tired of watching that," Hunter lamented wistfully. She faced him and he saw how fatigued she seemed in the Dream Time. He started forward but she held a hand up to forestall him. "I will be fine. But it is time to return."

"All right." He looked over his shoulder, almost imagining the bull male watching him from the woods. But he let it go and walked back to close proximity to the priestess. "I am human," he finally said, finally accepting it wholly. He wondered exactly what it would mean, though.

"Yes, you are." She reached over and patted his left hand. "You have a human mind, human emotions, a cause you believe in and fight for, and…" She paused and her friendly smile grew wider. "And you have a human soul. What more could you want?" She tilted her head and he sensed the humor as she asked, "Except for a girlfriend, that is."

He couldn’t believe she was saying this, even with the amusement! He stared at her, shocked! She seemed to realize this because she groaned and rolled her eyes. "I did not mean me!"

"Oh." That was good; she was committed to another male… another man. Besides, he felt no attraction for her because she was spoken for. He tried to get away from any openings she might take advantage of. "Shall we head back?"

She seemed to agree. She sat down again, despite the fact that he knew it was not needed. "Let us go home."

*****

Her eyes slid open, exchanging pitch-blackness for the hazy view of the sauna and Kensington Sanders, sitting there cross-legged as she was. His eyes started to flutter and she relaxed. This ritual was getting easier to perform, but it would still be some time before she got it down pat.

The massive man’s eyes came fully open and aware. He looked at her with concern. "Are you all right?"

"I am," she answered lightly. She uncrossed her legs and started to stand but felt a little weak. It had taken more out of her, transporting two people to the realm of spirit guides. She reached out and gripped the thick wood of the bench until she felt herself become steadier. "The spell is tiring, that is all. After all," she joked with a wan smile, "practice makes perfect."

He did not seem very convinced of her sincerity. The truth was, when she got back to her dorm, she would likely sleep for four or five hours straight. She released her grip and was glad to discover she could at least stand under her own power. She began negating the ingredients for the ritual and said, "You know, you could learn how to do this through lucid dreaming. That way, you could visit your spirit guide whenever you wished it."

"Perhaps," he allowed in a strangely quiet voice. She looked up from her work but saw he was deep in thought. That was a good sign. "I do indeed have a lot to consider, Miss Hunter."

"Yes. But I hope that you have at least accepted that you are stuck with us," she replied, trying not to smile too much. She was failing quite miserably.

He seemed to accept her joke and smiled himself. She felt some regrets that smiling must be something he was not quite used to. "So what happens now?"

"You mean besides me going back to my dorm and sleeping all night? That is your choice." She finished packing up her supplies and refuse before glancing at him again. "After all, I have only two weeks left before I get run through Hell House. I have to prepare for that."

"It will probably be quite difficult," he warned her.

She wondered again just what his experience had been like. But still, she scoffed that it could be worse than some of the things she’d been through. "Please! I live on a Hellmouth. That has to beat your final exam hands down."

He just smirked as if thinking, <We’ll see about that.>

She relished the challenge. She pulled the door open and started to leave. "I will see you before finals?" she asked. He was a nice man who deserved a few friends here and there.

"I think that will be a certainty."

She turned around and held the door open, watching him duck to step through the door. She smiled at the way his muscles rippled and wondered who would be the lucky woman to catch him in the future. "I look forward to it."

She heard another door open and turned around just in time to see Zara, clad in a semi-see through one-piece white swimsuit, staring at her and Agent Sanders with a wide-eyed, jealous expression. <Oh Goddess no…> She knew what must be going through Zara’s mind, given the sudden smash of pheromones against her resistance. She flushed a deep blue in the face and growled, "Zara…"

"Sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude," she said, starting to back out.

Shaw found herself moving closer to her, Sanders’ physique forgotten. She stopped, halfway between them, and shook her head. "It is not like that, I am quite happily in love with a leprechaun, and we are done anyway!"

She regained her composure and copied Giles by rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Zara, I was performing a ritual to introduce Agent Sanders to his spirit guide."

The tiefling’s face scrunched up in the cutest… She shook her head and Shaw’s suddenly cleared up significantly. "Spirit guide?" Shaw pointedly looked at the ingredients, both used and unused. Zara sniffed and her nose wrinkled. She waved a hand around and disgustedly said, "God. Is it even safe to go in there?"

"Yes," she answered sourly. Zara’s normal friendly personality started to become dominant again and she chirped, "Okay."

Shaw saw the way she looked at Agent Sanders and felt a renewed assault. <Goddess, I need to get him out of…> Or did she? She looked at the confused Agent, back at Zara, who watched her in confusion.

"Agent Sanders, how well did Zara do in class today?" Zara gave her an evil glare that promised centuries of torture for asking that question.

"Actually, she is quite far behind what I’d expect of a Bureau cadet. But she has time to improve."

"Perhaps she could… shall we say, benefit from private tutoring? Or is such a thing forbidden by the Academy?" Zara frowned at her; she didn’t like the idea of having to have a tutor in any subject. But Shaw ignored her friend and asked him, "Remember what your guide said about accepting things?"

"Yes. But what does that have to do with tutoring a cadet?"

"Consider it a way to perform your duties by helping her learn to protect herself better once she is in the field." She glanced at Zara, who was rapidly perking up and liking this idea, since she saw what Shaw was doing. "And perhaps embracing other aspects of being here at the Academy. Get to know the people."

Zara grinned and looked past her to the giant in the Speedo trunks. "I wouldn’t mind some company while I’m basting myself in the sauna. Agent?"

He seemed to realize by now that Shaw was maneuvering him, but she hoped he would see that he also had the freedom of choice. "Deliberate decisions," she whispered as lowly as she could, knowing he’d be able to hear with his greater hearing. "What else could you want? One thing could be friendship. That could lead to greater lessons."

"What?" Zara asked, knowing she was saying something.

So, to avoid any discomfort for Kensington, Shaw lied through her teeth. "It is near sundown, yes?" Zara blinked but nodded that it was. "Evening devotions. Saying prayers and giving general benedictions about what it is to be alive."

"The usual," her classmate grinned.

"The usual," she agreed. She headed for the door, to let things happen as they may. She even managed to avoid telling Zara not to get too attached to that man because she’d seen her first.

It was hard, but she managed.

*****

Sanders watched Hunter leave and couldn’t seriously think that…

"Uhm, Agent Sanders?" He looked at Cadet Worthington, who had a very interested look on her face. Like Hunter, she was very, very impressed with him. "About that tutoring? I could really use it. I pretty much suck at hand-to-hand. Would you or Professor Cheng be available for extra lessons?"

He knew for certain that the Cadet was serious about the combat training, but also hoping that he’d be the one to teach her. Again, he wondered if this was what hu… people like him and her did to find friends and people who might be more than friends.

<You have to start somewhere,> a deep, wise voice told him. He squinted and wondered if maybe there were lingering effects from the spell. But he focused on the here and now. "I have enough free time after classes to handle your training."

"Thanks. Well, you have a good night."

As she walked by to step into the sauna, he took a long look at her body. While she was attractive as far as women went, she was also young. < Then again, so are you.> This was confusing. And he felt that there was only one way he might resolve that confusion.

"Cadet Worthington?" She turned around, halfway in and letting the steam out. He wondered why he felt… nervous. "Would you like some company?"

*****

St. Wolf Residence
Sunnydale, California
5 August 2001

"St. Wolf," the Wanderer answered, picking up the private line that usually signaled something that would lead him and the rest of the Scooby Gang on some world-saving jaunt.

"Steve," Horace Gordon’s voice growled, sounding like someone chewing on pebbles, "we need to talk. Now."

Steve sat up straight and pulled the phone closer. "What happened, Horace?"

"What happened," the Director of Bureau 13 snarled so much like his father, "was the final exam at the Academy six hours ago."

<Why am I getting a sinking feeling in my stomach?> the Wanderer wondered dismally. He sighed and clicked his pen closed. So much for paperwork for the antiques shop. "Let me guess, Horace. JP’s getting on your case for losing five hundred bucks because one of my students in particular did well on her run through Hell House?"

It took exactly thirteen seconds for Horace to stop breathing hard on the other end of the line. "Get to your computer room and set up a link to me," he barked, the veneer of his self-control very, very thin at this point. "Set up the link so I can show you exactly how well she did."

He hung up before Steve could ask what had made him so angry. "Great--another disaster courtesy of my Twin Towers of Tactlessness." He got up and started walking to the computer room, where Buffy and Willow were doing computer projects regarding Sunnydale’s newest resident. Of course, given what Faith had pulled just a week and a half ago, he wondered why he’d even dared to imagine that the other half of the Sunnydale Soul Sister connection would not have anything weird happen while she was out of town…

*****

"Hey, honey, what’s up?" Buffy asked sweetly as he walked in. Her smile went south when she saw the frown on his face. "What’s wrong?"

She was suddenly all business, as was Will, although Will still had that happy glow from her and Oz’s new patrolling partner lighting up her face. She watched as he stopped at the computer and said, "Willow, open up a connection to Horace Gordon. He’s waiting on the other end."

Will nodded and her fingers flew over the keyboard. The HUD came up and Horace’s face appeared in virtual 3-D, live and in living color.

"Hi, Mr. Gordon," she said, trying to put on a cheerful face. He looked more ticked off than Steve did. <Oh crap. What happened now?>

"Hello, Buffy, Willow." Will nodded back to say, ‘hi.’ Horace folded his arms and glared down at her boyfriend. "Since I know you have patrolling to do, I’ll cut right to the chase. You remember that today was the final exam at the Academy."

"Oooo, that’s right! How’d Shaw do? Did she show up all the rookies?" Willow asked, her husky voice relaying her keen interest. Robin and Liam weren’t the only ones who’d been placing side bets on Shaw’s run through the so-called Hell House.

Willow shrank back from the really, really po’ed look on Gordon’s face over the vid connection. "Well, I was just asking…" she grumbled.

The two-star general turned his evil eyes from the little red witch onto Steve. Boy, Buffy mused, his cheeks looked sunburn red even through the computer. "Since we had over a dozen cadets at the Academy in this particular class, including Miss Hunter, we divided them into two groups. Your nature priestess was in the second group. Their particular mission was to invade Hell House, find a necromancer who was raising a zombie army, and to neutralize his army, destroy his source of fresh troops, and neutralize him, in that order."

"Shaw against zombies?" Buffy asked. Talk about luck of the draw! "Uh, Horace, you do know Shaw can do that whole turning thing, the one that pretty much does zombies and ghouls like stakes do vamps, only in bulk? We’re talking boo coup re-dead guys here."

"Trust me, there were enough zombies planned to make her turning abilities irrelevant." He lifted one hand and rubbed his face. He was almost totally out of it. "Of course it’s a simulation of sorts, our so-called ‘necromancer’ was actually a simulacrum. The zombies are real enough, but easily stopped once Professor Burton turns the house off."

"So what happened?" Steve asked, trying to get to the reason why Horace wanted to go ballistic on him. He gave Horace that grin of his, the one he gave when he was planning some kind of prank. "Did she acquit herself better than you’d hoped?"

"Oh, I suppose you could say that," he snapped. <Man,> Buffy thought, <he either needed to switch to decaf or maybe take a chill pill. Bureau 13 probably makes those, too. Magical ones.> "The mission started well enough. Ian Wilder, one of the mages we’re training right now, was in command. One thing that Shaw brought to the table was her experience working with your team; she’s as good as any of your kids in small-unit tactics. You’ve taught her well. But back to the exam." His head turned a bit, like he was reading something they couldn’t see. "The team cleared the first floor easily enough, making most of the mistakes that cadets make until they get proper field time. Shaw pointed most of them out but not all, but then those things were subtle and not worth the time. They decided to check the basement first before clearing the upper floors."

He paused and his eyes grew a little more evil. "It was in the basement where our necromancer was bringing in zombies through a conveniently placed dimensional portal."

"What’d they do?" the Immortal Slayer asked. <Did someone get hurt?>

"They cut loose a bit but the zombies just kept coming through the portal. Since both Wilder and Hunter weren’t powerful enough to negate it with their magic, they had to execute a withdrawal." His shoulders sagged a bit. "They didn’t run, not like you might think. They decided to head upstairs and find a way to catch their second wind and make the enemy come to them."

"And?" Steve pressed. Buffy sensed it too, by the way Horace was narrating; something was rotten in…well…in some small, non-descript Central or Northern European country…or something. "Horace, what happened?"

Horace’s answer was really tight and stuffy, like Giles when he started clucking his tongue. "This happened." He reached out of the field of the HUD and Buffy heard a button of some type go click. He disappeared and in his place was a DVD quality video of six guys and girls in a room.

"There’s Shaw," Willow said, pointing her finger at their slight, black-haired teammate.

<She wore her Grail armor to the final exam?> Buffy thought in surprise. She also peered to get a better look at what she was packing. She couldn’t see much, because Shaw was a whirlwind of activity, carrying her Beretta in one hand and her sword in the other while giving quick once-overs at the walls.

Shaw’s voice came out of the speaker. "This is the largest room, Ian. I cannot sense any secret doorways in or out."

"Great," a cute guy answered. That had to be Ian. <Duh.> "Okay, Peggy, raise a TK shield." A platinum blonde nodded and stared at the doorway. Her pretty face became intense with concentration. "I’ll cast a Shield spell to add to it. Zara, Sebastian, Roger, ready your weapons!"

Buffy watched as the team worked to do what they’d been told. She had to remind herself that these were rookies, because they were a little raw in the techniques. The sound of clawing at the door to the room drew her attention, as it did that of the six Bureau guys.

"They’re coming," Peggy, the telekinetic snapped, her voice strained a bit. "I could use that backup, Boss Man."

"You got it." Ian started chanting like Giles and what had to be an invisible force field was probably added to the deflector shields that Peggy had thrown up.

Buffy looked at Shaw again and saw that she’d removed one gauntlet and was casting a healing spell on the other girl, Zara. The golden glow of one of Shaw’s quick fixer spells faded and Shaw stepped back so that Zara could draw her gun.

"So do you have a plan of action, Mister Wilder?" the fancy pants guy with the upper crust voice asked. Then he pulled out a fancy looking fencing sword and held it like he was Zorro or something!

She had to give him credit, Ian didn’t mince words. "Conga Line of Death!"

Both guys started heading for the door, the not rich guy pulling out a regular looking sword. That one actually looked like it’d serve a purpose in a fight. <And what kind of idiot wears a four thousand dollar suit to a fight anyway?>

"Okay… Peggy, open the door." Buffy’s eyes opened wide as the door flung open like some poltergeist thingie and the first zombie stepped through. It was strange, this one looked almost alive.

"That one’s fresh," Willow noted. She and Steve both stared at her, eyes glaring. Willow grimaced. "Okay, maybe I’m not the best play-by-play girl."

Buffy almost missed it; Richie Rich stepped up and with a little stab, shoved his pretty sword through the zombie’s heart. Something magic must’ve happened, because the body stopped, froze, and dropped to the ground like someone had dropped a stuffed animal. But they didn’t get a rest. The next zombie walked through the door. But the second he reached his buddy, he started to trip, allowing the not rich guy to cut its head off and back up, waiting for Contestant Number Three.

The words spoken by Ian suddenly made sense. <Conga Line. Cute.>

But the situation didn’t get much better. The two guys sliced, diced, and made julienne zombies but the numbers weren’t shrinking. She was wondering if they’d have to stop the mission exam to get the kids out. But then Ian fired off a burst of magic missiles and said, "We need to find a way out of here."

"The mission’s not over," Zara said, popping a cap into a zombie’s knee, slowing him down enough for the spoiled guy to slice him in two.

"We’ll get it done, but we need a way out of here. That army’s just going to keep growing!" He looked around and his eyes settled on Shaw. "I suppose it’s too much to hope you can cast a Gate."

"You are the mage, not I," Shaw observed. She sprinted forward and into the middle of three zombies, giving the guys a break by divvying up her sword and doing the Drizzt Do’Urden routine. She flipped the doubled blades to the guys and shouted, "Magic. Do not leave home without it."

The rich one on her left muttered something in a language that explained a lot, because only elves would dress up like that for a fight. Ian cast another missile spell and said, "I’m too tapped to do a teleport."

"Then we’ll find another way out of here."

Steve leaned forward, probably wondering what the heck she was gonna pull this time. Buffy’s breath caught in her throat when Shaw pulled out the H&K 69A1 they kept in the armor… "She took it WITH her?!?" the Chosen One shouted.

"Oh my Goddess…" Willow whispered. It was not a good whisper.

That sick feeling that Steve had had when he’d walked in was contagious. Especially when Shaw reached into her pocket and said, "Ian, a Shield spell if you please."

Her teammate Ian, the guy in charge, looked at her like she was nuts. "I already have one up." He got the point real quick like when Religion Girl pulled out an incendiary shell and started praying. Buffy and Steve shared a look because they recognized the rhythm. Willow put it into words. "A shielding spell. But she’s facing the back…"

Six Scooby eyes went wide with horror, because they knew what would come next. Shaw pointed the gun at the back wall.

"What are you doing?!" Ian screeched.

"I’m making a door."

Ian raised his steel staff and uttered a quick Shield like Shaw had asked. Their pointy-eared nutjob timed it perfectly; she pulled the trigger just as she and Ian cast their spells. With a big bang worthy of Rambo blowing something up with his bow and arrow, a large explosion sounded through the speakers, making the Slayerettes cover their ears!

When the smoke cleared, Buffy, Steve, and Willow could see the sky and some Bangor buildings in the background. Shaw was the first to reach the edge and look down. "Levitate down or drop and roll, you’ll be all right." With that, she jumped off. <Easy for her to say, she’s empowered! >

Buffy hadn’t put her last thought into words because she still couldn’t speak. She couldn’t believe what that crazy ass sister of Faith’s had done! She did manage to woodenly turn her head to look at Steve, who was growing redder and redder by the second. Buffy idly mused that it probably was a good thing that her boy toy was Immortal. With all of the craziness that Shaw and Faith had put him through, he’d probably have croaked from a coronary by now if he weren’t. And this…oh yeah, this was just icing on the cake. Yep, another fine mess courtesy of our friends at the firm of Hunter and Pryce, a/k/a Disaster, Incorporated.

"Hey guys? The angle’s shifting!"

Willow’s observation drew their attention back to the mission. The last of the cadets had landed via the levitation spell, courtesy of the elf and that Ian guy probably. Peggy sagged a little bit and Buffy could relate; telekinesis took a lot out of you over the long haul. But Ian turned back to look at the house. The Slayer liked the look on his face.

"The job’s not done. We need to stop those zombies." Yep, she really liked his attitude.

"Uh oh. Zombies at twelve o’clock high," Willow said, pointing at the video. Sure enough, some of the zombies were starting to reach the wall and moaning and groaning at the guys.

"What’s the plan?" Roger asked, brandishing his sword.

"Simple. We eliminate the zombies, necromancer, and portal in one shot." The others looked at Shaw and she moved past them. She pointed at something and said, "Right there."

The other cadets looked sick! There was a way to finish their mission and they looked sick! "You can’t be serious!" Zara, the big-bosomed redhead, snapped. "Think about…"

"… finishing the mission." But she gave them that smirk she’d learned from hanging with Faith for two years. <Oh. My. Goddess. What is she…> "This is the only option we have that accomplishes all three objectives. Any questions?"

"Let’s do it." Ian pulled out his wand and the others, despite the looks of disbelief on their faces, followed their boss’s orders.

The angle shifted again and closed in on Shaw stuffing another napalm shell into her "borrowed" grenade launcher. <Note to self. Tell my honey to change the combination on the locks or get him to buy Shaw her own damn launcher!> She aimed it at the house and her action was copied by whatever options her teammates had. Realization came when the view shifted again, focusing on a window at just above ground level. One that’d lead to the basement…

"She wouldn’t…" Willow protested.

"Are you serious?" Buffy groaned. "She would."

"She did," Steve noted woodenly.

Shaw and the cadets fired. In the same instant, magic missiles, a lightning bolt, and small arms fire shattered the window and left enough space for the shell to follow them through. A couple of seconds later, the inevitable…

… Got cut off and left them staring at an understandably ticked off Horace Gordon.

"Please tell me that didn’t happen," her honey pleaded. "Please tell me she didn’t…"

"Annihilate Hell House?" Willow finished for him but Buffy really wished she hadn’t. Also, the sick look on Willow’s face did nothing to improve the situation in the least.

"I wish, Wanderer." Gordon sat down at a virtual desk and was breathing really slowly. She was going to suggest that he should do that counting to ten thing to calm himself down. <But he had plenty of chances already. I’m thinking, not gonna work.> "The debris was spread out over… fifteen hundred square meters!" he screamed. Buffy felt Willow shift and press her shivering shoulder into hers, apparently seeking the safety of Port Buffy from the gale force winds of Hurricane Horace. <Oh right!> she whined inwardly, <like being the Slayer could protect anyone from this!> Gordon’s righteous anger riff continued and derailed Buffy’s train of thought. "You didn’t tell me that little bit--that…damn it, you didn’t tell me she’d been cleared on grenade launchers! St. Wolf," he said dangerously, his veins popping out on his neck, "if it weren’t for the fact that she’d helped out one of my Agents with a personal dilemma…"

"I didn’t know she took it with her!" Steve whined in response. He gripped his brown hair with both hands causing the Immortal Slayer to really hope he wouldn’t pull it out. "I swear on everything that’s holy I’ll kill her when she gets back."

"Don’t bother," Gordon sighed. He went from ballistic to frustration in the blink of an eye. "She had a point; they had to complete the mission." His eyes went half-closed and he started twiddling his thumbs, never a good sign. "As it is, Professor Burton can’t figure out whether she should give those six honors when they graduate or strangle them. Hell, the Tech Service department is in mourning."

"Now you know how we feel having her, Faith, Liam, and Robin here all the time," Buffy offered. She felt numb but was able to process that much. <Trust me, buddy. We know how you feel…in spades!>

Steve sat down, still in a state of shock over what had happened. He started to rub his eyes. "Okay, how much is it going to cost me?"

"Are you kidding? Those three geeks you contracted to us for the summer are drooling about adding their toys when we rebuild. I figure we’ll get enough out of them to cover it. But you owe me, St. Wolf."

"And being Immortal, I’m sure you’ll find a way to collect someday."

Horace’s face became cold. "Bet on it." He jabbed his finger at some button and the vid disappeared. Buffy shared looks with Steve and Willow, who both probably wondered how the Hell they were going to fix this.

"Well, honey," the cheerful California girl said, stroking his hair and grinning, "look at the bright side."

"There’s a bright side to this?" he asked. He closed his eyes and shook his head in despair. "If so, please. Enlighten me."

"Well…" She watched Steve cross over and hit a button on the computer, which deleted the entire conversation with Horace and the video they’d just witnessed. "You’ve got until Madison Twin Number Two comes home to raz Giles about Faith taking a Potential to his Dad all the way in merry ole England. He still thinks he’s never going to live that down."

Willow giggled and Steve perked up a bit. "You’re right. There is that." He stood up straight and took her into his arms, sharing smoochies before releasing her. "I have to get ready for patrol. When we’re done, we’ll drop by Giles’ place and ask him how his Father’s holding up with the new girl."

"I love it when we have fun," Buffy sweetly said. She and Steve shared another liplock before he walked out. She glanced at Willow, whose eyes were luminous with secrecy. "Well?"

"Are you kidding?" Will had an offended look on her ‘resolve’ face. "After the way the guys have been getting on my and Oz’s case about you-know-who? Of course I shot a copy off to my laptop. Don’t worry, Buffy. It’ll make great blackmail material. Just save it for the right occasion, something blackmail worthy."

"Yeah," she drawled. "You know, Will, I really think that Gabrielle, Sonja, and Amanda will truly appreciate our genius on this one. Something tells me Christmas is gonna be really, really pricey for the boys this year. Remind me to thank Faith and Shaw when they get home, ‘kay?"

Willow grinned at her like a madwoman. "You got it, Buff."

They laughed and Willow shut down the computer. Then the two friends stood up and headed out together, both imagining the looks on Steve’s face when he found out they’d recorded what he’d hoped was never going be seen by the guys.


A Perfect Fit

Green Lawn Cemetery
Sunnydale, California
23 July 2001

"Do you smell any more of them?" Willow whispered. She dared not speak any louder for fear that the vampires’ hearing might detect their presence. Of course, she doubted that they could hear anything over their laughter, but she preferred to play it safe.

"No." Her boyfriend looked a little strange right now, but to Willow it wasn’t anything new. He shifted just a teeny bit to allow his senses a better chance to ferret out more information. "Just those four."

"Okay. So what do you think? Should I just fry them or do we wait and see if any more show up?"

When her boyfriend didn’t answer, the Wicca turned to look at him. He’d shifted back to his usual skinny self and seemed to be really thinking about it. She let a small bit of concern show on her auburn eyebrows. "Oz?"

"I don’t know," he admitted, giving the tiniest of nods towards the vamps. "Something’s off here. They’re not acting normal."

"What do you mean?"

"They’re just sitting there," he continued. With anyone else, it would have needed elaboration. But their years together had taught the Amazon redhead much about how so few words could say so much.

Willow peered back at the quartet of dead guys and wondered, "You think it’s a trap?"

"Nah," he answered. This time, he did elaborate. "They’re not tense, like they think trouble’s coming. More like they’re drunk, but I don’t smell any booze on them."

Maybe they are high on something? I know enough about you Terrans to know that such things happen here as well.

Willow’s eyes furrowed at that idea. <Vamps on drugs. So not a fun idea.> She did wonder if they should do anything; five years of knowing what happened on the Hellmouth had shown her that some soulless vamps didn’t want to end the world. Two of these looked like some of Willy’s regular customers; most of those just wanted some drinks and to play pool, and a lot of them had even been informants for the Scooby Gang. "What do you think?"

Oz’s face was its usual bland self, but she knew that only meant he was thinking even more so than usual. "It’d be nice if you had a spell to change them back to normal."

Like Spendelard’s Chaser? Etriel asked.

"What’s… come again?" the red witch asked.

Spendelard’s Chaser. It is a mid-level spell, originally created to facilitate recovery from the aftereffects of distillery sampling expeditions. Her sword’s spirit sounded so like Giles or Shaw when she talked like this.

"A hangover cure?" her guitar-playing boyfriend said, his lip twitching. Yes, he was laughing at her.

It does also have the side effect of canceling the effects of poisons in food or drink one has ingested. I think the kinds of narcotics you have on Earth would certainly qualify.

"I don’t suppose you know the words to the spell," she asked hopefully. Etriel gave her a soft laugh in return. "Oh, I get it. You think I just have a spell like that for every occasion."

It would not be the first time you rose to the occasion, Willow.

Willow felt her cheeks turn pink at the saucy way she’d said that. It had nothing to do with witchcraft, either. "Well, I don’t. Maybe we should just knock them out and stash them somewhere until they come to their senses? That way, if they’re just druggies, at least we didn’t stake them when we didn’t have to."

"Okay…but we’ll need to make it quick," Oz said.

"Etriel?"

Fighting evil was so much easier on Faerun, you know…

She rolled her eyes and covertly reached under her beige duster for the handle to her short sword. "Okay. Let’s go."

She made her way as quietly as she could, but she still heard the bushes softly rustle at her passing. Oz made his way without any sound and she felt a rare rush of envy at how easily he blended with the woods.

It is a by-product of having his wolf, Willow. Oz and his wolf half are so in accord it is unsettling at times. But unlike the cursed wolves of Toril, many werewolves here seem to be like the natural wolves of the world. They act as natural wolves do, including protecting their pack, especially their mates.

But he made it look so easy. With a sigh, she caught up to her lover and called out to the vamps. "Uh, hey guys? Whatcha doing?" <Oh, that was smooth, Willow.>

The vampires, who were telling each other lewd jokes about their sires, didn’t seem to notice. But the closer she got, the more eerie this felt. It was like they didn’t even know she and Oz were there.

You are thinking it is like watching them on television, Etriel supplied.

<I guess so.> She looked at Oz, who was sniffing around, making way sure this wasn’t an ambush of some kind. She couldn’t help but feel something was off.

This didn’t feel right.

I agree. This does feel ‘Wiggy.’ Willow cocked an eyebrow and Etriel sighed. Your Earth languages have corrupted me.

"Hey, if you’re going to learn how we do things, you gotta master the lingo," she lightly scolded her irreverent sword. "Okay, let’s get this over with." She raised her voice. "Uh, hello?"

This time, the vampires reacted. They all looked at her and Willow saw the blank looks they had on their faces, especially the glassy looks in their yellow eyes.

A red alert klaxon sounded in Willow’s mind as the vamps started to move forward. "Oz, I think it’s time we went to plan B."

"Yeah," he said, sounding far too calm considering the situation. She wasn’t fooled for a minute.

Willow brought Etriel out from under her duster, the light of the magical sword named after its hottie-spirit-in-residence betraying its special nature.

You think I am a hottie? Etriel asked, sounding really thrilled about that.

<Not now!>

Willow felt some kind of apology coming from the sword but focused on the vamps, who were now drawing weapons of their own. Oz started forward but stopped short when all four vamps brandished long Bowie-style knives that didn’t gleam in the moonlight like they should have. Willow recognized why.

"Silver," Oz said. Like she needed him to tell her that. "What do you say, Will?"

"Screw it." She shifted Etriel from a two-handed grip to her right. She pointed her off hand at the vamps and got ready to cast a mini-fireball that would take care of these four but leave them unfried. Her senses screamed at her in another way when a flare of magical energy signaled something she knew from long experience.

<Incoming!>

"OZ!" she snapped, turning to face whomever was teleporting right on top of them. "I’ve got this one!"

Oz didn’t answer with words. She knew that he was shifting into wolf form, because it was bigger and able to take more punishment than his normal body, even if the vamps were using silver daggers. She only hoped he could do enough damage without taking much in return.

The area in front of her shimmered and she found herself looking at a twenty-something guy in black leather clothes and a long black cape. Her first instinct was that it was your typical Black Mage, but something about his energy signature told her he wasn’t. He looked nice enough, at least at first glance. Nice brown hair in a decent cut, glinting brown eyes shining with amusement, and a strong, lantern jaw. But the evil that seemed to rise from him like heat from Oz’s van on a summer day ruined the image.

But to the Bad Ass Wicca, what mattered was that she hadn’t even considered the possibility of mind-controlled vamps as bait. <He had to be scrying us from afar,> Willow realized.

"Hello, Wicca," he said with a cultured voice. Willow placed the accent as German or French Lite, like the guy was really from Switzerland or maybe an immigrant’s kid. He brought his hands up and said, "I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to meet you."

Unlike this evil guy, Willow didn’t waste time with idle chatter. She tapped into the power that was her birthright and uttered a quick incantation in Celtic. Her left hand flared and a blast of pure Levin energy fired toward the dark mystic faster than the eye could follow.

The new guy uttered a hasty spell that Willow recognized as Amy’s type of magic and a clear but blurry outline surrounded him. Her Levin bolt collided against his shield and was deflected off into the distance. Willow felt some worry, mostly because she didn’t think he was a Hecatian. Something was off about this guy. But she took solace in the fact that she’d seen the way his jaw tightened and how his eyes twitched. The shield had deflected her magic, but it hadn’t been effortless.

That meant all things considered, they were probably pretty much equal. And she would bet on Oz against four mindless vamps any day. In fact, she heard a growl and smelled dust falling. Make that three vamps.

She watched as the warlock, wizard, or whatever started to chant. This time the spell was Black Magic. Capital B, capital M. He waved his hand and Willow watched as tendrils of black light formed and weaved their way toward her, winding around from behind his shield. Willow knew what this spell would do; it would suck her soul if those tendrils clamped onto her. The lamprey type mouths formed as she chanted a counter spell.

The mouths shot forward like striking rattlesnakes. Willow created her modified wall of force just in time. Instead of just deflecting the soul suckers like her opponent’s spell had, she angled the wall like the lens of Giles’ glasses. So when the mouths struck her shield, they slid along and angled back toward their creator! His eyes opened wide before the mouths collided against his shield and began draining off its energy. With a hiss, he cancelled both spells and Willow took the opportunity to fire off a quick set of magic missiles.

Five beams of eldritch energy struck the mage, causing him to stagger. But he didn’t go down, which meant he still had more than enough power to keep on fighting. Willow heard a yelp and knew that Oz had finally been hit. That made her mad.

She started chanting in Hebrew, hoping that her use of her primary language would keep the black artist from interpreting her spell until she was done. But obviously he’d been telling the truth about trying to meet her; he understood her attempt to cancel the charm spell. He started chanting in Celtic, using Wicca magic! Willow couldn’t believe it; how many styles did this guy have?!? It shouldn’t be possible, at least that she knew of!

And he was casting a Death spell! Didn’t he care about threefold rules?!? She felt angry about the lost offensive but she had to counter it. She began casting what she’d heard called a "Jump Start" spell by Bureau 13 mages. The flares of energy struck each other and simply cancelled the other. Willow couldn’t help but imagine how the Hollywood special effects guys would wet themselves over the fireworks she and this guy had created.

Willow smoothly flowed into another offensive spell and easily finished it. It was another set of magic missiles, which while not doing much damage, were easy to cast and hard to counter. The anti-Willow facing her actually smiled at her and was already going through his spell. She didn’t recognize that one; that really worried her. But there was nothing she could do.

The missiles struck his body and suddenly, he started glowing. Never a good sign. He flung his arms wide and suddenly, what had to be a dozen big silver knives formed around his glowing hands and fired toward her. Willow’s witch-green eyes went round with horror at how he’d used her own spell to fuel his return volley. Hastily, she cast an enchantment to reinforce her shield. Since her shield was strong enough to counter a fireball or lightning bolt and not buckle, she knew that mundane knives would just bounce off.

Willow, no! You are not the target! Etriel shouted to her. Willow barely heard her over the din of battle.

It wasn’t until they arced and raced by her, not even coming close, that she realized her error. The truth ripped a gasp and whimper from her throat as she remembered.

SILVER knives.

A pain-filled, piercing howl sent terror running up and down Willow’s spine as she turned her head halfway and saw the horrifying image of Oz, still in lupine form, lying on the ground with knives embedded in his body.

A dark anger rose up within her and she whirled on the caster. "You are so dead," she snarled in a way reminiscent of a wolf.

He didn’t seem worried. Maybe he was stupid. "Don’t waste your energy, my dear Wicca," he said calmly. "You know as well as I that if you so much as cast another spell at me, I will counter it and while we continue our stalemate, these little unwilling lackeys of mine will finish off your dear loup-garou. I don’t want that any more than you, but it is up to you."

Her soul was torn in two directions. Her first choice was to protect Oz, but the anger rising inside her, the aggressive side she rarely unleashed, demanded that she cast her most devastating spell to wipe the man who dared hurt her man off the face of the Hellmouth. But her mind remained in control, however tenuously.

"Why?" she asked, demanding an answer to this ambush.

"Oh no," he said, shaking his head. "I’m afraid I’m not stupid enough to explain my plan out here in the open. And while you’re asking obvious questions, your lover is bleeding to death."

Willow trembled. She knew she couldn’t take him and deal with the vampires. But there was little else she could do. She couldn’t just give up and…

He must have seen the question in her eyes, because he smiled darkly. "In another time, another place, I could see wanting to share my whole world with you, my lovely enchantress." Although she was mostly disturbed by his unwanted advances, a tiny part of her was thrilled by his interest. "Unfortunately, here and now, I want you for a very short time, after which I shall return you to your home unharmed. However, I don’t need the werewolf for my purposes. And knowing that he’d get in the way, I knew a typical villain-style frontal assault wouldn’t work. So I bided my time. Now, you have a choice to make; come with me or we can continue our eldritch combat while my unwitting assistants rip out your paramour’s throat."

Willow, do not do this, I beg you, a disembodied whisper pleaded through her.

"I can’t let Oz die," she said, as much to the voice as to herself and the mage. But the beginnings of an idea flashed through her mind. <Are you game?>

Although doubtful, a whispered, Yes, came to her. It was a slim chance, nothing more.

Willow was all too aware of the smell of blood seeping from Oz, so she narrowed her eyes. "What makes you think I’m stupid enough to trust you?"

"I didn’t say you were, Wicca." That nasty smile returned and she soooo wished she could fry his ass. "But if it makes you feel any better, I hereby swear by all the Gods and Goddesses of Magic, in all forms and schools, that I have no designs which result in either your lover’s or your death. Should I break this vow, I forfeit all the powers currently at my disposal." His eyes shone with a fervor for magic that told her he was very serious. "There. Now you, my dear, have a choice to make. Quickly."

Something about that vow made her suspicious, but the oath was one that he wouldn’t make lightly. If he killed her, he would lose his magic, enough said. She knew she shouldn’t do this, but he had her beat. Unless her hasty plan worked.

"All right," she said with a whisper, tossing aside her sword. "But save him."

The wizard or whatever he really was glanced past her and said, "Guard him." He reached into a bag at his pouch and pulled out a bottle that shouldn’t have fit in there. Willow recognized a bag of holding when she saw one. He threw the bottle to her and she caught it, only after seeing that it was plastic, like one that contained soda pop!

The asshole said, "Unlike Black Mages, I am not foolish enough to let myself be trapped in a previous century. Plastic can take a fall better than glass. Feed it to your wolf, Wicca. But do not fool yourself; it will only stop his bleeding, not heal him. I do not need my advantage over you negated."

Hatred seething through her, Willow gently rocked Oz’s furry head back and forced the sick-smelling brew down his gullet. She didn’t notice any change but somehow, she knew that lying kind of defeated what this evil guy needed from her. She threw the bottle aside and was jerked to her feet by one of the vampires. She threw a punch in his direction and was rewarded by a release.

She turned on her ambusher but he was more than ready to keep going. And it would only hurt Oz, or kill him. He reached into his pouch again and Willow tensed, waiting to see what he drew out. Her spirits sank when she saw it was a pair of black leather cuffs with a really short chain connecting them. A quick switch to the way she used her eyes to read magic showed they had some on them. She was not keen on doing what she knew he wanted her to do.

He threw them in her direction and despite her better judgment, she caught the restraints. A glance at Oz showed he was unconscious, but still breathing. He wasn’t bleeding anymore, but he was still in a bad way.

"Put the cuffs on, Wicca. That way I need not worry about you trying to cast spells at me."

For the first time, he sounded evil. But Willow just stared him down, not giving an inch. His eyes showed he wasn’t happy that she was resisting, so he started to talk. Willow knew that he’d be ordering the vamps to stab Oz.

Her jaw clenched as she grimly opened one of the cuffs. He kept his mouth open, ready to give the order as soon as she did something rash. Tears streaming down her resolve face, Willow slid the cuff on and started to pull it tight. Suddenly the thing came alive and before she could react, it was buckled tight and she stared at the warlock in anger. But he just continued to watch her, waiting for her to finish.

<Etriel, let’s hope this works,> she mumbled, fumbling with the second cuff. As she had feared, the second she closed it over her wrist, the thing animated itself and buckled tight, not enough to hurt but enough to keep her from sliding her petite wrists out without getting really bloody.

She suddenly felt the reason he’d forced her to put the cuffs on; she felt a large door being slammed shut in her mind and instinctively tried to access her witchcraft. But the connection she had to her occult powers had been cut off. But this showed the man wasn’t as smart as he thought; she still had her Amazon strength! So if she had to, she could break the chain and kick his ass the old fashioned way.

But it was best to play it straight for now, or at least make him think she was helpless. She turned and gave a hateful glare that wasn’t faked in the slightest. "Now what, jerkoff?"

His lips curled into a tight smile as he looked over her sword. She was counting on that. He offhandedly said, "Bring me her sword, Darnell."

She blinked as one of the vamps he’d put the whammy on walked over and picked up the weapon. She knew he didn’t see her crestfallen look, but it was still better than nothing. The little red witch watched as the man nodded in satisfaction but didn’t take Etriel away from the vamp. He turned to her and said, "Well, at least your sword isn’t one of those keyed to a certain person. But I have no need for it. So you can have it back when we return. Now…"

A blur of motion stopped him and Willow moaned; he saw the attack coming. The vamp charged the black-garbed guy, her sword shining even more as Etriel bellowed out as she brought the sword she lived in around to cut the guy into little pieces.

But the man who wanted her was faster still; he held a hand out and Willow felt a wave of telekinetic force shoot out and throw the vamp possessed by the spirit who loved her as much as Oz, sending her flying several feet. Willow started to move forward but the guy turned on her and hissed something in a really weird language.

A massive shock rode through her body and the smell of burning red hair was the last sensation Willow had before everything went dark.

*****

Etriel screamed, more in frustration than in physical pain. Taking over the vampire had been all too easy, but she had failed! She’d failed to save Willow from that… MAN!

She staggered to "her" feet and tried shaking off the feelings of aches and pains. <You are made of sterner stuff, damn it all!>

She pulled the blade out and in her anger, felt the strange sensation of the vampire’s "game face" coming out. She didn’t take the time to revel in the sensations of feeling something. She charged again but the mage contemptuously uttered something in what Etriel recognized from Willow’s perceptions as French. But she didn’t speak it herself, so she knew it had to be bad.

He held out a hand and fired off a lightning bolt at "her" body and barely had time to scream in frustrated rage at her failure to save her dear little witch as agony became her entire world. The sensation passed quickly enough; as the vampire’s body was destroyed, Etriel was instantaneously shunted back into the jewel that held her soul. She quickly shut out the residual messages her mind was sending to a body she no longer had.

She opened her "eyes" and looked out at the scene around her. She saw Oz was unconscious and the vampires were just standing there, looking stupid in their enchanted state. But the thing that mattered most, what she saw that almost rent her soul in two, was the sight she had tried to prevent.

The mage kidnapping her little red witch stooped over, picked up the shackled, unconscious Willow, and spoke an incantation before vanishing in a flash of black, inky light.

Etriel pounded at the prison her soul could not escape unless someone touched the blade, allowing her to possess them. The worst part was that without a body, she could not shed the tears she so desperately wanted to release. She felt as if she were falling to her knees, but rather than hopelessness, what started growing through her was a combination of desperation and resolve to save the woman she loved.

There were no words she could say that might help her, but she still said the first thing that came to mind.

Lady Artemis, please… help me save my Willow.

Etriel suddenly felt a cold chill encompass her entire being, and before she could react, she felt herself slipping away. She wailed in protest, but could do nothing as all too quickly, everything went cold, dark, and dead.

*****

"Oh my Lord," Giles whispered in horror. Somehow, he didn’t think it would do justice to the scene of carnage before him.

Oz, in full werewolf form, was lying unconscious on the ground, a dozen knife hilts sticking out of his body. The vampires that were being mind controlled by whomever had abducted Willow stood over him, armed with silver knives. Harriet and Lassie had been on the spot; the vampires were informants of theirs.

"Jenny?"

His Dark Gypsy nodded jerkily and drew her holy symbol. She told him, "I’m ready, Rupert. Cancel the charm."

Giles pulled out a couple components and began chanting a Latin incantation. The components weren’t strictly required, but they might enhance the focus of his power. He felt the mind-encompassing rush that came when he used the powers that were his birthright. His mystical might erupted from his body and struck the two vampires standing over Oz.

The two undead stiffened and suddenly came to whatever senses they possessed when not under someone’s control. He glared at them and saw the recognition in their eyes, which was promptly followed by fear.

Jenny held out her holy symbol and warned them, "Step away from him!"

"We didn’t do it!" one of them screamed in a rapidly forming panic. "We’re innocent!"

The Watcher growled, "Well, I highly doubt that, you blighter, but in this case we know you were mind controlled."

As if sensing he’d just as soon take a Ripper-like enjoyment and stake them, Jenny interrupted. "But one of our students has been kidnapped. We need information and we need it now. Tell us what you can about the man who did this!"

"What do we get out of it?" one of them stupidly asked.

Giles let about a tenth of the dreaded Ripper out to play and strike fear into the dimwits. "You mean besides not sendin’ yer bloody corpses back to Hell?"

*****

Jenny saw that the vampires realized their mistake and added some honey to the pot. "We’ll also get even with the mage who took over your minds."

She prayed that the snitches would realize this was the best deal they were going to get. She had Willow to worry about. <Goddess, what could be happening to her?>

Forcing herself to keep her mind on finding her dearest pupil, the High Priestess of Artemis said, "What happened here?"

The vampires took turns stumbling through the chain of events, beginning with the mage buying them drinks at Willy’s, to him offering them some easy money, to getting themselves placed under his power. They recalled how Willow and Oz had approached them, after recognizing them from past information exchanges. Jenny and Rupert digested everything, especially the description of the raging spell battle where the mage or warlock displayed a command of magic from more than one discipline, based on the vampires’ vague descriptions.

Having heard enough, Jenny told them to leave and knelt down over Oz, to begin healing his injuries and hopefully get more information. Rupert kept one eye on their surroundings as the vampires scampered off into the night while she performed her delicate task. She seethed with suppressed anger that she wished to unleash on the warlock.

He’d given Oz a potion that had stopped his bleeding, but had done nothing to heal the actual wounds. And the fact that the daggers were still in him… Jenny could see something dripping from one of the blades as she pulled it out. <Poison?> "Rupert, come here."

She checked the wounds again and her ears picked up the sounds of Rupert’s tweed shifting as he knelt beside her. He took the dagger from her and sniffed the blade before running a finger along the flat part of it. Her looked at her, a puzzled expression on his studious face. "Thorazine?" He must have seen her questioning glance, because he went into a short explanation. "Thorazine is used on horses, love. It’s a tranquilizer."

"And a dozen silver daggers coated with the stuff is enough to put out an empowered werewolf," Jenny said with a sour taste in her mouth. She took a second look and realized…

"None of the daggers struck a vital area," Rupert echoed her conclusion, "I’ll remove them, you heal his wounds."

They set to work and inside of ten minutes, Jenny cast the last spell she could muster until she prayed for a recharge of her priestly magic. <And with Buffy, Kendra, Faith, and Shaw out of town, our tracking and healing abilities are extremely curtailed.>

Oz began to moan and Jenny stood up to let Rupert handle him. She stalked over to the glowing sword lying next to a scattered pile of dust. Praying to the Lady Goddess that Etriel could shed additional light on their desperate situation, she gripped the ensorcelled weapon and lifted it up to her face. Jenny worriedly muttered, "Etriel?"

The spirit inside the weapon bearing her name was silent.

"Etriel," Jenny said more forcefully. She wondered if being inside the vampire when it was destroyed might have stunned her. She knew that her soul would be sent back to where it had been bound over a hundred years ago. "Etriel!"

Sickening dread knotting her stomach, Jenny begged.

"Etriel, say something!"

*****

Sunnydale National Forest
Sunnydale, California
23 July 2001

"WILLOW!!!" she screamed, her voice slicing through the darkness like a sword through zombie flesh. It took a moment for her, in her state of panic, to realize she was panting and sitting on grass.

On nearly primitive instincts, she jumped to her feet and whipped her head to and fro, trying to make sense of her new surroundings.

Finally she became conscious of the fact that she was actually breathing, and not to mention…

<Fully dressed? And in EARTH clothing?!?>

She looked down at the outfit she wore. It was simple yet functional; hiking boots, blue jeans, and what some people called a muscle t-shirt. It was snug against her body, which was as muscular as her own human body had been when she was alive. She brought her head up and brushed a few strands of hair out of her face and tried to determine her location.

The warrior scanned her surroundings and recognized the place; the sacred grove used by the Amazons for their most intimate rituals. Slowly, trying to become accustomed to her current host, she rose and staggered over to the stone altar blessed by Jenny Calendar three years ago.

She stumbled a little, as if this body hadn’t been used to walking for quite some time. But she asserted her will and soon enough, she walked almost as gracefully as Willow or Cordelia might. She made it to the altar and looked down, because she knew the Amazons magically kept the slight depression in the top filled with fresh water for scrying and other purposes.

Deep green eyes framed by dark red hair went wide with shock as they stared into a reflection unseen in more than ten decades.

Etriel staggered back, trying to make sense of seeing the reflection of her own face at the time of her death. She was in her own body again! "H-how…" the normally stoic warrior asked the night air. The Faerunian gathered her self-respect and stood up straight, despite her immense state of confusion. "How is this possible?"

"You asked for my help," came a husky female voice filled with Power.

Etriel had heard the voice before; she had held short talks with its owner. She whirled about and standing before her, dressed in her customary leather hunting garb, was the Lady Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and Moon of the Greek Pantheon of Terra.

Understanding dawned as to what had happened, if not exactly why. Etriel bowed before the Goddess she found herself liking more day by day and respectfully asked, "My Lady, you have restored me to life?"

She waited through five seconds of silence until the Goddess’ hand lay on her left shoulder. "Etriel, you called to me to help you save Willow. You called to me and I have finally been allowed to answer."

<Been allowed…> Etriel raised her head and stared into the Goddess’ timeless eyes. She felt tears beginning to sting her eyes and rejoiced. I’m alive again! I can save my dear Willow!

"Stand," Artemis commanded her and she obeyed, albeit filled with wonder. The Goddess’ eyes flashed and She said, "You have called to me, Etriel, Sword Sister to my Wicca Princess." She dispensed with the formality and said, "You know what I will ask of you, Etriel. I have a fix on Willow’s location. I task you to rescue the woman we both love, you as a beloved and I as a daughter. But afterwards, what you do with my gift is yours to choose, to do as you will. While I would hope you would join the battle alongside my Amazons, you have also the right to live a normal life."

"Lady Goddess, as your Warrior Princess might say, I would not know a ‘normal life,’ if it came and bit me on the ass," Etriel observed, her jaw setting with determination.

Artemis smiled. "Then you accept this responsibility?"

Etriel raised her chin and stared directly into the eyes of the Goddess who she stood almost eye-to-eye with.

"With all my heart. I will fulfill whatever task you ask of me to the best of my abilities."

Artemis nodded. She laid her hands over the warrior’s eyes and Etriel felt power, the likes of which she’d never experienced, except with Celcia, gathering in the sacred ground around her.

"Etriel of Waterdeep, for your services to the Light, both as warrior and spiritual guide, I, Artemis, Mistress of the Hunt, Daughter of Olympus, and Patron Goddess of the Amazon Nation, grant you my blessing." Etriel felt a golden light build around her body and flood her vision, cutting off her view of the Lady. As the blinding holiness overloaded her physical senses, the Scion of Zeus continued with her ritual. "I bless you and bring you into the ranks of my mortal champions, to protect and guide your sisters. From this day forth, you will be the Sword Sister and Shield Maiden of the Amazon Nation. You will give your gifts of skill and wisdom to your sisters, those who are and those yet to come."

<THE POWER!!!> her addled mind screamed. <THE LOVE!!!>

The young (again!) warrior woman staggered under the magical energies being channeled into her, but somehow managed to hold her feet. She felt as if every pore in her body was bursting with energy she could barely restrain! But just as suddenly, things began to return to normal. Slowly, she regained control of her faculties and the intense golden illumination faded from sight.

Etriel blinked on reflex. The clearing was still there and Artemis still smiled enigmatically at her, tears of joy falling from her eyes. Etriel gave her a tiny smirk. "I never knew Goddesses could cry."

"When it is appropriate, and when it is for joy," the Goddess of the Moon said as if trying to be cryptic. Her dry chuckles spoiled the effect.

"My Lady, what do I do?"

As if someone had thrown a switch, Artemis became all business. She nodded and a sheathed bastard sword appeared in Artemis’ hands. Etriel took it from her Mother and drew the blade out just enough to examine its edge. Nodding grimly, she said, "It will do."

To anyone else, that might be inadequate. But to her, it was the highest compliment one could pay a weapon. But she did look to the Lady of Olympus, one question suddenly coming to her mind. "Lady, how?"

"A parting gift from Selune," she was told. "A body, magically cloned from your original body, which is preserved in your first love’s family crypt. It was aged to the state it was about six months before you passed on, so you are still twenty-three, give or take a half year."

A rush of gratitude mixed with an ache of sadness for leaving behind her first Lady ran through Etriel’s once again beating heart. But she put it aside to focus on the present.

Saving her new beloved from the man who’d dared to strike her down was her sole priority. She gave Artemis a look, her eyes glittering like the coldest of emeralds. "I almost feel sorry for this knave when I deal with him for taking our beloved, Mother Artemis."

"Why?" the Goddess, asked, seeming as grimly amused as she felt herself.

"Because, after a hundred and fifty years of being stuck inside a rock…"

She whipped the sword out and swung it as if taking the mage’s head.

"I have issues."

*****

Outside Warehouse 7
Dock District
Sunnydale, California
Late hours
23 July 2001

Her head pounding with each pulse of her heart, Etriel scanned the area once more for any defenses that the mage might have left in place. Given her career as a warrior and subsequent stint inside a mystical blade, she knew that any proper mage’s first rule was, "Safeguard your inner sanctum."

And from Etriel’s long experience, the words "wizard" and "paranoia" usually went hand-in-glove.

There were no obvious means of security such as hired guardsmen or dogs. But it was the mystical guards that mostly concerned her. If this mage had no magics protecting his hideout, then she was a heterosexual. She grimly chuckled under her breath before turning back to her dire situation.

She lifted the binoculars Artemis had teleported from St. Wolf’s armory once more, slowly sweeping across the building. Although her pulse raced over the danger her fair Willow was likely facing, the calm, collected warrior knew that anything less than complete scrutiny would only leave her Amazon witch worse off and her, more than likely, dead.

<Well, I did handle it well enough the first time…>

As she peered at the second and third floor windows of the warehouse where Willow was being held captive, inspiration struck.

<Yes,> she thought, a hasty plan of action hatching inside her mind. <YES!>

*****

After carefully weaving her way through the abundant cover provided by shipping crates and the nighttime shadows, given the lack of floodlights for this old warehouse, Etriel scrambled up the ladder leading to the roof. She made her way to the doorway leading inside the warehouse, steadfastly avoiding the temptation to peer through the skylight and seek out her beloved. The waxing moon above her might cast her shadow into view and she was too experienced and professional to make such a costly mistake. So for the tenth or eleventh time, she locked away her personal feelings and concentrated on the task at hand.

She reached the door and stopped to take stock of the gear, both Torilian and Terran, she carried. She again marveled that her magical items had been sent by Selune for her to use again! She was almost as amazed by that as having her body back again, and she sent one final, heartfelt thank you to her former Patron, as well as to her first love’s thoughtfulness. <Thank you, Celcia.>

She checked the rings she wore, the wands purloined from the Slayerettes’ stash of magical weapons, and once again tried to get used to the sensation of wearing her old, soft soled boots of elvenkind. She was surprised to discover that she might actually prefer the hard soled Terran hiking boots she’d wore when she had awakened.

And the power at her command, so far beyond what her normal body had possessed! The only way she could describe it was, it was a perfect fit!

She shoved the uncustomary euphoria aside and held up her right hand. She reluctantly used one of the spells in her ring of spell storing. The detect magic spell placed in there by her old lover revealed what she’d expected; powerful warding glyphs and alarms that would trigger if someone touched the door knob or the door itself. So, of course, Etriel smiled at the mage’s lack of foresight.

<Idiot.>

She reached for the square wooden box secured to the space of her back between her collarbones. Setting it on the ground, Etriel pulled out the things she’d need. First came a series of long, thin tubes made of a specially glazed glass, which she interlocked with the precision of old habits. Second, the small bottle made of the same material, filled with a black, brackish liquid. Finally, the small tube with a rubber bulb at the end.

Standing by the doorway, Etriel carefully inserted the tube into the space between the magically protected door and the brick threshold. Gathering some of the liquid out of the jar, the young warrior inserted the small tube into its longer brother. She squeezed the rubber bulb softly, sending the liquid toward the bottom hinge. Her newly enhanced Amazon hearing barely detected the sizzling metal as the black dragon acid did its work. When she was confident that the acid had cut through the hinge, the woman once called by her lover the Shield Maiden of Selune repeated the procedure with the upper hinge as precious moments ticked by. She breathed a sigh of relief when the door stayed in place for the most part.

Now came the hard part.

Etriel set up a thin yet sturdy grappling hook that had personally been made for her by one of Mother’s former adventuring companions. She used the acid on the space where the lock kept the door secured. As the magically corrosive dragon’s breath essence ate through the locking mechanism, Etriel triggered another of her reserve magics. The silence spell, one commonly used by Willow’s companion Shawukay, enveloped her as the epicenter was expepertly placed three feet on the other side of the doorway, thus avoiding any triggering of the mage’s alarms. Unlike some who would be disoriented by such a sudden envelopment in pure silence, to someone who’d spent decades in a gray, shapeless void, it barely registered.

She pulled the grapple and placed it on a three-foot extension. She carefully slid it into place and pulled the door out of place, the silence spell priceless in this situation. Reacting with her new speed, the newest Amazon slipped around the other side of the door and pulled on it from what had been the inside half. As she’d figured and bet her success on, this side had no magic.

She pushed the door to the side of the entryway and laid it against the wall, taking care not to trigger any of the paralysis or madness wards. Satisfied that she could now rescue Willow, Etriel soundlessly drew her hand and a half sword and strode into the wizard’s lair.

*****

Willow struggled vainly, once again, to free her limbs from the bonds restraining her to the thin metal table that was weirdly made to cradle her body like a tracing. But as with her previous attempts, she couldn’t escape despite her Amazon strength.

The jerk came back into the room, carrying some ritual implements for whatever he had planned for her. She scanned them intently, hoping her photographic memory might determine if she’d seen the stuff before and tell her exactly what this doofus wanted.

At least it wasn’t some perverted sex-type thing, she was pretty sure of that.

As he silently began to prepare his stuff and pour potions or whatever, the Bad Ass Wicca raised her head as much as she could and scanned the floor once again. Sure enough, it didn’t bode well for her. Drawn into the concrete floor was a perfectly situated circle surrounding a pentagram. And based on what some of her lessons had said, the fact that her body was more or less "pointed" at the base, rather than the head, meant she was in store for some really black-type magic.

With some aches creeping into her neck, Willow laid her head back down and shivered. The wacko who’d brought her here had stripped her of her shirt, jeans, and boots, leaving her clad only in her undies and socks. At first she’d panicked. Immediately he’d read the fear on her face and hurriedly assured her that he hadn’t molested or raped her. Although his assurances calmed her somewhat, they still hadn’t made the metal less cold against her bare skin, and that was irritating. It was made of new metal, which showed the guy didn’t mind mixing old school magic with some tech. She had noticed that arms and legs were mobile, leaving her the impression that it was recently constructed. And this guy had placed them so her hands and feet were aligned with the appropriate points of the star.

This was so not good.

She tried wriggling again, hoping that she could slide her limbs out, but instead of using ropes or leather, the warlock had tied her knees and elbows down with some kind of elastic bindings. They stretched when she strained her muscles against them. The only place where he’d used leather was on her hands and ankles, but that didn’t do much good. At each point, stuck into the leather, there was some kind of clear crystal that the hacker just knew was the source of the jamming of her witchy powers. Her hands were also encased in some kind of stiff, rubber mitts that kept her hands flat, making sure she couldn’t make any magical gestures to break out. He hadn’t gagged her, but he had used a hairband that she could "feel" had a crystal in it. He’d placed it on her and she hadn’t been able to shake it loose when she tried upon realizing what it was. That was probably to stifle any telepathy or telekinesis she might use.

The warlock turned around and examined both her and the pentagram, leaving Willow wondering if she should be grateful or insulted that he wasn’t checking her out. He started setting up candles and stuff around the edge of the circle and she finally asked, "Okay, so I’m thinking this is where I ask you why you’re doing this? I mean, I figure it’s not a demented sex thing, because I still have some clothes on. So, what’s the sitch?"

He glanced at her and although she thought he was handsome, his eyes glittered with something not as good as desire for her body. "Very well, if it will clear up your confusion." Great, she thought with a roll of her witch-green eyes, he has a sense of humor. He strode over to her, careful not to ruin his pretty drawings. "Over a century ago, I discovered the supernatural. I saw a battle between a pair of mages and I found myself drawn by the hint of something like that. I wanted to be like them."

He reached up and ran a hand gently across her pale cheek, causing her to jerk away. "However, when I searched out a mystic so that I could ask him to teach me the black arts, he told me I had no potential for the mystical. Needless to say, I was crushed."

"Wait a minute," Willow said, her eyes narrowing. "You can’t tell me you don’t have potential. After the way you flung spells out there…"

"I don’t, my dear Wicca." His lips curled into a wistful smile. "Like any teenager, I refused to accept the mystic’s words as truth. So I did the next best thing; I set out to learn as much about the mystical as I could, so I could become a mystic. In time, I found an old Babylonian text that gave me what I needed."

A sickening realization started to form in Willow’s mind. "You steal people’s magic," she dimly said. How long had be been stealing people’s potential?!?

"Their magic and what made them capable of wielding mystical forces," he confirmed. His eyes became dreamy, like he was remembering his first spell. "I found a warlock who was terrorizing a village. I managed to subdue him and perform the ritual. I don’t think you can imagine the feelings I experienced, Wicca. The power that was finally mine to command!"

This was the first time he’d looked anything less than really calm and detached about this. But Willow could understand where he was coming from; she remembered her feelings of joy at discovering she could do things she’d only thought of as fairytales before meeting Buffy.

But anger overrode her own recollections and she struggled again, trying to use her Amazon strength to break her bindings. "So now you’re gonna steal my potential?" She growled low in her throat and spat, "How many lives have you ruined?!?"

"Surprisingly few. I do not physically harm my victims," he said with a shrug like it was no big deal! She so wished she could kick his ass! "It took me fifteen years to realize that because I didn’t have my own potential for magic, the powers and potential I drained from others slowly faded away into nothingness. So every five to ten years, I find a new source and take what I need to continue doing what I love."

"What you love?!? You’re violating people!"

Willow saw his eyes flicker with doubt about her accusations and that made it all the worse to her. She tried to curl her fingers into claws and fire a lightning bolt at that self-righteous look on his face, but the cold, smooth rubber holding her fingers splayed did their work well.

"I know you’re angry and you have a right to be." He turned away and started setting things up again. His voice was pitched so she could hear him clearly. "But don’t worry, young lady. You will still live a full life; I am only taking a part of you that I need more than you do."

"I’m sure sexual predators believe the same thing!" she spat. "What you’re doing is wrong. You’re stealing an important part of what makes a person unique and precious because you want to cheat rather than try to find your own way, just like a rapist. You’re worse, though. With them, they know they’re assaulting people, breaking the law. You try to justify it and live a lie. They’re pathetic, but you…you’re just disgusting!"

She felt a tingle of triumph when he regarded her sullenly for several moments and closed his eyes in resignation. But then, he shook his head. "You…are…right," he said quietly, "but I have done this for too long and I need to do it to survive. I am…sorry." With that, he sighed deeply and continued his preparations.

After two minutes of renewed squirming, the man chanted something that Willow thought was Sumerian, but was so not her tongue. The candles at the points of the star flared to life and Willow immediately felt a tingle that encompassed her entire being. The crystals at the five cardinal points glinted in the candlelight and Willow tried to say something, but the magical force that sent shivers through her entire petite frame kept her from speaking, probably as a safeguard to keep her from using her sorcery.

"Don’t worry," the magic vampire said, walking around the outside of the circle and probably examining his handiwork. "It will all be over in a moment."

He picked up an old book that looked like something from Giles’ collection and began speaking in the same tongue. Willow felt a yanking sensation inside her, like a hand grabbing a cord. Then with a sudden lurch that raised the tingles in her skin to soul-wrenching agony that would drive a lesser woman mad, the tugging force increased to superhuman levels.

From the depths of her soul and with all the breath she could muster, the little red witch screamed the scream of the damned.

*****

Jonah Whitestone shivered orgasmically as the connection was forged between him and this potentially supreme Wicca practitioner. This petite redheaded witch was not the most powerful mystic in Sunnydale, but her potential had drawn him like a man to a beautiful woman from a Raphael painting.

The magician had to admit, he was also attracted to the young beauty in front of him, her creamy white skin speckled with freckles in the most intriguing places, her small perfect breasts, and her incredibly muscled and flat abdomen. In addition, her fiery passion and quick intelligence surely matched her physical charms. He knew that if this one somehow retained a smidgen of her powers, he’d be looking over his shoulder for decades.

Born of the benefits of long practice, Whitestone read on. The incantation alone would take almost fifteen minutes, the entire ritual thirty or forty. This was why the negation crystals and the table came in so handy; they allowed him to conserve his energy for the ritual without distractions provided by a struggling donor.

He knew that the girl was screaming, but the pain was only sympathetic. Soon enough, it would pass and the connection between Jonah and the woman would send both of them on a wonderful ride of sheer pleasure, like being dipped in liquid magic. Jonah lamented that she would get more from it than he, because of the necessity of reading the spell of transference.

He flipped over to the next page and became so absorbed in his impending magic that he never saw the attack coming until everything was turned upside down, sideways, and inside out.

*****

Etriel triggered her borrowed wands again, sending a barrage of magic missiles streaking at the mage, followed almost immediately after by a bolt of electric fury.

They pounded into him and sent him flying across the floor. She knew the encounter wouldn’t be that easy, but interrupting the evil ceremony was her most important priority.

<First save Willow, then defeat the mage. If he escapes, we can find him another time.>

Etriel, despite having the magical potential of a rind of cheese, could somehow feel… something establish a connection between Willow and the blackheart that had dared to threaten her. With her arrival and successful drawing of first blood, the connection was suspended and she knew the mage would have to begin the entire ritual again from square one.

But just to be sure, the nascent Amazon sister used a two-step plan to really foil the best-laid plans of mice and mages.

First, she triggered the last of Celcia’s stored power from the ring of spell storing, a spell for dispelling magic. Even as she felt the magical energies being disrupted, she did the next best thing.

She kicked over one of the candles, which went rolling through the inside of the pentagram, marring the lines beyond serviceability until the mage was able to painstakingly render the drawings again.

That severed any and all preternatural hooks the wizard had managed to put into her love. The mage unleashed a scream of vengeance at the ruination of his nefarious scheme. Simultaneously, Willow’s unending screams faded to a series of whimpering sobs that tore at Etriel’s heart and made it demand vengeance.

In the seconds it took Etriel to process it all, she unleashed a third furious assault of eldritch bolts and enchanted lighting. Her attack pummeled the mage and Etriel almost allowed herself to hope that it might be an easy battle. He must have some resistance or protective charms, but they weren’t enough to withstand magic produced by one of the Seven Sisters of Faerun.

She would have laughed at her own naiveté if the man hadn’t stood up and howled in increasing fury. She gritted her teeth as he started chanting, attempting to mount his first counteroffensive to her siege.

Etriel shoved the magic missile wand into her belt and reached for the small throwing knife sheathed at the small of her back. With the smallest flick of her wrist, she sent the missile weapon flashing end over end toward the man’s heart.

The mage’s eyes betrayed his alarm as he had to dodge the knife, causing him to lose his concentration and lose whatever chance he’d had to cast that spell. As he showed surprising agility for someone who used magic for everything, rolling and coming back to his feet, the rescuer drew her sword and charged.

She hoped to be fast enough to cut the blackguard down before he could enact any further spells on her. But she instead found herself cursing the Fates when the magician instead drew Willow’s pistol!

She screamed a Waterdhavian battle cry and swung her sword with all her might. Her stroke connected with the barrel of the gun at the same instant the report heralded that he’d pulled the trigger. Etriel felt the impact, was keenly aware of the enchanted silver projectile punching through her body, and the numbing shock that came with it.

But all she cared about was the look of sheer terror in the man’s brown eyes. It was likely because he was staring at the ruined half of the pistol he still held. She brought her bastard sword up and swung, preparing to remove this wizard’s head from his body. But the slight slowing caused by the bullet wound in her left bicep allowed him to duck and roll away.

The tall, flame-haired warrior did not give into frustration; she pressed her attack on her foe. He held a hand out and shouted something in a manner of haste. Etriel was struck by a wave of solid, invisible force and sent hurtling away as if a stone giant had punched her.

Her wounded arm sent shouts of distress to her brain as she landed eight feet away. She rolled with the impact as best she could and was back to her feet with the speed of a Chultan jungle cat.

The wizard had regained control of his emotions and began weaving his hands in a complex pattern. Even to her layman’s eye, it could not be a spell that would leave her body anywhere near intact.

Without any other options, given her growing shock and the danger to the woman who meant everything to the newly resurrected fighter, Etriel used the one magical item she had sworn to her mother that she would never use unless the circumstances left her no other choice. The one thing that, had she told Celcia about it, could have allowed the heartbroken Silverstar to bring her back so long ago, but only at the cost of the most sacred beliefs of her kin.

Steeling herself for the possible consequences of the action she was about to take, should the Gods feel particularly fickle or vengeful today, Etriel of Waterdeep shouted in a cold, calm voice.

"I wish you had no magic whatsoever!"

The mage had only an instant before the building cascade of eldritch power surrounding his body abruptly vanished and a look of total dumbfounded disbelief rippled across his face.

She felt the warm sensation of her mother’s last gift to her heating up before it transformed from enchanted platinum to dust, the granules falling from her fingers in a fine mist of particles.

But her eyes remained on the sorcerer, unable to look away from the sickening transformation taking place before her.

In the span of a few, frantic heartbeats, the wizard’s body changed from that of a healthy man in his early thirties, to a shriveled invalid in the upper half of his ninth or tenth decade! His hair was sparse and yellow, his body mass had to be half of what it had been only seconds before, and his skin had more wrinkles and liver spots than fair patches. His teeth became yellow and sickly, and his brown eyes became more bloodshot than the most drunken sailor on his first night in port.

He staggered and tried to move his now-gnarled hands to cast a spell, but Etriel was not taking any chances whatsoever, not after she’d used the one wish left in her mother’s old ring to save her beautiful, sweet Willow.

Etriel stalked over to the babbling, feeble man and gave him what she personally believed to be a far too merciful end for his crimes. She covered his mouth and nose with one hand and held it there, easily ignoring his feeble struggles, until his breath ran out and he died of asphyxiation.

She gently guided the evil man’s shriveled corpse to the floor and resisted the urge to spit on his remains for the lives he’d ruined for Artemis knew how long. Instead, she closed his eyes and stood up, walking briskly to check on her fellow Amazon, hope and fear conflicting in her heart.

*****

The Torilian warrior looked down at her beloved and let out a sigh of contented relief that Willow was unharmed, at least physically. While her crimson-haired love still shivered and wept a little, she was vastly improved from her condition before she’d begun the battle. Willow sobbed quietly as she twitched her arms and legs while she attempted to regain her composure.

"Willow?" she asked carefully, hoping the Wicca’s mind was undamaged. "Willow, can you hear me?"

Willow’s eyes slowly opened and Etriel couldn’t help but reach down to wipe away her glistening tears. She seemed understandably confused and she scrunched up her nose in the cutest way. Her voice cracked as she spoke. "Et… Etriel?"

"Yes, Willow. It is I."

Willow’s eyes widened a bit and Etriel fought the urge to laugh; she knew what must be going through her mind. So she settled for removing the hair band and tossing it aside with contempt. She then gently brushed Willow’s hair with her fingers and began checking her head for any possible contusions.

"Are you all right?" she asked, hoping the answer was positive.

Willow was still shaken, given her exposure to the black arts of that wizard, but she simply stared at her, possibly still doubting her senses. "I think so. I’m still a bit wonky. But… Etriel, you…"

Inspiration struck and Etriel chuckled. One corner of her mouth quirked upward and she said, "Consider this Etriel, version 2.0."

Willow’s eyes went even wider. "WHAT?!?" she shouted before wincing at the volume. "Okay, even my toes hurt from that…"

Etriel’s smile increased a little. She began checking the rest of Willow’s body, looking to see if there were any injuries that would require first aid. Not finding any, the Amazon nodded in satisfaction and not a little bit of relief. "You do not have any injuries, my love. We can thank the Lady Goddess for that."

*****

Willow almost stiffened at Etriel’s answer. First she shows up alive and saves her from losing her magic, and now… Despite the fading aches and grogginess, Willow felt herself breaking into a smile. "You called on her?!? You’re praying to Artemis now?!?"

"I asked her to help me save you, and She answered. She brought me here to save you…"

The little red witch could see that Etriel was just as ready to cry as she wanted to kick the warlock’s ass for what he’d done. Her smile melted to concern for her and she whispered, "Hey, I’m okay, all right?" She squirmed a bit and sighed. "Or I will be as soon as you get me off this thing and into my clothes…"

The worry went away a bit and Etriel’s evergreen eyes shined with humor. "Is that really necessary to dress you so I must start from ‘square one’ to ‘get into your clothes’ so to speak?" She sighed theatrically. "You do look so divine like this, stretched out with all your wares on display for proper admiration…"

"Will you cut that out!" Willow begged, still unable to keep from giggling a little bit. "This is embarrassing!"

Despite a grin on her face, Etriel started to unbuckle the wrist restraints. "Why are you embarrassed? The Bad Ass Wicca Princess being bailed out by someone who’s been alive for a full ninety-some minutes?"

"Yes!" she snapped before seeing the blood coating her former sword’s left arm. "Etriel, you’re bleeding!"

She gave a shrug like she didn’t feel it! That sent Willow’s mind spinning; she’d been shot before and she hadn’t been so blasé about it!

"Willow, one thing you should know about human physiology." She released her right hand from the glove and Willow started clenching and unclenching her fist to get the feeling back. As the woman who made her heart ache with sadness started undoing the ropes around her elbow, she continued. "No matter what world you are from or whatever substances you hear of for enhancing one’s abilities… there is no drug like adrenaline."

"I’ll have to remember that," she said dully, swallowing at the contact and her worries about Etriel’s wounds. "But just the same, get me out of here that much quicker, so we can get to Jenny."

"All right," she said, giving her a smile that sent shivers down Willow’s spine.

*****

It only took four or five minutes to get her off of that table, but it took ten for Willow to find her clothes, get dressed, and search the dead warlock’s possessions for what marginally passed as a first aid kit. It had been then that the rescue squad of Slayerettes had shown up and stared at what Cordelia had coined the "Fitness Babe" guarding Willow, who they had thought needed to be rescued.

The warehouse was abuzz with activity as the Slayerettes (absent Steve, who along with Buffy, Faith, Kendra, and Shaw, was out of town) rifled through the warlock’s supplies and personal belongings, trying to piece together as much as they could about his methods and history. Oz had hung around Willow for several minutes until he decided that she was all right. Etriel’s heart pounded with slight jealousy over how Willow’s eyes lit up with love for the werewolf, but she buried it as always.

After hugging the little red head, Oz nodded to Willow and muttered something under his breath, too quiet for Etriel to hear or translate by reading his lips. <I am going to have to get back into practice with that,> she thought, making a mental note. But what happened next surprised her a bit; Willow’s love nodded to her and sent the closest thing to the emotion of open friendship she suspected had crossed that laconic face in quite some time.

Willow fingered through the first aid kit brought by the team and set out to properly bind the remainder of the bullet wound, given that Jenny Calendar had used most of her powers to heal the gravely wounded Oz earlier that evening.

Her tiny Wicca had just finished wrapping the gauze around her arm when their eyes met. They stared deeply into the other’s eyes for several seconds, the only two beings in their universe, before Willow averted her gaze.

Etriel reached up and cupped Willow’s chin in her hand. "Willow, please. I know that you love Oz. I will not try to take you from him. I love you too much to do anything that would hurt you or the man who makes you the person you are… the person I fell in love with."

"I know," she said, taping the gauze in place. Etriel didn’t have the heart to tell her she could pop it off with one good flex of her muscles. "It’s just, we talked about this before, maybe you getting your life back… well, it’s here now and I just thought I’d be able to figure out what I felt and just how much and… I’m going into babble mode, aren’t I?"

"It’s part of who you are," she said simply. She had an idea of how Willow felt about her, but she would never push too quickly. One thing that Earth people were somewhat hypocritical about was how love worked between men and women or otherwise. "Willow, perhaps this is not the best place to talk. I admit, I want to talk and soon. But I also want to try out my body for things other than getting shot or playing the cavalry." Willow laughed at the comment and Etriel gently stroked her cheek, making her witch green eyes, the ones she could now drown in to her heart’s content, focus on her.

She softly whispered, "I love you, Willow. I love you more than life itself." A wan smile formed on her lips. "And now that I have my life back, I can compare the two. But I will not cause conflict in your heart. Not intentionally."

"I know." Willow then surprised her. She took Etriel into a warm embrace and clung to her. "I care about you too, Etriel. And I like that feeling. I hope we can find out how far it can go."

Etriel allowed a single tear to fall from her eye as she rejoiced in that she had more than her life to look forward to. "Me too, Willow. Me too. But for now, can we just go home?"

"Sure." They reluctantly ended the embrace and Willow offered to help her, because of her wounds. Etriel knew Willow was putting up a brave front; she was still slightly wobbly and her magic was temporarily… how did she put it? <On the fritz?> She still suffered from the shock from the ritual and its abrupt termination.

Etriel still felt a bit light-headed from the shock and blood loss, but she was too giddy with delight over her situation to care. She was alive. And her love wanted to share her heart if at all possible.

Things couldn’t be better.

*****

VAN Ltd. Headquarters
Sunnydale, California
24 July 2001

Etriel sighed as she stared at her reflection in the mirror, dissatisfied with how her hair looked. She was thinking about two things at this point. The first, she wondered just how long this body had been waiting for her to inhabit it, given that it fell way past her shoulders now.

"It was so much easier to take care of when I kept it cut short," she ruminated with a twisted grin. She was toying with the idea of cutting it again, but wondered what Willow would think about that. This led to the second part of her epiphany; living was so "complicated." With all the little things involved in day-to-day life and the major decisions one faced occasionally.

Praise Artemis, she was looking forward to every minute of it.

She laughed at how easily her frustration over brushing her hair transformed into such thrills as to the challenges lying ahead. Challenges she wanted to enjoy facing head on. She decided the Nine Hells with it and just dropped the brush on the dresser and grabbed one of those hair ties Terrans called scrunchies. She tied her hair in place and went about getting dressed.

One thing that Etriel liked about Terrans, Americans in particular; they loved combining functionality and appeal when it came to clothing. But for now, the woman already given the nicknames "Ghost Girl" and "Willow’s Midnight Fantasy Babe" before getting her body back just slipped on a pair of Levi’s that hugged her thighs, a tight white cotton t-shirt with a v-neck, which showed off her torso in more ways than one, and a pair of leather biker boots. She chose the black rawhide vest over the leather jacket given the likely summer heat outside, but then again she’d had to "borrow" the clothes from Red Sonja until she got herself situated.

In the sixteen or so hours since "coming back," she’d been granted her Amazon blessing, saved her dear Willow, been shot and eventually healed of the injury, been given an escort to meet her new "Queen" (although Gabrielle had greeted her more like a potential comrade in arms than a royal subject), and gotten six hours of actual sleep.

<Goddess, I’d forgotten how much of a pleasure something as simple as sleeping and dreaming could be!> She had never considered herself someone who took anything for granted, especially after how she’d lost the first ten years of her life, but things had taken a whole new perception for her. <And I managed to get more done by nine a. m. than most Army personnel get done all day,> she gaily thought. With a feeling of contentment, she sat on the room’s twin size bed and thought about what lay in store for her that afternoon.

She was supposed to meet Gabrielle and Sonja at three o’clock, which gave her another fifty minutes before having to go downstairs. They were going to discuss possible job positions and the role the Lady Goddess had apparently given her; that of an instructor in the ways of combat to youthful Amazons, whether men or women. <Or as Xander put it, a cross between Mister Miyagi and the Master Chief from GI Jane.> Although there was some confusion over exactly how this was supposed to come about, the Royal Couple had come to the conclusion that Sunnydale might eventually become a major center for activity for the Amazon Nation.

Of course, the Gods always knew things mere mortals did not. So she shoved it aside and decided she preferred living in the moment for now.

A knock brought her out of her cheerful reverie, making her grin. She got up and walked over to the door. When she opened it, Oz’s face appeared.

"Hey," he said simply.

Etriel gave him a friendly dip of the head. "Please, come in." She stepped aside and allowed the young man to enter, graciously taking one of the suitcases he carried. She followed his lead and set the case on the bed.

"What is in here?" she asked, easily assuming the contents were for her.

"Clothes, mostly," he answered. Given the two years she’d spent bonding with Willow since coming to possess her… that is, the sword she’d inhabited, Etriel read the subtle pitch and tone of his voice. She realized that he was already comfortable with her presence here! But he had more to say, which was something of an accomplishment from her own experience. "We went out and picked up some basic stuff. Outfits for normal day to day stuff, hygiene, and Will picked you up one of those starter discs for AOL if you want it."

Chuckling under her breath at Willow including something do to with her beloved computers, the newly reborn woman graced Oz with a grin. "Thank you, Oz."

"No problem." His left eyebrow twitched a bit, which told her he wanted to talk. "You really came through for her last night."

She replied before she could formulate a more tactful response. "I could do no less for her, Oz." She truthfully added, "Just as you’d do for her." She lowered her head a bit. "I love her, Oz."

"Yeah, I know." She looked up and saw traces of both understanding and acceptance in Oz’s blue eyes. He walked over to a chair and sat down. "You love her almost as much as I do."

Etriel wasn’t sure how to take that at first, but knew in her heart of hearts that her beloved’s mate didn’t use hidden meanings when he spoke. He simply used just enough words to say what he had to say.

She decided to cross the bridge and see what developed between them. She folded her thick arms. "As I told her, Oz, I will not cause any conflicts for her. You are first in her heart, and that is indeed part of what drew me to her. Her heart is so large that she can accept anyone as a friend, those who need friendship the most. Xander, Buffy, Kendra, Shawukay, Faith…"

"That’s our Will." He just watched her, his face bland as usual and nonjudgmental. "The universal best friend, except to us."

"Yes…" She stopped when she registered that he’d called her "their" Willow. She felt her mouth opening a bit. "What do you mean, ‘our…’"

He just shrugged and stood up. "I’m not sure exactly how she feels to the nth degree, because she’s still sorting things out," he said with a bemused expression. "She’s still a bit spacy sometimes." He looked at the bedroom door, confirming Etriel’s suspicion that Willow was in the building, but probably talking to the Queen and her Consort. "But I know that you love her. And it’s like when we first started dating, when Willow had feelings for someone else."

She didn’t have to guess who the bard was talking about. "She loved Xander."

"Yeah." As with most of Oz’s thoughts, that somehow covered everything on a subject. "Anyway, we took it slow the first few weeks, since Willow still had her old feelings for Xander. When she decided she wanted me, we sped things up."

"You are willing to let us see what might develop between us?" Etriel asked, surprised despite herself. She knew him well enough, but his generosity still caught her off guard.

Oz then did something she’d never expect; he sighed. "You love her, and Willow has some deep feelings for you. I know it’s not friendship-type feelings, because they run deeper than that. It’s… weird. Not knowing exactly what they are. For her and me." The werewolf looked out the window. "Willow had to choose between me and Xander. With us, I don’t want her to have to choose. She won’t have to pick you or me, she should be able to have the option of picking you and me. If she wants to have both of us, I’m okay with that."

Etriel’s mouth dropped open. The man she’d often thought of as a rival for Willow’s heart wanted her to have a chance! At that moment she realized that the bard had never been a rival… <No, not a rival. A…> She searched her memories for the right word. <He is a partner. A partner in our love for Willow.>

"Oz… thank you." It was all she could think to say, at least to express her gratitude. But her sense of humor was not so subtle. "But do not think that I will fall for any ploys to get both of us into your bed at the same time."

By the way his eyebrows perked up, she knew her "partner" had not even thought of that possibility. That was unlike most males.

"Oz wouldn’t think of something like that!" Willow protested from the doorway. Etriel turned, as did Oz, but her smile was much wider and brighter than the bard’s.

Of course, that was the main difference between them; Oz was laid back and subtle, but his intent shined through anyway. Etriel was more expressive, but that was all. "He is a man, Willow. They all think of such things."

"Oh come on! Xander, sure. He’s your typical guy." Her witch-green eyes shone with defensiveness because she believed in her man. "And of course Seth, Robin, and Liam, they’re all cradle robbers, so it’s natural. But Oz?"

She followed Willow’s gaze to the werewolf suddenly caught in the middle and as the warrior had expected, he didn’t seem to really consider this a big thing. So she moved in for the kill in what really was just a measure of teasing him. <After all, I’m not into men.> And Oz knew that.

"Really? Then he hasn’t imagined something like this?" Willow turned to her, her pale, pretty face showing her bewilderment. Etriel dropped her hands to her sides and performed a trick she’d seen from Willow’s memories, where men did the same thing and Willow had been very impressed…

She began to flex her chest muscles and was rewarded by four riveted eyes as her breasts bounced up and down, making the cotton of her tight t-shirt shift enticingly. She finally stopped and smirked at Willow.

"I will wager that he is seriously considering it now," she suggested.

She took a short glance at him and saw his eyes were blanker than usual. Of course, it would take more than a simple trick like that to actually make him show his surprise on a readable level. But when she looked back at her Willow, the Wicca had glazed-over eyes and her face was turning a shade of red to challenge her hair.

The newest Amazon champion leaned over and softly asked, "Do you want to remind her to breathe or shall I?"

Oz arched an eyebrow. "Go ahead. It’ll get you used to her habit."

"Right." She didn’t have to, though; their elfin Wicca had regained her composure upon realizing that she had been teased. "I can’t believe you did that!"

"Or you did not believe I could do that?" was her innocent riposte.

Willow turned pink again and Etriel almost feared Willow was about to faint when she held up a thick folder and handed it to her. Etriel’s eyebrows widened in curiosity as she flipped the folder open and fingered through the documents contained therein.

Despite her intimate knowledge of Willow’s computer skills, not to mention that of the Slayerettes’ common allies and connections, this was somewhat faster than she had imagined. She just skimmed over the tops, reading what they were instead of the information registered on the documents. The time for that could come later.

"You’ve already created a cover identity for me?"

"Yep." Etriel’s heart thrummed with joy at the sudden influx of pride Willow showed. "Gabrielle, Jenny, and I all got on the phones this morning and started getting stuff finalized." <Finalized?> She looked up from her examination of her "official" documents and saw a smile of mischief creasing her Wicca’s lips. "Etriel, we started getting the basic stuff ready a year and a half ago! Basically we have everything set up through Bureau 13, Division Six because they’re Immigration, and so forth. We just put the finishing touches on it today." She reached out and laid her slim fingers on Etriel’s hand, the one holding the folder.

Etriel stared into Willow’s witch green eyes which shined with amusement. "The basic sitch is pretty simple; you’re officially Sonja’s younger sister. When she moved here to the US, you stayed in Ireland to finish high school and college. After you ‘graduated’ college, you worked for two years overseas until you moved here to get a job with your sister’s company. And since I know you’ve been reading my mind enough to learn how to drive, we got you a driver’s license."

"At least you know how to drive both kinds of vehicles," she said wryly. That would make things easier if she ever decided to buy an automobile. Then again, she knew what she admired personally and might go in that direction. "So I am…" She looked at the birth certificate again. "Etriel Brianna O’Brien." She rolled the name around in her mind and mentally shrugged. It was better than just Etriel; after all, on this world only celebrities had a single name. "All right. It will serve."

"Cool!" Etriel smiled at Willow’s approval; she wondered just how much of this information she’d personally overseen. "And your birthday… well…"

Etriel had a fair idea. Although she could no longer read Willow’s wondrous mind, she knew her in deeper ways. "July 23rd. It is appropriate, Willow."

By the way Oz’s lips curved, the Sword Sister knew she’d hit it on the spot. She wondered what else Willow had in store for her. She turned to Oz and asked, "So what did I supposedly study in college, you two? I hope it is something I can actually do."

Willow’s eyes began gleaming again. "Oh, I think it’s something you could handle, at least to perform your job here at VAN." Etriel cocked an eyebrow. "You have a two-year degree in Law Enforcement."

Etriel stiffened. "Did you say ‘Law Enforcement?’" Willow nodded far too eagerly and Oz just dipped his head up and down. "Of all the things I have done in my life, of all the skills you know I have from my former life, the best you could come up with was to make me a Goddess blasted cop?!?"

She didn’t even register that she’d slipped into using the Terran term until Willow continued. "A cop who knows advanced martial arts and weapons skills, knows how to break into secured areas and perform second story work, fence and appraise items, and has more hands on knowledge of mythology, religious rituals, and demonology than any Profiler with the FBI with the exceptions of Mulder and Samantha Waters."

"That is an understatement! I know more…" She stopped as she saw that Willow was building up a track on her supposed background. She stopped her miniature rant and sat down on her bed, eyeing Willow softly. "I’m sorry, Willow, I will not interrupt again. Please, continue."

"Sure," she said, instantly forgiving her as was her way. "Short version, after two years on a local police force, you were looking for something to use all your training, you pretty much had two choices. You decided to take your sister’s offer for a mid-five figure salary as a member of the security department and your job to train VAN Ltd. employees in self-defense." Willow paused and Etriel saw how her body suddenly tensed with seriousness. "The last part’s real. In case someone or something tries getting at us through the civilians, we want them to be able to at least put up some resistance. So that’s going to be what you do to start while we get ready for whatever Amazons the Lady Goddess sends our way."

"I am going to be a teacher? I never saw that happening." Then again, the thoughtful Waterdhavian had been looking forward to another twenty years of adventuring when the Sharran had ended her life with a poisoned dagger. "But it will allow me to grow into my role here. That is something I am glad of." She glanced at Willow again, then Oz. "It also gives me time to fully adjust to being alive again. I’ve had two years to get used to being on Earth."

She got the giggles she wanted coaxed from Willow’s throat. "Yeah, you’ve had lots of time to sit on your ghostly butt."

"Willow," she said softly, "I am trying to say that I want some time to get used to being alive again, and to become used to my new and improved body before I think of whether or not I want to join the team." She’d already had the invitation unofficially extended by Jenny and Giles, but for now, Etriel wanted to get a taste of this "normal" life the others shared when they weren’t fighting the forces of Darkness. "And… I want to see how…"

She couldn’t believe her uncustomary burst of uncertainty, now that her heart’s desire had been given to her. She watched as Willow calmly strode over to her, sat down, and took her hands and clasped them. Her eyes shone with open emotion as she tried to put her own feelings into words.

"I was feeling confused last night too." She looked at Oz, who just leaned against the wall, letting them have their moment. "We talked for hours about how I feel, about you...him," then she waved her arms wide to encompass the three people in the room, "...us. I tried figuring out what I’m feeling and…"

"Stop," Etriel said with a slight choke. "Please, I am no longer telepathic. Keeping up with your babbling is not something I am up to at the moment."

Willow’s eyes turned back to her face until she saw the smile. She was rewarded with a similar smile, but a shy one. "Oz helped set me straight, but only after he listened and we talked about how much I care for you." She let go of one of her hands and brushed her hair back behind her shoulder. She laid the hand back down, but flat on Etriel’s thigh, which made Etriel shiver a little from the contact.

She didn’t seem to notice and went on. "I know it’s way beyond friendship, because we went so past that point long ago. I was… I’m still trying to sort out the degrees and what love is what, but I do know that I love you, I’m… just not sure how. And that hurts."

"It hurts?" Etriel asked, somewhat confused for once. <I think I am going to miss something about being stuck inside that rock.> Telepathy helped clear up things, which often let her advise Willow in a blunt manner.

"It hurts not knowing, because it means you have to wait for me to know what I’m feeling." Willow’s eyes flicked back and forth, searching hers. "I just feel that it’s so unfair to you, but if I decided I felt like, oh, say that I love you like a sister...but it turns out I love you in the other ways or something…"

"Babbling again," Oz said, which made Willow flush to her roots again. Etriel just smiled; it was his turn after all.

"Willow," she said, squeezing the one hand on her thigh, "Take your time. What you want is what matters to me…" A quick glance at the guitarist showed his eyes narrowing just the slightest in agreement. "It is what matters to us. We want you to be happy."

Her little witch and her lycanthropic partner were both silent for a few seconds before Willow whispered, "I’m sorry I don’t already know."

"I am glad you are examining your feelings," she countered firmly. "It lets me know you have the heart Oz and I discussed before. The heart that can accept anyone who is worthy of your friendship, camaraderie… or love."

Oz seconded the motion in his own unique way. "Ditto."

Willow and Etriel broke into simultaneous laughter at his gift for understatement. She brushed her hair back again in that cute way she did. Apparently she decided to change the subject because she said, "Uhm, besides the background stuff and the clothes we got you, we, uhm, brought you a couple of presents."

<Oh Goddess…> Not only were they giving her a home in the building, providing her with clothes and other essentials, Willow and Oz had gone and done something sickeningly sweet. <I suppose that is one way Faith and I are alike; we sometimes hate being ‘mushy.’> "That is kind of you, Oz, Willow."

She knew that including his name first would make Willow happy; they were past the stage where they sniped at each… well, she sniped at him. They were friends and she realized they’d been friends for over a year. A year she had been inside the sword… She blinked when Willow pulled out the warlock’s bag of holding and said, "We didn’t exactly have time to gift wrap them."

"Very funny," Etriel "O’Brien" said sarcastically, yet gently. She reached into the enchanted storage unit and her hand gripped the first thing it came to. She squinted in confusion and pulled out a small jewelry box! She thought about making a joke about engagement rings but decided it might make Willow uncomfortable. So instead she just opened it and gasped when she saw a long, gold herringbone chain with a pendant hanging from it. The pendant was a piece of gold holding a very familiar stone.

She turned her head to the smiling Willow. "You took it out?" she said in disbelief.

Willow gave it a flicker of a glance before giving her a warm, caring smile. "We thought it might have some sentimental value to you. After all, it kept you with us and it’s saved all our lives more than once, because you were able to possess me or someone and…" She glanced at Oz. Etriel followed her look and saw a flicker of fear pass through his impassive face. "If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead at least two or three times, and at best, I’d be an incubus’s love slave-slash-bodyguard or sucked dry of part of what makes me special, my witchcraft. And well… it was home."

Etriel knew where Willow’s thoughts and emotions behind this first gift were coming from. "Willow, I… I don’t know what to say." She knew how she wanted to express the depths of her gratitude, but such a kiss was inappropriate at the moment. She settled for dipping her hand back into the bag and grabbing the second item. Fingers curled around a familiar, welcome feeling and she pulled out a sheathed blade. Even despite the shock that Willow would be willing to give her this, she knew it spoke volumes of the bond they’d formed over the last two years.

Which made it all the easier to do what she did next. She shook her head and placed the sword across Willow’s lap. "I cannot accept this gift, Willow." When Willow’s face fell, Etriel explained, "Willow, this sword was a gift to you, in more ways than one. Beyond the gifting from Shawukay’s grandmother, it is the thing that first allowed me to know you when you used it to fight for justice. It is the very symbol of the connection that has been forged between us since I first made myself known to you." She bowed her head in remembrance of all the things they’d had happen since Willow had first drawn the sword while her essence resided within. "I want you to keep that connection, Willow. As you are right about the topaz meaning so much to me, in ways I have never even begun to consider until now, this sword means something to you. I want you to keep it."

Etriel simply waited until Willow’s hands laid upon hers again, this time atop the leather hilt holding Etriel. She looked up and saw tears brimming in her eyes. "I thought you’d love to have it, since it’s kind of personalized with your name and all."

"Oh no," she countered, taking a slight jab at Willow. "I know from two years of experience that you are the only one capable of handling me in the proper way."

"All right then…" she reluctantly acceded until she got the hidden meaning. Willow started turning red again until Etriel released her hands and muttered, "Thank you though, for the intent behind the gift is as priceless to me as you are."

Willow’s shy face overwhelmed her resolve face and Etriel just stood up to allow Willow to regain her composure. She looked at Oz and said, "Oz, thank you for all of your help. I am sorry I ever considered you as anything less than a friend."

"No problem." He walked over with the grace that his empowerment and lycanthropic gifts gave him and sat next to Willow, who looked up at her from her seat. "By the way, we got reservations for three at a restaurant. Will wanted to celebrate by giving you your first Earth-type restaurant experience."

Etriel’s smile blossomed again and she clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I look forward to it. I will enjoy the walk there."

The inside corner of Willow’s eyebrows scrunched inward. "Walk? Etriel, it’s five miles!"

"Even better!" She reached out and took one hand from Oz and Willow each. She pulled them up and fervently said, "Please, indulge me in this. After being dead for two lifetimes, everything is new to me again, at least to an extent. I…" Her smile became so serene she thought Oz might envy it. "I want to enjoy the experience of simply being alive, Willow. For now, I just want to go at a slow and leisurely pace."

She knew they wouldn’t argue with that, and not just because they wanted to indulge her and her new lease on life. They wanted to be there with her when she enjoyed it.

"Sure," Oz told her. He glanced between her and Willow. "Nice day out. You can smell the scents in the air coming off the ocean."

"In the same way that Willow smells like strawberries to you?" she asked. That was one thing she’d always been curious about when it came to lycanthropes; smell was more important to many than sight or hearing. Since Selune was the Goddess of good and neutral lycanthropes, she’d met more than her share while journeying Faerun with Celcia.

Willow’s eyes gleamed with indignation at the joke, partially because Etriel knew she liked what he said she smelled like. Of course, Willow’s usually docile redheaded nature wouldn’t allow her to get away with making fun of her man. "I happen to like strawberries, thank you very much!" She turned to Oz and instead of the usual looks of romance between them, she looked like a military commander about to bark orders to young, green recruits. "Oz, tell me something. What does she smell like?"

Etriel knew she was mostly teasing, but she got the sneaking suspicion that Willow secretly had two hidden desires; to know if her combination was, ahem, sweeter than her own, and what Oz’s impressions, which mattered so much to her Amazon Princess, might say about Etriel’s nature. The fighter was somewhat curious herself!

The bottom of Oz’s nose twitched back and forth a couple times as he took in two silent yet deep breaths. And although there wasn’t a visible sign that Etriel could see, she imagined his deceivingly sharp mind comparing her with any thousands of sensory memories he’d collected over the years. Finally, he seemed very, very interested in whatever he’d uncovered.

"You grew up on the coast, right?" he asked.

"I was born in the Moonshae Islands and grew up in Waterdeep, although I can’t remember my first ten years. So the answer is yes on multiple counts."

"Okay." He looked at Willow. "She’s not ‘sweet’ like you. You’re strawberries, cream, and cinnamon."

"And her?" Willow demanded, shooting a "victorious" glance in her direction. It made Etriel want to laugh out loud at how Willow had to make a supreme effort to look "imperious." "What’s hers?"

He looked at her and Etriel knew it was because he was trying to humor their love. "You know how sea air tastes salty?" Etriel nodded immediately, Willow followed a second later. "Etriel’s this; brine on a breeze coming off the ocean, nightshade like you use in some of your spells…" Willow’s eyebrows rose in surprise at the naming of an herb that was so poisonous, but Etriel merely waited for him to finish revealing what she smelled like to him. "… and… huh. Cayenne pepper."

Etriel just smiled at the very confused look that crossed Willow’s pixie-like features. "Cayenne pepper?" she blurted. "Cayenne pepper?"

"So what you’re saying is my scent is…" She waited for Willow to glance her way before turning Willow’s little game back on her. "Oh, I know. You’re saying I’m deadly, salty, and…" She just knew her sensual grin and gleaming pine-needle green eyes were sending shivers down Willow’s back. "Spicy!"

Without waiting for her little, lovely Wicca to babble a response, she turned to her scent-smelling friend and asked, "Well, shall I change for dinner?"

He nodded and gently guided Willow out. As the door closed, her metahuman hearing picked up, "You think she’s spicy?!?"

She chuckled and prayed she didn’t get Oz into too much trouble for that crack…

*****

Sunnydale High Library
Sunnydale, California
Late hours
24 July 2001

"Well, that’s the last of them, G-Man."

Oz helped Xander pack the last of Whitestone’s belongings of a nonmagical nature into a pair of cardboard boxes. He turned around and glanced at Giles, who was still sorting through the "good stuff," as he tended to think of what the magic stuff was to the Watcher.

"Indeed," their longtime mentor absently muttered. Indeed, he was spaced out on magic stuff.

"You know, for a blackhearted, life-ruining, magic-raping son of a bitch," Robin said easily, "Jonah was the real deal as far as professional mystics go. Man knew his Black Arts."

Oz’s own opinion of the man was pretty much rock bottom. But he knew Robin was just speaking the truth as he saw it. Of course, his tact was about as developed as his fashion sense, even after fifty thousand years.

"So how’s she doing, Oz Man?" Xander asked, drawing his attention away from his review of Giles’ and Robin’s thoughts on the wizard. "Will’s magic back up to snuff?"

Typical. Xander was more concerned about Willow than the task of cataloguing the magical items they’d confiscated last night. But he appreciated it. "Magic’s coming along, she should be back to full strength tomorrow. But she and I had a long talk last night."

"About what?" Giles asked, cutting into their young guy talk. Oz saw the concern in Giles’ eyes, and the way it changed his voice when he showed worry for one of the girls. He seemed to get that he might be barging in on a private thing. "I’m sorry, I just wanted to be sure she’s all right. That was all that Jenny talked about before and during the rescue attempt."

"She came through it all right." Oz decided that maybe he could clear up a few things, including the one thing that had him confused, which was a strange feeling for him. "We were talking about Etriel and how we feel about her."

"We? As in you and Will?" Oz just arced an eyebrow at Xander, who nodded and added, "Of course. Rhetorical question."

"Pretty much." The bass player for the Dingoes looked at his three friends and quirked his lips. "Etriel’s easy to read, she loves Willow to pieces. But Will was trying to figure out just what kind of feelings she had for her. And we talked about how she shouldn’t have to choose between me and her if she ends up loving both of us."

The pointed yet brother-type look he gave Xander was returned by a look that was all too understanding. Xander’s dark brown eyes showed that he understood where Oz was coming from.

Giles was the one who asked, "So what did you decide, Oz?"

"One day at a time. If she decides she loves both of us, then she can have both. She deserves to be as happy as she can be."

"That’s brave and kind of you, buddy," Robin said, clapping him on the back. The sprite sat down and the other guys took it as a hint to take a break from rummaging through Jonah’s stuff. "So how are you and Etriel getting along? After all, she used to treat you like Cordy treated Xander before he stopped being a geek."

"Hey!" Xand snapped in protest.

Oz simply smiled.

"Anyway," Giles said, taking his glasses off and wiping their lenses, "I also am glad to see that you are willing to allow Willow and Etriel the chance to explore the depths and nature of their feelings, Oz. Even at the risk of possibly losing Willow."

"Like the guy said. If you love something, let it go. I can’t keep Willow from seeing herself as she wants to be and think I’m worthy of her." He reached for a glass of water on the table. "It scares me more to think I could be a jerk like that, than the idea that Willow might choose Etriel over me. Somehow, I don’t think she’d choose one of us. She loves both of us."

"Hear, hear." Xander of all people would know what it was like to love more than one woman at one time, given his lifelong crush on Cordelia and the instant attraction he’d felt for Buffy. He leaned forward and smiled semi-darkly. "So tell us, Oz Man. When do you think you’ll be comparing notes on our two Amazon redheads with the rest of us guys?"

"Xander!" Giles snapped, not believing Xand had said that. Then he reconsidered. He really should know better, this was Xander after all.

"Oh come on, G-Man!" He looked around the table. "Let’s put our cards on the table, so to speak. If we could have any two women of our dreams in bed at the same time, who would they be?"

"Who would you choose?" Robin asked, a wide grin splitting his face.

"I can’t believe you’re encouraging this," G-Man said accusingly.

"And how well do you know me, Rupe?" Robin countered.

"Hey, I’ll even go first. Cordy and Buffy," Xander said, trying to start a sex talk. "My life long love and the girl that literally swept me off my feet at first sight."

Oz saw the way Giles’ eyes flashed at the mention of one of his Slayers. But he didn’t think it was dangerous ground so much as Xander being honest in his own way. So he decided to go next and told the truth. "Will and Etty." When he saw the doubtful looks on their faces, he shrugged. "I like her and they love each other. Maybe someday Etty’ll be willing to give guys a shot."

"Good point. And everyone knows that redheads have those fiery dispositions, right, Rob?" Xander pointed out. Robin just smiled. "So how about you?"

"You think I could pick two that easily?" he asked, looking slightly dubious. Oz wasn’t fooled for a minute; he obviously had his choices selected "prior to being asked." He and Xander both sent the "you’re not getting out of it that easily" stares. Finally, he sighed. "Fine. If I had my choice, Amy and Faith."

"Faith?" he and Xand both asked in surprise. <Who was I thinking he’d pick? Aideen?>

"Oh come on. A teenage Irish Slayer with her fabulous rack and that libido? Hell yeah!" Robin said, way more eager than ten seconds ago. He must’ve seen the Ripper look coming from Giles, because he mumbled, "Not that I’d do both girls at the same time…"

"Bloody right you wouldn’t," Ripper snapped out in a half-Cockney accent.

"Right. But who would you pick, G-Man?"

Xander’s question brought the ‘reserve’ in British reserve back out of Giles. He gave Xand a dirty look. "And what makes you think I’d even dignify that question with an answer?"

"Hey, we risked having you go all Ripper on us by being honest about our attraction to your Slayers. Don’t tell us you haven’t at least thought about two girls in bed at once."

Giles smirked. "I haven’t had to think about it, Xander. Why do you think they used to call me the Ripper, hmm?"

Xander wouldn’t quit. "I know that you were really a bad boy back then, Giles, but we’re talking about the Watcher version of you now. So give."

G-Man seemed real reluctant to respond. But he knew he’d never hear the end of it, especially if Buffy, Faith, and Jenny found out that he’d ever talked about something like this. "I can’t believe I’m even considering descending to your American level…" he growled out. "But if there were two women I had the chance to roll at the same time, they’d be Jenny and…"

After twenty seconds, Oz took the suicidal plunge. "And?"

He groaned and turned red. "Morgaine Le Fay."

Oz felt, saw, heard, and smelled the ripple of shock passing through the trio. He felt it himself, as much as he’d ever felt something like shock. He saw it in their eyes, he heard their hearts skipping a beat. And he could smell the things as they processed that image, and he prayed no one would admit they were thinking about that image, because then G-Man would be the sole survivor of the ensuing carnage.

But Robin, being Robin, put it into terms he saw it in. "Power calls to power. And Morgaine has the pedigree to send out some big shout outs."

"What he said," Xander added, "and she has an excellent rack!"

"That is so beyond crude I am unable to add anything to either of your statements," Giles said. Then he added, warningly, "If any of you tell Jenny about this, you are dead men."

"Geez, Giles, chill out. Don’t you think it’s nice to know that you have a guy side under all that stuffiness?" Oz had to agree with Xander there, although he would’ve just said that it was a change of pace. "Besides, who else is there that you can talk to about guy stuff when you actually think about talking about guy stuff, as rare as that is for our Super Watcher Guy."

"So, then, it would be all right if I told Cordelia and Amy about your choices, Xander and Robin?" As both men regarded him with frightened, wide eyes, Giles gave them his patented Ripper glare.

"Okay, okay, G-man. Our lips our sealed," Xander muttered as Robin nodded fervently.

Oz decided to break Xander’s and Robin’s groveling trip before it really got going. "So yeah, Xand, you’re right. Been thinking about asking Etriel to move in, even if she only wants Willow. Thought she could have a real home, right off the bat, instead of just living in the VAN building."

"Pretty nice and noble of both of you," Robin offered. Oz appreciated the sentiment. "But there’s something else bugging you. Or at least infinitesimally disrupting the Zen State that is the Life of Oz."

"Yeah," he said with a slight twitch of his eyebrow. "Etriel knows I’m a were, but when she thinks or talks about it, it’s like it’s no big deal, like she couldn’t care less."

"Pretty simple reason, my furry friend." Everyone looked at Robin, whose usual smile was even bigger than usual. "You know Etriel used to worship Selune, right?" Oz nodded but didn’t see the point.

"Is it a Moon thing?"

"No, Oz. Selune is more than the Goddess of the Moon and Stars on Etriel and Shaw’s rock. She’s also the Goddess of Good and Neutral Lycanthropes, which category you most certainly fit in."

"What’s that have to do with how Etriel isn’t worried that Oz might start humping her leg under a full moon?" Xand asked.

<Thanks a lot.> Oz thought sourly. "Has a point, Rob."

Robin sighed. "Dudes, it’s simple. Etriel’s first love was a priestess of Selune, which probably means Etriel got a lot of exposure to the inner workings of Her Church. So she probably had more exposure to lycanthropes of all races, species, and flavors than anyone outside of Bureau 13. Heck, Oz, to her, you being a werewolf is like you being strangely laconic to us."

"Okay, thanks." He squinted. "I think."

Rob came up and gripped his shoulder. "Trust me, you getting extra hairy three days a month is the last thing she has issues about."

*****

VAN Ltd. Headquarters
Sunnydale, California
Late hours
24 July 2001

Etriel watched Willow pour herself another glass of champagne from the bottle given to them by Gabrielle to celebrate her "return." She knew that Willow was still getting used to finally achieving the legal age for drinking fermented beverages, not to mention that the bottle was, according to Gabrielle, worth about two hundred bucks. When Willow had gaggled at the price tag, her Queen and friend had just smiled and said, "You can’t tell me she isn’t worth it."

Willow couldn’t help but agree, which had sent thrilling chills through Etriel’s body because she could read Willow’s face so well.

"Penny?" she asked, taking a sip from her own glass. She’d admitted that she had rarely had liquor on Toril, but mostly because it was her choice, not because she was a teetotaler.

She smiled as Willow’s innate shyness reared itself, despite how much time they had spent together today. Willow had decided to have a nightcap with Etriel at Oz’s urging after dinner. Willow looked very nice in a simple lime green blouse with a black mini-skirt, while Etriel wore her white blouse with blue jeans. Now they sat on the couch, close to each other as they shared the bottle of champagne and Willow said, "Just thinking about everything that’s happened, and… well, I’m still getting used to the idea of you being here in a body again." Her eyes flicked up and she whispered, "But you gave up a wish your mother gave you to save me. I just can’t see how you could give up something so precious, even for me."

"Would you have cast that spell if Oz or Buffy were in danger?" the newly invested Shield Maiden of Artemis asked. The question was rhetorical, because she saw Willow’s infamous Resolve Face show itself. It was just as cute in its own way as her Shy Face and Babble Mode. "Then you do understand how I could give it up. I only promised not to use it unless innocent lives depended on it."

One of Willow’s trim auburn eyebrows shot toward the ceiling. "You think I’m innocent? After everything that’s happened since I started helping Buffy and Giles four years ago?"

"You have retained much of it, sweet Willow. Believe me, after two years of sharing your mind, I know." She was the one who averted her eyes now. "Although it will take some getting used to, having to actually ask you when you want advice."

"Well, I can do the telepathy thing. Maybe we can work something out," her Wicca said with a smile. "But even with the whole Amazon-Hellmouth-Slayer-fighting-the-Darkness bit, what happened last night sounds like something out of a fairy tale, Et… Etty." Etriel raised her head at the use of what might be a "pet name." Willow reached across the table and said, "It’s like those lost love stories where one half of the love is trapped or something. It’s so… Cinderella, or Snow White…"

"Or Princess Bride?" Etriel noted impishly. She’d seen the movie through Willow’s eyes and just couldn’t resist.

They started giggling and lost more and more control as the seconds stretched on, slightly buzzed due to the champagne. Etriel had to get used to such sensations again, while Willow had once had a less than memorable episode with alcohol.

"It’s like a fairy tale," Willow gushed, squeezing Etriel’s hand gently. "Or a dream we haven’t woken up from. I’m still wondering what the next part of the dream will hold."

Etriel smiled at the possible promise contained in Willow’s last sentence. "I have what happened next, Willow. Seeing you, here, safe and sound, sharing time together and basking in your presence is a dream come true for me, Willow, and one I will always cherish."

Willow pouted prettily and said, with a voice that sounded like a soft, warm growl, "Well, since your fantasies seem to come up a bit short, I guess we’ll have to go with mine."

Willow put down her glass of champagne, stood up, took a step forward, reached down, and pulled Etriel to her feet. They faced each other, their bodies a mere few inches apart. Etriel’s heart thudded in her chest from the emotion running through her like a roller coaster. Then, Willow’s nascent shyness seemed to return, causing the girl to hesitate in her seduction.

"Come up short?" She asked gently, cupping the red head’s chin and prodding her onward.

A few tears had formed in Willow’s eyes and trickled down her cheek as she said, "I used to… I mean, when you were in the sword, I thought our connection was weird and exciting. I thought we were just fooling around because I’d already given my heart to Oz… but…" She stared into the witch-green orbs in front of her, wanting to lick the salty tears from Willow ’s cheeks. "Now I’m not sure… because…"

"Because…?" Etriel urged her on.

"Because I’m pretty sure I love you." Willow whispered, finally averting her eyes.

"Oh." Etriel dropped her hand and took a step back.

<She loves me? Wait… Does she mean, ‘LOVE me’ love me?>

*****

Willow hadn’t really gone over what she’d exactly felt for Etriel until now. She knew she wanted her, in the worst way. Her body practically screamed for Etriel ’s touch. But not until this moment did she really ever believe it to be anything more than her hormones, than her body’s desire for pleasure. Not until she uttered those three words did she really believe it. Now she knew. Willow finally knew the truth.

Willow dropped her gaze to the floor. "I know that wasn’t what you wanted to hear, that you wanted me to want to be with only you." Willow paused, then started again. Her voice was strong even though she felt like crumbling to the ground. "I know the last thing you need is someone who isn’t totally committed to you chasing you around."

Willow glanced at Etriel to see if she was even paying attention. It surprised her to see Etriel looking at her with understanding and compassion instead of loathing.

"I-I…" She tried to continue, but faltered, unable to tear her eyes away from Etriel ’s.

"You truly love me?" Etriel whispered.

Willow nodded, pleading for forgiveness with her eyes.

"I’m sorry, Etriel …" Willow started, a sob rising from deep inside her.

Quickly Etriel wrapped her arms around the redhead and pulled her into a gentle hug. "Shhh, my sweet, sweet Willow. I love you always and forever, even if you decide never to match the passion I have for you. Please believe that, my love."

Willow shuddered in Etriel’s embrace and the words poured out of her like a tidal wave. "I’ve been wanting you so bad. I can’t stop thinking about you, even when me and Oz… all the time." Willow nodded, realizing for the first time what it was that was tearing her up inside over the woman. "I know I’ve been squeamish, and I’m so sorry, Etriel… I didn’t want to hurt you… I didn’t want your first time as a living being again to be with someone who didn’t love you like you deserve…"

"Willow…"

"I thought I didn’t love you like that…" Willow continued, cutting Etriel off. "I was scared that…" She took a large gulp of air and let it out slowly. "I was scared that you’d hate me and leave if I couldn’t give you my everything. I guess I didn’t realize it… but I… I think I’m really falling in love with you… and I was so scared you wouldn’t understand how I could feel this way about both you and Oz."

Etriel pulled away to look Willow in the eyes.

"What?" Her voice squeaked with the surprised announcement. "You…?"

Willow pursed her lips and closed her eyes again, forcing the stilled tears to spill down her wet, flushed cheeks.

"I tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t be the one to take… that you should be with someone else… a-and I think I was just so scared of the truth… and scared you wouldn’t understand… a-and everything was so confusing… i-it still is… confusing I mean… a-and Etty… I-I…"

Etriel didn’t give Willow a chance to continue her babble. She cupped the redhead’s cheeks in her hands and drew her into a soft, sensual kiss.

When they broke the kiss neither of them said anything, simply studied each other’s faces. Both wondered what the next step would be.

"What about Oz?" It wasn’t the first time Etriel had asked this question, but things were different now. Willow had admitted her love for her.

"He…" Willow shook her head. "I’m not sure." She took Etriel’s hands in her own, holding both at their sides, between them "I love him, Etty. That hasn’t changed. I know I love you, but… I-I love him too… and I honestly don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to lose him… but I don’t want to give you up… e-even if that seems like the best solution sometimes in my head… I-I don’t think I could do it."

Etriel nodded, frightened and relieved at the same time. She loved Willow and Oz as a couple. Being with Willow had made her feel terrible about that, but she knew she could never give Willow up. It would be easier to ask her to stop breathing.

"He wants you to join us–." At Etriel’s raised eyebrow, Willow hurriedly added, "I mean live with us! I’m not asking you to decide right now. You need time...to think it over, to decide if that’s what you want." Willow smiled gently. "He respects you, likes you. If you give him a chance, you might see what a wonderful, gentle person he is and fall for him just as I have."

Etriel blinked several times before answering. "I promise that I will seriously consider your proposal, Willow."

"Okay," the Little Red Witch whispered huskily. Willow leaned forward, smiled, and closed her own eyes just as her lips brushed against Etriel’s.

*****

Etriel responded to Willow’s lips and a shiver worked its way up and down her spine at the witch’s touch. Willow pressed against her lips, opening hers slightly and tugging on Etriel’s full bottom lip. The warrior responded, pressing back against the soft warmth and parting her lips.

Willow dared to go further, running the tip of her tongue along Etriel’s lips and finding Etriel’s encouragement as the warrior maiden parted her lips to Willow’s curious tongue. A faint moan escaped from Etriel and Willow swallowed it while bringing her arm up around Etriel’s shoulder, and pulling her closer. The other girl gave no resistance, merely continued to meet the witch’s eager lips with her own. Willow simply continued a gentle exploration of Etriel’s bottom lip with her tongue, savoring the taste of her cherry lip-gloss.

Sliding her hand up Willow ’s thigh to rest it on her hip, Etriel took a chance and flicked the tip of her tongue against Willow ’s. Tiny unexpected bolts of arousal shot through the redhead and she pulled Etriel closer, their bodies only inches apart. What began as a simple kiss, an affirmation of their love, had quickly become something more, something bigger, powerful, highly erotic.

Willow crept her tongue past full lips, flicking it over and around Etriel’s, searching and exploring her mouth. Etriel did not resist, she only craved more. She moved her other hand up to Willow ’s face, hooking her fingers just behind her ear and stroking the soft flesh of Willow ’s cheek with her thumb. The feelings that raged through her newly reconstituted body were greater than anything she’d ever remembered and she was loving every minute of it.

The two women pressed their bodies closer, deepening their kiss with breath escaping in heavy gasps through their noses. Their tongues dueled for superiority, chasing back and forth from one mouth to the other as their excitement grew exponentially.

*****

Willow couldn’t believe how her own body responded to the touch of another woman. She couldn’t get enough of Etriel’s full lips, her little mouth, or even the taste of cherry lip gloss that seemed to permeate it. Inwardly she groaned. <Who in the Hell told her that I had a weakness for cherries?> She slid her other hand up Etriel’s arm, her fingertips tingling with the sensation of warm flesh.

Etriel dug her fingers into Willow ’s thigh, tensing and relaxing as she felt herself grow wet, a steady pounding between her legs.

Willow moaned at the contact, encouraged to explore Etriel’s ripe and muscular body with her hands and tongue, teeth and mouth. Etriel smiled at Willow’s response, pride and lust filling her as their mouths parted and closed against each other, tongues swirling.

Before either of them knew what had happened, so caught up in the sudden desire sparking between them, Etriel had succeeded in leading Willow into her bedroom. When the warrior guided her witch down to the mattress and with most coherent and logical thoughts completely gone from Willow’s brain, the Wicca Princess crawled on top of Etriel and continued in her task to devour her sword sister.

Moving her thigh in between Etriel’s legs and straddling the other, Willow finally managed to briefly break off the kiss and panted. "Goddess, you taste so good……" She moaned, kissing and licking her way toward Etriel’s ear where she hooked her tongue under the tender lobe and sucked it into her mouth, running her teeth over the tiny morsel of flesh gently.

Gentle or not, it was enough to send bolts of heat straight up from Etriel’s throbbing center and she arched into Willow’s touch. Meanwhile, her hands ran up and down the length of Willow’s torso until she finally tugged on Willow’s skirt, pulling it slowly up to bunch at her hips. In response to the heat between her thighs, she kissed and sucked her way down Willow’s neck, eliciting tiny moans of pleasure and encouragement near her ear.

"Willow..."

"Mmmm…" Willow moaned in response, meeting Etriel’s mouth again for another greedy kiss.

Movement became fluid, every move was matched between the two lovers writhing against each other in the middle of the bed, lips locked, hands searching and demanding. A hand on a breast, squeezing. A leg between thighs, pressing. Hips moving, a steady rhythm. Fingers gripping and pulling at clothing.

Their kisses were furious, as if trying to expel in a matter of seconds what the prior years had built. To Etriel, as long as Willow ’s hands never stopped, as long as their lips could find each other, as long as she ached deep inside for something she knew she wanted, needed even, but never had, she was in heaven.

Willow broke away from their heated kiss, biting gently down on the warrior’s lower lip before descending down her chin to the gentle slope of her neck. Etriel rolled her head back, eyes half shut as her redheaded companion suckled the sensitive flesh into her mouth, running her tongue over it as if a prerequisite to tasting Etriel’s entire body.

Etriel’s hands abandoned the blouse, now bunched and stretched at Willow’s shoulders, traveling instead down her back until she was able to cup the redhead’s bottom and squeeze, crushing their hips together.

"Damn Etriel…" Willow mumbled while working her hands over pearl white buttons. "I love how you touch me...I love it, Oh Goddess," she hissed.

She licked and nibbled near the base of Etriel’s neck before running her tongue up the side to her ear where she flicked the lobe gently, teasingly, before scraping her teeth over it, pulling it into her mouth.

"Ohh…" Etriel moaned, her left hand shooting up to hold Willow ’s head even closer.

Etriel plunged her fingers into silky red as she felt Willow ’s tongue slide up the curve of her ear, sending tiny tremors through her already aching body. She turned her head and captured the witch’s neck, grabbing freckled skin between her teeth playfully before sucking on it with a feral growl. Willow’s head shot back, releasing Etriel’s ear as her pleasure center received the message and relayed it to the rest of her body as her rose peaks became harder against Etriel’s.

Realizing she had gotten all the buttons on Etriel’s top undone, Willow paused to catch her breath. Etriel’s shirt fell open, revealing her satin bra and the firm stomach just below. That drew Willow’s attention.

"Etriel…" she whispered.

"Yes?"

"You’re… you’re beautiful." Willow whispered, licking her lips.

"You really think so?"

"Oh yeah…" Willow nodded. "You’re a hottie."

Smiling, Etriel reached for Willow, attempting to guide her back into their tight embrace.

"Wait." Willow said quickly, glancing from Etriel’s taut stomach and satin clad breasts to her flushed face. The cooler air that caressed her body had caused Etriel’s small nipples to pucker and stiffen, straining against the soft material of her bra.

"Do you wish to stop?"

"What? No way! Tonight...tonight is yours, Etty. I want you to lie back and enjoy this...enjoy my loving you. I… can I… touch you?"

Etriel grinned, wrapped her hands around Willow’s, and guided them up, placing one on each breast.

"You can do whatever you desire."

Willow caught Etriel’s eyes and saw the truth there. Etriel wanted this as much as she did and Willow couldn’t help but believe that Etriel would give up whatever she asked of the warrior. This thought caused the throbbing between her legs to flare up and Willow used her fantastic photographic memory to recall all she’d learned about pleasing a woman from her research of websites like WitchesinLove.org, Amazonrelationships.com, and 1000delights.com.

Etriel gasped, throwing her head back once more as Willow touched, caressed, kneaded, and pinched the soft flesh of her breasts. Surprised that the clasp was in the front, but not wanting to waste time, Willow quickly unclasped the undergarment and opened it to reveal the bounty offered by her lover. She brushed her thumbs softly against the stiff peaks causing Etriel to bite back a moan. Cupping the breasts in her hands, she massaged the soft mounds gently, while rubbing her palms against the erect nipples, eliciting groans from Etriel as she squirmed in pleasure and excitement.

Etriel reached down to Willow’s waist, hooking her fingers behind the small of the hacker’s back and jerked Willow closer, begging with her eyes for more.

"A-are you certain about this?" Etriel asked, briefly stopping her movement.

"No more talk, Etty." Willow responded, eyes still closed.

Without another word, Willow bent slightly and kissed tiny circles around Etriel’s nipple before dragging her front teeth over it, followed by her tongue.

"Oh… Artemis…" moaned Etriel, arching into Willow’s touch.

Willow lapped and swirled her tongue around the stiff peak while continuing to rub the other one with her thumb, pinching the flesh as her mouth moved to devour the other.

Wrapping one hand around the witch’s head, urging her onward, Etriel dragged her other hand to cover Willow ’s breast, rubbing her hard nipple through her blouse. The redhead moaned around the flesh in her mouth as she sucked, licked, and nibbled it.

<Goddess...this feels so good!> Etriel thought, feeling the hot liquid of her sex soaking her panties. The throbbing between her legs was worse than she had ever remembered and she desperately needed Willow to touch her there.

Willow couldn’t stop now if she tried. The love, the need she felt for this woman who had freely given her most precious gift to save her had touched something beyond gratitude, had shown her the depths of devotion that mere mortals could barely fathom. She understood now what true love really meant, and she wanted to let this woman know how well she had taught Willow that important lesson.

Willow switched breasts, continuing her ministrations with her fingers over the wet flesh as she took the other nipple into her mouth, a deep red desire pushing her further. Bringing her other hand down to Etriel’s waist, she squeezed the flesh there, jerking the woman’s hips against her own.

"Willow…" Etriel breathed, wrapping her arms around the redhead and pressing her body firmly into the other woman’s.

Willow became aware of a steady movement against her thigh and realized Etriel was pumping her hips back and forth, the thin material of Etriel’s soaked panties rubbing against her. Willow released Etriel’s nipple and caught a whimper on the wind. She looked up and saw Etriel’s closed eyes, her mouth open and the tip of her tongue dancing slowly across her full bottom lip. She captured those lips in a searing kiss that opened Etriel’s mouth wide, invading and thoroughly probing it with her tongue. She pressed her body hard against Etriel, pinning the woman to the bed as she brushed her fingers against Etriel’s center.

The crimson haired warrior moaned loudly, almost abandoning the kiss, though Willow wouldn’t let her escape. Willow’s hand against Etriel’s throbbing center shot ripples of pleasure through her entire body. She tried to shove her hips up and bring them back down, tried to connect, create friction. The need burned so hot that her ache was almost painful.

Breaking away from the kiss, Willow assaulted Etriel’s neck again, greedily sucking and biting the flesh as she rocked her hand between the Etriel’s legs.

"Willow… Will please…" Etriel moaned, her hips practically moving on their own.

Willow knew her panties were soaked. In fact, she wanted to feel Etriel’s fingers slide between her own wet folds. The pleading from her companion was definitely not helping matters. However bad Willow wanted Etriel’s tongue in her sex, she refused to place her needs above Etriel’s this night. She had to show her, had to make her understand how much she loved her.

"Etriel…" Willow whispered, finally pausing long enough both to take off her blouse and bra and to speak.

"Will… please."

Willow smiled. That was the second time that Etriel had used her nickname. "Etriel…" Willow tried again, cupping the girl’s chin in her hand and forcing her to look at her.

Willow recognized the hazy desperation in Etriel’s eyes.

"Please… please touch me!" Etriel pleaded, pushing her hips against Willow’s as her bare chest rose and fell quickly.

"I love you." Willow leaned down and kissed Etriel, loving the feel of their bare breasts brushing against each other.

"Mmmm, love…… you…… too……" Etriel sighed between the soft caresses, wrapping her arms around Willow to hold her tight.

They kissed at length, their fondling quickly escalating and growing exceptionally heated as the passion between them swelled once more. Then, suddenly, Willow pressed Etriel flat and held her down, while she grinned at the surprised look on her lover’s face.

"You want me don’t you?" Willow asked her, dipping g her head down to run the tip of her tongue along Etriel’s bottom lip.

Etriel tried to capture the tongue with her mouth, but the other redhead pulled away grinning.

"Don’t you?" She asked again.

Biting her bottom lip and giving Willow the sexiest look she could muster she said, "I’ve always wanted you."

"Always?"

"Oh yes……" Etriel nodded and licked her lips, noting the way Willow followed the movement with her eyes.

Willow slowly crawled down Etriel’s body, kissing the soft warmth below her tenderly, leaving no area untouched by her lips. Etriel writhed on the bed beneath her, floating on the sweet sensations that traveled throughout her body. If there was one thing Willow was good at, it was the use of her tongue. The warrior ran her fingers through the enchantress’ shiny red locks and gently clawed her back. She absolutely loved the sensations Willow elicited in her by playing her breasts like a concert musician would a fine instrument, but her sex was practically screaming for some attention of its own. Etriel could feel her wetness seep out of between her nether lips as she squirmed under the glorious weight of Willow’s body.

Sensing just what her lover needed, the redheaded witch scraped her fingernails down the side of Etriel’s body making her gasp and squirm even more. When she reached her thighs, she cupped Etriel’s sex, her palm capturing the spicy moisture that had accumulated there, and squeezed.

"Oh yes…" Etriel groaned.

Willow grinned around her kisses as she neared her lover’s center, already able to smell her arousal. The musky scent made her mouth water and her own sex throb. She craved Etriel like an addict craved her drug and would happily spend the rest of their time together on her knees servicing her.

Etriel’s entire body was aflame, buzzing in anticipation of Willow’s tongue. She couldn’t wait for the touch of her redheaded lover’s lips against the slick jumble of nerves between her legs, couldn’t wait for Willow to plunge that talented tongue into her channel until she quaked and screamed.

The witch avoided Etriel’s sex as long as she could, instead focusing her mouth and tongue on Etriel’s mons and inner thighs. Like whispers, her red hair brushed across the other red head, forcing her to grit her teeth and cling to the bedding. Etriel was desperate to be touched where she needed it most.

"No more foreplay!" she growled, lifting her hips, demanding Willow’s tender ministrations.

Willow dropped to her knees on the floor beside the bed and hooked her arms around Etriel’s legs, dragging her closer. Willow was surprised both by her lack of hesitation about tasting another woman and the intoxication she experienced from this position, the power and control that came with it. She had access to all of Etriel’s syrupy goodness laid out before her and actually smacked her lips in anticipation.

She gazed at Etriel over her Venus mound and flashed a tender smile.

*****

<Sweet Willow,> Etriel thought fondly when she saw Willow’s tender smile.

Then, not making her wait any longer, the witch set to her task, beginning with steady, long strokes of her tongue tracing Etriel’s nether lips.

<SWEET GODDESSES ABOVE AND BELOW!>

Etriel groaned from the incredible sensation imparted by Willow’s ministrations. She spread herself wider, dragged her legs up, and rested her heels on Willow’s shoulders. "Oh...Goddess," she gasped, "that feels...so...good…" Etriel growled as she licked her lips and twisted her nipples, thankful to every deity she’d ever heard of that she finally received her reward.

Willow’s tongue slid in and out of Etriel’s channel as far as she could manage, stroking the sides with an increased effort. Using her thumb, she applied pressure to the woman’s clit in small circles. She moved her hand in rhythm with her tongue inside of Etriel, while she allowed the fingers of her other hand to trail over Etriel’s belly. Etty’s screams of pleasure as she brushed the swollen, almost raw center rang throughout the apartment. Willow continued to sample the sweet dampness below, tasting her hot, tender folds and teasing Etriel with her tongue until she began to whimper and gasp.

The little red witch reveled in Etriel’s tantalizing bouquet, savoring it with the tip of her tongue, feeling Etriel’s violent spasms as the warrior’s overstimulated flesh reacted to Willow’s touch while her moans filled the room.

Etriel shivered from her lover’s hot and moist breath, so aroused any touch was like fire. Then Willow sucked the dampness of her desire, making her groan and thrash as Willow’s tongue made forays around her opening, up to her tiny, aching hardness, and back down to find new sweetness, to make her gasp and lift herself off the bed in ecstasy. "Oh yes…… do not stop……" Etriel moaned, as she pumped her hips, mashing her sex into Willow’s face while the tension in her belly swelled and her sex quivered from the oncoming surge of pleasure. Then her breath caught in her throat as she said, "Oh…… oh right there…… right there," the words rushing from her mouth as she felt the onset of her explosion arrive.

Etriel arched up off the bed, gritting her teeth. She witnessed the bright flash of her orgasm as the shockwave swept out from her center, and traveled through her body in a steady pulse. Her hips bucked violently and she uttered a high-pitched squeal signaling her release.

Willow’s tongue danced over the hard throbbing nub, pushing Etriel’s orgasm further, making her tremble until the warrior’s entire body went stiff momentarily as another bolt ripped through her. Her toes curled and she shook uncontrollably as the waves of another orgasm crashed through her.

Then without a moment’s respite, Willow replaced her questing tongue with three tiny fingers as she pressed them inside Etriel’s quivering sex. Etriel tried to catch her breath, tried to ignore the incredible sensations running rampant through her nervous system. But she knew she was lost. Etriel rapidly approached her third climax and knew it was going to be even more powerful than the last. With her eyes locked on Willow’s, Etriel held the headboard in a death-grip and gyrated her hips against the steady thrusting of the Little Red Witch’s fingers. Meanwhile, Etriel’s enchantress devoured her sex, alternating between licking her clit and the slick folds around it, building up her tension to thermonuclear levels, then backing off slightly, keeping Etriel dancing on the edge. Then Willow drew Etriel’s blood-engorged nub into her mouth and sucked greedily while she thrust her fingers into the red head with fast, hard jabs. Etriel met her thrusts, moaning louder and harder until the bright white bolt of her orgasm raced through her, sending her body into an orgasming symphony of spasms.

"Oh...Oh! My! Sweet! Goddess!" she cried out, finally squeezing her eyes shut and cutting off the stare she’d shared with Willow.

After her lover bonelessly collapsed onto the bed, Willow removed Etriel’s feet from her shoulders and gently laid them to rest. She then climbed into bed and held the trembling woman in her arms tightly, while delivering butterfly kisses on her flushed cheeks and dampened forehead.

"Willow…" Etriel whispered her name before she fell into a deep slumber caused by satiated exhaustion. Willow softly arranged Etriel’s hair to ensure the sleeping woman’s comfort before she cradled her body close to her in an embrace that combined both love and protectiveness. For the first time, Willow would be the one to watch over Etriel. To protect her and shower her with devotion as Etriel had during the past two years.

<Now, it’s your turn, Etty…> she thought as she smiled down on her new paramour.

<I love you.>

The End

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