[AN - This is a sequel to Life After Death. It does stand alone, indeed it was written before Life After Death. The only purpose Life After Death fulfils is to explain how certain people became Immortal. Enjoy.]
[AN2 - Not mine. Still.]
"Hey Alex, you know what this is all about?"
Xander shook his head. "Nope, not a clue, Bill. But then they never tell us before hand, do they?"
"Ain't that the truth."
The two friends made their way across the army base to the meeting. They were both members of an elite, highly trained action unit. Xander was one of the best. His ability to survive in the toughest conditions was legendary. None of his team mates knew that he had actually been mortally wounded at least once; he had so far managed to avoid dying in public. If he wasn't Immortal, he would never have lasted this long.
Xander had left Sunnydale six years ago, shortly after he, Buffy and Willow were `killed' in a very public shooting. They had also left, and the three kept in regular contact. Giles, the fourth Immortal in their group, had not been killed, so he had been able to stay, fighting the forces of darkness on the Hellmouth. Buffy and Willow were holding down civilian jobs, working at Angel's private investigation firm, but Xander had joined the army. He still retained all the memories of his costume from Halloween all those years ago, and his Immortal training had also helped. The two combined to make him a deadly force for good.
Of course, he'd had to change his name. If the army found out that Alex Greene was actually Xander Harris, and had died five years ago, he would have a small problem. Just a *small* problem, he thought wryly. It was a good job Willow was so good at computers - she had laid a trail that would fool even the smartest of army investigators.
Entering the meeting room, Xander saw that most of the team was there already. He and Bill were the last there, apart from Major Howett. Taking his seat, Xander listened to the idle speculation around him.
"Ten bucks says the first words out of his mouth are `Gentlemen this is classified information'."
"No way, man, I never bet on a sure thing."
Xander grinned. Major Howett was nothing if not predictable. He didn't blame John for not taking the bet. At that moment, the Major entered the room. Silence descended within thirty seconds. The men all respected Howett, and it showed in their attitudes.
"Gentlemen, what I am about to say will be hard to believe, but I assure you that it is true."
Xander immediately started to worry, though he did spare a thought for John, who was probably regretting not taking that bet. The worry only grew as he listened to his boss speak.
"The government has recently become aware of a new and deadly enemy. You will be trained to fight this enemy. I know you are all excellent fighters, but this enemy requires specialized knowledge. Guns will be useless. This will be hand-to-hand only." The major paused and looked round at the ten men facing him. He picked up a bag and reached inside it. "Your main weapon will be this."
Xander watched as the Major placed a small wooden stake on the table in front of him. He looked at the confusion in his friends faces, and sighed. In the silence around the table, everyone heard the words, muttered in annoyance and a little resignation.
Xander watched incredulously as his new friend, the cute transfer student, beat up on the guys who had kidnapped Willow. Guy who, unless it was a trick of the light, had fangs and horribly disfigured faces, and yellow eyes.
Buffy pulled a small wooden stake from her pocket…
Xander's reverie was interrupted by the sharp words spoken by his boss.
"Would you care to expand on that statement, Mr Greene?" Xander grimaced.
"Not really, sir." He sighed as his boss' face hardened.
"Expand on that statement, Mr Greene." This time it was not a request. Briefly, Xander wondered how to put this without sounding completely insane. He decided on the not-actually-answering-the-question approach. He reached over and picked up the stake.
Xander knew that his team mates were all highly trained. He knew they would recognise the practiced ease with which he held the weapon. Xander ignored their confused looks, just as he ignored the look in the Major's eye which said that he was beginning to suspect Xander's answer. He focused on the stake.
"It could do with being a little longer," he commented absently, "and it's probably not strong enough. This would break if you ever tried to use it on a vampire." On the last word, he looked into the Major's eyes. He saw recognition of the facts he had stated, and no small amount of respect. Xander nodded calmly, returning the respect.
The Major turned his attention back to the nine confused faces at the table.
"Gentlemen, vampires are real. They exist only to kill, maim, and terrify. They are evil. And it is now our job to hunt them. They can be killed by any of the traditional methods - sunlight, beheading, or a stake through the heart. Are there any questions?"
Nobody answered. Xander could imagine their thoughts. `Is this a joke? What's the punch line? Is it April 1st today?' After a few moments, the Major continued.
"Good. In that case, I would like you to meet your instructor in the art of stake-wielding."
He turned to open the door, saying something to whoever was outside. As the person moved closer, Xander felt the Buzz. He stiffened, his eyes on the door. A moment later he relaxed, even before their eyes met, dissipating the Buzz.
"Anne?" he asked, remembering for once to call her by her new name. "You didn't say you were coming here!"
Buffy Summers had visibly relaxed when she saw Xander in the room. Now she grinned wryly. "Neither did you. I'm guessing because this is top secret."
The two laughed. A soft cough interrupted them.
"I take it you two know each other?" The Major seemed amused. "Everyone, this is Anne O'Rourke."
Xander raised an eyebrow at his old friend and mouthed "O'Rourke?". She only grinned. Xander settled back to watch Buffy in action.
Waiting in the ante-room, Buffy paced. She would have preferred to do the preliminaries herself, but the Major seemed to think his men would believe him more readily than they would believe a civilian girl, who didn't look more than 18 years old. She supposed there was probably some truth in that. The higher-ups obviously believed she was the best for the job, otherwise they wouldn't have contacted her, but the soldiers wouldn't understand.
She still didn't know how the army knew about her `night job'. Perhaps some left-over data from the Initiative project. They hadn't seemed to connect her with the Slayer from that time, so they must still believe that Buffy Summers was dead. After all, it was Anne O'Rourke they had contacted.
Buffy looked up from the computer as the door to Angel Investigations opened. Her eyes took in the three obviously military personnel who had entered the office, and she stood up.
"How may I help you?" she asked, warily.
"Ms O'Rourke, I will get straight to the point," began the oldest of the three men. "We need your help. We need someone with your special skills to teach our soldiers how to fight vampires. We need a Slayer."
Buffy wondered how good these soldiers would be. She had been told that they were the best the army had to offer, a secret team of highly trained operatives. Briefly, she wondered if this was the same secret team that Xander was so very carefully *not* mentioning in his letters to her and the others. She hoped it was.
The door to the meeting room opened, and the Major came out.
"We're ready for you now, Ms O'Rourke." Buffy grinned. She was sensing a little disapproval from the stiff Major. She didn't think he liked having to hire a civilian.
"How did they take it?"
"Disbelief, mainly, though one of them seems to have fought vampires before."
Xander! It almost had to be. And when Buffy moved forwards to enter the room, she was even more sure. The Buzz hit her, and she automatically tensed, even as her mind was screaming that it was her friend.
"Good," she said to the Major. "That'll make it easier." As she entered the room, her eyes swept over the ten men assembled there. When she saw Xander, their eyes locked, and she relaxed, the Buzz gone.
"Anne? You didn't say you were coming here!"
Buffy grinned at her friend. It was good to see him again. "Neither did you. I'm guessing because this is top secret."
Laughing with Xander, Buffy felt like dancing for joy. This job would be so much easier with two Immortals training the soldiers.
"I take it you two know each other?" The Major seemed amused. "Everyone, this is Anne O'Rourke."
At Xander's raised eyebrow and mouthed question, she just grinned. The last time they had spoken, Buffy hadn't yet decided on a last name after her most recent `death'.
Turning her attention to the other nine men at the table, she studied their faces. Shock and disbelief were the main themes, with a healthy pinch of scepticism thrown in for good measure. Well they would have to get over that.
"I can imagine what is going through your minds," she started. "I know. I've been there myself. I had about a million questions the first time I saw a vampire. After I was done with the screaming part. But they are real. Anyone wanting a little proof can come with me tonight when I patrol. Today, I find out what your skill level is, and we do a little basic training."
There was a slight stirring among the men, and Buffy immediately knew it's cause. These were the best the army had to offer. They weren't expecting `basic training'. But they were trained mainly with guns. With the exception of Xander, she doubted any one of them could fight a vampire and win.
"Meet me in the training room in half an hour." She turned and walked out, leaving mutterings behind her. She heard someone following her, and looked round to find Xander. He grinned.
"I don't think the idea of `basic training' really appeals to most of the guys," he said. Buffy could tell by the glint in his eyes that he agreed with her assessment of their hand-to-hand skill.
"Xander, it's great to see you again. Letters just aren't the same." Buffy enveloped her friend in a hug. He hugged her back, just as fiercely.
"Well, *Ms O'Rourke*, finally settled on a name, did you?"
"Yeah, you like?" Buffy noticed the Major coming, and switched to professional mode. She knew what name he had been using; unlike her, he had not `died' recently. "Alex, you'd better go get changed. We can catch up later."
Xander glanced round at the approaching Major, and quickly agreed.
"Catch you later, Anne."
Entering the training room, Xander saw that about half of the team was present, and beginning their stretches. He wandered over to Bill and began his own warm up. After a moment, Bill looked up at him.
"So Alex, you know this Anne chick? You actually believe that crap she came out with?" Xander just raised an eyebrow at him.
"I don't think you want her to know that you said that."
"Why not? She's a civvie, she can't be *that* good can she?" Xander rolled his eyes. Bill was a good guy really, but he did have a tendency to believe that all civilians were completely useless.
"Just wait," he told his friend, "you'll see." Bill gave him a sceptical look, and Xander laughed. He went back to the warm up exercises. His friend was going to have a few shocks in the future. The very near future.
When Buffy entered the room, everyone was there. She immediately took charge, reminding Xander of the old days, fighting vampires on the Hellmouth.
"Right, I want everyone at the side of the room. You're going to spar, one pair at a time, so that I can see where your weaknesses are." She produced two sticks for use as weapons. "You will be using these. Let's see what you can do."
As the men moved to do what she said, Buffy picked out two to go first. Xander sat next to the blonde as Bill and Pete moved onto the mats. They traded a few blows, but Xander was more interested in watching Buffy's face. He had seen the team fight before.
The expressions moving across Buffy's face were almost comical. You could see the hope quickly fade to be replaced by disgust and a weary resignation. Buffy was not impressed. Soon she called a halt and changed the fighters. Perhaps she was hoping that it was a fluke, that she had picked the worst two to go first, but Xander knew that she was going to be disappointed.
After three pairs of soldiers, it was Xander's turn. He got up to fight John. Xander strung the battle out for a couple of minutes. He never liked to win too fast, partly because he wasn't supposed to have much experience with swords, and partly because he didn't like to hurt his opponents feelings. Sometimes he even made himself lose. All too soon, however, John was on the floor, Xander's stick poised above his heart.
Xander hadn't even broken a sweat.
As they went back to the benches, he could see the smile on Buffy's face. She knew he had been holding back, he was sure of it. He grinned at her, and she winked back.
One pair of fighters later, Buffy stood up. Xander winced as he anticipated what she was going to say.
"That," she said, in a voice that dripped with disgust, "was terrible."
They spent the next two hours breaking down each fight, discussing what went wrong, and correcting the stances of the `highly trained' soldiers. Buffy even pointed out a few errors in Xander's footwork, just for appearances sake. Xander was careful not to let any of his internal amusement show on his face as he watched the Slayer take one of the most elite teams in the army down a peg or ten.
It was two hours before dinner when she let them go. She told them that if they wanted proof of vampires, they were to meet back there, in civilian clothing, at 9 pm. Xander stayed behind, and they listened in amusement to the groans coming from the changing rooms.
"So, *Alex*, fancy a spar?" Xander noticed the stress Buffy put on his name, and deliberately rose to the bait.
"Are you mocking my name, *Anne*? I shall have to defend it's honour, you know."
"I was hoping you would." Buffy threw him one of the practice sticks, and dropped into a defensive crouch. Xander attacked.
Buffy and Xander were soon so engrossed in their fight that neither of them noticed when the changing room door opened. The sound of clacking sticks had drawn an audience.
Bill looked on in amazement as Alex and Anne fought. No, he decided, this wasn't a fight. This was a dance. A deadly dance. The two fighters were so light on their feet that at times he thought they were floating. They moved in perfect time, attacking, blocking, trying to find an opening. No wonder Anne had been disgusted with them, he thought, if this was the level of opponent she was used to.
And where did Alex learn to fight like that? And, if he was this good, why did he lose so often? Why was he hiding his skill?
Suddenly, Anne grabbed at Alex's stick, and pulled him off balance. She swept her stick towards his neck, stopping just millimetres short.
"That is so not fair," Alex half-heartedly grumbled. "You can't do that with real swords."
"Who said they were real swords, Xand?" Anne was the picture of innocence. Alex muttered something, but Bill couldn't hear what it was. He wondered why Anne was calling Alex, Xand. Bill shifted position slightly, preparing to slip away before they could spot him. He somehow realised that they wouldn't want anyone to have witnessed this.
The floor squeaked under his foot, and the next thing Bill knew, he was the centre of attention.
"How long have you been there?" Anne's face was grim. He was right, they didn't like that he'd seen this. He remembered her fighting skill, and decided to tell the truth.
"Long enough to wonder why Alex loses so often." They both grimaced, and Anne glared at him, making Bill wonder what he had stumbled on. He decided not to mention that he had heard Alex called Xand. Alex sighed.
"You're scaring him, Anne," Alex said. "Bill's not going to tell anyone how good I really am, are you Bill?"
Bill looked into his friend's eyes, and shivered. There was a coldness there that he had never seen before. He shook his head, and the coldness vanished. Bill almost thought he had imagined it.
"Why?" he asked quietly. Alex grinned mischievously, instantly transforming into the man he knew.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Anne giggled, and Bill was surprised how soft a sound it was.
"Think about it, Bill," she suggested. "If Alex won *every* time, how many of you could truly say that you didn't resent him just a little bit?"
She was right, Bill realised. Alex would find it much harder to make friends if he revealed all he knew, and was constantly the winner. There were already a few who resented his ability to get out of the toughest situations without a scratch.
Bill let the understanding show on his face, and was relieved when Alex grinned and threw a companionable arm round his shoulder.
"Let's hit the showers. See you at dinner, Anne."
At 9 pm that night, every single member of the team was in the training room, in civilian clothing. A few of the men were surprised to see Xander there.
"I thought you believed in vampires, Alex? Decided you needed a little proof after all?" John's voice was ever so slightly mocking. Xander grinned, completely unfazed. He knew John would change his tune before the night was out.
"I haven't been on patrol for a while." He shrugged casually. "I thought I'd come for the exercise."
Buffy chose that moment to get everyone's attention. She began passing out crosses and stakes. Most of the team were still sceptical, and shoved the equipment in pockets and places that would be hard to get at in a fight. Xander noticed that Bill cocked his head at Buffy, glanced at him, and stuck the stake in his belt where he could grab it easily. Good. Their little fight had had a useful outcome after all. Bill was beginning to believe them.
When everyone had a stake, they moved off. They quickly entered the local town, and Buffy led the way to the nearest graveyard. Just outside it, Buffy split them into two groups. Bill, John and two others went with Xander, and everyone else went with Buffy.
"Vampires don't attack large groups," she explained. "If we were all together, we wouldn't see a thing. Alex is in charge of the second group." Nobody questioned the change in command structure. "Alex, why don't you go find a nice dark alley? I'll take the graveyard."
Xander led his group away from the graveyard. As they headed towards the bad part of town, he told them to bunch together more.
"Try to look nervous, we're more likely to get lucky that way."
"Alex, you are *way* too cheerful for someone who is *looking* for trouble," grumbled Bill, but they bunched together anyway.
A scream pierced the night, from an alleyway nearby. Xander immediately started running towards the sound.
"Not looking," he said. "Found."
The five men entered the alleyway and stopped. A woman was pinned to the wall, gibbering in terror at the three *things* which surrounded her. Their eyes glowed yellow, their faces were disfigured, and they had fangs. Vampires.
Four of the team simply stared, their mouths hanging open. Xander, however, felt no such desire.
"Hey, Fang-face. Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"
The vampire holding the girl faced him incredulously. Slowly, it smiled. "Like… you?"
Xander shrugged. "It's a start." He waited a moment and, sure enough, the middle vampire ordered the other two to kill him. He attacked. In seconds, two new piles of dust were added to the grime in the alley. A glance at the faces of his team showed him faces which, if possible, were even more astonished than they were before. He turned his attention back to the remaining vampire.
"You going to let her go, or do I have to make you?"
The vampire threw the girl to one side, where she landed in some rubbish. He sneered at Xander. "They were young and stupid. I am not. You will not defeat me." With that, the vampire attacked. Xander soon decided that the vampire was right about one thing - he was better than the other two. But he wasn't good enough.
As the third pile of dust settled, Xander turned to his team. Now that the action was over, they quickly pulled themselves together, though there were still a few shocked faces.
"That was a vampire?" asked John. Xander's answer was sarcastic.
"No, John. It was a gang member on PCP. And turning to dust? Just a trick of the light. Shall we go and see who else is around?" He turned and left the alley, moving deeper into the town, trusting that his team would follow.
They rescued two more people from vampires, and by the second, the whole team had retrieved their stakes from where they had put them. Bill had even staked a vampire, though it was a close run thing. He wasn't nearly prepared for the strength of the beast. After that fight, he had looked at Xander with new respect.
"How can you fight these things, Alex? How do you keep up? I fought one, and I'm exhausted. You've taken seven or eight, and you're hardly affected at all."
Xander laughed wryly, wondering what the reaction would be if he told them the truth, and admitted to having had too many scratches and gouges to count that night. They had healed by the time he reached the next fight each time. No matter how much he did it, he wasn't half as good at vampires as he was at swords.
"Years of long practice, Bill, that's all. And good technique."
They were headed back to the graveyard to meet up with Buffy and her team when they heard the next scream. Running towards it, Xander felt the Buzz of another Immortal and knew that Buffy was coming too. Both teams met up at the entrance to the alley, but they dropped back and let Buffy and Xander in first.
Xander saw five vamps. Two attacked him, and three attacked Buffy. Disposing of his two quickly, Xander watched Buffy finishing off her last one. He noted how her technique had improved since the last time they had patrolled together. Every little movement caused harm to the vampire, and within seconds it was over.
"Nicely done, Ms O'Rourke."
"And the same to you, Mr Greene."
They grinned at each other and returned to the soldiers. Buffy addressed the men.
The next morning, Xander was called to Major Howett's office. He had known this would happen. The Major would want to know how he knew about vampires, and he didn't really have an answer for him. He couldn't tell the truth, since `Alex Greene' had never lived in Sunnydale, or known the Slayer. He wasn't even sure if Howett knew about Slayers, or if he was just using Buffy because he had been told to. He would have to wing it.
Major Howett looked tired, as if he had been up half the night. He probably had. He started just as Xander expected.
"So tell me how you know about vampires, Alex."
"I was attacked by one once. Bu… someone who knew about vampires rescued me, and taught me a little. It seemed sensible to find out as much as I could about them after that." If the Major heard the slip, he didn't mention it. However, his next question was worrying.
"How long have you known Anne O'Rourke?"
Why did he want to know about Buffy? At least the question was easy. No matter how many times Buffy `died', she always kept some things about her past the same.
"Since High School, sir. Why?"
"She reminds me of someone I met once. Someone who was not called Anne O'Rourke." He changed the subject abruptly. "I haven't seen her fight yet. Hiring her was not my idea. Is she any good?" Major Howett's eyes were piercing, as if he was looking for a reason to disbelieve him. Xander could see that Major Howett was not a fan of hiring someone who looked like they should be in college to train an elite group of soldiers. At least that answered that question.
"The best. I've not met a single person who could beat her."
Major Howett raised an eyebrow sceptically.
"Will she tell anyone about this group?"
"Absolutely not, sir. You can trust Anne."
"Thank you, Alex. You're dismissed."
Xander turned and left the office, thankful that it was over. He did not really enjoy lying to his boss, but he knew it was necessary. He was a little worried about Howett's suspicion of Buffy. Was it possible that they had met before? He would ask Willow to look into it. She could hack into the military's records, ones that he wasn't allowed to access.
Heading back to the training room, he rejoined the rest of the team just as they finished warming up.
For the next two weeks, life settled into a routine. They trained in the morning, learned about different types of demons in the afternoon, and in the evening they went on patrol. To start with, they patrolled in two groups, but as they got better at fighting vampires they cut the teams down to pairs, and took a night each.
Xander phoned Willow and asked her about hacking into the records. A few days later, she phoned back, sounding worried.
"Xander, Major Howett has an amazing record. He's been commended more times than I can count. But what worried me were the gaps. I hacked a bit more, and finally managed to find the top secret version of his file. Xander, he was one of the soldiers in the Initiative."
"Uh oh." Xander was really worried now. "What if he recognises Buffy? He's already suspicious. For that matter, what if he recognises me?"
"I don't think so, Xand. If he was going to, he would have by now. Besides, Buffy spent a lot more time there during the non-fighting parts. And she was practically a celebrity, being the Slayer and all. It's more likely that he would remember her."
"You're right, Wills. We just need to keep him away from her as much as possible. Thanks. Are you coming up here any time soon? I miss you, you know."
Willow giggled. "I miss you too, Xand, but Angel, Cordy and I have my hands full at the moment, especially without Buffy. We seem to be having some sort of undead fiesta."
"Oh, well. Talk to you soon, Wills."
"Don't lose your head, Xander."
Hanging up the phone, Xander went looking for Buffy. He found her in the training room, doing sword exercises. When he entered and felt her Buzz, she didn't stop moving.
"Hi Xander," she said, without turning around.
"Show off," he complained. Buffy, being the Slayer as well as Immortal, could actually distinguish between the Buzzes of people she'd met. She'd even discovered that they felt slightly different if the Immortal was with someone. "I just got off the phone with Willow." This time she did stop. She turned to face him, her face curious.
"What did she say?"
"We have a problem. Major Howett was, in his younger days, a member of the Initiative."
"Uh oh," said Buffy.
"Yeah. And he's already suspicious, remember? You need to avoid him as much as possible."
"Agreed. Now how about a fight? I know you're bored with winning so easily." Xander grinned at her. She was right, he was bored.
"I would suggest a fight to the death, but then we'd have to clear up the blood."
Buffy laughed. "You're just lazy, Xand. But let's keep this gentle. I wouldn't want anyone to walk in and find you dying."
"*Me* dying? What about *you* dying?" And with that, battle was joined.
Buffy managed to avoid Major Howett almost completely for those two weeks. But then she got a call from Angel.
"Hi, honey. How's unlife?" She heard a growl over the phone line, and giggled.
"Much as I'd like to tell you all about the many demons I've been hunting, this isn't a social call."
Buffy sighed. "Which major demon, prophesy or other disaster is it this time? Do you need me to come back and help?"
"No, but we might need to come there. The demon is going to rise in New York. It's a big one, Buffy. Is that crack team of army guys ready yet?" Despite what Xander had told Major Howett, Buffy had told Angel, Cordelia and Willow all about the job she was doing. She knew they wouldn't tell anyone, but there was no way she was keeping secrets from them.
"Just about, I suppose. They can deal with vampires fairly well, but they're not ready for the big guns yet. I think you'd better come down. We can do the demon while they keep it's minions off our backs. I assume it will have minions?"
"Buffy, they *always* have minions. We'll drive down tonight. We should be there by late morning, early afternoon."
"Ok, I'll see you then. I love you."
"I love you too. Watch your head."
Buffy looked over at Xander. He was pretending not to listen to her conversation, but she knew he had been. He glanced up from his book.
Buffy knocked on Major Howett's door. She schooled her expression so that none of the worry she felt was reflected in it, and entered his office. The Major was sitting behind a large desk, scattered with papers. He was leaning back in his chair, relaxed. What Buffy said made him sit up straight and frown.
"Major, your little team of soldiers are about to be put to the test. I just learned that a major demon is about to rise in New York. I have some help coming in, but we're going to need someone to distract the demon's priests."
"Help? What sort of help?"
"Some friends of mine. Don't worry, they're all excellent fighters and won't tell a soul about this little set up. We'll need to move fairly fast once they're here. We still need to find the exact base of operations."
The Major sighed. This young lady had obviously done this before. He felt out of his depth. "You're the expert, Ms O'Rourke. Do whatever you need."
"Thank you, Major." Buffy turned to leave, but the Major stopped her.
"Ms O'Rourke, have you ever been to Sunnydale?"
Buffy blinked in surprise at the abruptness of the question. She hadn't expected him to be so blunt about his suspicions, if he brought them up at all.
"No," she replied, hoping he couldn't tell she was lying. "But I grew up in LA." With a city that size, even if he did want to check it would take him days. "Why do you ask?"
"I can't shake the feeling I've met you before." He shrugged, dismissing the issue. Buffy left quickly, relieved at her close escape.
Before training began the next morning, Buffy called for the team's attention.
"Gentlemen, as soon as a few people arrive, we are going on a field trip. Therefore, I won't be pushing you as hard this morning. You all need to be in top condition for tonight."
"Where are we going, Anne?" asked Bill.
"New York. A demon will be rising there tomorrow night, and we need to go early to find it's base of operations."
After that, Buffy directed their attention towards the practice mat. There were a few half-hearted groans, but none of then really meant it. They had all grown to respect Anne O'Rourke and her fighting ability.
A few hours later, as they were about to break for lunch, both Buffy and Xander tensed as they felt the combined Buzz of multiple Immortals. Buffy relaxed quickly, her enhanced senses telling her that it was their friends. She glanced at her watch. They must have driven very fast to get here that quickly, she thought.
She didn't stop what she was doing until the door opened and her friends walked in, preceded by Major Howett. After all, she didn't want any questions concerning how she knew they were coming.
"Hi guys!" As she moved towards them, her eyes took in all the minute details that you notice when you have been separated for a while. She saw Angel's pallor. That at least was nothing new. She glimpsed Cordelia's immaculate appearance. How she kept looking that way while nightly fighting the forces of darkness, Buffy never knew. Willow had cut her hair again, and was still bubbling over with joy at life.
Giving Angel a quick kiss, she turned to the men on the mats. She saw a little disappointment, quickly masked, in several faces. At that, she smiled. She knew some of the men had been hoping to steal her away from the boyfriend who was so conveniently not here. Xander had told them that she had someone, but it seemed that he'd conveniently forgotten to mention the marriage part.
"I'd like to introduce some friends. This is Cordelia Chase, Rose Irving, and Angel O'Rourke, my husband." Rose Irving was Willow's new name, since she had `died' in Sunnydale. "You'll have a chance to meet them properly on the way into New York. For now, go and get your things and load up the van."
The men obediently trooped out of the room, leaving Buffy and the new arrivals alone with Major Howett. The Major looked more than a little displeased.
"Ms O'Rourke, aren't these people a little young to be expert fighters?" He might have accepted Buffy, but he still considered her an isolated case. Buffy and Willow caught each other's eyes, both thinking along the same lines.
"How about a demonstration?" suggested Willow. The Major nodded, and stood back to watch, obviously not expecting much from this small, quiet girl. Willow quickly stripped off a layer of clothing and did a few stretches. Then she cocked her head at Buffy. Buffy handed her one of the practice sticks they had been using, and the two fell into defensive positions.
The fight was long and complex. There was no doubt by the end of it that Willow was a good fighter. She didn't win, but she held her own for a good twenty minutes before she finally caved. Howett was impressed.
"Ms Irving, I apologise. That was incredible. I've not seen any of the men keep up with Anne for that long." Needless to say, Major Howett had not seen Buffy fighting Xander.
"Apology accepted, Major. Appearances can be deceiving. Will you be coming with us to New York?"
"Unfortunately, no, I have some matters to attend to here. I have no small amount of respect for Anne's ability, however. I'm sure she will do an admirable job of leading the men." He led her friends back outside, and Buffy headed to her room.
Quickly gathering her things together, Buffy joined the others outside. Xander was with Bill beside the van. They fell silent as she approached. Before she could ask what was wrong, Xander grinned.
"What did the Major think of our friends?"
"He was a little sceptical at first, but Rose and I had a fight, and that convinced him."
Xander chuckled. "I've seen you and Rose fight. I'd have been surprised if you *hadn't* convinced him. You owe me ten bucks," he added to Bill.
Buffy raised an eyebrow enquiringly.
"We had a bet on whether you could persuade the Major that they were any good within half an hour."
Bill grimaced. "I lost."
"Let this be a lesson to you, my friend. Never bet against Anne." Laughing, they got into the van.
In the van, the team was gathered. Cordelia was driving, so that all of the soldiers could get to know Angel and Willow before they tried to fight alongside them. They would have a training session the next morning, in New York, for the same reason. Tonight's job was to find the demon base of operations.
When they arrived in New York they checked into a hotel. Buffy left the men to settle in and get the equipment ready, and went vampire hunting with Angel. They were only five minutes from the hotel when Buffy sensed the first vampire. Together, they snuck up on the beast and pinned him to a wall.
"Big demon," said Buffy. "Where?" The vampire spat in her face.
"That wasn't polite," she complained to Angel. "I don't like it when they're not polite." On the last word she punched the vampire. Hard.
A few minutes later a grumpy Slayer and her vampire husband stalked from the dark alley, muttering about stubborn demon-loving vampires.
"Let's try plan B," he suggested.
The next vampire Buffy sensed was heading towards a bar. Angel followed her in, while Buffy waited outside. Half an hour later, Buffy emerged from the alley which she had visited when she got bored just as Angel left the bar.
"I found it. A drunk vampire is a talkative vampire, especially if they think the are going to get a new recruit out of it."
Back at the hotel, Buffy gathered the team in one room and explained the battle plan.
"The demon is going to rise in the football stadium. Angel, Rose, Alex and myself will fight the main demon. Everyone else will deal with the demon's priests, worshippers and general hangers-on. Try to incapacitate any humans, but kill if you must. There will be hostages for the demon to eat when it rises. Take out any guards first, in case they kill the prisoners. Any questions?"
"How long will we have?"
"The demon will rise at midnight, and will be invulnerable for five minutes. We go in at half past eleven. Hopefully by the time the demon arises, there will be too few of it's followers left to stop us killing it.
"Get some sleep, people. You're going to need it."
Bill watched Anne and her people leave, taking Alex with them. Then he turned his attention to what John was saying. He heard similar comments all over the room.
"Why does Alex get to fight the big one? That's favouritism, that is. He's no better than the rest of us - I beat him half the time, why can't I go instead?"
Bill knew that Alex was better than they knew, but the others were losing confidence in Anne's ability to pick the best men for the job. If they didn't trust her now, they wouldn't trust her in the fight, and that could be lethal. Excusing himself, he went in search of Anne.
He found her with Alex, Rose and Angel. As he entered the room, they all looked up, and tried to hide what they were doing. Bill didn't know why they bothered. He was used to people cleaning weapons before a fight, even if it wasn't usually swords. He said as much, and Anne blushed.
"I guess it's instinctive. Most of the people I know wouldn't be so calm about it. What can I do for you?"
"Oh. Uh, the others are a little worried about you choosing Alex to fight with you. They still think he's no better than they are. They're starting to lose confidence in you."
"Oh dear, maybe it wasn't such a good idea for you to lose so often, Alex. How can we fix that?"
"We're going to train in the morning anyway. Why don't you and Alex have a fight? That should convince them." Bill's suggestion was a good one, and Buffy nodded.
"Thank you, Bill. I guess I'm just not used to leading so many men who don't know each other completely. It's a hazard of keeping the same friends for years."
Bill returned to the others, telling them that he had met Anne in the corridor and she had told him not to be late for practice the next morning. It wasn't long before they were all in bed.
The hotel they were staying in had a large gym in the basement, with enough floor space for a light training session. As Bill approached it the next morning with John and two of their team mates, they heard the sound of swords clashing. Not the clack of wooden practice swords, but the clear bright sound of real metal. Bill frowned - surely they wouldn't risk hurting each other this close to the battle, would they? He knew they were good, but accidents happen, even to the best.
Stepping through the doorway, Bill saw that they *were* fighting with swords, and it was even more beautiful a dance than the one he'd observed just after Anne's arrival. The two fighters were one with their weapons, flowing effortlessly from one move to the next. Bill sighed. He would never be that good.
John wasn't as observant. He didn't notice that Alex was holding the sword as if it was a part of him, didn't see that Alex was keeping up with Anne. He only saw that they were fighting, with real swords.
"Are they nuts?" he asked fiercely. "She'll kill him! He won't be able to fight tonight after this."
Bill couldn't help it. He burst out laughing. "John, look at them *Really* look. Alex is a lot better than he let on. Ok, he's not winning, but neither is Anne."
John's eyes narrowed, and he began to look more closely at the fight. After a moment he nodded, reassured. The four soldiers stood there watching until the rest of the team was assembled. Each member was amazed as they entered, and several of them commented loudly, but nothing seemed to startle the fighters. They kept up the battle until everyone was there, and then they stopped. There was no warning; they just sheathed their swords, and that was it.
They showed no surprise when they saw the team staring at them. Bill hadn't been sure they even realised they were there, but he now knew that they had been aware of every comment that was made. Anne raised an eyebrow.
"What are you all staring at? Start stretching!"
Suddenly Alex cracked up. He laughed so hard that he bent double. Anne looked at him oddly, and he managed to wheeze out the reason for his amusement.
"I'm sorry, but the looks on their faces!" After a moment, Anne began to chuckle too, and then Bill joined in. Alex's comment was just what was needed to break the men out of their shock. They were intelligent men, and once they knew the reason Alex had hidden his skill, they quickly settled into the routine of morning exercises.
It was half past eleven. The football stadium was brightly lit; the light came not from the floodlights, but from thousands of fires, candles and torches. Vampire priests were chanting, setting up a low background noise that could be heard even over the whimpers of the human sacrifices who were cowering at one end of the pitch. They were guarded by ten of the toughest-looking vampires most of the team had ever seen. After taking in the situation, Buffy described the plan in more detail.
"John, Bill, Cordelia, Pete and Alex, you free the humans. The rest of us will make a start on the priests. Came and join us when you're done, we'll probably need the help. Then, as soon as the vampires are gone, everyone leaves except those of us who will fight the demon. On *no* account come back inside the stadium. If we win, we will come out. If we lose, you would be going to your deaths. Questions?" A pause. "Good. Let's go."
Fourteen silent pairs of feet moved towards the entrance to the stadium. Inside the building they split up, five of them moving towards the players entrance, the others towards the seating. As soon as the vampires were distracted by the attempt to free their prisoners, they swarmed over the barrier and onto the pitch.
To say the vampires were surprised would be an understatement. For the first minute it was slaughter. Then one of the vampire priests took charge, and the fight began in earnest.
Xander glanced around in the first spare second he had since the fight had started. The vampires guarding the human prisoners were all dead except one, and even as he watched that one was slain. Gesturing towards the exit, he exercised his parade-ground voice, the one that gained instant obedience from anyone who heard it.
"Everybody *out*! Don't stop until you're outside the building. Pete and John, go with them and make sure they make it."
The civilians jumped to their feet and fled. They were terrified of their captors, and glad of the rescue. The two soldiers Xander had named went first with stakes held at the ready in case there were more vampires hiding nearby.
Xander led the two remaining members of his team to help fight the priests. Within moments he was too busy to worry about anyone else. He was completely focused.
The next break in the fighting showed Xander a welcome sight. The number of vampires was greatly reduced, and each person now had only two opponents, instead of the five they began with. Less welcome was the number of injuries the men had sustained. Several were limping, and Cordelia had a nasty gash across one shoulder. None of the Immortals were severely hurt; they were better trained and more experienced with vampires than the soldiers.
Soon the battle was over, and no vampires remained. However they still had the demon to worry about. Even without the priests, it would be able to enter this world. The lack of priests and more importantly, sacrifices, would only achieve one thing. It would be angry.
Glancing at his watch, Xander saw that it was only five minutes until midnight. Quickly he ordered the mortals outside. Buffy reminded them of her orders.
"Remember, no matter what happens, *do not* enter this building again. We'll meet you outside."
As the troops obediently trudged out of the stadium, Xander looked at his friends. They were all calm on the surface, but if you looked deeper you could see an undercurrent of worry and possibly fear in all of them. Willow was retying her hair again and again. Buffy and Angel were sitting together, their hands tightly clutched together. Xander sighed when he caught himself inspecting his sword for the tenth time, his own sign of uneasiness.
"I could come to hate football stadiums," remarked Buffy, breaking the silence that had fallen.
The noise intruded on her awareness suddenly. It was not so much a noise as a low vibration which shook her body to it's very core. There was something else, though. Her Slayer senses were humming in time with the noise. Buffy let go of Angel's hand and stood up, drawing her sword.
She was aware of the others assuming defensive positions, but her attention was focused on a spot in the centre of the pitch. All her senses were telling her that this was the place where the demon would rise.
Bill stood with the other soldiers and Cordelia. He didn't know why Cordelia had been left out of the demon-fighting group. From what he had seen of her she was as skilled as the others. He asked her, just to fill the time and silence, and to keep his mind off what was happening inside. Her reply intrigued him.
"They're a lot harder to kill than I am." She didn't seem to be at all worried about her friends. Shrugging it off, Bill assumed she meant that they were better fighters. Unable to keep his attention away from the football stadium, his eyes returned to the dark entrance.
Suddenly, Bill was aware that something was different. It took him a moment to realise what it was. There was no noise. All the time they had been out here, there had been roars, grunts and the occasional howl. He listened more carefully. Nothing. They must have won, or the demon would be making more noise. There was no way it would be this quiet unless it was dead.
Five minutes later, there was still no sign of the four warriors. Bill was beginning to worry. He wanted to check if they were still alive. They could be injured too badly to come out. He stood up.
"Where are you going, Bill?" Frowning in the darkness, Bill debated how to answer. They were under specific orders not to go back into the building, but he had to know if his friends were alright. He and Alex had been in dangerous situations times too numerous to count, and they had gotten through them by depending on each other. He might not have known the others for as long, but they were Alex's friends, and he wouldn't abandon them.
"I'm going to, you know." He gestured towards the trees behind them, away from the stadium. He could almost hear the blush in Cordelia's voice.
He made his way into the trees, and then circled around as quietly as he could. The trees came very close to the stadium, and Bill slipped into the shadows by the wall. His dark clothing blended in well, and he slipped in through the service entrance.
Still moving as quietly as he could, he moved deeper into the stadium, towards the pitch. Coming out near the player's entrance, Bill kept to the shadows. He told himself that he was hiding in case there were any more vampires, or in case the demon had won after all, but when he saw the four warriors and didn't move out into the open, he knew the real reason. He didn't want Anne to know that he was disobeying her direct order. He had come to have a great respect for the small blonde girl, and the thought of her disappointment was too much to bear.
That settled, Bill turned his attention to the people before him. Rose seemed fine. She was sitting quietly, cradling something in her lap. When he looked closer, he realised that it was a head. Alex's head. His friend was stretched out on the floor, and he was still. Too still. If he was hurt badly enough to lie down, he should be in some sort of pain, and he would be moving a little, trying to find the most comfortable position to lie in. Alex was so still, it looked like he wasn't even breathing.
Bill stopped that train of thought. Not breathing? He looked closer, and his fear was confirmed. Alex was dead. Pushing aside the thought for a moment - he would deal with it when the shock wore off - he focused on the other pair. They were in a similar position, Anne cradling her husband's prone body. Unlike Rose and Alex, however, there was nothing quiet about them. Angel was moaning softly as he poured blood from many deep wounds, and Anne was practically shouting at him. Bill could even make out a few words here and there.
"…unless you feed… bite me! …mean it, Angel… die…"
Frowning his puzzlement, Bill watched as Anne pulled Angel's head to her neck. At first he thought Angel had died, and she was clasping him in grief, but then he saw something shocking. Angel's face *changed*, and he growled as he bit into Anne's neck. Angel was a vampire! And he was going to kill Anne. Forgetting his earlier determination to stay hidden, Bill burst from the shadows and ran towards the small group.
When he was half way to them, Rose saw him. She jumped up, dropping Alex's head on the floor with a thud. He tried to brush past her and stop Angel killing his wife, but she caught his arm. She was surprisingly strong.
"What are you doing? Let me go! He's going to kill her!"
"Yes, he probably is." Rose's voice was calm, and she didn't relax her grip. "He needs the blood, or he will die. This way, they both survive."
"Huh? But he's going to kill her! How can she survive? And how can you just accept it like this? She's your friend, for Pete's sake!" Bill was shouting so loudly at Rose that he missed the sudden gasp for air that came from behind him. He even missed the muttered "I hate this part". He didn't know that Xander was getting to his feet and assessing the situation. But there was no way he could miss the hand on his arm and the reassuring, yet shocking, voice which spoke from beside him.
"Don't worry, Bill, Buffy'll be fine."
For the first time in his life, Bill Appleby, highly trained operative for the United States Army, fainted.
Xander looked down at the crumpled form of his friend, and then up at Willow.
"He took that well, don't you think?"
The first thing Bill was aware of was the ground. It was hard and cold. Then he saw Alex crouching over him, and the events of the past few minutes came crashing back.
"Y… you're dead! You weren't breathing!"
Alex looked slightly embarrassed, but before he could say anything Bill remembered something else.
"Anne! He's killing her!" He struggled to his feet in time to see Angel tenderly place Anne's head on the ground and stand up, fully healed of all his wounds. Bill felt a rush of anger towards the vampire, that he should be healed while Anne was dead. He tried to charge at the vampire, but Alex and Rose held him back.
"Bill! Buffy'll be *fine*. Angel's a good vampire." Alex sounded mildly exasperated.
"There's no such thing." Anne had been telling them for weeks that there was no such thing as a good vampire, that they were all evil. And now she was *married* to one!
"He has a soul," said Rose gently.
"It's a whole gypsy curse thing," Alex put in with a grin.
"Oh." Bill blinked as he realised what Alex had said. "Who's Buffy?"
Rose directed a reproachful look at Alex, and sighed. "Anne's Buffy."
"Anne's Buffy? Why is Anne Buffy?" Bill's attention was suddenly captured by movement and he lost Rose's answer. He stared incredulously as Anne took in a sudden gasp of air and sat up.
"But, but, but…" Anne looked at him and sighed.
"I thought I told you to stay outside. How did you persuade Cordelia to let you come in?"
"I didn't. She doesn't know. Why aren't you dead?"
"I'm Immortal. So are they." She pointed at Rose and Alex. "Angel, as I'm sure you noticed, is a vampire. But don't tell anyone."
Don't tell anyone? She just entrusted him with the biggest secret he had ever heard, and she told him not to tell anyone? It was incredible! How could somebody be Immortal?
"Buffy," he began hesitantly, "why are you Anne?"
"Same reason as Willow is Rose and Xander is Alex. I was shot, rather publicly. We didn't think it would be terribly sensible to keep the same names." Alex was Xander? Of course, when Anne had just arrived and was fighting Alex, she called him Xand. It made sense now.
"So, you can't die? Are there others like you? Can anyone become Immortal?" Now that he had processed the information, Bill was full of questions.
"Only if you cut off our heads, yes, and no. Can we save the questions for a time when we're a little less tired? The others are going to start wondering what has happened to us."
Bill nodded, and felt a sudden need to reassure his friends. He was still a little wary of Angel, but the others were still the same people as they had been before. They were his friends.
"Don't worry, I won't tell anyone." Buffy nodded, and Alex clapped him on the shoulder.
"I knew you wouldn't."
Picking up their scattered weapons, Buffy, Angel, Willow and Xander followed Bill to the exit.
It had been three days since the battle with the demon, and the five friends had only just had a chance to sit down and properly talk. Now they were sitting in a quiet corner of the village pub where no-one could overhear them, and they were telling him everything. He gave voice to his feelings.
"That is some story." Bill's head was reeling. Immortals, the Game, the Quickening, duels to the death. It almost defied belief, but here were his friends, living proof. "First demons, now this. It's a wonder my head isn't exploding."
A few people chuckled, but then Xander had to spoil the mood. He spoke the fatal words, that guaranteed a new adventure, one even more deadly than this.
"What else could possibly happen?"
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