Title: Purged

Author: Vlad_the_Impish

Rating: Nothing worse than the show

Summary: Set post Chosen, but nothing to do with Season Eight; in fact it's set in present time (2009), which would actually make it around Season Thirteen or Fourteen. Xander was always considered the normal one; 100% human, 100% of the time. They have no idea what 100% human means, but they're soon to find out.

Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to Buffy the Vampire Slayer; that honour is held by people smarter and richer than I am, which, to be honest, could mean pretty much anyone who isn't me. However, in order to narrow it down somewhat I will specify with, but not limit it to the following; Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, Kuzui Enterprises and 20th Century Fox. This story is purely for entertainment value and I will not make any money from writing it.

A/N1: I've been pretty much non-existent these past couple of years. The reason for that is because I've been in a very dark place, still am if I'm honest, and find it almost frightening to interact with anyone in almost any way. My love for writing has all but gone, so has my love for pretty much everything else in my life, but I wanted to get something out, even if it only increased the number of unfinished stories I have.

A/N2: This has nothing really to do with the story, but I wanted to share it with the group. Over here in the UK we have a quiz show called QI (Quite Interesting), hosted by the living legend that is Stephen Fry. The contestants (all of them celebrities depending on how loosely you use the term) not only gain points when they answer questions correctly, they also gain points by being interesting and lose them by giving the generally thought but wrong answer. Anyway, they happened to be talking about the Marx brothers, and it was pointed out that Zeppo, a name all of us Xander fans know, went on to invent the cradle that held the atomic bombs used in WWII. Not so useless after all, hey Cordy... (Of course, it isn't exactly something to bring up at dinner parties either, but still...)

Anyhoo, here's the story!

A/N3 - June '10: I originally wrote these notes back in June 2009; I really suck at this writing thing...

A/N4 - Apr '11: I really, *really* suck at this writing thing. Who knew that stress and depression would silence The Voices for so long? Anyway, I am trying to get back to writing, if only to finish off the stories I've started, but I can't make any promises.

A/N5 – Sep '11: I mean *really* suck.

A/N6 – Nov '12: No, I mean it. I *really* suck at this.



"Zahra! Ashia! Hold the right flank! Neema, stay close to Akili!" Xander shouted as he held off two vampires and a zombie with his battleaxe.

Neema, who had strayed away from her fighting partner in her eagerness to eviscerate a ghoul, nodded sharply and got back into position, closing off the gap and giving the swathe of demons facing them one less avenue of attack.

As the three demons he was tussling with shifted positions, Xander took the opportunity drive an elbow into the closest of the three hard enough to be rewarded with a satisfying crunch as their nose collapsed under the force of the blow. As the vampire staggered back clutching its face, Xander span round and thrust the end of his battleaxe, sharpened down to a fine point, into its chest, turning his face away for a brief moment to ensure the dust didn't get into his eye. He continued to pivot, using the axe head to ensure neither of the remaining demons tried to take advantage, and less than a second later another vampire took its place, and Xander was once again on the defensive.

"Damn, that's some breath you got there, ugly," Xander commented with a grimace as the gnarling face of the zombie once again attempted to feast on his brains whilst waiting for his fighting partner, Lorna, to finish off the five demons she was battling so she could tackle them from behind and provide him with a second or two of much needed breathing space.

He smashed the flat of his axe blade into the face of a vampire that made another attempt to snack on his neck and brought his knee up hard and fast into the groin of another, using enough force for him to hear and feel a wet, squishy 'pop', and actually winced in sympathy at the high pitched wail the vampire produced as it dropped to the floor in a foetal position, its hands cupping its genitals. Not being able to do anything else, Xander kicked it as hard as he could in the head with his steel-toed boot, taking it out of commission for at least a little while.

Half a heartbeat later, Lorna entered the fray like a wraith. At a speed almost too fast for him to process, she darted between the two demons still standing and dispatched them in one fluid movement, her tanto only visible as a streak of silvery green light as it passed through their necks, which provided Xander with the freedom to sink his axe handle into the chest of the unconscious vampire before him.

"How ya doin', Boss Man?" Lorna asked as they experienced a momentary respite.

"I feel how they look," Xander replied as he pointed to where more demons were coming for them.

"That badly, huh?" she said as she prepared herself for the next wave, grinning slightly as the Slayer part of her revelled in the carnage that was about to be wrought.

"Nah," Xander said as he dodged a swing from a zombie and severed its right leg at the knee, following through to take another's arm. "It's just that I feel I'm in a giant version of whack-a-mole."

Lorna laughed and jumped into the fray once more, caving a zombie's head in as she used it as a stepping stone to vault over the line of demons that had formed in front of them, but as she somersaulted through the air still had time to shout, "At least you're not the mole!"

Xander knew better than to comment, so instead he rolled his eye and followed his Slayer into war.

In a warped kind of way, he was glad for the large, glowing green dome that illuminated the battleground, even if it did give the entire situation an eerie atmosphere that really wasn't needed, as it meant that his magic users could conserve their strength for the fight instead of lighting the way for the Slayers. However, given the reason the dome was there, he'd much rather it didn't exist and he could get back to catching up on the latest season of America's Got Talent.

Moving as agilely as he could, Xander met the demonic horde head on, using their lack of coordination to his advantage to move through them in a hit and run strategy that suited him better than a Slayer's, who could risk trading blows with their attackers. Xander went for gut shots, knees, elbows; anything that would slow down or disable his opponent and make it easy pickings for a Slayer. However, for every demon that was taken out, it seemed as though three more took their place.

Normally, with the odds stacked against them as they were, Xander would have already ordered a 'tactical withdrawal' – using the word 'retreat' to a Slayer was never the smartest thing to do, and even dumber when speaking to a group of them – but the situation was both not as bad and worse than it looked.

The compound they were in was literally teeming with demons, but while they were up against an army of vampires, ghouls and zombies, their attackers weren't exactly playing with a full deck and were more of an obstacle than a real threat. It was the very definition of a target rich environment, and it meant that his team could let loose in a way they normally wouldn't be able, as there wasn't much chance of catching a friendly in the crossfire.

There was, of course, a downside; despite their adversaries making the fight feel like shooting fish in a barrel, the sheer volume of demons that stood in their way meant that they made quite an effective obstacle, and prevented them from getting close enough to confront the true threat, and Xander sensed that they were quickly running out of time.

A few days ago, Xander had received a message from the leader of one of the more pacifist demon clans that lived in the region. He'd received communications from the Vita'Everto clan before, as they were one of the few that had the intelligence to realise that the best way to keep themselves on the Council's good side, and therefore not finding themselves facing the business end of a Slayer's weapon, would be if they kept their noses clean (they didn't actually have noses, but the analogy still worked) and didn't harm humans without reason. They also knew that they would be better off to keep the Council informed if they discovered anything suspicious, and that was where the message came in.

The message itself didn't go into a great deal of detail, mainly because the clan elder only had a rudimentary knowledge of English and knew better than to write to Xander in its native language, but it had been descriptive enough to explain that they'd been having problems with a powerful necromancer that had recently set up shop in the neighbourhood.

Xander didn't like necromancers – his 'adventure' with O'Toole and his gang all those years ago in Sunnydale had made certain of that – so he never considered it a good thing to have them in the neighbourhood at the best of times, especially given the fact that the neighbourhood included a Hellmouth that could boost a necromancer's power. Even a neophyte necromancer was able to perform advanced level spells when in close proximity to a Hellmouth, and while the African Hellmouth was dormant, and therefore less powerful, it still gave them one hell (pardon the pun) of a boost.

The Vita'Everto clan was very into life magic, and as a result of that they had over the centuries developed the ability to adversely affect a necromancer's success in raising and controlling the dead by their mere presence. That was another reason why Xander hadn't minded the clan staying around – although there was no way he would ever admit to that.

The message had gone on to report that they were now leaving to find a new home in response to the necromancer's numerous attempts to wipe their clan out, no doubt to ensure that whatever they had planned went smoothly. Their last act before they departed had been to send him that message.

Despite Xander's personal opinion of necromancers in general, the news that one had popped up in the area hadn't been what had concerned him; he had learnt a long time ago not to let his own prejudices interfere in his work, at least not without hard facts to back up (read justify) his decisions. No, what *had* caused Xander to put everyone on full alert - not to mention mentally cataloguing the best ways to slay them - was that the necromancer in question had been able to come in and set themselves up so close to the Hellmouth without the Council knowing about it; they'd still be in the dark *now* if it hadn't been for that message, and that was not a position Xander liked to be in.

One of the first things Xander had implemented - once the Council had the time and resources available to do it - was to have detection wards put in place around both the Hellmouth and their headquarters at incremental intervals; their job was to alert them of any beings of a certain power level that came within a certain distance of them, which worked not only as a warning of a potential attack, but also allowed them to keep track of the movements of the local neutral/pacifist demonic population.

That this necromancer had been able to slip by them unnoticed meant one of two things; they were either too weak in power to be noticed by the wards , or as Xander's cynical/realistic part of his brain suspected, they were both *very* powerful and *very* smart. Having someone like that anywhere near the Hellmouth was not of the good, so Xander had immediately made finding out who the necromancer was and, more importantly, what they wanted, a top priority.

His research department hadn't been able to discover exactly who the necromancer was, or what exactly they had planned. However, upon seeing the look on Xander's face, they had been quick to give him several possibilities as to what their plan *could* be.

Of the several scenarios provided, the least deadly of the batch ended with the death of every living - and unliving - thing within a hundred miles. The Mystic Arts department then explained that they had tried locating the necromancer, but had initially been unable to find anything, until they realised that there was an area that was completely free of magic, even the traces of ambient magic normally found in Africa.

Once they located the null area on the map - which was actually within the grounds of a disused school that Xander had been trying to acquire on behalf of the Council for the past six months so they could expand their presence on the continent - Xander had immediately decided that a pre-emptive strike was their best bet, and ordered a full assault; he'd long since gotten bored with letting things go right down to the wire, and didn't want to chance them being too late.

There had been a couple of people, mainly to play Devil's Advocate, that had questioned his decision to take everyone but a skeleton staff back at base, but as they'd reached the school and were able to see the reason why their patrols hadn't had much to deal with the past two or three weeks, Xander was glad he hadn't changed his mind. In fact, he'd almost bemoaned the fact he'd left anyone back at base at all, but he'd been around too long to put all of his eggs in one basket, especially as Murphy loved to taunt him.

That brought Xander back to their current problem; while they were thinning the herd, there were still too many demons between them and the necromancer, who from what Xander could see was already in the middle of a ritual, a ritual that they had to stop at any cost.

"*Damn it*!" Xander snapped as he beheaded another ghoul, "We need to break through!"

"We kinda already figured that, Boss Man," Lorna replied as she shoved a stake through a zombie's eye, twisting it around and then pulling it out again with a loud squelch, blood and brain matter dripping from the tip, "but these guys aren't bein' all that accommodatin'."

Xander looked round and saw out of all the groups, his was the closest to the dome, and decided to do something very, very stupid. "Abbie! Sahara!" he shouted out to his own personal protection detail, something that Xander hadn't wanted but begrudgingly accepted when Giles had made it a non-negotiable condition of allowing him to retain his active field status. "I need a lift!"

The two Slayers in question looked at each other doubtfully for a moment before they nodded their assent. The sisters had been with Xander for over a year now, ever since they'd been transferred from the Cleveland branch – a decision they still sometimes thought had been done as punishment for something that they still denied was their fault – and then given the role as his personal bodyguards whilst out in the field, replacing his previous entourage.

They didn't like what they figured Xander was about to do, as the last time he'd done so it had almost ended in disaster, not to mention leaving him in an awfully painful state, but they knew better than to question a decision in the heat of battle, especially when it came from him. They had witnessed time and again that Xander's ideas, whilst out there, invariably worked, and weren't about to doubt him now.

That Xander rarely chose someone else to do the insane part of his plans both annoyed and pleased the Slayers that were assigned to the African branch; they were annoyed because they instinctively felt that they should be the ones to take the risks, but at the same time they were pleased because it showed he didn't just see them as tools to be deployed.

Realising that they needed a little extra space, they and a few other Slayers that were aware of what was going to happen stepped things up a gear and began literally throwing the demons around them out of the way, focussing more on clearing a path than on outright slayage. Once they'd made enough room, Abbie and Sahara locked arms and nodded to Xander, who slipped his axe into its custom made holster - given to him as a birthday present from the girls - and then ran at them full tilt before he launched himself into the air and landed onto their waiting arms. The pair easily supported his weight and used his forward momentum to hurl him up and over the battlefield.

As Xander sailed through the air, he knew that this wasn't his smartest idea, especially as his shoulder still ached every now and then from the last time he'd done this, but he also knew that he had the best chance of getting through whatever wards or other mystical protection the necromancer had put in place.

A few years ago, when they had finally gotten The Council back on its feet and fully staffed, or as fully staffed as one could get an international organisation tasked with keeping the supernatural under control, Willow had finally decided to put Xander through a full mystical physical to try and find out why magic never seemed to go the way it should where he was concerned.

Three days later, the first taken up solely by her shooting a combination of the puppy dog eyes and Resolve Face at Xander until he caved and allowed her to test him, she had found that Xander was somehow able to absorb small amounts of magic, which then affected the spell itself. Further testing then revealed a strange but often useful ability; Xander was able to bypass wards, no matter how powerful, without triggering any sort of alarm. It was a skill he had used to his advantage on more than one occasion, although the fact that he was unable to pull anyone through with him meant that he only used it when he was relatively certain he would be safe, when no one else would find out, or when there was no other option.

With the amount of cannon fodder this necromancer had managed to put in their way, Xander had little choice but to assume that the green dome they were inside was yet another obstacle set up to slow them down, and given that they were already in the middle of whatever ritual they intended to do, this definitely fell into the 'no other option' category.

Xander's assumption was proven correct when he sailed through the dome and felt the familiar tingle that told him he'd just bypassed a ward, and a moment later he landed less than gracefully on the ground, knocking the necromancer back a couple of feet just as they finished their incantation.

"*No*!" the necromancer roared in anger and frustration as he watched Xander rather painfully stand up. "You *fool*! You've ruined *everything*!"

At that point, Xander would have normally replied that it had been the general idea, followed by a couple of quips regarding his dress sense in honour of Cordy, but he was too busy screaming in agony to even register what the necromancer had said. The ground beneath him, the focal point of the ritual, first darkened to an oily black and then began to tremble; the air around him first began to feel heavy, oppressive, malevolent. After a beat or two, a wisp of air passed by him, which turned into a gust, quickly gathering speed until it looked like he was in the eye of a miniature maelstrom, the air so thick it looked like fluid, the darkness rising from the ground and merging with the violent column of air to the point where Xander was completely obscured from view.

While he was no longer able to be seen, he could still, however, be heard; blood-curdling cries of pain spewed forth into the starless sky, sounding as though they had literally been ripped out of him by whatever force had him in its grasp, the funnel somehow amplifying and distorting the noise so that it rang out throughout the compound, sounding otherworldly but still uniquely Xander. Those that had come with Xander had never heard him, or anyone, sound like that; Xander had been on the receiving end of torture before, and adopted a firm policy of never giving the enemy the satisfaction of knowing just how badly injured you were.

The unwilling spectators were soon brought out of their shock and despair; the atmosphere around the dome suddenly shifted into a pulsing wave of righteous fury, one that passed over and engulfed the entire encampment like a physical force, the air so thick with it you could practically reach out and grasp it in your hands. United by one visceral battle-cry, they began to literally tear through their opposition with such carnal, bestial savagery that, even through the compulsion that kept them fighting, the demons realised that they would not survive the next few minutes.

It was a realisation that was borne out to be true, and soon the only ones left standing outside of the dome were members of the African branch of the New Watchers Council. Despite overcoming seemingly impossible odds, they didn't even take one millisecond to enjoy their victory, as was usually their wont after such a battle; instead, they immediately tried whatever they could think of to breach the wards that stood between them and their boss, their colleague, their friend.

While the Slayers tried physical means to break through, either attacking it directly or using their weapons to dig into the earth so that they might crawl under, the magic users in the group tried every spell they could think of to counteract the latticework of wards and allow them to assist Xander, a latticework that they quickly surmised had formed a perfect sphere around the necromancer.

When their initial attempts failed and their knowledge exhausted, they too went for brute force, as they combined their energies and sent it at the shield, a beam of pure, unbridled power. However, despite their best efforts, in spite of them placing every ounce of their strength and willpower behind it, they like the slayers had no choice but to concede defeat; there was no way of breaking through. The ward schema was tied directly into the necromancer's life-force; as long as the necromancer was alive, the barrier was impenetrable.

As it became clear to everyone that they couldn't get through, the group watched with a combination of resignation and morbid fascination as the mini tornado continued to spin, Xander's screams still audible to all. They were only mildly consoled by the fact that the necromancer had been caught up in the power of the mystical twister, and watched as they were buffeted around the sphere in the tornado's wake. Grim smiles of satisfaction flitted momentarily over their faces whenever they heard the occasional snap or scream of pain to indicate that another of the necromancer's bones had been broken.

After about five minutes, which to some felt more like five hours, the magically-induced tempest began to dissipate and Xander's cries began to die down, which the assembled group took to mean that his time was at an end. To say that they were surprised would be an understatement when, once the wind had finally died down and lightened enough to allow them to peer inside, they saw that Xander was still standing; despite all the bloodcurdling screams to the contrary, it appeared that he was more or less unharmed, at least not physically, although his clothes had been all but torn to shreds from the force of the wind they had been put under, to the point where he was passing into the realm of indecency.

Their surprise at seeing Xander alive quickly turned to amazement when they watched him stalk over to the broken and bleeding body of the necromancer, his eye almost blazing due to the sheer volume of rage held within, and snapped their neck with such ferocity that their head span round a full revolution. As the necromancer's now lifeless body fell to the ground, the ward schema fell with it, they saw Xander look and smile beatifically at them all before his legs gave out and he collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut. It was only the quick thinking of Abbie and Sahara that stopped his head from smashing against the ground, as they were able to reach him just before he made impact.

Their worried, tearful faces were the last thing Xander saw before the world went black.


Watchers Council Headquarters, Cleveland

"How is he, Wills?" Buffy asked as she walked into the room, gazing sadly at the deathly still figure in the bed.

"Much better than he looks," Willow replied from her position at Xander's side, cradling one of his hands in both of her own.

The last couple of days had been pretty hectic and emotional for the Watcher's Council, especially for the upper hierarchy. Once Willow found out about Xander's condition via a spell she'd placed on him – one that Xander had only accepted being cast after he'd expressed, in great detail, his displeasure, especially when he'd found out that Willow hadn't intended to cast it on the others – it had taken Kennedy and Buffy several minutes to calm the redhead down, especially once they saw that her hair and eyes had begun to darken.

Both Buffy and Kennedy had breathed a silent sigh of relief when, after a few tense moments, they were able to see that Willow wasn't going to slip once more, as while they might not always like it, both of them knew that only Xander was truly capable of getting through to Willow once she went all black and veiny; both knew that they could bring her back from the brink of losing it, but only Xander seemed capable of pulling her back after she'd lost it. They shuddered to think what would happen if news ever came in of his death, as Willow's rage would more than likely burn a hole through the world.

Safe in the knowledge that 'Darth Rosenberg' – something Xander had once called Willow's other side after having watched the Star Wars Trilogy for the umpteenth time – wasn't going to make an appearance, Buffy had gone to Giles with what she knew. After a swift debriefing, followed by an even swifter conference call with Africa, they had immediately sent a contingent of Slayers and Watchers to Africa to help them do a clean sweep of the surrounding areas.

They, combined with everyone in Africa still fit for duty from their previous skirmish, systematically took out every known and possible danger in the region, leaving only those they knew were peaceful, plus one from each nest and lair they decimated. Their goal was simple; to send a clear message to the demon population that if anyone or anything tried something like that again, the Council would reply tenfold. Xander had once stated that it was the Chicago way, who had then all but forced the group to watch 'The Untouchables' when he received uncomprehending looks, but now it was considered the Council way.

While the Council cleaned house in Africa with a zeal that was both frightening and awe inspiring in equal measure, Xander had been flown back to Cleveland, with Abbie and Sahara of course as his protection detail. Jabal Lwani, Xander's second in command, nearly decided against sending them, even if his protection was their main duty, as Willow had materialised at Xander's side as they stretchered him into the plane, and with her with him on the flight, nothing short of Lucifer himself would have had the slightest chance of harming him. He also had the thought that they would have enjoyed wailing on a few dozen demons to vent their anger and frustration over the whole affair, which, while not exactly the healthiest outlet, would have certainly done the trick.

However, as Jabal took a moment to observe them, he could see in their eyes and in their posture that they both felt responsible for Xander's current condition, that they had failed Xander somehow by allowing him to get hurt, and they needed to not only be told he would be okay, but to actually *see* that he would be okay it for themselves. By staying with him, it gave the pair time to pull themselves together, and to also come to terms with what had happened, with the added bonus that once Xander woke up, they would be made aware of just how boneheaded their thoughts were by the man himself.

Jabal shared Xander's feeling on the subject of his needing a protection detail, and it was only out of respect for his wishes that he hadn't broached the subject with Rupert in the strongest terms possible, especially when the duty had been given to those two. It wasn't that he didn't believe them capable; it was that they were so young in comparison to a lot of the other Slayers, and did not have the same experience in understanding the difference between what was and what wasn't under their control. He knew that, when Xander woke up, he would make sure they both understood that.

The flight to Cleveland had been a short one, despite the distance travelled; while Willow couldn't risk her first instinct of teleporting Xander directly to Cleveland due to not knowing how the extra magic would affect whatever he'd already gone through, she could definitely give the plane a little 'assistance' in flouting those pesky laws of physics and making a Concorde look like a Cessna in comparison.

The moment that the plane had touched down, Xander had been whisked to the medical wing – an addition made at Buffy's request due to her aversion of going to a 'normal' hospital, although it also meant that they would not have to go through the trouble of lying to medical staff about how their injuries occurred, or why they healed so quickly – and a myriad of tests had been performed on him, both mystical and medical. As was usually the case, it had been a 'good news, bad news' situation; the good news was that Xander was not in any immediate danger, but the bad news was that they had no idea just what had happened to him, nor why he had yet to wake up.

The research department had, however, been able to work out just what the necromancer – which they'd discovered had been a high ranking member of The Scourge before they'd all but obliterated it two years previously – had planned to accomplish. Had it gone to plan, the ritual was to have, for want of a better word, purified it to such an extent that it would have become a True Demon, ala Mayor Wilkins III. Having dealt with something similar before, they knew that there would have been no chance in hell for Xander and the others to have left that compound alive given the resources they had available, and they had estimated that a large chunk of the continent would have been laid to waste before anyone could have even put up a workable resistance.

While they didn't have that to worry about, thanks mainly to Xander's reckless but ultimately necessary last minute save, they still needed to discover just what that ritual had done to Xander, if it had done anything at all. It had been theorised that, due to Xander being human, the spell would not have changed anything, and that the pain that he'd experienced had been similar to holding onto a live wire for an extended period of time. Of course, they had run several more tests just in case, but due to their nature, it would be several days before the results would be ready.

Buffy sat down on the opposite side of the bed and mirrored Willow's position. "I don't get it; he looks so healthy," she said as she stroked the back of Xander's hand with her thumb, a move that Willow took notice of and filed away for later.

"I know he does, and that's kinda the problem," Willow said as she let go of his hand and slid the covers down Xander's body to just below his naval.

Tanned, unblemished skin filled Buffy's view and she felt a feeling of bashfulness wash over her, causing her to flit her gaze away from his chest for a moment before she shook the feeling off and realised just what Willow had meant.

Unblemished skin.

After over a decade of fighting, every one of them had scars from where one demon or another had gotten a touch too close, and unfortunately Xander had accumulated more than most, as he didn't have the benefit of supernatural healing. The largest in his collection of 'unorthodox mementos', as Xander had once put it, were the large jagged scars that Willow herself had inflicted on him that fateful day on Kingman's Bluff, when he had literally been all that had stood between her and the end of the world.

While the rest of his scars had faded over time, these had stood out like three large lightning bolts - a fact that had Xander once stating it made him at least three times better than Harry Potter - and due to the nature of how they had been caused, they had never healed in the same way as normal scars, leaving them to look like they had just been inflicted. There had been times when they even seemed to have had a glow of their very own; it was a notion that had been quickly disproved after a battery of tests had been performed, Xander suffering through them only to appease his friends.

Now, however, there was nothing, not even a scratch.

As Buffy looked more closely, she realised that even the natural imperfections that had been present, like moles and other such blemishes, had completely disappeared. Of course, another wave of bashfulness washed over her when she realised just how much attention she had to have paid to Xander's body over the years to know that there had been moles and other such blemishes to vanish, and it made her wonder why she had never noticed that before.

As the wheels turned in Buffy's head, her gaze went from Xander's chest to his face; more specifically to the piece of weathered dark brown leather that currently covered his right eye. She still found it difficult to accept that Xander needed to wear it, and she knew that their friendship had suffered because of it.

Once the battle against the First had ended and they all had time to think about what had happened, Buffy had found it uncomfortable to be around Xander for too long, as she found that the patch was a constant physical reminder of how she had been unable to protect one of the most important people in her life. When Xander had volunteered to take Africa to search for newly called Slayers, Buffy had initially been relieved as it meant she wouldn't have to face him very often.

It took some time, and a lot of therapy with a personally selected psychiatrist that was 'in the know', but Buffy finally got over her own misgivings, and when she realised how little she knew of Xander's life, made it her mission to get their friendship back to the way it was, perhaps even stronger. Now, her regular Wednesday night phone call with him had become the highlight of her week.

While she had never done so herself, Buffy knew that several attempts had been made over the years to talk to Xander about getting a prosthetic eye, but he had always dismissed the idea; he'd never gone into detail regarding why, and none of them were brave enough to request any once they saw the set look on his face.

"Is..." Buffy broke off before the question fully formed, not sure whether she wanted to know.

"I don't know," Willow answered honestly, knowing what the question would be. "When he had first been brought in, they had done a complete physical examination of him, and had found nothing wrong with the socket, beyond the fact that there wasn't an eye inside it of course, but at that time he'd still had his scars and quite a few bumps and scrapes from the battle."

"What about after, when they noticed what was going on?" Buffy asked.

"Well," Willow replied, "of course, they've done more checks since then, and while most of them had been witness to his scars vanishing without a trace, they've all stayed clear of the patch itself." At Buffy's inquisitive look, Willow went on. "They've all heard about what happened the last time someone had tried to remove it without his permission and, unconscious or not, none of them wanted to risk it."

The two ladies smiled a little as they remembered the incident that had garnered Xander a reputation within the Council for being someone you didn't want to piss off; Xander's temper had gotten shorter and more volatile after Sunnydale had gone, and the best example happened not long before Xander had left for Africa. Realising that they weren't going to be together again for some time, they had decided to have a final get-together and part way through Xander had fallen asleep.

One of the newly called Slayers, a stuck up bitch by the name of Clarice who they had found after the collapse of Sunnydale, had decided to prove to the others that Xander hadn't really lost his eye and went to take his patch away. The next thing that Clarice had said she could remember was looking up from the floor and being faced with an extremely angry Xander glaring down at her, with Buffy and Dawn either side calming him down. Xander had brandished a collapsible baton from somewhere and had targeted every weak point, using her surprise and more than one dirty trick to lay Clarice out and prove that stronger didn't always mean better.

Xander had gotten control of his temper during his tenure in Africa, but the subject of his injury and eyepatch were still dangerous things to talk about in front of him, although the likely result was that if you said something to set him off you would only be on the receiving end of a tongue lashing, although that was to some worse than a physical beat down.

They'd like to say that Clarice had learnt her lesson that night, but they couldn't; she had been alright for a week or two afterwards, but soon her holier than thou attitude had returned, and unfortunately for her she couldn't quite back up her position and had been taken out by a vamp on patrol. It shouldn't have happened, but she had believed that there was no chance it could beat her and hadn't put her all into the fight; the vamp got in a lucky swipe to her throat and she'd bled out right there in the cemetery.

"Why haven't you checked?" Buffy asked, knowing that Willow was probably one of less than a handful of people that could do so without Xander going off on one. She'd like to think that she could be counted in that number herself, but she'd taken far too many things for granted when it came to Xander to take the risk of finding out now.

"I was, and still am afraid of what I would find," Willow responded honestly, as she also had some trouble accepting what had happened to Xander during those last few weeks in Sunnydale. Also, try as she might, she was really hoping that the other changes meant that his eye would be back as well, and knew that if it wasn't she may well feel the same feelings of anger and helplessness that she experienced that night after they had returned from the vineyard.

"We need to know, Willow," Buffy said softly.

Willow said nothing in reply, but after a moment, she steeled herself and reached up to lift the patch. She knew that her own feelings over what had happened to his eye, and the way she had reacted to him since, had to be swept aside in order for them to get to the bottom of this, in order to get him better.

Since the injury, Willow had actually seen Xander without the patch on a couple of occasions, mainly when he had been too injured or too drunk to deal with it himself, and had always found herself holding back tears as she looked into the empty socket that had once held one of the most emotive eyes she had ever had the pleasure of seeing. That was another reason why she was so hoping that his eye would be returned to him; she was a believer in the saying that the eyes were the windows to the soul, and Xander's had been shrouded in darkness too long.

Her hopes were dashed, however; whatever Willow had been expecting, what she and Buffy saw was most definitely not it. Instead of an eye, or an empty socket, there was simply more flawless skin. Buffy and Willow looked at each other in shock for a moment, before Willow gently, tentatively ran her finger over the area to find that there was bone underneath. It was as though he had never even been born with a second eye. That the skin was as tanned as the surrounding area was just another thing to add to the list of questions that had been forming since Xander's arrival.

"Willow," Buffy whispered, "what the *hell* is happening to him?"

Willow replaced the patch and slumped back in her chair, her emotions so diverse that she wasn't able to really feel any of them long enough to identify. "I have no idea."


The Following Night

When Xander woke up, he instantly knew that something was wrong, because for as long as he could remember he had never been able to 'just' wake up; for Xander, there was quite a large transitional phase between being asleep and being awake, which normally took around an hour to traverse. Even when he'd been woken up by a particularly bad nightmare, or when the perimeter alarm went off, it still took him a few minutes before he was awake enough to be up to 100%, although he had learnt over the years to hide that fact from the others.

Xander's next clue that something wasn't quite right was the ceiling above his head. The ceiling of his bedroom had long ago been covered in posters, so it gave him something to look at on those occasions when sleep deluded him. This ceiling was bare, and it wasn't even painted, but was instead made up of modular ceiling tiles that just screamed hospital, especially when coupled with the fluorescent lighting that could make even the healthiest specimen of humanity look unwell.

Of course, the smell of the room also screamed hospital, but it was missing something, something that told him whatever had caused his most recent hospital stay had been major. From the first instant he had stepped on African soil, there had always been something in the air, some indistinct aroma that always seemed, at least to him, synonymous with the continent. It had stirred something within him, and had often been a calming influence on him during times of stress, but it was now conspicuous by its absence.

Then, the events of what happened whizzed through his consciousness, and given that he'd blacked out after whatever the hell it was that had happened to him, it didn't take a genius to work out that he had to be in Cleveland. While every Council facility around the globe had their own medical facilities, when one of the core group was seriously injured, they were always whisked off to the Cleveland headquarters; it had both the largest medical facility of them all, which wasn't all that surprising as it was actually an abandoned hospital that they had renovated and filled with state of the art technology, and it was also the base of operations for their surgical team.

Xander caught a soft snuffling sound to his right and realised that he was not alone in the room. Knowing where he was meant that he was not in danger, but living a life where dropping your guard, no matter how briefly, could spell the end, he cautiously looked around the room as best he could. Being careful not to move too much in case it aggravated any injuries he had, although he had to say that he felt pretty damn fine, Xander sat up slightly and noticed Abbie and Sahara asleep either side by side on the opposite end of the room. Their heads were resting on each other, and their bodies were in positions no normal person could ever consider comfortable, which wasn't all that surprising given the cheap plastic chairs they were sitting on.

"You know," Xander said softly, although he knew their enhanced hearing would pick it up, "if I had a camera right now, this would give me bucket loads of blackmail material."

Both Slayers jumped out of their chairs and into defensive positions, something that Xander both found immensely amusing even as he nodded in approval. Once the pair blinked a couple of times and realised where they were and who had woken them, their eyes widened and they squealed in delight.


The pair leaped into the man's waiting arms, and in their exuberance at seeing Xander awake they must have completely forgotten about both their strength and the reason why Xander was in a hospital bed, because they slammed into him full force. What none of them noticed, however, was that not only did Xander remain unharmed despite the force of their landing, he barely even moved an inch, and was also able to adjust their positions without any real effort on his part.

A moment later, after the happiness had dispersed and the events of the past few days came rushing back, both girls began bawling into Xander's chest, babbling fast enough to make even Willow look like a slow talker. Despite the rapid velocity of their words, Xander was still able to make out what they were saying, and once he realised the reason for their tears, Xander rolled his eye even as he comforted them both, crooning softly into their ears.

Xander could understand why they were distraught, as he himself had always felt terrible whenever anyone he was responsible for got hurt, but at the end of the day it had been his decision to make the leap, and for better or worse, it would be for him to face the consequences of his actions. He knew he'd have to knock some sense into them, and ream Giles out again for burdening them with such a responsibility in the first place, but for right now they needed his comfort, not his ire.

After a few minutes, Abbie and Sahara had gotten themselves under control once more. Happy that he wasn't going to drown any longer in their tears, Xander gently sat up a little straighter, once again unaware of just how easily he was doing so with the weight, no matter how slight, of two young women on him.

"Right then, now that you two have gotten that out of your system," Xander began, "and you've seen that I'm alright, I think it's time that you both got a few hours of proper, uninterrupted sleep."


"But me no buts," Xander cut in. "You've both probably had little to no sleep since Africa, so sleep is what you will both do, and don't think I won't make it an order if I have to."

Both girls pouted at that, but knew better than to push their luck. While Xander was in charge in Africa, he rarely if ever gave any orders; instead he would request that someone do something, and invariably they would do it, knowing that Xander wouldn't ask of them anything he didn't think they could do. The only occasions when he would actually give an order was when it was absolutely necessary, and because of that everyone knew that his orders were to be carried out to the letter.

To their recollection, and from what they had been told, only one person had defied him when they were ordered to do something, and they had been transferred so quickly back to Cleveland that they barely had time to pack. On the surface that sounded harsh, but the order in question had been to a magic user not to cast a specific spell during a skirmish, as to do so would actually put them all at a disadvantage against the demons they'd been fighting.

The problem had been that they'd felt that Xander didn't know what he was on about, not being a magic user himself, and had cast the spell anyway, and the consequences had almost been fatal for them all; at least three Slayers had been injured so severely that they were never allowed to patrol again, and several others had sustained injuries that many believe wouldn't have happened if Xander's orders had been followed.

"Alright, we'll go," Abbie replied, a little sullenly, "but we're under strict instruction to let Mr. Giles know when you wake up."

"I figured as much," Xander said with a sigh. "Oh well, go tell Giles I'm awake; he'll know where I'll be."

The girls looked at each other a little strangely at the way Xander worded that, but they had gotten used to Xander not always making sense and didn't think anything more of it, so after getting one last hug, they left the room.

The moment they had closed the door, Xander hopped out of bed and went over to the small fitted wardrobe where he knew he would find his clothes. Buffy and the others knew how antsy he got when he was in a hospital bed, and his habit for leaving AMA, so they would normally confiscate his clothes until he was cleared to leave. They knew he would bitch and moan about it, possibly lay into them in a way only Xander, or Cordelia when she was alive, could do, but they still did it because they all thought his health was more important.

Giles, however, knew what it was like living in a world where Y chromosomes were on the endangered species list, and after seeing how annoyed Xander got whenever they did it, decided to replace them when the girls weren't looking so he could make a quick getaway if he needed to. Xander was careful to never abuse the help Giles gave him, and only left when he honestly felt that he was fine to do so; he knew that Giles would stop helping him if he did anything else, and he needed all the support he could get once the girls started ganging up on him.

Only stopping long enough to put his pants and boots on, Xander then made his way outside into the corridor, and then took a moment to remember the layout of the building before making his way outside.


Summers Summerhouse – An Hour Later

"So, how long was I out?" Xander asked softly as he felt someone draw closer to him in the summerhouse.

"Just over a week," Giles answered after a moment, his tone tinged with surprise even as he flicked his torchlight up and down to check Xander over.

The surprise came from that fact that he had barely gotten within three feet of the summerhouse when Xander had posed his question, and it was close to pitch black both inside and out. He himself had only found his way to the small wooden building that backed onto Cuyahoga River due to his familiarity with the area and the small torch he currently clutched in his hand, but even then he'd had to tread carefully; the path was not an even one, and the beam the torch produced was purposefully quite dim, because anything brighter would have been picked up by one of the Slayers on guard duty.

After a moment's contemplation, Giles filed away the questions he wanted to ask and walked over and grasped Xander's shoulder. "You, my boy, are perilously close to breaking my record for being knocked out the most."

"This doesn't count," Xander replied immediately in semi-faux outrage as he turned round and returned the gesture, knowing that Giles was only partly joking.

Whilst it had always been a given that Giles would become head of the new Council when they'd decided to reform it, one of the reasons he'd finally given up field work was because he really had suffered one too many blows to the head in his life, and had been told that he'd risk permanent brain injury if he continued to actively patrol.

It was mainly because of that bit of unsettling news that they had all agreed to make it mandatory for every field member of the Council, Slayer or otherwise, to go through and pass a full physical every six months to be cleared for duty; they also had to go through a full physical after every world ending/apocalyptic event. Even the non-field personnel had to be checked over every twelve months just to be on the safe side, as they sometimes needed to back the others up when the situation required it.

"Anyway, I wasn't physically knocked out; I passed out due to what the juju did to me," Xander continued, "it only counts if someone actually physically knocks me out."

"You just keep telling yourself that," Giles responded with a small smile. "How do you feel?" he asked after a moment.

"I feel fine," Xander replied with a shrug. When he caught the way Giles was looking at him he continued. "Honestly, Giles, I feel fine; better than fine actually. I know I play my injuries down sometimes to stop you from worrying, but I wouldn't outright lie about it, especially when you helped to spring me out of that hospital bed."

"I should bloody well hope not," Giles said. "You and I both know what the girls would do to me if they found out I was an accomplice in your 'jailbreak'." Giles moved over to a small wooden bench and sat down. "So, what the *devil* were you thinking of jumping in like that? You could have bloody well broken your neck."

As Xander turned and glared at Giles, a look so penetrating that even in the darkness it was intimidating, he realised that he'd just made a big mistake. If there was one thing that got Xander's temper riled, it was when the others questioned his decisions. He knew that sometimes Xander's anger was unjustified, as on occasion he would do something foolishly in the heat of the moment – admittedly, far less frequently since his move to Africa – but they all had too much history for him to react any differently anymore. Of course, that they knew that and yet did it anyway only angered him further.

"I was doing my *job*, Giles, plain and simple," Xander said in a clipped tone, mindful that to get too angry or too loud would catch the attention of too many people. "We were running out of time and options, especially with that prick already halfway through whatever the hell it was it was trying to accomplish, and I knew I was the only one that could get through without problems. Even if it had gone wrong, it was the right call to make."

"I know that, and you know that," Giles said with a chagrined sigh, hoping that his admission would be enough to placate him somewhat, "but the girls-"

"Can either damn well keep their noses out of how I operate, or officially request that you fire me," Xander growled, before he took a calming breath. "I'm big enough and ugly enough to make up my own mind, Giles, and I've long got past the stage where I run into situations without thinking, unless the stakes are too high to do otherwise.

"I love them all, you know I do," he went on as he sat down beside the only man he would ever willingly call 'Dad', "but there was a reason I not only chose Africa, but stayed there, and that was to get out from under their thumbs. I know they've gotten a lot better over the years, especially Buffy, but they still revert to type whenever I'm injured, and I'm tired of biting my tongue."

"I know you are, my boy, and I don't blame you, but you know they only act that way because they all love you too, and hate to think that anything has happened to you. I have to admit that I find myself in a similar state," Giles said.

"I know, and I'm grateful to have so many people that care, but I'd like it more if they could just find some *other* way of showing it," Xander said with a sigh, knowing that his anger was pointless, no matter how vindicated he was in feeling that way.

"Maybe if you were to come over more often whilst conscious, they might not be so quick to berate you when you turn up otherwise," Giles suggested, only half in jest.

While Xander was in charge in Africa, as were the others in their own respective continents, they all managed to get together at least once every six months. It was mainly so that they got time together as a 'family', but it doubled as a progress review, going over what they had and hadn't needed to deal with since their last visit, and to discuss possible transfers or promotions. Xander, however, only really joined them in person when there was a particular need, and rarely if ever actually took any time off.

That wasn't to say he was anti-social; he spoke to them all regularly, with Buffy the most from what Giles could tell, and he remembered each of their birthdays, anniversaries and the like. From the gifts they received, it always showed that he'd put a great deal of thought into what to get them, so they knew that he cared for them; they would simply like to see him in person more often, instead of just speaking to him on the phone or see him on screen when they teleconferenced.

"I know, and I will try to make more of an effort, but Africa is my *home* now; it's the first place I've felt like I belonged in a long time, and I find it hard to be away for too long," Xander admitted. "Anyway, that is a two way street; you and the others can just as easily come over to see me as I can come see you."

Giles had to concede that point, mainly because Xander was right; while they may complain that they didn't see him as often as they'd like, it was rare for them to make the effort and travel to see him. Like Xander's home was Africa, theirs was now Cleveland, even if they didn't always spend that much time there. He himself considered the Cleveland branch his home, despite actually being stationed in Britain; he had only been in Cleveland when the news of Xander's situation became known because of a scheduled inspection, and was already due back.

Now, however, given what the doctor's had told him, there was another mystery that needed to be solved, and Giles had already explained to Andrew – who he had taken on as his personal assistant after he'd shown he could act semi-responsibly when he'd gone to retrieve Dana all those years ago, and was now his second in command (or First Officer as Andrew liked to call himself in private) – that he would not return until they knew exactly what it was that had happened to Xander and what, if anything, it would mean for him.

Giles shivered as a sudden gust of wind blew through the summerhouse, which then turned into a yawn as he glanced at his watch and saw just how late, or in this case early, it was. "Well then, what say you help this doddering old man get back to his room?" he said as he slapped his hands on his knees.

"Giles, no matter how old you get, doddering will never be a word that will describe you," Xander said with a small chuckle, even as he helped him up.

"Thank you, Xander, and I will remind you of that if I need to," Giles replied as he stood up.

"Yeah, but by that time you'll probably be so senile that you won't even remember this conversation," Xander replied with a smirk as they began to walk back to the main building, a smirk which only widened when he dodged the hand Giles swung at the back of his head, not realising that he should have had no way of knowing it was even coming.


Giles' Office – Three Days Later

There had only been one topic of conversation within the Cleveland branch of the Council the last couple of days, especially amongst the Scoobies, and that was the man they were currently watching from Giles' office window; Xander. They had all noticed things, things that on their own could be dismissed, but put together they were... troubling.

"You can't tell me *that* is normal," Buffy stated as she pointed out of the window in agitation.

Giles wiped his glasses and held back a sigh. "Buffy, I know that you are worried about what happened, but I do think that you might be overstating things just a tad."

"Yeah, Buffy," Dawn chimed in, "just because Xander has bounced back faster than expected-"

"Bounced back!? *Look* at him!" she exclaimed, only to look around quickly as she realised her voice had risen. She took note that the door to Giles' office was closed, but she also knew that wasn't enough to stop some of the nosier Slayers from eavesdropping. "He's like the damn *Energizer Bunny*!" she said after a moment, her voice much quieter than before.

Since he'd come round, the doctors had performed a boatload of tests on him, with Xander often stating they only did some of them as punishment for leaving his room without being cleared as medically fit, and had been told numerous times by Giles that he was not allowed to return to Africa until the doctors were satisfied there would be no long term problems regarding what he'd gone through.

Xander had understood Giles' position, and respected him too much to disobey a direct order – even if Giles hadn't phrased it as one, Xander could tell it for what it was – but that didn't mean he had to like it.

Abbie and Sahara, after Xander had assuaged any guilt they'd kept over his injury, had reluctantly gone back to Africa at his request once the first battery of tests had been completed. One of the reasons, the one that he had told them, was so that they could personally reassure the others that he was fine; as he was unable to go himself, the next best thing would be an eyewitness account, and would hopefully satisfy a lot of the Africa contingent. The other reason was to get them away from a few of the Cleveland Slayers that had been responsible for their transfer to Africa in the first place.

Neither sister knew that Xander had been fully briefed on the incident by Dawn, who had been able to provide him an unbiased account of what had happened as she hadn't been particularly close with any of those involved, and while he knew they had to share some of the blame, he would be hard-pressed not to take their side if and when another confrontation occurred, and that would not keep the harmony within the Council branches.

Like in any large organisation, there was a healthy competition between the different branches as to which was the best, but unlike other organisations they weren't mostly filled with Slayers all out to prove that they're the Alpha, so sometimes the competition got heated. They combated it where they could – rotating the Slayers occasionally so that they didn't develop too much of an 'us and them' mentality, hosting a Slayer version of the Olympics every six months to give them an outlet for their competitiveness – but sometimes they had to allow the inevitable blowups to happen and then ride out the storm. It had been because of one such occasion that Xander had ended up gaining two bodyguards.

The news of what Willow had – or *hadn't* as was the case – discovered under his eye patch had been surprising, but otherwise uneventful. Xander had, quite logically in his opinion, stated that he hadn't used the socket for the past six years or so, so that it was no longer there anymore really wasn't an issue as far as he was concerned. After withstanding several seconds of Resolve Face, however, he'd sighed and admitted that if he'd had the choice of course he would have preferred to have had his eye back as opposed to what had happened, but given how magic normally acted around him he was just happy he still had any eyes at all. He had noted that he'd felt a little off balance for the first few minutes after getting up, which he put down to the weight of the skin and bone where his eye socket used to be, but that otherwise he didn't think it really rated as something to be worried about.

Of course, in actuality he was pissed as hell that there had been physical changes made to his body due to the spell, especially in the area where Leftie used to live before that bastard Caleb killed him, but there was no way he was going to blow a gasket with so many people around. Beyond Willow, Buffy and the other core members, there were doctors, nurses and other medical staff around most of the time, and he wasn't going to cause a scene; he was currently on Willow's territory, and if he went off on one it would reflect badly on her.

If it had been a couple of years ago or more, something like causing a scene wouldn't have bothered him, but Jabal had taken a lot of time and effort into making him understand that, when you are in a position of power, it meant that there were politics involved. Xander was easily sold when it came to dealing with ambassadors and other dignitaries he'd had to be in the company of to ensure that their operation wasn't unduly interfered with by local and national government, but it had taken a *lot* longer for him to apply those same rules to internal situations.

That realisation had proven to Xander more than anything that while he had gotten older the past decade or so, he hadn't necessarily grown up. That wasn't necessarily all on him, as before his move to Africa almost everyone else he dealt with were in a similar situation, but he knew that he needed to take responsibility for his own actions, especially when he wanted the people under his command to do the same.

Anyway, with Xander unable to return to Africa for the foreseeable future, and having nothing official to do, he'd taken it upon himself to be the unofficial Council Activities Coordinator, and had pretty much roped everyone into playing hooky. There had been games of tag, football, soccer, and a whole host of others, and while there had been some grumblings among some of the older generation, they had tapered off when they could hear the carefree laughter coming from outside.

Slayers, even now, knew that every time they went on patrol might be the last time, and that old age was probably not something they would experience. That was a heavy burden to carry, even with the support that they now had, so to see them being able to forget, even if only for a little while, was worth the upheaval. The Scoobies were fine with it as well, and it wasn't the cause of their worry; Xander had a habit of doing similar things whenever he was given an enforced R&R, so it had come as no surprise that he'd done so now.

No, what was the cause of their discussion was the amount of energy he had. Since he'd started his own form of recess, he had been running around with the Slayers non-stop, barring eating and sleeping, and he had yet to show any sign of tiredness or fatigue. Some of the Slayers had made comment of it, especially when they began to get tired when he still looked raring to go, but a look or a gesture from Buffy or Giles had quickly nipped them in the bud.

"I agree with you that Xander has been far more... *exuberant* than one would expect from someone who had gone through what he has, but the doctors have not found anything that we should be worried about, and this could simply be Xander enjoying the fact that he is still alive. I'm sure that the adrenaline rush will end soon and Xander will crash out..." Giles trailed off as he saw what was happening outside.

Wondering what was going on, Buffy and Dawn followed suit, and looked slack-jawed as they witnessed, along with most of the Council, Xander and some of the youngest slayers playing Frisbee. Clair, a little eight year old bundle of energy, had thrown the Frisbee wildly into the air in the general direction of Xander, and he'd caught it with ease, knowing how upset Clair got when her aim was off. Again, that Xander had caught the Frisbee wasn't what had caused their dumbfounded expressions; that he'd moved so fast he seemed to blur in order to get under it, and then jumped a good thirty feet in the air to catch it, was.

When he'd landed, Xander had looked at the Frisbee in shock. "Houston, we have a problem," he whispered to himself before he fainted.

Giles turned to the pair and began to clean his glasses furiously. "Well, there may be something to what you were saying after all, Buffy."


Council Training Facility

It was the day after the 'Frisbee Incident' as it was now called, and Giles, Buffy, Willow and Dawn were all seated around the training area, which they had commandeered for the day for this purpose. Faith was also present, as she'd come straight back from a mission in Brazil the moment word got to her about Xander's condition. They had, of course, insisted that she at least shower and change before she joined them, as the fluorescent green blood that covered most of her body was not only distracting, but it also reeked to high heaven.

"Do we have to do this?" Xander asked as he got himself ready on the bench.

"Xander, you know that we do," Giles replied softly but firmly. "Whilst the preliminary tests have shown that there is nothing necessarily to worry about, they have not come back to let us know just what it is that has happened to you," Giles continued.


"Xander," Giles said, interrupting him before he could make up some convoluted story to explain away yesterday's events, "we all know that something has happened, otherwise there would have been no way that you could have caught that flying disc. You demonstrated that your speed and agility have increased, and we need to get an idea of just how far those changes have gone, and also to see whether there are any other changes beyond that."

"Think of it as your mandatory physical," Willow suggested, an encouraging smile on her face, although Xander could see she was almost as nervous as he was.

Xander nodded his head, partly in acceptance but mainly in resignation, and gripped the barbell above him. Despite his reluctance, he wanted to know just as much as they did what had happened to him, which was why he was going to spend the next few hours being put through the same evaluation as every newly discovered Slayer that chose to join the Council did.

During their improvised tour of America in their acquired school bus those first few weeks after Sunnydale went the way of the dodo, they had noticed that the Slayers with them that had been Called by Willow's spell were not all blessed with the same gifts that Buffy and Faith possessed. While every Slayer Called had enhanced strength, speed, stamina, agility and fighting knowledge, there seemed to be variances in the new Slayers as to how far those changes went. Quite a few Slayers actually surpassed Buffy and Faith in some aspects, but it seemed that the last two 'naturally' Chosen Slayers had the highest all round scores.

As a result, each Slayer brought into the fold was put through their paces to find out where their levels were in each category, and then placed in the team that needed that particular skill set the most.

"What weight am I starting on?" Xander asked, a little nervously.

"You'll start just below your last personal best, and the weight will increase by 10lb with every successful repetition," Giles replied, thankful that their magic department had worked out how to enchant every Council training facility to accommodate even the most aggressive Slayer, as he doubted that they would been able to afford the cost of replacing the equipment after every workout.

"Xander," Giles continued, and waited until the young man looked at him, "I want to make this clear; you are to keep to a steady, relaxed pace and you are not to keep going until you can't anymore. The moment you feel even the slightest discomfort, you stop *immediately*, understood?"

"I've gotten over the whole macho posturing thing a long time ago, Giles," Xander assured him. "I don't take on more than I can deal with, not anymore," he added, looking meaningfully at the gathered women, hoping that they might actually take the hint.

With that, Xander adjusted his grip once more and then began to methodically lower and raise the bar. He deliberately ignored how many times he did so, not wanting to keep track of how much weight he was lifting, and instead thought about his favourite films, books, whatever he could to take his mind off what he was doing. He definitely ignored the fact that he wasn't feeling any noticeable increase in the weight.

One thing he couldn't help but think about, however, was what the doctor had told him this morning. He knew that Giles was being kept up to date with what they found, but only in the broadest of terms; the Medical Department had put their foot down earlier on in their inception regarding the amount of information they would divulge to him. They had stated in no uncertain terms that, when they became doctors, they took an oath to first do no harm, and that they would not break client/patient confidentiality. They would make it known whether someone was fit to go out on patrol or not, but they would not give specifics.

The Slayers were happy about that, as they felt that they'd already had things taken out of their hands – there were still several who despised the Scoobies for drafting them into a war with no chance of escape – so they were all for anything that allowed them some semblance of privacy.

Xander was happy about that as well, hating that some within The Council still felt they should be aware about every aspect of everyone's lives, and that they also had a say in what they should do, even when it had no impact upon their Council responsibilities. That was something Xander was strongly against, and had made sure he made his views as well known as possible, not only to show that there was high-ranking support to the Medical Department's position, but also to put some of his staff in Africa at ease. He knew that some of them were vastly protective of their privacy, more out of a need to feel in control of their own lives than out of any feeling of mistrust, and he wanted to ensure he felt the same.

That all meant that his second most recent health scare had thankfully not become public knowledge. He'd been experiencing some lower back pain, and had gone to have it checked out, thinking it would be nothing more than a pulled muscle. During the examination his physician had noticed a smallish lump at the base of his spine, and had immediately taken a biopsy for testing. The day before he'd received the message from the Vita'Everto clan, his test results had come back indicating that the lump was malignant.

The news that he had cancer was, obviously, a big blow to him; he'd survived situations where most others would have perished, helped stop the end of the world, and now his own body was trying to do him in. Another blow had been when his doctor had explained that once they removed the rest of the tumour, the chemotherapy he would need to go through would mean that he would not be allowed out in the field. That made him realise that, even if he went into full remission, there was a very good chance that his field active status would be revoked permanently.

The doctor had waited for everyone else to leave the room before he'd explained that, along with all his other injuries and ailments, his cancer was gone; in fact, there was no trace that he'd ever had a problem in the first place. It had been a great relief to Xander, and one of the reasons why he'd taken some of the other startling revelations – his lack of an eye socket – far better than he might otherwise had. It had also been the reason he'd been so gung-ho in arranging the fun and games he'd had; he'd been handed a life line and he wanted to make the most of it.

His thoughts were brought to a sudden halt when someone touched him on the arm; he didn't know how long he'd been going, but he hadn't felt any particular strain so figured it hadn't been that long. Looking at Giles, and noting his slightly ashen complexion, Xander figured he'd been going longer then he'd thought, and while he wasn't sure he wanted to know, he asked him anyway.

"How much?" he asked as he placed the bar back in its cradle and sat up, not looking winded at all.

"We're not sure," Giles told him softly. "The machine has a maximum limit of 10,000lb, and you reached that a couple of minutes ago."

"Then why did you let me continue?" Xander asked in shock, as much to keep his mind from dwelling on how much he'd lifted.

"To be honest," Faith said, her own voice coloured by shock at what she'd seen, "the first few reps after you maxed out we were all pretty much in shock, but then Dawn suggested we leave you for a while to see if your arms got tired. They didn't."

"Oh." Xander stayed still for a couple of moments before he got up and moved swiftly to the far corner of the room, his entire posture screaming 'leave me alone', a message the other were happy to abide by for the moment. "Someone *please* tell me I'm dreaming?" Xander asked in a whisper, and the moment was over.

Dawn, Buffy and Willow all rushed over to him and hugged him tightly, and while it looked to Giles as though Faith wanted to join them, however she instead stayed back and watched, shifting self-consciously.

"I don't mean to press you, Xander, but I think it would be best if we got all of the other tests out of the way as quickly as possible," Giles said after a minute or two.

"Alright," Xander replied, sounding a little subdued.

The next test was to determine whether his speed had increased, so he walked over to the treadmill. Xander thought it a bit redundant, given that if he was stronger his leg power would have increased thereby making him faster, not to mention his Air Jordan impression yesterday, but a look from Giles told him that he couldn't get out of it.

"Again, the treadmill will build up to your personal best recorded at your last physical, and will then increase in speed from there," Giles explained.

When he didn't go on to tell him the part about pressing the end program button when things became difficult, Xander knew that he expected him to max out again.

The other problem with this test was that he didn't have the distraction of lifting something heavy, although Xander had to admit that heavy was overestimating it a bit. "So, Buff," Xander began as the treadmill slowly started gaining speed, "have you and Faith decided who is going to be my sparring partner?" When the two Slayers looked at him in surprise, Xander snorted. "Oh come on; I'm crazy, not stupid. I know that Giles won't do it because the doc would have a pitched fit, neither Dawn nor Willow would test me even before my... upgrades-"

"*Hey*!" cried Dawn indignantly.

"-I'm sorry, Dawnie," Xander went on, although his tone indicated that he was anything but, "but you've always been better with the books; you can hold your own, there's no denying that," he continued quickly, hoping to ease the sting a little, "but you haven't even gone through the training that the field Watchers get, and I've trained beyond that."

Dawn looked like she wanted to argue further, but after a moment she simply sighed and acknowledged that he had a point. While she had made a point of joining in with some of the training sessions, she had never taken it as seriously as she'd needed to become a field Watcher; she not only preferred the research side of things over patrolling, she never quite got the same buzz from the fighting as the others seemed to.

Of course, Buffy had been overjoyed with her decision to remain 'fray-adjacent' as Xander once put it, and had encouraged her in her studies, which consequently made their sometimes strained relationship run far more smoothly, so all in all Dawn was happy with her place in the Council.

"What about me?" Willow asked. She knew Xander was right about her fighting ability, at least the physical side of it, so she wasn't upset by his comment, but she wanted to help keep him occupied from the ever rising speedometer.

"Willow, you know you have that voodoo that you do so well," Xander replied, barely noticing that his legs were little more than a blur now, "and if you were allowed to use it I'd have no chance without going beyond a simple spar, but with all modesty aside I'm parsing fair in the fighting department now."

The others had to agree with that; ever since Xander went to Africa, he'd seemed to have found a higher level of determination, and his travels around the continent had put him in contact with individuals that, while they would never win a formal martial arts tournament, excelled in heading into a life and death situation and leaving it again under their own power.

Xander had learnt a variety of different fighting styles over the past few years, and had took whatever he thought would work the best and incorporated it into his own; those that worked with him had coined the way he focussed on an attacker as him getting into the Xander Zone, to Xander's chagrin, and while he still got more injuries than the Slayers, he got far less than any of the other Watchers.

"Anyway, having ruled out those three," Xander went on, "and given that we're keeping this between us, that left the Chosen Two."

Faith and Buffy looked at each other for a moment before they both shrugged their shoulders. "Don't really know yet," Buffy said with a slight shake of her head. "We thought we'd see how you did in the other tests and work it out later."

"Which one of us would you prefer?" Faith asked in a tone that Xander could tell was slightly challenging.

"Well, you both know that I would never want to go up against either one of you; despite that fact that you could turn me into a human pretzel, you're my friends and I hate even sparring with friends," Xander replied. "I figure the fairest way is to just toss a coin."

Xander wasn't joking about how he trained; he rarely sparred with the other Watchers in Africa, and definitely not with the Slayers. In fact, the only time he did spar with anyone he worked with was on their first day, and that was only so he could see first-hand how good they were to work out how to best deploy them. Secretly, there was another reason he did it, which was to prove from the outset that he was not just a paper pusher, and could hold his own in a fight.

All of his own sparring was done solely with his trainers, and he had deliberately maintained a purely professional relationship with each of them for that reason.

"Anyway, do you think I can stop now?" Xander asked after a couple of minutes, not sounding the least bit winded, although a little unnerved. "This thing stopped speeding up a while ago."

"Certainly, Xander," Giles replied, only to look on in horror a moment later as instead of the switch to slow the treadmill, Xander instead hit the kill-switch button, stopping the machine dead. Xander's momentum sent him careening through the treadmill, where he then smacked against the far wall hard enough to cause the whole room to shudder from the force, and then fell limply to the ground.

"Xander!" Buffy cried and rushed over to him, beating the others by a good ten paces. "Speak to me!"

"Oww," Xander said groggily as he slowly stood up, despite Buffy's efforts to keep him down. "Remind me not to do that next time."

"Will you stop trying to get up," Buffy said angrily, partly out of worry for her friend and partly because she wasn't used to being so effortlessly overpowered. "You might have broken something."

"Well, it hurt," Xander replied as he gingerly moved his limbs around, "but nothing seems to be broken."

"That isn't exactly surprising," Giles said, even as he breathed a sigh of relief at the news. "It is obvious that Xander's musculature has altered – his feats of strength and speed are a testament to that – and for his body to be able to perform those feats his skeletal structure must have also altered in order to withstand the stresses involved."

"How badly did it hurt?" Dawn asked, resisting the urge to physically check Xander over for injuries.

She knew how uptight he got when they fussed over him too much, something she couldn't blame him for as they had a habit of overreacting whenever he got injured, and she was trying to break the habit. She herself had similar problems whenever she was injured, although Xander always took her word for it instead of having to check himself. It was because of his faith in her that she always told him the truth about how she felt, instead of hiding it like she did with the others.

"Actually not that badly," Xander replied as he walked over to a nearby beck and plonked himself down. "I mean, yeah, it hurt, but no worse than when you stub your toe or something. The jarring when I hit the wall was worse; it felt like when you hit a metal baseball bat against a post, but still not enough to actually hurt."

"Do you feel up to continuing?" Giles asked.

"I don't really have a choice in the matter, do I?" Xander replied. "I either do it now or later, and to be honest I just want this over with."

"Fair enough," Giles said with a nod. "As you know the next test is to gauge your reaction time."

"Yeah," Xander replied as he walked up to the large tubular structure, consisting of nine circular lights. "You know, I said to Lorna I felt like I was playing a life-size version of whack-a-mole the night we went after the necromancer."

"Hopefully, this will not result in a similar end," Giles said ruefully. "You know how this works; the lights will flash randomly, and you are to touch the light before it goes out. The speed that the lights flash will increase as time goes on, and the test will stop when you are unable to touch the light in time. Understood?"

"Clear as crystal, Giles," Xander replied, having administered similar tests many times himself. In fact, he could quite happily go through the whole gamut of tests without requiring any explanation at all, but Xander didn't say anything about it because he knew that Giles was doing it more to put everyone at ease than to actually explain it to him. "I'm ready when you are."

"Alright, begin," Giles instructed as he started the program.

As Xander began the test, he had to admit to having large doubts as to how well he would do. Despite having done exceptionally well so far, he really didn't think he would do all that well with this test, as he'd never had before. His large blind spot meant that, when he was close enough to reach all the lights, he wasn't actually able to see them all, at least not without moving his head a lot, which put him at a large disadvantage. His scores had shown that, as he'd tested lower than almost everyone else in the Council the first time round.

He'd later found out that his result had started an argument of sorts amongst some of the Council as to whether he should be allowed to be active in the field, although it was an argument that had never taken place in his presence for fear of bloodshed, and they had decided to speak with some of his instructors to see how well he'd adapted to his handicap. They had all stated unequivocally that he was more than capable of defending himself in battle, and while he would always have a disadvantage in that area, it certainly wasn't enough to sideline him.

Finally, they had agreed to 'allow' him to keep his field status – as though anyone that knew him actually thought Xander would listen to them if they said he could no longer patrol – although Giles had assigned him a 'protection detail, of which Abbie and Sahara were the latest to hold the position, as an added level of assurance.

A few minutes later and the horn blew to indicate that the test was over, and everyone huddled round the display screen to see his results.

"Hey!" Xander said as he tried to get a good look through the huddled mass of heads, "these are *my* results, you know."

The others looked back at him as he kept moving his head around in a vain attempt to see past the wall of bodies, and Faith and Giles stepped aside to let him in. Having seen how easily he had been able to resist Buffy's attempts to keep him still, they all knew he could have easily pushed them all aside, and that he didn't showed that he wasn't about to use his newly acquired abilities for his own gain.

That was a very good thing in Giles' book, as one of the biggest problems they had with the Slayers, with most of the Council if they were honest about it, was that they sometimes allowed the power they'd been gifted with to go to their heads, which usually called for either Buffy or Faith to bring them down a peg or two, or Willow if it was a magic user. Of course, if it was him, Buffy, Faith or Willow became infected with an inflated sense of self importance, the job went to either Xander or Dawn, who were both masters in bringing them down a peg or two, without even having to lay a finger on them.

"Huh," Xander said after a moment as the result spooled down the screen, "I'm still nowhere near the top."

"Xander, to put it bluntly, you only have *one eye*," Giles replied. "That you are even in the top third is nothing short of extraordinary, especially as Slayers make up over 60% of the Council."

"I know, I know, but after the last couple of tests…" Xander explained, trailing off as he realised only a short while ago he hadn't expected to do very well at all, and was now feeling a little disappointed he hadn't aced it like the others.

"I'm sure that you would have done far better under normal circumstances, Xander," Giles assured him.

"I'm not upset, Giles," Xander said as he realised how that sounded. "In fact, it makes me feel better in a weird sort of way. I mean, I was about to start wondering where to get my cape, what with being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, move faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive etc."

"Let me guess," Dawn chimed in, a teasing smile on her face, "Twinkies are your kryptonite?"

"How'd you guess?" Xander replied with a grin. "So, Giles, what's next?"

"I think that under the circumstances we best skip to the test of your fighting ability," Giles replied after a moment.

Under normal circumstanced there were other tests that needed to be done before moving to sparring, but given how the last few had gone, Giles had no doubt that Xander would have vastly improved. However, all of those tests dealt with purely physical areas, whereas this will test to see whether Xander had been gifted with knowledge beyond his own.

He knew that Xander had trained hard, and had achieved results that were not easily matched by anyone in the Council not imbued with any esoteric additions, but Slayers were given the knowledge of every fighting style known to man, with the ability to mix and match those styles to suit whatever foe they faced.

"So," Giles continued as he faced Buffy and Faith, "Xander suggested that we toss a coin-"

"Actually," Buffy said before he could go any further, "I think that we should both do it."

"A three-way?" Faith said with a leer. "I didn't think you went for that sort of thing."

"You'd be surprised," Buffy replied with a sly smile all her own, surprising Faith who had assumed that Buffy would have been embarrassed.

"Uh, don't I get a say in this?" Xander asked, tentatively holding up his hand.

Faith and Buffy looked at each other for a moment before they answered together. "No."

"Do you really think this is a wise idea?" Giles asked as the two Slayers led Xander to the sparring area. "While Xander has shown a marked improvement in his strength, speed and reaction time-"

"I don't mean we both go at him straight away," Buffy said, cutting Giles off again. "I figure that one of us will start off, and if he handles that the other one will join in."

"Sounds like my kinda party," Faith said with a wink as she did some stretches to get prepared. "You mind if I start?"

"Nah," Buffy said with a shake of her head as she too began to get herself ready. "I've got a feeling that Xander will be able to handle both of us. Don't you think so, Xan?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," Xander replied, getting a little weirded out by the way the conversation had gone. He wasn't sure why Buffy had been wording things the way she had, and he could tell that it had been intentional, but right now he had more pressing things to worry about.

After doing his own warm up routine, and having taken off his boots and socks, Xander stepped onto the mats and took up a simple stance opposite Faith, who looked in his opinion a little too happy to be going up against him. Faith looked a little oddly at him standing there in bare feet, but knew that Xander was odd in most ways so didn't think much of it and got herself prepared to take it to him.

If this were a real life situation and not a sparring session, Xander would have usually already made the first move, knowing that giving an opponent any time to work out what they were going to do only made the risk of injury or death higher, but as this was supposed to see what he could do fighting wise, specifically to see whether he'd picked up any further skills beyond what he already had, he knew he had to let Faith make the first move. That was also why he had removed his footwear, as he always trained that way. Also, he didn't want to risk what would happen if he managed to catch Faith with his steel toe-capped boots.

As Faith was a Slayer, meaning that patience was something they had to have drilled into them as opposed to it being something they already possessed, Xander didn't have to wait long for her to get things going, and he watched in a combination of wariness and surprise as she advanced towards him, in what he could only describe as slow motion. He easily dodged the first flurry of strikes sent his way, and wondered why she was holding back as much as she was; he figured that she was more reticent to hurt him than she had first let on. After a few more seconds of evading her attacks, Xander decided to go on the offensive, knowing that if he tagged her, no matter how lightly, she would step up a gear.

As Faith struck out with a right, he stepped to the left and grabbed her wrist, and before she could do anything about it, sent a palm strike into her solar plexus. What he hadn't expected when he hit her was to see was Faith fly back several feet from the force of the blow and land roughly on the mats, rolling a couple of times before coming to a less than dignified stop.

Not knowing whether she was playing possum or not, given that it wasn't a tactic he'd ever seen her use before, Xander cautiously approached her, a frown marring his face as he noticed that while she was indeed moving, she wasn't moving very well.

"Faith, you alright?" he asked warily, still remaining outside of striking range.

"Not really," Faith replied a little shakily before coughing a couple of times. "What the hell did you hit me with, a *wrecking ball*?" she asked as she spat some blood out as she slowly, and a little unsteadily got up.

"Faith, are you alright to continue?" Giles asked worriedly.

"Yeah," she replied as she stretched a little to work out the kinks, wincing as she stretched her right arm and mentally kicking herself for her mental lapse.

She'd taken harder hits before, although she had to concede not by much, but never in a training session, and because of that hadn't prepared mentally for it. On patrol, she went into every situation in the knowledge that she would probably get injured, and prepared herself as best she could so that if and when that injury occurred, she would not lose focus. She hadn't done that this time and had suffered the consequences for it.

"Hell, Xan," Faith said, holding back another wince as she breathed in a little too deeply. "You pack a mean punch."

"I'm sorry," Xander said morosely, feeling terrible that he'd hurt her, albeit superficially.

That was the biggest reason he didn't like to spar with colleagues and friends, as he hated seeing them get hurt, and really hated being the one that hurt them. He was also upset because as far as he was concerned, he'd held back a lot of his strength, and yet he'd still managed to knock her back several feet. He knew that her surprise was a factor in things, but if he'd actually meant to hurt her, he might have killed her with a single blow and that scared him witless.

"Don't be," Faith replied with a wave of her hand. "If nothing else, this shows me that I really don't need to hold back, not that I should have done anyway given how things have gone so far today. So, you ready for round two?" she asked as she got back into a ready stance.

"I would advise caution, both of you," Giles interjected. "It was obvious that Xander had not meant to hit you with quite so much force, Faith, which goes to show that his body is still adapting to the changes the spell has caused."

"Maybe we should postpone-"

"*No*, Xan," Buffy said cutting Xander off before he could finish. "You need to learn how to control yourself, and its better you do it with us than anyone else."

Xander sighed, but instead of replying, which would lead to an argument that he already knew he would lose, he resigned himself to the fact that he had no other choice but to go on. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, he stepped back a few paces and matched Faith's stance, once again waiting for the raven-haired Slayer to make the next move.

Xander's initial thought was that he wouldn't have to wait too long for that first move to be made, as Faith would feel the need to prove that his strike was a fluke, but this time she didn't rush in, instead taking more time to think up a strategy. After a minute or so, when she finally did make her move, Xander could instantly tell that she was no longer holding back; while he was still able to evade her strikes, Faith no longer looked like she was moving in slow motion, and he actually had to put some effort into it.

One thing he wasn't doing, however, was fighting back; seeing how he'd hurt her the last time had made him gun shy, and he'd allowed several obvious chances go by for fear of repeating what happened before.

"*Fight back*, dammit!" Faith grunted as she tried to kick out his knee, only to find nothing but air as he once again evaded her strike.

"You do things your way, I do things my way," Xander replied as he stepped out of the way of a palm strike to his sternum. "In battle, you can't kill what you can't hit."

Buffy watched as the two moved around the training mats, and she could clearly see Xander's reluctance, and knew that had to change and change quickly. She could understand why he was holding back – hell, when she had first been Called she'd felt the same way after she noticed a nasty bruise she'd left on a friend's thigh after lifting her up during cheerleading practise – but she knew from experience that the only way to learn control was to know where your limits were and then get used to them. The problem they seemed to have with Xander was that his limit was above Faith's, so she couldn't get him to a point where he had no option but to strike back.

Hating to do it, but knowing it was necessary, Buffy hardened her heart and waited until she was certain she was in Xander's blind spot. Once she was, she silently leapt into the fray and kicked him sharply in the back of his right knee, dropping him to the floor momentarily. That moment was all Faith needed to get through his defences and land a punch, hitting Xander full in the face. As Xander's head snapped back from the force of the blow, Faith went to follow up with a knee, but Xander was able to roll out of the way, and then only barely managed to block the strike Buffy launched at him.

"It was about time you joined the party, B," Faith stated as she struck out with a kick that just grazed Xander's cheek.

"Less talking, more fighting," Buffy replied, doing what she could to keep the pressure on.

With two Slayers to contend with, neither one pulling any punches or allowing any respite, Xander was no longer able to block everything sent his way; for every two strikes he stopped or dodged one blow got through, as superior speed or not he could not be in two places at the same time. However, despite now taking a beating, he still refused to fight back. He had always been someone who, if given the choice, would prefer to take the pain if it saved his friends from the same, so he was quite willing to take the punishment Buffy and Faith were dishing out if it meant he didn't cause either of them harm, especially as it hurt nowhere near as much as it used to, and the fear about what he might do to them if he was unable to hold back on his strength stopped him from taking advantage of any opening he saw.

Again, both Faith and Buffy could see his continued reticence, and they continued to press him harder and harder, until they reached the point where they were having trouble controlling their own momentum from the force and speed of the blows they sent his way. Once they realised that they were getting nowhere fast, they looked at each other for a moment before calling out to Giles.




Giles couldn't say that he was surprised by Buffy and Faith's request, but he hadn't expected it quite so soon. He, too, had observed Xander's hesitancy to retaliate, and while he could understand Xander's viewpoint, he knew that they had to get Xander out of that mindset now before it could take root. If it did, and Xander remained fearful over going all out, Giles would have no choice but to restrict him from going out in the field, despite how capable he was, or how valuable his new abilities would be; they could not have someone hold back in a life and death situation.

Realising that they needed something that would give Xander no choice but to fight back, Giles went over to the weapons cabinet and took out two Tachi, made by Masamune himself, and transported them into Buffy and Faith's waiting hands. He only hoped that he hadn't just made an irreversible mistake.


"I *know*, Dawn," he said, cutting her off before she could build up a head of steam, his tone showing the conflict he felt, "but this is the only way."

"He's right, Dawnie," Willow said as she wrapped an arm around the younger girl's shoulders, Dawn noting that the redhead was shaking slightly, and not from being cold. "I hate this as much as you do, but Xander needs to get over his fear of hurting someone, and he's left them no other choice."

"Will you *still* think that if they kill him?" Dawn hissed angrily, causing both Giles and Willow to flinch.

Willow and Giles looked at each other, and silently prayed to whatever deity was listening that they never had to find out.


As Buffy and Faith grew accustomed to the weight and balance of the swords in their hands, they allowed themselves a moment of doubt, hating the fact that they needed to go to such extremes against a friend, and mentally went over their options again see if there were another way. However, they both knew that unfortunately, when it came to Xander, it sometimes took extremes to get through to him.

Of course, the same could be said about both of them, but they hoped they were never in a position where they found themselves on the receiving end like this.

Xander's eyes had widened the moment that they had called for weapons, instantly knowing that he would not be given the same advantage, and matters only got worse when he saw the weapons they were given. He had seen the effectiveness of those swords in combat, and had thought at the time that he would hate to be on the receiving end of one; now, not only was he was on the receiving end of *two*, they were both being held by people he considered family in all but blood.

Within moments of their use, Xander was already moving as fast as he could in order to evade the slashes and strikes the pair sent his way with the exquisitely crafted and extremely deadly swords, still mindful enough to keep himself within the confines of the training mats, and winced in pain whenever one of the razor sharp blades met flesh.

After being caught several times, he noticed that while the blades did cut into him, the cuts they made were shallower than he'd expected, given that he still had limbs. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that, had they tried this before he'd been caught in that spell, he would already have been nothing but a pile of limbs on the floor, surrounded by a pool of his own blood. And unlike the knights in Monty Python, he wouldn't be hopping on one leg goading them on.

However, despite the fact that his body was holding up against their attacks, Xander knew that it was only a matter of time before he succumbed to the multitude of injuries they continued to cause. While his wounds seemed to be healing at a far accelerated rate, they still bled profusely, and for every wound that healed two more took their place, meaning that he would slowly but surely bleed to death; already he could feel the multitude of wounds take their toll.

Given that they both seemed determined to literally take their pound of flesh, Xander resigned himself to the fact that he had no other choice but to fight back. To do that though, Xander had to stop seeing the women in front of him as Buffy and Faith; instead, he had to see them as nothing more than two vampires that needed dusting.

Xander suddenly jumped back in a high arc, giving himself a couple seconds of breathing space, and landed almost silently at the uppermost edge of the training mats. As the two Slayers closed the gap between them, Xander allowed himself to imagine that the worst case scenario had occurred; that Buffy and Faith had been turned into vampires, and were hell bent on killing him and everyone he held dear. He always found that a threat to those he cared about always angered him more than a threat to himself, and allowing that scenario to become a reality within his mind caused an anger to swell within him, and a need to stop the two things in front of him at all costs.

The trouble was, that still left him with the problem of how to deal with two highly trained fighters with exceptional strength and speed, who were in possession of razor sharp swords made by a master of the art, and intent on turning him into itty-bitty Xander pieces. What made his task all the more difficult was that they were working well together, coordinating their attacks so that as he dodged one strike, he was placed into the path of another.

To be absolutely honest, he had been continually surprised by just how well they co-operated with each other, something he hadn't thought them capable of; there was a reason they were rarely put together for long after all. They had long gotten over their bad history, and had made good inroads on becoming friends, but as the last two Slayers Chosen pre Willow's spell, they felt the desire to be top dog more than the rest, especially with each other.

Now he was in the proper mindset, Xander's brain was functioning far better, and it only took him a few seconds to spot a pattern in the strikes the Chosen Two were using. Once he knew the pattern, he decided to see just how quick and resilient his recently upgraded body really was by using something one of his trainers had taught him, but had never really been practical enough for him to use before in a real life situation.

As Faith struck out at him, Xander didn't dodge the strike in the way she expected; instead, he moved in the opposite direction just enough so that it would pass by him, and then struck out at the sword itself, using his speed and reflexes to catch the flat of the blade with the palm of his hand. Using just enough force to know Faith off course, he used her own momentum against her, so that the blade was sent directly into the path of Buffy's own downward swing. Unable to stop her motion in time, the two swords connected, and Xander used their momentary distraction from the sudden and unexpected jarring the contact caused to knock the swords from their hands.

Going back to hand to hand, the two Slayers kept up the pressure on Xander as much as possible, but now that he was actively participating instead of simply fending them off, they quickly found that it was a whole lot harder. They continued to utilise Xander's blind side as best they could, but now Xander was moving about with a lot more purpose, making it difficult for either one to capitalise on any openings that came up, because he was simply too fast.

Another factor going against them was their stamina; they had been going full out for the past few minutes, pushing themselves to the very limit, and it was definitely having an effect on them. Soon they both showing signs of fatigue, and their own reactions times had started to drop, to the point where Xander was now breezing through both of their defences with ease.

Less than a minute after Xander began to get on the offensive, both Buffy and Faith were sprawled out on the mat, beaten and bruised, and when Giles saw him about to move in for the kill, quite possibly literally, he called for a halt.

"That's *enough*!" he shouted, and Xander stopped dead in his tracks.

He shook his head and blinked a couple of times, and then with a muffled gasp almost ran off the mats to the far end of the training room, where he sank down to his knees and wrapped his arms around himself, looking blank.

Knowing that the last thing Xander wanted right now was for anyone to go over to him, Giles and Willow instead went over Buffy and Faith, happy to see that they were still breathing.

"Buffy, Faith, are you okay?" Willow asked, knowing how silly that sounded, but needing to know anyway.

"I've been better," Buffy groaned, not even trying to move just yet.

"Ditto," came a similar groan from Faith, who like Buffy decided it was probably best to stay where she was for the moment.

"I'm just going to cast a quick diagnostic spell on the two of you, to see if there's anything that needs urgent attention, alright?" Willow said softly.

Both nodded their heads, knowing that Willow wouldn't even try to cast it without their permission, not anymore. Willow murmured a few words in a language only Dawn or Giles had any chance of recognising, and a green strip of light swept the length of their bodies.

"Alright, you both have a few cracked ribs, and you're going to feel like one big bruise for a day or two even with Slayer healing," Willow explained after a few moments, "but there aren't any serious or internal injuries."

"Thank god for that," Giles said with a sigh.

"No," Buffy replied, her breathing still laboured. "Thank *Xander* for that."


Dawn, unlike Giles or Willow, had realised that while Xander might not *want* anyone around him, he certainly *needed* it, and slowly made her way over to him, doing her best to hold back the tears that threatened to fall as she took in his posture.

He looked like a lost little boy that had just been told his mother had died; his entire demeanour screamed anguish, and all Dawn wanted to do was to gather him up in her arms and take away all his pain.

She loved him; not in the way she had back in Sunnydale – she certainly no longer felt the need to write Mrs. Dawn Harris on the inside cover of her books – but in a brother/uncle sort of way. He was family to her, family in a way that her biological father could never be, and while she hated the fact that he had pulled away from them all in recent years, he had never left them, never made them think that he didn't care.

He'd been her safe harbour more times than she could count, and she wanted to return the favour as best she could now that he needed the same.

Tentatively, Dawn reached out and stroked a stray lock of Xander's hair away from his face, and felt a fresh wave of tears threaten to burst forth as he contracted into an even tighter ball, as though afraid she would beat him. The thought would almost be laughable given how well he'd fared against her sister and Faith, but she didn't find the thought of him being afraid of them hurting him funny in the slightest.

"Are they alive?" she heard him whisper, his voice so soft she'd almost missed it.

"Of *course* they are, sweetie," she replied just as softly as she knelt down gently beside him. "They may be a little worse for wear, but it's nothing that Slayer healing can't sort out."

"I nearly *killed* them; I *would* have killed them had Giles not said anything."

Dawn took a moment before she responded, because a little voice at the back of her mind agreed with him, but that voice was quickly doused. "You wouldn't have, Xander, I *know* you wouldn't."

"How can you be so sure?" he asked, moving his head slightly so that he could peer at her.

"Because you're *you*," she replied simply. "I know you're not perfect – I've been witness to just how imperfect you can be – but I know with every fibre of my being that you would never, *could* never do that."

"The problem is, Dawn, that I *could*; I could kill you, all of you, if I had to-"

"And if it ever got to the point where you felt you had to, we wouldn't *be* us anymore," Dawn said interrupting him. "We would be another evil, another obstacle that you had to go through. Nothing more, nothing less." She leant forward and gently cupped Xander's face in her hands. "I *trust* you, Xander."

"I don't trust *myself*, Dawn," Xander said softly. "They just kept attacking me, and I knew they wouldn't stop until I fought back, but the only way I could do it was to stop seeing them as them, and you saw what I did."

"Xander, I want you to think very carefully about this," Dawn said after a moment, knowing that she was stepping into a minefield with what she was about to do, "with the abilities you now have, and the evidence you've seen, if you hadn't been in control of yourself, how are they still alive?"

Xander flinched away from her at the question, but Dawn was happy to note that he did not complain when she rested her hand on his shoulder again. "I don't know," he replied after a few moments.

"That's my *point*; they wouldn't be. I don't mean to sound harsh, but you could have literally pulverised them both in a couple of seconds had that really been your intent. Whatever you had to do to get over being gun shy, you never truly forgot that this was nothing more than a training exercise. Hell, if you had, there was no way you would have stayed on the mats; you would have gone straight to the closest weapons cabinet."

Xander's gaze flicked over to the two Slayers, who were still barely moving from their partially seated positions as they conversed with Giles and Willow, and snorted. "I doubt they'd say the same."

"Well, there's only one way to find out," Dawn replied and then took Xander by the hand and gently pulled him up. That he allowed her to do so gave her hope that she'd managed to allay some of his fears, but if there was one thing that Xander did well, it was thinking the worst of himself.


"Well, it looks like Xander has attained more knowledge on fighting-"

"No, I haven't," Xander said, cutting Giles off as he and Dawn approached the group. His tone lacked any emotion to it, and was just loud enough for them to hear if they concentrated. "I don't know any more about fighting now than before; everything I did just now I already knew how to do."

"How can that be?" Willow asked, honestly confused, but mindful of how Xander's emotions seemed to be on a knife edge. "I mean, you just handed Buffy and Faith their butts to them on a nice silver platter," she continued, completely ignoring the glares that both Faith and Buffy sent her way.

"I've had the knowledge on how to take a Slayer out in a one-on-one situation for years now, Wills," Xander replied, still subdued but at a more reasonable level, his eye flicking from Willow to Buffy to Faith and back again, "but until now I've never been strong enough, or fast enough, or resilient enough to be able to put that knowledge into practise, at least not without stacking the deck in my favour, like with Clarice. Skill can get you a long way, and can help make up for any strength or speed disadvantages to a point – I'd be dead if it didn't – but before being caught up in that necromancer's spell, there was no way I could ever take on a Slayer in a fair fight and win, let alone winning against two Slayers with swords while I was unarmed."

"He's right, Willow," Buffy said as she slowly and tentatively moved into a seated position, her Slayer healing now allowing her to move without being in searing pain. "I've seen Xander fight, and he's technically as proficient as many of the Slayers, although he still doesn't have the same killer instinct."

"Be glad that he doesn't," Giles said. "If he had, I fear-"

"*Shut up*, Giles," Dawn snapped.

Giles looked at Dawn is surprise, and a little anger at being spoken to in such a way, but when he saw the expression on hers, and the others faces, and the ashen complexion of Xander's skin, he heeded Dawn's advice, or at least the meaning behind it. "Well then, regardless of anything else, we have seen that Xander is capable of controlling his newfound skills under stressful conditions."

Giles turned his attention to Xander, who shifted uncomfortably. "That you showed greater control the less you actively thought about your actions is very telling, Xander. While Dawn and the others might not want me to say this, I believe it needs to be said; if you had been in less control, or if you truly had that killer instinct, both Buffy and Faith would be dead now. The important word there, son, is '*if*'; the fact of the matter is that you *do* have control, but you need to believe in yourself. I know for a fact that *I* do, and I am sure that the same can be said for everyone else in this room, in this building even."

Xander looked around to the others, and they all nodded their agreement, even if Faith and Buffy were being a little more careful in how they moved. Xander felt a rush of warmth flow through him at the confidence he saw in their eyes, and actually began to believe that they may be right.

"So, what's next?" he asked, his voice stronger.

"Actually, I think that will about do it," Giles replied after a moment.

"What, why?" Xander asked, honestly confused.

He knew that there were several more tests left to be completed, and while he wasn't looking forward to them he really just wanted the day to end, and that meant getting them done as quickly as possible.

"Xander, you know as well as I do that the others tests are more of a mixture of the tests you have already completed," Giles said. "While under normal circumstances they are useful to get a more comprehensive picture on where a Slayer's strengths and weaknesses are, I doubt they will tell us anything more about you."

"Why not?" Dawn asked.

"We have already seen that Xander's physical abilities are simply beyond what we are capable of measuring," he explained, "which makes any further physical tests rather moot. That he has also attested that he has not been imparted with any knowledge that is not his own-"

"He's only said that he hadn't used anything he hadn't already known, not that there wasn't anything there," Dawn pointed out.

"Um, could you stop talking like I'm not in the room, please?" Xander said pointedly, causing Dawn to flush with embarrassment and Giles to fight the compulsion to clean his glasses.

"Of course," Giles replied after a moment.

"I don't think I've been given any information, and even if I had, I doubt I'd really be able to tell."

"Why do you say that?" Giles asked.

"As Buffy said, I'm as technically proficient as some of the Slayers; my own estimates before this happened to me rated me with those at the bottom of the curve, but I was still on it. Even if I have been given information like a Slayer, there wouldn't be enough to make a marked difference."

"You may be right," Giles agreed, "and while I do feel that it would be wise to come up with a way to find out for certain, I really do believe that the other tests would not provide us with any further information. Couple that with the obvious emotional toll the tests have put on you, a good night's sleep may well be the best thing for you, for all of us in fact."

"And don't forget that the test results should be back tomorrow, so we'll finally find out just what happened to you," Willow added.

"Yeah," Xander said with a sigh, knowing that a good night's sleep would be forthcoming with that to look forward to.


Medical Conference Room

"So, Doc, what's the verdict?" Xander asked Doctor Adam Pothecary, the Head of Medicine at the Cleveland office.

Xander sat at the head of the table, and to his right sat Buffy, holding his hand tightly in her own. Willow mirrored Buffy's position on his left, and Dawn sat next to her sister, although from the way she continued to fidget you could tell that she would rather be closer to Xander so that she could provide more tactile support.

Giles sat next to Willow, and he too looked a little out of sorts, although that could be because he was not the one chairing the meeting as was normally the case. If the circumstances were different he might well have put up some resistance in not being in charge, but they weren't and he had not problem in allowing Xander to head the meeting.

Finally, Faith was leant against the doorframe, and Xander knew it was so the doctor couldn't try and sneak out before he told them what they wanted to know. Xander doubted he'd do that, but when it came to the health of one of the Scoobies, none of them took anything for granted.

Under normal circumstances, no one other than Xander would be present for the findings due to doctor/patient confidentiality, but Xander had assured Doctor Pothecary that he wanted the others to be there, as he would have no chance of explaining the results as well as he could, and they would no doubt have lots of questions he would simply be incapable of answering even if he had the information.

"Well, Xander," Doctor Pothecary began, "it seems that there is, from a certain point of view, a discrepancy in your DNA structure. When we looked at it further, we came to realise that the spell had been successful-"

"*WHAT*!?" Xander screamed. "You're telling me I'm gonna turn out like *Mayor McSnake*!?"

"No, nothing of the sort," the doctor assured him, his voice hitching slightly from the glares sent his way from everyone in the room. "As you may well be aware, a few years ago it was reported that scientists successfully mapped the human genome."

"I kinda remember hearing about that, but what does that have to do with Xander?" Buffy asked.

"Well," he said cautiously, the tone in Buffy's voice turning his discomfort up a notch, "I can only assume that none of the scientists involved in the project knew about the supernatural, otherwise they would have noticed the same things we did when we tested Xander's DNA. Of course, without Xander's DNA they probably wouldn't have seen a difference, but-"

"Doc," Xander interrupted, "what did you find out?" he asked impatiently.

"Alright, I'm going to give you a down and dirty explanation-"

"Down and dirty, Doc? Now you're talking my language," Faith said with a grin.

"Faith, lay off for a while, *please*?" Xander asked plaintively, causing Faith to drop her grin and nod.

Faith could see how difficult this was for him, despite his best efforts to show otherwise, and was going to do her best not to make things worse, even if that meant just not saying anything. The trouble was, she was worried about what the doc had found as well, and she found it difficult not to fall back behind the wall she showed the majority of the world.

It was only really the people in the room with her, with the exception of the doc, that had any real idea who the real Faith was, and despite the small number, it still made her feel like the queen of f'n everything when she thought about the fact she had a circle of friends that she could be herself around, even if her true self was only mildly less caustic than the one everyone else knew.

Doctor Pothecary sighed and then began once again. "As I was saying, I'm going to give you a- a little background before I go into the actual explanation; the blueprint for all life is DNA, which is split into what are called chromosomes, each one dealing with different parts of the body. Chromosomes are always in pairs, and the best known are the ones that denote whether someone is male or female; XX and XY. Everyone with me so far?" he asked, knowing that the last thing they expected this morning was to be given a genetics lesson.

He waited for a round of yes's and head nods before he continued. "Okay, now everyone has either flawed or damaged DNA; if there is a flaw in one chromosome, the backup is generally fine so there isn't anything to worry about. One example of this is colour-blindness; men can be colour-blind, while women almost never are, and that is because the backup copy would have been on the other leg of the X chromosome that men are missing. By looking at a DNA strand, it is possible to tell if someone is going to be pre-disposed to cancers or other diseases. That's also the reason that people with parents who had been diagnosed with cancer are more susceptible of getting cancer themselves, as they inherited the pre-disposition from them."

"While that is interesting to know, what does this have to do with Xander?" Giles asked relatively calmly, deciding to resume his role as the spokesperson for the group when he saw that he had the best grasp over his emotions at the moment. He knew that the doctor wasn't intentionally trying to irritate them, but the last thing any of them wanted was a lecture; they wanted to know what had happened to their friend.

"If you'll allow me to continue, Mr. Giles, I'll explain. As I said, all of us have some sort of imperfection in our DNA; while there is normally a back up set on the other chromosome, it is often flawed or broken. What we have been able to deduce is that those flaws and mutations are down to minute traces of demonic DNA that every member of the human race have within them; everyone, that is, except for Xander."

"*WHAT*!?" everyone screamed.

"How can this be?" Willow asked in shock a moment later, her world view having tilted once again. "We have wards in place that check for demonic signatures; if what you're saying is true then the wards would trip every time any of us ever entered the building!"

"Not necessarily, Willow," Giles said as he cleaned his glasses. "Not if what I'm thinking is correct."

"You gonna do the splainy thing now, Giles?" Buffy asked/demanded.

"History states that the Old Ones were driven out by humanity, but *how*? We have had first-hand experience in dealing with a True Demon, and a particularly weak one at that given that it was newly formed and low on energy. Wilkins had only just completed his transformation, with a fraction of the food supply he'd anticipated due to the loss of the Box of Gavrok, and yet if we hadn't blown up the school with him inside it, there would have been little we could have done to stop him. A True Demon, even one at full power, is still nowhere near as powerful as an Old One."

"We could have *nuked* the sunovabitch," Xander growled.

"Quite," Giles said with a small smirk. "I think it is fair to say that, with time and the right resources, we would be able to put up a formidable defence with the technology available to us now," Giles said, "but thousands of years ago that technology simply didn't exist, and yet humanity still managed to drive them off the face of the Earth."

"What about magic?" Willow asked.

"The arcane arts may well have had a far greater influence, as belief in its effectiveness would have been far higher than it is now," Giles replied, "and we all know that perception does have an effect on reality, but even then I find it difficult, nigh on impossible to believe that humanity could have put up much resistance against even *one* fledgling True Demon, yet alone a planet populated by Old Ones."

"So, what you're saying is that at some point everyone was as strong and fast as Xander now is, but for some reason we all got infected by some demon and got weaker?" Dawn asked, having been the first to cotton on.

"An infection would not account for what we have discovered," Doctor Pothecary said, bringing everyone's attention to him once more, "but I will get to that in a moment. As I was saying earlier, while Xander has a perfectly healthy backup set of chromosomes, they could almost be considered redundant, as his primary set is also flawless. There are no pre-dispositions, no mutated sections that will override the healthy base pair that we can see; they are, for want of a better word, perfect. Anyone that performed purely scientific tests would notice the difference, but without the esoteric methods that we also employ, they would not truly understand why. All they would see is that, with the obvious exception of his eye, Xander's body has for whatever reason been optimized to be as physically perfect as possible. It would be seen as a genetic anomaly; unfortunately, it would also be considered the greatest discovery since man created fire."

"Um, not to sound stupid or nothing, but why is that unfortunate?" Faith asked.

"The problem, Faith, is that everyone from crackpot scientists to government agencies would all want, in some cases *literally*, a piece of him if anyone ever found out that Xander's DNA had been changed in such a way," the doctor replied. "Fortunately for him, there is a good chance that will not happen; all the tests that were run to determine what has happened were done so in-house, so there is no risk of it leaking from here."

"While I know that it is still a bone of contention for some, I do believe we can all agree that having geas put in as part of the contract every employee of the Council has signed is a *very* good thing on this occasion," Giles pointed out.

A couple of the group grimaced, but had to agree. When they had begun to work out the finer details of exactly what the new Watchers Council was going to be like, most of them wanted it as far removed from the way the old Council had been as possible. Most of the things had been easy to agree with – Slayers actually getting *paid* for what they did, having a greater say in how things would be run, allowing them to have a normal life if that was what they wanted, becoming proactive in dealing with the things that bumped in the night – but there had always been one thing that they couldn't agree on and that had been privacy.

They had all agreed that they couldn't just go public with everything that they knew, as the chaos it would cause would not only make Giles' old pal Ethan very happy, but would practically hand over the planet to the demons, who would no longer need to hide in the shadows. What they hadn't agreed on, however, was the method to prevent it from happening. The geas idea was the least detestable solution available, but the ramifications of them led to a lot of arguing over their use. Finally, it had been agreed that they would be instituted, with the proviso that if there ever came a time that secrecy was no longer such a major concern, they would be able to nullify them.

"Well, it looks like you'll have to stop giving blood, Xand," Buffy commented, knowing that he regularly donated to the Red Cross and at local hospitals in Africa.

"If it means I won't have to change my name to Guinea Pig, I'll live with it," Xander replied, his face a little pale upon hearing that he was a walking, talking Holy Grail for the scientific community.

"You'll still be able to give blood, but only for use by us," Doctor Pothecary said. "You appear to now be a universal donor, whereas before you had one of the rarer blood types. Another thing that you will have to be careful of is being admitted into hospital if at all possible, as any test would show the 'anomaly', but with the medical facilities that all Council bases now have, that isn't something we should necessarily worry about."

"Well that's some comfort," Xander said sarcastically.

"Yes, quite. Anyway, as I said nothing of a supernatural nature would be revealed by purely scientific methods, although I think we can all agree that is more than enough to cause Xander problems. From what we have been able to determine, however, is something that has far more reaching implications. Xander's body hasn't been optimised; it's been purged of all non-human DNA. This means that, for all intents and purposes, Xander is the only pureblood human being on the planet."

"I don't mean to sound sceptical, but are you quite sure of your findings?" Giles asked.

"Oh yes, we are *very* certain about this," Doctor Pothecary replied with a nod. "Once we got back Xander's results, we initially thought it had to have been a mistake, so of course we reran the tests, which is one of the reasons why it took so long to present them to you. When we got the same result a second time, we decided to widen our search, and began to run similar tests on everyone's DNA we had available from previous medicals and so forth.

"What we have discovered is, given the nature of our work, disturbing; every single sample of blood that we tested, including a sample of Xander's blood taken prior to his change, all had minute traces of demonic DNA within their genetic makeup. We have deduced that those traces are responsible for the genetic flaws and predispositions to disease that I talked about earlier. However, the traces are minute; they alone are not enough for someone to begin exhibiting physical demonic signs – horns, spikes, unnatural skin tone – like the half-breeds we're aware of."

At that point, Doctor Pothecary paused, and they could all see that he was reticent to continue.

"What else did you discover?" Giles asked, knowing that the man was not about to volunteer the information.

"When we tested the DNA of Slayers, we found that the levels of demonic DNA were less, meaning less genetic flaws and defects. Buffy and Faith's DNA showed the greatest overall difference, which we believe is because they were the only Slayers to have been Called before Willow's activation spell, but all Slayers have less demonic DNA than 'normal' humans. We also believe that the reason why women were chosen to become Slayers is genetic, as their X chromosomes seem to be the most affected."

"Doc, are you trying to tell me that when someone becomes a Slayer, instead of having the essence of a demon rammed inside them, it actually takes some *away*?" Buffy asked.

Buffy's experience at the hands of the Shadowmen still gave her the occasional sleepless night, as did the thought that her and every other Slayer's abilities were demonic in origin, so to find out that it might not be the case, or at least not the way it had seemed was a surprise, but a most welcome one.

"We still do not know exactly what takes place to change someone into a Slayer," the doctor replied, "but based on this new information, I would posit that when whatever happens to give a Slayer the fighting skills and muscle memory necessary for the role also works its way through their system, where it then, for want of a better term, burns away some of the demonic traces that is within them. The obvious result of this is that they, you, become stronger and faster than you were before. So yes, in layman's terms it makes you more human."

"Doctor Pothecary's discovery brings up another point," Giles said after a few moments when it was clear that everyone else was in no fit state to talk. "Genetically speaking, you cannot breed two different species. However, as we are all well aware, demons are able to breed with humans. Up until now, I had always thought that there was a supernatural reason for that, and that may still be true in some cases, but now it may be because we are simply genetically compatible. It would also explain why only humans can become vampires."

"Uh, how do we know that; that only humans can be turned I mean?" Xander asked. "Why would a vampire even *try* and turn anything other than another human anyway? They wouldn't be able to communicate, or be able to blend in as well into society."

"You're right that it is more than likely that a vampire would never even consider trying to turn anything other than a human," Giles agreed, "but I can quite confidently state that even if they tried, they would be unable."

"How?" Xander asked again.

"Let's just say that before we took over, the Council's Research Department did a lot of unnecessary experimentation and leave it at that," Giles replied with a look of distaste of his face.

"Alright, something else to put in the 'never to be talked about' box," Xander said with a shudder.

"So, the big question is what the hell happened to make humanity the way it is, and what are we going to *do* about it?" Dawn asked.