*****



"Giles!"



Buffy's scream drowned out the soft chuffs that came from the silenced Berretta in Rupert Giles hand. One shot. Two. Three. Four.



Jack Crow slid out from behind the wall and his own weapon entered the fray, spitting electrical pulses at the Council team. Though a couple of the Council's weapons went off as they fell, the bullets merely dug into the walls of the alley.



Giles nodded and Jack and walked up to the fallen men as Jack moved into position to cover him from behind. Giles looked down at the team leader as he held his bleeding arm. "You didn't know me before, so I suppose you can be forgiven for underestimating me. This time. I suggest you ask Michael about 'The Ripper' when he wakes up, and think well on it before you come back to my town again."



The team leader stared up at the cold eyes of the supposed 'librarian' and shuddered. He hated it when the council didn't give him all the information about potential players. Painfully he nodded.



Giles stepped back, satisfied with that response and nodded again to Crow. Crow smiled and stepped forward, trusting Giles to cover him. The vampire hunter looked down at the wounded man and smiled.



"I've been looking forward to chatting with one of you Council lackeys for a couple weeks now. Ever since I found out something interesting..."



Crow reached out casually and grabbed the man's wounded arm, grinding his thumb into the injury.



"Mmmpphhhh!" The man ground out through clenched teeth.



"The name's, Jack Crow." Crow paused, smiling at the look of recognition that entered the eyes of the wounded man. "That's right. THAT Jack Crow. I've got a message from my 'employers'... you know who they are, right?"



When the man nodded vigorously Crow smiled again. "Good."



"You see, I'm a little annoyed with you guys over something." Crow continued in a casual voice. "I mean, it's a little curious you know? How you had a Slayer on the Hellmouth for four years and the Council never bothered to inform us about its whereabouts?"



"I ain't got no part of that!" The man insisted. "That was decided higher up!"



"Oh I know... I know." Crow assured him, "But you see, you're here now... and I need a messenger... so you've got the job. Tell your bosses that I'm going to pay them a little visit later, so we can have a nice... civilized... discussion about sharing information that might be vital to the continued existence of humanity."



The man paled as Crow smiled at him. He had little doubt that the man was serious, so he just nodded. "I'll tell 'em! I swear it!"



"Good." Crow got up, and backed away from the men. "Bye now."



As Giles huddled the trembling Slayer away from the scene, he looked at Crow curiously. "Where did you get that weapon, Mr. Crow?"



Crow shrugged, "Lifted it from the armory of that base we defended."



"Does Xander know you're stealing from his friends?" Buffy asked.



Crow laughed, "I saw him and Jarod lift at least four for themselves."



*****



"It happened this summer." Xander said calmly as he eyed Faith. She wasn't moving from where she had propped herself against the wall, except to occasionally wince in pain.



"What?" She asked quietly, suddenly unsure of herself.



Xander turned away, a show of trust given to the rogue Slayer. "I was hunting with the teacher I mentioned..."



"People...?" Even Faith's voice sounded horrified.



"No!" He replied quickly, "No... never that. These things... they were worse then Vampires. They would plant eggs inside human and animal hosts... then just leave the egg to hatch. When it does... the baby creature then bursts from the host's chest... ripping its way out..."



Xander swallowed his revulsion as the memories assaulted him. On the ground Faith was looking more then a little sick herself, the pain and fatigue had beaten down her defenses enough that she wasn't hiding her emotional reactions. "Oh god..."



Xander nodded. "Yeah."



He was silent for a long moment, and Faith didn't push. She could hear the revulsion, grief, and terror that filled his voice and didn't know how to respond. Finally he spoke again.



"You see, I found this village a short distance away from the creature's hive. They were primitives... trying to fight those things with spears and arrows. It was suicide."



"You... you helped them." Faith said, a certainty in her voice that managed to make itself heard from beneath her fatigued voice. Xander couldn't have changed that much.



"Yes." He replied calmly. "I did. I stayed with them when my... friend... wouldn't. We spent eleven and a half hours preparing the village for the creatures attack." Xander snorted, "We may as well have slept and saved our energy. They came through our defenses like a knife through tissue paper. We started with almost three hundred people. I delivered a little over eighty of them to safety a day later."



Faith heard the catch in Xander's voice, and somehow knew that wasn't the end of the story. "What else happened?"



*****



Willow smashed her hand into the console in frustration, "I can't break the encryption!"



"Jarod is very good at what he does." Sidney said mildly.



"Too good." She growled.



Tara put her hand on the red wiccan's shoulder. "It'll be alright..."



"How!?" She turned in anger, startling the blond witch. "How will it be alright? Xander is trapped in there with a psychotic Slayer! She's already tried to kill all of us at least once..."



Tara didn't have anything to say in response, she just stared, stunned, at Willow's anger.



Willow suddenly looked shocked, and swallowed her anger. "God! I'm sorry, Tara... I didn't mean..."



"No!" tara said suddenly, the she stopped as if ashamed of her outburst. "I... I mean it's alright... you're worried about your friend... t... that's good."



Willow nodded, ducking her head and looking up through her bangs with a small smile. "Thank you."



She turned and looked at the door, "We'll have to use a different tact." Willow pulled out a parchment from a binder she had brought with her and smiled.



*****



"It was during the battle." Xander said slowly. "We were overrun... those black... monstrosities were everywhere. We tried to hold them off, but one by one they dragged us down. Grabbing one warrior after another with absolute disregard for their own safety. They were like ants or something... swarming us."



Faith watched as Xander's voice caught as he stumbled, from the grief rather then the pain. She didn't know what happened but it had nearly killed the man she saw in front of her.



Xander composed himself. "We split up, falling back into a sort of zone defense... guarding the women, children, and other non-combatants. I was protecting a group of fifty people... mostly children... young women... a couple elderly warriors as backup."



"What happened to them?"



"To them?" Xander laughed bitterly. "Nothing at all. Every one of them is now living safely on... in a new village I guided them too."



"Then what?"



"I was stuck there, you see? I couldn't leave them or I'd be signing their death warrants... But the creatures were ripping through our defenses... and our defenders. The were grabbing people by the dozens... and dragging them away."



Faith's breath caught in her throat. She remembered what Xander said about the creatures' reproduction. "What... what did you do, Xander?"



Xander pulled out his Colt's from under his jacket. "I drew these. I couldn't shoot the creatures you see... their blood was acid. It would have killed their victims... painfully."



"And..." Faith's eyes widened in shock, and she whispered her revelation. "You shot the victims."



"I shot the victims. One shot between the eyes at distances up to a hundred paces... I never missed by so much as an inch... I couldn't afford to." Xander was having trouble talking now, the grief in his voice was so thick.



Xander laughed bitterly, "You know the worst thing? As soon as they were dead the creatures dropped them and grabbed someone new. They couldn't use a dead person you see. I killed in the hundreds that night... drained my Plasma Caster, I fired it so much... Emptied both my pistols. Fourteen shots... fourteen people I killed before I couldn't do it anymore... before I had to watch those creatures drag them off."



Faith swallowed, about to speak before Xander cut her off with a fire in his eyes that she hadn't seen before.



"So don't you DARE tell me what I can or can't understand!" He turned on her, his uncovered grief fueling a rage in him. "You killed a man. By ACCIDENT. You killed another on purpose, yes, but I somehow doubt he was as innocent as those poor people."



"He wasn't... but..." Faith tried to protest.



"You screwed up." Xander said flatly. "In fact, you fucked up royally. But I will NOT allow you to throw yourself away because you don't have the strength to climb out of the pit you dug yourself into."



Faith's eyes flashed, "Strength! What do you..." Then she shut up. He had just told her what he knew about strength.



Xander didn't rise to the bait of her aborted challenge, he just stared at her with burning eyes. "I'm warning you now, Faith, if I have to I'll drag you back to the light kicking and screaming. If I can't wallow in my pain and guilt then I sure as hell won't let you off so easily either."



Faith giggled, almost hysterically. She looked at the beaten and battered young man who was standing there, confidently informing her that he would drag her into redemption, against her will if necessary, and the situation struck her fatigued mind as so insanely funny that she couldn't help but laugh.



Xander stared at her, almost in shock. He slowly thought back, checking what he had just said. He had to think hard, he hadn't been thinking as he spoke. He was speaking from the gut, not from the mind. Suddenly he got it, and he snickered himself, even through the grief he had bared for her benefit, he saw the humor.



*****



"Willow?" Giles asked as he climbed the stairs.



Willow smiled and looked up from the parchment she and Tara were studying, only to pale in shock when she saw Faith walking behind him "Faith!"



"No!" Giles yelled, worried that the young Wiccan might use magic on Buffy. "Faith switched bodies with Buffy."



"Oh." Willow looked blankly, remembering what Sidney had said. ""We're getting ready to cast a spell to get in there... Xander shut the intercom off a while ago and we haven't heard anything from them."



"Xander's in there with Faith? Alone!? In MY BODY?" Buffy cried out in shock.



"Later, Buffy." Giles said wearily. Cast the spell, Willow."



Willow and Tara nodded at each other, stared at the door, and began chanting. A few seconds later a pulse wave emerged from them and shattered the steel door to the Dojo. The entire group rushed into the room as fast as they could only to stop in shock.



Sitting, propped up against the far wall, was Xander and Faith. They both looked like they had been through a respectably sized war. Both were bleeding, broken, and looked like they were in desperate need of medical care. But the strange thing was that they were leaning on each other, tears running down their cheeks, and giggling hysterically.



Xander looked up at them, a goofy smile on his lips but a sad and distant look his eyes. "Hey guys, you know, you could have just knocked."



Faith started giggling again, her tone rising as if she were holding back something with her laughter. Giles and Sidney looked at each other, concerned looks passing between them as they looked at the two young people sitting on the ground.



*****



"Good lord," Giles whispered to himself as he tended the injuries on the blond Slayer. "What happened?"



Faith laughed, wincing as the pain shot through her ribs. "Boy wonder over there happened."



Giles shot a glance to where Xander was being tended, and molested it appeared, by Buffy and Willow. "He did this? He used a weapon of course?"



"Nuh uh." Faith shook her head painfully. "Hand to hand. He never even tried to draw his guns."



"How?" Giles whispered rhetorically.



Apparently Faith didn't see the question as rhetoric. "By fighting dirty of course."



Giles looked at her blankly as he tightened the wraps around her ribs.



"Ahhh!" She hissed out, "Damn he did a number on those."



Giles cast and involuntary glare at Xander as the image of Xander causing bodily harm to Buffy flashed through his mind.



"Don't get like that, Jeeves." Faith said when she caught the look. "I wasn't giving him much choice at the time."



"Oh... ummm... Yes, of course." Giles shook his mind free of the image and continued patching the rogue Slayer. His eyes, however, continued to travel over to where the group was gathered.



*****



"Ow!" Xander yelled, "Geez, Sid, not so damned tight."



Sidney shrugged apologetically but continued tightening the wrap around the boy's rib cage.



"How could you!" Buffy glared at Xander, her eyes flashing over to where her body was being patched up. "You broke my nose!"



Xander winced, "Yeah, well technically, your nose broke my fingers. And your fist broke my face. And your foot broke my..."



"All right! All right! I get the point, already." Buffy looked over at the bloody mess her body was in and winced. "Jeez... now I don't know if I want it back."



Xander could hear the mild humor in the Slayer's voice but decided to take her seriously. "Well... I could get use to you in this body... You know.. I wouldn't have to use my imagination to picture you..."



"Shut up!" Buffy glared at him. "Do NOT go there."



Xander shrugged and grinned at her, unrepentant.



Willow spoke quietly, "What are we going to do with... her?"



Xander turned to watch Giles tend to Faith, "You aren't going to have to do anything Will. But I'm going to try to help her through this."



"What!?" Both girls said in shock.



Xander sighed and pushed himself to his feet, against Sidney's protestations. "You both heard me."



"But.... but... she killed people!" Willow hissed.



Xander pierced her with a look that could have melted steel, but didn't say a word. He turned to look where Buffy was recovering from her shock. "You have anything to add?"



Buffy grimaced. She had a lot to add, but she had a distinct feeling that it wasn't going make much difference. Too much distance had formed between her and Xander over the last year and a half or more for her to have any chance of changing his mind. "You know we'll never be able to work together."



Xander looked between the two Slayers, "never say never, Buff."



"Never say never."



He walked over to where Giles was finishing up, "You ok?" he asked Faith.



She nodded and extended her hand. He grabbed it and pulled her to her feet. "I'll live. Might regret it, but I'll live."



"Oh I can guarantee you that." Xander said, a mischievous grin tugging at his mouth.



"Thanks," She said, then she paused. "Hey, did you mean you can guarantee I'll live or that I'll regret it?"



Xander didn't answer, he just turned away, still smiling, and left the room.



*****



"Hey, Jack." Xander said as he limped down the stairs.



"Fuck, kid." Crow looked him over, "You look like you've been through a blender."



Xander rasped out a chuckle, "You try going twelve rounds with an enraged Slayer. Then we'll see how goo you look."



Crow shook his head. "No thanks kid. I like my body parts intact."



"Good call." Xander looked at him seriously, "Hey, I need a favor."



"What kind?" Crow looked at him suspiciously.



"I need you to go to the warehouse on fifth and eighth to pick something up for me. I'd do it myself but..." Xander shrugged painfully as he indicated the bandages.



Crow nodded, "Sure kid. Just don't make a habit of it, I'm not a fuckin messenger service."



Xander laughed, and immediately regretted it. Then he described the body switching device he had gotten faith to tell him about, and where she had hidden it.



"You got it, kid." Crow said as he grabbed his coat.



*****



Two Days later



Leo and Phoebe shimmered into Xander's basement and headed up the stairs. When they got into the living room they stopped and stared in shock at the scene.



The room was split into three camps. On one side, Buffy, Willow, and Tara were sitting with the first two throwing occasional glares across the room. On the other side Xander sat, fending off the attentions of a brunette who was literally draping herself over him. Phoebe lurched forward instantly, something caught her eye that stopped her.



The glares from Buffy and Willow were directed at the brunette who was, obviously to everyone but Buffy and Willow, merely fawning over Xander to aggravate them. Phoebe's outrage slipped down a peg, but only one, as she looked at the third camp.



Rupert Giles was sitting between the two groups look exceedingly miserable.



"Xander!" Phoebe spoke clearly, in a tone that should have sent any sane man scampering for his life.



Xander jumped up, dropping the brunette to the floor where she landed with a smile and catlike reflexes, and turned to Phoebe with a wide grin. "Pheobe, God it's good to see you."



She watched, tapping her foot, as he painfully rushed to her and pulled her into a light hug. "Help me." He whispered into her ear.



Phoebe started out of her irate mood and nodded into his shoulder, still confused. She turned to the group and smiled, "Excuse me, my *boyfriend* and I need to have a chat."



She saw Buffy and Willow smile at the brunette, who smiled back at them even wider. Then the brunette turned. "See ya, Lover."



Xander winced but didn't turn back, he kept walking stiffly toward the hall with Phoebe glaring at his back the whole way.



*****



"Ok, now what the hell was that all about?" Phoebe demanded, her hands on her hips and her eyes flashing.



Xander winced, "before I get into that... Leo?"



"Yes Xander?" Leo walked up.



"How are you at healing cracked ribs?"



Leo looked at him oddly, then his eyes widened as he recognized the signs of injury on the boy. "My god, Xander. What happened to you?"



"Had a friend that needed some sense beat into her." Xander sighed in relief as leo started healing the damage. "Ahh.... Thanks, man. Could you go do the same to Buffy?"



"Buffy did this to you!? AGAIN?" Phoebe demanded, anger rushing to her face.



"No... no... well... not exactly." Xander said as Leo headed into the living room. "It's a long story and it has to do with Faith."



"The brunette who was all over you?" Phoebe growled.



Xander nodded, "Yeah, but she was just trying to get Willow's goat."



Phoebe didn't drop the frown, but a snort of humor came out of her. "She was doing a damned good job."



Xander laughed, "yeah... but I wish she wouldn't keep dragging me into the middle of it."



Phoebe softened, "So what happened?"



Xander told her. And Phoebe's eyes widened as she listened. "Christ. I leave for a couple days and this happens??"



Xander chuckled, but grew somber as he related how things turned out. Phoebe raised a hand to her mouth. "You told her...?"



Xander shrugged... "I couldn't let her go without a fight, Phoebe. She's helped save the world, dammit. She deserves better. I needed something that would get through to her..."



Phoebe nodded slowly. Saving people was something she understood, but to hear that Xander bared his soul to this woman. Told her secrets that hurt him so bad that he couldn't sleep without help from an ancient mystical weapon. She looked at Xander in shock. "Oh Xander..."



"I'll be ok." he said. "I promised, remember?"



Phoebe nodded, pulling him to her and holding him for a long moment. "I know... but... how long do you have to keep hurting?"



Xander smiled sadly, "I wish it was just me, Phoebe. But I heard you after you pulled down my memories. You're as stuck in my nightmares as I am."



Phoebe nodded sadly into his shoulder as Xander wrapped her up and held her tightly. They stood like that a long time before anyone interrupted them.



END OF INTERLUDES ONE :

The Long Road Ahead