All disclaimers in the prologue.
by Mandi Ohlin
The young man groaned, cracking his eyes open to meet the bright sunlight streaming through the window.
Mike blinked a few times, briefly afraid he'd been sucked into some kind of mad time loop and that the whole week was about to repeat itself. But this wasn't Giles' bedroom. He was lying in a small guest room that was neat and quiet and comfortable... and utterly unfamiliar.
The bedroom door was slightly ajar, and he could hear the sound of a television set and laughter. Of course. Now he remembered. This was Buffy's place; Giles wouldn't let him crash on his couch with the condition he was in. They had ended up at Buffy's house, sans Angel, after Buffy had insisted she assure her mother that the monster of the week was gone. Joyce had caught Buffy sneaking out with a purseload of stakes Friday night, and had spent the rest of the evening worrying.
One look at Mike, and Joyce had gone straight for the first-aid kit. He couldn't recall all the details - he hadn't exactly been at his most alert - but around the time he dropped off to sleep at the kitchen table for the third time, Joyce had offered the use of the guest room. He didn't remember much after that.
The clock radio by the bed read nine a.m. From the noise downstairs, it was safe to say that most of the Scooby Gang either had stayed over or came back early. Sighing, Mike rose and dressed, glaring at his reflection in the mirror briefly before heading downstairs.
* * * * *
"They're both for breakfast, you put syrup on both of them, you make them both with Bisquick," the Slayer observed. "Don't see the distinction."
"I'm serious, Buffy," Willow argued as Buffy attempted to help Joyce in the kitchen. "Waffles are a lot better than pancakes any day. They've got that, that nice waffle shape that lets you pour the syrup in the little squares. You can even make patterns."
As Buffy looked at her friend oddly, Oz spoke up. "She's got a point. You've got to consider texture."
"Texture?" Buffy asked.
"The absorption level," the guitarist answered blithely. "Pancakes take in syrup like a sponge. Waffles don't absorb it so quickly."
Willow nodded, pleased to have some support in the debate. "And - and that way they don't get all spongy and mushy after two bites."
"You could eat them without syrup and it wouldn't matter," a voice interrupted. They all turned to see Mike leaning against the doorframe. "But I'll add my vote to waffles."
Buffy shot him an exasperated look. "Will you stop sneaking up on us? I get enough of that from--" She bit back the last word, realizing her mother was present.
Fortunately, Joyce didn't pick up on that, or didn't seem to. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Mike yawned. "Hungry." He tapped his forehead and grimaced. "I think I'm doomed to walk around Sunnydale with a bandage on my head."
"It could be worse," Oz observed.
Mike nodded, conceding the point. "Where's everybody else?"
"Faith's around," Willow replied dismissively. "Frank's on the porch tuning, Xander's watching TV, Giles is being Giles somewhere, and Cordelia's getting her car reupholstered."
As she mentioned Frank, Oz straightened up as if remembering something. He turned and murmured something in Willow's ear, giving her a peck on the cheek as he left the kitchen. Mike watched him go, then turned back to the immediate possibility of breakfast.
* * * * *
At least his baby was fine.
He hadn't had time to get it before Molly had grabbed him, and Frank was wholeheartedly glad about that. If he had, it would probably be blown to bits with Mal and the rest of the equipment in the van. Frank sighed. Rest in peace. True, Malik had been as much of an ass as the other two, but a small-scale ass. As much as he'd complained and griped and smoked, for a few years Mal had been the closest thing to a friend Frank had.
The question nagged at the edges of his mind. Had he done it? Had he ignited that spark that took out the van and Mal with it with whatever ability he had?
No. No, he was sure of it. Somehow, Frank knew he wasn't capable of that. But it left the question of who, exactly, had rigged the van. It certainly wasn't coincidence.
The rattle of the screen door brought him back to reality, and he looked up to see Oz standing there, guitar in hand. "Hey."
~Hey,~ Frank replied.
Oz gestured to the bass guitar in Frank's lap. "How's she sound?"
~Not bad. Glad I left her in the Bronze. I think she'll pull through.~
The other musician nodded, settling down on the bench with his own guitar across his knees. He reached into his pocket, holding the guitar pick up to the light. "Only one way to find out."
* * * * *
"I let him," Mike said after a moment.
Willow blinked. "What?"
Mike sighed, staring at the dining room table. "I must have blocked it out... it wasn't even conscious, but he had to be 'let in.'" He glanced over his shoulder to where Joyce was making the waffle mix, oblivious to their conversation. "Some part of me freaked. I didn't want to die. That was all it took."
"Oh," Willow replied, unsure how to respond. "It's - it's not like you asked for him to try that."
"Maybe," was all Mike would say.
Buffy nudged him. "Hey. Anybody in that situation wouldn't want to die. Anybody sane, anyway."
"It's not my sanity I'm worried about," Mike mused. "I'm going to be okay, it's just - if he hadn't tried that stunt, if he hadn't stopped my fall, I'd probably be dead right now."
The two young women were silent, unable to think of an appropriate answer as the sound of the screen door banging and the strains of dueling guitar chords could be heard. "Got a major jam session going on out there," Faith announced as she strode into the kitchen.
Buffy raised an eyebrow. "Wow. Isn't this, like, 2 am according to your sleep schedule? What are you doing up?"
"Didn't sleep," Faith answered. "How's the head, Corbett?"
"Still attached to my neck," Mike responded as she took the seat beside him. "How are you doing?"
Faith grinned. "Hey, I'm livin' large." She patted his knee, cocking her head suggestively. Willow and Buffy tried not to laugh at the resigned look on Mike's face.
"Faith, the boy just escaped being possessed," Buffy scolded. "He hasn't even had breakfast yet."
"Hey," Faith protested, putting both hands on the table before her and trying to look innocent. "I'm here for the pancakes."
"Waffles," Willow corrected.
"Whatever. So where's the syrup?"
* * * * *
When the stream of intertwining guitar chords finally ceased, Buffy took her cue to step out onto the back porch. "Room service."
Oz set his guitar down and took one of the plates from her hands before they could topple, handing it to Frank. The bassist took the plate with a grateful smile. ~Thanks.~
"No problem." She handed Oz his plate and sat down on the stoop as Frank dug into his portion with an almost feral vigor.
Even with his werewolf side to contend with, Oz was surprised at the way Frank was inhaling the food. "Haven't eaten in a while?"
He stopped, embarrassed. ~Huh? Oh. Sorry. Haven't had something home-cooked in ages.~
Buffy nodded understandingly. The three of them sat in silence for several minutes, finishing off the waffles. "So what are you going to do now?" Buffy asked.
Frank didn't answer for a moment, chewing his bite thoughtfully. ~I don't know. Hadn't thought about that yet. Not sure where I could go.~
"You could always stick around here," Buffy suggested, then hesitated. "Did I really say that?"
~But what am I going to do?~
"You could at least jam with Dingoes Ate My Baby," Oz offered.
"It'd be an improvement," Buffy put in. "No offense."
"None taken. We could play more than one chord for a change."
The slightest hint of a smile played at the corners of Frank's mouth. ~I'm not going back to my folks.~ From his tone, it was evident he meant that. ~But I've got a cousin in Stone Canyon. Trini might put me up for a day or two at least if I grovel.~
"Sounds like a start," Buffy observed.
~I'll have to think about it. I've got time.~
"Freedom," Oz noted. "Got to be a new concept."
Frank leaned back in his seat, thinking. ~I haven't been on my own in years. I don't know where to start.~
Buffy stood up to collect plates. "Nice, isn't it?"
This time, Frank really did smile. ~Damn right.~
* * * * *
"Hey," Willow greeted as she and Mike came into the living room, plates in hand. "What you watching?"
"Huh?" Xander glanced up. "Food! All right!" He fairly snatched the plate from Willow's hands, blocking her view of the TV. "Thanks, Will."
Mike settled into the armchair, plate in hand. "Down in front."
As Xander reluctantly sat back down on the couch, Willow scooted in beside him, watching the TV with interest. "You're watching Power Rangers again, aren't you?"
"I'm exploring my inner child," Xander replied defensively. Mike promptly started choking on his food. "Hey, Mike? You okay?"
"Did you say 'Power Rangers?'" Mike gasped incredulously once he was able to speak again.
"Yeah," Xander answered. "Why?"
"Nothing," Mike said, shaking his head. "Got to be a coincidence."
The television was showing a group of too-attractive teens on what was obviously a soundstage made up to look like a youth center. A very familiar youth center, if it had four walls and was slightly less fake-looking. Mike set down his fork, suddenly having lost his appetite. "What the hell is this?"
"It's this really cheesy kids' show," Willow explained. "They take footage of Japanese sentai and splice it together with American footage. It's corny, but a lot of little kids like it."
"Kids' show?" Mike echoed in disbelief. He set the plate aside, all traces of his appetite gone. Something told him he probably didn't want to see this, but a perverse fascination kept him rooted to his seat as the show played out. Even fashioned from obviously fake and too-clean settings, he couldn't help but recognize places from his childhood: the Youth Center, Angel Grove High, and that damned park. Seemed like every third time he or Leo had crossed through Angel Grove Park for some reason or another, there was a monster attack going on. He was watching the story of the superheroes he'd idolized half his life as a low-budget kids' show.
Man, did he ever have a headache.
"Wait a minute," Willow realized. "Angel Grove. Didn't you say that was where you were from?"
"Yep," Mike muttered.
Xander swallowed abruptly and turned to gape at Mike. "Hey... you don't mean that Angel Grove, do you?"
"No," Mike answered slowly, still recovering from his shock. "This Angel Grove was real." At their stares, he added, "Yes, with real Power Rangers."
"Let me get this straight," Xander said as the robot and the monster of the day started trashing the cardboard city. "So where you come from, a bunch of teenagers in spandex fighting off aliens was normal. And you didn't believe the Hellmouth was real until a couple of vampires almost killed us."
"Well, this was real," Mike snapped angrily. "People did get killed. A lot. People I knew. There was a ton of property damage. Monster alarms and shelters were a normal, everyday part of life, all right? Those huge things storming into the middle of town were huge, and real, and damn destructive."
"Okay, okay," Xander conceded. "Sorry. Didn't mean to hit a nerve there."
"It's okay," Mike sighed.
There was a moment of silence as the show continued on. "So, did you ever meet the pink one?" Xander asked. Willow pinched him. "Ow! It's a legitimate question. I mean, she fills out that spandex." Another pinch. "I'll shut up now."
"I knew of her," Mike muttered. "And it wasn't spandex, it was armor."
"Looks like spandex to me," Xander observed. "You can't tell me it wasn't."
"Maybe on a cheap kids' show, but not in real life."
"It was armor, I was there."
Willow changed the channel.
* * * * *
Faith was sitting alone at the dining room table, with an empty plate in front of her and an almost content smile on her face. She glanced up as Buffy entered with a stack of plates as the jam session resumed outside. "How's it hanging?"
"I think Frank's going to be fine," Buffy announced as she set the plates down for a moment. "You don't look so bad yourself."
"You know me. Five by five." She leaned back and stretched, the contentment fading.
Buffy caught the flash of worry in Faith's eyes. "What is it?"
For a moment, Faith looked like she was about to shrug it off, but decided not to. "Think Vortex Boy's all right?"
"Mike? He will be if you and Xander stop calling him that."
"Come on, B. You know what I'm talking about."
Buffy stood and picked up the dirty dishes. Faith followed her into the kitchen as she set them down by the sink. "I guess he'll be okay. The whole 'possession' thing has him kind of wigged out, but he's dealing."
Faith nodded. "Has to be to survive here."
Willow stuck her head into the kitchen door, trying not to laugh. "Buffy? You might want to, um--"
Curious, the two Slayers followed Willow into the living room. Xander and Mike were arguing loudly, oblivious to their audience. "Armor!"
Faith grinned. "I think our boy's going to fit right in."
The three girls exchanged looks, then burst into hysterical laughter.
* * * * *
Screams. Nothing but screams.
The child's dying cries echoed in the warrior's ears as he stumbled from the battle, heartsick and weary. If only he had been quick enough. If only he had foreseen his son's brave and impulsive move. If only he could have stopped Zika. If only...
Countless battles passed by, a flood of anger and loss and terror. Everything he had fought for, all the ideals he had stood for, seemed to fade away. Scorpius' forces had killed innocent after innocent. They had laid waste to all that was good. They had murdered his son.
They had taken his soul.
And for that, they would pay.
Mike awoke with a start, nearly knocking himself off Giles' couch in his shock. He sat bolt upright, gasping for air, his heart pounding in his chest. It was a few moments before he could collect himself, wiping the sweat from his brow and untangling himself from the sheets. The anger and hatred from his dream ebbed away, to be replaced with a cold fear.
He knew that rage. He'd seen it for a few moments, when the Defender had taken hold of him for the first time. Dreaming of Maya had disturbed him, but not like this. Never like this. Why couldn't he go back to those dreams?
As if answering his question, the words of the Defender came back to him. --The mergence began when you first awakened me.--
Mike groaned and flopped back down, shifting position to get comfortable. The vengeful spirit was gone, for now. Giles had assured him of that. If he could just stop thinking about this, and torturing himself, maybe he might be able to get more than three hours' sleep. He had to stop dwelling on it.
--I must have my revenge.--
His subconscious was tormenting him, that was all. It wasn't real. His fixation with Maya had triggered those dreams, and the Friday night insanity had triggered these. This too would pass. Dammit, what was wrong with him?
--It must be completed.--
Sighing, Mike rolled over onto his side, closing his eyes. He was not going to think about this; his head hurt too much already. The Defender was gone, banished and unable to touch him. It was over. As he slipped back into a restless sleep, two words floated through his subconscious.
* * * * *