Standard disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all such related things, © Mutant Enemy and many other people with big scary lawyers. We're borrowing them without permission, but you said you were done with 'em, so we're hoping you won't mind so much. Stories, images, characters you don't recognize, those are all by 4Paws. Yes, we'll take the blame.

Setting: Set in the continuation-verse, which picks up about three months after the end of "Chosen". So, spoilers for pretty much everything, including any "episodes" in this series that have come before it.

Notes: Here we go with my most ambitious 'fic project ... well, ever, basically. A virtual continuation of a show with a whole heck of a lot more story to tell. Since deciding to do this project I've discovered that there are, in fact, many Season 8's ... but this is the only one with the Jet Wolf Seal of Involvement, so that guarantees freshness. Or something.

Episodes are posted to weekly, at 8pm EST on Tuesdays, all pretty and HTML'd with graphics and oo! Credits. We have credits, too. Eps will appear the following Friday or Saturday on So if you don't want to wait all that extra time (and really, how could you?), the site is the way to go.

(11 September 2004)


The Chosen: A Buffy Virtual Continuation

Episode 14: "Fulcrum"
Story by: Jet Wolf & Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf & Novareinna

Act Four

With a purpose usually reserved for Christmas shoppers, Willow power-walked along the downtown street, slowing down only long enough to verify each shop's identity as she passed and then speeding up again. "I know it's down here somewhere. I brought him lunch one day," she called over her shoulder.

Tara and Dawn were following close behind. "Are you sure that's where it happened?" the blonde asked after double-checking the business they breezed past.

"Well not 'bet a zillion dollars' sure," confessed Willow without breaking her stride, "but pretty sure. He was fine when we spoke yesterday morning, but Dawn said he was acting strange that night. He spent the bulk of the day at The Bazaar, so whatever happened to him, it was probably there."

"Do we even know what we're looking for?" inquired Dawn, dubiously eyeing a nearby display window.

Willow pulled a face, though it was lost on those behind her. "Not so much. Hopefully we'll know it when we see it."

"And if we don't?" the teenager pressed.

"I dunno," the witch replied. "Panic, maybe?"

This was not the answer Dawn was hoping for, but before things could get out of hand, Tara smiled reassuringly. "We'll find it ... or who, or whatever. We'll fix it.'

"Here!" Willow suddenly shouted, recognizing the shop and running full-tilt for the door. Tugging it open, their entrance was heralded by several strings of cheerful but exotic-sounding bells tied to the handle.

"I'll be with you in a just a moment!" Banan's voice reached them from somewhere within the depths of The Bazaar.

Alone for now, the girls took the opportunity to catch their breath and observe their surroundings. Looking slowly from shelf to shelf, from display case to display case, it soon became painfully clear that the number of artifacts available in the shop was reading well into the multi-hundreds.

Wide-eyed and completely overwhelmed, Dawn asked, "Do we panic yet?"

"Wow," remarked Tara appreciatively. "It's like looking for a needle in ... a stack of a whole lot of needles."

"We'll never find it this way," groaned Willow. Raising her voice, she called out, "Mr. Banan?"

As though on cue, Banan emerged from the back room behind the counter, impeccably dressed in a green silk shirt and black slacks. He smiled winningly at his customers as he approached. "Yes, may I help you?"

"I'm Willow Rosenberg," greeted the redhead as she stepped forward, "a-a friend of Xander's?"

Recognition flashed across the shopkeeper's features and he extended his hand. "Ahh, yes. I've heard so much about you."

"I hate to say it, but it's probably all true," she admitted with a self-effacing grin as she accepted the handshake.

Banan turned his attentions to the other women. "And these are friends of yours?"

"Uhh, yeah." Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, Willow tried not to let her impatience show through. "Yes. This is Dawn—" She gestured to the teenager. "—and this is Tara."

Turning to the younger Summers, Banan regarded her with intense interest. "Dawn ..." His gaze lingered for just a moment before drifting to the blonde, seeming to find her equally as interesting. "...and Tara."

Just as his scrutiny threatened to become uncomfortably awkward, Banan's smile returned full-force and he spread his arms wide. "Welcome to my shop. How may I help you?"

Anxious to get to the matter at hand, Willow asked, "You last saw Xander yesterday, right?"

"Yes, that's right. He was installing some shelves I had him custom build," the owner replied, indicating the front of his store.

"Did he seem ... okay to you?"

Banan frowned at the redhead's question. "Okay? Well, yes, he seemed fine. Distressed by some friction at home, but nothing particularly abnormal. Why?"

"We were afraid he was coming down with ... the flu," answered Tara, "and we wanted to see if he'd maybe looked sick."

"That's very considerate of you," an approving Banan noted. "But no, he seemed fine. He came in, installed the shelves, helped me rearrange some inventory, then left."

"And about what time was that?" Willow asked, wanting any detail that could help them find out what was wrong with the carpenter.

"Right before closing, so ... about 7pm?"

Dawn glanced from Tara to Willow. "I saw him not long after that, he must've come straight home."

"Which means it was here," the blonde concluded.

Not quite following along, Banan questioned, "Which means what was here?"

"Well, we're ... kinda looking for ..." After a false start, Willow tried again. "See, there's this thing that ..."

As the redhead's second attempt threatened to stall, Dawn pulled through in the clinch. "Xander was telling us about how he saw something. This doohickey that he might've ... I dunno, played with or touched or whatever. Anyway, he seemed to really love it, and with his ... birthday coming up soon..."

The teenager's lie was smooth and easily bought. "A gift!" exclaimed Banan with the kind of enthusiasm possible only by those in retail. "Excellent idea!"

Extending his arm, he escorted them to the front of the shop, to items on their right where Xander had been so diligently working the day before. There were four of the custom-built shelves and two large display cases; each filled to capacity with assorted items, artifacts and curios, numbering well over a hundred in total.

Willow, Dawn and Tara met the deluge of possibilities with disheartened expressions.

Their dilemma went unnoticed by the cheerful shopkeeper. "Feel free to peruse at your leisure," he invited. "If you have any questions at all, please don't hesitate to ask." With that, and a final parting smile, Banan returned to the back room.

Several seconds passed without motion or comment by any of the girls. Transfixed, they simply continued to stare, entirely unsure of where to begin. It was Tara who finally broke the silence.

"...a whole lot of needles."

----------

All was dark. Inky and black. Devoid of light. A blanket of total darkness – until a voice penetrated the somber veil.

"Miss Summers? You okay?"

"Maybe she's dead," a second voice ventured.

"She's not dead," yet another voice – a third one – assured.

"She could be dead," speculated the second voice. "I hear she suffers from that a lot."

"It's death, it's not a cold," sneered the third. "You can't suffer from occasional bouts of death."

"Well she does. Kinda," the second voice said defensively. This sentiment was echoed by a few other voices, too muted to be distinguishable.

"Well she's breathing," confirmed the third voice – apparently considering herself the voice of reason. "So not this time."

Within the darkness, Buffy stirred and moaned a little.

"She's coming around!" the first voice announced enthusiastically.

Buffy blinked and cautiously opened her eyes. A sea of faces assaulted her vision, indistinct and fuzzy around the edges, all peering down at her curiously. She blinked again and concentrated until everything swam into focus. The faces belonged to five Junior Slayers and judging from their positions, she was presumably lying on her back on the ground.

"Did you die again?" Buffy recognized this voice to be the one that had already offered such a suggestion.

A hand, which could safely be assumed as belonging to the voice of reason, thwapped the pessimist upside the head. A gesture that was met by a glare from the thwappee directed at the thwapper.

"What ..." groaned Buffy, trying to clear her confusion. "How long...?"

"Uhm, we don't know exactly." The owner of the first voice to penetrate the darkness smiled shyly. "We've been here for a few minutes, but ..." She quickly stepped backward as Buffy suddenly sat bolt upright.

"Xander! Giles ..." exclaimed Buffy, scrambling to her feet and sprinting from the room. She paused momentarily before heading toward Giles' office.

"You're welcome," proclaimed the indignant voice of reason to the vacant doorway.

----------

Things at The Bazaar were no longer quite so pleasantly organized. The girls had taken great care with each item as they examined it for some sort of evidence that it was what they were looking for, but in the efforts of keeping themselves organized, the artifacts had moved from the safety of their display cases and shelves to any other available surface – predominantly the floor. The three of them stood now in the center of a knick-knack hurricane.

"I'm not sure we're going to find it like this," said Tara, casting a doubtful eye at the chaos surrounding them. "Maybe you should call Mr. Giles, see what he knows?"

"Sure as heck can't hurt." Willow pulled the cell phone from her back pocket and took a step away as she punched up the appropriate number.

Meanwhile, Dawn continued to examine the multitude of items around them. Picking up a wooden box, she cracked open the lid and jumped in surprise as light, tinny music emerged, accompanied by a tiny ceramic ballerina who began twirling on a mirrored surface. Grinning in delight, Dawn showed the music box to Tara. "Maybe he was infected with the spirit of a really temperamental dancer."

Tara wrinkled her nose as she considered the theory. "I hope not. I'm not sure I'm ready to see Xander in a tutu." The two dissolved into giggles that were quickly silenced as Willow returned, waving her hand angrily at the scattered curios.

"I'm pretty sure the answer's here," she stated into the phone, "but we're talkin' a 'buy one, get 50,000 free' sale on options here, Giles. Have you found anything?"

Giles' office appeared to have seen an explosion of books, with volumes scattered all over the spacious room. Still though, the Watcher wasn't satisfied. With the phone clamped precariously under his chin, he balanced an open text in one hand and moved toward one of the many bookcases that surrounded him. "Now that we know we're looking for an artifact of some kind," he replied, tracing his finger down the spines of the books in front of him and selecting one, "that certainly narrows the possibilities."

Her eyes drifting skeptically around the shop, Willow muttered, "If you say so."

Shifting the cell phone to his other ear, Giles poured over one of the many open books on his desktop. "I think we're looking for ... hmm." He fell silent for a moment as he read a seemingly random passage. "I assume you already checked for magickal properties?"

"First thing, both me and Tara," confirmed the witch as she stepped over a particularly fragile-looking effigy. "But just about everything in here's got at least a touch of mojo. Nothing leapt out, so we figured it probably needed something special to activate it. A- a charm or a keyword or something."

"I think we may be going about this backward. Try ..." A few pages were turned and he quickly scanned the new information. "Try the detection spell again, only this time pay close attention to the items that possess either no or very little mystical power."

Willow frowned as she continued her pacing. "Huh? But wouldn't—"

"Just try."

Although still unsure, the redhead relented. "Alright. Hang on a sec." She dropped the phone to her side and glanced over her shoulder toward the others. "Hey, Tara? Giles wants—"

The sentence would forever go unfinished as Banan emerged once more from the back room. "Ah, you're still here," he observed pleasantly. "How is the search...?"

As the shopkeeper stepped out from behind the counter, his question trailed off and he was able to see for the first time the state of compete and utter disarray that had enveloped the front of his store. "What is this?" he demanded, his voice rising both in pitch and volume. "My displays!"

All three girls suddenly looked guilty, as though they'd been caught snooping around in their parents' closets for Christmas presents. Dawn, being perhaps the one most accustomed to such situations, recovered first. "We're ... having trouble finding just the right thing," she explained in what she hoped was a confident, calming tone.

Willow was less calm, though she tried her best. "But everything's totally fine, Mr. Banan, promise. A-And we'll put it all back when we're done."

"Some of these items are centuries old!" Banan cried, looking aghast at the cluttered floor. "They deserve to be cherished and protected, not ... cast aside like a day-old newspaper!" For the first time, the shopkeeper seemed angry and he leveled a glare at the fidgeting redhead. "I thought I could trust you to understand and respect my treasures, but—"

"Is that a François Boucher?" Tara interrupted in a curious voice.

"—clearly you ..." Blinking in confusion, he turned to the blonde. "What did you say?"

She indicated to the picture that hung on the far wall. "The painting. It's by François Boucher, right?"

Turning around, Banan stared at it for moment as though seeing it for the first time, then he regarded Tara with pleasant surprise. "Why yes. Yes it is."

"It's very beautiful," she admired. "His 'Loves of the Gods' series is just breathtaking, don't you think?"

"Yes, it's always been among my favorites," he replied, still sounding dazed. After a second of contemplation, he considered Tara approvingly. "You have a very good eye. It's rare to find someone of your age with an appreciation for anything more than a week old."

"Oh, I don't know. I think the true classics are timeless." Moving next to the shopkeeper, the witch threaded her arm through his and, with a charming smile, began to lead him toward the picture and away from the others. "Which do you prefer," she asked in a soft, interested voice, "his paintings or tapestry designs?"

Quite absorbed now, Banan ceased paying any attention at all to Willow and Dawn who were watching the situation unfold.

"She's good," commented the teenager with admiration.

"And she used to say an art degree was worthless," grinned Willow in response. With a deep breath, she prepared to take advantage of the opportunity. "Okay, here's to hoping for a detect-y spell and not a boom-y spell. I gotta hunch it'll take more'n a chit-chat about art styles to calm him down if his collection goes poof."

Inhaling deeply again, Willow closed her eyes and let the air out slowly. She muttered a few words under her breath and then opened her eyes. "Everything's still here," she noted, sounding relieved. "Good. Great first step."

Starting on the left, the redhead narrowed her gaze and stared intently. "Okay, so the stuff without power ..." She pointed to an item and said, "Grab that one ..." Dawn snatched it quickly and set it on a now-empty shelf as Willow allowed her eyes to drift over everything. "...and that one ... and that one ..." Cocking her head to one side, the witch considered something carefully. "And that one too," she finally decided. The teenager added it to the small gathering of artifacts.

Nothing else attracting her attention, Willow whispered, "Eindig." Her eyes flared orange for a brief moment, then returned to normal. As she focused her attentions to the phone still clutched in her hand, Dawn began to examine the selected items.

"Giles? Still there?"

"Yes," the Watcher immediately replied. "Buffy's here as well. It appears she had a bit of a run-in with Xander. I think it's safe to say that his condition is not improving."

"Except in the 'Amazing Colossal Jerk' category," the blonde huffed from where she was slumped in one of the leather chairs. "Perfect tens across the board on that one after dropping the high and low score."

Pressing on with the issue at hand, Willow told him, "We've got four candidates here. The first is ..." She accepted the wooden box from Dawn and opened the lid. For a moment, she simply stared at the slowly twirling ballerina before closing the box and setting it aside. "...probably not it," was the conclusion. She took the next offered item, turning it over curiously in her hands. "This one is a kind of ... a yellowy glassy box-thing. I don't see any way to open it, though."

Furrowing his brow, Giles tried to call up any knowledge of the described item. "Hm. It doesn't ring any bells. Can you be more specific?"

Willow considered the box critically. "It's a pretty yellow?" she offered.

"What's this?" inquired Dawn, holding up the alicorn with great interest. "It looks like a big blue Bugle corn chip."

Unable to hear the teenager properly, Giles asked for clarification. "What was that?"

"The next artifact," replied Willow, holding it up and rotating it around for a better view. "It's a crystal, all blue, looks like ..."

"Like a unicorn's horn?" The Watcher was so excited he nearly dropped the book he was hastily retrieving.

Willow shrugged, despite the fact that Giles couldn't see the motion. "I was gonna say like one of those giant twisty slides at a carnival. But yeah, okay, unicorn horn."

Having found the passage he was looking for, Giles tapped it repeatedly. Buffy lifted the book, twisting it around so she could read the new information while the Watcher continued with Willow. "Excellent, I know what's happened. Quickly, you must find Xander," he urged.

At Willow's gestures, Dawn, hurriedly began to pick up everything they had moved to the floor, doing her best to rearrange them in their original displays but mostly resorting to simply putting them wherever they fit best.

"Is it gonna hurt him?" Willow asked, worrying at her bottom lip.

Giles plucked the volume out of Buffy's hands, earning him a glower that he altogether ignored. "No, not as such," he confirmed, glancing over the passage once more. "But while he's under the influence of the alicorn's power, he has next to no conscience. He is the power and his desire for the power, nothing more." Almost unconsciously, he thrust the book back into the Slayer's hands, earning him another glare that was given as much attention as the first. "It will wear off once all the energy has been expended, but he runs the risk of causing serious damage to others. He won't care about that now, but when the effects dissipate ..."

"Urg, yeah," the redhead agreed with a wince.

Wearing a much more friendly expression, Banan approached with Tara alongside. "Thanks again for letting us look around," she told him politely as she stepped away to join Willow and Dawn. "We really appreciate it."

"Think nothing of it," dismissed the shopkeeper. "Having fellow connoisseurs appreciate my collection makes it all worthwhile." He smiled easily, with no lingering traces of his earlier anger.

Clearly eager to get going, Willow and Dawn headed for the door. Tara went to follow them but cast an apologetic glance toward the displays which, although safe and secure, were obviously not left in the arrangements they had been found. "We can maybe come back tomorrow, help put everything back in the right order?"

Banan clearly appreciated the offer, but dismissed it. "Oh, that's all right. I wasn't entirely satisfied with it anyway. I'll sort it out later. But if you ever want to stop in for a chat, I'd like that very much."

Tara smiled warmly at the invitation then waved her goodbye as she joined the others, hovering on the sidewalk outside. Initially, Willow seemed unsure of where to go, but then decided to keep walking in the direction they had originally been heading. The phone had never wavered from her ear, which was just as well since Giles continued to speak.

In striking similarity, Buffy was waiting for Giles, although with considerably less patience. She stood by the open door to his office, staring at him with wide, expectant eyes as she bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. Her restlessness did nothing to help him juggle the task of keeping the cell phone in place while slipping on his coat. Still, through it all, he managed to keep talking.

"He must've somehow called upon the gift of the alicorn. It transfers a charge of its power into the wielder, but it's completely overwhelming." The Watcher grinned as he added, "Quite a rush, from what I understand." Noting Buffy's harsh look, the grin vanished and Giles pulled his other arm through the coat sleeve. Now ready, he followed after Buffy, already moving at a rapid pace. "It was thought lost for centuries, Amazing that it should end up in a curiosity shop," he mused.

"Yeah, amazing," grumbled the Slayer over her shoulder. "Can we go stop Super Xander now?"

"We rather have to find him first," Giles crisply replied.

The sound of a huge, thundering crash echoed down the phone line, causing Giles to jump in surprise. With her excellent hearing, even Buffy caught the noise and turned with a questioning expression.

Willow's voice came next through the phone. "Found him."

----------

Buffy and Giles rounded the corner to confront a mostly empty downtown street. They quickly spotted two figures not far away and swiftly jogged toward them.

"What's going on?" the Slayer demanded as soon as she was within earshot.

"Mucho destruction, mostly," Dawn told her. Everyone visibly flinched at the sound of a huge crash. "Or, at least, that's what he's aiming for," the teenager continued. "Whatever else this power boost thing did, it sure increased his appreciation for breaking stuff."

"Willow, Kennedy and Faith are trying to keep him distracted, make him use up his power like you said, Mr. Giles," added Tara.

Buffy rapidly surveyed the area with keen eyes. "No rubber-neckers? Don't tell me people are actually getting smart and running away from the craziness."

"Not quite," Tara replied as she pointed to the mass of people some distance away. "Kennedy brought a bunch of Slayers with her and put them to work as crowd control."

Despite the pandemonium, Giles beamed his approval. "Excellent. Now all we have to do is keep Xander from hurting himself or anyone else. I can't imagine the charge will last too terribly much longer." The Watcher tilted his head to one side. "Especially not if he keeps lifting cars."

"Nice form," agreed Buffy favorably before frowning and turning to her sister. "Hey, why don't you go help the Juniors keep everyone away from here? I know how much you like bossing people around."

"Oh no way," protested the teenager, "and miss Xander swinging around a streetlamp? C'mon, I'm only gonna get to see that, what? Once, twice in my life?"

Buffy's expression became disapproving. "I don't like you being here, it's dangerous."

But Dawn was insistent. "Nah, I'm all kinds of good. Tara whipped up this nifty little barrier spell. She'll keep me safe from the big bad carpenter."

Obviously far from convinced, the Slayer's eyes narrowed as she looked to Tara.

"It's not gonna stop a building falling on us," offered the witch with a tiny smile, "but we can run fast, too."

Buffy blew out a puff of air. "I don't have time to argue. Giles...?"

The Watcher nodded his confirmation. "We'll be fine."

Although not happy with the situation, Buffy reluctantly acquiesced and sprinted toward the action. She assumed the fourth point in a square surrounding Xander just as the carpenter effortlessly picked up a full trashcan and hurled it at Willow.

The redhead thrust her hand at the rapidly approaching can. "Umsiedeln," she intoned.

The projectile shimmered for a bright moment while still in flight and then vaporized into thin air.

"You guys are a real drag," sneered Xander, curling his upper lip. "Anyone ever tell you that?"

Faith was the only one who felt obliged to respond. "New one for me, but I been called so much stuff, what's one more?" She shrugged nonchalantly which seemed to infuriate the carpenter. He took a few steps forward and threw a right hook, but she easily avoided the jab.

"Not so good when someone sees you comin', huh?" Faith taunted.

With a threatening stance, Xander's eye took on a belligerent glint, and Kennedy swiftly moved to Faith's side. The two Slayers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, ready for whatever the carpenter might have up his sleeve.

"Big comic geek like you," baited Kennedy, "I figured you'd be all up on the 'great power, great responsibility' crap."

Xander relaxed a little. "Nah, Spider-Man's a pansy," he chuckled, but the sound lacked true mirth. "I'm thinkin' the Hulk had the right idea."

And with that, he tugged violently at a bench embedded in the concrete walkway. It was something of a struggle and the strain showed visibly on his face, but the carpenter managed to wrench it free. Using the bench as a baseball bat, Xander took a mighty swing at the two Slayers, but both were able to nimbly evade the attack.

Kennedy rolled her eyes. "How much more power you think he's got?" she asked Faith, feigning a yawn. "Boredom's setting in."

With a yell of frustration, the carpenter swung again – with no more success than the initial attempt – but this time, as the bench completed its arc, it slipped from his grasp and hurtled toward where Tara, Giles and Dawn were standing.

"No!" cried Willow, but Buffy was the first to positively react, taking off without a second thought to protect the others from danger. Her immediate response, however, proved to be unnecessary.

Stepping forward, Tara positioned herself in front of Dawn and Giles. Extending her hand in much the same way as Willow had done, she muttered soundlessly under her breath and the airborne bench came to an instant stop, almost as though it had collided with a brick wall. There, it hovered briefly before dropping harmlessly to the ground several feet away. Glancing toward Buffy, Tara's eyes widened as she noticed something over the blonde's shoulder. At almost the same time, Kennedy and Faith were heard to be bellowing a warning.

"Willow!" shouted Tara, her body tensing.

Having been utterly distracted, the redhead had turned away from Xander. Now, directing her attention back to the carpenter, she saw that he had hoisted another car and was holding it high above his head. With a detestable grin, he hurled it toward her. Acting on instinct, Willow began to draw upon her magickal knowledge, but it was all too apparent that time was of the essence and the chances of her being able to complete an incantation prior to impact were virtually non-existent. In addition, the vehicle was barreling toward her at a speed that appeared to be impossible to avoid.

For a moment, Xander simply stood, the cruel and delighted grin etched on his features. But then he blinked and the mask seemed to give way to complete horror. "Will ..." he whispered in desperation. Then, running at top speed – traveling so fast that he was no more than a blur – he tackled the redhead, catching her shoulders and sending them both flying toward the ground. Spinning around in mid-air, Xander situated himself so that his back took the brunt of the fall. Almost simultaneously, the car crashed to the concrete – an explosion of jagged metal and splintered glass – in the exact spot where Willow had been standing only moments before. Bouncing along the pavement, Willow and Xander finally skidded to a stop.

Clutched to his chest in a death grip, Xander hugged Willow tightly but displayed no other signs of life. The redhead heard footsteps pounding toward them, but her concerns were solely for her best friend.

Her voice trembled as she said his name. "Xander?"

Slowly, he cracked open his eye and treated her to a feeble smile.

"This ..." he stated weakly, "has been a really weird day." He threw her another faint smile and then slumped.

The redhead loomed over him, her eyes wide and fearful. "Xander??" Her tone verged on panic.

Giles placed a comforting hand on Willow's shoulder. "It's all right," he assured her. "He's just passed out. The depletion of energies leaves the host body drained. He'll be fine after a good night's rest."

"So how much of this is his fault?" queried a curious Faith, glancing around at the property damage.

"Well none of it, in the strictest sense," the Watcher informed her. "He had no conscious control over his actions, at least not until the influence of the power had waned enough for his natural self to come to the forefront."

"Somehow I doubt that guy's gonna care much," said Kennedy, pointing down the street where an enraged man was only just being kept at bay by a couple of Junior Slayers.

The man's face was beet-red as he hopped up and down in an extremely agitated fashion. His mouth was moving rapidly and the sound of his shrieking could easily be heard although he was some distance away. "My car! That's my car!"

Giles removed his glasses and scrubbed at his eyes. His tone was weary. "Oh dear."

----------

The following morning, Xander slowly made his way down the stairs, moving cautiously as though every muscle ached. He stopped as he entered the kitchen and was greeted almost immediately by the now-familiar sounds of an argument in-progress streaming out of the dining room. Sighing heavily, Xander hung his head in defeat, but after a moment of this his back straightened and a look of determination appeared. He took a deep breath and stomped into the room yelling, "Okay, that's enough!"

Both Willow and Buffy stopped in mid-bicker, their mouths dangling open stupidly. Striding into the room, Xander crossed first to Willow and tugged her to her feet. The redhead was so stunned she offered no resistance. Repeating the process with Buffy, he received identical results.

"We're sitting down and we're gonna talk," he informed his friends, his tone making it abundantly clear that this was not a topic open for debate. "Note I said talk. Further emphasis on talk."

Like a switch had been flipped, both women broke out of their astonished stupor and launched into loud protests, speaking over and drowning each other out.

But neither matched Xander's volume levels. "That's not talking," he asserted and then proceeded to drag them out of the dining room without further objection.

Seated in their usual chairs were Dawn and Tara, who both watched the proceedings with all the interest of a patron at dinner theater. "I guess things are back to normal," stated Tara, then she cast a glance at herself. "Well, relatively speaking," she added.

"Xander'll get them straightened out," nodded Dawn with unwavering confidence. "It's what he does." She breathed a long, thoroughly contented sigh. "Willow and Buffy will stop fighting, we have you back ... we'll be one big happy family again in no time, right?"

Considering her question to be rhetorical, Dawn beamed sunnily at the blonde then returned to her breakfast. Consequently, she completely missed the dark, uncertain shadow that stole over Tara's features.

----------

"It's like one big happy family reunion. A few more broken bodies at the end and stuff, sure, but it's like a homecoming. Sort of gets ya right here, don'tcha think?"

Madrigan looked at Robespierre expectantly, as though the older man would enthusiastically support his observation, but no such overwhelming endorsement was forthcoming. The mage's yellow eyes darted over to Seneca, only to find the hulking man engrossed in the word search book he held in one beefy hand, its cover folded over. His other hand was propped thoughtfully under his chin while a pencil hovered magickally nearby, poised and ready to circle at a moment's notice. Madrigan sighed the sigh of the perpetually under appreciated.

"I was not ... unimpressed," Robespierre conceded with some reluctance after consideration.

"And that's the best we're gonna get outta you, isn't it?" Madrigan's complaint held a good-natured tone, but it earned him a glare nevertheless and he thrust his hands in the air defensively. "Fine, fine. But you gotta admit, taking on ... what was it? A dozen? Two dozen?"

Without eyes drifting from the word search, the pencil turned toward the others and drew a large '8' in the air. It then smoothly swooped back to the book and circled something diagonally. Seneca chewed on his thumbnail as he continued his intense concentration.

Not allowing his jovial mood to be deflated by such silly things as facts, Madrigan corrected, "Okay, eight Slayers at one time." He shrugged and waved dismissively. "It rounds up to a dozen. So yeah, eight of those little Council brats at once, including two Indian chiefs, plus all those she knocked out ahead of time ... Just sayin'—" Leaning back in his chair, the mage spread his arms wide. "—cool stuff."

Completely unaffected by Madrigan's exuberance, Robespierre's face remained stony. "When will the next be ready?" he coolly asked.

"Geez, never a rest for you Assemblage-types, is it?" asked Madrigan with an eye roll. "Always gotta push push push."

A crack appeared in Robespierre's carefully crafted demeanor, and he rubbed his forehead, fighting to maintain composure. "Madrigan, I have been waiting over thirty years to set things in motion." As he glanced up again and began to speak, a rare thing happened; an emotion other than anger or irritation appeared in the Assemblage leader's expression. A passion could be seen burning there, growing more intense with each word. "The world is heading toward an inevitable self-destruction, and every day sees it move closer and closer to a reality. What is needed is one hand to guide it – a hand of logic and order, a hand of strength and certainty, a hand of—"

"Dude, that's, like, three hands – y'only got the two," Madrigan pointed out. The mood completely shattered, Robespierre quickly defaulted back to anger, his face turning a deep crimson that only made the scar that ran down his cheek stand out all the more vividly. But before he could voice a protest, Madrigan rolled his eyes again and got down to business. "Version two-point-oh will be ready soon. Pretty sure before the world implodes," he couldn't help but add with a hint of derision.

Stiffly, Robespierre responded, "I look forward to seeing it in action." With that, he got to his feet, nodded just once to Madrigan, and swiftly strode from the room.

Madrigan watched him exit without comment, then once the other man was quite safely out of range, he turned to Seneca. "God I hate him. I will be so glad when we no longer need his scraggly 'logic and order' ass."

Seneca gestured and the book in his hands rose of its own accord, turning toward Madrigan. The pencil floated over as well, and then began to circle a word. Madrigan leaned close to see what had been marked: a thick line had been drawn around the letters forming "MACLAY".

The mage grinned broadly and sat back, looking very much like a cat that eaten a few mice and a healthy serving of goldfish along with the canary. "She's a star, no doubt," he said excitedly. "Any day now, we'll see just how bright she shines."