Chapter 1 – The Pack
Xander watched the Zebra's mate with an oddly forlorn look. Not that he was reminiscing about zebras or sex, because he was inexperienced with both. Not both as in at the same time because that would just be sick and wrong and- Xander ignored the zebras and their humping. Xander's thoughts returned to Jesse and how much fun he would have had teasing Willow and her red face as she watched nature in action. Xander grinned at that thought.
"Too real for ya, Wills?"
"They shouldn't let them do that there are small children here and they could be traumatized and scarred for life or begin to engage in dangerous perversions or go down a criminal path because of being confronted with the imagery of animals rutting in heat before their minds are mature enough to comprehend it!"
"I think you're supposed to use more punctuation than that Willow. Besides, it's not like we didn't watch things like that on the discovery channel when we were little kids. Ergo, my initial question." Xander smirked at Willow as she goggled at him. Didn't think he'd actually use that word of the day calendar she gave him did she?
"You do use it!" Willow's smile lit up the already sunny day. Xander was struck for a moment with how pretty she looked. Xander's brain froze. Willow was pretty? Well, damn, she was pretty!
"Of course. Did you doubt my veracity?" Xander tasted the word as he spoke it. Veracity was as manly a word for truth as he'd ever heard. Willow's smile seemed to grow even larger and brighter, if Xander's sudden urge to blink was to be believed. Over Willow's shoulder Xander spotted Buffy looking at the plaque in front of the elephant exhibit. "Look, there's Buffy." Xander jogged over to his blonde friend. "Hey! Buffy!"
Buffy turned to find her friends coming over. Still feeling sad over her encounter with Kyle and his band, Buffy was only able to muster a weak smile for her friends.
"You missed it!" Willow didn't notice her less than peppy demeanor. Xander caught Buffy's look while she was facing Willow. He'd plastered enough phony smiles on his own face to recognize one on someone else.
"Missed what?" Buffy asked.
"We just saw the zebras mating!" Xander nodded to Willow, who had spotted the action in the Zebra pen. "Thank you, very exciting..."
"It was like the Heimlich, with stripes!" Willow seemed to have gotten over her disapproval of the Zebra's mating in public.
"And I missed it. Yet somehow I'll find the courage to live on."
"Where were you?" Willow asked.
"Uh, I was looking at the fishes."
"Was it cool?" Buffy turned to Willow, not believing that the question was sincere until she saw Willow's earnest face.
"It was fishes," Buffy said dryly. Xander finally twigged onto why Buffy was feeling down. It was probably her calling. If anyone needed a will to live, it was Buffy. If she started feeling down to the point that she didn't fight her hardest… okay, it was time for the Xan-Man to step in with a good dose of humor. He took a few quick steps to get slightly in front of Buffy.
"I'm feelin' that you're not in the field trip spirit here." Buffy looked at him for a moment before she suddenly found herself speaking.
"Well, it would- it's nothing, I… We do the same zoo trip at my old school every year. Same old, same old." It wasn't the truth, but she didn't want to drag her two friends down with her.
"Buffy, this isn't just about looking at a bunch of animals. This is about not being in class!" Xander knew this would work. After all, it was the reason he loved the Zoo trip. Buffy's smile told him that he had struck pay dirt.
"You know, you're right! Suddenly the animals look shiny and new."
"Gotta have perspective." Xander looked over his two friends and their beaming faces. A point for the class clown and double score for advanced vocab, the Xan-Man was on a roll!
Buffy, Willow and Xander watched as Kyle and his gang forced Lance under the yellow tape and into the Cat House exhibit.
"What are Kyle and his buds doing with Lance?" Willow was worried. Lance was a fellow geek and Kyle, Tor, Rhonda and Heidi were nothing but trouble.
"Oh, playing with him as a cat plays with a mouse." Xander started to psyche himself up. He knew he would have to be the one to save Lance in order to help Buffy keep her secret identity secret. Kyle and Tor talked a tough game but after having fought and won against vampires night after night- okay, fought and survived against- alright! Managed to not get totally destroyed by vampires night after night, Kyle couldn't be that bad.
"What is it with those guys?" Buffy asked.
"They're obnoxious. Professionally." Willow said.
"Well, every school has 'em. So, you start a new school, you get your desks, some blackboards and some mean kids," put in Xander.
"Yeah, well, I'd better extract Lance before-" Buffy began moving forward until Xander's hand shot out in front of her.
"I'll handle it. This job doesn't require actual slaying." Xander ducked under the tape and jogged into the Cat House. Buffy and Willow turned to each other.
"You don't think we should follow?" Buffy was worried about Xander being able to defend himself from the four bullies.
"Kyle and those guys are jerks, but they're all talk." Willow tried to reassure Buffy until she remembered some of the more disturbing rumors about Kyle and Tor. "Mostly."
"Why don't we..." Buffy tilted her head to the exhibit.
"Yeah, why don't we?"
Almost as soon as they ducked under the tape they were caught by a zookeeper.
"Oh, hold it, hold it, are you blind, or are you just illiterate? Because hyenas are very quick to prey on the weak," the zookeeper told them.
"Oh, w-we were just gonna take..." Buffy hedged.
"You're not going in there. Anyone that does is in a world of trouble."
"No, no one's going in there," Willow said as she and Buffy scrambled out. They couldn't afford to get into trouble, especially on a field trip.
"Why is it off-limits?" Buffy asked.
"It's a quarantine. There are hyenas in there that just came in from Africa, so keep out." He paused. "Even if they call your name."
"What are you talking about?" asked Buffy
"The Masai tribesmen told me that hyenas are capable of understanding human speech. They follow humans around by day, learning their names. At night, when the campfire dies, they call out to a person. Once they separate him, the pack," he snapped his fingers, "devours them."
"Oh, is that all," said a very disturbed Willow. The zookeeper didn't catch her subtle sarcasm.
"Well, there is that, and the fact that lions are mortal enemies of hyenas. Both groups have been really revved up since they came into close proximity. We've been trying to figure out how to move them for a while now. The board won't let us just tranq' the animals and the animals aren't letting anyone get close to them. At least, not without losing a body part or two."
The hyenas yipped wildly. In an enclosure next to them, a lion stalked back and forth, tossing his mane every few steps. The lion was visibly disturbed by all the activity around it. Xander rushed in to find Kyle and Tor trying to force Lance's head closer to the bars. Xander ran up to Lance and tossed Tor away from him, causing Tor to fall to the floor. He pulled Kyle's arms off of Lance and moved Lance aside in order to face off directly with Kyle.
"Why don't you pick on somebody your own species?" Xander said.
"What, are you gonna get in my face?" challenged Kyle.
The hyenas chose that moment to growl, pulling the attention of everyone except Xander, who was focused on Kyle. The hyenas' eyes flashed green, followed by Kyle and his gang's eyes all flashing green. The lion roared as soon as the four human's eyes flashed green, which made Xander turn to look at him. The roar seemed to shake the room. Xander looked into the lion's eyes as they flashed gold.
From above, a Masai ceremonial circle could be seen painted on the floor, extending into the hyena pen. The circle also extended onto the lip of the lion's pen. A single drop of paint seemed to have traced its way over the lip and into the enclosure.
Lance stumbled over a chair as the lion roared. The four bullies turned around and laughed at Lance as he fell. Lance rose, grabbed his sketchbook and ran out. Xander turned around to make sure Lance escaped and his eyes flashed a golden color. The four bullies immediately jumped away from Xander as he turned back around. A deep growling sound, a lion's growl, emanated from Xander as he glared at the four bullies.
Buffy ordered a croissant and a coke. Grabbing her order, she and Willow sat themselves at an unoccupied table. Willow glanced around the Bronze but did not find Xander.
"I thought Xander would be here by now," she said.
"Hmm, that'd make him on time. We couldn't have that!" Buffy wasn't as worried. Xander was late to everything.
"Did he seem upset at all on the bus back from the zoo?" Willow had asked Xander what happened back in the Cat House, especially after they had seen Kyle and his gang running away. Xander's succinct reply of "scared 'em" was strange, even for Xander.
"About what?" Buffy had enjoyed the rest of the trip and was glad that Xander hadn't been hurt confronting the bullies. In fact, Xander had earned some points for saving the day.
"I dunno. He was quiet." Willow knew that was truly not-Xander behavior.
"I didn't notice anything." Buffy grinned at the chance to tease her friend. "But then again I'm not as hyperaware of him as, oh, say, for example, you."
"Hyperaware?" Willow asked, confused.
"Well, I'm not constantly monitoring his health, his moods, his blood pressure..."
"130 over 80!" Willow replied with a grin.
"You got it bad, girl!" Buffy laughed.
"He makes my head go tingly. You know what I mean?"
"I dimly recall." Buffy's last attempt at dating had been the disaster with Owen.
"But it hasn't happened to you lately?" Willow asked in disbelief.
"Not of late." Buffy wondered if it ever would.
"Not even for a dangerous and mysterious older man whose leather jacket you're wearing right now?" Willow asked with a teasing smile.
"Goes with the shoes!" Buffy replied in indignation.
"Come on, Angel pushes your buttons. You know he does." Willow wondered why Buffy wasn't considering Angel.
"I suppose some girls might find him good looking..." Buffy glanced at Willow and saw the skeptical look Willow aimed at her "...if they have eyes, alright, he's a honey, but... it's just he's never around, and when he is, all he wants to do is talk about vampires, and... I, I just can't have a relationship-"
"There he is!" Willow exclaimed, pointing over Buffy's shoulder.
"Angel?" Buffy asked as she turned.
Xander felt strange. In many ways he felt good, very good. He felt better than he had in his entire life in fact. He'd felt weird since his confrontation with Kyle. Xander still couldn't believe he had intimidated them into running away. Afterwards, he was assaulted with odd sensations. His senses seemed to be acting strangely, like someone had given them a boost but hadn't told him. The sensations made him feel disoriented.
As he stepped into his house the stale stench of alcohol and sweat and puke almost made him vomit. Covering his nose, he made his way up to his room, opened the window and sat down on his bed. The afternoon sun streaming in through his window felt good on his skin. He lay back on his bed, intending to rest for only a moment. He woke up hours later, the chill breeze of the Sunnydale evening waking him.
Xander almost leapt from the bed. He bounced on his heels for a bit. That was some nap! Xander didn't feel any of the aches and pains he was used to from his nightly activities. The blow to the shoulder a vamp had given to him two nights ago no longer hurt him. And the blows from his… from Tony didn't ache anymore.
Xander took a deep breath, the chilly air invigorating his lungs. Unfortunately, the stench from his parent's usual activities had seeped into the room as well. Xander coughed for a moment before stepping to his closet. He was supposed to meet his girls at the Bronze tonight.
After he pulled off his shirt, Xander noticed it was caked with sweat. His nose wrinkling in disgust, Xander changed his plans and picked up a towel. After an hour long shower and thoroughly cleaning every inch of his body and hair, and even using conditioner and his mom's body wash, Xander spent another 30 minutes in front of the sink, grooming himself. Finished, Xander looked himself over in the mirror and grinned. Damn, he looked good!
Whether it was an inflated self-image or simply part of Sunnydale syndrome, Xander never noticed the increased definition of his body, nor the fact that most of his body hair was gone, nor that his hair had actually grown an inch. Foregoing mousse and other hair products, Xander simply wet his hair and combed it back before shaking his head vigorously. The result was a natural, if somewhat tame, mane.
Back in his room he dressed in a grey t-shirt and black jeans, clothes he didn't wear normally because they were tight on him. After putting on a pair of boots he had picked up at the army surplus, Xander paused in thought. He came to a decision and pulled out a black leather jacket out of his closet. Despite his public stance of not caring what others thought, he knew that the jacket was too cool for him and that he'd be ripped off the moment he took it to school. That was no longer a concern for him. He liked it and he was damn sure going to wear it.
Reaching into the back of his closet, Xander pulled out his nascent war chest. He didn't have very many weapons yet, but a squirt gun filled with holy water and two hickory stakes he had carved in the wood shop classroom would serve for protection. Deciding to forgo an encounter with his drunken parents, Xander jumped from his open window to a nearby tree, easily catching himself on a branch and climbing down quietly from there.
The trip to the bronze had been rather odd for Xander. Several times he had to quell an irrational urge to roar and announce his presence. Xander knew that that being conspicuous was not of the good. Although, why the hell did he feel like roaring? That was strange behavior, even for him. Stopping for a moment, Xander tried to figure out what he was feeling. He felt like something was wrong with... his land? Why would he think of Sunnydale that way? It was his town not his...pride? What was going on?
Xander looked around and noticed that he was standing in front of a dark alley near the bronze that was notorious for vampire attacks and he had been completely unaware of his surroundings. After taking a quick glance around, Xander moved swiftly towards the bronze. Once there, the bouncer waved him in with barely a glance. Where do they keep finding these guys? Xander knew the bronze hadn't been closed for more than a day after the harvest before opening the next night, all the workers who had died replaced by new employees. Who ran this place anyway?
Walking into the Bronze, Xander was momentarily disoriented by the myriad of sensations that assaulted him. He stumbled for a moment before righting himself and forcing his nausea away. Filtering out the bright lights, the cacophony of sounds and the mix of scents, Xander centered himself with a deep breath. In doing so, his mind latched onto two scents in particular that he identified as... his? Shaking away the thought, Xander spotted Buffy and Willow. With Xander focused on his two friends, he didn't notice the appreciative looks from the females around him or the wary glances from some of the males as he headed toward them.
"Girls!" Xander said expansively. Damn, he was glad to be back together with his pride. Wait, pride? What the hell?
"Boy!" said Buffy, interrupting Xander's reverie.
"Sorry I'm late, I... just forgot that we were gonna be here," Xander began to apologize, wondering what he should tell them about his weird behavior when he spied Buffy's croissant. "Hungry!" Xander tore off a piece and ate it in one bite.
"Xander, you still want me to help you with geometry tomorrow?" Willow asked him as she and Buffy watched him take a swig of Buffy's soda. "We can work after class-" She stopped as Xander gave her a thumbs-up.
"Yeah," Xander turned to Buffy, "What is this?" he asked, pointing at the remains of Buffy's food.
"Well, it was my buttery croissant." Buffy huffed at him. She couldn't believe the jerk hadn't even asked!
"Man, we need some food! Birds live on this!" How was he supposed to get full with bread? Where was the meat?
Buffy and Willow shared a look, both wondering if the other understood what was going on. Seeing no comprehension on the others' face they both turned to Xander for an explanation. Xander gazed at them both. Their presence filled his senses. Then he noticed the looks directed at him.
"What's up with you?" Buffy asked him directly. Willow chose a more circumspect route.
"Is something wrong? Did I do something?"
"Of course not, what could you do wrong? I'm just feeling…" Xander searched for the right word, "…restless." That's about as good a word as any other, he thought.
"Well, we could go to the ice cream place..." Willow suggested.
"Nah, don't want dessert," Xander replied. He needed real food!
Xander looked around the dance floor of the bronze. He felt so connected to everyone, so aware of everything around him. He took a deep breath. There was an odd scent nearby, something dangerous, something familiar. Xander leaned over to Buffy and sniffed her hair.
"Okay, now what?" said Buffy, irritated with his strange behavior.
"You took a bath." Xander said the first thing that came to his mind.
"Yeah, I-I often do, I'm actually known for it." Buffy was thoroughly confused.
"That's okay." Xander stood up and took another breath. That strange scent was definitely coming from Buffy, but it wasn't her. The longer he concentrated on it, the more it made him feel wary. That scent meant bad news. Willow and Buffy exchanged another look. This was starting to get wiggy for the both of them.
"And the weird behavior award goes to..." Buffy said, trying to break the sudden tension. Xander trashed her efforts when he leaned in close to her again and sniffed her shoulder. Buffy and Willow stared at him, not quite believing what they were seeing. Xander didn't notice. His focus was on the scent. It was coming from the jacket!
"Where did you get the jacket?" Xander asked Buffy intently. He finally recognized the smell.
"W- Why?" Buffy asked. Xander's sudden change in demeanor startled both her and Willow.
"Did you find it? Buy it at a pawn shop?"
"No…" Buffy shook her head. Where was he going with this?
"Did you take it off a vamp?" Xander's brow was now furled. The scent coming off her was a mixture of blood and sweat and death and dust. He knew because it triggered two of his worst memories. Getting caught in the trap in the sewers by the horde of vampires and when he dusted Jessie. He'd never forget either event.
"What?" Buffy asked nonplussed.
"Did you take it off a vamp? It's okay if you did, you know." Xander's looked softened. She was probably embarrassed to get caught looting. Xander didn't feel there was anything wrong with looting. It was featured in every RPG ever made, after all.
"No, I didn't take it off a vamp." Xander's frown returned. If she bought it new then why did it smell like a vampire?
Xander opened his mouth to ask her where she got it when he spun around to face the front door. Buffy and Willow looked over and saw Kyle and his gang come in like they owned the place.
"Oh, great, it's the winged monkeys."
Rhonda and Tor shoved people out of their way, making way for Kyle. Heidi lagged behind, snickering, but watched their backs. Unwittingly, they came right up to Buffy and Willow's table. They stopped and immediately focused on Xander. Buffy stood up to flank Xander, drawing a glance from the pack of bullies. Willow, not wanting to be left behind, stood up as well but stumbled. Her movement drew Tor and Heidi's attention. They snickered and looked at her hungrily. Willow made a squeaking noise as Xander reached around and pulled her behind him. Buffy saw the move and tilted her head questioningly at Xander. He didn't notice. These scavengers had threatened his pride!
Buffy and Willow both started at Xander's growl. Heidi, Rhonda and Tor turned to Kyle. He looked from Xander to Buffy and back. He shook his head and the rest of the pack followed him as he backed away. Xander, Buffy and Willow followed them with their eyes as the pack retreated to the other side of the Bronze where they ultimately kicked a lone guy away from his table and claimed it as their own. Xander's nose twitched. They couldn't relax here and there was no food for them.
"Come on, let's go to Denny's." Xander began to walk away, paying attention to the pack all the while. Willow and Buffy shared another look. Willow shrugged her shoulders. Buffy nodded hesitantly and they both followed Xander out.
"I'm not getting this," said Xander.
"It's simple, really. See, 'The bisector of a vertex is the line that divides the angle at that vertex into two equal parts.'" Willow explained. Xander struggled to follow her explanation. There were too many sensations to concentrate properly, especially with all the hormones in the air from all the pubescent teenagers. Xander shook his head and looked back down at his homework.
"It's like a big blur, all these numbers and angles."
"It's the same stuff from last week. You had it down then." Willow said patiently. Why was he so scatterbrained now?
"Why do I need to learn this?" asked Xander.
"'Cause otherwise you'll flunk math?"
"Explain the part where that's bad." Xander said as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. He managed to keep a hold of himself at the Bronze. Think, how did he do it then?
"You remember, you fail math, you flunk out of school, you end up being the guy at the pizza place that sweeps the floor and says, 'Hey, kids, where's the cool parties this weekend?' We've been through this." Willow noticed Xander rubbing his right temple. "Do you have a headache?" Willow reached up and touched his temple.
The moment she made contact with his skin Xander sighed as his whole being focused on his Willow, on her scent, on the feel of her skin. He leaned further into her hand. When she pulled away, mistaking his movement for him shaking her off, Xander reached up and clasped her hand. He pulled it to his face and pressed his cheek against it, inhaling deeply.
Willow blushed profusely. Xander had been affectionate throughout dinner last night. She had not been expecting him to continue acting the same way during school. After a long moment Xander pulled away, but didn't let go of her hand.
"I'm sorry about being so distracted Wills. I'll try again, okay?" Willow nodded. Xander smiled and moved next to her so she could look over his shoulder. Willow was acutely aware of Xander as he sat between her legs, her entire front pressed up against his rear left side. With Willow filling his senses, Xander's disorientation dissipated and he was able to concentrate. He made great progress, Willow's joyful reactions spurring him on.
Inside the school, after her workout with Giles, Buffy met the school mascot Herbert. While she was helping Principal Flutie put Herbert away she noticed Herbert's extreme reaction as Kyle and his pack walked passed his room.
Xander, Buffy and Willow stood across from the pack. Because of the sudden burst of rain they were all forced to stay inside and staying inside meant playing dodge ball. All of which meant that the coach could indulge in his sadistic tendencies and force the students to commit violence against each other.
A shrill blast from the coach's whistle started the game.
The pack easily dodged the balls sent their way and began taking out members of the other side where they could. Buffy took out several other players, taking care not to injure anyone and easily dodging any balls sent her way. Xander concentrated on Willow. She wasn't as gifted as Buffy and would need help. Plus, Xander thought, the smile that she and Buffy sent his way every time he saved her didn't hurt.
Once it was down to just the pack and the Scoobies, Heidi and Rhonda smiled evilly at each other. Heidi nudged Tor who threw a ball at Xander, forcing him to dodge away from Willow. Heidi then threw a ball straight at Willow. Xander dove in front of Willow, catching the ball meant for her. Once he hit the ground, Rhonda threw the ball she had been hiding behind her back. With hyena-spirit enhanced strength, Rhonda's ball smacked into Willow's face, knocking Willow off her feet.
"Willow!" Xander tossed his ball aside and rushed over to her, Buffy following a step behind. Xander pulled Willow up and cradled her in his arms. He pulled her hands away from her face to see that the ball had struck her nose. Xander saw blood come out of her nose causing a raging fury to build up inside him. When he looked over at the pack they were cackling at Willow's injury. Tearing off the sleeve of his shirt Xander gently pressed the cloth against Willow's nose.
"I'm so sorry Willow; I didn't see the other ball. I let them hurt you."
"S'okay Xa'der. I should go do da 'urse's office." Xander and Buffy both helped her up and walked her out of the gym. Once the doors closed Xander span around and glared at the still laughing bullies.
Buffy jumped at the anger in his voice. Xander turned to face her. She was confused for a moment before her slayer instincts kicked in. An unspoken message passed between them. Buffy nodded. They walked back in front of the pack with a purpose.
Kyle stopped laughing first as Buffy and Xander moved in front of him. Xander casually kicked a ball up to Buffy, who caught it and launched it, full-strength, at the pack. They scattered in different directions. Kicking another ball over to Buffy, Xander picked up the last ball on their side and launched it at Rhonda. It crashed into her face, flipping her over, breaking her nose and knocking her out. Xander caught the ball as it rebounded back towards him.
Buffy picked up the second ball Xander kicked toward her and threw it at Tor's face. It struck him in the eye and he collapsed to the ground. The first ball Buffy had thrown bounced off the back wall and bounced over to her, reaching her as soon as her throw was finished. She scooped this ball up and nailed Heidi in the mouth with it.
Heidi fell back toward Kyle, who jumped straight up, spreading his legs so she would pass under him. Xander took his shot at that moment and nailed him in the crotch, forcing his body into a flip. Kyle landed breathlessly on his back and immediately curled up into a fetal position.
Buffy smirked at the bullies. Xander walked over and rubbed his cheek against hers. The gesture was so casual and guileless that Buffy returned it instinctively. The rest of the students and the coach watched in awe as Xander and Buffy walked into the locker rooms, intent on joining their friend.
"God, that was brutal," said the coach breathlessly, "I love it!"
"Xander, stop apologizing."
Xander opened his mouth then closed it. How was he supposed to apologize for irritating her with his apologies? He pouted at Willow. Willow thought he looked so cute!
"It's not your fault, okay? You weren't the one who threw the ball," Willow told him.
"I should have protected you," insisted Xander.
"I don't know! But I should have done something. It's my job to protect you."
"Why is that, mister?"
"You're my Willow."
The caring and sincerity in Xander's voice made Buffy and Willow melt inside. Willow hugged her best friend and crush fiercely.
"It's okay. These things happen, Xan. And you did keep me from getting hurt even worse. What if one of the balls from Kyle or Tor had hit me? You saved me from a lot of their throws."
"Yeah, Xander," Buffy chimed in, "you can't protect everyone all the time." Buffy's mood turned melancholy. "I know."
Xander looked over at Buffy. She was always saddened whenever she heard about an attack. But, she was right; you can't protect everyone all the time. However, Xander knew that he would do anything in his power to protect his pride. Xander pulled Buffy into Willow's hug with his free arm.
"Thanks you two. Now, c'mon, we need to get to class."
"That was not meat," complained Xander.
"C'mon Xander, it's called mystery meat-" Buffy started before Xander interrupted her.
"Yeah, but there was no meat in it! You can't call it mystery meat and not put any meat in it! There are laws against that! Now to mention the fact that now I'm still hungry!"
"But you ate it all!"
"Okay so I did. But, c'mon Buff, when you're craving your jelly donuts are you going to be satisfied with a donut hole?"
Buffy had to concede that Xander was correct. Or, at least, he had a point about food cravings. Her friends had learned early on to not get between the Slayer and her jelly donuts.
"If you're really hungry, we could go to the buffet after school?" suggested Willow.
"Yes, I am all for that plan. What do you say, Buff?"
"Sounds good, but I need to check in with Giles first."
"Good thing we're already here then," said Xander as he held the library door open for his two friends. Both Willow and Buffy graced him with a smile for his manners. Stepping in, Xander scanned the library. He couldn't see him but Xander knew that Giles was around. "Ahoy the office!"
"Xander, that greeting only works if we're both at sea!" said Giles as he stepped out of the library's office.
"Well, the counselors always say I'll end up adrift on the sea of life, so I figure I should get some practice." Xander watched Giles carefully as he finished his response. A slight upwards twitch of his mouth was Giles' only giveaway that Xander's humor had any effect. Oh, you're good, thought Xander, but I'll get you to crack one of these days, Mr. Stiff-upper-lip.
"I-I-Is there a reason for this visit, or are you here merely to, to torment me?"
"Would we do that?" asked Buff innocently.
"Um, how should I put this… yes."
"We were just checking to see if Buffy could go eat with us afterschool, or if there was, you know," Willow mimed a few punches. Both Xander and Buffy couldn't believe how weak and girly her punches looked.
"Um, someone having a, um, seizure?" Giles asked Willow.
"No! I meant Slayer stuff! You know," Willow, mimed her punches again, "training and stuff."
"Good lord Willow, are those meant to be punches?"
"What's wrong with my punches?" asked an affronted Willow.
"I hate to break it to you Wills, but you punch like a girl. Even for a girl."
"Xander!" cried Willow.
"Come on Buffy, back me up here!"
"Okay, first thing, hey to sexist comments! Second, you do punch like a girl. Sorry."
"See, told ya!"
"I'd like to see you do better mister!" Willow didn't realize it at the time, but being bullied by Kyle and company brought back painful memories of when she was younger. At the moment she was taking her friends' gentle teasing far too seriously.
"Of course I can." Xander assumed a boxing stance and threw out a one-two combination. The speed and force of his punches caused his leather jacket to snap loudly. Giles and Buffy were both impressed. Buffy recognized a good punch instinctively. Giles, on the other hand, saw the flaws in Xander's technique, but realized they weren't glaring. He realized Xander would make an able combatant with a bit of training.
"Okay, so you can do better." Xander watched Willow as she crossed her arms and pouted. He stepped over to his friend and gave her a hug.
"Hey, don't be mad. You know I picked up some stuff growing up. Kinda had to, y'know?"
"Yeah, I remember. I don't think Larry has ever forgiven you for beating him up."
"You beat up Larry?" asked Buffy. Neither she nor Giles could hide their disbelief. Larry was much larger and more athletic than Xander.
"Well," said Xander as he released Willow, "it was in the third grade, before the puberty fairy gave him a double dose of growth formula."
"Ah, I see, in any case, there may be something of note," Giles started. "It seems that the new school mascot was, was eaten."
"Something ate Herbert?" asked a horrified Buffy.
"As far as can be determined, someone broke into its cage and ate the, the, the animal. There was apparently nothing left but bones."
"That's terrible," said Willow.
"Someone ate a raw pig?" asked Xander.
"Apparently," replied Giles. "Needless to say, Principal Flutie is quite livid."
"And you think this might be something we need to look into?"
"Well, at the moment, the only lead is Kyle and his ilk. They were seen in the vicinity of Herbert's cage around the time he was discovered."
"It sounds just like them to do something cruel like hurting a defenseless animal," said Willow. Her comment drew everyone's attention except for Xander, who had gone quiet at the mention of Kyle and his pack.
"Yeah, there's nothing at all strange about that, sad as it is to say," added Buffy.
"Yes, well, you're most likely right. As long as you come back for patrol today, I don't see why you can't go eat after school."
"You're the best Giles, thanks!"
"You're, you're welcome." Giles shook his head ruefully. No one ever told him he would have to make these sorts of compromises when he became a Watcher. Who knew that teenage girls could be so troublesome?
"I know there's a saying about eating the lion's share but I don't think they meant that. I don't think they'll let us back in here."
"Aw, c'mon Willow. I know me and Buffy ate a lot but we weren't that bad."
"The manager was crying."
"Okay, so you might have a point," said Buffy. "Anyways, I know why I pigged out, Slayer metabolism and all. I just don't get where you put it all?" Buffy asked Xander. Xander merely grinned and slipped his right arm out of his jacket, pulling the sleeve of his t-shirt up with his left hand as he flexed his right arm.
"I put it right here!" he said. Xander's grin clearly told his audience that he was joking. What did not escape the notice of the two girls was the fact that Xander's arm was actually very well defined.
"Wow, have you been working out Xander?" asked Buffy.
"Just going out hunting with you," said Xander, "must be a nice side effect." Xander looked himself over. "How do I look?" he said as he shrugged his jacket back on. Buffy and Willow both looked him over, their thoughts in agreement. Xander was definitely looking good today.
"You look good actually. Much more coordinated. Plus, the less baggy look suits you," said Buffy. Willow could only blush and nod in agreement. Xander blinked at her for a moment, not expecting that response at all. He shook his head to break himself out of his stupor.
"Cool. Hey, should we check in with Giles now? It'll be sunset soon."
"Lu-cy! I'm ho-ome!"
"Xander, could you please stop with your, your, your ridiculous greetings?"
"No can do G-Man. I've made it my personal mission to knock the stuffiness out of you one pun at a time."
"Pretty soon, I'll have you in shorts and flip flops. Maybe even a Hawaiian shirt or two."
Giles stared at Xander as he bit the inside of his cheek. The cheeky bugger was actually going to make him crack! He decided to go on the offensive.
"I absolutely refuse to de-evolve into a, a, a silly colonial. In any case, there is a problem. Principal Flutie is dead." Giles waited a moment for the exclamations of shock to die down. "The official explanation is that he was attacked by wild dogs."
"Where was he that he was attacked by wild dogs?" asked Buffy.
"He was, um, in his office."
"How the hell does that happen!" exclaimed Xander.
"No one knows. That only other information I could glean is that the last people to see Flutie alive where Kyle, Tor, Rhonda and Heidi. They were called into Principal Flutie's office. His secretary found Flutie an hour later, after he didn't answer his door."
"Do you think that…" Willow couldn't even finish the thought and Giles was kind enough to not force her.
"I don't know. Their behavior is certainly like wild animals, but they have never demonstrated any violence of the sort described to have been committed against Principal Flutie."
"What makes you think that their behavior is animal like?" Xander asked Giles intently.
"Um, they, they, they prey on the weak, establish a, a pecking order, and travel in a pack."
"Yes. Surely you have noticed how inseparable they are?"
"You said that Principal Flutie looked like he was attacked by wild dogs. Could hyenas have done that sort of damage?"
"Xander, I don't understand what that-"
"Giles! Could it have been hyenas?"
Giles stared at the suddenly very intense young man. This entire line of inquiry seemed to be ridiculous but the urgency of Xander's tone was undeniable.
"I-i-it is possible. Hyena's are related to canines and exhibit many of same-" Giles stopped as Xander suddenly paled and stumbled back, ending up sitting on the table behind him.
"What's wrong?" asked Willow.
"Xander?" asked Buffy. Being closer, she moved to place a hand on Xander's arm. Xander looked over at her hand and followed her arm up to her face. He looked very frightened. He suddenly seemed to focus on her then shook his head. He stood up and addressed Giles again.
"Can someone be possessed by an animal?"
Xander's question ended up setting off a flurry of research, after he explained his suspicions and the events of his encounter in the Hyena House. He left out looking into the Lion's eyes, since he honestly couldn't remember that event. His mind put pieces together and he told them that the lion's roar must have unnerved them enough for his aggressive stance to scare them. Since Xander exhibited no drastic change in personality, the group assumed that he had escaped being possessed.
"The Masai of the Serengeti have spoken of animal possession for, for generations. I... I should have remembered that," muttered Giles.
"So how does it work?" asked Buffy.
"Well, apparently there's a, a sect of animal worshipers known as Primals. They believe that humanity, uh, consciousness, uh, the soul, is a, is a perversion, a dilution of spirit. Uh, to them the animal state is holy. They are able, through trans-possession, to, to, um, draw the spirit of certain animals into themselves."
"And then they started acting like hyenas," stated Xander.
"Well, only the most predatory of animals are, are of interest to the Primals, so, uh, yes, yes, that would fit, yes."
"So, what happens to the person once the spirit's in them?" asked Buffy. No one noticed Xander's wide eyed glance at Buffy snap into an attentive look towards Giles.
"If it goes unchecked..." Giles handed Buffy an open book. The contents of the page made Buffy blanch. Xander pulled the book out of her grasp as Willow moved to read over his shoulder. The page was open to a drawing of dismemberment and cannibalism. Willow paled and turned away. Xander closed the book, hiding his trembling right hand behind the book.
"You said 'if it goes unchecked'. How do you check it?" Xander asked.
"Well, if the, the traits of the possessed individual, are, are similar to the possessing animal spirit, then they can control or subdue the spirit. Of course, they should have sufficient willpower as well."
"How do you know if they have sufficient willpower?"
"Um, they, they would be able to master the animal instincts. Most animals do certain actions as a matter of instinct and inborn behavior. Like, like, like Lions roaring to announce their presence and claim their territory. If someone has sufficient willpower they would feel the need to perform these actions but, um, they would be able to resist and continue to act in a human manner."
"And since they ate someone, Kyle, Heidi, Tor and Rhonda don't have the willpower," said Xander.
"Yes, despite, despite the fact that the animals possessing them seem to suit them, they can't control the animal instincts."
"Well, it says here," said Willow as she pointed to the computer monitor in front of her, "that after a full day's activity, hyenas generally settle down for a nap. It's pretty hot for them so they're going to seek a lake, or stream, or mud bed, or dense shrubs to sleep near."
"They're at Victoria Park," stated Xander.
"How-" began Buffy before Willow interrupted.
"Oh! Oh! That's right! It has everything a hyena would want for a bed!"
Xander burst into motion, pulling out one of the bokkens he had noticed in the weapons cage and tossing a staff to Buffy. He stopped before walking out of the cage and picked up a knife, strapping it onto his belt, behind his back. Buffy looked at him questioningly. "Just in case."
"Xander, do you think it wise to accompany Buffy-"
"We already took them down once today Giles. They may be trying harder now but we can still take them. Right Buff?"
"Absolutely. We'll bring them back here. In the meantime, you and Willow can find a way to reverse what happened." With that, Buffy and Xander ran out of the library. Willow went to find some books but Giles just stood there looking at the door.
"Um, Giles? Shouldn't we…" Giles upraised hand stopped her. A moment later and Xander and Buffy stormed back in, looking sheepish.
"Uh, Giles, you wouldn't happen to have some rope?" asked Buffy.
"Handcuffs? Zip-ties?" added Xander.
Giles smirked at them.
Buffy and Xander walked around the lake, examining clumps of dense bushes for any signs of the possessed teenagers. They ended up stumbling across several bums. The snap of a twig led them into the nearby brush. Xander's eyes widened as he caught sight of a large, shaggy, three eyed dog-like demon… dog.
The demon lunged at Buffy, claws outstretched and mouth opened to bite her. Before she could react, Xander pushed her out of the way, placing himself in front of the demon. Her furtive cry to him died in her throat as Xander thrust the bokken he was wielding into the middle of the demon's three eyes. The bokken burst out the other side of the demon's skull as it fell limply in front of Xander. Xander wrenched his weapon out and scanned his surroundings before moving over to Buffy.
"You okay?" he asked as he extended a hand to help her up.
"What was that about!" asked a flustered Buffy.
"Uh, sorry? I saw the thing come at you and just reacted," said Xander. Buffy stared at him for a moment before looking back at the demon. It had managed to surprise her completely. It would have gotten a good hit in before she would have been able to mount a defense. She looked back at Xander.
"What are friends for? Now come on, we need to find the hyenas."
After searching for several minutes, the sun having completely set now, Buffy spotted a woman running away from a clump of bushes. After they entered the clearing, Xander and Buffy saw the teenagers sleeping. As they got closer Tor suddenly woke up and looked right at them. He began yipping, waking the others. The other three awoke and gathered into a group with Kyle in the lead. They growled at the two interlopers. Xander and Buffy shared a glance at the group's animalistic behavior. Kyle chose that moment to pounce and leapt at Xander.
Xander dropped his bokken and met Kyle's charge head on with a tackle. They both tumbled to the ground and began wrestling with each other.
Buffy used her staff to knock Tor's charge aside, circling her staff around behind her to maintain space between her and Heidi. A jabbing poke caught Rhonda in the forehead as she made to flank Buffy. Rhonda fell, holding her throbbing forehead.
Kyle used his greater mass to gain leverage over Xander, pinning him to the ground. Xander got his feet under Kyle and kicked Kyle away from him. Xander quickly scrambled to his feet and stopped suddenly, Giles words echoing in his mind. "…they would be able to master the animal instincts… to resist and continue to act in a human manner."
Buffy whipped her staff around to catch a hunched Tor between the shoulder blades, opening him up for a kick to the jaw. The possessed teens were stronger and faster than she had anticipated. It was almost like fighting a vampire. Stepping up the speed and power of her attacks she managed to catch Heidi with a slashing sweep to the head. The blow sent Heidi spinning to the ground, clearly unconscious. Rhonda tackled Buffy from behind, making Buffy lose her grip on the staff.
Xander focused on the fight. He desperately wanted to pounce on Kyle, to strangle him with his jaws. Xander ignored the urge and instead focused on the strength and anger behind the instinct. He waited as Kyle charged at him, waited until Kyle was within arm's length of striking him. Xander jabbed, crunching Kyle's nose and stopping his forward momentum. Almost simultaneously he struck with a right straight, snapping Kyle's head back and reversing his velocity. Xander's combination would have been the envy of any professional boxer: a one-two delivered in the space of a single jab.
As Kyle fell, Xander turned to check on Buffy and watched as she pushed Rhonda away from her. Xander rushed over and picked up the sprawled Rhonda by the scruff of her neck, cocking his hand back for a knockout blow. He hesitated, his mind flashing back to several awful memories. Sure, she was a possessed teen, but she was still a girl, a woman. Xander dropped his hand.
"Allow me." He looked over to see an irate Buffy. He quickly pushed Rhonda over to her. Buffy knocked her out with a quick hook to the jaw.
"Thanks Buff. It's easier to do that when they're vampires. Then I'm not scared I'll turn around one day and find that I've turned into that guy." Xander's expression darkened momentarily. Buffy, who had been looking around at the time, did not notice.
"What guy?" asked Buffy.
"The guy that hits women."
"I don't think you have to worry about that Xan. I can't imagine you ever being that kind of guy."
"Thanks Buff," said Xander as he pulled some quick-ties out of his jacket pocket.
On the way back to the library, Buffy asked Xander how he was able to handle fighting the bullies with their enhanced strength. Xander stumbled for a moment but then brushed her question away, saying that he was used to fighting things with that level of speed and strength. After weeks of patrol he could only have improved, after all.
His answer placated Buffy but sent his mind into turmoil. How had he managed to hold his own against the enhanced bullies, here and during dodge ball? And why wasn't he growing tired of carrying both Kyle and Tor? He knew why Buffy wasn't growing tired but he wasn't a Slayer. He thought back to the answer he gave Buffy, remembering when he had flexed his arm earlier today. He had put on quite a bit of muscle without noticing. Maybe all the patrolling had buffed him up?
Xander's musing was cut short as they entered the library from the rear entrance. In the middle of the library a large Masai ceremonial circle was painted. In the center of the circle stood Willow, held hostage with a knife to her throat by a red haired man. Giles lay crumpled near the edge of the circle. Xander growled, dropped Kyle and Tor, and took a large step forward. Willow's whimper stopped him dead.
"Ah-ah-ah! Stay right where you are! I've had enough interference from those four, I won't have you meddlesome kids fucking this up for me."
"Hey, I know you! You're that creepy zookeeper!"
"Shut it, blondie! Now, drop your weapons, both of you." Xander and Buffy dropped their bokken and staff. The zookeeper smiled. "Good, good, now, bring those four over here into the circle." Buffy and Xander picked up Kyle, Rhonda, Heidi and Tor and walked over to the circle. "Stop! Leave them just inside the circle. No reason for you two to get closer. Now take the librarian and all of you leave the circle." The moment that all three of them cleared the circle, the zookeeper grinned triumphantly. "Yu Ba Ya Sa Na!"
The four bullies twitched against their bonds as their eyelids jerked open, green light shinning from their eyes. The light, like a stream of smoke, was pulled out of their bodies, coalescing into one mass before shooting into the zookeeper. The zookeeper seized and screamed as the light entered him fully inadvertently sending Willow and the knife he had been holding flying.
"Willow!" cried Xander as he rushed over to her. Buffy wasted no time in engaging the zookeeper. She tried to land a jump kick but the zookeeper ducked around to Buffy's backside and slashed her shoulder, his newly elongated nails gouging into her flesh. Buffy stumbled her landing as she shook off the pain of her wound. The zookeeper pounced at her but Buffy's roundhouse kick knocked him aside. The zookeeper was hardly fazed by her blow, and returned with another slash that cut up the forearm Buffy put up to block his attack.
After he checked on Willow, who was now trying to wake Giles, and pulled the four bullies out of the circle, Xander watched Buffy and the zookeeper fight. The zookeeper was faster and stronger than Buffy but reliant on his animal instincts to fight. Buffy's slayer-given fighting skills helped her keep him at bay, but she was clearly losing the battle.
The zookeeper managed to grab Buffy's wrist. Buffy punched with her other hand but the zookeeper grabbed that wrist as well. She struggled to break free of his grip but he was stronger than she was. The zookeeper pulled her arms apart and leaned forward to bite Buffy. Startled, Buffy reacted like any other teenage girl, instead of the slayer, and flinched away from the zookeeper, turning her face away and closing her eyes. Suddenly she felt the zookeeper let go as her arms jerked to the left.
Buffy opened her eyes to see the zookeeper off to her left with Xander's right fist flush against the zookeeper's neck. Xander jerked his arm down making the zookeepers throat explode in a spray of blood. Buffy finally caught sight of the bloody knife in Xander's hand. Her gaze was drawn back to the zookeeper when he began scrabbling at his neck. The zookeeper turned and reached for Xander but fell to his knees, a wet gurgling sound coming from his ruined throat as his blood spilled down his chest.
Xander stepped back, his eyes never wavering from watching the dying zookeeper. Green lights began to glow from the ground. Xander and Buffy both scrambled out of the circle where a stunned Willow watched in horrified fascination while she kneeled over a slowly awakening Giles.
"Uh, did I miss- Good Lord!"
The green lights coalesced into six vaguely hyena shaped forms. The zookeeper's eyes widened and he tried to scream. Instead, he made a horrible wheezing sound as blood sprayed from his wound. The six forms pounced on him, dragging him into the floor. The entire ceremonial circle flared a bright green before it too faded away; taking the zookeeper's spilt blood with it.
"Is everyone alright?" Xander's question shattered the silence that encased the library. Buffy, Willow and Giles all started and turned to face him. Xander was not looking towards any of them but continued to stare at where the zookeeper had disappeared. Buffy, Willow, and Giles glanced at each other before Buffy spoke.
"Kyle and company should just be unconscious. At least, that's what we read," said Willow. The mention of the bullies' presence seemed to jerk Xander out of his reverie.
"Right. Giles, Willow, check them over; make sure whatever got into them got out while me and Buffy get cleaned up."
"Buffy and I, Xander," corrected Giles absently. Xander smiled
Xander splashed water on his face to try and calm himself down. His thoughts were spinning, one after the other. Xander had been consumed by an urge to devour the zookeeper while he watched him die. It had been a great struggle for him but he had managed to hold out until the zookeeper had disappeared. He'd felt horrified by his own urges afterwards. He'd sat there, staring at the last place the zookeeper had been, wondering if he would have been able to master himself completely if the body was still there. He looked at himself in the mirror. Whatever this was, he had to beat it, before he became like Kyle and the others. He walked outside where he ran into Buffy.
"Hey, so uh, are you really okay?" Xander stared at Buffy, a thoughtful look on his face. She waited for him silently, realizing that he was gathering his thoughts together. After waiting long enough for the moment to turn a bit awkward, Xander took a deep breath to tell her that he wasn't alright.
When he breathed in, everything seemed to become clear. He smelt blood, the zookeeper's blood, and the blood of the demon that had attacked them earlier. Overpowering those scents was the smell he knew as Buffy. In that moment he realized the truth. He would do anything to keep her safe. He needed to keep her safe. Xander knew then he would kill again, if he had to, in order to keep Buffy, and Willow, and even Giles safe.
Xander stepped forward and swept Buffy into a hug that lifted her off the ground.
Xander turned his face so his mouth was next to her ear.
"I'm so glad that you're safe Buffy." His voice was hoarse with barely restrained emotion. He set her down and stepped back, trying to distance himself from the up swell of emotions he felt every time he was near Buffy.
Buffy stared at Xander as if she had never seen him before. In fact, she felt like she hadn't seen him before. He seemed to be a goofy guy. Certainly, he was brave, but he still seemed to be like any other slacker or class clown. Buffy looked at Xander and realized that he had killed the zookeeper tonight to keep her safe. That he had killed that demon earlier tonight to keep her safe.
She wasn't sure what or how to feel about someone being willing to kill for her, but she knew, knew that Xander would do it for Willow too. Overcome, Buffy could only reach up and hug Xander.
"Thank you." Xander heard her clearly, despite her whisper. He wrapped his arms around Buffy, holding her close, and rubbed his cheek against hers. After they let go, Xander spoke.
"You're welcome." Buffy's answering smile was one of the most beautiful things Xander had ever seen. "Now, come on, let's see if everything's back to normal." Xander tilted his head in thought for a moment. "Well, as normal as it gets on a hellmouth."
He spit the dirt out of his mouth. He felt sore and bruised and caked with sweat. Slowly, ever so slowly, he climbed to his feet, brushing foliage and dirt off his body. He jumped when he realized that he was naked. What the hell happened to him? Why did the air smell like crap?
He looked around, trying to get his bearings. He was in a small clearing surrounded by jungle. The air not only stank but it was sweltering and the air pressed down on him oppressively. He peered in between the trees, but he couldn't see anything. Where was he?
A sharp, staccato giggle pierced the air. What was that? Something about the sound tugged at his memories but his mind was fuzzy. Laughter and whooping joined the sound of giggling. He knew what that sound was! It was hyenas! Of course, now he remembered…
He started running, as fast as he could. The branches of the jungle trees cut into him, but he didn't slow down. He tripped over a rock, scraping himself along the floor. He picked himself up and continued running as the sounds of laughter approached closer to him. He ran until he found himself in a clearing.
It was the same clearing he started in.
He spun around in a panic. This couldn't be happening. This wasn't happening. None of the texts mentioned anything like this. His hands leapt to his throat. He was fine, there was no pain. How could this be?
He ran in a different direction, leaping through the brush and between the trees. A branch caught him in the forehead as he was running past. The cut bled into his eye, making it hard for him to see. Wiping at the wound didn't seem to do any good. The air was far too humid to be able to wipe it clean. He stumbled into a clearing. He looked around. He screamed.
The sounds were getting louder. He could hear rustling now. He sat down in the middle of the clearing, hugging his knees to his chest and started rocking back and forth. This isn't possible. This can't be happening. How could he have gone in a circle if he ran straight ahead?
Something tackled him to the ground. He felt teeth press into his shoulder and saw another shape coming toward him.