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The Clear Light of Rationality

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Summary: The Scoobies have grown and matured into individuals significantly different from the high school students they were, and they've become *very* dedicated to their work.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Anita Blake > General
Multiple Crossings > General
GreywizardFR21122,7159236,1195 Jun 115 Jun 11Yes

NOTE: This story is rated FR21 which is above your chosen filter level. You can set your preferred maximum rating using the drop-down list in the top right corner of every page.

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Rating: FR21 for some instances of extreme violence and foul language. Hey, Faith's here – do you really think she's gonna talk like Mr. Rogers?

Disclaimer: The main characters all belong to Crack-Head Joss and ME, or Laurel K. Hamilton and her minions. There will also be appearances by various characters from both the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes and maybe other universes, as well, if I think they'll fit in well. None of them belong to me, either. Deal with it. I have.

Category: My response to TTH Challenge 504: On The Other Side. Doesn't conform completely to the challenge, but I can live with that. ;-)

Time Frame: Takes place in an alternate universe that diverged for the BtVS characters in mid-Season Three after anyanka's story, "Out Of The Fog", which occurred during 'Helpless,' and after Book 15: 'The Harlequin,' in the Anita Blake-verse. The timing for any previously canon events from either the Buffy or Angel series which might be mentioned have been massaged to suit my own timeline, if and when they might appear.

Spoilers: None intended, but if you don’t know what happened up to this point, why are you reading this story?

Character Bashing: Some people might think there's a bit of bashing for some Buffy-verse characters (not the Scoobies), but I don't think so because describing canon actions isn't really bashing, and some other people might think there's a lot of bashing for the Anita Blake-verse characters, but any commentary about them is well-deserved, because, by this point in the series, Anita has clearly chosen to become one of the monsters, rather than be the human protector she was initially, and which she should have remained. LKH clearly got off on showing Anita developing into a superpowered monster, which is a shame, and which also makes me wonder about just what kind of issues of her own she might have.

Feedback: Of course! It's the coin of the realm.

Archiving: Talk to me first, please.

Author’s Note 1: This is a Scooby-verse/Anita Blake-verse crossover (with minor appearances by characters from various other fictional universes), which was inspired by anyanka's 'Out Of The Fog,' and which the author has approved as an alternate follow-up to her story. You don't HAVE to have read 'Out Of The Fog' before reading this story, but it would probably flesh out some background details, and it's also A TERRIFIC STORY, which should be read just for that reason alone. You can find it here: http://www.tthfanfic.org/Story-18405/anyanka+Out+Of+The+Fog.htm. Go now, read it and then come back here and read this one. ;-)

Author’s Note 2: Many thanks to Bill Haden and Theo (Starway_Man) for beta-ing this story.

Author’s Note 3: As usual, “word” indicates speech, :: word :: indicates mental communication and { word } indicates a character's thoughts.

~~~

The sidewalk outside the 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


The two vampiric bouncers standing outside the main entrance of the club smirked as they watched the antics of the elfin beauty with the shoulder-length coal-black tresses with the scarlet red streaks scattered through them. Their amusement only increased as she clung to her auburn-haired boyfriend's arm and shook her head in vehement disagreement as the strongly-built youth tried to persuade her to accompany him inside.

"Come on, baby," the youth, obviously a drunken college jock trying to score with a babe who was just as clearly a cheerleader who'd also had *way* too much to drink, said as he slid his arm around the young woman's shoulders in a gesture of reassurance. "There's nothing to be afraid of – this place is perfectly safe.

''Right, guys?" the college boy called as he turned and glanced at the two coolers, apparently in search of some kind of verbal support. "There's nothing to be concerned about – all of the vampires and werewolves here are the tame ones, who wouldn't ever hurt anybody – right?"

Exchanging an annoyed glance with his partner at the kid's use of the word 'tame,' the larger of the two door attendants sighed and nodded agreeably at the pair of bubble-brained tourists, who were obviously visiting the city for an opportunity to safely gawk at the 'monsters' humans held in such well-deserved fear, and directed his words to the redheaded male.

"Sure thing, kid," the goon agreed as he mentally rolled his eyes before focusing on the college girl. "There's nothing to be worried about at all, miss. All of the employees and the patrons here are good guys who wouldn't even think of biting you; it’s one of the club rules, in accordance with the latest edict from City Hall."

{ Unless, of course, someone gets a mite hungry, or else the Boss tells them to do so, } he added silently to himself with more than a little amusement.

"See, sweetness? It's just like I said. We've got nothing to worry about, so why don't we go in and have another drink, hmmm?"

"I dunno, Miles," the cheerleader, clad in body-hugging blood red leather pants and jacket, black halter top and knee-high black boots with four-inch spike heels, shook her head slowly, her words somewhat slurred by the alcohol she'd already consumed. "I don’ thin' thish ish sush a good idea."

"Come on, Sarah, it'll be fun," Miles cajoled the petite beauty while trying not to appear *too* pushy. "And like these guys here already told you, it's completely safe."

The two guards/door attendants watched with professional indifference as the jock reiterated his earlier suggestion to the girl who, judging from the strength of the scent of alcohol they could clearly smell on her clothing, had already consumed probably more than enough liquor to normally render someone of her size and weight unconscious.

The two coolers were actually somewhat surprised that she was still able to walk in a relatively straight line, or even talk, but shrugged it off indifferently – after all, they'd both seen things that were far stranger and much more difficult to believe than some drunken sorority flake staggering into their club while hanging on the arm of some asshole jock looking to get into her pants. And they really couldn't blame him in the least for trying, 'cause she *did* fill those pants out so *very* well, they had each decided with a lecherous smile.

Meanwhile, as the two goons smirked unobtrusively at the sight of the inebriated couple lurching into the club, a pair of eyes watched impassively at the goings-on at the club's entrance from their position on the roof of a building situated several stores down and across the street and a throat microphone transmitted an ill-omened message.

"Phase One initiated," a whispered male voice reported to unseen listeners, and then silence again filled the area.

-/-/-

Downtown Sunnydale, CA

November 5, 1997
Late afternoon


"Look, man, I'm telling you, I had absolutely nothing to do with Principal Flutie's death," Xander Harris insisted as he struggled with the blond-haired man who'd been following him around town for the past few days.

He'd noticed the guy hanging around in the background several times over the course of the past few days, and since he could eliminate the possibility of the guy being a vampire (since he had been standing in full sunlight several of the times he'd seen him), Xander had decided he'd use some of the training that Soldier-Guy had received (and which was still floating around in his head after that Charlie-Foxtrot that Giles' buddy, Ethan, had engineered the other night) to circle around and pretty much ambush the guy at a place where he could ask his apparent admirer some questions without being interrupted.

What Xander hadn't expected, though, was for the guy to immediately pull out a gun and try to shoot him when he'd grabbed him. Fortunately, though, he'd reflexively acted on some of Soldier-Guy's other memories and managed to yank the gun out of his opponent's hand before he ended up with a few more holes in him than Mother Nature had provided, before then backing up a few feet and trying to find out just what the Hellmouth was going on.

"I've been hired by Bob Flutie's sister to find out what actually happened to him," the guy had eventually explained, once things settled down a bit and he'd realized that Xander wasn't intending to shoot him or anything. "The school district wasn't able to provide her with any sort of reasonable or intelligible explanation for what happened to her brother, and kept on insisting on some ridiculous story about Mr. Flutie being attacked inside the school by a pack of wild dogs that no one ever laid on. So, after having a reputable Los Angeles coroner she contacted perform his own autopsy, Ms. Flutie came to the conclusion that Mr. Flutie was attacked and killed by one or more lycanthropes.

"You, Harris, were tentatively identified to me as a member of a group of students who were seen leaving Mr. Flutie's office shortly before he was found, dead and with his body half-eaten," his attacker stated impassively as he remained motionless, apparently waiting to see what Xander intended to do next, since he hadn't immediately shot his assailant after grabbing the gun, "so I've been shadowing you in the expectation that I could use you to locate at least some of the other people involved, so that I can determine the truth of the matter."

"Oh, hey, wait, no! I mean, that wasn't me, dude!!" Xander immediately shook his head in emphatic denial of the accusation. "No way, no how! I wasn't involved in that mess at all! In fact, I was in another part of the school entirely when that whole 'eating the principal' thing happened! And I've got a witness who can swear to that!

"Not that I'd want her to do that, mind you," Xander murmured a bit more quietly as he looked down at his feet, as though in shame or embarrassment, "'cause then I'd have to admit that I do actually remember what I was doing when that happened, a-and that would be majorly of the bad!"

"What are you talking about, kid?" the man asked, his eyes narrowing a bit as he frowned at the boy's words. "Just who is it you think could corroborate that you weren't involved in Mr. Flutie's death? And what was it you were doing that you wouldn't want to admit you really can remember happening, even if it can give you an alibi for not being around when Mr. Flutie was killed?"

"Uh, look, mister, just how much, exactly, do you really know about what actually goes on around here in Sunnydale?" Xander answered his attacker's questions with one of his own, looking up to see the man staring at him with a curiously analytical gaze. "'Cause what I'm gonna say would probably make most people think that I'm crazier that your average crazy person."

"If you're going to tell me that this town is built on top of some sort of mystical convergence called the Hellmouth and that most of the creatures in people's nightmares are actually real and are apparently attracted to this town, then that's something I already know, kid," the man said.

"Oh, good," Xander declared with a relieved expression. "'Cause your knowing that is gonna make things a whole lot easier to explain, then.

"All right, first off, everything started with our annual class trip to the zoo last year," he began explaining. "You see, Kyle, Rhonda, Tor and Heidi were all hanging around outside the Hyena House, and they were all with their 'I'm such a bad-ass I don't have to pay attention to the rules' attitude, when this kid called Lance showed up..."

-/-/-

Outside the 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


The dark-haired and bearded man, wearing an off-the-rack dark grey suit and carrying a leather briefcase reached inside his jacket and produced an identification card, once he'd reached the two bouncers guarding the front door. And upon reading its contents, the two immediately nodded in acknowledgement and displayed the least bit of deference to the new arrival.

As one of the door attendants opened the door and led the smaller man inside, the other used his cell phone to call inside the club and alert the staff to his presence, a frown on his face as he looked after the pair.

"And they call us 'evil bloodsuckers,'" the goon muttered to himself after delivering his warning, as he put away his cell.

"You've got to be a really sick, scum-sucking bastard to ever willingly work for the IRS."

Across the street, the same pair of eyes watched the bearded man enter the club and a second message went over the same frequency as the previous communication.

"Phase One complete. Phase Two initiated."

-/-/-

Downtown Sunnydale, CA

November 5, 1997
Later that same afternoon


It had taken Xander a while to explain the general craziness that went on in Sunnydale in sufficient detail to make the guy (who'd introduced himself simply as Ted) understand what had happened the previous April (and his admitting that he'd tried to rape Buffy while under the influence of that Primal Spirit was definitely high up there on his list of things that he never, *ever*, wanted to have to do again, Xander reflected guiltily), but it seemed as though Ted was somewhat inclined to believe him that none of the people involved (himself included) were any type of lycanthropes.

To balance things out, though, Ted had charged – and Xander hadn't denied – that Kyle, Rhonda, Tor and Heidi had been in Flutie's office just prior to the principal's death; because the fact of the matter was that they *had* eaten the poor guy, even if the quartet really hadn't legally been completely compos mentis when the incident had occurred.

"Look, I'm pretty sure you've got something on you that's at least partially silver or silver-plated, right?" Xander said, as he completed his explanation. "So, if you toss it to me and I can hold it and don't break out in hives or anything, then that should prove I'm not still possessed or a werewolf or anything like that, right?" he suggested, to which the guy nodded his agreement.

"You're correct in that it would prove you're not a lycanthrope," Ted agreed, as he very slowly and deliberately reached into his pants pocket. "It wouldn't necessarily prove you're not still possessed, though.

"All right, here, catch this," Ted said, as he tossed a silver crucifix in Xander's direction.

Once he'd saw Xander could easily handle the cross, Ted seemed to relax slightly, which made Xander shift down a bit from his own hyper-alert status. The pair had then headed down to the Expresso Pump and gotten some coffee, and had actually held a civil conversation as Harris answered Ted's questions about both the town and the general tendency of the local inhabitants to either ignore or rationalize away the virtually always-present weirdness that permeated the area.

It was during the course of that conversation that Xander had mentioned the widespread incidents of possessions, thanks to their Halloween costumes, which had occurred in the course of his and his friends' escorting groups of children on Halloween evening the previous Friday night, and of his fervent desire to avoid ever experiencing anything like it again. That had, in turn, prompted Ted to suggest the titles of a number of books on mental defense as means of developing suitable protections around Xander's mind, to hopefully prevent anything along those lines from ever happening to him again.

After politely thanking Ted for his suggestions, Xander had said goodbye and then made his way to, first, the town library, where he'd been unable to find any of the volumes the man had recommended, and then to the magic shop near the center of town. There, he had finally managed to locate three of the books Ted had named, all of which he'd eagerly procured and then rushed home to begin perusing with an enthusiasm that would have made Buffy and Willow look at him as though he were some pod-Xander or arcane doppelganger from another world.

He'd silently vowed to himself as he settled back on his bed and started studying the books, after undergoing this latest supernatural fiasco, he wasn't about to let anyone or anything ever mess with his mind again.

All right then, if he had to study like Willow did for each one of her tests in order to make sure that he'd be able to fight off any potential future mental assailants, then that was a price Alexander Lavelle Harris was more than willing to pay.

-/-/-

Inside the 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


Jason Schuyler smiled to himself as he watched the incredibly sexy babe with the shoulder-length iridescent bright purple hair and matching lipstick and sprayed-on black leather vest and pants writhe – there really wasn't any other even half-way appropriate word to describe her movements, he decided – her way around the dance floor.

The werewolf's smile grew even larger as she paused in her undulating circuit around the floor's perimeter only a few feet away from the table he was sharing with Nathaniel, Stephen, Gregory and Robert, and she caught his eye at the same time she added a little extra *oomph* to her dance moves.

The word 'flexible' didn't even *begin* to describe her, Jason decided lasciviously – but it was a great start.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," Jason said to his companions as he got up from the table, "but I think I see a lovely young lady in desperate need of a charming and handsome fellow like myself to help her learn how to properly enjoy herself."

Ignoring the various sarcastic and uncouth (but probably quite accurate) remarks the guys were making, he confidently strode over to the petite, but nonetheless *extremely* hot beauty and began matching her gyrations as they moved to the music.

"Hi there, gorgeous lady. I'm Jason," he introduced himself, and he (barely) managed to conceal his pleased grin when the Hotness Personified nodded her head and smiled up at him as she said, "Yeah, I know. I'm Chastity.

"Hey, do you know any place we could go to, like, maybe get to know each other a little better?"

-/-/-

1630 Revello Drive
Sunnydale, CA

January 19, 1999
Very late in the evening


The next fourteen months following his meeting with Ted No-Last-Name-Offered had seemed to just fly by to Xander – what with all the typical Sunnydale craziness that went on around them -- as he and the other Scoobies helped Buffy save people from vampires, demons, ghosts and the other assorted things that went 'chomp' in the night while hopefully simultaneously managing to not get killed or chewed up themselves.

He hadn't bothered mentioning to any of the Scooby Gang that he'd returned to the local Army base the afternoon following their interrupting Angelus' would-be apocalypse attempt with the stone demon Acathla, and taken advantage of the confusion the incident had generated to slip in and 'liberate' some additional munitions and other supplies that he thought they might someday need to have available at some unforeseen time in the future.

You know, just in case Angelus or some other future Big Bad might try to do some other bloody stupid apocalyptic thing that would require them to react in a similar manner.

After all, you couldn't just walk into Wal-Mart ™ or Best Buy ™ or even the local gun shop and pick up a 7.62 mm M-240B machine gun or an M-4 carbine or even a simple 9 mm M-9 semiautomatic pistol without having to file an awful a lot of paperwork, and that sort of paperwork trail was something he definitely preferred to not leave behind him.

And that wasn't even taking into account just how much attention trying to acquire the several thousand rounds of ammunition you'd undoubtedly need for each of the aforementioned items might attract.

As it was, he'd also had to 'requisition' one of the base's smaller transport HMMWVs in order to carry everything he'd decided he might eventually need out of there – although he had left it parked in the Sunnydale Buy More's parking lot, and had mailed the keys and a note specifying its location back to the base's commanding officer the next day, after first unloading all of the contraband into a storage locker he'd rented, of course.

It had also taken Xander quite a while (a good bit longer than he'd either hoped or expected, he had finally reluctantly admitted to himself) for him to, first, integrate the Soldier-guy memories into his head so they wouldn't drive him crazy (or at least, not any crazier than he was now), and then, to begin adapting the skills he remembered to his own personal needs and requirements, honing the close-combat, stealth and weapons skills that existed in his head every day, practicing again and again and again, until he had reached the point where he no longer needed to *think* about what he needed to do, but instead simply *reacted*.

None of the Gang had noticed any of the changes he was incorporating into himself yet – maybe because they were happening so gradually? – but that didn’t really matter all that much, he reflected to himself. *He* knew the improvements he was achieving with what he was doing – the improved self-discipline and greater self-confidence, the better physical conditioning, the increased situational awareness he'd developed – and *that* was what really mattered when it came down to it. (The six-pack was just a nice bonus.)

Perfecting his ability to move silently and to blend in with his surroundings had meant that he had to practice at least a little bit pretty much every day and night, which explained why he had witnessed his ol' buddy, Ted, helping to sneak a majorly distraught Buffy, who was looking and acting distinctly un-Slayer-like tonight, and an equally upset-looking Mrs. Summers, too, out of their house and through their neighbor's backyards to a spot at the other end of their block, where he'd heard the aforementioned visitor then tell them to wait for him while he got his car. Nothing he'd seen looked very encouraging in the least, and when you added that to what he knew or had surmised about Ted, Xander decided he didn't like any of the ideas that were rapidly forming in his head.

Taking a chance, Xander slipped away from them as quickly and quietly as he could and, once he thought he was far enough away not to be heard, ran back home as quickly as he could to pick up some equipment he thought he might end up needing later and to 'borrow' Tony's car.

Gambling that Ted was still driving the same type of car he'd favored last year when he was investigating Principal Flutie's death, he headed towards the main highway out of town and prayed he hadn't made a mistake that would hurt two of the most important women in his life.

-/-/-

Jean-Claude's office
Inside the warren adjoining the 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


"I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate your having allowed me to accompany you on your duties for the entire evening, Ms. Blake," the extremely annoyingly earnest young woman told Anita as the two of them entered Circus of the Damned through one of the doors in the rear of the building.

"Dr. Wilson, my advisor, was just telling me again, the other day, how much more powerful you are, as compared to pretty much any other animator he knows," the strawberry-blonde – Kristen? Anita thought that that was what she had said her name was; yeah, that was it, Kristen Burbage, who was currently working on her thesis at Lindenwood University – babbled on at length about the abilities of various animators and necromancers that had also had the bad judgement to have agreed to allow the girl to interview them for her doctoral dissertation on possible "quantifiable differences in results observed by a qualified animator reviewing variations in the summoning and animation rituals used by practitioners in the field, as compared to the results produced by the rituals described in the standard textbook most colleges utilized as part of their preternatural biology curriculum."

"I'm just really pleased I can help you out with your research for your paper, Kristen," Anita lied with a shameless smile as the girl followed her down into the private areas of the subterranean complex where Jean-Claude and the majority of his minions typically resided.

"And I'm also sure that Jean-Claude will be delighted to answer any questions you might want to ask him," she assured Kristen, while she contemplated with malicious satisfaction the upcoming aggravation and irritation her lover would be experiencing once this prattling idiot, who Bert had insisted she bring along with her while she worked, began her inquisition – oops, she'd meant to say, her 'research questions' – about vampire sociological customs and habits.

"If you're lucky, our associate, Asher, will be there, and you could interview him for your paper, too," she informed the widely-smiling young woman, who was virtually incoherent in her expression of her wide-eyed and extremely enthusiastic thanks to the Executioner.

{ Oh well, } Anita consoled herself as she listened to the girl's gushing over her offer, { the night's nearly over, and I'll be rid of her soon enough. }

-/-/-

Denny's Restaurant
Outside the Sunnydale city limits

January 20, 1999
Very early morning


"Hey there, Ted, good buddy. How's everything going? Hey, Buff. Hi, Mrs. Summers. You guys mind if I join you?"

Not waiting for anyone to answer, Xander slipped into the side of the booth next to Ted, giving the blond man one of his typical half-assed smiles and glanced over at Buffy and her mom, who were both frowning at him – the Slayer with a combination of worry and annoyance, probably because of his unexpected appearance, and Mrs. Summers with worry and apprehension.

"Xander! What the hell are you doing here?" Buffy demanded from her position across the booth from him, at the same time that Joyce began saying, "Excuse me, dear, I don't mean to be rude, but we, uh, we were just in the middle of a very important conversation about some events which happened earlier tonight, and we need to decide the best way to deal with what's happened, something we won't be able to do with you present."

"Okay," the younger man nodded agreeably, "I can understand that, ladies, but before I leave, there are a couple things I think need to be clarified. It'll just take a minute or so, and I think you both need to hear what I have to say."

“I don’t think you understand –”

"Just relax and hear me out, okay, Buff?" Xander interrupted as he turned to look at the currently-powerless Slayer. "Because I'm more than a little worried about something happening to both of you, if you leave and go anywhere tonight with this guy.

"Ya see, right now, no offense intended, Buff, but you're looking like you just came out on the wrong end of going ten rounds with the Master and your Mom is looking like she's about five minutes away from freaking out completely. And I can tell you from personal experience that this guy you're sitting with isn't exactly Mr. Congeniality," he explained to Buffy, before turning to look at Ted.

“Harris, I think you should-”

"Ted, *I* think you should take a good look at what I'm holding in my hand here," Xander interrupted the blond guy, all humor having disappeared from his face as he'd turned to face the older man.

Taking a quick glance at the hand Xander was currently holding below table level, Ted stiffened slightly in his seat for a moment upon seeing him holding an Army-issue M67 hand grenade –without its safety pin in place – before relaxing again and resuming their staring contest.

"That's a pretty hollow threat if you're trying to frighten me, kid," Ted declared as he again locked eyes with the younger man. "Set that grenade off in here and there won't be any survivors walking away, and I'm pretty sure that you're not about to endanger either of these two women sitting right here with us."

"Yep, you're completely right about that, man," Xander nodded his agreement with the other man's observation. "I have no intention of letting either of these ladies get hurt in any way, whatsoever.

"But you see, Ted, the funny thing is, I noticed how, last November – just a few days after we had that little talk of ours about what happened to Principal Flutie – Kyle, Rhonda, Tor and Heidi all disappeared and nobody's seen or heard from any of them since. Granted, this is Sunnydale ‘n' all, but all four of them disappearing at pretty much the same time without any trace at all? That’s weird even for this town – and that's why I'm thinking you can probably understand now why I'm not all that wild about the idea of Buffy and her mom just driving off with you into the sunrise, so to speak," Xander explained calmly.

"See, I figure, this way Buffy and Mrs. Summers can just get up and leave while the two of us sit here drinking our coffee, and once I think they've had enough time to get somewhere safe, then I replace the safety pin in Mr. Grenade here so he's all people-friendly again, and then we can both go our separate ways," Xander finished with a clearly insincere smile on his face.

"Xander, listen to me, you *idiot*!" Buffy said, her low-pitched voice filled with such unmistakable urgency that it forced a very surprised Xander to look over at her.

"Ted here isn't going to hurt Mom or me!" Buffy told him harshly as she shook her head in complete denial of that idea. "He actually helped us out of this really big mess the Council set up earlier tonight, so I'm as sure as I can be of anything right now that we can trust him.

"Really!" the Slayer insisted, seeing the somewhat dubious look on her friend's face as she spoke.

"Damn it, Xand, just trust me on this," Buffy pleaded a bit more quietly as she leaned across the table and laid her hand on top of his. "Ted's not going to hurt any of us. We really don't have time to explain everything to you right now, 'cause I want us all to get out of this state as fast as possible, but I'll explain it all as soon as I can, okay? I promise."

The dark-haired youth hesitated for only the briefest of instants before sighing and nodding his head in acquiescence.

"Okay, Buff," the dark-haired youth acknowledged her request. "For now, I'll do like you ask and trust him.

"But I'm also telling you, if this guy does end up killing us all, then I'm definitely gonna say 'I told you so,' afterwards," Xander promised as he pulled a small pin out of his jacket pocket with his right hand and slipped it back into its proper position, rendering Mr. Grenade safe once again.

"Okay then. No hard feelings, right, Ted, ol' buddy?" Xander said as he turned and gave Ted a cocky half-grin as he slipped the grenade out of sight and into his jacket pocket, before turning and waving to get the waitress' attention.

"Hey, can we get some menus here, please?"

-/-/-

Inside the 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


The IRS agent who'd been escorted into the lower levels of the club nodded his approval of the room he'd been escorted to, and offered his hand to the human minion charged with overseeing the receipts collection for the nightclub.

"Hello there. I'm James Autrey," the man introduced himself as he gave the receipts manager a somewhat uncomfortable-looking smile.

"Look, I'm really sorry to have to bother you people like this, especially without calling ahead or making an appointment or anything, but I only just got the orders from my boss to show up and carry out this surprise audit just a couple hours ago, myself," James apologized to the clearly nervous and uncertain young man standing on front of him, "and oddly enough, I was specifically instructed by my boss to *not* call and give you any advance notice of my arrival.

"For whatever reasons they might have, some of the higher-ups evidently think that your boss is laundering money from some sort of illegal activities through this club, and I've been instructed to do an unscheduled audit of your books," the IRS agent explained, a clearly embarrassed look on his face. "Personally, I think it's all because of some sort of ridiculous political one-upmanship in Washington, but regardless of why it was ordered, I have to do this.

"Again, I'm really sorry about disrupting your routine here, but it's not something that I personally have any control over, at all. So, uh, if you could just let me look over your financial records for the past twelve months, I'll try to get out of your hair as quickly as I can," he elaborated. "If everything is in order – which I fully expect that it will be – then, I shouldn't be here for more than two, maybe three days, tops."

"Uh, you see, Mr. Autrey, the thing is, I'll have to clear it with Jean Claude, first – uhm, he's the owner," the receipts manager replied a bit nervously, fidgeting uncomfortably as he spoke. "But I'm sure that he'll say that it's okay.

"I just have to clear it with him, though, first," the minion repeated himself.

"Okay. I can totally understand that," Autrey nodded agreeably as he placed his briefcase on the end of the conference table nearest him. "Go ahead, and I'll just wait here for you to clear things with your boss.

"Oh, uh, just one more thing before you go – could you please tell me where the nearest restroom around here is?" he added as the manager was exiting the room.

"It seems like the veal scaloppini I had for dinner definitely isn't agreeing with me," James explained with an unhappy frown.

"Sure," he was told. "Right down the corridor, and turn left. The men's room is the second door on the right."

"Thanks. I'll meet you back here in a couple minutes then."

-/-/-

Denny's Restaurant
Outside the Sunnydale city limits

January 20, 1999
Very early Morning


"HE DID WHAT!?!"

Xander instantly cringed guiltily and covered his mouth as his three companions all glared at him for his outburst.

"Sorry," he immediately apologized in a much quieter voice, before going on. "It's just – I never thought that Giles would do something like that!

"Not that I'm doubting anything you said, Buff," Xander quickly added, holding up a hand as though to stop her from snapping at him. "I mean, it was just a big shock hearing about him drugging you and then turning you over to the Council for that test thing…"

"Tell me about it," Buffy murmured back, the expression of anguished hurt and betrayal on her face speaking volumes to Xander about her feelings. "I always thought Giles thought of me as being more than just the Slayer he had to train," she bit out.

"Now I know just *exactly* how wrong I was."

An uneasy silence pervaded the table for the next few minutes, as the waitress brought the group's breakfast orders and refilled their coffee cups.

The moment she returned to her seat at the lunch counter, Xander refocused their discussion by asking, "So, since you obviously have to leave town before the Council can find you again, Buff, the only things I have to ask are – where do I tell Willow we're going, and when do you want her to meet us there?"

“Xander, dear...” Joyce started to say doubtfully.

“What’s she trying to say, kid, is what the hell makes you think *you’re* entitled to come along for the ride?” Ted asked with a clear smirk on his face.

After waiting patiently for Ted and Joyce to finish enumerating, quite vocally and emphatically, all of the reasons why they couldn't even begin to consider allowing the two other teens to accompany them, Xander smiled across the table at Buffy, having noticed that she hadn't raised any objections to his earlier statement that he was going to be accompanying them wherever they were going, and began his rebuttal.

"First off, Mrs. S," he gave the older woman one of his most charming smiles, "as far as Willow and I are concerned, ever since Jesse died, you and Buffy are pretty much the only other people in town who we care anything about.

"Giles used to be on that list, too," the youth noted grudgingly, with a scowl that promised dire penalties for the man in question, should the opportunity ever arise, "but as far as I'm concerned, he died last night and got replaced by someone or something that just *looks* like him, because he definitely isn't the person I thought I knew. And once Wills hears about what he did, I know for certain that she'll feel the same way I do – both about Giles, and about joining you guys in leaving town. You see, Buffy's pretty much the only girl in school Willow's really friends with, or who she can talk to these days, since Cordy and her band of trained attack bi-, uh, I mean, minions, pretty much torment her any chance they can get."

"He's right, Mom. Ever since Xander and Cordy broke up, she and her friends have been even nastier to Willow than they used to be," Buffy chimed in with support for what Xander was saying.

"Second, as far as my parents are concerned," Xander then went on, "to me, they're just two people who happen to live in the same house I do. My dad's already told me that I have to start paying rent as soon as I graduate or else he's gonna throw me out of the house, and my mom didn't say even a single word to contradict him, either.

"And as for Willow's parents, she's basically been living by herself for the past three years, anyway, what with the way they're always off on their lecture tours or attending conferences," Xander noted with a frown of concern and disapproval at his childhood friend's parents' casual indifference to her wellbeing. "Her joining up with us will let us make sure she's as safe as she can be.

"And third, Mrs. S, before you say anything about it being too dangerous for us to try and help Buffy fight vampires and demons, I should point out that we've been doing just that for the past two years, and we're both still alive," he went on.

"Just *living* in Sunnydale is dangerous, for crying out loud. How many other small-town high schools do you know of that have an obituary column in the school newspaper?" Xander asked, making Joyce pause in what was apparently going to be some sort of counter-argument

"And, there's something for you to think about that's just as important as anything else you've been talking about, Ted," Xander paused for a moment to catch his breath. "Willow is one of the best hackers on this entire planet that you could ever hope to meet, and you can be absolutely, one hundred percent sure that you can trust her more than anyone else you might think about hiring, to make new identities for all of us.

"She's more than capable enough of doing something like that, and because she's underage, no one would ever even think to suspect her, and once she's done, we'll never have to worry about the Council being able to find any of us again."

-/-/-

Inside the 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


Following the direction he'd been given, James Autrey made his way to the men's room, unobtrusively checking out the surveillance cameras set in the corridor's ceiling as he did so.

Once inside, and after ascertaining that there weren't any other occupants present, he flipped the latch on the door, locking it and preventing anyone else from entering.

Quickly divesting himself of his jacket, shirt and tie, James bundled them up and stuffed them inside a small bag he produced from an inside pocket, revealing a navy blue tee shirt and two Glock Model 23 .40 semiautomatic pistols in a double shoulder holster rig that had been concealed by his dress shirt.

After washing his face in the sink with water and peeling off the false beard, but leaving the mustache in place, the bogus IRS agent then opened the cleaner's closet with a key produced from his pocket before he pulled out a windbreaker with the 'Circus of the Damned' name and logo stenciled on the left breast, identical to those worn by the security staff, and slipped it on.

After checking the timer on a package the size of a pack of cigarettes which he'd removed from a small pouch on the back of his belt, 'James' shoved the package inside the same bag he'd hidden his jacket and shirt, and then stuffed that bag into the trash container mounted on the wall of the lavatory.

Unlocking the corridor door, he carefully checked for the presence of anyone in the hallway before slipping out.

Relocking the lavatory door behind him, 'James' began heading deeper inside the bowels of the club.

-/-/-

The Rosenberg residence

January 20, 1999
Mid-morning


"Jeeves did WHAT?"

"He gave Buffy some sort of drug that took away her Slayer powers and Quentin Travers had some of the Council's flunkies kidnap Mrs. Summers so they could force Buffy to fight some crazy vamp to prove she was worthy to be the Slayer!"

Willow's response sounded as though it was almost a single long, many-syllabled word, the redhead had spoken so quickly and with just a single breath, Faith thought absently to herself as she let the *almost* unbelievable and *extremely* disturbing revelation the Scoobies' resident brainiac had just made sink in past the reflexive urge to deny what she'd just heard.

The disclosure that *Giles*, Buffy's Watcher had not only allowed some arrogant self-righteous asshole from the Council named Quentin Travers to subject her Slayer sibling to some sort of extremely fucked-up trial by combat against some wacko master vamp, but that he'd also actually *helped* Travers by slipping B some sort of drug that had somehow neutralized her Slayer powers and made the blonde just as weak and helpless as she'd been before she'd been Called as the Slayer, was extremely jarring and upsetting on so many levels.

The idea that the guy that B and the other members of their little demon-fighting mini-army had all looked up to – and that some of them obviously had been starting to consider as a father figure, of sorts – could betray the girl that he'd been training and mentoring for the past two and a half years had completely destroyed what little bit of trust she'd tentatively given the seemingly refined and reliable Englishman.

Beside her, she could see that Red's boyfriend was also clearly giving the news a good deal of thought, too, since the currently blue-haired musician had an actual expression of shock on his normally impassive face.

"Might want to take a breath or two and relax, babe," the three-nights-a-month-werewolf suggested to his girlfriend after a moment's consideration, which seemed like an excellent idea to the younger Slayer, seeing as how Red looked like she was going to hyperventilate herself into a stupor.

"Xander called me about a half-hour ago," Willow informed the two remaining Scoobies after doing as the guitarist had recommended, "and he said that Buffy and her Mom were helped by some guy who shot and killed Travers, and that this guy helped them get out of town so that the rest of the Council's flunkies couldn't find them, and that he – Xander, I mean, not the other guy who shot Travers – had seen them leaving town and that he followed them and that's how he found out about what Giles did, and that he's going to be going with Buffy and Mrs. Summers, so that he can help protect Buffy until she gets her Slayer powers back, and that after that, he's going to stay with her, so that he can keep on helping her with the Slaying, so he's not coming back to Sunnydale."

Pausing to take another breath in an effort to calm herself down, Willow then continued on with her report, at not quite such a frenetic pace.

"Anyway, after Xander told me everything that happened last night, he said that Buffy wanted me to get in touch with you, Faith, so that you would know what the Council had done, and so you'd know why she's not going to be coming back to Sunnydale," she said.

"And I called Oz and asked him to come over here, too, because I wanted him to know why I can't stay here in town, either, because I'm going to be joining Buffy and Xander and Mrs. Summers and whoever this guy is who killed Quentin Travers and helped them get out of town, so that I can keep on helping Buffy with the Slaying," Willow went on, in an almost Energizer Bunny non-stop sort of monologue, before finishing up her semi-soliloquy.

"Anyway, Xander said to tell you that Buffy said that if you don't think you can trust any of the Council people, either, and you don't want to stay around here, then you're welcome to come with me when I go to join them in Las Vegas," the redhead said, now looking the least bit uncertain as she waited for their reactions to her news.

"You're gonna need transportation to Las Vegas, babe," Oz informed her.

"And I've never been there," he added laconically with the hint of a smile. "Now seems like as good a time as any to check it out."

Faith's response was just as in character as Oz's.

"Fuck, yeah, Red," she declared. "Give me fifteen minutes to pack and we can ditch this shit hole for good!"

-/-/-

Suite 235
America's Best Value Inn and Suites
Las Vegas, NV

January 20, 1999
Late afternoon


"Ohmigod, Buffy, I'm so glad to see you're alright and that you're not hurt and I was so shocked when Xander told me that Giles betrayed you and gave you something to take away your Slayer powers so that you couldn't fight that vampire like you normally could but at least you're safe and the Council can't find you now and you're okay well as okay as you can be until your Slayer powers come back but you're safe and so is your mom which is a really good thing 'cause your mom is one of the nicest people I've ever met –"

Willow's relieved hyper-babble was cut short by Buffy's gently putting her hand across the redhead's mouth as she smiled and said, "I'm glad to see you, too, Will. Thanks for coming when we called.

"And thanks to you, too, guys," Buffy said as she turned to address Oz and Faith as they followed the keyed up redhead into the suite she and her mother were currently sharing with Ted and Xander.

"No problem," the typically taciturn guitarist shrugged nonchalantly. "Bad scene back there, with the betrayal and all."

"Yeah, B," Faith nodded her agreement. "I never really trusted any of those Council bastards all that much, other than Lynda, but I gotta admit – I was mega-fuckin'-surprised that Giles did something like that to you.

"That just proves that they're really not any better than the vamps we stake," the younger Slayer declared with a frown.

"Yeah, but at least we always expected the vamps and demons to try to kill us," Xander chimed in from his position leaning against the doorframe to the kitchen. "According to what Giles was always saying, the Council was formed to back-stop the Slayer, not try and back stab her while she was fighting, like they tried to do last night."

"Ya got that right, X," Faith declared vigorously. "Still, at least now, we know for sure that we can't trust any of those pricks even half as far as I spit."

"Listen, guys; Xander went out and ordered up a whole mountain of take-out, so why don't we all go into the kitchen and have lunch and we can tell you guys everything that's happened the past couple days, what me and Xander have been talking about with this guy, Ted – he's the one who helped me and Mom get out of town – and what we're planning on doing from here on out," Buffy suggested as she began leading the way into the kitchen.

-/-/-

The Washington Post
April 28, 1999

SUPREME COURT RULES VAMPIRES ARE CITIZENS!

Washington, D.C. – The Supreme Court of the United States ruled this afternoon in the closely followed case, Addison vs. Clark, that vampires are American citizens with various legal rights, as well as concomitant responsibilities, among them being the responsibility to pay taxes on any income or properties they owned prior to their death.

In a press conference held shortly after the announcement of the Courts' ruling, Head Justice William Donovan said that…

-/-/-

Suite 235
America's Best Value Inn and Suites
Las Vegas, NV

January 22, 1999
Later that same afternoon


"Mom, Ted, we've been talking things over and we want to let you know what we’ve decided to do," Buffy announced as everyone congregated in the living room after the two adult members of the group had returned from their generic tour (at the teenagers' insistence) of the various casinos and shows being offered at such.

"Ted, all five of us have talked things over and we're all agreed that we'd all like to get as much training as possible to help prepare us for dealing with the problems we’ll all be facing from now on," Buffy said, turning to address him directly.

"Since you seem like you know a lot more about the supernatural stuff than any of us do, we'd like you to give us some recommendations about what we should be learning and who we might go to for that training," the blonde Slayer said, "and we'd also like to know what we need to do in order to pay for it all, since obviously stuff like that doesn't come free."

All five of the teens were gratified to see that, although she clearly wasn't at all happy to hear that they all wanted to receive training to fight things that went bump in the night, Joyce merely sat back and listened, refraining from saying anything about their decisions. Obviously, her encounter earlier in the week with Kralik, Travers and the other Council thugs had made her take a good, hard look at the world around her, and forced her to realize that the real world containing demons and human monsters wasn’t something that was going to go away – however much she wanted to ignore it and pretend it didn’t exist.

Ted, for his part, sat back and gave the five teens a long, searching look before responding.

"I'm not going to try to argue you out of getting any training, because as far as I'm concerned, that's the best thing you and Faith could hope to do, especially given your situations, Buffy," he noted, before moving on to stare at Oz.

"I think that you, young fella, more than any of the others here, need to get some serious training in how to control yourself before you hurt anyone – accidentally or otherwise," Ted went on, his words drawing only a nod of agreement from the younger man. "From what I've heard from your friends here, it's nothing short of a miracle that you haven't bitten or killed anyone during any of the times you've shifted, and it's mainly because of their support for you that I'm willing to try and get you that training.

"And given what I know about Xander and the interactions we've had over the course of the past year or so, I don't think he'd give up the whole hunting thing, even if he had the chance to just walk away," Ted went on.

"Now, as far as you're concerned, young lady, I don't know anything about you except for what your friends have told me," Ted said, focusing his attention on Willow for a moment. "But again, given what they've said, I'm impressed enough to recommend to some people I know that they train you, too.

"Your friends also indicated that you began studying magic last year," he went on, "but that your teacher was killed approximately a year ago and you haven't been able to find a new teacher to continue your training. Is that correct?"

"Uh, yeah," Willow bobbed her head in confirmation. "Ms. Calendar was killed by a vampire around the end of last February.

"And in between us having to deal with the usual problems that pop up around the Hellmouth and trying to prevent the world from being sucked into Hell on a semi-annual basis, it's been kind of hard to find a new teacher," the redhead admitted with a frown, "so I've been doing as much studying on my own as I can."

"That's pretty much what I thought," Ted nodded in acknowledgement of the information.

"Okay then, if you're going to be training with your friends under me and the people I'm going to recommend, then the first thing you have to do is stop practicing magic for the duration of your physical training," he said.

"No, don’t argue, Willow – just *listen* to what I have to say, first, okay?" Ted semi-growled, holding up his hand to stop the redhead's near-reflexive protest. “Because I have something to say that *all* of you need to hear.”

Shutting her half-open mouth while giving the older man a rebellious glare, Willow reluctantly nodded her head and focused her attention on their presumed semi-mentor, as did the rest of the group.

"I've checked up on all of you," Ted informed his raptly listening audience, "and first off, I have to admit that I'm pretty impressed with what I've found out.

"All five of you are smarter than most of the general population – you and your boyfriend both definitely test in the top ten percent of the country, Willow," he noted parenthetically, his remark drawing a pleased smile from all of the teens at hearing his comment.

"But having said that, I need to point out that intelligence and *wisdom* are two completely different things, and that wisdom is something that is typically gained from experience or learning from your mistakes, and it’s *not* something that can be learned just by reading a book or listening to a teacher in a classroom.

"While you're unquestionably a brilliant student, you lack the wisdom that's needed when learning magic, Willow," he said.

"It’s not a criticism, so don’t take it as such – it’s merely a statement of fact," Ted added as he saw the frown forming on the apprentice witch's face. “Putting it in its simplest possible terms, wisdom is learning when magic *should* be used, not just when it *could* be used.

"The training all of you are going to be getting over the next several months is going to leave you completely physically and mentally exhausted by the end of the day, Willow, and I don't want to worry about you trying to do magic when you’re that tired and accidentally injuring yourself or your friends or, especially, someone who's teaching you," Ted said, his expression hard and unyielding as he looked at all of the teens individually.

"An untrained or an only partially-trained witch is one of the most dangerous beings you can ever face aside from a Master vampire, mostly because they usually don’t have either sufficient intelligence or wisdom to accurately recognize and deal with problems that can arise when they're doing their magic," he informed the teens. "Especially since most of them tend to panic if things start to go wrong with the spell or ritual they're working.

"Several of the people who I'll be contacting about training you kids have had to deal with rogue witches and warlocks in the past, and because of what they've seen and, in some cases, been forced to do, these people have little to no patience for amateur magic users who think they know best.

"To put it in terms that might seem a bit simplistic, but which are still quite applicable, you don't give a five-year-old child a loaded pistol and then let them run around, playing with it," Ted said relentlessly, catching and holding the redhead's eye.

"And with all due respect to your intelligence, Willow, when it comes to magic, that's pretty much what you are," he said. "It's not your fault, so please don't think I'm insulting you or doing anything of the kind, but you haven't received anywhere near the necessary grounding and preparation you need if you're going to be performing magic in any sort of responsible manner."

A miserable and upset expression on her face, Willow glanced over to Oz, as if for a show of support.

"Way he puts it, man does have a point," the blue-haired guitarist reluctantly admitted, despite his instinctive inclination to side with his mate. "Before she died, Ms. Calendar did say she hadn't had the chance to show you everything she needed to teach you," he reminded her.

"I promise you, Willow," Ted spoke up again, with the barest hint of a smile of satisfaction at receiving Oz's support on his face, "that I will do everything I can to find the best teachers available for you, once you're ready to begin learning more about magic.

"It's just that trying to do anything like that while you're doing the physical training we have planned is *not* the time to do so."

"O-okay," Willow replied in a small voice. "I promise – no magic, at all, until some professional teachers show up for the whole ‘wisdom’ thing."

***

Suite 235
America's Best Value Inn and Suites
Las Vegas, NV

January 22, 1999
Later that same evening


"Joyce, Buffy, Faith, this is Jimaine Szardos, an occasional business associate of mine," Ted introduced the mature redheaded woman of indeterminate age as he led her into the living room section of the group's suite.

"She's agreed to help us deal with the problem involving Quentin and his associates which we were discussing earlier today," he informed them, his inclination to reveal as little information as possible to anyone, even a supposed ally, obvious to all three women by the way he deliberately omitted Travers' last name.

"Mr. Forrester has hired me to provide each of you young ladies with a means of preventing anyone from scrying your location," the witch informed Buffy and Faith as she examined each girl with a focused scrutiny.

"You deliberately didn't tell me that these girls were vampire Slayers," she accused Ted as she turned to look over at him, making both Buffy and Faith reflexively tense up at that declaration.

"That's right," Ted nodded, his face impassive as he returned her gaze. "If you weren't good enough to realize who they were when you saw them, then you wouldn't be of any use to us in helping to hide them from the Council.

"Is that going to affect the fee we agreed upon?" he then asked in what would seem to be an almost indifferent tone of voice.

"No," Szardos shook her head, making her long curls wave slightly with the motion, "the terms we've agreed to are quite suitable to me.

"Although if you had told me that it was a chance to help you put the screws to those arrogant, sanctimonious, self-righteous and perverted bastards, I would probably have agreed to help you, just for that opportunity, alone," she added with a thin smile.

"All right, girls," she said, as she turned back to face both Slayers, "I need you to each sit down and…"

-/-/-

Ted's ranch
Santa Fe, NM

February 21, 1999


"It's good to hear from you again, Buffy," Angel said, and it was easy for the petite Slayer to visualize the smile she knew would be on his face as he spoke to her over the phone line.

"It's good to hear your voice again, too, Angel," she told him, a smile lighting up her own voice as she spoke to her forbidden love and heart's desire.

"I was talking to Giles earlier this evening, and he promised me that he'd keep me updated on how the Council's search for both you and Faith was going," the blonde's former lover informed her, and Buffy's forehead instantly furrowed in a simultaneously angry, sad and disappointed frown at even the mention of her former advisor and mentor.

She had heard that Giles had said repeatedly that he was now sorry for what he’d done, but that didn’t equal forgiveness the mind of Buffy Anne Summers.

"If they ever do manage to trace you down, I'll let you know the moment that Giles tells me anything at all," the spell-ensouled vampire promised, and Buffy unconsciously nodded her head in agreement at his remark. "That way, you'll at least have some notice that they think they've found you and you can either clear out of the area you're in, or prepare yourselves properly for whatever they might try to do to capture you.

"Oh, and Xander, and maybe Willow, too, might be interested to hear that Cordelia and her mother are moving to L.A. next week," Angel went on.

"After you, Faith and Xander all disappeared so unexpectedly and then Willow left town with Oz after saying that she couldn't stay here without her friends, apparently the girl decided that living on the Hellmouth was just 'too dangerous to even think about,'" he quoted the former cheerleader

"Thanks, Angel," Buffy told him sincerely. "I'll tell the others about Cordy, but I really don't think anyone except Xander will care all that much. And maybe not even him, considering the way she was treating him before we left.

"Anyway, I really appreciate everything you've been doing," she said, "and I'm sure the others do, too, what with your keeping us informed about what the Council's been doing and letting us know what's been going on back in town, and how our friends are doing and all."

"Uh, yeah. Uhm, about that…" Angel replied somewhat hesitantly, and Buffy frowned with concern at the way he trailed off in his response.

"What's the problem, Angel? The Council's not hunting for *you*, are they?" she asked, alarm in her voice at the thought of Council hunter teams scouring the town for her former boyfriend.

"No! It's not that, Buffy. It's nothing like that," Angel tried to reassure the clearly worried blonde.

"But, uh, you see," he picked up the conversational thread, "I'm not going to be able to keep you updated as well as I've been doing on how things here in Sunnydale are going after this week, because I'm going to be moving to L.A."

"What? Why are you doing that?" Buffy inquired, puzzled by Angel's statement. "Didn't you used to live in L.A. before you moved to Sunnydale?

"So, why would you want to move back there again?" she asked.

"Well, you see, this guy named Doyle – he's a half-Brachen demon – he dropped by my apartment the other day, and he told me about these visions he's been getting – visions of people in trouble," Angel began describing his visit from the demonic seer.

"Well, uh, Doyle's the real deal – he had a vision in my apartment, and I only *just* managed to save one of your old classmates afterwards. Apparently he had a vision of me in L.A., and since he's no good at fighting at all, he came to try and get me to help these people he sees in his visions," Angel went on. "He told me that there's more to life than just fighting demons and saving humans – that I need to be helping to save their souls, too, and that I can't do that by locking myself away from people."

"Uh, I guess that kinda makes sense," Buffy agreed, somewhat uncertainly.

"So, you have to move back to L.A. to save souls?" she then asked a bit plaintively at the thought of him moving even further away than he was now.

"That's where the people Doyle's been having visions about have been, so far, apart from that one-off here in Sunnydale," Angel replied, "so I guess that's at least where we’ll be starting out."

"So, what are you going to be doing while you wait for these visions this Doyle guy's been having to show up?" Buffy wanted to know.

"I'm not really sure," Angel admitted. "Doyle was saying something about maybe working as an insurance investigator in between visions, but I was thinking that you can usually hear a lot of interesting things working in a bar…"

-/-/-

Inside 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


Sarah pushed herself up from the table she and Miles had appropriated, once they'd finally made their way into the club, and gave her date a crooked, drunken smile.

"I have to use the, the liddle gurlsh room," the clearly sloshed cheerleader slurred an explanation to the auburn-haired youth smirking at her from across the table. "I'll be ri' back," the inebriated beauty promised before turning and then half-staggering down the corridor to the restrooms, either ignoring or not noticing the various leers of appreciation she received as she made her way past several of the club's bouncers.

After turning the corner of the dimly-lit hallway leading to the restrooms and moving out of the bouncers' line of sight, the woman's stagger abruptly disappeared and her movements took on an almost feline smoothness as Sarah made her way further down the corridor.

Pausing at a corridor intersection for only a moment to murmur a near-inaudible sentence and gesture at her boots, the 'click, clack' sound of her footsteps abruptly faded into silence and she smiled with satisfaction before continuing on her way.

Pulling a pair of black leather gloves from inside her shoulder bag as she walked, Sarah pulled them on as she quietly made her way to a door marked 'Electrical Panels' and slipped inside, unnoticed.

Taking a moment for a quick examination, Sarah opened one of the electrical panels and expertly attached a small package she'd removed from her bag to two of the terminal connections, then closed the door and made sure there were no traces of her presence anywhere in the area.

***

Less than a minute after Sarah had left their table, Miles awkwardly lurched to his feet, his beer mug unsteady in his hand, and began making his way over to the walkway where several of the female strippers were bumping and grinding for the tourists' and locals' gratification.

Had any of the club's coolers paid more than cursory attention to him, they would have noted that the youth's eyes were both clear and taking in every detail around him as he made his seemingly aimless way around the interior, gradually approaching a secluded doorway currently guarded by a pair of peacefully waiting lupine lycanthropes, who were obviously more interested in watching the gyrating dancers than any of the inebriated patrons filling the club.

It would have required either a vampire or a lycanthrope to be standing right next to him , however, to have heard the strongly-built youth murmur into his throat microphone a barely audible, "Initiating Phase Three."

-/-/-

Ted's ranch
Santa Fe, NM

January 27, 1999


"Joyce, Buffy, Faith – I think we need to talk about the training we're in the process of setting up for all of you, and we also need to discuss what I think might be a potential problem for you two young ladies, if you want to get the maximum benefit from the training," Ted announced as the two girls and Joyce joined him in the den.

"First off, I'm not telling you that you *have* to do what I'm suggesting," he said, the ominous sound of Ted's words drawing concerned frowns from all three women as they listened to him. "I'm just pointing out what I think could be an issue we're going to need to deal with sooner or later, so I'd prefer to do so as soon as possible."

"What's this 'potential problem' you think we'll run into, Ted?" Joyce instantly asked, her protective maternal instincts coming to the fore and making her take the lead in the discussion.

"Well, basically, it's the fact that Buffy and Faith are Slayers and the people I'm getting to teach them – aren't," Ted responded, causing the two teens to look at him with confused incomprehension while Joyce's face quickly shifted to a more thoughtful expression as she considered what he'd just said.

"You're concerned that rumors about two apparently superhumanly powerful teenaged girls might eventually get back to the Council, aren't you?" Joyce stated, more than asked.

"Yep," he nodded. "I don't think that anyone we'll be working with would deliberately leak the information, but all it takes is one or two careless comments if the wrong people are around to hear them, and we'll have Council hit teams after everyone here faster than a shyster lawyer after an ambulance."

"So, what are you saying? That we can't get the kind of training X, Wolfie and Red are gonna get?" Faith asked. "If so, that's no biggie. B and me can train together and still kick ass with the best of them," she shrugged.

"That would be one way to handle the situation, ladies," Ted conceded, "but there's another way to make sure that no one suspects that either one of you might be superhumanly strong and fast.

"I, uh, took the liberty of appropriating some of Quentin and the Council's supplies when we were leaving Sunnydale…" he began, before then letting his sentence trail off.

Buffy gasped as the hints Ted had dropped all came together for her.

"You want us to use that Cruciamentum stuff Giles used on me, so that we don't have our Slayer powers while we're training!" she blurted out, her face paling as she remembered the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability she'd experienced that night.

"No, I don't *want* you to use it," Ted immediately corrected Buffy. "I'm just letting you know that it's available for you to use, should *you* decide to do so, as a potential alternative to possibly revealing your whereabouts to the Council.

"Whether you or Faith use that serum, is a matter I'll leave up to you two to decide," he said. "I promise you both, though, that I will never use that on either of you – especially in the high doses that the Council used to remove all of your powers from you.

"Just let me know how you want to handle the matter by tomorrow afternoon, ladies. I'll have to start setting up some schedules for the people that’ll be training you kids, and I'd prefer to have them done by the end of the week."

-/-/-

Balboa Park
San Francisco, CA

March 1, 1999


"Joyce, Buffy, Faith, Willow, Oz, Xander – I'd like to introduce to you, Ms. Bobbi Morse and Mr. Clint Barton," Ted introduced the blond-haired couple to the Scoobies.

“Hey,” “Hi,” the five teens chorused, as if on cue.

"Okay, here's how things will be going. For the next three weeks that we'll be spending here, Ms. Morse will be training you in a number of different styles of hand to hand combat, so that you'll hopefully be able to recognize the techniques a potential opponent will be using and know how to best counter them," Ted informed them with a small smile, "while Mr. Barton will be instructing you in the basic techniques for the proper use of a variety of melee weapons that Ms. Morse will not be incorporating in her teachings, as well as instructing you in the proper techniques to utilize both modern firearms as well as a number of the more traditional projectile weapons in close quarters combat."

"Clint Barton…Clint Barton," Xander softly repeated their instructor's name under his breath for a moment, a series of furrows appearing on his forehead. "Where do I know that name from?"

A moment later, Xander's expression cleared and a smile flashed across his face, then he snapped his fingers as a fragmentary memory was brought to light.

"Hey! You're the guy who won the Olympic Gold Medal in Archery in the '84 Olympics and then won four gold medals in the pistol and rifle events in '88, right?" he declared confidently, pointing at the smirking light-haired man evaluating all of them with a seasoned eye. "One of the Games' announcers nicknamed you 'Hawkeye,' didn't they?"

"Yeah, that was me, kid," Barton chuckled as he nodded his confirmation of the youth's statement. "You've got a good memory.

"I bet you're sheer hell at Trivial Pursuit," he grinned.

-/-/-

St. Louis, MO
Inside the underground complex connecting
the 'Circus of the Damned' club with some other businesses

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


"Oooh, is this really where you live when you're not out working in the club?" the purple-haired beauty purred throatily as she slowly spun around in the center of the small drawing room, her eyes cataloguing everything in the room as she twirled.

"Well, this is the apartment I use when I don't want to drive to my other place – that's out in the 'burbs," Jason answered, smiling and nodding with approval as he watched every sensuous and sensual move Chastity made with appreciative eyes.

"Ooh! This must be the bedroom!" she decided as she slunk over to the partially ajar door situated on the far wall and surveyed the interior.

"Yep, it certainly is," Jason agreed, trying to play it cool and not let this blazing hot babe see just how much he wanted to just throw her down on the mattress and jump her bones, right here and now!

{ Chicks dig the cool, controlled and in-charge type, } he reminded himself. { And besides, it's always more fun to let the ladies throw themselves at you, first. }

{ That way, you're the one in charge. }

"Is there some kind of sign you can hang on the door, so that we, y'know, won't be disturbed, baby?" Chastity asked, a wicked smile lighting up her eyes as she grinned at him Jason while making her way back across the room to him.

"I *really* don't want to be interrupted, once we start… getting to know each other better," she purred as she ran her index finger down his chest while looking up at him from under her eyelashes; it had taken pretty much every ounce of Jason's self-control not to groan aloud as he'd watched her undulate across the room and mold herself against him, and it was just as – difficult – now, to continue to stand there and act as though he wasn't pretty much drooling with desire for her.

"Sure, babe," he nodded, as he turned and reached over to flip one of the small switches on the light plate by the door.

"There now, we’re not gonna be disturbed by anything less than World War Four, I guarantee you," Jason grinned as he turned back to smile down at the diminutive beauty pressed up against him.

"Good," Chastity smiled back up at him as she ran her hand through her long purple tresses for a moment.

"'Cause, like I said, I really don’t want anyone walking in and interrupting things," she said as she pointed the small, modified pepper spray she was now holding in her hand at the blonde werewolf and squirted the DMSO-benzodiazepine-snake venom mixture contained within it into his face.

"Wha –" Jason tried to protest, reflexively beginning to lift his hand towards her, only to collapse to the floor, unconscious, as the concentrated sedative-tranquilizer-venom dropped him as fast as a .45 slug through the forehead – although much more quietly and without anywhere near the mess. The benzodiazepine had knocked him out almost instantly – which was a mercy, since then he wouldn't be awake to experience the subsequent respiratory failure and cardiac arrhythmia which the Australian Inland Taipan venom it was mixed with was going to produce.

"Goodbye, wolf-boy," Chastity said as she bent down, effortlessly picked him up and then dropped him on the sofa filling the back wall. To anyone checking in on him, Jason would appear to be simply sleeping, and by the time someone might realize he wasn't, it would be far too late to do anything to save him.

"It's too bad I have to kill you," she informed the unconscious lycanthrope, "because you really are kinda cute, but you're also the one who decided you wanted to hang around with the wrong people, so there really isn't anyone else to blame for all this but yourself."

Reaching up and grasping the earring dangling from her left ear, Chastity murmured a soft phrase and then seemed to fade out of sight.

A moment later, the door swung open and then closed quietly, leaving the unconscious and inevitably doomed werewolf snoring softly on the couch.

-/-/-

ABC News

May 20, 1999
12:44 PM Eastern Standard Time


"This is a breaking news report! We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for this important news announcement!

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is Peter Jennings, bringing you what is undoubtedly the most disturbing news bulletin I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing and reporting.

"Although the following imagery you will be seeing might at first appear to be scenes taken from a Grade-B horror movie, the footage we are seeing is both *real* and *live*," the news anchor announced as he stared at the screen to his left with obvious and sincere shock and horror on his face.

"Amber Haines, the local correspondent for our Los Angeles affiliate KNBC, is currently transmitting to us a live video feed of what is presently occurring in the normally peaceful little town of Sunnydale, California."

"Peter? Peter, are, are you getting all this?" a woman's horrified and trembling voice came over the airwaves as the news feed switched from showing the New York newsroom to an aerial view taken from several hundred feet of altitude and focusing on what looked like some sort of huge snake-like creature, measuring at least seventy feet long and over eight feet high, and with *arms* that it was using to grab people who were frantically trying to flee from its path.

A small group of people, police officers and citizens intermixed, were standing a short distance away from the monster and were firing at it with a mix of pistols and hunting rifles – attacks which the demon was either ignoring or which it didn't even notice.

"Oh my God!" someone back in the studio could be heard saying as the video feed showed the snake-creature reaching out to grab several of the people shooting at it and then shoving them into a large mouth decorated with what looked like insect-like mandibles.

"IT ATE THEM! OH MY GOD! THAT THING JUST ATE THOSE PEOPLE!" the speaker could be heard screaming, followed by what sounded like someone being violently sick.

***

With horror on their faces and tears running down their cheeks, the Scooby Gang were all frozen in front of the television as they witnessed the slaughter being broadcast live across the country, frustrated and helpless in the knowledge that there was absolutely nothing they could do to help protect their former schoolmates and neighbors from the monster currently running amok in their old hometown.

Watching as the former-Mayor-turned-Old-One was eventually blasted into scorched and smoking kibble-sized pieces of meat by a flight of Air Force F-15E 'Strike Eagles' using a half-dozen JDAMs did nothing at all to help any of them alleviate their feelings of impotent rage and near overwhelming loss.

-/-/-

Inside 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


Miles watched as one of the club's bartenders, a very attractive and mature brunette, whose nametag identified her as 'Madeline,' moved from behind the nearest bar and headed in the direction of the carefully camouflaged door currently being flanked by the two werewolves.

Pausing for a moment's conversation with the two clearly admiring guards, the brunette flashed them a wicked smile and winked at the one on the right before slipping by them and through and into the room beyond the door.

Slipping his hand into his jacket pocket as he moved towards the pair, Miles plastered a wide, drunken grin on his face and began swaying slightly as he got closer. He then took a quick look behind himself to make sure that no one was paying him any attention as he pressed a small wad against the concave base of his mug and made sure the adhesive patch stuck to the inside surface of the base.

Satisfied that he was clear, at least for the next minute or so, Miles half-lifted his mug to catch and focus the nearest guard's attention as he said, 'Uh, 'scuse me, buddy, but can you let me through, please?

"'Cause I really gotta take a wicked piss, and the other bathroom over there's got two guys fighting inside and there's somebody lying on the floor in front of the urinals and taking up all the space, and I *really* can't wait any longer. I mean, I'm probably gonna piss myself any second," Miles half-babbled as he shifted back and forth from foot to foot, as though very uncomfortable.

"Aw, shit," the werewolf on the right swore as he listened to the youth's prattle. "Jerry, you go check out the bathroom, and I'll let Timmy know what's going on, so he can get some other guys to help out, if you need it –"

"Uh, hey, can you let me through so I can hit the men's room, now, buddy?" Miles interrupted, screwing his face up in a grimace as though he were in extreme discomfort as 'Jerry' headed towards the men's room on the opposite side of the club. "Please? I gotta drain the dragon *now* and get back to the table before my lady gets back from her visit to the ladies' room. I'm not gonna be able to hold it much longer, and I don't want to piss my pants, y'know?"

"Oh, what the hell," the remaining werewolf guard sighed with resigned aggravation as he stepped to the side and opened the door for Miles. "All right, go ahead, man.

"The men's room is the first door on the right. Just don't go anywhere else, understand?"

"Sure thing, man," Miles nodded his agreement, setting down the beer mug on the small table situated by the door as he slid by the guard when he opened the door and let the club patron pass by.

"I really appreciate this, buddy. And my kidneys most definitely thank you, too," Miles grinned gratefully as he turned in the indicated direction.

-/-/-

Hertfordshire Center for International Anthropological, Cultural and Social Studies
Watchers Council Main Compound
Hertfordshire, England

August 3, 2000

"Roger! I've just received some truly excellent news from the seers tasked with monitoring the Potentials! The Potential Slayer Chao-Ahn Rong has just demonstrated all of the indications of having been Called!"

The rather portly, middle-aged, walrus-mustached man in the tweed suit who rushed into the office was practically beaming as he delivered his news, and the recipient of this report sat back in his rather palatial leather chair as an equally wide smile crossed his normally stern and dour countenance.

"That is, indeed, wonderful news, Duncan," he agreed. "At long last, the Slayer is finally back under the auspices of the Council!

"Please let the operations group know that they no longer need keep up their search for that trollop, Lehane," Roger Wyndham-Pryce then directed his colleague.

"I wonder exactly how it was that that bitch finally met her well-deserved end? And I wonder if that Summers girl was with her?" the Council's current head mused for a moment, before shaking his head in dismissal.

"No matter," Roger told himself. "There are many more important things to consider now, than how one, and hopefully both, of those strumpets might have died."

***

Emergency Room
St. Anthony Central Hospital
Denver, CO

August 3, 2000


"Buffy! Are you all right, sweetie? What happened to you all? Where're Willow and Faith?"

Joyce's voice was calm and controlled, a distinct contrast to the worry clearly evident in her eyes as she moved through the emergency room with a composure that her distraught and near-hysterical daughter could only marvel at as she watched her mother approach.

"Oh God, Mom, we were on our way to the mall to get some new clothes to replace the ones that got ruined last week when we were helping Ted out with that job last week and we were stopped at this intersection waiting for the light to change and Willow was saying to Faith about how we should stop to get some lunch while we were there before we started shopping 'cause we didn't really have all that much for breakfast, and then this guy going the other way ran the light and he swerved so he wouldn't hit this car going the other way and he hit Faith's side of the car almost head-on, and I think we were all knocked out, at least for a couple seconds, and then when I woke up, I could see that Faith's head and face were all bloody from where she got hit by the doorframe and she wouldn't wake up and Willow was all banged up, too, but she woke up a little bit after I did and the EMT guys said she was gonna be fine, but they couldn’t get Faith to wake up at all and they took us all in the ambulance to the ER here, and that's the first chance I had call you, 'cause I think my phone must've gotten smashed or something when we got hit 'cause it wasn't working, and they said Willow and I were just banged up and we'll be okay but something happened with Faith and they took into the operating room right away after we got here, and they won't tell me anything about how she is or what's going on, and I'm so scared for her, Mom, because she was all covered with blood and she wouldn't wake up, no matter what the EMTs did, and I heard one of them saying that they were losing her, and I think she might be dead because NOBODY WILL TELL ME ANYTHING ABOUT WHAT'S HAPPENED TO HER!" the obviously frightened teen finally finished her near-incomprehensibly babbled explanation for their presence at the hospital Emergency Room with an irate and furious half-scream.

"Okay, Buffy, I need you to calm down – all right, honey?" Joyce soothed her daughter, noting the several small band-aids on the blonde's forehead as the middle-aged woman pulled her close into a comforting hug, while also running her hands over the girl's slim frame as much to reassure herself of the blonde's safety and wellbeing as to reassure Buffy that she was here now.

"You can stop freaking out, now, okay, sweetie?" Joyce told the wide-eyed blonde. "I'm going to find out what's going on with Faith and Willow, and exactly where Willow is, and then I'm going to have you sit with her, while I go check on Faith.

"And I called Ted and Xander and Oz and told them as much as I knew about what happened and they're going to meet us here as soon as possible," Joyce explained. "It's just going to take them some time to get back here from the cabin."

"Okay, Mom," Buffy nodded, a relieved expression on her face as she dutifully followed along behind and watched her mother take charge of the situation.

Give her a life and death battle with several hordes of demons or vampires and she could handle the situation with a calmness and composure that Mr. Spock himself would envy, but in circumstances like this – where she had no concrete idea of what to do and she could only stand around and watch helplessly – Buffy reverted to the frantic and apprehensive teenager she actually was.

It took only a matter of minutes before Joyce was deep in conversation with the M.D. assigned responsibility for her daughters' cases.

"Your daughter, Willow – she's more or less fine, Mrs. Connor," the middle-aged doctor with a graying beard reassured the obviously concerned, strawberry-blonde beauty. "She, uh, she suffered a minor fracture of her left forearm and a relatively mild concussion, and once she's gotten a cast for her arm, we'll be able to release her into your care. She'll probably have a bit of a headache for the next couple days, but she'll be okay in no time.

"As far as your other daughter, Faith, is concerned, well – she's a very lucky young lady," the doctor said as he began describing the brunette's condition.

"In layman's terms, she suffered a fairly severe concussion and several broken ribs from the collision, and two of the broken ribs managed to pierce her left lung. Then, the blood that was hemorrhaging from that tear accumulated around her pericardium, compressing her heart and preventing it from beating properly," he explained. "In fact, at one point, your daughter's heart actually ceased beating for a moment or two, but our trauma team was able to resuscitate her almost immediately, and she looks to be doing just fine now.

"Faith's going to need to stay here for a little while so that we can keep an eye on her and make sure that everything is healing the way it should – but given proper rest and care, your daughter should recover completely…"

-/-/-


Ted's ranch
Santa Fe, NM

May 20, 1999
Late afternoon


"Y'know, even though I'm still incredibly pissed off at him for betraying me like he did, I really, really miss him and I, I wish Giles hadn't gotten killed by the Mayor along wi- with everyone else at school," Buffy managed to say before she finally broke down and began crying hysterically, even as she continued to watch the news reports on the currently muted 42-inch plasma screen.

Joyce instantly moved to sit on the floor next to her sobbing child and enveloped her in a supportive and reassuring hug as she began whispering what she realized were empty platitudes in an effort to try and comfort the devastated blonde.

"Yeah, I… I kinda miss him, too," Willow whispered as she snuggled even closer inside Oz's embrace and she turned and buried her face against his chest, the muffled sobs from the love seat they were sitting in echoing through the room. The blue-haired werewolf's face was actually twisted in a grimace of shock and loss, although no sound accompanied his obvious emotional upset

"Gotta admit…part of me always kinda wished, deep down inside, that Giles was my dad instead of Tony Harris," Xander confessed quietly from his position on one end of the couch he was sharing with Faith as he stared at the video of the Mayor rampaging through town was being repeated for the nth time this evening. "And now, both of them are gone – and so's my mom, too.

"And so are Wesley and Larry and Percy and Harmony and Aura and Aphrodesia and Lisa Campiti and pretty much everyone else I ever knew growing up in Sunnydale," Xander noted, almost as though it were an afterthought.

The youth's voice was so calm and even that anyone just listening might have come to the conclusion that he was completely unaffected by the tragedy which had erased his hometown from existence, if the tears streaming down his face hadn't given lie to that thought.

"Jeeves seemed pretty cool for an old guy," Faith agreed in a barely audible voice, not wanting to speak ill of the dead, just like everyone else. "Even considering what he did to B and all.

"And I didn't really know many of those people, but seeing them get gobbled up like that, it just, it just really –" Faith's voice broke off, unable to frame her thoughts any more specifically at the moment, and the brunette wiped irritably and ineffectually at her eyes as she tried not to let the horror of what had happened in Sunnydale affect her any more than it already had.

So shaken and disturbed by the day's happenings was the russet-haired Slayer that she allowed the dark-haired youth sitting near her to slide down the couch and slip his arm around her shoulders in a gesture of comfort, and made no attempt to rebuff him in any way, but instead actually laid her head against his shoulder and allowed him to pull her closer against him.

Silence reigned for an indeterminate time until, finally, after Buffy had cried herself out, she reluctantly pulled away from her mother and looked across the room to where Ted sat silently, alternating between observing the latest new updates and evaluating everyone's reactions.

"Ted."

Buffy's quiet voice broke the silence that had enveloped the room for the past little while, and Xander, Willow, Faith, Oz and Joyce all turned and focused their attention on the petite blonde who was staring at the tall blonde man with a single-mindedness more intense than anyone could remember seeing her display before this moment.

"Yes, Buffy?" the supernatural bounty hunter/assassin answered the blonde Slayer's call in an equally quiet tone.

"I want you to teach me – teach *us* – everything you know about the supernatural and about the monsters that are hiding out there in the darkness," she told him.

"'Cause I'm never gonna let anything like this happen ever again!"

-/-/-

Inside 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


Inside the men's room, Miles abandoned the act and paused only long enough to place a small package he'd removed from his jacket pocket inside the trash container, after first activating a set of switches on the package's front and typing in a short set of commands on the package's small screen.

Then, after carefully peeking around the door, to make sure that the bouncer wasn't coming back to check on him, Miles tapped the face of his watch and murmured a low-voiced command, before then quickly fading from sight.

The door at the far end of the hall mysteriously swinging open of its own accord a moment later was the only indication that the hallway hadn't been completely empty.

-/-/-

Salem Institute for Excellence
Salem, MA

October 27, 1999


"Good afternoon, Mr. Forrester. It is good to see you are still as punctual as ever."

"Good afternoon, Miss Harkness. It's good to see you again," Ted replied as he gave the stern-looking, white-haired woman a polite nod of acknowledgement.

"Please allow me to introduce my associates," he then went on, indicating the five teens waiting quietly behind him.

"This is Miss Buffy Summers, Miss Faith Lehane, Miss Willow Rosenberg, Mr. Daniel Osbourne and Mr. Alexander Harris," Ted identified each of the group in turn.

"I'm quite pleased to meet you, Miss Rosenberg," Miss Harkness said as she stepped forward and offered her hand to Willow. "Mr. Forrester has informed me that your original teacher was brutally murdered before she could complete your initial training, so I am eager to determine how far she was able to guide you before her demise. Your aura indicates you have the potential to wield great power, and I look forward to helping you ascertain both your limits and your full potential."

"Uh, thank you, Miss Harkness," the redhead replied somewhat hesitantly as she threw her friends a look of confusion and uncertainty at the older woman's comments.

"Mr. Forrester has spoken to me of your companions' desire to also attain some basic level of mastery of the arts," Harkness went on, "and I commend them on their interest, although I will note that I have already ascertained that none of them even begin to approach your capability to work magic.

"Since the information I will be imparting to Miss Rosenberg is far above the level of magic that any of you would ever be able to command, and it is imperative that she learn the proper means to draw upon and control her power as promptly as possible," the white-haired witch said, turning slightly to address the other Scoobies directly, "I will be having several of my assistants tutoring the four of you in order to determine the ways and means which will best suit each of you.

"Mr. Osbourne, you will be under the instruction of my associate, Mr. Hrimhari, here" Harkness stated, inclining her head towards a tall, lean and somewhat feral-looking dark-haired man standing near the rear of the room. "He will assist you in your quest to learn how to coexist with your inner beast, and will also be instructing you in learning the basics of druidic magic, which most lycanthropes generally find to be the most compatible form of the Art, primarily due to their already being in tune with the natural flow of magic in the planetary ecosystem.

"Miss Summers, Miss Lehane and Mr. Harris," Harkness said, as she focused her gaze on the three remaining Scoobies, "although I stated that none of you even begin to approach Miss Rosenberg's capabilities, I also wish to emphasize that none of you are by any means powerless, and that everyone here at the Institute will do our best to help all of you ascertain which aspects of the Art best match both your interests and capabilities, and then help you achieve the maximum levels of competence and expertise possible.

"Accordingly, all three of you will be learning basic mage craft from my assistants, Mr. Jared Stevens, Miss Darla Aquista and Mr. William Kaplan," the head witch informed the trio. "They are more than capable of assisting you in your study of the Art.

"Now, unless any of you have any particular questions regarding your proposed studies, I would suggest you all get settled into your rooms, and take the rest of the day to begin adjusting to the different time frame," the white-haired matriarch proposed.

"Mr. Hrimhari and Miss Aquista will show you to your rooms, now, and provide you with a map of the Institute's layout and the surrounding grounds," Harkness continued, once it was clear that no one had any questions.

"We will begin tomorrow's classes with our standard morning exercise class, which begins promptly at 6:30 a.m., on the main training field."

With a chorus of "Yes, ma'am," the Scoobies grabbed their bags and began following the two instructors to their new, temporary quarters.

-/-/-

One of the 'Circus of the Damned' storerooms
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


Madeline was struggling to shove one of the larger kegs of beer away from its companions when the door to the corridor behind her quietly swung open, and she instantly looked over her shoulder to check who it was who might be joining her.

Seeing no one there visible in the doorway, the classically beautiful brunette gave a small frown as she turned back to her effort of pulling the beer keg further out of place and said, "Well, don't just stand there. Help me get these things in place, will you?"

"Sure – Madeline," a soft female voice could be heard saying, and an instant later, Chastity blinked into view. Moving over next to the brunette, the purple-haired beauty effortlessly picked up the beer keg and swung it over to an open spot a few feet away, then did the same to the other beer keg Madeline pointed to, setting it next to its twin.

"All right, then," Madeline smiled as she crouched next to the pair of metallic casks, her right hand sliding along the outside of the rightmost barrel, at which point a small 'click' was heard, and a seam running along the top of the cask and then down its outer side became visible.

"Here we go," the brunette's smile became even broader as the front half of the keg swung towards her, revealing that the interior of the container was filled with four carefully packed MP5SD submachine guns with the integral sound suppressors and numerous magazines of ammunition, as well as other not as easily identifiable instruments.

"And here you go," Madeline said as she handed one of the SMGs to the younger woman, along with three filled magazines.

"Thanks," Chastity nodded as she checked the weapon over, ensuring that it was functioning properly, before she then loaded a magazine into the receiver, chambered a round, made sure it was set to 'safe' and then set it aside in order to accept several flash-bang grenades, which she attached to several of the clips decorating her leather vest.

As the storeroom door began to swing open, Chastity's hand reflexively snapped out to grab the MP5SD and target it on the door, only to relax as she heard a woman's voice assure her, "It's okay, Chastity. It's just us," and Sarah's and Miles' forms could be recognized as they shimmered into view.

"Everything's still on schedule," Madeline stated as she nodded her head in greeting to the new arrivals while handing one of the suppressed weapons and two of the flash-bang grenades to each of the two newcomers.

"Okay, good," Miles nodded as he checked his weapon the same way Chastity had a moment earlier, then clipped the flash-bang grenades on his belt, his actions mirrored by Sarah as she stood just a few feet away, next to Chastity.

"Everyone ready?" Madeline asked, as she finished checking her own weapon.

"All right, then," she said, after receiving affirmative responses from each of her companions.

"Let's get to work," Madeline commanded as she led the way out of the storeroom.

-/-/-

Faubourg Marigny area
New Orleans, LA

July 14, 2002
11.23 p.m.


"Just where the hell are those bleedin' idiot Fyarls who sent us the flippin' invitation to meet them here and discuss divvying up the city, anyway?"

The clarity of the Cockney-accented voice issuing from the compact loudspeaker on the table in front of the small group wasn't of the highest quality possible, but it was still of sufficient fidelity to make recognition of the speaker a foregone conclusion, even if the speaker wasn't currently under observation through an open balcony door by the spotter's scope currently being employed by a stunningly beautiful redhead or the M110 Semiautomatic sniper rifle situated on a sturdy wooden table and being utilized by an equally gorgeous and quite competent-looking brunette who was sighting down the weapon's Leupold Mk4 3.5-10x40mm scope. A green-haired youth in a faded 'Abbey Road' tee shirt sat on the floor in a meditative lotus pose off to one side of the redhead.

A second, identical rifle was set up several feet to the brunette's right and a strongly-built brunet, wearing a worn T-shirt with the logo, 'Your village called – They want their idiot back,' was peering through an identical scope, although his sights were focused on the brunette vampiress slowly whirling in the rear of the room from which the telephonic whining was being transmitted.

"Yep, that's Peroxide Boy there, all right," Buffy provided verbal confirmation of the identity of their target from her position near the back of the room, while Faith kept the crosshairs centered on the base of the bleached-blond vampire's neck as he moved to stand at the balcony and look down at the people filling the street below.

"Drusilla looks like she's dancing to music only she can hear," Willow commented thoughtfully as she watched the insane vampiress swaying gracefully around the well-illuminated room at the far end of the square.

"Well, they're both gonna be dancing in Hell in a minute," Faith commented as she watched through her scope with seemingly endless patience for the proper instant to take her shot. She knew enough about Xander’s target to know the situation could change at any second due to her second sight or whatever, so the brunette Slayer made a judgment call.

"Take your shot first, X," she instructed the tall brunet calmly. "Bleach-Boy's not gonna be going anywhere without the Space Cadet, and I'm dead certain I can nail him in the second he freezes when you take out the flake."

"Okay, Faith," Xander agreed as he focused on his target, patiently waiting for the optimal moment to strike.

Silence filled the room for an indeterminate time, until it was abruptly shattered by a muffled 'Phuft!' – which was followed a bare fraction of a second later by a second 'Phuft!'

Down the block, dust slowly drifted to the immaculately clean floor in two separate locations, thanks to the explosive mercury-tipped blessed bullets shattering both vampires’ heads into little pieces. And it was all so…anti-climatic, from a certain point of view, as Spike and Drusilla were finally sent to Hell without ever knowing what hit them.

"Okay, then," Xander said perfunctorily as he picked up his weapon from the table it had been resting on and began disassembling it, preparatory to cleaning it. "Let's clean this place up, okay, people?

"Me, I'm in the mood for some jambalaya."

-/-/-

Inside the 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


James met up with Madeline, Chastity, Sarah and Miles at the intersection of the storeroom corridor and a slightly larger hallway, nodding his head in greeting as he slipped his hands inside his windbreaker and then pulled them out, a Glock in each hand, which were then held carefully at his sides.

After a moment's pause to listen for any untoward sounds, he then inclined his head towards the left passageway and began leading the small group deeper into the underground warren they'd invaded.

As they followed the dark-haired man deeper underground, Sarah produced a cell phone from her jacket pocket and opened it, pressed one of the speed dial buttons, then closed it up and returned it to her jacket pocket.

A few seconds later, several muffled 'booms!' could be heard and all of the overhead lights flickered and then went out. Several seconds passed before the emergency lights flared on, casting a harsh illumination over everything beneath it.

And a few seconds later, the fire alarms began its ear-piercing scream, further exacerbating the blossoming confusion in the club above the party of five.

-/-/-

Kovler Lion House
Lincoln Park Zoo
Chicago, IL

April 2, 2005
Late afternoon


"Hey, Elmo, how's it hanging?"

The tall, pale and slender blue-haired youth leaning against the railing and watching the lion sprawled lazily atop the rocky outcropping forming part of the diorama turned his head to look at the speaker, a hot-looking brunette wearing sprayed-on leather pants and a form-fitting red top standing a few yards away and also leaning against the railing.

"You talking to me?" ‘Elmo’ drawled languidly as he gave the woman an evaluating once-over. The question was mostly rhetorical as there weren't all that many people around at the moment, so it wasn't like there was someone else she could have been addressing.

"Yeah, I am, Elmo," the brunette nodded, returning the gaze and giving him an equally appraising examination.

"I hear you're the go-to guy, for people who want talk about anything involving kitty cats, here in the Windy City," she said. "That right?"

"What's it to you?" 'Elmo' asked, ignoring her question for the moment. "And where'd you hear that?"

"From somebody named Justin, down St. Louis way," the brunette replied. "And I'm interested seeing if there's anyone interested in making some money helping out with a little bit of business me and some of my friends got going."

"What kind of business are we talking about?" 'Elmo' asked.

"Hey, we ain't talking about anything at the moment, slick," the brunette told him with a shake of her head. "I don't even know if you're the guy I'm supposed to be talking to, 'cause I don't even know your name."

"I'm Haven," the guy finally introduced himself. "Who're you?"

"Rain Ocampo," the brunette identified herself, as she pushed herself away from the railing and began walking down one of the more secluded pathways around the exhibit.

"Let's take a walk," she suggested as she looked back at him. "That way, I can be sure nobody can hear what I got to say, who ain't supposed to."

"Whatever. Now, what kind of business are you talking about doing?" Haven asked once he caught up with the woman. "There're already too many people trying to do all kinds of business 'round here," the blue-haired guy noted as he glanced down at her from his superior height.

"Well, me and my partners are looking for some muscle to help guard some property we're moving through here on its way down south," Rain stated as she glanced around, evidently trying to see if anyone was watching them. The pathway they were on wound through a fairly thick copse of trees, providing concealment from any potential observers

"Talk I heard is that you're a werelion," Rain then stated. "That true?"

"Anything's possible," Haven shrugged indifferently. "How's that matter, though?"

"Turns out, some of the people we've been negotiating with are scared shitless of cats. Some kind of religious thing, I dunno details – but then I don’t need to," Rain smirked as she glanced behind them for any possible bystanders. "So me and my friends are looking to hire some big kitties to help keep them in line. You interested?"

"Maybe," the blue-haired youth shrugged. "What kind of money are we talking?"

"The going rate," the brunette said, as she stopped by a large sycamore.

"And there's a definite possibility of some…fringe benefits, too," Rain added throatily, as she turned to face the werelion and moved in closer to mold herself against him.

"What kind of fringe benefits would that be?" Haven smirked as he moved in and slid his arms around the brunette's shoulders.

"Oh, I don't know," Rain shrugged nonchalantly. "An all-expenses-paid funeral, maybe?"

"What the fu–?" Haven began to ask before suddenly stiffening and staring down at her with shocked surprise in his eyes.

"You shouldn’t go and try to fuck around with other people's prides, kitty cat," Rain informed him as she slipped her left arm around his waist to grab Haven and hold him upright, while she pulled the poisoned blade of her silver-plated Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife from his ribcage and stabbed him with it several more times, faster than any human should be able to do so.

"Joseph wanted me to tell you, 'Burn in hell, asshole. St. Louis belongs to me,'" the brunette told Haven as she effortlessly held him upright with just the one arm and carried him over to one of the benches lining the pathway, easily depositing him on it as though he were a stuffed doll.

"Don't worry, though," Rain added as she wiped the blade clean on her target's pants before making it somehow disappear inside her top. "The bitch and those other assholes who put you up to it will be joining you there soon enough."

Turning on her heel, the brunette casually strolled off towards the main part of the zoo, leaving the slowly cooling corpse to eventually be found by a group of would-be teen-aged toughs who'd thought it might be fun to roll an adult sleeping on one of the park benches for whatever money he had on him.

-/-/-

Jean-Claude's office
Inside the warren adjoining the 'Circus of the Damned' club
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


A half-dozen bars of 'Dust In The Wind' interrupted Jean-Claude's mostly imaginary narrative of how he'd first come to prominence and power here in St. Louis after an equally fictitious description of the death of the previous Master, Nikolaos, and Kristen Burbage released an embarrassed half-laugh as she got up and grabbed hold of her shoulder bag from where she'd set it down when she'd first arrived, retrieving her cell phone.

"Sorry for the interruption," Kristin apologized as she glanced at the text printed on the screen before typing back something and then returning it to her purse.

"My friends're letting me know they're just about finished at work, and they're going to be heading back to our place shortly," the strawberry-blonde explained as she bent down to return the bag to its previous position on the floor.

At that moment, all of the lights were extinguished and the fire alarms began blaring.

"What's going on?" the girl exclaimed, jerking upright with a look of surprise and alarm on her face at the sudden cacophony assaulting them.

"I do not know, my dear," Jean-Claude replied, his voice calm and reassuring as he gracefully rose from his position on the love seat next to Anita, "but I intend to find out."

Moving to the large desk which took up one corner of the room, the vampire picked up the telephone, only to frown and then replace it on the receiver as he commented, "That's odd. The phone system is not working."

Turning to address the golden-haired vampire who had been half-reclining on the couch set catty-corner to the love seat he and Anita had been sharing, Jean-Claude was just beginning to speak when the door to his office opened slightly and several metallic cylinders bounced into the room.

Before even the superhuman reflexes of either of the vampires or Anita Blake could react, the cylinders went off, producing a brilliant flash of light and an extremely loud blast of sound, momentarily disorienting everyone present for a few vital seconds.

Everyone, that is, apart from Kristen, who had turned away an instant before the door had begun swinging open and who had shielded her eyes by covering them with her left arm.

As the door had swung further open, four figures rushed into the room, two of the intruders breaking off to each side of the room as they entered, the submachine guns in their hands up and their laser sights targeting each of the two vampires as they did so. A fraction of an instant later, each of the vampires' bodies began shuddering involuntarily as carefully grouped trios of blessed silver hollow points, filled with holy water and mercury and sealed with wax, slammed into and through their chest to riddle their unbeating hearts like Swiss cheese.

Even momentarily disoriented as they were, Anita, Jean-Claude and Asher had all reflexively begun turning to face the door and the anticipated intruders as it swung open, but all three's reactions were seriously disrupted when Kristen quickly produced a Glock 29 from her shoulder bag and calmly fired three 10mm slugs into Anita's back, rounds identical to the blessed silver hollow points filled with holy water and mercury and sealed with wax which had been used against her vampiric lovers (as well as Spike and Drusilla, and a variety of other undead) and which almost completely annihilated her heart as the rounds deformed and mushroomed inside her chest, causing Anita to instantly drop, dead, to the luxuriously-carpeted floor with barely a sigh of breath.

Both vampires screamed hideously as though they'd had a taser jammed against their testicles as their mystical link to Anita was destroyed, before then also dropping to the floor, where they lay shaking spasmodically.

A single shot through the forehead of each of the vampires quickly caused the shaking to cease, and Miles and Chastity dropped to their knees next to Jean-Claude and Asher, respectively, each of the two catching a silver-plated knife Kristen had produced from her shoulder bag and tossed to them. Both assassins then used said knives to slice open the vampires' chests and cut out their hearts before subsequently decapitating their targets, their work making sure that neither of the undead would ever be able to return from this particular death, ever again.

As her two companions performed their grisly surgery on the vampires, Kristen initiated similar work on Anita, putting one of the specially prepared hollow-point rounds through the brunette's forehead before decapitating her, while Sarah had hurried over to join her fellow assassin, opening up the animator's torso and quickly excising Anita's heart.

All in all, the macabre tasks required less than three minutes' work from start to finish. Once it was completed, the three corpses, together with the now-separated body parts, were all moved into a single pile, with James snapping several photos of the grisly display with his cell phone's camera.

Once Sarah had completed positioning a thin cord in a circle around the gruesome pile of flesh, Miles carefully placed a white phosphorus grenade atop the bodies. As the incendiary device ignited and blue-white flames began spreading across the bodies, Sarah spoke a single word and the cord encircling the corpses began glowing, enclosing the fire in a mystical hemisphere and preventing it from spreading further.

"Five minutes," Madeline announced from her position guarding the entrance. "We need to get moving."

With a final glance back at the rapidly growing mound of ashes, the other members of the small group quickly followed her back to the storeroom where four of them had originally assembled, and they swiftly returned all of their weapons and subsidiary equipment to the two beer kegs they'd originally used to smuggle their gear into the club.

Then, again following Madeline, they made their way into the upper levels of the club. Before rounding the final corner which would take back into the club proper, Sarah smeared some blood she'd taken from a small tube she produced from her purse under her nose and across her lower face, and then she allowed Miles to pick her up in his arms, at which point she closed her eyes and let herself go limp, looking as though she were unconscious.

"Let us through, please!!" Madeline called loudly as she began pushing her way through the various club personnel assembled outside around the front doors. "Let us through!

"Is there a doctor here? We need to get this girl to a hospital!" Madeline called out as she led an upset-looking Miles, burdened with Sarah's bloody and apparently unconscious form, through the crowd, their three companions dropping back several paces as they followed at a slightly less frantic pace.

"What's going on, Madeline?" one of the coolers who'd first allowed the pair entrance asked as he saw her leading the now unsmiling youth out of the club.

"I'm not sure, Mike," the gorgeous brunette answered him, a look of worry and concern on her lovely features. "This kid asked me to check the ladies room for his girlfriend when she didn't come back to their table, and when I checked, I found her lying on the floor like this. Then the goddamned alarms started going off, so I yanked the kid inside and he picked the girl up, and we got out as quick as we could, 'cause it looks like she needs some medical attention."

The sight of a bloody and insensible young woman being held in her boyfriend's arms made his 'bad publicity and possible lawsuit against the club' instincts start pinging like mad, so Mike did what he thought would help put the club in the best possible light, should the lawyers eventually get involved.

"Okay then, let's get the young lady to the ER, as quick as we can," Mike declared. "You got a car close by, kid?" he asked Miles.

Behind them, with all of the attention of the gathered crowd now focused on the spectacle in the front of the club, Chastity, Kristen and James casually made their way out of the area, with no one sparing them so much as a casual glance.

-/-/-

Greenwich Village, Manhattan
New York, NY

May 19, 2005
Very early morning


Amanda Sefton watched as the tall, strongly-built, brown-haired man writhed inside the circle of protection she'd drawn on the floor of the chamber they were currently occupying, trying not to shudder as she listened to the involuntary screams of agony issuing from his mouth.

The blonde-haired woman began chanting yet another spell to reinforce the circle's shields currently protecting the man – wards which also weakened and minimized the bonds linking him to his bondmates.

With any modicum of luck, Amanda figured, whatever forces he was expecting – or hoping – would shatter the involuntary links which tied him to the triumvirate he'd described to her would be attenuated and destabilized sufficiently by the shields she'd cast to allow him to survive the backlash that would inevitably follow any such rupture.

Although, even if he did manage to survive breaking the links, he'd surely need a good many days of rest to recover from such a traumatic event.

Shaking her head in acknowledgment of her inability to do anything more to ensure her client's continued existence, Amanda shrugged to herself and wondered exactly what it was that had caused Richard Zeeman to decide to sever his connections to whoever these 'business associates' he'd spoken about might be.

-/-/-

Hilton Hotel
St. Louis, MO

March 4, 2005


"Okay, guys, listen up. I've recently received several contract offers which, for personal reasons you'll understand completely once I finish describing things in more detail, I'm not interested in accepting – but which I'm willing to pass onto you, if you're interested," Ted announced as he looked at the six people seated around the room, all of whom were completely focused on him. Well, as completely focused as they would be on any single person, while still remaining aware of their environment, that is. He had, after all, helped train all of these hunters, and he knew them about as well as he knew anyone who worked in this particular field of endeavor.

"I know you're all aware of who Anita Blake is and exactly who – or more precisely, what – she's affiliated herself with over the course of the past few years," Ted said as he leaned back against the suite's small bar, "so I won't waste any time describing her or her principal associates.

"What I will tell you is that she's evidently pissed off a even more people than she usually does, a whole lot more, and that I've been approached by two different agents for various parties who want to see her and most of her associates removed from the game, permanently," he stated.

"You said, 'most' of Blake's associates, Ted," Buffy said as their mentor paused to take a sip of the juice he'd poured for himself before starting the briefing. "Which of her people, specifically, are you talking about having removed? Who's not on the list and who is it who's behind the contracts?

"I know you would have checked these offers out pretty thoroughly before you even considered offering it to us, so I'm positive you must have a pretty good idea of who's looking to have them taken care of," Buffy pointed out, her observations receiving nods of agreement from the rest of the group.

"The primary potential client is Joseph Kingsley, who's the Rex of the werelion pride here in St. Louis," Ted answered, "and he's put out contracts on Blake and her vampiric consort, Jean-Claude, as well as Jean-Claude's second-in-command, Asher, and one of Jean-Claude's pet werewolves, a beta wolf named Jason Schuyler. The third member of their triumvirate, Richard Zeeman, was specifically identified as NOT being one of the targets, since he and King were apparently getting along fairly well before Anita and Jean-Claude decided to eject King from his position as Rex, and Zeeman evidently argued against taking any action against him

"From what I've been able to piece together from various bits and pieces of information I've heard from my sources," Ted went on, "Kingsley refused to become one of Anita's sex toys because he wanted to remain faithful to his wife – something which seems to have really pissed her off – and because of that, she's using her connections to try and get their pride kicked out of the local Lycanthrope Coalition – something which has put all of the pride members at some risk, since if that happens, they can't look for any sort of help from any of the other local lycanthrope groups.

"Blake's also evidently used her connections to contact a werelion in the Chicago area named Haven, and has apparently asked him to come down here and take over as Rex of the pride, something which, in most cases, involves killing the existing Rex, if he won't step down voluntarily, which Kingsley's clearly not about to do," Ted noted as he continued his recitation of the facts concerning the proposed contract.

"From everything I've been able to find out, everyone in the local pride is completely satisfied with the way things are presently, and it's solely Blake's idea that Kingsley needs to be replaced," he explained, "which is where the second contract comes in – it's to remove this Haven character, first, so he won't be able to try to replace Kingsley as the local Rex."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Ted," Willow chimed in, "but from everything I've been hearing about Anita Blake lately, she's been getting more and more powerful as a witch as time passes – not that there's really anything wrong with that," she noted parenthetically, "but it seems like her behavior's been getting a whole less stable, too.

"Or at least, that's the rumor I've been hearing from a number of the witches and practitioners I've talked to over the past few months," the redhead qualified her comment.

"From what some of the local wolves I was talking to the other day have been saying, there've been other rumors going around recently that Blake was infected by Orlando King before she and her people finally took him down," the normally monosyllabic Oz spoke up fro his position next to Willow. "Word is, her blood's got more than just one lycanthropic strain in it.

"And that they were all viable," the werewolf added, the semblance of a frown visible on his face as he spoke.

"Something else to keep in mind is that, for the past couple years, Blake's been both the Lupa and the Bolverk for the Thronnos Rokke werewolf clan, and the Nimir-Ra for the wereleopards' Blooddrinkers Clan, too," Xander pointed out. "And considering that she's also the current Chairman of the Lycanthrope Coalition, that gives her an awful lot of clout when it comes to the local furry scene."

"Add all of that to her being an animator *and* part of two triumvirates – and you got a whole shitload of power, all wrapped up in a chick who doesn't look like she's playing with a full deck lately, and who's been boning the local undead from almost the first day she showed up in town, despite the fact that she's supposed to be the local vampire executioner and the resident Federal Marshal," Faith commented with a frown.

"Definitely not something that's making me feel all warm and fuzzy when I think about it," Xander declared with as he shook his head doubtfully.

"What's your opinion about our taking the contract, Ted?" Joyce asked, having been content to let her kids interrogate their former mentor and her still occasional lover about the facts of the proposed contract. "We all understand why you're not inclined to accept it, but I know we'd appreciate hearing what you think about the situation."

"Well, as you guys have already pointed out, Anita is, indeed, a very powerful witch, and being part of two triumvirates allows her to tap into her various partners' powers to augment her own, should that ever prove necessary," the blond-haired, seemingly laid-back man reiterated the facts the Scoobies had already noted.

"The fact that Anita might be infected with multiple strains of lycanthropy is something I hadn't heard before now, and is definitely not something I needed or wanted to hear – since the only other person who's ever been identified as being a surviving pan-were was Orlando King, someone who was both an admitted sociopath and a serial killer," Ted noted reflectively.

"And bearing in mind how erratic Anita's emotional state has been the few times I've talked with her in the past couple months, I'm not at all confident that she's completely stable any longer, either," Ted told his listeners thoughtfully, as he stared out the suite's window at the city's illuminated skyline.

"Considering everything you've all pointed out, and then factoring in the fact that Jean-Claude has repeatedly indicated that he would not be adverse to expanding his 'sphere of influence,' as he once phrased it," Ted stated with a small sigh, "and I have to admit that I'm more than a little concerned that Anita would be quite willing to using her powers to help influence events to Jean-Claude's and her own benefit, and the detriment of everyone else, either human or preternatural.

"And I think that this instance of her meddling in the local pride's business is a perfect example of her doing exactly that," he noted.

"Given how much she's changed her attitude from 'watch out for the monsters,' when she first showed up in town, to basically becoming one of them, I personally don't think that there's really all that much reason for you to *not* take the contract," Ted declared.

-/-/-

Hampton Inn & Suites – St Louis at Forest Park
St. Louis, MO

May 19, 2005
Early morning


"Oh man, I'm fuckin’ beat!" 'Kristen' declared loudly as she followed her two companions into their suite, carefully placing her shoulder bag on the floor by the base of the overstuffed chair she allowed herself to drop onto. As expected, Ted wasn’t here: his job had been just to monitor the goings-on from his position on the roof of the building situated across the street, and now that the contract had been fulfilled, he was probably doing damage control somewhere in St. Louis.

"Toss me a beer, will ya, B?" Faith a.k.a. Kristen requested when she saw the now blonde-haired woman in the black leather vest and pants opening the suite's small refrigerator and checking inside. The iridescent purple wig had been tossed on top of the kitchen table next to a small pepper spray cylinder, the junior Slayer noted.

"Here you go, Faith," Buffy a.k.a. Chastity lobbed a bottle of Yuengling lager to her mystical sibling, who deftly caught it. The senior Slayer then asked, "What do you want, Oz? We've got beer, ginger ale, orange juice, apple juice and cold water in here, or you can order something from room service."

"Water's fine for now," Oz a.k.a. James answered as he settled himself at one end of the well-cushioned couch the room offered, and easily snagged the plastic bottle Buffy tossed to him out of the air. "I'll have a six-pack of Coke sent up when we all order breakfast, once the rest of the guys get here."

It was only a few minutes after their own arrival that they heard the door to their suite opening, and training and well-honed survival instincts had each of the trio reflexively reaching for their weapons, notwithstanding the fact they were expecting their teammates' pending arrival.

"Hey, guys," Willow a.k.a. Sarah greeted Buffy, Faith and Oz as the currently black-haired beauty entered the suite's common room with a wide smile on her face, 'Miles' and 'Madeline' following a few steps behind her.

Each of the three welcomed the older woman with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, before turning to greet the others, with equal enthusiasm, all of them clearly pleased to have accomplished their mission without anyone having been injured in any way – something which would not typically describe the majority of their jobs.

"To a job well done, and a future crisis averted," Xander a.k.a. Miles offered his version of their traditional post-mission toast a few minutes later, one in which his teammates all enthusiastically joined as they all lifted their glasses and echoed his words.

"I gotta say, guys, I don't think I was ever so glad to see you all show up as I was while I was stuck in there with that bitch and those two walkin’ corpses," Faith volunteered a moment or so later, as they sat in the common room relaxing.

"Sitting there and listening to her go on about how much good she and Jean-Claude and their people were doing, what with everything they had going on with this Lycanthrope Coalition thing they set up and what they were planning to do in the future? It was giving me a majorly bad case of the wiggins," the brunette Slayer declared with a shake of her long, currently strawberry-blonde tresses. "That bitch was *seriously* screwed in the head!"

"You're right, Faith," Joyce a.k.a. Madeline agreed with her adopted daughter's opinion with an emphatic nod of her head. "She was.

"From everything I've been able to learn about her," the Scoobies' mother figure went on, "Anita Blake was definitely beginning to exhibit indications of narcissistic personality disorder, and possibly even schizophrenia – although, given that she's been involved with the supernatural for a number of years now, it's also entirely possible that she was being influenced by some spirit she came into conflict with, and she hadn't even realized she was being haunted.

"I remember discussing her with one of my advisors, after one of my psychology classes at Lindenwood finished up last year," Joyce elaborated, "and the professor said that she thought whichever Federal officials were overseeing Blake should have had her evaluated by a qualified therapist after every major case she got involved in, or at least every six months, the same way any police officer has to see a therapist after a shooting; because you couldn't just take her word as gospel that she was fine – not after most of the stuff she'd been involved with.

"Unfortunately, however, Blake didn't agree that she needed to be periodically evaluated, and she evidently had enough support from influential people that the idea got buried deep enough to never get brought up again," she stated.

"And now, she's going to get exactly the same treatment," Joyce concluded with a shrug.

"Hey, things worked out the way they did because of decisions she and her buddies all made of their own free will," Xander pointed out. "No one forced her, her vampire lovers or her pet werewolf to do any of the things that led to us bringing the hammer down on them – they did that all on their own."

"Yeah, Xand, you're right," Buffy nodded her own agreement with everything that had been discussed. "They all did what they all did. And so did we.

"Now why don't we all get some rest, before ordering breakfast?" she suggested reasonably. "I'm looking forward to heading home and spending a few days relaxing before we have to head out again next week.

“I mean, bloodsucking vampires that die during the day or turn to dust when they're staked are one thing, but sparkling vampires? That’s definitely something different...”


FIN

The End

You have reached the end of "The Clear Light of Rationality". This story is complete.

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