Changes, or how to kill a friend

Season: Somewhere in season 5 after Checkpoint

Character(s): Xander/ensample

Ships: Not really, a little Anya/Xander

Teaser: We know what we are. But know not what we may become.

Author's Notes: This story was written at the end of season 5, when BtVS was aired in Denmark, revised.

When Buffy fights, she is so very alive a personification force of nature that cannot, will not, be bound. Seeing her fighting made it somewhat hard, for me to concentrate on the battle around us. Not that she really needed any help. The vampires looked like they have trained with Buffy for a martial art show. She deflected most easily most of the punches and kicks. The few punches that did land were few, and often-deliberate openings from Buffy side, to create openings in the vampire's defences, which let Buffy, punch her stake through their harts.

One of the vampires looked around to find an easier target than Buffy and she saw me, one normal guy with a sharp stick. She took one last glance at Buffy before she advanced towards me.

I do not register the vampire until she's upon me and knocked the stick out of my hand. She then moved in for the kill and tried to grapple me. The vampire was fast and strong and I was desperately trying to keep her teeth away from my neck. She swept my legs away and I fell down on my back. Even then she smoothly followed me down, straddling over my abdomen as she grasped my throat in her hands in a chokehold. My vision began to blur as I frantically fight for air and begin to panic. It seemed to me that her face was morphing back and forth from her game face to that of Faith's. They both had the same smile, albeit without the fangs. A smile that seemed to say to me that I am worth less than nothing; an irritating bug who will be forgotten when it was squashed.

My memory after that was nearly blank. I can only remember an anger so big that it pushed everything away, conscience, pain I...

The next thing I remember was Buffy holding me and shouting my name again and again. She seemed so far away. Then the pain hit me and I looked down at my hands. They were full of blood and had deep cuts to the bone. A couple of fingers looked broken. The shock took most of the pain way and Buffy helped me up.

I think we walked to the hospital but pain and the shock made my memory blurry. I remember the faces of the medical staff that were a mixture of disgust, weariness, sympathy and fear. They have seen us too many times with heavy bruises, wounds and broken bones to believe us anymore when we tell them our usual excuses. What explanation do they come up with when they talk with each other about us? I really do not know. We are too strange a bunch to be a street gang. Junkies are not really seen here in Sunnydale, because their maximum life span was a week before some kind of monster finds them and makes them a fast snack, Darwinism in Sunnydale is painfully real.

They fixed me up and gave me some painkiller to take of the top of the pain and sent me home.

Home is where one's heart is and my heart's home is Anya.

She did not say much when Buffy and I came home to my apartment. She helped me get out of my clothes, tucked me into bed and then closed the door when she left.

I lay in bed exhausted and listened to Anya shouting at Buffy. Ah, just like Mom and Dad, except they do not live together anymore.

One night had dear old Dad and Mom drinking a little too much. It ended with Mom in the hospital, and after that a very quick divorce.

I've talked with my mother a couple of times after the divorce. She seems to have it better than I can remember.

On the other hand I have not talked to my father since he put Mom in the hospital. The main reason for that was, of course, that he is a bastard who could not control his temper. The other reason was that I am so afraid, that if talked to him, about why he did what he did, that I would become the bastard that could not control his temper. Because like him, I feel have this terrible temper, an anger that sporadically felt like a beast hidden away, just barely under control. Oh yes Xander man of mysteries and hidden depths. And if I had any say in it, I would prefer them to stay hidden and repressed, thank you very much.

Anya came in later to lie gently beside me. We do not say much to each other, just laid side by side on the bed feeling each other's body heat. After a while I fell asleep.

"Willow I'm kind of worried for Xander. He's brooding over something."

Willow and Buffy were sitting in their dorm room, drinking a new kind of tea that Anya had began selling in the Magic Box. She said the tea was supposed to give a soothing effect and strengthens one's concentration. As customers they weren't sure about the soothing effect and the strengthening of the concentration but they can attest to the fact that it tasted awful.

"You don't think it's because I said that he should take a break from patrolling?" Buffy continued as she took another sip of the tea barely holding back her disgust.

Willow took a sip from the cup her cup as well and grimaced before answering. "A person should only drink this tea when doing a 24 hour research session, and no, Xander knows that he can't be much help on patrol right now with some of his fingers broken."

Willow looked at Buffy and sank into deep thought. It was kind of strange to think that in the past two years Buffy had more contact with Xander than herself. First it was because she did not want to hurt Oz's feelings. And after Oz, the reasons have become vague. She wasn't sure if it was it because they did not want to become too intimate with each other or because their world, in relation to each other, had grown too different from what they knew before.

After a minute of silence Willow asked, "Buffy you do know that Xander's parents got divorced?" Buffy nods. "And the main reason was because Mr. Harris beat Mrs. Harris up so much that she ended in the hospital?"

"Yes I do know that. And I do know from experience how much a divorce of one's parents can hurt. But Xander is not little kid and their marriage have been on the rocks for a long time." Buffy answered in a tone that indicated, that she was not really sure Willow was going with hers question.

"That's true, but Xander's greatest fear is that he will end up like his dad, drinking and with little control over his feelings."

"Seems so pop psychology that he despise his own dad, and fears that he'll end up just like him." She paused as she thought back to that last patrol night; she had with Xander and said "He did really lose control when he was attacked by that vamp. He kept hitting it so hard it passed out. And believe me when I say that it is hard to knock a vampire out. He did say something about Faith over and over again."

"Xander and I never really talked about what happened, between him Faith. And I am beginning to think, that I should have talked with him about that" Said Willow, with some regret in her voice.

Buffy looked at Willow before asking, "What do you think we should do?"

"It's hard to say," Willow said as she considers the options open to them. "The best course would probably be to not get him stressed. But if we keep him out of the slayer stuff it would look like we don't trust him."

"But can we trust him if he does not trust himself?"

Anya was walking home from The Magic Box. It had been a busy day, which was nice. It kept her thoughts on practical things like inventory and customers and money, good things.

As a new and not so very proud citizen to humanity, she still had problems with the fuzzier concepts of a mortal's life. A good example of her confusion is her current situation.

As of the late Xander had been depressed and he couldn't even tell her why. This disturbs her deeply and she can't understand why it is affecting her so much. To her it just didn't seem right that he's feeling that way. It also didn't seem right that she's feeling what she's already feeling because these things point to something that scares her. She thinks that she is in love.

The fact is that she had been a vengeance demon for over 1100 years and from that period had she learned one thing again and again, that love does not conquer everything. It's very hard for her to believe in fairy tale endings and the concept of living happily ever after.

But despite all her years of service in such a profession she finds herself in a situation that goes against all the lessons she has learned. She went and fell in love with Xander. She's pretty sure about that fact now. Her feelings for him do fit the descriptions of love she had read in magazines she bought. And she relishes this fact and bathes in the glow this feeling of specialness and normalcy ignites in her before retreating into her earlier fears. Just because she her heart chose to ignore all the heartbreaks she had witnessed it did not mean she has forgotten.

Even now, as a human woman in a relationship, she does not expect much from the future. No, that is not completely true. She had a lot of expectations and hopes. But she knows how fragile the foundation these were build on, especially now. She feels that foundation is being strongly shaken. And all she could think of is that, maybe if she could think more human like, she could see what was wrong and fix it, maybe.

Xander was sitting in the couch and watching Passion on the telly. He did not seem to be concentrating on the show but looked more like he wanted something to distract him from his thoughts.

He smiled when he saw Anya come home. She knew that he still loved her, but was it enough?

She noticed that he had not changed his bandages today so she walked into bathroom and found some fresh bandages; they always kept their first aid kit fully stocked. She walked over to the couch and sat down beside Xander.

"Xander, give me one of your hands so I can change those dirty bandages."

Xander looked at her with fear? guilt? in his eyes and said, "Please don't bother yourself with this. I can change them myself later."

"Xander, this is not logical. I have two good hands and how will you change your bandage with two bad hands?"

Xander smiled. "Anya, you used to say that I have such clever hands."

Anya grips one of his hands. "Sit still. This is not funny."

Xander conceded, nodding like he agreed with her and kept looking at her face.

"Hey the wounds look great. Frankly I can hardly see where they been." Anya smiled as she announced her observation.

Xander shook his head slowly in confusion. "My fingers aren't broken anymore. It should have taken months. Humans just don't heal this fast.

"Ah well yes that is true, but there is probably a simple explanation for this. For example, Willow could secret have cast some kind of healing spell on you, or maybe you gotten some blood of a VanereroUi Demon on you. But if it indeed worries you, I think you should talk to Giles about it."

"I will but first I'm afraid I have to talk to my father, to ask some question that I would prefer not to ask." With that said Xander walked away without even saying goodbye.

Anya looked out of the window not really looking but thinking. 'Giles will fix this. Everything will be like before. No different because it's just another struggle we would fight together. Xander is properly overreacting, he always does. So he healed a little faster than normal. That's a good thing right? When I was a demon, everything was simpler. No uncertainties. No questions about good and evil. No dreams or fears for the future. No Xander. I knew what part I played in the Universe. Now I have the free will to make my own choices without always knowing the full consequences.'

It felt very lonely standing naked in front of universe without excuses for one's actions, not that she had anything against being naked. She had a great body. But she could no more hide behind excuses like 'It was my demonic nature that made me do it' or 'I just followed order'. What should she do? Could she do anything than hope and wait? Hope, such a fragile foundation for human dreams to build on.

Xander stood outside his parents' house where his father's living in until it gets sold. He shifted uneasily outside the door thinking about what he's going to say and how to keep his and his father's temper down.

The door was locked but he still had a key. When he opened the door, he immediately smelled an odour he only encounters in vampire dens, where they did not clean up after their dinner. It was a sweet and rotten smell that lingers in one's nostrils hours later. The house was not the happiest home to grow up in, but the smell felt like a violation of every good memory from his childhood. That little dinner he had eaten was coming back up. So he ran out to get a breath of fresh air.

After standing, for 15 minutes, outside the door trying to compose himself, he went back in, already knowing what he was going to find. He followed the smell into the living room until he came upon his father's body.

'It's funny.'

'No, it is not!'

'What, can't you find the humor in this?'

'No, I cannot find anything funny about finding my father, with a gun in his hand and half of his head blown away.'

'Xander look away from body.'

'Why? It's just another corpse in a long number of corpses you have seen. Yes siree.'

'Xander, I really do not think, that your laughter sounds like a good healthy laughter. Your eyes are falling back to the gun and those hands, your laughter have stopped and you are crying now, a good healthy crying for a dead father? No? You are feeling very sorry for yourself are you not?

'Who are you?'

'I am you, you know that.'

'Xander, what are you going to do?'

'Turn around do not look and think.'

'Who am I going to call?'

'The police.'

'No, not yet.'

'Giles will come up with some explanation that will, in some way, make sense, right?'

'Yeah right.'

Giles stepped out of the car and approached the young man who had called him earlier.

Xander sat outside the house with his back against the wall. His right hand held a piece of paper.

Giles walked up to him, and said softly, "Xander, what's wrong?"

Xander kept staring at the ground as he asked, "Giles, am I a selfish person?"

Giles was not sure what to make of the question. What had happened to he boy, he asked himself once again. He did not think that he had ever seen Xander so broken down. "No I do not think that you are selfish, certainly not compared other teenagers. You have always been willing to help your friends when they needed you. Xander, what happened?"

Xander looked up at Giles for the first time. "My father blew his head off with a gun and the only thing I can feel right now for my father is self pity and anger." He stopped speaking then and for a moment Giles thought that the young man had retreated into his thoughts but then he continued. "Giles would you please go in and look at my father? Especially the hands?"

Giles nodded to Xander. 'What insensitive bastard would let his own child see his body after a suicide?' In Giles' opinion, it was the father who had been selfish enough to commit suicide and do nothing to protect his son from the grisly sight of his father with half of his head blown away. The anger Xander felt was quite justified in his mind.

Before going inside the house Giles crouched down in front of Xander and gently lifted the boy's face to look at him. "It is ok Xander. I will take over from here. Have you called the police or your mother?"

But Xander ignored his words and whispered "Please look at his hands." Giles nodded coming to the conclusion that Xander will not be able to think about anything else until the boy's plea about his father's hand was met.

Gingerly he went into the house. He has only been to Xander's childhood home once or twice before and he had always used the basement entrance. With the house being dim and himself being unfamiliar with the house's layout, he was naturally cautious about bumping into things.

He came upon the body in the living room. It seemed to be over a week old and the gun was still hanging in Mr. Harris' hand. As requested he bowed down to look at the Mr. Harris hands. The nails were transformed to claws and the skin had begun look like scales. Giles took a step away back to get a better look of the corpse. The skin on the rest of the body had in lesser degree gained reptile like texture. The jaw was hanging open, most of teeth seemed to have fallen off but it looked like a new set of teeth was coming out.

"Oh boy."

When Giles came out of the house the boy was still sitting in the same position he had left him in. 'What can you say, that makes it right Giles?' He stood still for a while thinking. "Xander, I will call the police and then we will find out who did this to your father."

Immediately after he spoke these words his thoughts turned to Willow. She could perhaps have the power to make a transformation curse and she knows that Xander and his father have a strained relationship. 'No this is an insane,' thought Giles. 'Willow could never hurt another person'.

Xander looks at Giles. "It doesn't matter," he says and gives the letter he was holding in his hand to Giles. Giles takes the letter written in a shaky handwriting and carefully read it.

Alexander,

You and I have never been close. The fault for that is mine of course.

When I see you I see my own guilt of having you. That is terrible thing to say to one's son, I know. I can understand if you hate me. I hated my own mother for such a long time, not that I really can remember anything about her, but boy did I hate her.

I grew up in a priest family. They were not my biological family and they did not adopt me. And nearly every day all I heard from was that my nature was tainted with evil and I should pray that God would save my soul from eternal damnation I was born too.

One day I did something wrong, and when I got punished I protested that they were so much stricter with me than with their own kids. Then the priest told me why.

My mother was spawn of Satan, he said. And as hooker she tempted young innocent men into corruption. She got pregnant and gave birth to me. He further told me, that two years later after my birth, my mother barricade herself with me inside our apartment. The landlord called the police. When nobody answered the door the police broke the door down. My mother, who looked more like a fiend than a human at that point, attacked the police, so they shot her down like a mad dog. After searching the apartment did they find me, unharmed and slightly malnourished. Given the special circumstance, it was felt that my upbringing should be taken care by god-fearing people.

When I got older I began to question this story. I told myself that it was only some story that they made up to control me with. I started to save up money in the secret and when I felt I had enough, I ran away to the town I was born in, Sunnydale.

I could always feel where Sunnydale lay. It was like feeling the warmth of sun in the face. I did not know it was Sunnydale I could feel but I knew that there was a place where I would truly feel home.

I can still remember that the closer I got to Sunnydale the more I felt like a burden was lifted off. The air was easier to breathe. It was wonderful.

I found a job and your mother found me. After some years together we got you. I remember that time as the happiest time of my life.

Can you remember when you were six years old and we were going on our first holiday away from Sunnydale? You were so excited that we were going to Disneyland that you did not talk about anything else for a month. But after couple of hours you began to cry and we could not figure out why. I myself began to feel very uncomfortable, so your mother and I decided to turn home again. The funny thing was that when we came back to Sunnydale we both felt great again. We decided to stay home a day and if everybody felt fresh would we travel. Next morning we were on the road again. We had decided to take a break every hour against driving sickness. It didn't help. After three hours of driving, you weren't crying, instead you had coiled yourself up and whimpered, "I want to go home" over and over again. I felt sick once more and couldn't drive but your mother took over the driving. A short time after I fainted and when I recovered my senses, I nearly begged your mother to turn around the car. Just like the day before, we both got better when we returned home. But it was the beginning of the end of our marriage.

As the years passed I felt Sunnydale more and more like a prison where the walls where beginning to close in on me. I became bitter and began drinking.

I wonder how far away you came from Sunnydale when you started your quest to see the rest of the states, before your car "broke" down.

You knew of course, that it was my idea to charge you for your basement room? I did it because I felt a change coming over me, and it was getting harder to see my personified guilt walking around the house every day. The line should have ended with me.

Goodbye Alexander. I hope that you someday can forgive me.

After Giles had read the letter he sat down beside Xander and quietly tried to collect his thoughts, which were currently jumping from thread to another. 'This is unfair. Why can't these children a break. They deserve it. There's always a new threat, a new curse or another end of the world scenario. Lovers turn up dead. Their boyfriends turn into monsters. So much pain and it never stops! There is no justice, but you should know that by know shouldn't you.

"Xander we are going to the police station to tell them that you only briefly looked at your father. Don't show them your letter." Giles looked at Xander to see if he had heard him. Apparently the youth did since Xander nodded. "After that I will drive you home and tomorrow we will investigate this matter methodically through. Ok?"

The police didn't ask too many questions. They handled it like it was a normal suicide; Sunnydale's finest knew that too survive in Sunnydale, you should not ask too many weird questions. The official police preliminarily for the crime scene, was suicide under influence of PCP

Giles drove Xander home, both men sat silent the whole trip. Anya was waiting up and met them at the door when they arrived.

"Anya please help me put Xander to bed, he is in shock right now."

"What happened?"

"Later Anya. Let's first get Xander to bed."

After they had gotten Xander to bed, Giles gave a somewhat lengthy description of the day's event along with changes on Xander's father.

"Anya do you have any idea what the transformation could have led to?"

Anya, looking very distressed, kept staring out of the window. She did seem hear Giles' question but spoke anyways. "Giles if I was vengeance demon again, I now know what curse would hurt a former vengeance demon the most. Isn't that kind of ironic?"

"Anya snap out of it! This is not about you. This is about Xander".

"But Giles I feel like Xander is a part of me. And I am so scared that I don't know what to do or say," Anya half yelled and half cried at Giles.

Seeing the young? woman's tearful expression Giles relented at his outburst. He keeps on forgetting how insecure Anya could be when it came to human emotions. It's because she always presented herself as this confident burst of energy in the guise of his employee that it is hard to picture her as anything else. "I'm sorry Anya. I shouldn't have lost my temper that way. Tomorrow when things are brighter, will we find out what we are dealing with. Go to bed Anya, there is nothing more we can do right now."

"Will Xander be ok?" Anya asked, still fretting over the disturbing events that had happened within the day and what they could mean to Xander and to them.

Giles put a comforting arm on her shoulders. "As I said, we will find out what's going on so that we may be able to help Xander. Trust me."

Anya looked Giles straight in the eyes, looking for the truth of his thoughts. Seeing his sincerity she finally said, "I trust you Giles."

Next day at the magic shop, Xander, Anya, Willow, Tara, Buffy and Giles are sat around the round table they so frequently has used during a crisis.

"As you have heard, has Xander's father killed himself. The reason for his suicide seemed to be that he was changing into a demon," Giles announced to the group of young women gathered before him.

Buffy, having been late for the meeting looked at Xander with of a face that, for anyone who knew her well, was scarily determent. "I am so sorry to hear that Xander. I promise you we will find that S.O.B. that did this to your father and make him pay." She then reached across the table to take Xander' hand as a sign of her promise and support. She is at a loss over what to do and more so with what to say. Fortunately Giles filled the uncomfortable silence his announcement created.

"There is something more to this situation." Giles looked to his right where Xander was seated. "Xander may I read out loud your father's letter?"

"Go head Giles, but I'm going for fresh air in the meantime," Xander said already getting up from his seat.

At his words Anya stood up as well. "Shall I go with you?"

Xander tiredly shook his head. "No. It's ok Anya." He then took his jacket and with a slight wave walked out the door. After Xander had gone out, Giles began reading the letter.

The silence that descended after the reading was deafening compared to the one that descended upon them earlier. This raised Anya's agitation and forced her to speak.

"You know that I don't have anything against demons. Some of my best friends are demons. But I know from experience that becoming a demon changes the way a person view's of everything. This thing, whatever it is, will change Xander into something else. Something who is not the man I love. Not only that but the sex can become difficult. We have to stop it."

The rest of the group gives Anya different degrees of disgust and disbelief. But the object of their ire did not notice their looks as she glanced towards the door that was slowly opening.

Willow turned around in her seat to greet Xander who had just come back from his walk. "Xander we will find the solution. We're the Scooby gang. We always find a way out of trouble."

Buffy, who was still in the middle of digesting the possibility that one of her best friends is possible a demon, finally explode in frustration. "I don't understand. Why couldn't Spike hurt you if you're some kind of demon human hybrid?" She turned to look at the members of their group in a silent plea to explain what was going on.

"We really don't know how Spike's chip works. It could be that the chip would only induce pain if the carrier thought he or she was hurting a human being. Or it could be that the chip really can detect demons. And if it that is the case, it would have to have a sensor array that may not include hybrids." Said Willow.

Tara understood the implied consequences of what Willow had said. When it dawned on Willow what her theory could mean to Tara, she added quickly, "But it is just a theory. The chip could perhaps use magic in some kind form to do the detection."

Giles began to clean his spectacles. "The first thing we must do is verify if there is, in fact, anything demonic in Xander."

"I think we can rule out that I'm totally normal. Have you looked at my hands?" Xander interjected into the conversation.

Hearing this Buffy took his hands and turned them over for inspection. "They look fine to me Xander."

"That's the problem. Broken fingers and scars don't go away in less than a week Buffy, you know. Especially if there is no super slayer healing powers involved. Not to mention the fact that I can't leave Sunnydale without feeling sick."

"It is obvious that we need more information," Giles said as he replaced his spectacles on the bridge of his nose. "I would suggest that Xander and Anya try to learn more about Xander's family history. Willow, Tara, could you cast the demon detecting spell? Buffy you help me with finding a way to reverse or stop the transformation process. Does anybody else have some ideas?"

Willow raised her hand before speaking up. "Cordelia and Angel worked with a half-demon. Maybe they have some suggestion."

Seeing the merit of her suggestion, Giles said, "Will you contact them Willow?"

"No need to ask me twice."

"You said that they had worked with a half demon. 'Had' being

the operative word. What happened?" Xander asked, honestly curious about the half-demon that Willow mentioned. Since leaving Sunnydale, Angel and Cordelia had little contact with the Scooby Gang. And if they did, they usually talked to somebody who wasn't him. So he generally was always out of the loop when it came to the LA crew.

"He died but in a heroic kind of way."

Xander did not look like a man who is cheered up when hearing about heroic deaths of half-demons.

Catching the slightly worried look on Xander's face at her words, Willow quickly fumbled for something to distract him from the depressing thoughts that she may have just started in his head. "Xander we should start with the demon checking spell. Don't you agree Tara?"

"Yes. But I think it would be best if I stayed out of this spell," Tara answered.

"Still worried that you could become a demon Tara?" Xander asked quietly.

"The fear of becoming a demon has been in me so long that I need to be sure that it is groundless. Xander, I know what thoughts are going through your head right now. But I also know how unquestionable you and your friends supported me even when you weren't sure if I would turn into a demon. I hardly think that your friends would give you any less support, than they did for me."

"Thanks Tara" Xander replied and gave her a smile.

Willow smiled at the words that passed between her girlfriend and her best friend. Moments like these were rare mostly because the opportunity for them were scarce. But she cannot deny to herself that Tara still feels very much an outsider in their merry little band. It wasn't anybody's fault. Tara was still adjusting from being a shy Tara to a Tara who is a bonafide Scooby member. "Xander let's go into the backroom. The demon detection spell is easy to cast and it doesn't hurt. Much." At Xander's worried look Willow giggled. "Hey just kidding Xander."

Giving Willow his best pout Xander said, "Willow, Willow I will get you for that". Came it goodheartedly if somewhat forced, from Xander.

Willow laughed once more. "Come let's go in and do the spell and get it over... ah Anya stop glaring at me. It was just a joke. A friendly banter between friends."

"That wasn't funny Willow. Nobody hurts Xander. Got it," Anya said frostily to Willow

"I'm sorry Anya," Willow replied sincerely. Anya accepted the apology with a curt nod and Willow and Xander went together into the backroom while the others began pulling down books and researching.

For the first few minutes all remained quiet. Suddenly lights similar to those emitted by a flashlight could be seen peeking from the bottom of the backroom's door.

"Is that normal Giles?" Buffy asked.

"No. I really don't think so," Giles replied and began to walking to the backroom."

A moment later Willow came out meeting them with a worried look.

"Is Xander all right Willow?" came it from a nervous Anya.

"Yes, he's fine but I think that you should go to him." When Anya nodded and trotted off to the backroom Willow turned her attention to those remaining in the room. "Giles there is indeed demonic traces in Xander, but what was weird is that the spell came out with too much power, you know. It was like when you grasp a bottle that you think is full, but it is empty. You put too much power in the arm."

Giles contemplated Willow's words before turning to look at Tara and then, a second later, at Willow. "If it is all right with Tara, you should try to cast the spell again. But this time on Tara."

Willow started to shake her head no but the look Tara gave her put an end to it.

"Willow please go ahead. I want to end this uncertainty."

Not to deny her lover anything Willow conceded. The preparation for the spell was quickly dealt with and the result was happily negative.

"Giles the spell's result came out completely normal".

"Hmm interesting, I can't remember a demon that has amplifying effect on the spell caster, which is kind of strange. I would think that every spell caster would try to get a demon of Xander's type, or quite similar to what he is. Except if they are very rare or very deadly which doesn't sound very promising for us either, if we want to learn more about it. Oh well back to books."

When Anya entered the backroom she saw that it was empty. Tamping her fears that Xander may have been hurt within the few minutes that Willow left him alone, she went out the back door to check if he had gone outside for another breath of fresh air. True enough she sees Xander sitting on a couple of crates, staring at sun.

"Hi Anya," Xander said without turning his head.

Surprised that he noticed her presence, she casually tried to ease them into a conversation to hide this fact as well as the fact that she was sent to check up on him. "Hi.

What are you thinking?" Anya asked as she took a seat on the crate next to his.

"About irony mostly and how most funny things have the element of tragedy in them." Said Xander in a bone tired . "For so long as I can remember I wished I was someone special. The rest of the Scoobies all had something that made them special. It is only after I got you that I truly appreciated being normal. I said to myself, 'You are the special normal guy, with both legs on the ground which is the salt of earth yada yada.' But as you know dear old Sunnydale always put a special on special, like some mystical Sunnydale math minus multiplied with minus gives plus, so very strange the math I mean. I was happy and in love, which by the way, I still am, with you of course."

"I love you too," Anya quickly replied.

Xander smiles at this. "Yes I know that and I keep finding that amazing, that you do. You are a good person Anya, especially to me. And you're courageous and honest. But try to go easy on Giles. Sometimes it is better to be quiet or lie, but if you are uncertain stick to the truth."

Ignoring his babble at the end Anya focused on the overall feel of what Xander was saying. "Xander this sounds like a going away speech. It isn't is it?"

Xander sighed once more. "I hope not. Nevertheless I remember the time when Angel turned bad and how long it took before Buffy did something serious about stopping Angel. I don't know how many people died in that period but it will always be too many. If I change into some kind of man-eating demon, you have to promise me, that you will do everything to stop me."

"Xander so long as there is life, there is hope. I was born a woman turned into a demon and now I will die as a woman. Nothing is impossible," Anya said, her tone comforting yet at the same time desperate. She did not like the direction the conversation had taken.

"Anya you are a survivor. You grasp life and squeeze everything out of every second. I love and admire that trait in you. I, on the other hand, am a coward. There are some things I could not live with, some choices I will not take. So I am asking you to make that choice for me if it becomes necessary. And make the choice that I want, not the one you want or what Buffy, Willow, Giles want."

"Xander this is too hard."

"I know but you have to. For me?" Xander looks at Anya in the eyes. But she wouldn't meet his eyes and he knew that she has not accepted his plea or even acknowledged it . So he turned to another topic. "Come on let's go in with the others."

Willow sat in the shop office calling Cordelia on the phone.

"Angel Investigations. We help the helpless, how can we help you?"

"Hi Cordelia. It's Willow."

"Hi! What's up?"

"It's Xander. It seems that he is half demon and we are trying to stop his possible transformation to a demon. And you have mentioned to me, that you used to work with a half- demon. So we were kind of hoping that you had some ideas."

"What is it with me and demons?" Cordelia screeched, momentarily sidetracked as she thought back on her less than stellar love life. When Willow cleared her throat she remembered the call's purpose. "I really don't know much. Doyle didn't know that he was a half-demon before his early twenties and he could choose between the demon form and human. So I don't know if he tried to get rid of his demon side. He was an all right guy but a terrible dresser. He kind of reminded me of Xander. Do you think he wants to talk to me now?"

"He's talking with Anya, I don't think they want to be disturbed right know."

"I'll call him later then. Doyle had an ex-wife who is an expert in demon cultures. Maybe she can help you."

"Do you have her number?"

"One second. Here it is 555-651-321."

"Thanks Cordelia."

"Just say if we can help with anything else, ok?"

"Ok bye."

"Bye."

After Willow had come in contact with Harriet Doyle over the phone, walked Willow back into the room where the others were sitting. "I just talked a Ms. Harry, she's connect to Angel Investigations and is a expert in demon cultures. She doesn't know if she can help, but she was interested and is coming here tomorrow. I'm going to check some databases so I have to go. We meet here tomorrow same time, if nothing important comes up, ok?"

The rest of the group did agree with Willow on breaking up the meeting.

Buffy looked around and saw that she's in a dark room filled with shadows. For the first few moments she believed that she was alone for nothing stirred within the desolate area. But as her eyesight was able to adjust to the dark she noticed a figure of a woman within her peripheral vision. 'Willow?' she immediately thought as she saw the tell tale red hair of her friend. She started toward her when she noticed some anomalies. 'Something's wrong with her face. She looks older. And who's the small child sitting on her lap.'

As she drew loser, the woman she was walking to turned to face her. "Hello Buffy. Will you kill us now?" the woman asked with the air of casualness that belies the meaning of her words.

"Willow?"

The woman nodded. "How are Angel and the kids? Do you think they will be free someday?"

Not understanding what Willow was saying Buffy turned her attention to the child sitting on Willow's lap. The child was cute. Her brown hair silkily fell over her equally brown eyes that somehow seem familiar to Buffy.

Assuming the child to be Willow's Buffy asked rather abruptly, "Who's the father Willow?"

At her words, a look of pure fright crossed the little girl's face.

Willow started to coo to the child in an effort to calm her down. "Shhh. Don't be scared. It's all right. Aunt B is just a little angry, Cambiare. But not at you." She paused to point to something in front of them. "Look. There's your Daddy. Can you wink to him?"

The girl giggled and winked to somebody behind Buffy. Turning around quickly, Buffy catches a glimpse, within the shadows, of a man running away from her.

Instinct told Buffy that when something runs away from you, you follow it.

The man was running as if death was licking his heels. He never turned around once so all she can see was his black hair and broad shoulders. Buffy hastened her pace but no matter what she did she could not catch up to the figure.

Suddenly the scenario changed and Buffy found herself standing in the Bronze. Disoriented at first, she surveyed her surroundings and recognized, not only the place but one of its patrons as well. 'Angel!. She tried to get closer but people started to pull her into a series of handshakes, hug and pats on the back accompanied by heartfelt thanks giving on her behalf. She tried to push them away but they wouldn't listen. In fact the crowd seemed to push her to a table where a woman, wearing a sleek business suit and sensible shoes, sat drinking a cup of cappuccino.

The woman lifted her head to reveal her identity. "Hello B. Don't look so shocked. It's natural to get gray hair when you get older." The woman set her cup down and shifted her position so that she could get a good look at Buffy. "But you wouldn't know anything about that. Still dyeing your hair blond? Still a fucking heroine?"

"Still full of shit Faith?" Buffy coolly replied.

"No B, I don't think so. I grew up, never thought I would get enough time to do it. But I did. Now look at us, two old slayers!" Faith sighed and took another sip of her cappuccino. "You know the water is coming in and the pond is getting bigger. We have become two small fish in a large pond. B, do you still have my knife? If a knife is sharp enough it could cut away the future."

"What do you mean?"

"No time for that, your man is getting away. Still can't keep your men, eh B?"

Faith continued her speech but now it seemed more like she had forgotten Buffy "Should've given me a chance, I should've given me a chance" she mumbles.

Buffy looked away from Faith to, again, just barely catch the fleeing image of the man she was chasing earlier. Deciding that staying to talk with the other slayer would be futile, she followed the running man through the crowd.

The man was fast weaving his way through the crowd. But unlike their earlier chase, Buffy had no trouble catching up with him. In fact the crowd seem to part before her, giving her a direct path towards her quarry. She felt the knife she clutched in her hand that had apparently been the cause for the crowd's parting. 'Where did that come from?' Buffy asked herself. But before she could continue her internal dialogue she came to a sudden halt as she crashed into someone. Looking up from the knife she had been preoccupied with, she turned her eyes to the thing before her. What she saw made her blood run cold with shock. It was Anya, holding her bleeding abdomen, where the knife Buffy was holding, pierced her.

"Buffy that hurt."

"Oh my God!" Buffy moved to hold the bleeding girl up but her advances where clumsily pushed away and Anya slowly sank to the floor.

Supporting herself by her elbows, Anya looked up at Buffy and said. "I think I am mortally wounded. Do you think it is sad that I never learned to drive? Oh I am sorry. I did not want to be rude, but you were not a good drive either."

Buffy shook her head at the strangeness of the whole situation, leaving Anya smiling to herself with her eyes closed.

Nothing was making sense to Buffy. The places she had been running through, the people she had met, the words they said. none of it meant anything. The only thing she is sure of in this dreamscape, a fact she had been able to deduce since she only encountered this quality of strangeness in her sleep, was that she had to catch up to the running man.

Buffy continued her pursuit of the man to the old high school. Once inside, Principal Snyder, who was standing outside the school, yelled after her.

"I knew you were trouble. You are bringing chaos into to the world. Stop it!"

Buffy ignored the short man's ranting, never slowing her pace. This wasn't because she knew that Snyder would spout gibberish like the others before him had although he probably would have. She did it out of habit. She never listened to the bald troll when he was alive so why should she now when he was dead and only making a cameo in her dream.

A few seconds after passing the ever-annoying Snyder, Buffy saw Tara standing by the school's front door. The man she was hounding was there as well since he had specifically stopped to talk to Tara. Observing the two people from a safe distance she saw Tara give the man a sword. Taking the sword from Tara, the man executes a graceful turn to directly face Buffy. For the first time since you have caught sight of him, Buffy finally got to see his face. It was Xander. Somehow that didn't shock her because she already had this gut feeling from the beginning, ever since she saw the little girl.

Xander smiled at her and once again started running, this time through the school's front door. She ran up to Tara, she knew that she had to talk to Tara, before she can pass through the doors.

"What is this all about?" Buffy said angrily

"Choices and change" Replied Tara

"Spoken like a true oracle. Nothing concrete and giving more questions than answers."

Tara looked at Buffy and she saw a frightening alien intelligence looking out through the shy girl's eyes.

"Little one, it is all a question about free will."

"Which choices do I have?"

"Yours of course"

"How can I save Xander"?

"I did not know, that he needed saving."

"Can I go through the door?"

"That is your choice."

Buffy privately wondered if it was wise to give the finger to an oracle, when she passed through the doors. She heard Xander's footsteps from the general direction of the library.

"Xander stop we can help you!"

"Buffy sorry can't do, have to face my own demons. In the end you only have yourself. You know that Buffy" Xander said, unexpectedly appearing by her side.

He sounded composed, he also sounded like he told a lie, what lie?

"Wait!"

But she only heard the footsteps of Xander running towards the library. The school felt more and more threatening to her. She knew she would be too late for what ever was going happen. She saw Xander step into the library with his sword raised. Everything went into slow motion then. Buffy saw something very big and incredibly fast swallow Xander whole. It went so fast that he did not have time to react, there wasn't even any blood to indicate what happened. She knew that the monster was waiting in the library and it was only a question in time before it came after her.

Dawn was pulling at a sleeping Buffy, trying to wake her up.

"Buffy wake up. The others are expecting you at the Magic shop."

Dawn looked worriedly at Buffy

"One of your dreams?"

"Yes"

"Not a good one?"

"They never are, and it was about Xander."

Buffy walked into the Magic Shop bright and early the next day. She was aiming to beat everybody else, with the exception of Giles, to the shop, so that the two of them could discuss the dream she had the night before. Considering the unhappy ending of the said dream, she believed that discussing it in private with Giles was the best course of action she could take at the moment. While Giles carefully cleaned his glasses he said

"Hmm. it might sound a little cold, but I had hoped that Xander's problem would only concern us. Your dream seems to me to indicate potential farther-reaching consequences. But your dreams have always been somewhat unclear in their meaning hmm... The demon you saw, could you describe it?"

"No. It happened so fast that I didn't get a very good look at it. All I could remember is that it was as big as the mayor during graduation and that its eyes and skin looked reptilian."

Sinking into his own thoughts for a moment or two, Giles pondered the latest development of their current dilemma.

"I don't think that you should tell the others about your dream before we know more. No need to alarm everybody else until we have something more concrete, especially Xander. Lord knows he has a lot on his plate right now."

"I understand," Buffy said. She had been thinking the same thing. But truth be told, she wanted to tell someone. She wanted to tell someone how scared she is, how utterly useless she felt right now because she was the chosen one but she can't even protect one of her friends. But she has to stop thinking of herself right now and focus on Xander. Giles was right. Xander didn't need to be worried about this. He was stressed enough as it is.

The two of them wrapped up their discussion and the got the shop ready for their meeting that morning. Giles got the coffee pot running while Buffy laid biscuits and scones in some plates. Both did not speak as they went about their task, so deep were they in their thoughts, as they waited for the others. They didn't have to wait for long, a few minutes later the rest of their party started arriving and took their usual seats around the table.

Willow, who entered the shop with a pretty woman who seemed to be in her mid twenties, audibly cleared her throat and pointedly looked at Giles.

Taking Willow's none to subtle cue, Giles cleared his own throat and called everybody else's attention towards him.

"Ahem, I would like to introduce you to Ms. Harriet Doyle. She is an experienced anthropologist in today's demon cultures. She has some knowledge with regards to human hybrids." Turning to address the aforementioned woman, Giles asked, "I understand that Willow already told you what we know?"

"Yes, she has given me the background of the case. And please call m me Harry."

Absently nodding his head, Giles said "Harry, would you mind you starting by talking about what you know of hybrids?"

Harry nodded and said. "First I would like to start by saying that demon human hybrids are very rare and many of them isolate themselves from both human and demon society. Therefore it's very hard to compare the few data I have gathered." Harry paused to look at her captive audience to gauge if they were still following her so far. Seeing that they were and seem to be impatient for information pertinent to their situation she continued. "But to cut it short a hybrid can be, at birth, a mixture of human and demon in appearance and skills. A few of these hybrids survived birth a decade ago. Those born in hospitals were often classified as humans with severe birth defects.

"Others can go through life looking like and behaving like normal humans, that is, until something triggers a transformation. The trigger can be internal, like age, or external, like environment. When the transformation starts at this point, one of the consequences normally is that the hybrid gains the ability to change from his human form to his demon form. Another outcome is that the transformation ends with someone who looks and has the abilities of a pure demon. But for some reason this type of demon is still not considered a pure demon. The reason for that is something I have not understood yet. Many pure demons consider them impure, maybe because of their human origin." Seeing a raised hand she paused once more to ask, "Yes Willow?"

"Have you heard about anybody stopping a transformation or perhaps reversing it?"

"No. But many hybrids do not know that they are hybrids before the transformation. And as I said at the beginning, hybrids are very rare and their development depends much on their demon side."

To say that I was frustrated with her answer was an understatement. I tried to suppress a snort under my breath before saying, "So what you are saying is that you don't know anything useful."

Surprised at my outburst Willow got into scold mode. "Xander! She is trying to help us. Besides she gave me an idea."

Willow never fails to make me feel like such a complete boar when she gets like that. I was, of course, properly embarrassed. "Sorry Harry. I'm feeling very frustrated right now but that's no excuse to bite your head off."

"It's ok. I understand that this is very frustrating for you," Harry replied sincerely

Giles, seeing that their possible lead with Harry was, more or less exhausted for now, he turned to me to have an update on their other leads. "What have you found about your family background?"

I tried to remember my activities the day before so that I can recount my findings to him. "Not much. Anya and I have confirmed that my father grew up at with a priest. We haven't tried to contact him because we really didn't know what to ask of him." My forehead crinkled as I thought over the possible questions I wanted to ask to the man who brought up my father. None of them would have been accepted with a smile, much less an answer. I shook my head to dispel these thoughts and continued on. "My father's mother grew up in orphanage. She was found wandering the woods near Sunnydale naked when she was estimated to be around 4 or 5 years old. She had no language and reacted with hostility towards everybody around her. She was, therefore, classified as mentally handicapped and received no education. She did develop a language as time progressed and the authorities considered that she could perform some kind of simple manual labour in the society. So at the age of 18 they kicked her out of the orphanage. She lived two more years as a hooker in Sunnydale and somehow managed to survive the vampires, that is, until the police shot her down. The only thing that sticks out is that Mayor Wilkins was the one of the people who signed the release papers on the investigation about that. But, you know, it could just be normal procedure in Sunnydale."

Buffy, who never really had patience with research and meetings, dived right into her proposed action plan. "I think that we should find out what we can about the rest of the people who signed the release papers. Nothing that the Mayor touched have ever turned out pure."

Giles went over what Buffy said before agreeing. "Yes, that's probably a good idea. So far, I still have no definite idea what type of demon we are dealing with but I am confident that we will find something regarding it soon enough. Most demons have, at one point or another, interacted with humans at some level. So this demon must have been observed and described somewhere."

As the rest of the group went over their next course of action, Willow was in her own world, happily scripting something down on paper. She stood up to pick up a book, which she browsed through before continuing to write on her notes.

"Willow, would you mind telling us, what you are doing?" I asked as I watched her furiously scribbling more notes.

At my question, Willow finally looked up from what she was doing and faced us. From the look on her face, I would have thought that she just won the Nobel Prize, for her eyes were practically blinding us with excitement.

"I've been thinking, Harry mentioned that the trigger could be external. What if we blocked the trigger? The trigger in Xander's case seems to be the Hellmouth. But if you think about it, the Hellmouth is really only a highly concentrated magic field. So if we could stop the magic field from interfering with Xander, his demon side will lay dormant."

To everyone Willow's theory made a lot of sense and generally gave the problem at first glance an easy solution.

"But the problem is that, if Xander was totally cut off from the field, it could probably kill him. So what we need is some way to cut down the magic field without hurting Xander. Too much." Willow finished her spiel and looked over at the rest of the group's reaction. It was clear that the latter part of her speech did not thrill them. She's not surprised. It was simple, yes, but risky. It wasn't something they would try on another person, much less a friend, but from their current standpoint; it was the only action they could take until something better comes up.

"Couldn't I just walk away from Sunnydale to get the same effect?" Xander asked.

"Probably. But I think I could make it more controllable and have it take effect fast enough to overtake your potential transformation, and it's not like that all of the rest of the country is magic free. It's just that in Sunnydale is the magic field magnitude larger than what is normal. I think I could make an antimagic shield, with some kind of inverse magic circle. I'm also looking into of putting the spell in a amulet of some sort." Said Willow

Since finding my father's body, I've been feeling numb inside. But hearing Willow speak about my situation with such certainty and confidence, I can't help but be overcome with emotion. "This is great. This is the first time I've felt some kind I hope. Thank you Willow."

"Xander, please don't get your hopes up. I don't know if it'll work."

I couldn't help my hopeful expression from crumpling at her words. I knew that Willow didn't want to burst my bubble. She was just preparing me for the fact that her theory could be wrong and I loved her more for it. But knowing her she probably feels like the biggest scum in the world. So she went on to reassure me. "But I think we should still do it. Even if it doesn't work, we could still learn something from it that we can work on."

Anya, who had been following the exchange between the two of us, saw an opportunity to be of help. "Do you need anything?"

"No. It's quite a simple spell, except for the modifications, of course. We could even do it now in the backroom." She then turned to me and said, "But first we should get you a bed or a mat of some sort. You'll probably have stay in the circle for some time."

The three of us quickly gathered everything we needed and went in the training room, instead of Magic Box's backroom, since there were already mats set up in it. Willow drew a circle across several mats and I sat down in the middle of it.

Seeing that everything was in place, Willow then began to chant. Considering that it was a relatively simple spell, it took no more than five minutes for Willow to set up the field around me. Now all we had to do was wait for it to either take effect or not.

In the beginning nothing happened. I simply sat there burning a hole in the mat. But little by little, I started to feel a pain whose origin I can't pinpoint. It just seems to emanate from my whole being not just a specific body part. Six hours into the spell, I passed out only to re-emerge from unconsciousness when Willow raised the magic field a little.

"Xander, can you hear me?"

"Yes."

"I've raised the field a little. From this point I'll be lowering the field again but this time gradually. Just say if it hurts too much. I can adjust the decrease rate some more if needed."

"Thanks. I think can manage it now."

Two hours later, nothing, other than the increasing pain, happened as a result from the spell. Exhausted from pain, I curled myself into a tight ball and tried to lose myself in another one of my funny and witty internal dialogues, fun for the whole family here be hotdogs and ballons and candy, step right up.

'I don't think I can take this anymore.'

'Come on Xander. You've gone against vampires, zombies, a giant preying mantis, an essence sucking mummy and Cordelia. You can manage anything. Just concentrate on the breathing. Half an hour, tops, something other than this is going to happen. You'll see.'

'It's almost been half a day. If something were going to happen, it already would have. I'm beginning to think that this will not work.'

'Things like this take time. You know, like detox. You've just got to go cold turkey from this magical force thing and you'll b demon free. You'll just have to sweat the magic out of my system.'

'What if this is not like detox? What if this is like what those mountain climbers do? They cut down the oxygen percent they breathe so that they can live at lower percent of it when they're climbing. But then some of them keep on cutting it down until they eventually suffocate. This could just be an elaborate way of killing yourself Xander.'

'Well we had to try. As they say, Nothing ventured nothing gained.'

A sharp pain suddenly jolts me from my thoughts.

'The pain is all round me now. A million small ants are eating me away.'

'It's very important that I look at the ceiling, just look at the ceiling nothing else is real but the ceiling.'

"Xander can your hear me?"

"Xander?"

'Where I am I? Why does it hurt so much? Somebody is calling at me, mom? No, Willow.

"Yes."

'Is that my voice? It sounds so far away.'

"Xander, I've stabilized the field. I think we should see if you could acclimatize to this level. Do you think can manage?"

"Yes," Xander answered as he tried to concentrate on the ceiling.

After hours the pain lessened. I don't know if it's because I have become more 'acclimatized' to the magic field or the pain. Probably both.

Observing that I had been able to settle down, Willow decided to leave me for a while, which I was very grateful for. It was easier to concentrate when nobody was around, hovering over me.

I felt Anya sit nearby, watching over me. Despite my earlier feelings about the Willow's departure from my side, I'm strangely thankful that she is near.

"Anya, are you there?"

"Yes."

Her voice was tainted with sorrow and I couldn't help but think how I keep hurting the women I love. It wasn't that I meant to. If anything, I always tried to spare them pain. But in the end, no matter what I do, they still get hurt. Perhaps if I were smarter or more mature I would not end up in this kind of situation. But I have to get through this crisis first before I can tackle my lack of intelligence and maturity. Of course, at the rate we're going, I may never have to address those two small problems.

Without turning my head from its uncomfortable position against my knees, I say, "If this doesn't work, please don't blame Willow for any of this."

"Stop talking like that. You're going to be fine," she said angrily as she left the chair she was sitting on to crouch by the circle's boundaries. "I love you Xander. And people I love either become cheating bastards that I turn into trolls or. wait that only happened once and nobody else came after him. Nobody else except you." She paused as she tried to collect her thoughts on what she wanted to impart to me. "Okay, forget that. I just want you to know that I do love you. And I'm not going to lose you.

I was very much touched by what she said. No, actually I wasn't. I felt embraced not touched. Her words enveloped me in a cocoon of comfort I have never received from anybody else. But her words saddened me as well.

Anya, being a former vengeance demon, was naturally jaded when it came to arena of love. But as time passed, I can see that she's gaining back her trust in love. Enough trust to care so much about me and admit it. And as much as Willow hated bursting my bubble, it's nothing compared to the guilt I'll feel for bursting Anya's.

"I love you too," I said when I uncurled from the tight ball I created with myself so that I can look her in the eyes. "But this thing that's happening to me is beyond the capabilities of our love. You have to face the fact that I may not get through this.

"As for Fate, I don't think they're going to interfere with this. I'm just a small player in the fight of good versus evil. I'm not important in the big picture. I don't have a destiny like Buffy and Angel. And you know what? That's okay with me. Not the whole changing into something monster- like; I'm still pissed at that. What I mean is that I'm okay about me not having a destiny to fulfill. They're over rated anyway. They give you security in your place in the world but little choices in the direction of your life.

"I'm glad I don't have a destiny. I'm glad because I was able to get a lot out of life because of MY choices. I got you.

"The same goes for you too, Ahn. But you have to choose it. You have to choose to go on if something happens to me. No brooding. No turning into a nun. Choose to live."

Throughout my speech, Anya was silent. Tears spilled from her eyes but she didn't blink. She refused to take her eyes off me. Her mouth trembled and I knew she wanted to say something but she just couldn't trust herself to as of yet.

A minute after I've finished speaking she said, "But I want to live with you."

"I can't promise you that."

"Then promise you'll try."

"I'll try."

It was already past midnight when the rest of the gang packed up and went home. Willow, the ever-thorough person that she is, checked if my condition stable, before she went off.

Anya stayed with me, as expected. We spent the rest of the night talking with each other. Both of us had a feeling that we are at the beginning of some kind of end and we were trying to squeeze everything out of the moment.

The morning rolled in with a much fresher-looking Giles, who took over Anya's post so she could freshen up and get some food. Along with him were Willow and Tara, who were still settling their things in the store's main room. Buffy, though, was absent. Apparently the acquisition of doughnuts, which was my job, had fallen to her.

Moments later the door opened once more to reveal Willow. Never missing a beat, Willow immediately sprung a doctor-patient interrogation process between the two of us, as soon as she came through the training room's door, it did remind me of our past childhood. Willow could newer be an amateur in whatever she did, she did always excel, I wonder what would have happened if we really had played "Doctor" instead of Willow trying to be a real doctor. I told her that as the night before passed, I felt less pain and had begun to think that this will work. This statement, of course, prompted Willow to decide that she could lower the field little more. This brought the pain back. But pain was not that hard to bear so long there was hope.

The day wore on with not much progress on research. Not that they gave up hope. Hardly any of them took a break from the books they were reading.

The day's end was announced to us by the arrival of Spike via the front door sans heavy blanket. His visit had everything to do with borrowing money and nothing to do with helping us with the current situation. No surprise there.

For me, it was okay that he really doesn't care what happens to me. But then he started and wouldn't stop calling me Demon-boy. This just really got my hackles up and involuntarily made me think of Angel. 'Ah Angel, you are avenged. Avenged by bleached freak who will get his ass kicked as soon as I'm allowed to get out of this circle.'

Midnight came once again and I am trying to sleep away from the pain. Giles, Willow, Tara and Anya were still researching while Buffy was patrolling. Suddenly something was twisting inside my head and I sat up, wide-awake. In the same instant I became aware that something was coming and I think of a Star Trek phrase that seemed very appropriate for what I felt, 'resistance is futile and no fun'. I call out to Anya and the rest of the group.

"Someone is coming!"

I know that the Hellmouth was opened for a short second and something came through. The magic field that Willow has placed over me has made me more and more sensitive to the small fluctuations of magic in the Hellmouth. But this was not a small fluxing. This was a huge wave and it felt wonderful, for a second.

Not having spoken for most of the day, Willow, Giles, Tara and Anya were jolted in their seats at the sound of my voice. They all looked up from what they were reading and stood up to come in the training room.

Tara, who was the first to enter, looked at me and asked, "What was that Xander?"

"Something just breached the Hellmouth and it's coming this way."

Giles looked at me, confused. "Something breached the Hellmouth?"

"It opened for only a second. It's closed now."

I haven't even finished what I was saying when Willow picked up the phone to call Buffy. A second later they were already discussing a new patrol route to accommodate the most recent addition to the monster population in Sunnydale.

I looked at my friends and the love of my life. I knew that they would protect me with their lives. 'Friends first before our own hide', that's been our credo since the formation of the Scooby Gang. But the thing that had just gone through the Hellmouth was something they cannot help with. They'll only get hurt. Of course, telling them this will only serve me a plate full of scolding from Willow with a side of Giles' lecture. It's obvious that I have to use cunningly trickery to save them for what is coming, hmm don't have so much cunning so trickery will have to stand on its own, am I afraid.

"Wait, I feel something's wrong with HellMouth. You better check it out now."

Yes, it's a pretty lame line and they didn't buy it for a second either. Willow put her Do-Not-Try-To-Fuck-Around- Me-Xander face on, in her own sweet way and said, "Xander what's wrong?"

Ok, if lying won't work, how about the truth? A radical thought the might just work

"Whatever penetrated the Hellmouth, I know it's only after me. Don't ask me how I know this. I just do. And standing in its way will only get you guys hurt."

Anya looked at me and said, "I don't care what that thing is Xander. I'm not going to leave your side."

Willow smiled at me and said, "You're not alone in this. You have two strong witches and a trained watcher." Seeing Anya's expectant look, she quickly added, "And a very gifted ex-demon."

I noted that Willow didn't comment on what gift Anya had. But Anya beamed happily at Willow anyway. Willow had enough grace to look a little embarrassed at herself.

"And a pissed off Slayer."

The last statement came from Buffy, who ran into the room. She crouched by the circle's edge along with everyone else and gave me a cursory examination. Since I was very much unhurt, externally at least, she breathed a sigh of relief before turning her gaze to Willow.

Despite Buffy's arrival, it was Willow who went commando, barking out orders right and left. For a moment I stared at her, shocked. Willow, my best friend, had changed so much these past years. The shy girl that I met as a child has all been obliterated and replaced by this confident, young woman.

Willow and Tara laid out a protective circle around the circle that was already drawn around me. Buffy went to her weapons chest to find a mean war axe while Giles and Anya readied some crossbows. I, on the other hand, stayed in the circle. Willow was still not certain how stepping out of the circle would affect me.

Then we waited. Nobody said anything. And strange as it may seem, considering the situation, I liked the quiet. I would have even felt a sense peace if it weren't for my concern for Anya and the rest gang.

All of a sudden I felt a shiver run down my spine and I knew that whatever we were waiting for has just arrived. Someone or something knocked on the backdoor, it was not the kind of knocking you expect from a demon. If I were to describe it, I'd say that it was a polite knocking, that you could have expect from your old aunt.

We were all looking rather confused when Tara asked me, "Is it the thing you felt coming, there outside?"

"I think so, what are we going to do?"

But before anybody could answer, the backdoor opened to reveal, of all things, a woman. She looked to be in her mid forties, rather plain looking with shoulder length, black hair and dressed in what seemed to be rather expensive clothes from the thirties. She smiled as she looked in the room. With a soft melodic voice, she asked no one in particular, "May I come in?"

"If we don't invite you, could you enter then?" Giles asked calmly though still obviously surprised to see someone so normal instead of the horrific sight that we were expecting.

"Oh yes. But I always try to be polite Mr. Giles," the still unidentified woman replied as she stepped through the door.

She looked around the room, assessing every person in the room for a short while, until her eyes fell upon me. When I stared back at her, the illusion her of humanity burned away faster than a snowflake thrown in front of a flamethrower. She smiled in a proud and possessive way at me and said, "Hello Xander, I see that you are doing quite well. You have allied yourself with a witch, a wise man and a sorcerer, an infamous ex-vengeance demon and a slayer. I am impressed." She held my gaze for a few more seconds before turning her attention on Anya and said, "Anyanka, I do love your work, frightfully original. We have to do lunch some time."

Anya smiled at the woman and said, "Thank you! I beginning to feel that nobody has really appreciated my old works." Giles, who was beginning to get his bearings, which was more than you could say about me, finally summoned enough nerve to ask, "It's probably a silly question, but are you a demon?"

"Here am I a demon. If you were in my dimension I could probably call you a demon or tasty," she said with such a casual air the belied the small threat that was mentioned in the latter part of her reply.

Giles tried to look like he didn't notice her little end comment and fired his follow up question. "May I ask what kind of demon you are?"

"How can I refuse such a polite request?" she answered with a little smile.

"We are older humanity. I know that doesn't tell much about us, but it is such a good starting line," she said, her eyes lighting up with amusement. She paused for a second as she suppressed a chuckle before continuing with her run down on the characteristics of her species. "We love riddles and some us love also Twinkies. We are collectors. All that is pretty is ours, if we want it. We fiercely protect what's ours. We repay every wrong done to us tenfold. We're the most wonderfully creature in the existence. We are what we are, and we bow to neither good nor evil. The woman's voice changed as she spoke, no longer trying to sound normal anymore. Her tone told us things about herself and her kind that her words did not. They were creatures so ancient that time has lost it's meaning for it. They knew about the perfection of guile and deception before the first monkey had thoughts about stepping down from the trees. The reptile coldness injected in every syllable she uttered told us that what we wanted was irrelevant. To them "Might is Right" and only fools believed otherwise. The transformation in the in the woman's manner was shocking because in just a matter of minutes it was complete. There was nothing human left in the voice. And as fast as it came, she changed back to her former human speech pattern and asked Tara, "What am I little one?"

Tara had turned white and stuttered, "Dr-dragon, enemies of the Goddess."

"Correct, though frankly it is not only your Goddess who has little a problem with us. It is nearly all the Gods and Goddess who have some control problems with us. You've met Glory, so I think you can understand why we wouldn't bow too such Gods." Without turning her head to look at Buffy, who was trying to sneak up behind her, she added, "And Buffy you can lay down that axe. To quote Xander amongst others I think, 'You're gonna need a bigger boat.'"

As I watched the woman act so nonchalantly in the middle of the room, I found myself no longer able to take it anymore. Why couldn't we live quietly without something evil, which thought it would be interesting to take over world or just generally screw around with our lives, just leave us be. They always come here, acting like they were someone big and important, which they were, no doubt. But that doesn't stop me from getting pissed at them. They were all just big bullies, albeit uglier than the regular ones I dealt with in school in the past. But that's all they really were. And how dare they come here and try to take me away. "Ok we get it. You're big and bad, and you threatened us oh so subtlety. Just cut to the chase, all right. What the fuck do you want!"

My sudden outburst caught everyone's attention. The woman turned back to me. "Temper and courage. Nice. But not a lot smarts. Don't worry. That will come with age. That is, if you survive. You're a much better prospect than your father. But we don't normally interfere with our offspring's life. We try to follow the whole concept of 'Free will' and 'let the strongest survive' and all that jazz. But frankly the timing of your birth and the fact that Glory's in this town was really too good to pass up, sorry."

Willow, in the mean time, had been quietly chanting. But when she raised her hand, nothing happened.

Sensing Willow's actions the woman looked at Willow. "It's you who made the design of these circles? Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I think it would have worked too. Too bad I'm on schedule." She honestly looked sincere too as gave the symbols, on the floor, a better look.

"But enough talk. I still have things to do and places to visit. Everybody, except Xander, please stand behind me."

Buffy immediately yelled at the woman, "If you want Xander, you will have to go through us first." She then pasted on her most smug look, silently daring the stranger to try and get past her before heaving the axe she carried in one fluid movement, perfectly executed at slayer speed, towards the woman. The action that followed thereafter was blur to the naked eye. To everyone else, Buffy was standing tall, as tall as five foot woman could anyway, in our midst one second and then laying in the corner behind the woman, with one broken arm, knocked unconscious, the next.

Stunned. That was what we all were. Sensing that asking the whole group to move would only slow down the progress the woman addressed me when she spoke. "Please walk over to Buffy. I really don't want to hurt you but that doesn't mean I won't."

It was hopeless. Anybody who'll try anything will most likely end up dead, not just unconscious. We were fortunate enough that she seem to have no plans to harm anybody else. She only wanted me. That's the most ideal situation we can get and I'm not going to waste the opportunity.

I turned to the rest of the human barricade that had formed between be and the reviled woman. "Guys, I'm sorry for all of this. I."

"Xander, don't!" Willow cried as swayed in front of me, blocking my way out of the protective circle.

"She only wants me, Will. I stay here, we all die," I pleaded to Willow who only shook her head, no longer able to speak as the sobs took over her body.

Strong hands wrapped themselves around Willow's arms and firmly pulled her aside, giving me a clear path to the woman. I looked up and saw that they belonged to Giles. Understanding and overwhelming distraught flooded his eyes as he gave me a small nod and let me pass.

"May I say goodbye to Anya?" The woman seemed rather amused at our little scene. "Go ahead. But don't look so glum. It is not the end of your world, only a change of perspective."

I didn't trust myself to answer. My smart mouth was legendary when it came to screwing things up. Answering back might cost my friends their lives. So I chose to ignore what she said and turned to Anya and embraced her, trying to let her memory fill me.

"Goodbye Anya. I love you."

We both ended up crying in each other's arm, she kept repeating. "It's not fair. It's not fair!"

The woman addressed her, "You should be too old, Anyanka, to expect fairness. Step aside now!"

I gave Anya one last kiss before I pulled her from my body and handed her to Tara's arms.

I stood at the spot where she indicated I stand, after I dragged Buffy from the corner back to the rest of the group, the woman took a deep breath and exhaled in my general direction. This short breath turned into a gale of wind before becoming into a typhoon, blowing every magic ward down, and God it did feel good. Then the woman said a Word. I could hardly find the words describe how its effect felt on my body. Every cell in was changing and multiplying. My conscience was being altered. Everything felt so much simpler. I could even feel myself essence draining away, slowly being replaced by the Hunger.

Shit!