Chapter Two: The Peak of the Mountain
Xander walked into their motel room and laid the bag that he had been carrying carefully onto one of the beds. They had left Arizona soon after Jason’s call, his final words being a warning that some federal agency had caught wind of their presence. He wasn’t that worried about it, although it meant he’d have to be careful about letting people see any displays of his more esoteric abilities. At least superhuman strength was hard to confirm on sight.
He had to admit though, Orson had been right. The mask had prevented identification, just as Jason’s helmet would prevent him from being identified. Maybe there was something to the whole secret identity thing.
“Orson left a lot for you,” Vi said, noting the weight of the bag as she walked up behind him. Xander had left soon after they had arrived at the hotel to check out the bank that Orson had had his safety deposit box in. She couldn’t exactly blame him for his impatience, nor for wanting to find out what his mentor had left him. He may not have dwelled on it too much when they were driving around the southwest, but being in the actual city was too much of a temptation to deny.
“Yeah,” Xander replied absently, his hand hesitating over the zipper of the large black duffle bag. He was extremely conscious of the young girl’s presence over his shoulder. Frowning, and glancing at the girl and her guardian, he picked up the bag again and headed toward the bathroom. Before closing the door, he stuck his head out. “I’ll be a little while.”
The potential watched in wordless shock as he shut the door and locked it.
He didn’t feel very good about doing it, and it demonstrated a rather large amount of mistrust that wasn’t necessarily deserved, but it wasn’t his choice to make. Orson’s belongings had been left for him to find in order to help him survive. The old Iron Fist had kept many secrets, many from even him, but it had always been for a reason.
Orson had told him that he had let go of pretty much everything from his old life. But, evidently the old man hadn’t meant that literally. Not all the way anyways. Xander couldn’t imagine that this was kept locked away for no reason. And despite his old mentor’s rejection of much of his past, the fact that he still ensured that it would be cared for meant something.
Xander shook his head as he unzipped the bag, pulling out a small worn book. He would make his apologies later. He rubbed a thumb over faded and broken gold lettering, feeling the age of the leather and paper. Of Steam and Science: The Journal of Phineas Randall, it said. He put it down on the cold tile of the bathroom.
Pulling out more objects, Xander emptied the bag as unemotionally as he could. He knew who the old journal belonged to. Orson had mentioned him a couple of times in his own journal, and in conversation. Orson’s father, as hard as it was to believe. Dead for many decades, but he had been as much of an adventurer as Orson had been.
The items lay around him, almost an accusation. Xander sniffed once as he looked at them. There were a few books and small items, probably antiques of some sort. He picked up a small leather bag, hearing coins clink together as he did so. Drawing the string back, he emptied the bag into his hand.
Seven thin golden coins fell into his palm. He didn’t recognize them off hand, but they all had vaguely Asian script on them. Looking closer at one, Xander frowned, his stomach sinking. He recognized the symbol. And then another, and another.
Putting the coins back into the coin purse, the Iron Fist went back to the duffle bag. He unzipped a side pocket and pulled out another journal whose author was now deceased. Flipping through, he came to the relevant passage and illustrations. It merely confirmed what he already knew. Which just raised more questions.
Vi sighed, resisting the urge to look back at the locked door, or to break it down and drag the boy back into the room. He had been in there for the last half hour, doing whatever it was that he was doing without them.
“I’m sure he’ll tell us when he’s ready,” Nancy said, from her seat near the window. She had been trying to read a text on supernatural occurrences in Texas, but Vi’s constant fidgeting was rather distracting. At least Jenny had managed to get out of it, having been gone to purchase groceries and supplies for this leg of their journey. She had left some time before Xander had left for the bank, thereby missing his rather sudden seclusion. The watcher was sure that when the woman returned, the teacher would have some choice words for her student.
Vi sat up on the bed, shifting to draw her legs under her. The book she had been trying to read was forgotten. She remembered another book that Xander had kept hidden from the group. And try as she might, she couldn’t figure out where he had managed to hide the large yellow book. “But, he should be doing it out here. With us.”
Nancy narrowed her eyes slightly, easily figuring out that her young charge had meant the singular form of that particular pronoun. “I know. Although I think that you would rather that he just be here to spend time with you in general.”
The potential blushed slightly and looked away, though her Watcher only said it teasingly. It wasn’t like Xander wasn’t a good guy and that Nancy would disapprove. “That’s…that’s not what I meant.”
“I know,” the Watcher repeated, more seriously this time. Sometimes it was hard to remember that Xander was still so young. “But, he needs to figure these things out on his own. And trying to push him too hard is just going to push him farther away.”
“I don’t think he should be keeping all of these secrets,” Vi said, once more turning to face the door. It weighed so heavily on him, she could tell that much. And with all of the threats that he faced, that they all faced, they should be facing them together. While she wasn’t able to fight as well as the others yet, she had learned a great deal. Xander’s teachings had enhanced her abilities to some extent and she found that she was able to utilize the limited power that being a potential gave her in different ways to achieve some measure of what a Slayer could do. She wasn’t a part of the fight yet, but secretly Vi hoped that she could be, without the deaths of any of the previous Slayers.
Nancy nodded, feeling the same way. Although not as intensely. She was keeping Xander’s secret, as was Giles and the others. But, she knew that Xander planned on returning to the Hellmouth by the end of summer, and his continued presence in Sunnydale as the Iron Fist would eventually be heard by the Watchers’ Council if it hadn’t been already. She didn’t believe that it should be a secret though. The Council was a force for good and Xander’s open cooperation would only be of benefit for them all. Ultimately, it was his choice to make. For now anyway.
Seven coins. From seven cities. By all reason and logic and history it should have been impossible. What he had been told about the Cities by Orson and Lei Kung had been wrong. Well, not necessarily wrong, just incomplete.
Seven coins. From Seven Cities. On Earth, and according to the information he had found in one of the books from Orson’s safe deposit box, they had been found on Earth, all at the same time and of the same age. Seven Cities linking up to Earth at only specific and unique times, and somehow objects from those mystical realms had come to Earth, and been brought together. The implication was obvious, and only confirmed by what he had found in Phineas’ journal.
The basics had been right. The Seven Cities were separate from Earth as determined metaphysically. But, that wasn’t to say that there weren’t ways around it. Phineas Randall had found those ways. A genius, way ahead of his time, Orson’s father had invented interdimensional gateways that linked the Seven Cities to Earth. It didn’t make the Tournament useless in terms of travel, as the gateways were very small and only allowed a few people at any one time to make the journey, but it meant that it was no longer as vital as it may have been in the past. And that desperation was unnecessary since there was now always a lifeline between worlds.
It was not a matter of numbers at any rate. It was a matter of perception. And the simple fact was that the Seven Cities were not as disconnected as they appeared, or presented themselves, to be.
As angry as he was at Orson for keeping this from him, he couldn’t help but smile at the thought of another Randall changing everything. Like father, like son.
Of course, he couldn’t necessarily be sure that Orson knew any of it. The last Iron Fist had not mentioned any of this in his journal, and it could have been that he had never looked at any of this himself, only packed it away to be lost in time. Orson had rejected his past before, this was only another part of it.
But, there might be secrets in here that could help him. Secrets that could have helped Orson, had they been known beforehand. If he had just taken the time to look.
Xander sighed, looking up at the closed door that separated the bathroom from the main area of their motel room. He supposed there was a lesson in that. And as sure that Orson had been about secrecy and preserving the Iron Fist from those that would seek to utilize that power for harm, that hadn’t kept him alive.
Maybe he did have to start being more open. To start trusting people with more about what it meant to be the Iron Fist. He couldn’t be completely sure about their trustworthiness, but that was all part of being part of the world. He couldn’t hide himself away from it like Orson did. If he was to be more than just a shadow in the night, alone and separate from everything and everyone he held dear, he would have to start trusting people.
Buffy lashed out in a vicious kick, sending a vampire slamming into a wall full of pipes with a boot in the face. She moved in, stabbing down with her stake, dusting the large demon that had been trailing her through the electrical tunnels. A shadow moved over her, causing her to look up to see…
The other Slayer grabbing the shoulder of another demon that had tried to strike the distracted blonde Slayer. Kendra spun it around, striking it across the face to stun it and create an opening. Pulling a stake from her coat she moved in before it could recover and staked it through the heart, the vampire turning to dust before being able to hit the ground.
“Thanks,” Buffy said, grinning as she stood up.
Kendra nodded, looking around them for more vampires. The presence of two Slayers during the summer had had a profound impact on how things were on the Hellmouth. No longer were vampires willing to go out at night to feed except when absolutely necessary.
They had taken more and more precautions to hide and blend in, picking the most out of the way places for their lairs. The paradigm had shifted, and vampires and demons were no longer able to do what they pleased, content with the odds.
It meant that lives were saved, and the streets were safe, but it also meant that it was a great deal harder to find them. And on top of that, when they were found, there tended to be larger groups of them, the vampires having taken to using numbers to their advantage.
“Der are more,” Kendra said, sensing the presence of many vampires coming in. Too many.
Amy, the last member of the group moved closer, having stayed out of the way for the actual fight. She had created a location spell that allowed her to find where the vampires had been hiding, though it was of somewhat limited use in the tunnels.
Giles’ training had helped greatly, broadening the types of spells that she could do. The still rather neophyte witch was developing quickly though, especially in magic that could be applied to combat, though it was still mostly theoretical at this point. That was why she was here, helping the Slayers clear out a vampire nest.
“Where?” Buffy scanned the small junction they were standing in. There were multiple ways in and out, and it was too dark to see very far down any of them. She pulled another stake out, straining her senses for any indication of where the additional vampires might appear from. Unfortunately, that was one Slayer trait that she was lacking in.
“All around us,” Kendra said, pulling her arms up in a combat stance. As if by invitation, the vampires melted into view, coming into the dim light of fluorescents as they surrounded the three young women. There were too many to count, this being the largest group they had ever come across.
Unlike many, the majority were baring weapons. Not exactly sophisticated ones, but the collection of pipes, machetes, knives, and bats would not make anyone’s day very pleasant.
“Too many,” Amy said, looking around at all of the vampires that were grinning at them with malevolent smiles. Swinging weapons didn’t help her mood. As good as Kendra and Buffy were, there was no way that they could take out that many vampires. Not by themselves.
She reached into herself, finding the link that she possessed that led to the mystical realms where the gods resided. The connection that allowed her, one of only a few, that could call upon the gods to do her bidding. “Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, I beseech thee, bring the light. Cast these demons down into Hell.”
Nothing happened, Amy gulping as she grasped for her magic as the vampires closed in on them. Buffy and Kendra had already started to engage them, doing well for the most part. But, they would be quickly overwhelmed. She had a stake of her own, but she was under little delusion that she could possibly survive because of that. “Uh, please?”
The witch’s hopes sank as nothing happened for a moment, before convulsing as if she had just been shocked. Her left eye glowed, erupting into a brilliant yellow and orange flash as the goddess answered her call. Mystical sunlight poured through the junction, nearly bending around obstacles and corners in order to burn the demons to dust.
The two Slayers had to close their eyes as the light engulfed them, though they could hear the vampires scream out in pain as they died. As the light passed, they opened them again, seeing nothing. All of the vampires had been wiped out. They turned as one to the witch, shocked by the power that she had just demonstrated.
“Wow,” Amy managed to croak out, before slumping to her knees. She was completely and utterly drained, the spell taking nearly all of her energy to accomplish. It was a good thing that there were no vampires left or she’d have been left an easy target.
The Slayers rushed over to check on her.
“Where’s Xander?” Jenny said, as she started to place her groceries into the small refrigerator that was in the closet. She glanced back at the Watcher as she did so. “He not back yet?”
Nancy looked over at the still closed bathroom door. “He’s been in there for the last half hour or so. You need any help with that?”
Jenny shook her head, though her attention was on the closed door. She knew that he was more honest with her than he was with literally anybody else. But, the time that she had spent with the Watcher and her potential was enough to convince her that they were as trustworthy as anyone, despite the fact that they were affiliated with the Council. It wasn’t her choice to make though, and she would support Xander in whatever he did decide to do. Still, it did strike her as a tad paranoid.
She had set what didn’t need to be kept cold onto the top of the refrigerator and had closed the closet door, when the one to the bathroom opened. The computer teacher turned around watching as Xander came into the main room, bag over his shoulder and a tight expression on his face.
His eyes scanned the room, coming to a rest first on the redheaded potential and then on the Watcher. Xander still wasn’t completely sure about the decision he had made while he had been alone with only the writings of Orson and his father for guidance. He had to take a moment before speaking. “Orson once told me that I shouldn’t trust the Watchers’ Council. I don’t think he was completely wrong, but I think there are exceptions to most rules.”
Reaching into his pocket, Xander pulled out the bag of coins and tossed it onto the bed next to Vi. He waited as the potential picked it up and opened it, spilling the coins onto the bed.
She looked up at him. “What are these?”
“Coins from the Seven Cities of Heaven,” Xander answered, shrugging as the bag shifted on his shoulder. “I have no idea exactly how they got here, or how Orson managed to get his hands on them, but from what Phineas wrote, there are other ways into the Cities beyond the prize in the Tournament.”
“Phineas?” Nancy echoed, wondering why Xander was willing to be so open now.
The Iron Fist nodded. “Orson’s father. He wrote a journal too. Turns out that he knew a lot more about things than anybody on Earth.”
“Why are you…why now?” the Watcher continued. She couldn’t help but wonder how much of an influence Orson had had on the boy, and whether or not that was a good thing. “Why tell us all of this now?”
“Orson died with his secrets,” Xander said, explaining as best as he could. He was going with his gut as opposed to his head as it was. It was still up to debate which was right. “But, they didn’t kill him. He said that I couldn’t trust the Watchers’ Council. That the power of the Iron Fist is too great a temptation for them. And, I listened.”
“But, you’ve been training me,” Vi interjected, her eyes wide as he looked up at him.
Xander nodded, looking over at the younger girl. “I’ve been training you, because I want you to be as prepared as possible in case you have to fight. I’ve been training you because I don’t want you to die. Maybe that does go against what he advised. But, just because I don’t trust the Watchers’ Council, doesn’t mean that I don’t trust you.”
“So what does that mean for us?” Nancy asked, turning her attention to the coins that were on the bedspread of the other bed. “What do those mean?”
“There are things that I can’t tell you, things that I won’t tell you,” Xander said, looking at the women in turn again, and ending on the Watcher. In the end, that was what she was, duty bound. And he understood duty. “But, I can tell you this. I’m not going to be keeping all of it a secret anymore. Hell, the world already knows that I did something last week, even if they don’t know that it was me. Maybe it’s better this way.”
Jenny frowned as she caught what he was referring to. The attack in Phoenix which she had only somewhat imagined was him. She had not actually asked, and he hadn’t offered. But, it seemed reasonable to conclude, only the fact that there were two giving any weight to the idea that it hadn’t been him.
“So, I’m going to be a lot more honest with you all now.” Xander reached into the bag and pulled out Phineas’ journal. “And part of that is going through what’s in here.”
“So did you find anything?” Lilah asked impatiently. The skittish figure seated in front of her desk was annoying enough. The fact that he may have information that could be of use annoyed her even further since she couldn’t simply have him killed.
The man nodded nervously. The woman that had hired him for his rather unique abilities intimidated the hell out of him. The lawyer may have been sexy as all get out, but he didn’t imagine that she wasn’t extremely dangerous as well. “Yes, there was some type of energy that was emitted at the site you specified. However, I am unsure the exact nature of it . It’s nothing that I’ve ever felt before.”
The lawyer nodded calmly. Inwardly she was ecstatic though. It was a minor breakthrough, but the ability to detect the aftermath of whatever fighter had been involved with in Phoenix could have vast implications. It was just unfortunate that nothing could be detected at the site they had used to test Orson’s ability. It would have been good to be able to crosscheck the results, but too much time had passed since Orson’s tests and any residual energy had since dissipated.
“Very well,” Lilah said after a moment. “I want you to go Sunnydale. The man may have been there as well. I want a full report in two days, Garson.”
He nodded hesitantly. “I can do that. Only…”
“Out with it,” the lawyer nearly snapped.
“Sunnydale’s the Hellmouth. I can’t guarantee that I can detect anything there, considering the amount of interference that will be put out,” the psychic explained. “And, that’s assuming that your target was there recently and used his power. If not, then I can’t promise you anything.”
Lilah nodded, waving a hand in dismissal. “I understand. I’ve given you access to the firm’s magical detection grid. That will let you scan other areas as well in case he isn’t in Sunnydale.”
“That’ll only detect the signature if it’s large enough, and timing’s going to be tight on that,” the mousy looking Garson said, gulping. He didn’t like that additional responsibility. “How are you going to move people in place to take him with that sort of limitation?”
The lawyer glared at the man. “You can teleport people can’t you?”
The man nodded quickly.
“Then when he shows up, you’ll help move a team into place, understand?” Lilah continued, still irritated by the man’s lack of thought.
Garson kept nodding.
Lilah kept her rising annoyance out of her voice, though the frostiness that was always there was left in. She could work out the details later. “Good. Now go. You’re wasting time.”
The psychic got up and left, knowing that he would have to produce results if he wished to keep his not insubstantial fee. As well as his life.
Jason sighed as he leaned against the side of the building. He was somewhat hidden in the alley by shadows, but still far enough forward that he could see what was going on down the street. It didn’t surprise him, and in truth he had seen it coming. Still, it was never a pleasant sight.
The cops were still on the scene, with technicians photographing and collecting evidence. The bodies had already been removed, but the chalk outlines were a clear reminder that people had lost their lives that day. A drive-by by motorcycle, three men taken out by a few riders.
American Eagle looked away, glancing over at the crowd. He was glad that no bystanders got put into body bags, a miracle in and of itself. Even from a distance he could tell that it had been a few Nords that had gone down. He didn’t blame himself completely, but he did bear some responsibility.
Jason shifted slightly as a man broke off from the crowd, headed toward him. It didn’t take long for the Native American to recognize the police officer. It was Oliver, with a particularly unhappy expression on his face. He waited for the detective to walk over, keeping his face expressionless. He’d kept his head down in the last week or so, deciding to take the advice that he had given Xander. Costumes and superheroics would do nobody any good at the present moment.
“Three dead,” Oliver said without greeting, dragging his childhood friend further into the alleyway. He didn’t want any of his fellow officers to see what he was doing. “A few shots went through a storefront, a woman got tagged in the leg.”
Jason frowned, leaning back against the wall as Oliver let him go. He had seen her go into an ambulance, not really needing the information. He wasn’t able to see the full extent of her injuries however. The sirens hadn’t helped his frame of mind any. “She going to be okay?
Oliver shrugged, looking up towards the mouth of the alley. “It was a clean hit. Through the meat, so she should be fine. But, this is just the beginning.”
“I know,” Jason responded tensely. He didn’t like the situation any more than the cop did. His head told him that any change in equilibrium, legally caused or not, usually led to turmoil, even if the initial change was positive. Of course, being responsible for it didn’t make him feel any better because of that.
Detective Begay shifted his attention back to Phoenix’s resident superhero. He stared at him intently, easily detecting the pain in the other man’s eyes. He knew that it was reflected in his own. It never got easier, despite how many people died on the streets of Phoenix. “Tell me you have something.”
“Nothing useful,” Jason said, shaking his head. “They’re ghosts. I asked around, no idea where these guys have their clubhouse. Hell, I can’t even find out where they’re originally chartered.”
“Me neither.” Oliver grimaced, frustrated at the lack of information. He had run a request through the usual channels. Even going federal and asking his contacts in DEA and other organization to check their records for anything on the Hellions. It had all come up dry.
“There is one thing,” Strongbow said, hesitantly as he stared over at his friend. He knew the shot. They’d both grown up in the same place, and had many of the same adventures together. Seen the same things. And though it had been him caught in the explosion in that uranium mine, it very well could have been Oliver. “I talked to the Old Woman down at the Hole. She’s heard tale of them. Said they were Yenaldlooshi, at least some of them.”
Oliver furrowed his eyebrows, attention focused on the new information. Jason going to her for help meant that he was taking things extremely seriously. He couldn’t imagine what had been traded for it. “How sure is she?”
There was no question of disbelief. They’d both seen the same things as children, and while there was much their parents had told them that they did not believe, the fact that things unknown to the world at large walked the earth was not one of them.
American Eagle shrugged. “As sure as she can be about anything nowadays. But, it certainly explains why you couldn’t find out anything on them.”
“Skinwalkers,” Oliver muttered, looking away. He rubbed his chin, feeling the rough stubble on his face. He was tired, the case consuming his hours, and he couldn’t even remember the last time he had shaved. The detective couldn’t see the crowd, but he knew that they would still be there, gathered at the site of recent carnage. It was human nature. “Forensics said that there were at least ten bikes unaccounted for in the park. And that’s just the ones we know about. You’re not going to be able to take this on alone.”
“If it comes down to it, I will,” Jason said, frowning.
“We got reports up north that a bunch of Mayans are heading down. Probably around here to pick up some extra turf that they think the Nords can’t keep a hold of.” Oliver looked back over at Jason, wondering if he’d end up finding his friend’s body one day soon. “Your mysterious partner coming back to help?”
American Eagle shook his head. He had seen some of what Xander was capable of doing. If the federal government was coming for them, the kid would be the more valuable catch. Xander may not be as strong, but the magic he could call upon was something else. Besides, he knew the area a lot better; even fit in better. The Iron Fist coming back would just be too visible. Also, the kid had other things to worry about at the moment. And he didn’t exactly want to drag the kid’s family into this thing. “That’s not going to be possible. He’s already gone.”
“What are we going to do?” Oliver said, knowing that he’d have to get involved as well. The dirty type of involved. While he was never one to turn his back on a fight, the fact was that SHIELD was undoubtedly looking at them quite closely. It was a big risk doing anything even slightly less than aboveboard under such scrutiny. But, he couldn’t let Jason do it by himself.
“Rather quick to jump in aren’t you?” Jason broke a wry smile, not really feeling any humor though. Despite his abilities, even he was worried. The numbers were against him, and looked to be rising, and even an additional man wouldn’t help that much. But, he had to hand to the cop. Oliver was nothing if not a straight shooter.
“Can we at least pretend that I’m actually a cop?” Detective Begay responded annoyed. “So what do we use? Silver?”
“That’s what the Old Woman said,” Jason replied. He had a full machine shop back at his place on the reservation, handed down from his father. He’d already been playing around with a few ideas, but there was nothing concrete yet. “And that’s assuming that she’s right. Or even if she is, she only said a few of them are. We need to know about the rest. What they are.”
Oliver shook his head. It had been a long time since he’d had to face anything supernatural. The last time had nearly gotten him killed. Jason too. A stupid thing in their teens years when they had come across a magical black bear with a less than respectful manner. But, he knew the stories. And he knew that they would die this time if they handled it less than seriously. “Great. So we need to come up with a weapon that we don’t even know that’ll work. Against an enemy we aren’t actually sure about. The day’s just getting better and better.”
He didn’t even want to consider that they might end up having to off a couple of Mayans if they stumbled upon things as well.
Jason smiled at his old friend. “Don’t feel bad. You get to put the bad guys down.”
“He had a father, and mother, that loved him. They brought him to a place that he wasn’t meant to go, and still made the best of things,” Nancy said, looking up from the journal that she had been flipping through. While it was assuredly years ahead of its time when it had been written, technology had rapidly outpaced 99% of the ideas that Phineas had come up with. Of course, that remaining 1% was still revolutionary. Interdimensional portals made stable through science. Much better than the still rather iffy ones that magic could create.
She didn’t know exactly how it worked, the journal wasn’t detailed to explain it to someone without a great deal of experience, but given the coins and what was written in the book, the Watcher believed that it was true. It was information that the Council would surely want to hear about.
“Is that what you pulled out of it?” Xander asked, getting up to stretch his legs. They had spent hours going over what they had found. It was already evening, and he had barely gotten up. There was less about the Iron Fist than he would have liked. Still, learning about the history and culture of K’un-L’un from an outsider’s perspective was extremely helpful, even if it was a century or so out of date.
Nancy looked over at him, watching as he paced. “Unless you want to try making a trans-dimensional inducer, pretty much. I’m sorry Xander, but there’s precious little in here that would help you in what you have to face, unless you want to know where the best shops in K’un-L’un are.”
There was precious little in there that would help anybody for that matter. As much as the Council wanted her to report everything that they thought important, which was everything even slightly more than normal, the truth was that their demands stemmed from a need to control everything. And a lack of trust in their own employees. Of course, the frustration that she may have with the Council at times wasn’t why she would keep her mouth shut. She wanted Xander to trust her, and she needed to deserve it.
“It’ll be okay,” Vi said quietly, seeing the frustration on his face.
Xander nodded, glancing over at her. “I don’t know what I was expecting.”
“Answers,” Jenny said, sad that he hadn’t found what he wanted to. Or needed to. “Answers that would fill the void that he left.”
He smiled at her briefly, but warmly. It had hit a little too close to the mark. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
The computer teacher smiled back. If they had been alone, she could have done more to comfort him. Not necessarily sex, but she had to behave a hell of a lot differently when Nancy and Vi were there. It wasn’t even that they were Council, it was just the situation.
She glanced over at the Watcher, knowing that she could trust her for many things, many of them in regards to her boyfriend. It was odd that she was the one that had to keep secrets. And with Xander being honest, although mostly about the Iron Fist part of his life, she was still keeping things hidden. Of course, she knew that Xander’s reasoning for wanting to keep their relationship from the two other people in the room was to protect her. She had told him that Joyce had figured out that they were seeing each other, and while it hadn’t gone over particularly well, it had pushed him in the way she had thought it would. He had gotten protective and stupid. She had managed to calm him down, although he was still rather bone-headedly protective.
She couldn’t do it forever though. She’d have to start telling the truth at some point, not only about her and Xander, but about who she really was.
The gypsy turned back to Xander, noticing that he was still rather tense.
The situation had hit a rather awkward point. There was only so much he could actually do to find out any information on the Tournament. Orson’s safe deposit box had been the only solid lead he had around here. And with the feds likely still looking for him, he couldn’t just roam around the highways meting out justice wherever it may be needed. There was no real reason to stick around to spin his wheels. Jason or someone from the Sunnydale crew would call him if need be, but beyond that he was free of the Earthly conflicts.
“We leave in the morning.” Xander turned to face the assembled women, having made his decision. He looked at them each in turn. Vi was on the bed closest to the window, seated near Nancy. Janna was at the desk, and turned around to look at him. The divisions were clear. “I can rent a car if need be, but I can’t just sit here and act like this is supposed to be a real vacation. I tried to, but I can’t. Nancy, I know that there are still sites that you wanted to visit, so you can take the Land Rover and do that with Vi and Jenny. I’ll be going to Boston, and then heading to New York after that. You know where I’ll be going after that.”
None of the girls seemed to be particularly surprised by his sentiment. It had been a while coming. He had been restless, and with good reason.
“We’re with you,” Vi stated, not even looking at her Watcher for guidance. “We came with you to support you, even if there are places we wanted to go, we’d rather be there for you.”
The other two women nodded in agreement.
“They’re gone,” Phil said, taking a seat at the desk in his motel room. “If they are still in town, they’re keeping their heads down. They’re smart; we aren’t going to find them like this.”
Director Fury nodded to himself, leaning back in his chair. It wasn’t necessarily what he wanted to hear, but it wasn’t all bad news. The fact that the two of them could pull off an attack like they did with no positive identification and then disappear and stay gone spoke of more than just muscle and super powers. It spoke of intelligence. Not necessarily of being a genius, as Tony Stark more than had that handled, and promptly blowing it at the last minute, but of being smart enough to know what was necessary and to follow through.
Irony abounded, but the men that he couldn’t catch were more than likely the men that he would want on his team.
“Is there any more evidence to be collected on site?” the director asked after a moment.
Phil shook his head unnecessarily. He spoke into the phone, “it’s all been collected and tagged. We don’t need to be here to review the data.”
“Good,” Nick replied, as he scanned an incoming interdepartmental memo. Evidently ATF was tracking gang movement, and Phoenix was about to become party central. It wasn’t his main concern however, unless his two mysterious do-gooders made a reappearance. His gut told him that that was extremely unlikely. “Come on back.”
“Sir,” Agent Coulson said, a hint of disapproval in his voice. The metahumans may not be there anymore, but there was still some work to be done. “The job’s not finished.”
The director understood where the man was coming from. He didn’t like leaving a job half-finished either. But, sometimes it was necessary. Although there were still a few avenues that had yet to be explored. “I know. But, we aren’t going to get them in Phoenix. Not now. I have a feeling that they aren’t going to stay gone forever. Don’t worry. We’ll find them.”
“Yes, sir,” Phil responded, accepting the explanation. “I’ll pack up our equipment and leave first thing in the morning.”
“This is nice right?” Vi asked hopefully, watching as Xander sipped from his drink. Ms. Calendar had wanted to talk to Nancy in private, so the kids had been sent out. Xander was still rather depressed over things, but she had hoped to cheer him up. It hadn’t worked so far, but she still had some hope.
Xander turned and nodded, tossing in a smile for good measure. He felt kind of bad for not being better company. She didn’t deserve his moodiness, though he couldn’t exactly shake it off very easily. He was getting better, but every so often, like now, he was reminded by what he had lost. Still, he had it better than many. “Yeah, it’s nice.”
The potential smiled back brightly, though she knew that he was doing it for her benefit. She walked beside him in silence as they wandered the streets. It was a generally nice area with shops lining the street, so there were still people around despite it getting on in hours. She spotted a bench on the sidewalk and dragged the moopy teenager over to sit down.
“So what do you think this new potential will be like?” Vi asked after a moment. It was clear that Xander wouldn’t be the one to start the conversation. It was rather unnerving. She hadn’t known Xander that long, but knew that she wanted the old one back.
Xander turned his head to look over at her, taking a sip from his coffee before answering. “I don’t know. Giles didn’t give me anything on her, but I suppose that’s part of the point.”
Vi frowned, wondering just how bad it could possibly be for some of the other girls that were in her situation. Kendra was nice enough for the most part, under the circumstances. It hadn’t been that hard to figure out that the Jamaican Slayer had picked up on the attention that Xander had shown her that might have otherwise been desired. And she had to consider that she had been extraordinarily lucky to have Nancy as her Watcher and “mom.” That Nancy and Giles were okay with checking out the conditions that this random potential was living under made her wonder about why they were working for the Watchers’ Council and whether they were representative of the people that made up the organization. Of course, that they would think it might possibly be needed spoke volume. Still, she had only met a couple of the others from the home office, and they had generally just been polite, when they talked to her at all.
“Are you going to take her back with you?” Vi asked, half hoping and half dreading the response. She liked the status quo, even if she wouldn’t be able to just stay in Sunnydale. Still, it would be nice to have another potential around. As good as it may be to be around the Slayers, there was still some distance between them.
Xander frowned, looking off into the distance. He watched as people went about their business, never sparing them a glance. He smiled briefly at them, wondering if anybody out there had any idea what actually went on at night. In truth, it was more than likely. Anyone one of them may be a Jason Strongbow. Simply keeping their heads down, raising them only in secrecy when the need arose. “Depends.”
“On how she’s being treated.” Vi had been with him long enough to know the reason why he had started to check out the potentials. It was sweet of him to care, even with much of her not believing that a potential wouldn’t be treated well by her field Watcher.
Xander nodded, turning to face her. “You could say that.”
His eyes were drawn away as he spoke, watching as a particular figure drew his attention. The Iron Fist didn’t know why exactly, but he could tell that something wasn’t right. Something just felt off. Allowing his vision to continue to travel, he did nothing as the man walked past him.
It felt even more wrong as the man, seemingly in his twenties, walked behind them. Xander shifted slightly, keeping track through the corner of his eye, trying to pick up something visible that would confirm what he felt in his gut.
“Shit,” Xander grunted under his breath. He had an idea of what it was, although he had no way of being sure, his chi didn’t have the detecting powers that Slayers had. He glanced over at the potential beside him, wondering what he should do.
“What is it?” Vi asked, concerned. She had caught his attention being shifted, and from the expression on his face, it seemed serious.
“I don’t suppose you can sense supernatural beings at all,” Xander asked, turning again to keep the man he had spotted in sight. The way he moved seemed to confirm his suspicion; the guy just walked like a predator. Like he was hunting.
“No,” Vi said, shaking her head. She began to get worried. Despite the additional training, she still hadn’t truly been tested in real combat. And until then, she still questioned how well she would actually be able to perform.
“Right,” Xander said, standing up. He noticed that the redhead stood up as well, leaving her coffee cup behind. “I gotta see what’s the what about this guy. I’ll be back.”
He started off, keeping his eye on his target and making sure that he wasn’t noticeable in the increasingly sparse pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk. If the man was what he suspected, there would soon be none as a victim was chosen. Good and bad for him.
Vi stepped into line beside him, gripping his arm. “I’m coming with you.”
Xander was a bit surprised at her forwardness. “He could be a vampire. I can take him by myself, you can wait here till I get back.”
The potential shook her head after a moment’s hesitation. “No…no, I’ll do it.”
She wasn’t sure why she had volunteered, but felt that she had too. Maybe it was just because she was a potential, and felt that it was part of what she had to do. Part of her destiny. Or maybe she wanted, rather dumbly, to impress the boy she liked. Either way, she couldn’t back down now.
The Iron Fist glanced at her, easily seeing the steel in her eyes. He couldn’t actually argue about it right now, and he would likely lose anyway. He was content to rationalize it by the fact that he would be there watching. “Fine.”
It didn’t take them long to get close to the supposed vampire. Xander’s instincts were confirmed as they noticed the guy grab someone quickly and drag her into a narrow alley. It was likely a relatively young one, since he hadn’t been all that secretive about picking a victim. Although Xander and Vi had stayed far enough away to stay out of easy sight, a hard look would have picked them out.
Pulling out of Vi’s grasp, he quickly walked over to a tree that was lining part of the sidewalk and pulled off a thick branch. Snapping it with his preternaturally enhanced strength, and stripping it down some, he handed Vi the makeshift stake. “I get the girl out, you stake the vampire.”
Vi grasped the stake firmly, feeling its rough surface in her hands. It had suddenly gotten a lot more real. She nodded up at him.
Xander looked into her eyes, seeing the fear. It wasn’t really the fear of death though, he knew that much. It was that Vi was afraid of failure. For a single moment, he thought that she was afraid of failing him, but it was gone as quickly as it came. “You can do this. You’ve been trained for this. Control yourself, and you control him. Violet, you can do this.”
There were no smiles. No sympathy. If she could do it, she would do it. If she couldn’t, then she wasn’t ready to do it to begin with, and that would be partly his failing as well. Still, he believed that she could. And that she would.
He flanked her as the potential approached the mouth of the alleyway quickly. Xander heard signs of struggle, knowing that the vampire was toying with his victim first. If he had suspected that the vampire would have gone straight for the kill, he would have moved in fast. Vi’s desire be damned.
The vampire looked up as the interlopers entered his killing field. His eyes glowed malevolently, street light glinting off of sharpened fangs. “Get out of here.”
Xander said nothing, tilting his head slightly as he heard the growl. He was scanning the alley, picking up where things were. The vampire had his victim in front of him, the woman facing the ally, an odd position. She was alive, and scared, tears creating dark paths of mascara down her cheeks. One of his hands was around her throat, to keep her neck tilted for him to feed, but it could easily snap her neck. Still, the vampire looked angry. Angry and annoyed. Different enough to use to his advantage.
Or more specifically, Vi’s advantage.
“Let her go,” Vi commanded, with more authority in her voice than she would have thought possible. A remarkably calm tone of voice, considering. Another voice ran through her head; Xander’s running over the lessons that he had taught her. It was soothing, and did much to settle her nerves. She was still frightened, but noticed that her hands didn’t shake.
The vampire smiled mockingly, noticing as the girl raised the stake out in front of her. For a moment, he thought that he was facing the Slayer, but that was impossible. From what he had heard, the Slayer was stuck on the Hellmouth in California. And a blonde.
Which made this just some do-gooder that had learned a bit too much about what bumped in the night, and had gotten delusions of station. The girl was way out of her depth. Even the boy behind her didn’t seem all that impressive if he was letting her take the lead on it. He shoved the women he was holding to the side, not even watching as her head bounced off of the stone wall as she slid into semi-unconsciousness. He could drain her later.
“If you’re so keen on interrupting my meal, I guess I can start with you.” The vampire stalked towards the young redhead menacingly. He chuckled derisively as the girl continued to hold the stake in front of her body. He moved in closer, pulling back for a punch.
Vi could see the right lead easily telegraphed, and though it was happening in less than a second she was able to mentally predict into the fight. The potential was already dodging away as the vampire finished moving back and shot his fist forward. She countered with a right fist of her, the stake in her left hand.
The vampire was surprised as his blow missed, and the young girl punched him hard in the cheek, way harder than he had thought possible from such a thin girl. He grunted as he turned and recovered, tasting copper in his mouth as his cheek had been cut by one of his sharp teeth. He lashed out with a quick left, catching the girl in the shoulder as she spun away.
Vi grit her teeth as she caught part of the demon’s blow. It was relatively light, but still he was superhumanly strong and she hardly had Slayer durability. She didn’t let it slow her down as she moved in, kicking out and catching the vampire’s right knee. The potential heard it crack as the vampire fell to his knees, roaring out in pain.
She capitalized on the opening and plunged her stake down into the undead thing’s heart, even as she felt a wild fist strike her in the side of the face. It wasn’t particularly neat, but it had gotten the job done.
No fancy back and forth fight with quips like Buffy had. Just quick and efficient, like she had seen Xander do in combat.
Xander stood back, watching. It wasn’t clean, but it was over, with the right person walking away. Orson would have thought it was crap, but all things considered, it wasn’t half bad. And a hell of a lot better than he used to do.
He strode forward, stopping to put a hand on Vi’s shoulder in congratulations, before moving in to check on the woman that had almost been a victim. She had only been stunned for a little while and was already coming around. He helped her to her feet, one of her hands on the wall as she stood groggily. “You okay?”
The woman blinked a few times at the man that had come to her aid. The young girl was there as well, peering over at her. “Yes. What happened?”
Xander shrugged, knowing that the truth was nobody’s friend at the present moment. “Mugger I guess, you should be more careful.”
“But, he was…” the woman trailed off as her rattled mind filled in the seemingly impossible bits with rationalization.
The man shrugged again as he checked her over. She did not appear to have a concussion. A quick flash of his chi confirmed it. “You going to be alright getting home? Or…”
“No,” the woman shook her head rather quickly, a bit too quickly. “I can make it. I just needed a moment. Thanks.”
The woman moved off, mouthing a thank you to the girl as she left the alley quickly. Her pace wasn’t completely steady, but enough to show that she could get home okay.
Xander frowned as he watched her go. There really wasn’t anything else that he could do for her; her life was saved, and she would go home. Hopefully having learnt a valuable lesson of keeping aware of one’s surroundings. At least she was walking in the direction of the crowd.
He turned to look at the rather gleeful potential. “Congrats.”
Vi was still smiling as she rushed over to Xander. Caught up in the adrenaline and euphoria she hugged him tightly.
“Hey,” Xander said, hugging her back. He waited until she had let go before looking at her. She had taken a couple of hits, the one on the face was beginning to show up. He put a hand on it gently, noticing her wince slightly at the touch. He allowed his chi to flow from his core into his arm and hand and down through to her cheek. It healed the growing bruise and spread out to heal the other blow she had taken. “Better now?”
Vi nodded, smiling up at him. It had felt warm and nice. Sort of tingly as she felt his power heal her body. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” Xander said, smiling back. “You did good.”
The potential continued to look up at him, still feeling the adrenaline pumping in her blood. Throwing caution in the wind, she bent up and kissed him, capturing his lips with hers.
Xander could only look down in shock at the young girl’s forwardness.
“And you want me to do what with this?” the man asked, laying the twisted piece of metal down on the slick surface of the workstation. He swiveled around in his chair, glancing up at the man that was currently glowering down at him. It seemed like it was a permanent expression at this point. Smirking, the man spoke, “I assume you already checked for fingerprints.”
“Well, if you would cut loose some of your more advanced tech, I wouldn’t have to come down here now would I,” the man said, still glowering down at the other man. He had had to pull him out of a public appearance, the man still dressed in a five thousand dollar suit. The removal of a coat was the engineer’s only concession for the work. He didn’t need the condescension.
“C’mon Nick, you know that I’m out of the weapons business.” The man smiled wider, his beard twitching as he suppressed a laugh.
The director of SHIELD declined to comment, the hypocrisy of the company head was well-established when it came to the man’s personal projects. “Just scan it, Tony, I want to know if there’s any trace energy signatures that we may have missed. Look at it this way, it helps cover the fact that I have to assign a protection team because you decided to get mouthy. ”
“Alright,” Tony said, turning around in his seat and looking at the sample of girder. His admission on national television had not gone over well with the director of SHIELD. In truth, after a rare moment’s thought, Nick was right. It had been impulsive and rather egotistical, and had necessitated additional security on both him and Pepper, but he’d likely do the same thing if he had it to do over again. “JARVIS, you heard the man. Let’s see what did this.”
The highly advanced computer system didn’t take long to cycle through the various sensor sweeps that would detect if there were any residual traces of anything on the piece of metal. Laser light twinkled off of the metal’s surface as the computer did its work. “I am detecting slight levels of ionizing radiation. Nearly undetectable, and likely a byproduct of whatever caused this damage.”
The computer’s slightly accented voice hung in the air as the men considered what had just been discovered.
“Potential sources of energy?” Tony asked, frowning as he peered at a blow up of the edges of the metal. Odd that the radiation had caused this type of damage. No burns, for one thing.
“Unknown,” JARVIS stated calmly, as if it could speak in any other fashion.
Nick frowned and leaned down, hands resting on the edge of the workstation. “What’s the level of radiation that needs to be emitted to cause this type of damage.”
JARVIS repeated itself, “unknown. The present level of trace energy does not correspond to the damage that appears in this sample.”
“Isn’t that interesting,” Tony said, eyes narrowing on the sample of metal. Even taking into account the age of the piece, the data was still insufficient to extrapolate a cause or power level. Nick had been less than forthcoming about where the piece was acquired from, but he had his guesses. Even if he didn’t have the location, it was likely linked to somebody else that the federal agent wanted to hire on.
He glanced up at the one-eyed man. “What do you want to do now?”
Nick didn’t bother to answer. If even Tony Stark, with all of his genius and highly advanced technology couldn’t give him any answers, then forensic evidence would be a dead end.
Jenny looked over at the Watcher, wondering how she should broach the topic. With Xander’s admission and stance on truthfulness, she had become rather aware of her own secrets and how long she had kept them. To date, Xander had not pressed her. In truth, it was less than important now, given her current familial status as well as the fact that Angel was no longer in the city let alone her responsibility. Still, she had to go by her assumed, albeit legal, name. Though it was touching that Xander tended to refer to her by her real name when they were alone.
“We need to talk,” the gypsy said after another moment. She moved over and sat on the edge of the bed that Nancy was currently sitting on.
“What is it?” the Watcher said, noticing the conflicted expression on the computer teacher’s face.
“We haven’t really talked that much, so you don’t know much about how I got caught up in the group,” Jenny explained, turning to face her, resting a leg on the bed.
The Watcher nodded in encouragement.
“I knew what was going on before I arrived in Sunnydale,” Jenny said, folding her hands before her. “I was sent to Sunnydale.”
“What do you mean?” Nancy asked, wondering where the teacher was going with things.
“Angel,” the gypsy said simply, her fingers fidgeting in nervousness. “I was sent by my people to watch over him. Make sure that he suffered. It was vengeance for a crime that he committed a long time ago.”
The Watcher continued to look at the other woman. Angel had not been that prominent a figure in Giles’ reports, and she had not known him that long before the vampire with a soul had left Sunnydale. In truth, he had never been a very big concern. “What are you saying?”
“The others don’t know why I was sent to Sunnydale, well all of them except for Xander,” Jenny continued, making sure she didn’t give anything away about why Xander was an exception. “But, I grew to appreciate what Angel was trying to do, and I know that he has it in him to be a good man. And, he doesn’t need me watching over him. He doesn’t deserve to suffer anymore, even if he has to. But, it’s more than that now for me. I want to help the group…to help Xander in what he’s going to face.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Nancy asked, somewhat stunned by Jenny’s admission. Still, Xander knew about it, and he obviously trusted the woman. She didn’t know much about the group as a whole, having stayed on the Council side of things, but she could imagine that all of them had secrets of their own. That didn’t necessarily reflect upon their characters.
“Xander trusts you,” the gypsy explained, shrugging. In a way, she didn’t really know herself, and that explanation was as good as any. “And, it really doesn’t matter anymore now. I just didn’t want to always have this hanging over me.”
“What about the others?” the Watcher asked, still confused why the woman had chosen her to open up to.
“Xander went to Fremont because I was worried about what might be happening to the potentials.” Jenny looked away, staring at the floral print of the wallpaper. She tried to keep all emotion off of her face; a struggle if there was one. “It worked out, and if Xander trusts you, and you trust him, then I want you to trust me too. And more importantly, I want you to remember that Xander trusts you. And you’d better not make him regret that.”
“You care about him a lot,” Nancy noted. Even more so, the less than disguised threat. “Xander? You care about him.”
Jenny nodded, turning to look at Nancy intently. “Yes.”
“So does Vi,” the Watcher continued, knowing where the computer teacher was coming from. They both had students they cared for. “And I’m glad that you trust me with this, considering… And, I do value Xander’s trust. But, what about Giles?”
The gypsy hesitated before answering. Still looking Nancy in the eye, she found that she didn’t have an easy answer. As much as she had trusted Giles before, she found that she questioned how he would have taken her true history, given how influenced he was by Buffy and the Council. Giles had never really been pushed. Xander had been Xander. “I don’t know.”
Xander pushed the young girl back, blinking a few times in shock. It was the second time that such a thing had happened, and neither had been all that expected. It was lucky in the most unlucky of ways. “Vi, wait.”
The potential looked up at him, surprise and fear mixed on her face. She was surprised that she had done it, but also knew that it had not gone as expected.
“We can’t do this,” Xander said after a moment, trying to wrap his head around what had just occurred. He spoke as gently as he could, not wanting to hurt the young woman, though knowing that he was simply by stopping it.
“I…I thought you liked me?” Vi asked, a slight tremble in her voice that she couldn’t get rid of. Maybe she shouldn’t have gone along with the whole “being truthful” kick that Xander had been on. “I mean, you gave me all that extra training, and you always hang out with me...”
Xander nodded, trying to grasp for the best words. He was never so good with the talking. “I do like you, but not like that.”
It was a struggle to even bother. Given all that was hanging over his head, he was tempted to just walk away instead of trying to explain it. But, that would likely crush the girl, and he did care for her. The high school stuff was just getting harder and harder. He found himself not wanting to play the role anymore. Because that was all that it was for him anymore.
“Then why?” Vi asked, calming down.
“I’m seeing someone,” Xander said, refraining from looking at her. He could tell that she was still looking at him intently, and standing way too close.
“Kendra?” Vi questioned, though it didn’t seem likely before it even left her mouth.
Xander chuckled once darkly, and shook his head. “No, it’s…it’s not Kendra. We kinda decided to keep it quiet for now.”
“But…” Vi trailed off, not knowing what to say. Considering what Xander did keep quiet and how well he did it, simply asking him wouldn’t work. “When do you even see her?”
“It’s not easy, but I’m not always on patrol and training.” Xander shrugged, glancing down at her. At least she seemed to be taking things better. “It’s not easy, but we find the time.”
“Does she know?” the potential continued, trying to think of what could possibly make the situation less awkward. Which wasn’t much.
Xander smiled briefly at her. “She knows everything. We should…we should get going.”
He turned and walked around, slowly moving out of the alley as Vi shifted and moved to walk besidfe him. Close, but not as close as she had been a few moments before.
“Lucky girl,” Vi muttered, somewhat sadly, as they exited the alley. She was still feeling the mixed emotions. She had gotten her first vampire kill, and had admitted her feelings to the boy she had a crush on, it just hadn’t ended as she had hoped it would.
“I suppose,” Xander replied softly. Vi was strong, and he hoped that she would get over it quickly. “Though I tend to think of it as the other way around. This isn’t what I thought would ever happen, but I don’t feel that way about you. I don’t want to hurt you, but…”
“I know,” Vi said, stopping briefly to turn and smile at him, wanting him to know that she didn’t blame him for rejecting her. “It’s not your fault. And thanks. For everything.”
He could have made it much worse. But, he had been the same caring and compassionate guy as she had come to know, just as he had always been. Even now, given that she had some time to think about it rationally, it had been a hell of a time to spring it on him.
“It’s okay,” Xander said, walking again. If he had been aware of things, he would have caught her feelings and dealt with them prior to her being embarrassed. Well, maybe not, but he would have had the chance. He had just been to into his own issues to notice. He smiled at her, a real one this time. “You did good.”