Dancing on the Head of a Pin Richard Ruth Part One ** Important: Author's Note ** This is a sequel to my three other crossover stories, "Immortal Dilemma," "Who Wants to Live Forever?" and "Legacy of Damnation." To minimize confusion, I recommend that you read them before delving into this sordid tale (among other things, I've indicated that Xander and Nick Boyle are Immortals of the 'Highlander' variety). When necessary, I've also taken the liberty of filling in some annoying gaps in character development. Simply put, in my universe, Richie Ryan was never senselessly killed and Faith has yet to turn to the Dark Side of Sunnydale. Finally, please keep in mind that this is a mondo crossover -- incorporating aspects from five...count 'em...five series. Although I've tried to minimize any plot inconsistencies, some are inevitable. Got all that? You do? Really? Damn, you people really do amaze me! Remember, all (positive) comments are welcome. All other (negative) comments will be treated as a personal attack upon my already fragile psyche (I hope you're happy now). And lastly, a word of thanks to everyone who has written -- glad you've enjoyed the fan fic. Please direct E-mail to: email@example.com. Adios, for now. Mount Palomar Observatory San Diego, California November 23 9:02 P.M. "C'mon you bastards...can't you score at least one touchdown?" Sitting in his dimly lit office, Dr. Chris Larsen was not having a good night and, unfortunately for the diehard fan, neither were the San Diego Chargers. After coping with a dead car battery that made him late for work, there was nothing like watching your team get shelled by the New England Patriots. And now, to top it all off, his software was acting up...again. Of course, Larsen responded to these various annoyances like any other rational, highly educated scientist...he started to beat on his computer. "No good [bang], obsolete [boom], piece of shit [bang...boom]!" His frustration now somewhat mollified, Larsen focused his attention back on the source of his initial irritation, namely a sky-tracking program which used the observatory's one meter telescope with a camera attached to photograph a portion of the northern sky each evening. Usually the system worked pretty well, but tonight was different. Simply put, there was a large, inexplicable blob visible on all the photographic plates. But it wasn't a streak like a comet or asteroid would make. Instead, it was stationery. "And as the clock runs out, the Chargers lose to the Patriots 28-3. This is Al Michaels saying good night for ABC Monday Night Football." "Great...just great!" Focusing back on the problem at hand, the astronomer cynically thought out loud, "Must be dust on the mirror -- or probably some bird shit -- unless..." Hurrying across the floor to peer directly through the telescope with his naked eyes, he practically ran back to his terminal to access an on-line data base of major stellar bodies. "Christ...a supernova...Mu Cephei, no less! I don't believe it." Then, another thought suddenly hit him, "I wonder if anyone else has spotted it yet?" With his hands now visibly shaking, he started typing an E-mail message to the International Astronomical Union in Cambridge, the organization for reporting this exceedingly rare type of phenomena. Within hours, most of the scientific community would also be aware that the former red giant, romantically named the "Garnet Star" by Herschel centuries earlier, would forever be known as Supernova (SN) 1998a. ***** St. Michael's Church Rectory Oakland, California January 10 2:42 P.M. "Mario Seraphim, do you take Marie Claudia Demerest to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?" Without hesitation, the young man replied, "I do." "And do you, Marie Claudia Demerest, take Mario Seraphim to be your lawfully wedded husband? To have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?" After a moment of hesitation, during which she glanced at her mother who was desperately trying not to cry, the girl answered, "Yes, I do." With a rectory secretary serving as the witness, watching, Father Philip Callahan then finished the ceremony by stating in a deep Irish brogue, "Then by the power vested in me by the Roman Catholic Church and the State of California, I pronounce you man and wife. Congratulations and may God bless you both." As the teens embraced and kissed, which was somewhat difficult considering the girl's obviously late state of pregnancy, the elder woman could no longer hold back the tears. "Oh, my baby's all grown up." Then, turning toward the young man, she added somewhat icily, "You take care of her...you hear?" "Yes, ma'am. Of course." "Uh oh...it's starting already," thought Philip, frowning. "The rings aren't even warm yet and there's trouble afoot." The priest knew that weddings such as these, which were frowned upon by the church hierarchy, rarely worked out...especially when the bride's father flatly refused to even attend the ceremony. He would just have to pray that these kids, barely past the age of consent, would find their path in a perilous world. After managing to replace the smile on his face, the priest kissed the girl on the cheek and shook hands with the boy. Making direct eye contact with Mario for the first time, Philip suddenly beheld the most intense pair of blue eyes he had ever seen. "Father...Father Callahan?" Snapping out of his momentary trance, the priest could only manage a weak, "Yes?" "Mom would like to know if you can join us for dinner? It's nothing fancy...just a local restaurant." With a broad smile, the man replied, "It would be my pleasure, my dear. After all, an Irishman never turns down a dinner invitation. I have a tradition to uphold." ***** Motel 6 -- Room 312 Oakland, California January 11 3:17 A.M. "Mario, are you awake?" Within a second of asking the question, the girl saw a silhouette quickly move into the bedroom doorway from the adjoining, lighted room. Turning on one of the bedside lamps, the boy replied, "I'm here. Is something wrong, Marie?" After a momentary pause, she replied with a grin, "He's hungry...again." "OK...what's it going to be this time? Pickles? Sardines? Herring?" "No, silly...ice cream." With a smile, the boy remarked, "That's too simple. It's never that simple." "I'm sorry, Mario. My hormones are all out of whack. I'm not trying to be a pain or anything." Sitting at the foot of the bed, the boy placed a finger to her lips and stated, "I know. And you don't have to explain anything to me. I'm here to help, remember?" After a couple of seconds, he then asked, "What flavor?" "Cherry Garcia." "What?" "Cherry Garcia...like the guy from the Grateful Dead." While rising to leave, Mario idly stated, "Did I ever mention that I met him?" "Who?" "Jerry Garcia. I was backstage at a concert a few years ago in Buffalo, New York. Really nice guy." With a look of obvious disbelief on her face, Marie could only remark, "You met Jerry Garcia...in person? How?" "I have my ways." As a look of sudden revelation crossed her features, she remarked, "Oh yeah. I guess you do." Heading out into the hallway, the boy remarked over his shoulder, "One pint coming right up." "Ahhh...Mario...could you make that TWO pints?" "Fine. TWO pints coming up." "And..." Turning back toward the bedroom, he quipped, "Uh oh...here it comes." "And a box of Twinkies." "Twinkies? What are they?" "Oh my God, Mario! You've never had a Twinkie?" "Sorry. Guess I don't get out much." "Yellow sponge cake with white cream filling. No natural ingredients AND a shelf life of 200 years." With one eyebrow raised, he remarked, "Sounds delicious...or should I say, dangerous?" "They're delicious. And they come two in a pack...we'll share." Again moving toward the hallway, he cautioned, "Remember, don't let anyone in while I'm gone." After closing and locking the door, he muttered, "Thank heaven for 7-Eleven." Heading down the two flights of stairs to the motel lobby, Mario was just about to leave the building when he noticed that nobody was standing behind the check-in deck or in the adjoining cashier's office, although a rebroadcast of the late news was blaring from a television. "And in other news...for all you stargazers out there, the supernova first spotted in November can now be seen without the aid of a telescope. In fact, according to experts, the star may actually keep increasing in size and luminescence for several days until it is actually visible during daylight hours, before finally fading." Turning away from the screen, Mario peered curiously over the top of the counter and saw the middle-aged clerk lying on the floor face up, his head at an unnatural angle, with lifeless eyes staring at the ceiling. "DAMN!" Bounding across the lobby in a couple of leaps, he took the steps at preternatural speed. Quickly arriving back on the third floor, he instantly picked up an aroma that he had not sensed for ages...the faint odor of decay...and ancient evil. As one part of his mind noted the splintered door leading into the room he had departed not two minutes earlier, his other senses instantly took note of the dark figure with an arm locked around Marie's neck. The girl was crying softly. Incredibly, the intruder's eyes were coal-black, lacking pupils, irises, or any white matter whatsoever. "Marie, stay calm...you'll be fine." "Ah...no, Marioch. Sorry to tell you, but that's not how this is going to happen. See, first I'm going to twist the little girl's neck like a bottle cap and then I'll take care of you." Taking another step into the room, Mario stated, "Let her go, Batriel. She's innocent. If you want to fight me, that's fine...just let her go." "Exactly, brother...she's INNOCENT. That's the key. She can affect the balance. She MUST die!" Assessing the situation, Mario realized that his adversary did not have his feet planted firmly on the floor, but instead had one knee awkwardly resting on the bed. He focused on the boxspring. "Marioch, what are you...?" Batriel's incomplete question was answered when the bed started vibrating moments before being jerked violently across the room, knocking both Marie and her attacker to the floor. Most importantly, however, the unexpected assault caused Batriel to lose his grip on the girl, who struck her face on the nightstand. However, this was enough of a distraction for Mario to go on the offensive. In a flash, he crossed the room, pinning the man against the wall. "You're an abomination, brother. What did your master promise you?" With a devilish grin, Batriel responded, "Oh, not much more than limitless power. After all, it's better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven." "Only if you're a fool! You betrayed us all!" Then, in a lower tone, Mario added sadly, "And you betrayed me." Before Batriel could reply, Mario flung him through the glass balcony doors and onto the concrete overhang. Grabbing him by the neck, Mario had started lifting the intruder over the railing when several fingers tipped by razor sharp nails lashed out, opening a set of angry gashes extending from his right temple to his jaw. As thick, dark blood started to drip down Mario's youthful features, he again took hold of his adversary's arms and heaved him effortlessly over the railing. Then, with Marie still watching from the bedroom, followed him over. "OH, GOD...MARIO!" Ignoring shattered glass as she rushed to the edge of the balcony, Marie looked down just in time to see the two land atop the hood of a car, instantly blowing out the windows, caving in the roof, and setting off the alarm. As the battle raged, Mario eventually got his knees astride the other man's midsection, before swiftly jamming his thumbs into Batriel's eyes, causing him to growl, "You'll never stop us...we're legion!" From above, Marie saw smoke emanating from Mario's hands as Batriel started to violently convulse amidst blood-curdling wails. Then, when it looked like it was finally over, the most bizarre thing of all happened as a brilliant column of light exited Batriel's now inert body and rocketed skyward. In fact, the force of the energy was enough to blast Mario completely off the car, while also igniting the vehicle. Marie then watched her husband calmly got back to his feet and reenter the building. By the time she came in off the balcony, he was back in the room. With fear still evident in her voice, she managed to stammer, "Mario...how? What?" Before responding, he reached toward the deepening bruises now plainly evident on her face, passing his palm over the discolored flesh. With a soft glow emanating from his hand, the wounds quickly faded before disappearing. Most amazing of all was that the blemishes, while vanishing from Marie's face, actually started to manifest themselves on the boy's features. Seeing her amazement, he remarked, "I'll explain all of this later, Marie. But now, we've got to go!" "But you fell...what's happening?" Mario realized there were no easy answers to her questions. ***** J. Edgar Hoover Building -- FBI Headquarters Washington, DC January 12 1:21 P.M. "Agents Mulder and Scully, please come in." "You said you wanted to see us, sir?" "Yes, Scully, I did." Then, turning toward her partner, Assistant Director Walter Skinner asked, "I trust you've had time to review the file I sent you yesterday, Agent Mulder?" As one of her eyebrows rose at the surprise mention of a file Mulder had not yet told her about, the perpetually disheveled special agent responded, "Yes, sir, I have." "And...?" "I think we should book a couple of first class tickets out to the coast." "Fine, but make it coach, Agent Mulder. We do have a budget to keep in balance." Upon hearing this, Dana Scully's bullshit meter went off the scale. At one time she would have gladly faded into the dark woodwork of her superior's office, but those days were long past. "Ah...excuse me. Could someone please tell me what's going on? Where are we going?" Withdrawing a manila folder from his desk, Skinner stood and handed it to her. The file, number X-128564-99, was stamped with several Justice Department security classifications -- the highest of which Scully was familiar read 'Eyes Only.' There was also a cryptic red stamp reading "Majic-12," which was unknown to her. The document's attached routing slip was also noteworthy in that it was blank, indicating that the file had not proceeded through channels in the traditional manner, namely from the lower levels of the federal bureaucracy, up through the middle levels, until finally reaching the top. This file seemed to have taken the exact opposite course -- starting at the top and moving down to them. As Scully quickly scanned the enclosed photos and field report, Fox Mulder unsuccessfully attempted to smooth out some of the wrinkles in his jacket, shirt and tie, while Skinner silently stared out the window with his back to them. After reviewing the executive summary, she remarked, "I'm not sure why we're needed in Oakland, sir? According to this, there seems to have been two rather simple, albeit brutal, murders in a motel. I'm sure the local field office can handle the investigation." Without turning, Skinner stated, "Please play the tape, Agent Mulder." As Scully's eyebrow once again rose, Mulder shrugged, ambled across the office toward the wall-mounted video console, dimmed the lights, and activated the machine. She then viewed approximately 10 minutes of grainy black and white security camera footage taken from high above a motel parking lot. When the lights rose, she sat there in silence. "That incident occurred early yesterday morning. Do you now see why this may require the unique...perspective...that you and Agent Mulder can bring to this investigation?" "In other words, Scully, this looks like a job for Spooky and his dependable partner, Spunky." Her initial shock now wearing off, Scully's ever-cynical nature quickly regained its footing. Ignoring Mulder's "spunky" remark, she turned her attention back to her boss and stated, "But sir, it's possible that those two men may have been under the influence of PCB or some other powerful hallucinogen or designer drug. That could explain the extreme violence and seemingly superhuman strength they exhibited." With a barely concealed grin, Mulder snidely remarked, "Now that's my Scully...she sees it and STILL doesn't believe it." Her head quickly whipping around to face her partner, she replied, "No, Mulder, I'm just not as anxious to accept the paranormal as you are. There's probably a rational, scientific..." "Oh that's right, a rational, scientific explanation for two guys surviving a leap unscathed from a three-story building. And, did you notice that one of the dead men was incinerated although there was no indication of a flammable substance present?" Turning around to again face his subordinates, Walter Skinner raised a hand to silence them. However, when this didn't immediately work, he stated, "Alright, that's enough!" Once order was again restored, he added, "As I've said, I think there's enough here to warrant your efforts." "Yes sir," the two younger agents replied somewhat sheepishly. "Fine. Keep me informed. Dismissed." As Mulder and Scully headed toward the door, Skinner quickly called after them, "Oh, and one other thing, during this case you'll be working with a special consultant to the bureau and his associates from the Luna Foundation. His name is Rayne...Dr. Derek Rayne." "Oh good, Scully...now we can baby-sit an amateur to boot," murmured Mulder as they left the office. "I heard that, Agent Mulder!" called Skinner, removing his gold wire- rimmed glasses. ***** Sunnydale High School Principal's Office Sunnydale, California 2:15 P.M. "Now let me be plain about this, you two. I frown on mid-semester transfers, especially for seniors...you just can't imagine the paperwork." As Marie unsuccessfully tried to make herself comfortable in the unpadded wooden chair, she replied, "I'm sorry for the trouble, sir. But the woman at Social Services recommended that I stay in school as long as possible." Then, glancing down at her distended stomach, she added, "But, I don't think it'll be for that much longer." Looking somewhat uncomfortable himself, Principal Snyder snorted and remarked, "Well, just as long as you don't get the idea that we're running a nursery here." Then, turning toward the denim-clad boy, he added, "I hope you now appreciate what irresponsible behavior can lead too." "Excuse me? Irresponsible?" "Of course, completely irresponsible. It makes me wonder why we keep teaching those ridiculous sex education courses. It's obvious you people don't listen...even in there." After a few moments of uneasy silence, Mario made eye contact with the balding man and remarked, "Sir, we consider Marie's condition to be a blessing. In fact, nothing less than a miracle." Trying to escape the gaze focused on him, Snyder muttered, "Blessing, huh? Well, maybe in the form of a bigger welfare check." Hearing this, Mario started leaning forward in his chair until Marie grabbed his arm, restraining him. Quickly rising to her feet, she stated, "Ah, thank you for your time, Mr. Snyder. We'll be seeing you." Following them out the door, the principal replied ominously, "Oh, I'm sure of that, missy." As Marie and Mario exited the principal's office and walked slowly down the bustling hallway, they were being watched by several unsympathetic individuals wearing varsity football jackets. "Will ya look at those two." "Yeah, I heard they're transfers from up north." "White trash trailer types if I ever saw them." "Hey, Larry, maybe we can have some fun with loverboy there." "Cool. Sounds like a plan." Part Two Sunnydale High School Library 3:01 P.M. "Things have been really dead...ah slow...around here lately, Giles. Not enough action for one Slayer, let alone two. You know that Faith and I had to flip a vamp last night to see who got to stake him. She called tails." "And?" "Unfortunately, he landed on his ass." "Oh. I see." "So any fresh chaos due to blow through any time soon? Even Faith can talk about boys, body piercing, and bikes for JUST so long." Carefully replacing a thick volume in the stacks, the librarian paused to ponder the question. Removing his glasses to polish the lenses, he replied, "Actually, Buffy, it's quite understandable that there are periods of inactivity atop a Hellmouth. After all, mystical energy does tend to ebb and flow, very much like waves in the ocean. Following a period of high paranormal output, the reservoir needs to be replenished." Impatiently fingering one of her stakes, the teen remarked, "So, to make a long story short, you're saying we're at low tide waiting to catch the next breaker." Carefully replacing the frames on the bridge of his nose, the curly- haired man replied with some annoyance, "Well, yes. Isn't that what I just said?" "Sure, Giles...in about a hundred words! Didn't they teach you to get to the point QUICKLY in Watcher school? I mean, with vampires, demons, Republicans, and other assorted nasties loose, time just MIGHT be critical." "Now see here, young lady...just because Hell might be erupting, there's no need to abuse the Queen's English. After all, there are still SOME priorities left in life!" "You scare me sometimes, Giles. And this is one of those times." After emitting a derisive snort, the Watcher changed the subject, asking, "By the way, where's Mr. Harris been? I haven't seen him since Friday? That's unusually tardy...even for him." Shifting nervously in her seat, the Slayer stammered, "Well, Giles, that's kinda hard to explain." "Oh, really? Now who's avoiding a direct answer to a simple question, Buffy?" "He died...again." "HE WHAT?!?" the man exclaimed, dropping the book he was holding. "Now calm down, Giles. It's not as serious as you think." His eyes still wide, it took a moment for Giles to collect his thoughts. "Not as serious? Now, Buffy, I realize that young people take things in stride nowadays, but really..." "Well, Richie said he was only gone for a few minutes." "A few minutes! Buffy, people have been seriously brain-damaged in less time." "But with Xander, who would notice?" Now standing with his hands firmly planted on his hips, the Englishman was obviously not amused, coldly remarking, "I'm waiting for an explanation, young lady." "Oh...OK. It seems that Richie took Xander out to practice dueling last weekend." "My God, are you telling me that Mr. Ryan accidentally stabbed Xander?" Again shifting uncomfortably in her seat, Buffy replied somewhat indignantly, "No, nothing at all like that. Richie is very careful." "Well, then, what exactly happened?" "Xander drove through a plate glass window and fell two floors." After blinking several more times, Giles started to move his lips, but no sound came out. After a few more blinks, he tried again -- with better success. "Pardon me? Xander drove through a window? How...why?" "After they were finished practicing, he asked Richie if he could drive his bike and..." "A motorcycle! Good Lord, he's only a boy!" Snapping her fingers, Buffy stated, "Earth to Giles...Xander's an Immortal." "Yes...yes...I realize that. But he's still only 17 years old. That's much too young to be driving a motor vehicle, much less a motorcycle. Richie should have shown better judgement." "Excuse me, but first off, the legal driving age in California is 16. And second, unless Alzheimer's is setting in, weren't you conjuring spirits at his age with your classmates back in merry old England?" "Oh that's right, Buffy. One youthful indiscretion and you toss it back in my face." "Ah, Giles, during that 'youthful indiscretion' you raised a demon that possessed and killed one of your friends." "Well yes...but that was very different." "Ah huh, right Giles...VERY different." "Don't look at me like that, young lady." "Like what, Giles?" "Like I've forgotten what it's like to be young. It hasn't been THAT many years." As Buffy rolled here eyes skyward, another thought suddenly occurred to the Watcher. "Buffy, I thought Xander generally recovered from these types of scrapes rather quickly. Why would he be absent this long?" "Simple, Giles...sympathy." "Sympathy?" "From Cordelia. C'mon Giles, do I need to do the math for you?" With a grin suddenly crossing his face, the man slowly remarked, "Oh...oh...of course." "That's good, Giles. Very good." "But, Buffy, I thought they broke up last month?" "They did. Don't ask...it's a long story." ***** Harris Residence Sunnydale, California 3:23 P.M. "Oh baby, that feels good. Oh yeah, do that again!" "You like that, Xander?" "Oh yeah...lower...lower...ahh...right there." "Are you sure this is really necessary?" "Absolutely...Richie said it's vital to the healing process." "Well, OK then." "Ahh...oh...yeah...you're really good at this Cordy." "I know, you said that already...twice." "Willow would never do this?" "WILLOW!?!" "Ah...I mean, I wouldn't even think of asking Willow to..." Quickly rolling off the bed, Cordelia snapped, "You'd better not." For emphasis, she quickly added, "Immortal or not, you'd be a dead man." Realizing he had again placed his foot squarely in his mouth, the teen struggled to sit up, restrained by the mass of gauze bandages covering his arms and midsection down to the top of his boxer shorts. With brown puppy dog eyes being used to full effect, he implored the girl, "C'mon, Cordy, I'm beginning to tighten up. Please come back and rub my shoulders." "Maybe you should just call Willow." Extending his arms, he asked, "Why would I call Willow when I have you?" As Cordelia tentatively moved into his embrace, Xander wasted no time in covering her lips with his own. Meanwhile, his hands, quickly surveying other territory, discovered that nothing got between Cordy and her Versace blouse. However, before he could explore any other strange new worlds, a motorcycle, at first only faintly audible, rumbled into the driveway of the house. "Oh man, not now!" "What's wrong, Xander?" "We've got company." "Who?" Before he could answer, she heard the kitchen door of the house open and a familiar voice ask, "Hello...is anyone home?" As Xander quickly moved back toward the bed, Cordelia replied, "Up here, Richie." Entering the room, the leather jacket and jeans-clad Immortal remarked, "Hi, Cordy. How are you?" Motioning toward the lump under the covers, she remarked, "Not bad, considering the English Patient here and all." At that moment, a series of moans could be heard emanating from under the sheets. With a perplexed look on his face, Richie Ryan asked, "What's wrong with him?" Now also looking perplexed, Cordelia remarked, "You know...Xander went through that window last week. He's all cut up...and achy and painy." His eyes narrowing, the redhead repeated, "Cut up, huh? Could you excuse us for a few minutes, Cordy?" "Sure, I guess so. Is something wrong?" With a smile, Ryan answered, "Not for long. We just have some Immortal stuff to discuss. You know how it is." Walking toward the door, she remarked, "I'll be downstairs, Xander." After the girl left the room, Xander, seemingly the recipient of a miraculous recovery, threw back the covers, leapt from the bed, and angrily stated, "You're timing REALLY sucks, man! What are you doing here?" Observing the bandages encapsulating his student (not to mention the heart covered boxer shorts), Ryan snidely remarked, "Ohhh...the mummy speaks," before adding, "I'm here to pick you up for our weekly training session, remember?" "Oh shit, I completely forgot. I was ahh...distracted." "Obviously." After a moment, the older Immortal asked, "Maybe I'm na´ve, but what were you trying to do?" "Well, if you must know, I was rounding second and about to slide -- possibly head first -- into third when you showed up." With a grunt, Ryan remarked, "You little horn dog. There's nothing wrong with you." Smiling, Xander replied, "But Cordy doesn't know that." "I can change that." With a look of absolute horror crossing his face, the teen implored, "You wouldn't!" "I will...unless you move your ass! And lose those damn bandages." As Xander scrambled for his clothes, he paused a moment to ask his mentor, "Ah, Richie?" "Yeah?" "I've been thinking..." "That's nice, Xander." "No, wait...hear me out. OK...they say that guys are at their peak...you know...sexually, when they're teenagers, right?" Shifting weight to his other foot, Ryan subconsciously ran a hand through his short hair before tentatively asking, "Xander, where is this line of questioning going?" "Well, I'm thinking about Cordy like...you know...all the time." "All the time?" "Yeah. When I'm in class, or trying to sleep, or in the shower..." "HEY! WHOA! STOP! Way too much detail there, Xander." "Oh, sorry, what I meant to say..." "Please pick your next words carefully, Xander. Or I'll have to cut off your head...followed by my own." "Well, you know how it is. You still look like you're 18. Does it ever get any easier?" "Does WHAT ever get any easier?" "This relationship stuff." Now with a broad smirk crossing his face, Ryan remarked, "So, you think you're in love with Cordelia." Suddenly at a rare loss for words, the teen stammered, "Well, yeah...ah...no. I mean, there's more." "More? Oh good, it gets better." "I've really got it bad for Cordy." "That's what I just said, Xander." "AND for Willow." "You should run for president." "AND for Faith...I think." "THREE GIRLS?!? ARE YOU NUTS?" Ryan shouted before silently staring at the teen for several seconds. "Xander, haven't you covered this territory before? And didn't Cordy almost end up dead because of it?" "Yeah." "AND isn't Willow an item with that guy in the band...what's his name?" "Oz." "Right...Oz. AND doesn't he also have a werewolf thing going?" "OK...OK...fine. I'm scum. I admit it." "And this Faith...isn't she a Slayer?" "Yeah." "It's been nice knowing you, Xander." "That's not funny, Richie. I can really use some advice." "Fine. My advice is this: Get out of town...FAST!" Seeing the teen's stricken expression Ryan, now more serious, inquired of his student, "Do you know when relationships get easier, Xander?" "When?" "Never. That's when. Quoting the Immortal Duncan MacLeod, no pun intended, 'Whether you're 18, 80 or 800, love's never easy.' I think he also said something about the need for mutual trust and respect between two people, but MacLeod gets kinda preachy sometimes and I'm not a very good listener." Looking dejected, the boy could only reply, "Oh." "But I do recommend one thing." Quickly perking up, Xander asked hopefully, "What's that, Richie?" "Burn that underwear, sport. Those shorts are L-A-M-E!" A couple of minutes later, as Xander was about to leave the room wearing his trademark baggy T-shirt and jeans, Ryan asked, "Aren't you forgetting something?" "What?" "Well, your sword for one thing. And a jacket to hide it would be nice." "Ah c'mon, Richie. We're only going to the dojo for a few hours. What can happen?" Pulling a jacket from the teen's closet, the Immortal tossed it to him and replied, "Plenty, believe me. Where's your sword?" "Downstairs." "Where?" "Ah...it's ahh..." "OK. Let's try this again. Xander, where's your sword...the one MacLeod and I warn you to carry at ALL times?" In a low voice, the boy replied, "In the garage." "The garage? How can you get to it there?" "Mom doesn't like having it around the house. It makes her nervous." "Nervous? Well how would she feel about coming home and finding you decapitated?" "C'mon, Richie. That can't happen." With lightning speed, Ryan withdrew his own weapon, holding the tip of the blade at his student's throat. With Xander now swallowing nervously, his Adam's apple working itself first down and then back up, the older Immortal stated, "Oh yes it can, Xander." Then, after a few seconds, he resheathed the sword, adding, "NEVER forget that...for your own sake." Part Three Sunnydale Zoological Park and Gardens January 13 1:21 A.M. Amidst the gloomy trails and lush vegetation, two young women were sauntering along, one looking skyward while the other kept her eyes at ground level. "Hey, that's some fireworks show up there. Giles was pretty excited about it. He thinks it may be some major portent of doom or something." "Yeah whatever. If you ask me, it's just some stellar gasbag blowing off steam." "Not exactly a romantic, are you, Faith?" "Why should I be? Not much to be romantic about around here. Use 'em and lose 'em, that's what I say." After a pause, she then asked, "So, Buffy, what's it like...you know...to get horizontal and chitty chitty bang bang with an undead fiend?" "Like I've told you before, Faith, I so don't want to have this discussion." "Oh, please, Buff. I'm not going to be judgmental or anything. Just curious." "Sure you are." After replying, "I am," she then asked, "So, do you have to warm him up like other guys, or does he just plant the flag?" With growls from the big cats audible in the distance, the shorter girl suddenly stopped short, turned and angrily replied, "Hey, newsflash, I'm not discussing Angel with you...not ever. We have something very special." "Yeah, right." "You don't believe me?" "Hey, Buff, I've seen Angel, remember. He definitely has that dark, brooding act down. I can see how that might attract certain types of skirts." "But, of course, not you." "Me and a bloodsucker...please, get real." "Well then, Miss Manners, what kinds of guys appeal to you?" Now chewing her gum at an even faster pace, she remarked, "I'm into the leather and studs kinda guy. You know, the bad boy, dangling earrings, piercings a plus, scuzzy biker type." "So have you met danger boy yet?" "Several, actually." "But..." "They were big on scuz, but small in other departments." "I know I'll regret asking you this, but could bachelorette number one please specify...what 'other' departments?" "Such as commitment," Faith stated. "Oh." "You think I simply focus on the physical stuff, don't you?" "No, of course not," Buffy lied. "Well, I'm not THAT shallow." "Sorry." "It's fine, I'm cool," the newest Slayer remarked before blowing a bubble. As they continued walking, Faith asked nonchalantly , "By the way...how's that friend of yours doing...what's his name...?" "Who?" "That clown who was going out with the snob." "Xander?" "Yeah, that's him. What's his deal these days?" Not sure where this was leading, Buffy remarked, "He's kinda snared in Cordelia's web again. You know how it is..." "Oh." "Why do you ask?" Faith didn't have a chance to reply as a scream suddenly shattered the silence. "Just in time. Duty calls." Dashing around a bend in the trail near the hyena house, the two girls come upon an alarming sight -- even by Sunnydale standards: A man sprawled atop a motionless young woman. As Faith moved forward, wielding a previously concealed wooden stake, she angrily remarked, "Hey, buddy, get off her! It obviously wasn't as good for her as it was for you." "Faith, wait! We don't know..." "Wait? For what? This rapist to get his rocks off again? I don't think so." As she approached, the blond-haired man casually rose, buttoned his shirt, and slowly turned to face her. Then, most chilling of all, he actually started laughing. As Faith suspected, fangs were present. But, there was something else...he had no eyes. Just two dark circles where his eyes should have been. "A Slayer. How sweet. It's been such a long time since I've savored the fruits of one such as you." Leaping forward, she spat, "The only thing you'll be savoring is this stake when I jam it up your..." "Faith, no..." Before the words had left her mouth, Buffy realized that something was seriously different about this vamp. Her suspicions were confirmed when he caught the other Slayer in midair before effortlessly tossing her onto a nearby bench. "Faith!" When the still unidentified attacker started to move toward the downed Slayer, Buffy instantly retrieved a stake from her boot and, taking aim, let it fly. Her toss found its mark as the wooden shaft sank deeply into the left side of the vampire's chest, right where the heart should have been. Unfortunately, instead of turning to dust as expected, he merely looked down, removed the shaft and, once again laughing, splintered it. "Two Slayers! This should be a real treat!" With a look of disdain, Buffy remarked, "Hey, bright eyes...it's funny...that's what all the ghouls around here say, before we kill them." As Faith struggled back to her feet, she also threatened, "You're going to be so dead!" Again on the attack, she landed several powerful kicks and body blows that had absolutely no effect. Then, off balance after a right hook failed to connect, the stranger took hold of her arms, stating, "Go to your friend, I think she's lonely." He then lifted her off the ground and flipped her toward Buffy. Seeing what was about to happen, the girl only had time to think, "Oh, shit!" before the impact. Although now in pain herself, Buffy quickly regained her senses. "Faith...can you hear me?" "No daddy, Tommy and Steve weren't in my room last night..." "Faith, snap out of it...NOW!" "Heh heh, it was Billy and Bobby." With their attacker closing in for the kill, Buffy attempted to free herself from the other girl's tangled limbs while pleading, "Faith, snap out of it!" "What....where...?" "Get up! We're in major trouble here!" "Oh you're so right, little Slayer. You just can't imagine how much trouble." Reaching down to grasp Buffy's hair, the fiend started to pull her neck closer while remarking, "You should be honored that Semyaza would select you." Quickly removing another stake from her other boot, Buffy quipped, "I'm sure the honor's all yours, buddy," before plunging it deep into his forearm. Instantly releasing her, Semyaza roared, "You unworthy bitch!" "Funny, that's just what all my teachers say." The Slayer then bounced back to her feet and landed some additional blows to his head. Unfortunately, this didn't have any greater impact than Faith's earlier attempts. In fact, he simply absorbed the punishment Buffy dealt out before retaliating with a single blow to the side of her face, knocking her down. While on the verge of passing out, Buffy suddenly heard a high pitched whine followed by a roar. After blinking a few times, she looked up to see Semyaza with a crossbow bolt protruding from his neck. Then, just when things couldn't get any weirder...they did. As Buffy continued to watch, he removed the shaft, growling, "I grow weary of these games," before emitting a blinding flash of light and disappearing into thin air. A few seconds later, the Slayer heard a pained voice ask, "Buffy, you alright?" Looking toward the other girl, who was on her knees holding an empty crossbow, she replied, "I think so," before asking, "Faith?" "Yeah?" "I don't think we should come here anymore. It's not safe." Meanwhile, across town, Mario was watching Marie sleep in the guest bedroom of her grandmother's house. However, while reaching to reposition a stray lock of hair on her forehead, he detected an all too familiar presence somewhere in the vicinity. Quickly rising, he soundlessly drifted to the window overlooking the street. "Mario, what's wrong?" Not wanting to alarm her, he replied, "Nothing. I just wanted to get some fresh air. Go back to sleep." "I didn't think you needed air." After another glance into the night, he turned and perched back on the edge of the bed. "Go back to sleep, you need your rest." "Why don't you climb in here with me, there's plenty of room." "I can't." "But we're married now, aren't we?" Now looking more serious, he responded, "Marie, it's not that simple. There are larger issues." "Such as?" "Such as your safety. I can't allow myself to get distracted." Looking hurt, she asked, "It that all I am, a distraction?" "No, of course not." "Then what is it?" After pausing to compose his thoughts, he stated, "We just can't be together...at least not in the way you'd like us to be. It would be very dangerous, especially for you." Reaching up, she ran her hand through his long hair. "Mario, why is it dangerous for us to be together. Aren't we compatible?" Now staring down at the floor, he answered, "Yes, Marie, that's just it. We're much too compatible." Just at that moment, the girl grimaced. "Ow...ow!" Leaping up, Mario asked excitedly, "What's wrong?" "The baby just kicked...that's all. I guess I've gotta get used to it. Sit back down." "No, I really shouldn't..." "Mario, please sit down." As he hesitantly returned to the edge of the bed, she reached for one of his hands, placing the palm flat against her stomach. "Can you feel him?" "Yes." ***** Motel 6 1:41 P.M. After checking in at the FBI's San Francisco field office, Mulder and Scully picked up a copy of the case forensics report, signed out a dark blue Taurus from the motor pool, and drove to the crime scene. Pulling into the motel driveway, Scully idly remarked, "That's odd." "What's odd?" "According to forensics, there was only one set of fingerprints in the room and none found on the car where the men landed." "Maybe they were wearing gloves." "No, Mulder. The surveillance video clearly showed them fighting with bare hands." "You're right. That is odd." As Fox Mulder removed his seatbelt and exited the vehicle, the redhead continued to review the file. "You coming, Scully?" "Now that's REALLY strange." "What now?" "The blood found at the scene." "What about it?" "They couldn't type it. In fact, it didn't contain any platelets or hemoglobin. Just plasma with some traces of...no that can't be right." "What? What can't be right?" "Sulfur...they found traces of sulfur and other elemental organic matter." "Brimstone, Scully." Closing her car door, she remarked, "Now don't start, Mulder. The lab probably just contaminated the samples or something." "Yeah, or something." Quickly sweeping the area, the agents noted a lone police car nearby. With crime scene tape strung around the demolished car in the parking lot and across the front door leading to the lobby, he asked his partner, "Any thoughts on where to start?" "How about the room upstairs. According to the report, that's where most of the action took place." Flashing their badges at the cop in the doorway, they headed for the elevator with its cheerful canned music still incongruously playing. Arriving on the third floor, the agents stepped off the lift and into a grungy beige hallway harshly lit by flickering florescent tubes. Rounding a corner, they quickly noticed that the tape strung across the doorway to room 312 was broken and that voices were emanating from within. Drawing their weapons, they cautiously entered. "Federal agents! Don't move!" As the two men they encountered remained crouched on the floor, their backs to them, one remarked in heavily accented English, "We wouldn't dream of it." Scully in the meantime had gotten the other, younger man to his feet and within seconds had expertly relieved him of a .45 automatic holstered under his left arm. However, she didn't notice him palm a scrap of paper retrieved from behind one of the twin beds. "I hope you have a license for this." "As a matter of fact, it's in the left front pocket of my jeans. You're more than welcome to go fishing for it." After a moment, Scully stated, "OK...but remove it slowly." Once the wallet was open for inspection, she remarked, "A carry permit does not entitle you to enter a crime scene, Mr. Boyle." "Call me Nick." To this, Mulder testily remarked, "We'll call you a lawyer, smartmouth." With his back still turned toward the agents, the older man quickly remarked, "Now that's not very professional, Agent Mulder." Surprised, Mulder gave a sideways glance to his partner before asking, "You know us?" "Walter Skinner said you'd be along." His face suddenly grim as several puzzle pieces dropped into place, the agent remarked, "So you're..." Rising to his full height, the Frenchman coolly turned while finishing the statement, "Derek Rayne...yes." Then, noticing that Mulder still had his gun drawn, he pointedly asked, "Is there some other problem?" "Ah, no, sorry." As several firearms were quickly re-holstered, Derek turned toward Scully and remarked, "And I believe you've already met my associate, Nick Boyle. We're with the Luna Foundation." Retrieving his wallet from the woman's hand, Nick smirked before asking, "Was it as good for you as it was for me, Agent Scully?" As the mere hint of a grin momentarily crossed Scully's lips at this remark, Mulder simply continued to scowl. ***** Sunnydale High School Library 2:07 P.M. "Giles? Giles, are you here?" "Up here, Buffy. In the black arts section." Looking up toward the library's upper level, she spied her Watcher coming out from between the stacks. "We've got to talk, Giles. There's a serious new badass in town. After snacking on a girl, he tossed Faith and me around like yesterday's dirty laundry." Now intrigued, the librarian removed his wire-rimmed glasses before commenting, "You mean that your combined efforts couldn't stop...something? Jolly good." In response, Buffy simply stood stock still, a hand resting on her hip. Then, after a few moments, she remarked, "Well, I'm SO happy to make your day with an unstoppable ghoul. Heaven forbid that we continue to ice the bad guys with ease. No, we wouldn't want that now, would we?" With an annoyed expression, Giles replied, "What I meant, Buffy, is that I find it highly unusual for you and Faith to have difficulty dispatching your quarry. Therefore, I find it interesting, but not necessarily a cause for celebration." "Not necessarily? You mean getting our asses kicked IS occasionally cause for celebration?" "No, let me rephrase that. It didn't quite come out as I intended." "Never mind, Giles. I'm only busting your chops." "Oh. Quite." As the library doors once again swung open, the Slayer heard two familiar voices stating first, "Hi, Buffy" and then simply, "Buff." Before she even turned, she knew that Willow and her on again, off again, on again boyfriend, Oz, had entered the large room. "Guys. How's it going?" "Oz is going to be playing at the Bronze again this week." The spiky-haired teen then elaborated, "Yeah, they said the other bands really sucked. But we sucked less. I think that's a good thing." "Of course it's a good thing, Wolfy. I bet that's how most bands get their first big break." "Yeah, that and sleeping with MTV veejays...or so I've heard." As this conversation wound down, the Englishman attempted to steer it back to the main issue at hand, "Buffy and Faith were accosted last night." "Are you alright, Buffy? And what about Faith?" "We're both better...now. But last night was another story." The Watcher then asked, "Was it a vampire?" "That's the really weird part. This guy had fangs and all, drained the girl, but only got annoyed when I staked him. Then, and this is REALLY bizarre, he just disappeared." "You mean he ran away?" "No, Giles, he disappeared like David Copperfield. Disappeared...poof...gone in a flash." "How odd." Scratching his chin, he inquired, "Did he give you any indication to his identity?" "Yeah, he said his name was Semiarid or Sammy Davis or something..." "Good God, not Semyaza!" "Now there's a reaction. Giles, I'm thinking this is not a good thing." "This is very serious, Buffy. Semyaza is a fallen angel referred to in the Biblical Book of Enoch." "Enoch? I don't remember a Book of Enoch in the Bible," Willow remarked. "Is it New Testament?" "Apocryphal, actually. Not officially recognized by theological scholars." "An angel? Aren't angels supposed to play harps and float on clouds? This guy looked more like a Hell's Angel." "Actually, Buffy, you may actually be partially correct...in your own crude American adolescent sort of way." "You mean this guy rides a Hog?" "A what? Oh never mind...I don't want to know." Returning his gaze toward Willow and Oz, Giles continued, "What I mean is that Semyaza was somehow corrupted and eventually recruited others to rebel against the heavenly host. As punishment, he and his followers were cast out and are forever denied access to the divine light...the ultimate punishment for an angel." "So then what's he doing in Sunnydale? Shouldn't he be in solitary angelic confinement for a few trillion years or something? And what's up with those fangs?" Buffy asked in rapid order. "That, Buffy, is precisely what we have to find out. Willow, I'll need your assistance." ***** Motel 6 3:50 P.M. "Well, it looks like the evidence teams were pretty complete." "Unfortunately, they didn't find much that can tell us who was in this room," remarked Derek. "OK," Scully began, "let's go over what we do know. According to the surveillance tapes, a young couple checked in. The girl looked pregnant, but other than that, nothing unusual." "Then a few hours later, all hell breaks loose," added Nick. With Mulder now joining Derek outside on the balcony, the FBI agent looked over the railing and continued, "Some perp kills the desk clerk downstairs, comes up here, fights with the couple, and ends up back downstairs...the hard way." "Could be drug-related," Derek remarked. "Possible, but unlikely. The local PD went through here with dogs. Nothing out of the ordinary turned up," responded Scully. After a momentary pause, she added, "Maybe the bodies will reveal something." "We're somewhat acquainted with the local medical examiner. "Maybe we can offer some assistance in that respect." "That would be very helpful, Dr. Rayne. At times, the local authorities can be very rigid." "I'll call her tonight. She can probably have an autopsy report to you relatively quickly." "Actually," interrupted Mulder, "Scully is a trained pathologist. We'd prefer a first-hand look at the deceased, rather than a report summarizing the findings for us." "And she's a doctor too. Be still my heart," Nick remarked to no one in particular. At this, Mulder once again grimaced. The four agreed to reconvene at the ME's office early the following morning and went their own separate ways...or at least that was the stated plan. After Derek climbed into his Explorer beside Nick, the older man asked, "So what did you find in there?" Retrieving the crumpled scrap of paper from his leather jacket, Nick replied, "A phone number." Then, holding it up for Derek's inspection, he asked, "Look familiar?" Taking hold of the paper, Derek's mind was suddenly inundated with a stream of confusing images of strange otherworldly beings and inexplicable emotions. Slumping forward in his seat, Nick grasped his shoulder before his head hit the dashboard. "Whoa! You OK, Derek?" "Yeah...just got a little dizzy. I'll be fine." Then, squinting at the numerals, brow furrowed, he stated, "I think we'd better pay our friend of the cloth a visit." As the black sport utility vehicle pulled out of the parking lot, Mulder started the sedan's engine, waited a few seconds, and began following the other vehicle at a discreet distance. "What are you doing, Mulder?" "I don't trust them, Scully. They just happen to have connections with the local police AND medical examiner. It's just too convenient." "That might be why Skinner asked them to help, simply because they ARE connected. Do there always have to be dark ulterior motives to people's actions, Mulder?" "Do you really want me to answer that, Scully?" From that point on, the two proceeded along mostly in silence through the darkening streets of Oakland. After about 20 minutes, Mulder pulled to the curb down the street from a large gothic church. They then watched as Derek and Nick left their vehicle and, finding the front doors of the building locked, quickly headed around the side toward the rectory. Seeing this, Mulder dryly commented, "Guess they had an urge to say a few prayers." "We don't know why they're here, Mulder. They may simply know someone who works here." "I doubt it, Scully. I think it's time to do some checking on Derek Rayne, Nick Boyle, and the Luna Foundation." Part Four Sunnydale High School Library 4:32 P.M. "Giles, here it is! According to the Book of Enoch, Semyaza and his followers were banished fro Heaven and came to Earth. Once there, they cast spells, took mortal wives, and...oh..." "Yes, Willow, go on." Reading from the computer screen, she continued, "...they impregnated women who then bore a powerful race of hybrid offspring. These immortals walked the Earth devouring the flesh and drinking the blood of mortals." Seated at a research table, Buffy stopped fingering one of her stakes long enough to remark, "Why am I thinking vampires here, people?" "You might be correct, Buffy. Semyaza may be one of the first vampires. Willow, does it say anything about how to defeat him?" "Let's see. Well, here it says that God sent his archangels to defeat the rampaging evil on Earth. Semyaza's punishment was to remain bound under the hills for 70 generations until the day of judgment. I'm afraid that's all it says, Giles." The Watcher quickly came to stand beside the teen, scanning the text displayed on screen. "Something tells me he just got paroled," remarked Buffy. The Watcher, looking shaken...a rarity...simply remained silent. "Calling Giles. Come in Rupert Giles." "Judgment Day." "What?" "According to this, Semyaza's return will coincide with Judgment Day...the end of the world." "OK, that's pretty heavy duty," remarked Oz. "So I guess we'll just have to stop him then. Giles, how do we stop him?" "I don't know if there is any way to stop an angel, Buffy. It may be destiny...fate, if you will." "Fate, my ass, Giles. I don't accept that. This guy treated me like a punching bag and I want to rip his wings off." "He had wings too?" The Watcher was now pale. "No...at least I didn't see any...that's just a figure of speech, Giles. Now snap out of it and get with the program here. Remember how it works...you find out how to stop the unstoppable evil and then I go out and kick butt. We've done it before." Replacing the glasses on the bridge of his nose, the man remarked, "Yes, of course, you're right. What I need is a spot of tea. It's been a long day." "Now that's my Giles." "Willow, can you stay and assist me this evening?" Before responding, she looked toward Oz. "That's OK. You stay. I have to practice for our gig tomorrow." "Thanks, Oz. I'll call you later." ***** St. Michael's Church Rectory 5:05 P.M. "Hi Derek, Nick, it's been a long time." As Nick and the priest embraced, Derek replied, "Too long, old friend." As the men proceeded back toward Philip Callahan's office, he asked, "So what do I owe this unexpected visit...business or pleasure?" "Unfortunately, business," answered Nick. "Legacy business?" To this, Derek replied, "Actually, we're not quite sure. For now, we're assisting the authorities in conducting an investigation. There was a double murder a few nights ago." "Murder?" "Yes, at a motel not far from here." "Oh yes. I do remember hearing about it on the late news. Such a terrible waste. Just terrible." "Yes, it was. And we're hoping that you might know something about two people who we suspect may have witnessed the crime." "Looking slightly puzzled, the priest remarked, "Of course, Derek. But I'm really not sure if I know anything." In response, Nick added, "Philip, we're looking for a young couple who left the scene shortly after the crime was committed." "I'm afraid, you'll have to be more specific than that, Nick. Many young people live in this parish." Taking a slip of paper from his pocket, the man retorted, "Yeah, but how many have your phone number on a piece of church stationery?" "And we believe that the young woman may also be pregnant," Derek added. The priest's face suddenly turned grim with a sudden revelation. "Oh, good God! I hope they're not in any danger." "Who, Philip? You hope who's not in any danger?" "Marie Demerest and her husband, Mario. Those kids already have so many things going against them...and now this." "Can you tell us where they live?" With a downcast expression, Philip replied, "No, not exactly. All I know is that they headed south after I married them a few days ago. Marie's parents might be able to tell you more. I have their address. They've been parishioners for many years." "Thank you, Philip. That might be very helpful." As the priest set about looking for the requested information, he quickly cautioned the two men, "Derek, you might want to tread lightly with the parents. They're rather emotional about the circumstances of their daughter's wedding." "Was the old shotgun standing by, Philip?" questioned Nick. "No, Nick. That was the strange part about it. The young man, Mario, was actually anxious to marry Marie. But her father was dead-set against the union." "What about the boy's family?" "Both of the lad's parents are dead." Now with a clearer grasp of the situation, Derek commented, "We'll try to remain sensitive to everyone's emotions, Philip." "Thank you, Derek." A few minutes later, as the two left the church, Derek pulled up his collar against the brisk night air. Looking up, he remarked, "Now there's a sight you don't see very often." "What?" "That star...the supernova. Look how bright it is." "Yeah, they said it'll probably last a few more nights." "It's actually quite beautiful." Looking back up, Nick remarked, "If you've seen one star, Derek, you've seen them all." Now somewhat annoyed, the Precept of the San Francisco Legacy house remarked, "Nick, sometimes you've got to stop and enjoy what nature has to offer." "Yeah, well, I never was a tree hugger like you and Alex." "A tree hugger, huh. Well, Conan, let's go get something to eat before we call on Mr. and Mrs. Demerest." Meanwhile, across the street, as Scully kept the two men under surveillance, Mulder was rapidly jotting down information with one hand while holding a cell phone in the other. "Ah huh...right...got it. And remember, get back to me about Rayne and Boyle. Right...thanks Frohike. What? Oh...light brown skirt, white silk blouse, medium heels. Oh, come on. Fine, above the knee...slightly. Don't go there, Frohike. Yeah, fine, thanks [beep]." "What was that all about?" "Frohike was able to access the county's department of records. It seems that a young couple was married by a priest here a few days ago." "That's not unusual in a large city church, Mulder." "You're right, Scully. But when he cross-referenced this information with the county health department, guess what he found?" "I'm sure you're going to tell me." "A young woman by the name of Marie Demerest and her boyfriend, now husband, Mario Seraphim came in for neonatal screening." "Oh." "He also gave me the address to her parents' house." "But we're not sure they're the two we're looking for, Mulder." "Yeah, but it can't hurt to check it out." As she replied somewhat tentatively, "I guess not," something else dawned on her, "Ah, Mulder, what did Frohike ask you at the end of that call?" "He wanted to know what you were wearing." "He what?!? That little..." Grinning, Mulder replied, "Calm down, Scully. After all, why do you think he's a Lone Gunmen?" ***** Demerest Residence 6:27 P.M. As Derek and Nick drove up to the home of Nancy and Anthony Demerest, they quickly noticed two things. First, a blue Taurus with black and white government license plates was parked in front and second, a commotion had erupted on the porch. "Oh, hell!" "Looks like the feds beat us to the punch, Derek." Quickly stepping from their vehicle, the first words they heard came from Mr. Demerest." "And get off my property!" "Sir, we're just trying to investigate two homicides and your son-in- law's possible involvement." "Oh Tony! Our baby's in trouble!" With his wife now holding one of the wooden porch columns for support, the man responded angrily, "That no good son of a bitch is no son-in- law of mine! He ruined our little girl...she's too young to be married, no less a mother!" "But sir," Scully added, "We're not saying that your daughter is guilty of a crime, just that we need to talk to her and her husband." Upon seeing two more men coming up his driveway, Mr. Demerest snarled, "Oh, now look at this! What did you do, call reinforcements?" Derek, in the lead, replied, "No, sir. We don't work for the government. But we would like to ask you and your wife a few questions." "We're done answering questions. You've already upset my wife. Now get off my property!" "But sir..." Without another word, the man then helped his wife into the house and slammed the door. With his own temper now about to boil over, Derek could only hear Philip's now prophetic warning in his head to remain sensitive to the parent's emotions. After a few seconds, he said to Mulder, "I hope you're satisfied. I thought we're supposed to be working on this case together?" Equally annoyed, Mulder replied, "Together? Well, then, when were you going to mention Father Philip Callahan to us? Huh? And why do I also suspect that you withheld evidence found at the motel. That would be a Class B felony, Dr. Rayne." Without the slightest trace of deception, Derek retorted, "We withheld nothing, Agent Mulder. We were merely playing a hunch." "That's bullshit!" As the two continued to argue, Nick made his way over to Scully. "Is he always like this?" "Like what?" "So hell-bent on running down leads that he burns bridges in the process." "You don't know the half of it." "How long have you worked with him?" "Nearly six years," the woman responded, before adding, "but sometimes it seems longer." "That's longer than a lot of marriages last." "What are you implying?" "Oh, nothing." Then, with a cocked eyebrow, he asked, "Should I be?" Smirking, Scully replied, "Mulder and me? We're just partners." "Well, then, are you doing anything later tonight?" Mildly taken aback, the agent asked, "Are you asking me out, Mr. Boyle?" "Strictly as a fellow professional investigator, I assure you." "Well, in that case, how about 8 o'clock?" "Where are you staying? "At the Holiday Inn near the airport." "I'll see you then." Meanwhile, Mulder had stalked back to the car, remarking, "Scully, let's go," leaving Derek standing with his arms crossed on the lawn. As the feds pulled away, the Precept snidely remarked, "Well now that our only lead is gone, I'm glad to see that your personal life is alive and well." "What? You mean Dana?" "Oh, so it's Dana now, is it?" "So what, Derek? We're just going to dinner." "Ah ha, right. Just don't do anything you'll regret later." "That's my Derek...always the optimist." "I'm not an optimist OR a pessimist, Nick. More like a realist. I'm talking from experience here." ***** Harris Residence 7:33 P.M. The teen closed the side door, gingerly took off his jacket, and tossed it toward one of the kitchen chairs. Missing his mark, it instead hit the tile floor with a clang. Then, while rubbing his tender ribs, courtesy of several blows delivered during his workout with Ryan, he paused to stare into a mirror near the refrigerator. "At least the eye isn't black anymore." "Xander is that you?" "Yeah, mom," he called into the adjacent living room. "How was school?" "Just great. Same old, same old." "That's good, dear." Mumbling, he then added, "If I'd gone, I'm sure it would've been great." "Ah, Xander...we had a little problem with tonight's dinner." Uh oh, here it comes, he thought. "What kind of problem, mom?" Over the shouting of 'Crossfire,' came the reply. "Your father burned it to a crisp. And since we didn't know when you'd be home, we ate out." "So what else is new?" "What did you say, dear?" "I said that's OK. I'll just grab something out." "That's good, dear." Moving toward the kitchen door, Xander considered retrieving his jacket from the floor. Again rubbing his ribs, he thought of the weight of the weapon concealed within. "Screw it! I'll be right back." ***** Airport Holiday Inn San Francisco, California 7:54 P.M. "Who is it?" A disheveled Fox Mulder -- even by Mulder's own relaxed fashion standards -- opened the door to his room in response to the series of knocks. Emanating from within were the sounds of male grunts, groans, and female squealing. "Scully? Is something wrong?" With an eyebrow noticeably raised at her partner's apparent television viewing habits, she responded after a few moments, "No, Mulder. I just wanted to let you know that I'm going out tonight." "Out? Is it something related to the case?" "No...not exactly." "OK...well, then, what exactly?" "I haven't been to San Francisco since college, and I really didn't have the opportunity to see the sights then." Quickly shutting off the TV, Mulder went to retrieve his suit jacket, remarking, "Neither have I. We'll go together." "Ah...no, Mulder. That's not necessary." Now with a suspicious tone in his voice, he asked, "What aren't you telling me, Scully?" "I'm...ah...already going out with someone tonight." Obviously dejected, Mulder paused a few seconds before remarking, "It's Boyle, isn't it?" She merely shook her head slowly in the affirmative. "But you barely know the guy! At least let me finish checking him out first." Now clearly exasperated, she remarked, "Mulder, you can't check out all the guys I'm interested in dat...interested in." "You were going to say 'dating,' weren't you?" "No, I wasn't." "Ah excuse me, am I interrupting something?" The two agents were so engrossed in their discussion that they failed to notice Nick standing in the hallway. "No!" exclaimed Scully. "Yes!" exclaimed Mulder." "No!" reiterated Scully. "I'm ready, let's go." As the couple was waiting for the elevator, Nick noticed Mulder still watching them. With the doors sliding closed, he couldn't resist calling, "See you tomorrow morning, Mulder." Now alone in the hallway, the agent muttered, "Maybe he'll get hit by a cable car," before slinking back to his room. Meanwhile, downstairs, the couple had reached Nick's classic red 1965 Mustang convertible. Once behind the wheel, he inquired, "So where to?" "It's your call. You know the area best." "Hey, that's what I like to hear. Hope you like Italian." ***** Mockingbird Lane Sunnydale, California 8:06 P.M. While returning from Wing Ho's all-night Chinese take-out joint, Xander was actually in a good mood. Well, pretty good considering that he was passionately in love with one girl who loved somebody else, had a stormy on-again, off-again relationship with the school beauty queen cum ice princess, and was concealing a forbidden encounter with the new Slayer in town. These were the major issues in the teenager's life when THE sensation hit him. Stopping dead in his tracks, he muttered, "Oh, shit!" while quickly scanning the residential streetscape around him. Moments later, he saw a silhouette slowly emerge near the base of a large palm tree. "I'm Joshua Whelon...and you are?" Tempted to respond, "Wanting to be anywhere but here," Xander instead replied by simply stating his name, albeit nervously. As the other Immortal emerged from the shadows, the teen was momentarily relieved to see a face seemingly not much older, or threatening, than his own. However, he knew that when dealing with Immortals, looks could be deceiving. "So do you prefer to go somewhere a little less public or just do it here?" Used to cracking jokes when in danger, Xander remained true to form by quipping, "I don't know about you, friend, but I usually prefer dinner and a movie first." "Very droll, boy. I do hope you're not a coward." "Hey, this coward's no boy, buddy." "So then, you admit you're a coward." "No more than the next red-blooded American guy." "Don't flatter yourself, Xander Harris. I've killed dozens of men braver then you over the past 152 years." Slowly drawing a Confederate Army saber, Whelon added, "The youth of today have no honor." Swallowing nervously, Xander replied, "What are you doing? We don't even know each other." "I know enough. We're both Immortals. We're both here. And you have a Quickening that I want. Did I forget anything?" "But I'm not armed. How honorable would that be?" Whelon then made a few exaggerated practice swipes as he approached. Xander, meanwhile, resisted the urge to start backpedaling. "You're carelessness is no concern of mine, Harris. Obviously your teacher failed to properly instruct you in the Rules of the Game." He then lunged forward, taking a swipe at Xander's head. Before he could react, the teen felt a hot, stinging sensation on his right cheek. Reaching up, his hand came away bloody. "Son of a bitch!" The older Immortal then stepped back with a look of extreme satisfaction on his face, casually pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his overcoat, and wiped off the blade. "You have a day to get your affairs in order, Harris. If you have a shred of honor, you'll meet me tomorrow night at this time. But, be warned, if you run or try any tricks, I'll find you." Now overcoming the initial shock of his first challenge in general, and his close call with eternity in particular, Xander's temper began to bubble. "It's a date, you bastard. Just name the place." "The park." "Which one, Brainiac, Sunnydale has a dozen parks." "Then I'll make it easy for you, Harris. The big one across from your school." "That would be Memorial Park...I'll be there." After replying, "I hope so," Whelon added, "and one more thing. If I was a bastard, armed or not, you'd be dead now." He then turned and headed back to his car. As the other Immortal drove off, Xander suddenly felt light-headed and nearly buckled to the pavement. Breathing heavily with cold sweat pooling on his face, he only now realized how close to death he had come. After a few minutes, he had composed himself enough to continue on while mumbling, "As if vampires and demons weren't enough around here..." When the street was clear, a lone figure slowly emerged from behind some bushes. With a pen clenched between her teeth, the young woman flipped a small notebook closed, pocketed the pen, and headed for the nearest phone. Within a few minutes, her report was being relayed to her immediate superior, located in a bar about 20 miles to the north in the city of Seacouver. Part Five Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco, California 9:43 P.M. Despite Nick Boyle's best efforts, the discussion once again shifted back to business; this time, as he and Scully were walking along a festively decorated street after leaving Antonio's Pasta and Seafood House. "So how long have you worked for the Luna Foundation?" "About ten years, right after I left the military. But Derek knew my parents way longer than that." "So he's a friend and not just your boss?" "Derek? Yeah, definitely. We've pulled each other out of some tight jams." After a few moments, he then asked, "And how long have you worked for the feds?" "About eight years. I joined the Bureau shortly after I graduated from medical school." "Why?" "I found that doctors can be antiseptic...pardon the pun. Now don't get me wrong, I love science, but I didn't think I'd be making much of a difference waiting for the bodies to roll through the door." "So you wanted to make a difference?" "Sure, don't you?" Gently taking hold of her hand, Nick responded, "Absolutely." A few blocks further down, they heard rock music wafting from a posh club. In an uncharacteristically spontaneous moment, Scully started pulling Nick toward the door. "Dana, where are we going?" "I haven't gone clubbing in ages. Let's try this place." As they approached the place, Nick quickly surveyed the scene. With a red carpet leading from the front door, the club had an eclectic mix of stretch limos and motorcycles parked out in front. There were also fashionably dressed young people and bikers huddled in groups within velvet roped areas. Above the door, "The Haven" was spelled out in curved script letters. Realizing they had practically no chance of even getting past the burly bouncers, Nick started to remark, "I think this joint is seriously out of my..." when a sudden sensation overwhelmed his senses. Feeling his hand contract on hers, Scully also noticed the cautious expression on his face. "Nick are you alright?" While scanning the front of the building with renewed interest, he replied, "Yeah, I'm fine," before quickly adding, "I guess the pasta salad didn't agree with me." "Do you want to go home?" Before he could respond, a young curly-haired man with a thin beard emerged from the club and strode rapidly in their direction. "Nick, how are you?" "Cash?" "The one and only. And who do we have here?" With some hesitation, the Immortal replied, "Ah...Dana, this is Cash. We've...ah...worked together in the past." After shaking hands with the newcomer, Scully asked, "Do you work for the Luna Foundation too?" Upon mentioning the name "Luna," Nick swore that several nearby conversations ceased, but it might only have been his imagination. Cash, however, remained unfazed, replying with a grin, "No, not exactly." Then, turning back to Nick, he asked, "So, you coming in?" "In? I'm not sure this is my kinda place." "C'mon, Nick. It's still early. Let's go in." With Scully tugging him along by the arm, they entered an atmosphere of loud music and chic revelers. In short, a place where the beautiful people went to be seen. It was also not the sort of place often frequented by the normally down to earth Dana Scully. Meanwhile, the sensation clawing at the back of Nick's mind never ceased for a moment. He knew others with lifelines equal to his own were all around, in fact one of them had invited them into the place. As they passed through the crowd, he noticed furtive glances being cast in their direction. This continued until Cash finally brought them to a prime table near the base of a sweeping, curved, red carpeted staircase. He also instructed one of the waiters to bring them a bottle of wine. "Cash, you really don't have to do this." "Yes, I do. Tonight, you're our guests." "I thought you never came here before, Nick?" inquired Scully. "I haven't." "You might say that Nick's an acquaintance of the owner." The wine -- red, of course -- soon arrived courtesy of a waiter who smoothly uncorked the bottle and poured the liquid while casting emerald-colored eyes in Scully's direction. Seeing this, Nick couldn't help but frown. Then, after meeting the Immortal's gaze, the waiter bowed his head slightly and was gone. "The wine's local...produced in the valley. Our owner's very fond of it. If you need anything else, just ask." "Thank you," replied Scully. With a nod, the young man then ascended the stairs and disappeared from view. "Somebody must owe you a favor?" "Hey, this is a surprise for me too." Upstairs, in a large, wood paneled conference room, Cash re-entered a meeting already in progress. This action also caused a momentary lull in the shouting that permeated the space moments before. After bending down to whisper something to the man seated at the head of the table, which elicited a barely perceptible nod, he again took his place. In addition to those seated, personal bodyguards ringed the room. "Oh, I'm so glad that the Prince's errand boy is back. I guess we can continue now." "I'll show you who's an errand boy, you piece of Brujah dogshit!" "Cash, please. Ignore him." "I'll cut your heart out and feast on it, Gangrel!" "Cameron, that's enough!" "My...my...what a surprise, the boys are fighting again," cooed Lillie Langtry, the only woman present. The two other men in the room -- one of whom looked to be in his mid- 20s with a full head of wavy black hair -- looked annoyed, while the other -- who appeared much older and was utterly bald -- remained clam, seemingly detached from the proceedings. The younger one turned to his friend and remarked, "Every week...every month, it's always the same. I hate it! Now I know why I stayed away." "You must learn to put things in perspective, Angelus. In the final analysis, these squabbles mean nothing." "Yeah, Daedalus, but they get old real fast." As he said this, the younger man felt a leg quickly rub against his own. Turning, he spied Lillie, wearing a flowing red evening ensemble, including elbow length gloves, coyly running her tongue over her lips. "I know something we can do to alleviate the boredom, Angelus." [Boom...boom] All heads swiftly pivoted in the direction of the man at the head of the table, who's fists were balled in front of him. His eyes flashing, he stated flatly, "This is your final warning. I will not tolerate any more outbursts. This is a Kindred Conclave, not a schoolyard brawl." "Is there a difference?" asked the woman. "Lillie, now don't you start." "Fine. I'll be good...I promise." After pausing to insure everyone's silence, Julian Luna continued, "Very well. Then maybe we can get back to the business at hand." In addition to Julian, the immaculately tailored Ventrue Prince of the City, those seated at the table included Lillie, Toreador Primogen and the club's manager, and Cameron, Brujah Primogen, wearing a blue Hugo Boss pinstripe suit and red striped tie. Across the table sat Daedalus, Nosferatu Primogen, wearing a black vest over an old fashioned starched white shirt with frilly lace cuffs. Next to him sat Cash, wearing his trademark leather jacket and jeans. Down at the other end of the table sat Angelus -- Angel to his human acquaintances -- the recently named Tremere Primogen. Between them, they represented the assorted clans of vampire or, as they preferred, Kindred society maintaining a critically important "Masquerade" of normalcy to the human population of San Francisco. Their law stated in no uncertain terms that anyone who threatened to expose this Masquerade had to be dealt with severely...usually terminally. Each clan also had their special interests and character traits. The level-headed Ventrue were known for their business acumen, while the vain Toreador excelled at the arts; the petty Brujah always striving for respectability but unable to put aside brutality and hatred, especially against their sworn enemies, the Gangrels, a nomadic race of shapeshifters known for exceptional loyalty. The oldest race among them was the enigmatic Nosferatu who, despite their beastly appearance, were capable of offering both the wisest council or the harshest punishment depending on their own self-interests. Their cousins, the Tremere, while more human in appearance, were no less enigmatic. Displaying the widest range of traits among all the clans, some of their number were known for loyalty and wisdom, while others were raving loons (in fact, specific individuals, in exceptionally rare cases, were known to display the entire spectrum). The Prince continued, "Cameron, how do you plan to resolve the labor dispute at the dockworkers' local?" Without looking up, the Brujah replied, "Bust some heads, break some legs...some old, same old." With a look of disgust, Julian remarked, "Why don't you try something radical this time, like collective bargaining?" "Because, my Prince," he stated sarcastically, "if they don't fear you, they don't work as hard. Sometimes you have to make an example out of someone...or several someones." With a note of finality, the Prince stated, "And I'll be the one who decides when that is, not you. We don't want to arouse the suspicions of law enforcement with bodies turning up in the bay. Am I clear?" "As crystal," Cameron spat in reply, fingering his tie. "How about you, Lillie? How are our entertainment interests performing." "Glowingly, Julian," she purred. "This economy seems to have provided our patrons with lots of lovely disposable income. And I always make sure I'm in the proper position to take full advantage of these situations." "That's what I've heard," muttered Cameron. After shooting him a warning glance, the Prince remarked, "That's, ah, very good, Lillie. Please keep up the good work." "Of course, Julian." Now looking down the table, he glanced at his long-time confidant and enforcer, "Anything we should be aware of, Daedalus?" Unsteepling his long, claw-like fingers, he glanced around the room and began. "The Nosferatu sages have interpreted an alarming prophesy in the ancient writings." "What type of prophesy?" asked the Prince. However, before Daedalus could answer, Cameron remarked, "Bunch of ghouls reading tea leaves in the sewers. Very helpful." Turning to his much younger peer, the Nosferatu Primogen responded with utter control, "Just because the Brujah do not subscribe to the Old Ways does not make them any less valuable." Then, turning back toward Julian, he continued, "The sages cannot at this time gauge the significance of the event, other than to say that it correlates to the astronomical event we now see in the night sky." "The supernova?" "Precisely." "Well, when you can tell us anything more, please do so." "Of course, Julian," he replied, nodding, while refolding his hands on the table. "Good. Now Angelus, do you have anything to report?" "Nothing out of the ordinary," he replied with obvious boredom in his voice. "As you requested, I funneled a $3 million donation through one of our front companies to build a new children's wing at San Francisco General Hospital. Your other enterprises also seem to be in order this quarter." "Very good. Anything else?" "Such as?" "Any new developments in Sunnydale?" After grimacing, he stated, "Yeah, there's a new band of rogue Kindred in town -- led by a renegade Brujah calling himself 'Mr. Trick.' But, with two Slayers, everything's pretty much under control." As he finished, Angel felt a set of sharp nails rake the inside of his thigh. Suppressing the urge to jump out of his chair, he instead reached under the table and grabbed the intruding limb. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lillie smile. Seemingly oblivious, Julian now faced Cameron. "Renegade Brujah? What do you know of this?" "Trick's a troublemaker. Always has been. Never had any respect for the chain of command." With a dismissive wave of his hand, he added, "Do with him as you wish." "And I'm sure you have no idea how he ended up in Sunnydale," Angel added skeptically. "None whatsoever." After this exchange ended, Daedalus picked up on something else, asking, "How are there two Slayers, Angelus? The prophesies say that a new Slayer is called only when the first one dies." With a hint of exasperation in his voice, Angel replied, "It's a LONG story. Just take my word for it." "How cozy. They're multiplying like cockroaches. I guess now you'll be the meat in a Slayer sandwich." In response, Angelus snarled, "You shut your filthy mouth, Cameron. Or I'll knock those capped fangs down your throat." "Yeah? You and what army?" "Cameron, I've warned you once already." "Don't you understand, Julian. It's not right. We're helping mortals kill others of our kind. We're traitors to our race, plain and simple." "That's the Prince's decision," Daedalus offered, "we must respect it." Having finally lost his own patience, Julian roared, "That's enough! I've already explained my reasoning for this course of action and I won't repeat myself." "We should kill those bitches now and be done..." Angel then lunged across the table. Taking Cameron's bodyguard by surprise, he instantly swept the Brujah Primogen out of his high-backed chair and onto the polished wood floor. Meanwhile, downstairs, Scully heard an odd knocking sound coming from the ceiling above their table. "What's that?" Looking up, Nick simply offered, "You know these old buildings. Probably just settling." Back upstairs, as Cash and Lillie looked on with satisfied grins, Julian had risen to his feet while Daedalus and Cameron's bodyguard attempted to peel the enraged and fully transformed Tremere off Cameron's chest. Not having much success, the Brujah bodyguard withdrew a specially modified firearm and began to take aim at Angel's head. "NO WEAPONS!" roared Julian. Seeing what was about to happen, Cash sprung into action, knocking the gun off target. As it fired, a high-velocity phosphorous shell instantly set the room's massive Oriental rug aflame. Hearing the muffled sound of gunfire above, Scully's training caused her to reach for her weapon. Without saying another word to Nick, she leapt from the table and started up the stairs. "Dana, stop! Don't go up there!" As she approached the massive door at the top of the stairs, she withdrew her badge and told the two guards to stand aside. When they didn't flinch, she drew her gun and repeated the demand. However, before the men had the opportunity to comply -- or more likely not comply -- the door opened to reveal a smoky interior. A man with slicked black hair stood calmly in the doorway. "What seems to be the problem, young lady?" "I'm a federal agent, sir. I thought I heard gunfire." "Gunfire? Here?" "Yes sir, please step aside." "By all means, please come in and look around." As Scully cautiously entered he room, Nick exchanged glances with Julian before following her. With the scorched floor covering still smoldering, everyone sat stock still around the table. So still in fact that a weird thought crossed Scully's mind, "They don't seem to be breathing." Quickly dismissing this impossibility, her training as a professional observer kicked in as she noted that one young man seemed to be seething while another was holding a handkerchief to the back of his head. Still another man, bald and possibly blind, wore heavy sunglasses with his hands tucked out of sight beneath the table. A woman, smiling, had her eyes glued to the man sitting directly across from her while their host, Cash, also looked extremely pleased about something. Quickly becoming unsure of her actions, Dana stammered, "I thought I heard a shot." Coming up alongside her, Julian offered, "Actually, Cameron over there accidentally tripped and fell, striking his head. That's what you probably heard. Unfortunately, his cigarette ignited the rug." Still not convinced, she now addressed Cameron, "I'm also a medical doctor. If you'd like, I can..." "I'll be fine." "You might have internal bleeding. It could be very..." "I said I'll be fine!" Cameron hissed. Nick, noticing Julian's fist clench, whispered to Scully, "I think it's time we go." Holstering her pistol, she turned to Julian and, somewhat shyly, stated, "I'm sorry for the intrusion, sir." "That's quite alright, Agent...?" "Scully, sir. Special Agent Dana Scully." "I understand completely. We all have duties to perform. Good evening." "Thank you, sir." As she turned and left, Nick paused a moment, meeting the many faces suddenly staring at him. After shrugging, he also departed. As the door closed behind them, Nick remarked, "Well, that was different. Can't say I've ever done that before." "I could've swore I heard something." Taking her by the arm, he remarked, "I usually don't start hearing things until my fourth or fifth drink. Let's go back downstairs and see if we can reach that goal." Back in the meeting room, Julian addressed Cameron, "You and your trigger happy flunky nearly endangered the Masquerade." "I nearly endangered the Masquerade? You can't be serious, Julian. What about that freak over there? He would've destroyed me." "If I'd wanted that, Cameron, they'd need a vacuum to suck you up," remarked Angel through still clenched teeth. "I'll drink to that," added Cash. "Now listen, both of you," warned Julian, "I won't tolerate any more outbursts. Do I make myself clear?" [Rrrrr] "Slayer lover." [Grrrr] "Goon." "I SAID, DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?" "Yes." "Yeah, right, fine." "Very well then, let's finish with the last order of business for the evening. As you know, all the West Coast princes are due to meet later this week in Seattle. Since I will, of course, be there with my brethren, I trust that all of you will continue to conduct business in my absence. However, should there be any issues that need to be addressed immediately, I've asked Daedalus, as senior Primogen, to resolve them. I expect all of you to give him the same respect or, if this meeting is any indication, perhaps MORE respect, than you give me. Are there any questions?" Receiving none, he concluded by remarking, "Very well then. This Conclave stands in recess." Cameron immediately bolted for the door, muttering, "It's about time." Next out was Daedalus who, after bowing slightly toward his Prince, opened a hidden passageway in the wall and departed by way of a staircase leading down to the sewers. Lillie also rose and playfully tousled Angel's hair. While passing Julian, she whispered coyly, "His passions remind me of how you USE to be." Receiving only a glare in response, she added, "I'm only kidding, Julian," before also departing. Allowing his head to sag to the tabletop, Angel sighed, "Julian, I've been to Hell and back...literally. But, I'm telling you, this is worse. I want out!" "I'm sorry, Angelus. I need your support in the Conclave." "My support? I almost killed Cameron...I WANTED to dust his ass. How would that have played on the streets?" "The Brujah wouldn't have liked it...but they rarely like anything anyhow." "But the Gangrels would've owed you big time," Cash added with a smile. "Julian, I feel caged here. I want...NEED...to go home. It's been nearly a month. You're going to be out of town and Daedalus doesn't need my help." After several moments of deliberative silence, Julian rendered his decision, "Fine, Angelus, as a personal favor from me to you, go back to Sunnydale for a week...but only for a week. I expect to see you back here when I return." "Julian..." "That's my final offer, Angelus. Take it or leave it." "Yeah, fine. I'll take it." "Good...oh, but there IS one more thing." Now wary, Angel asked with some trepidation, "What's that?" "Take Cash with you." "WHAT!" both exclaimed simultaneously. "Ever since you broke up with Sasha, you've been moping, Cash. The change in scenery might do you good. A chance to bay at the moon or run through the woods or something...don't Gangrels like that sort of thing?" "But Julian, I always go on trips with you. You need a bodyguard," whined the young Kindred. "So assign one of your lieutenants, Cash." "But my apartment only has one bedroom," stammered Angel. "So he'll sleep on the couch." "But Julian..." they both started. "That's my decision. Both of you will take a break. Now deal with it." The Prince then spun on his heel and left the room. After an extended silence, the younger vampire asked, "Does Buffy have a sister?" "Now don't you start with me." "OK...OK...don't bite my head off." "Ha ha...very funny." Part Six Rosenberg Residence Sunnydale, California 10:13 P.M. [Clink] [Clink] [Clink] [Crack] "Oops." Cautiously lifting her now cracked bedroom window, Willow Rosenberg poked her head outside, looked down, and saw...nothing. However, just as she was about to write the episode off to typical Sunnydale weirdness, she heard a familiar voice. "Willow." "Xander? Is that you?" "Yeah." "Where are you?" "Over here. Under the azaleas." "What are you doing there?" Ignoring the question, he quickly crawled out from under the shrubbery, stating, "Sorry about the window. It's kinda late and I didn't think your parents would appreciate me ringing the bell." "But you thought climbing in my window would be OK?" After instantly replying, "No, of course not..." he hesitantly added, "...but now that you mention it. Can I come up?" With a resigned look on her face, she stepped back from the window. Soon a foot, followed by a leg, followed by a Xander, had joined her inside. "Thanks. So what ya up to?" "Studying, Xander...for tomorrow's history test. You remember, the one we BOTH have to take. Oh, no, but maybe you don't, since you've cut school for three days." "No, I know...Cordy told me about it." "Oh. Well, good." "What's it on again?" "Just the entire history of the United States. You haven't even started studying, have you?" "Sure I have. I'm up to the Revolutionary War." "Ah...Xander, that still leaves 220 years to go." "Yeah, right. No sweat." While he was speaking, Willow noticed the now faint scar on his face. "Xander, what happened? You're cut." "This? It's nothing, Will. Sliced myself shaving." Reaching up, she ran her hand along the rapidly healing tissue. As she felt the blood pulsing through his arteries, Xander reached for her while tentatively moving closer. Pulling her hand back as if burned, she blurted, "This isn't right, Xander. What are you doing here?" Taken back by her reaction, he angrily responded, "Obviously making an ass out of myself." "We can't do this. Don't you remember what happened last time?" "Yeah...I think so. It's not easy to forget Cordy with a six-inch piece of pipe sticking in her gut." "So then why are you here?" "I don't know, Will. I just thought..." "Well, you thought wrong. I think you should leave...NOW!" Before he could reply, the girl turned her back to him. After slowly moving to the window, Xander paused to state, "I'm sorry, Will. About everything." When he was gone, Willow Rosenberg flung her history book across the room before burying her head in a pillow, sobbing. ***** Airport Holiday Inn 11:43 P.M. [Ring] [Ring] [Ring] [Beep] "Hello." "Mulder?" "Yeah. Frohike is that you?" "Duh...who else has your number, Mulder? Except for your partner, of course. Which reminds me, how is the little vixen?" "Never mind the vixen...ah, I mean, Scully. What time is it anyhow?" "Almost 3 o'clock in the morning here. Midnight there. Why?" "Don't you guys ever sleep?" "In a word, Mulder, no." Rubbing his eyes, the agent then asked, "So what do you have for me?" "Langly's been checking on those guys you asked about...Rayne and Boyle. I'll put him on the speaker." "Mulder?" "Yeah, Langly. Did you find out anything?" "It wasn't easy, Mulder. I hope you appreciate that I had to call in several favors at State and Defense." "Fine. I owe you one." "More like ten, Mulder." "Yeah, yeah...so talk to me." "Dr. Derek Rayne...parents deceased. No direct family remaining. Graduated first in his class at Oxford, receiving a doctorate in anthropology. After that, he spent nearly 20 years digging up ruins around the world for the Luna Foundation. At least up till seven years ago." "What happened seven years ago?" "He suddenly decided to settle in San Francisco. Since then, he's been responsible for importing hundreds of artifacts into the country and -- this is where it gets interesting -- unlike the vast majority of importers, the Luna Foundation holds a Class IV import license from the State Department." "A Class IV license? I've never heard of that." "That's because they're very rarely issued. Want to know why?" "I'm hooked, Langly, why?" "Because it allows for the importation of goods into the country without a bothersome Customs check." "That's impossible." "No, Mulder, it's unusual, but not impossible." "But that means Rayne can be smuggling ANYTHING into the country." "Exactly." "And what about Boyle?" "This is really interesting." "More interesting than a license to smuggle? I can hardly wait to hear this." "According to the DoD's military archives, Nicholas Boyle was born in 1954..." "Whoa...stop right there, Langly. You must have the wrong guy. No way is this guy 45 years old. Thirty-five, tops." "Excuse me, Mulder, but I DO have the right guy. In fact, only one Nick Boyle has ever served in the U.S. military. Maybe they got his DOB wrong." "It wouldn't be the first time. What else?" "Where was I? Oh yeah, after completing basic training, he was transferred to Fort Bragg. Guess why?" "Special ops." "Ding. Give that man a cigar. In fact, it seems that Boyle was involved in many of the little black projects that the Reagan Administration financed south of the border." "Such as?" "Don't know. Even I don't have access to that information." "I'm disappointed, Langly." "Hey, they don't call them black ops for nothing, Mulder. All I can tell you is that something went seriously wrong with Boyle's military career in 1988." "How wrong?" "Dead wrong. During an operation in Colombia codenamed 'Bottled Lightning,' ten men were killed. Boyle was court marshaled and narrowly escaped conviction. Instead, he was allowed to resign under less than sterling circumstances." "That could make a guy hold a grudge against the good old U.S. of A. What happened after he left the service?" "I was just getting to that, Mulder." "I knew you would." "Since the early '90s, he been working for Rayne in San Francisco. In fact, Boyle's foster father..." "Boyle's adopted?" "Oh yeah, didn't I mention that?" "No." "Sorry. Yeah, he's adopted. It seems that the military couldn't reconcile his blood type to either of his parents. That's how he found out." "That must've been pretty rough." "Yeah, well anyhow, until his death, Boyle's foster father, also a military type, used to work with Rayne. Guess where." "The Luna Foundation." "You're really on a roll tonight, Mulder." "Thanks. Did you find out anything about the Luna Foundation itself?" "We're working on that. Hold on, I'll put Frohike back on." "Mulder?" "Yeah, still here." "I'm here with Byers." "Hey, how's it hanging, Mulder?" "Hi, Byers. Talk to me. Any luck so far?" "Yeah, but it's been a real bitch." "I'm shocked, Byers. Losing your touch?" "Losing my touch, my ass, Mulder. As we speak, I'm using the most sophisticated hack...ah...search and retrieval software available in the western world to access these records. All I can say is that for a stuffy non-profit organization, they sure own some choice real estate." "How choice?" "Extremely choice. Founded in San Francisco by a guy named Julian Luna nearly 125 years ago..." "Any relation to the multimillionaire and reputed mob boss?" "Yeah, his grandfather, to be exact. Anyhow, they own a major chunk of Angel Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay; townhouses in midtown Manhattan and on London's Downing Street; a large compound in Montreal; holdings in Paris, Moscow..." "Fine, I get the picture. They're loaded." "Big-time loaded, Mulder. And they seem to have friends in very high places around the globe." "No shit." "Also, according to the SFPD, Angel Island is not exactly Paradise Island." "What do you mean?" "The cops have retrieved bodies there on occasion. Quite a few occasions, actually." "Murders?" "No...not exactly." "Not exactly? Byers, people are murdered, commit suicide, get killed accidentally, or die of natural causes. Which is it?" "Well, according to the medical examiner's reports, nearly every incident was classified as 'unexplained,' but non were fully investigated." "Convenient. And we have an appointment with that ME tomorrow morning." Changing tracks, he then asked, "Did you find out how the Luna Foundation makes its money?" "Hold on a sec, Mulder, I'm accessing those files now." ***** San Francisco Legacy House Angel Island 11:51 P.M. With alarm klaxons suddenly blaring throughout the house, Derek Rayne, Dr. Rachel Corrigan and Alexandra Moreau emerged from their bedrooms and immediately headed for the stairs leading down to the ground floor of the mansion. "Derek, what's wrong?" "Some sort of security breach." "Where's Nick?" asked Alex. After quickly glancing around, the Precept of the house replied, "He must not be home...yet." With Derek in the lead, three pairs of slippers quickly padded across the polished wooden floors of a large sitting room moving toward a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. Tripping a sensor, they also activated a laser that scanned the patterns of blood vessels in their eyes. Seconds later, after matches were made, the security system deactivated a holograph camouflaging the entrance to a state-of-the-art control room. As the illusionary bookcase once again solidified behind them, Alex began booting up idle computers and activating darkened monitors around the room. Sitting down at a keyboard, she immediately began running a series of diagnostic programs and implementing various security protocols. "What've we got, Alex?" "Hackers...damn good ones from the looks of it. They're trying to invade our secure personnel and historical databases." "That shouldn't be possible." "I know. Like I said, they're good." "Where are they located?" "I'm running a trace now." After a few seconds, she added, "They're trying to conceal their location by routing the call through various cities and satellites." "Can you find them?" "Oh yeah. Give me a minute." Soon, a series of lines were racing across a computer display of North America's communications network. Shortly thereafter, a map of suburban Rockville, Maryland was highlighted while telephone numbers and street addresses flashed along the bottom of the screen. "Gotcha," remarked Alex, while Derek picked up a phone and started dialing. ***** A Nondescript House in Suburban Maryland 11:56 P.M. "OK, Mulder, we're into their personnel records. It seems that Rayne's job title is 'Precept,' whatever the hell that is. Boyle, meanwhile, is in charge of security. Why would a non-profit group need muscle?" "Good question, Byers. Anything else?" "Yeah, they work with two women, a headshrinker by the name of Rachel Corrigan and a researcher named Alexandra Moreau. Hey, she's quite a looker, Mulder." "Can we please stick to the topic?" "You're no fun anymore, Mulder." "Byers..." "Yeah...yeah, the file also lists an associate of the organization, a priest no less." His head suddenly snapping up from his notepad, the agent stated, "His name's Philip Callahan, right?" "Right. How'd you know?" "Lucky guess. Did you find out anything about their so-called cases?" "Hold on, Mulder, we've got a problem." "What's wrong, Byers?" "Hey Frohike, Langly, take a look at this." "What the hell! That's impossible! "Byers? Frohike? Langly? Talk to me. What's happening?" "They're tracing the call, Mulder!" "Langly, break the connection!" "It won't terminate!" "Mulder, they're on to us!" "Frohicke, we've got bugs in the system!" "Mulder, our hardware's being nuked. Those bastards must've juiced us with a new type of virus." Through the receiver, the agent then heard an amplified voice state, "THIS IS THE POLICE! COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP!" "Man, we're so busted...there are cops everywhere out there! What've you gotten us into this time, Mulder?" ***** Airport Holiday Inn January 14 12:07 A.M. [Crash] [Click] [Beep] "Guys? Frohicke? Byers? Langly? Hello? Oh shit!" A few minutes later, the agent's already bad night got worse. Hearing sounds coming from the hallway, he peered through the peephole to see what was happening. As he suspected, Scully had returned from her not- a-date with Nick Boyle. Placing his ear flat against the door, he tried to hear what was being said. "Thanks for a great evening, Dana. Sorry that I'm not much of a dancer." ["Guess they didn't teach you that in Special Forces, you big doofus!"] "Neither am I, Nick. But, while we're apologizing, I'm sorry I made a scene in your friend's club. I feel like a complete fool." ["It must've been some date, Scully."] "Oh, I'm sure everybody's forgotten about it already." Looking down at her watch, she remarked, "It's getting late and we have an early day tomorrow..." ["Send him packing, Scully."] "...unless you have time for a nightcap?" ["What!?! No, don't do it, Scully!"] Taking her hand, Nick replied, "I'll make time for it, Dana." ["You damn lecher, roll your tongue back in your head!"] As Scully searched for her room key, Nick gently rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. ["I don't believe this!] However, at that moment, Nick's cellular phone began to ring. [Answer it. Answer it! ANSWER IT!"] Remarking, "I know I'll probably regret this," Nick pulled the phone out of his pocket. ["YEEEESSSS!"] "Hello? No, Derek, it's no problem. In the secure files? Yeah, got it. I'll be there as fast as I can." Snapping the phone closed, he turned to Scully and dejectedly stated, "Duty calls. Some hackersgot into our system." At the mention of computer hackers, Scully's right eyebrow rose. "I understand. Drive safely, Nick. It's late." "I will." Heading back toward the elevator, the two then shared a long parting kiss. Mulder, meanwhile, once again felt his blood pressure rising. ["Hey buddy, don't let the door hit you in the ass."] After Nick was gone, Scully walked over to Mulder's door and knocked. After a few moments, he answered while pulling on a bathrobe. "Oh, Scully, you're back. How was your night?" "Very nice, Mulder. And yours?" "Quiet. Watched some old movies on TV." With a smile, he added, "I fell asleep." Pausing a moment before responding, Scully finally remarked, "That's truly amazing. Because I saw shadows moving around under your door for the past few minutes." As the grin evaporated from his face, she added, "Good night, Mulder," before turning on her heel, disappearing into her own room, and slamming the door. ["Damn!"] Part Seven County Medical Examiner's Office Oakland, California 10:02 A.M. "This is Dr. Dana Scully recording this audio postmortem exam record. Assisting me is Dr. Teresa Graves from the County Medical Examiner's Office. Also in attendance are Dr. Derek Rayne and Nicholas Boyle of the Luna Foundation, who are assisting in this investigation, as well as my partner, Special Agent Fox Mulder." With the sound of a high speed drill now audible, she continued, "This is the autopsy of a John Dow, Caucasian, approximate age 21, with third and fourth degree burns over 100 percent of his body. As expected, identification will have to be made through dental records since the subject is unrecognizable." "I'm now making an incision along the chest cavity. Epidermal and dermal tissues show a great deal of carbonization consistent with severe burns...cause unknown. There also seems to be a total absence of latent liquefied blood, which is rare but not unprecedented in cases involving extreme heat. I'm now cutting through the ribs to expose the inner chest cavity. That's odd. Dr. Graves can you take a look at this." "Humm...I've never seen that before, but I read about it in med school." "What is it, Scully?" "There's an extra pair of ribs present in the ribcage, Mulder." "I'm more of a thigh man, myself," Nick commented dryly. "We've now split the ribcage to...what in God's name?" "Dr. Scully, what is it?" asked Derek. "I never saw ANYTHING like that in med school," added Dr. Graves. "The internal organs seem to be totally atrophied from disuse. There also seems to be an extra organ, or possibly a tumor...we'll have to biopsy that...near the heart." "In English, Scully. What's wrong?" "This man should have been dead long ago, Mulder. His organs appear essentially useless." "Could it have been caused by the fire?" "Mulder, before I'll even hazard a guess about that, this body will require a complete examination." ***** 11:25 A.M. "I'm now proceeding to examine the musculature and skeletal structure of the upper chest and shoulders. Earlier X-rays revealed structures that are abnormal and may very well represent birthdefects. Dr. Graves, what is your opinion?" "Looks like the collar bone is grossly malformed. Also, there appears to be an added band of tendons and cartilage connected to the structure. I'd be surprised if this man could raise his arms over his head." "Why?" asked Mulder. "Because these hooked bones on top of the scapula shouldn't be there. The slightest move must have been incredibly painful. If I didn't know better, I'd say I was looking at a bird's wing rather than a man's shoulder." "A bird? How's that?" "Well, Agent Mulder, my father was a vet, so I've examined all sorts of animals. Basically, this bone and muscle assembly resembles a bird's wing, although I realize that's impossible." While meeting the glances of Derek and Nick, Mulder repeated, "Yeah, impossible." ***** 1:15 P.M. "So what's your professional opinion, Dr. Scully?" Removing her latex gloves and goggles, she responded, "Without waiting for the lab results to come back, you realize that anything I say would be premature." "Of course," replied Derek. "I'd say that our John Doe here was suffering from numerous congenital birth defects. How he lived into adulthood is amazing, but not unprecedented. His quality of life must have been horrendous." "He was probably trying to improve it by jumping out a third floor window," Mulder snidely remarked. "And it didn't stop him from killing the motel clerk," Nick added quickly. "That's yet to be proven, Nick," Scully remarked, before asking, "so what's our next move?" Glancing at his partner, Mulder remarked, "Well, according to Mrs. Demerest, her daughter may be staying with her grandmother." "And you didn't bother to mention this yesterday?" asked Derek. "We didn't know about it until this morning," replied Mulder. "We visited Mrs. Demerest after her husband went to work. Not surprisingly, she was much more cooperative today. Do you have a problem with that, Dr. Rayne?" "Possibly...yes. We might have been able to question Marie Demerest and her husband before coming here." "No, first Scully had to examine this body. Otherwise, we might not have had the full picture when we interviewed the suspects." "They're suspects now?" asked Nick. "When did they stop being witnesses or possibly victims and become suspects?" "Since I ran a background check on the girl's new husband and he came up dirty." "Dirty? How?" "There's absolutely no record of a Mario Seraphim being born in California or anywhere else in the United States. Likewise, there's no immigration record for a person by that name. In fact, the last Mario Seraphim for which there is a record was a medic in the Army." "So maybe he's our guy," stated Nick. "Unfortunately, that Mario Seraphim has been dead for 30 years. He disappeared in Vietnam...in 1968." "What do you think we're dealing with here, Agent Mulder?" inquired Derek. "I'm not sure...yet. But I know we should find Marie and Mario Seraphim." "Where are they?" "A small backwater south of here...a 'burb called Sunnydale." At mention of the town, Derek and Nick exchanged anxious glances. ***** Sunnydale High School Gymnasium 2:07 P.M. As Xander entered the gym, he noticed the usual football clique standing off to one side, laughing loudly, horsing around, and being the usual arrogant assholes that they were. With them was John Nuzzi, the football coach who, unfortunately, was also a sadistic physical education teacher for the senior class. The Immortal also noticed that the group's chief instigator, a linebacker named Larry -- whom Xander himself had had some rather bizarre encounters in the past -- was motioning toward a guy who was standing alone near the bleachers. However, he didn't recognize the student. "OK, today we're going to practice some self defense techniques. Now split up..." Suddenly interrupted by a wildly waving hand, Nuzzi, a former Marine Corps drill instructor, scowled, "What is it, Myron?" "Sir, my chiropractor says that I should avoid strenuous activities." Angrily folding his arms, which caused the large USMC tattoo on his right forearm to flex noticeably, Nuzzi approached the student, stating, "Now listen to me you pantywaist. Do you think the Commies are going to care about your miserable scrawny back..." "Ah...it's my neck, sir." "Fine, I stand corrected...your miserable scrawny chicken neck...when they try to overrun this great country of ours? Well, do you?" Standing off to one side of the assembled group, Xander whispered to the new guy now standing next to him, "Cheez...this freak's right outta the '50s." Without turning, the other student remarked, "Actually, more like the Stone Age." As his head instantly whipped around to face the two, Nuzzi sneered, "You say something, Harris?" Deciding that this was the perfect time to closely examine his Nikes, Xander replied without looking up, "Me? Nope. Never. Not me." Nuzzi then turned on the other student, asking, "How about you?" "What about me, sir?" "I was wondering if the greaseball who knocked up his girlfriend had any pearls of wisdom for the class? Or are you gonna wimp out like Xander here?" As the other teen bristled, "Wimp...I'll show you who's a..." Mario stepped closer to the teacher and remarked, "Sure, I have a pearl of wisdom. Never let a bully who's insecure about his own manhood teach a gym class." Then, in a lower voice, he added, "And, don't you ever mention my wife again." Overhearing this last statement, Xander's eyebrows shot up while Nuzzi, his face now a deep crimson, remarked, "You think you've got a brass set, don't you?" "Actually, sir, I think you're the one trying to prove that you have a set." Stepping away, Nuzzi once again addressed the class, stating, "Our new transfer student has volunteered to assist me." "No, I didn't." "Well, I think you did. Step forward." "You don't want to do this." "I think I do...and that's all that counts around here." With a resigned look, Mario remarked, "OK...have it your way." With the two now facing each other across the gym mat, Nuzzi told Mario to take a swing at him. "That wouldn't be a good..." "I said swing, punk!" Doing as he was instructed, albeit in a half-hearted fashion, Mario quickly found his right arm pinned behind his back, his face planted in the canvas, and a knee in the small of his back. While holding him in this position, Nuzzi decided to continue lecturing. "Now, if you're a prettyboy like Mario here, you'd essentially be dead meat with a bayonet in your back." In response to this last statement, Xander couldn't help but think, "Ironically, this stuff might actually come in handy in Sunnydale." "Does anyone think they know how to break this hold?" However, before anyone could respond, Mario, in a muffled voice, asked, "How about this?" before quickly reaching up, taking hold of the back of Nuzzi's neck, and flinging him over his shoulder. As the large man landed flat on his back, the sound of laughter became audible in the cavernous room. After Nuzzi slowly got back on his feet, he again approached Mario, remarking, "Lucky move, kid." "No, it really wasn't." "Shut up! Get ready to defend yourself." As the teacher suddenly rushed him, the teen dropped to one knee and grabbed the man's right forearm, using his momentum to again flip him, this time onto the floor beyond the edge of the mat. The absolute silence that followed was finally broken by Nuzzi who, from his back, suddenly decided to change the day's curriculum. In an unsteady voice, he ordered the class to run 20 laps around the gym before getting dressed. As most of the students ran, several football players lingered around their coach, helping him back up. Xander, meanwhile, kept his eyes on the new guy, who was calmly running without breaking a sweat. After about 15 minutes, most of the class had returned to the adjoining locker rooms and showers. Then things REALLY got weird. Mario, wearing a towel, had his back to the room. Therefore, he didn't notice the three guys standing behind him until one of them grabbed him by the shoulders while another seized a fistful of long black hair and pushed his face against the locker. This not only opened a long gash on the teen's forehead, but also revealed a previously hidden tattoo on his neck. It was at this point that Larry made his move, asking, "You think you can embarrass the coach like that and get away with it?" For emphasis, he followed up with a kidney punch to Mario's exposed back. Grunting from the impact, the teen struggled to turn his head, remarking, "Actually, I think your coach is a pretty big embarrassment on his own." This statement was greeted with another blow to the back. "We don't like your kind around here. Damn big city scum." Realizing the new guy was seriously outnumbered, Xander -- standing at a locker two rows over -- had started toward the group when Mario suddenly lashed out, grabbing one attacker's wrist while simultaneously slamming his elbow into the other's gut. Then, as an sickening crack rang out, Mario released the first boy's arm, allowing him to drop to his knees, screaming, "He broke my wrist!" Hearing this, Larry quickly reached into his locker, withdrew a baseball bat, and started to wind up. "You son of a bitch! I'll show you." Seeing this, Xander yelled, "Hey man, look out!" Turning in response to the warning, Mario was confronted by a dark shape heading for his skull. Meanwhile, Xander, realizing that he wasn't going to reach Larry in time to prevent additional carnage, if not an outright homicide, couldn't help but flinch at the moment of impact...which, miraculously, never came. Instead, Mario had somehow managed to bring a hand up, catch the barrel of the bat, and stop it in mid swing. In another second, he had disarmed the 200-pound linebacker before lifting him several inches off the floor with his free arm. With other students now looking on in disbelief, Xander finally managed to come up alongside. Unfortunately, so did Mr. Nuzzi. "Just what in the living hell is going on here? Put him down!" Once back on his feet, Larry started blubbering, "That bastard tried to kill me, coach. Just look what he did to Steve and Gary." "He's a damn liar," Xander offered. "Hey, Harris, who asked you?" Now silent, but still annoyed, Xander looked at Mario who seemed remarkably serene considering the circumstances. After a moment, he calmly stated, "I was getting dressed when they attacked me. Therefore, I defended myself." "He's nuts, coach! He tried to hit us with that bat." "Whattya say to that?" "I took the bat from him after he tried to use it on me. Once again, I simply defended myself." After turning from Mario, to Larry, and then back to Mario, Nuzzi remarked, "Since you're the one holding the bat, you're the one getting busted. Report after school for detention." With a smile, he quickly added, "That's pretty good work on your second day here, sport." He then told Larry to take his cohorts to the nurse's office. With the locker room once again quiet, Xander asked the other teen, "So, how's your head?" "It's fine, thanks. Not a very friendly school, is it?" "Yeah, well, that's Sunnydale High. But from where I was standing, it didn't look like you needed any help." "Grew up in a rough neighborhood." "Yeah, it must've been. By the way, nice 'too on your neck there. What is it?" While pulling a shirt over the intricately detailed flesh, Mario replied, "Oh, nothing special." "Kinda looks like a pitchfork." "Actually, it's a trident." "Oh...sure. I knew that." Now focusing on the teen's bloody forehead, Xander grabbed a towel and dabbed at the blood on his temple. "I said, I'm fine!" "Yeah, well they really slammed you in the coconut. Maybe you should have the nurse look at it." While saying this, Xander lifted the cloth from the wound. To his astonishment, there was no sign of a break, let alone a gash, in the skin. Doing a double take, Xander exhaled, "That's impossible." While taking hold of the towel, Mario stated, "No, it's not." Then, looking deeply into the Immortal's eyes, he added, "But you already knew that, didn't you Xander Harris?" At this remark, Xander's jaw dropped. ***** Joe's Place Seacouver, California 2:25 P.M. "Hey, Joe. What's up? I got your message on my machine." Looking up at the sound of Richie Ryan's voice, Joe Dawson stopped dusting the multitude of mugs and other assorted glassware behind the deserted bar and started to move around front. This effort was hampered by two prosthetic legs...souvenirs from a landmine explosion in Vietnam. "I left that message last night. What took you so long?" "I wasn't home. There's this new girl working at the supermarket and..." "Yeah...yeah...I get the picture. Anyhow, the reason I called is about Xander." Losing his smile, Ryan hesitated a beat before asking, "What about Xander? He's OK, isn't he?" "As far as I know, yes. It's just that he ran into someone last night." "Someone like who?" "Guy by the name of Josh Whelon. Pretty young...at least by Immortal standards." "Is he a headhunter?" "Unfortunately, yes. He was handy with a sword even before dying the first time at Gettysburg. Ever since, he's challenged and defeated approximately 75 other Immortals...at least until he ditched his Watcher five years ago." "Whoa...whoa...if Whelon doesn't have a Watcher, how do you know he met Xander?" However, before Dawson could respond, Ryan answered his own question. "You have someone following Xander, don't you?" After some hesitation, the Watcher replied, "Yes." "You told the Watchers that Xander's Immortal? Just great." Frustrated, he added, "Joe, you knew how I felt about this. MacLeod doesn't like being followed, I don't like being followed, and I didn't want Xander tailed." Running a hand through his predominately white beard, Dawson responded, "Hey, I don't make the rules, Richie. I couldn't keep the news about Xander quiet forever." "OK, Joe, fine...what's done is done. At least now I know what's going on. Did Xander and Whelon fight?" "No, but Whelon did issue a challenge. "Where and when?" "Richie, you know I can't tell you that. The Watchers don't interfere." "Joe, listen to what I'm saying, Xander's not ready to fight and I won't stand by and watch him get slaughtered." Sitting down heavily at a table, the older man stated, "I know exactly what you're saying, Richie...and I also know you. I can't get involved in this...not again. I've probably told you too much already." Now angry, Ryan spat, "Nice timing, Joe. Nice time to start following your Watcher oath." Turning toward the door, the Immortal viciously kicked a chair out of the way, shouting, "And this time, it might just get Xander killed!" Moments after the door had slammed shut behind the Immortal, Dawson heard a motorcycle roar off. For several minutes, he simply sat there replaying the conversation in his head. Muttering, "Damn," he then got to his feet, threw the wet dishtowel down, and called to his assistant in the back room, "hey, Mike, take care of the place. I'll be gone for awhile." "Be careful out there, Joe." "Yeah sure...careful...right." Part Eight Interstate 880 Between San Francisco and Sunnydale 2:44 P.M. Two very different vehicles: One a late model Taurus, the other a Ford Explorer, were rapidly heading south toward Sunnydale. However, inside, similar conversations were taking place. "You did what, Derek?" "I ran a background check on Agents Mulder and Scully?" "Can I ask why?" "You know perfectly well, Nick. Although they're law enforcement officers, they're still outsiders. The Legacy must guard its secrets." "It's because I like Dana, isn't it?" "Please, don't flatter yourself, Nick. Although now that you mention it, I don't believe you're being as objective as usual on this case." "That's bullshit." "Is it? Or are you simply willing to overlook last night's security breach?" "Hey, Derek, we have no evidence to tie that to them." "No? How many hackers from the Washington, DC area have ever tried to break into our files. And how many other federal agents have devoted their careers to investigating paranormal and supernatural phenomena?" "It could just be a coincidence." "I don't believe in coincidences," Derek replied before pointedly adding, "and neither should you." [Meanwhile, in a sedan following about 200 feet behind.] "You did what, Mulder?" "I asked the Lone Gunmen to do some checking on our boys up there." "They hacked into their computer system, didn't they? That was the call Nick got last night." "Hacked may be too strong a word, Scully." "You used my da...dinner with Nick as an opportunity to infiltrate their files." "I knew it! It was a date!" "That's none of your business, Mulder. And stop trying to change the subject. Skinner wants us to work with these people, not spy on them...remember?" "You don't get it, do you? I don't trust Derek Rayne, Nick Boyle, or the Luna Foundation. If you ask me, it's probably some kind of elaborate front for a smuggling operation. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they're somehow involved in the deaths we're investigating. It wouldn't be the first time that someone who's supposed to be helping ends up betraying us. Or don't you remember Alex Krycek?" "Not everyone's like Ratboy, Mulder. Sometimes...just sometimes...you've got to trust people." "You're wrong, Scully. Trust no one...that's what I say." Turning her head to the side, she noticed a blur speed past the window. Grabbing the dashboard, she shouted, "LOOK OUT, MULDER!" Swerving to avoid a speeding motorcycle, he nearly lost control of the car. "Son of a bitch...that guy's nuts! We could've killed him...or worse, he could've killed us!" Up ahead, Nick was also distracted by the speeding bike -- but for a very different reason. Derek didn't fail to notice his driver keenly tracking the rapidly approaching Yamaha, first through the rear-view mirror and then as it pulled up alongside. Lifting the visor of his helmet, the biker allowed them to see his face before quickly pulling away. "Was that who I think it was?" "Yep." "I wonder why he's in such a hurry?" "I'll give you three guesses, Derek." ***** Sunnydale High School Library 3:00 P.M. "Welcome to detention. Please remember that this experience should not be looked upon as punishment, but rather as an opportunity to culturally enrich yourself through reading," intoned Rupert Giles to a group of less than enthusiastic students. As luck would have it, Buffy, Xander, and Cordelia were among the select few present. "Giles likes to host detention. Then he can count the detainees as actually having used the library." "Miss Summers, do you have something to share with the group?" "No, Gil...ah...Mr. Giles." "Very well. Then for the next two hours, you may meander through the stacks. Please feel free to check out any items that interest you...unless, of course, they happen to be located in one of the fenced enclosures around the periphery of the library. Those items are...reserved...yes, that's it...they're reserved for faculty members." "And Slayers," whispered Xander. "Mr. Harris, did you say something?" "Me? Nope." "Very well. Then everyone please go about your business. If you have any questions, I or Miss Rosenberg will be more than happy to assist you." "Hey, Buff. Why are you here?" "Snyder accused me of blowing up the school's boiler room last week...that no good, pointed-headed troll." "But, Buff, you DID blow up the boiler room." "Well, he couldn't PROVE it was me. And anyhow, it did have a demon in it at the time." After a pause, she then remarked, "But enough about why I'm here. Why are you and Cordy here?" "Snyder kinda found us the other day." "Found you doing what?" "None of your business," Cordelia flared. "Xander, if you tell her -- Immortal or not -- you won't live to regret it." "Could you say that just a little louder, Cordy? I don't think they heard you in Cleveland." Now looking around the room, Xander's sometime girlfriend asked, "So what's Willow doing over there with Giles? She doesn't have detention too, does she?" "Willow and detention are two words that will never occupy the same sentence," Buffy replied. "So why IS she here then?" "She's getting the lowdown on a fallen angel who showed up in town last night. As usual, Giles got all freaky and put her to work." "Typical. So any luck?" "Other than we think there's a pending Apocalypse...nothing solid," Xander concluded. "Apocalypse? Just great! I have a hair appointment tomorrow. Do you think I should cancel?" As Xander rolled his eyes, the Slayer rose and remarked, "Although I'd love to talk about Cordy's ultimate bad hair day, if you two will excuse me I've gotta use the little girl's room. Be back in a few." As Buffy exited the library, Giles continued to pull paranormal reference material from the stacks. "Excuse me, sir?" Turning toward the questioner, who was now wearing a tank top and sweat pants, he replied, "Yes, young man?" "I was wondering if you have any books on pregnancy and child care?" "Yes, they should be over in the personal health section. I assume you need them for a class?" "No, sir. My wife's due to deliver soon and I thought I'd read up on the subject." Despite his best efforts, Giles' facial expression changed before he remarked somewhat lamely, "Oh...oh I see." "Hey, who's the guy talking to Giles?" "Why, Cordy? I'm not enough man for you?" "Will you please get over yourself, Xander. I thought Buffy might be interested in him, assuming that she and Angel really are old news...so to speak. And anyhow, even if I was interested, we're not going steady or anything." "And I love you too, Cordy," he remarked sarcastically. "Therefore, I'm REALLY pleased to tell you that his name is Mario, he's in my gym class, and he's..." "Oh, God...he's gay. I knew it. All the good looking ones are gay. Why is that, Xander?" "Actually, I was going to say married." Then, after digesting what Cordelia had said, he added, "Hey, what am I, the Hunchback?" "MARRIED...that's even worse!" the oblivious young women exclaimed. "Yep. Overhead him tell Coach Nuzzi." "What a waste of male flesh," cooed Cordelia. "HELLO...Cordy? I'm getting seriously insecure here. Sometimes I think if anything happens to me, you'd get right over it." Still oblivious to Xander's suddenly grim expression, she then asked, "Why would anyone ever get married in high school?" However, before he could respond, she quickly answered her own question, remarking, "I'm thinking the big 'P' word here." "Passion?" asked Xander. "HELLO, try pregnant." Meanwhile, back at the main desk, Willow and the librarian were engrossed in 'The Book of Shadows.' "Giles, according to this, angels are readily identifiable by symbols branded onto their necks...like tattoos. They also have crystalline fingernails." "Please let me see that." After quickly scanning the relevant information, he added, "It says here that they were branded at the time of their creation and that the symbol is representative of their inherent nature and primary purpose." "Excuse me again, sir. May I check these out?" Somewhat annoyed, Giles stated, "Yes...yes, just a moment." Then, without lifting his face from the thick text, he remarked, "Willow, this is very good. Now see if you can find anything..." [Tap] [Tap] [Tap] [Tap] [Tap] [Tap] [Tap] [Tap] Eventually becoming aware of the tapping, Giles also took note of the digits strumming on the countertop -- fingers tipped by glass-like nails. Staring up over the rim of his glasses, he also spied a Sunnydale High School gym top partially covering an intricate tattoo. He reacted by kicking Willow under the desk. "OW! Giles that was my leg." "Willow, why don't you help the nice young man here. I'm sure he's very busy and would like to QUICKLY leave the crowded library." "It's really no rush, sir." Finally looking at the person standing on the other side of the desk, the girl did a double take. "Oh...OH MY!" Quickly taking his books and student ID, she stuttered, "Just give me those and you'll...I mean...I'll stamp them out." After handing the books back -- about two seconds later -- she added, "That's all. You can go now...PLEASE!" Somewhat puzzled, Mario asked, "Doesn't detention end at 4 o'clock?" To this, Giles instantly answered, "Well, there's no point standing on protocol. I'm sure nobody will mind if you leave a bit early." Still puzzled, the boy replied, "Thanks...I guess," before exiting the library. As the library doors closed behind him, Willow exclaimed, "Giles, he must be the guy!" "It's worse than I feared. Semyaza's obviously challenging us by coming here. Did you get a good look at his neck?" "Yeah, it looked like a trident." "My thought exactly. Try to find it in the book." A few minutes later, the girl's downcast expression said it all. "Sorry, Giles. There's nothing here on that symbol. Maybe I can find something online." She then noticed a small piece of plastic peeking out from under the keyboard. "Look, Giles. I forgot to give back his ID card." Quickly taking hold of the thin wafer which included a photo, the Watcher read the name aloud, "Mario Seraphim. Humm...Seraphim...of course! At least he has some wit." "What do you mean, Giles?" "A seraphim is a type of angel. Quite high in the angelic hierarchy if I'm not mistaken." "You mean they actually have a chain of command?' "Oh yes, Willow. Not all angels are created equal. There are many orders and ranks." As he was saying this, the library doors swung open and two people entered. "Hey, guys...look who I found outside." As Xander's head quickly swiveled around the room, Giles stated, "Hello, Richie." Then, turning toward Buffy, he asked, "Was I not clear that detention took place INSIDE the library?" "Sorry, Giles. Nature called." "Oh...oh, I see. Very well then. Carry on." "Yes sir," she responded before snapping him a mock salute and heading back to her table. Visibly miffed, Giles once again turned to the young Immortal. "So what brings you here today, Richie?" Pointing toward a nearby table, he stated simply, "Him." "Xander's in detention. He can't leave until 4 o'clock." "I need to talk to him." "Can't you talk to him here?" As Ryan continued to stare at the Watcher without saying another word, Giles quickly got the message, mumbling, "I guess not...impatient Yanks." Turning, he reluctantly called Xander over to the desk. "Hey, Rich. What's up?" "We've gotta talk." "OK, so talk." "Outside." "Outside?" "Outside." As the two were leaving the library, Buffy remarked to Cordelia, "I wonder what that's all about? Richie really looked pissed." Filing her nails with an emery board, the cheerleader replied, "Probably just hanging around MacLeod too long. That man always looks grumpy." ***** 3:10 P.M. "Are you freakin' nuts, Xander?" "What?" "What! I'll tell you what -- Josh Whelon -- ring a bell? "Who?" Not known for his patience, Ryan underscored this fact by shoving the teen against a wall. "Hey...calm down, Richie!" "Now, let's try this again. Were you challenged last night?" "How'd you find out?" "OK, I'll take that as a 'yes.' With a sudden revelation, Xander blurted, "Dawson has one of his people following me, doesn't he? Or did you put him up to it?" "How I found out isn't important, Xander. The main thing is that you're not ready to fight." "That's bullshit. I'm ready! I'll kick this Whedon guy's..." "Whelon." "Yeah, whatever. Point is, I'm gonna kick his Immortal ass outta Sunnydale." Looking grim, Ryan responded bluntly, "He'll kill you, Xander." "Gee, bud 'o mine, thanks for the major vote of confidence." In an effort to relieve his own mounting tension, the older Immortal clasped both hands behind his neck and stretched, before stating, "Xander, I'm not trying to screw with your head here. And I do know how you feel. Not that long ago, I was right where you are now." "That's my point, Richie. You didn't get whacked your first time." "Yeah, thanks to MacLeod." "What do you mean?" "OK...here's the deal...one day, about five years ago, MacLeod and I busted up an assassination attempt on this big shot ambassador. But, being a macho jerk, I ended up killing one of the assassins." "And he was Immortal?" "No, but his wife, a terrorist by the name of Annie Devlon, was. And she swore vengeance on me." "So you killed her?" "Actually, MacLeod tried to arrange a truce..." "So you wimped out and ran?" "Hey, can I finish here?" "Sorry." "Anyway, MacLeod knew Annie -- really knew her, if you get my drift -- from waaay back. But, no matter how he tried to reason with her, she wouldn't back down..." "So MacLeod killed her?" "XANDER!" "A thousand pardons, master, go on." "Hey, don't get wise! Now where was I? Oh yeah...so MacLeod reluctantly taught me how to counter her fighting style." "Isn't that cheating?" "No, Xander, it's called helping a friend stay alive. And MacLeod hated choosing between me and her." "So you did kill her." "No, Xander. I COULD have killed her. But, out of respect for MacLeod, I didn't." "Oh." "The point of my story is that if you don't have to fight...DON'T! Some Immortals deliberately hunt younger Immortals to take their heads. It's actually pretty common." "So what are you saying?" "Lay low and this guy will get fed up and leave town. They always do." "I can't do that. I'm no coward, Richie. What have I been training for anyhow?" "Coward? Xander, haven't you heard anything I've said? This has nothing to do with bravery. This is called not ending up dead -- plain and simple." "I'm not gonna run away." Now pacing back and forth, Ryan tried to come up with another course of action. "OK...when are you supposed to meet him?" "I'm not telling. You'd probably just KO me and go fight him yourself." "No, Xander. I just want to talk to him. Maybe we'll be able to avoid trouble altogether." "Fat chance. This guy doesn't seem like the talking type." "No? So how did you get away from him the first time? Why didn't he just whack you?" Already sweating, the teen started stammering, "Well...ahh...he...ahh didn't want to kill ahh...an unarmed guy." "UNARMED! YOU!" Richie screamed before kicking a locker. "Of all the stupid, moronic, bone-headed..." "Hey, so I screwed up...so kill me." "IT ALMOST DID, XANDER!" In a small voice, he replied, "I know." "How many times have I told you, 'Xander, always keep your sword with you'?" "I know." Calming down, Ryan now shifted back into mentor mode, stating, "OK, now listen up -- and listen up good -- this is how we're gonna handle this." Part Nine Mancini Residence 3:40 P.M. [Buzz] [Buzz] [Buzz] [Buzz] "Hello. Is anybody home?" "Just a minute, I'm coming." After a few seconds, an old woman opened the door, asking, "Yes, can I help you young people?" "Mrs. Mancini?" "Yes?" "We're with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ma'am. This is my partner, Dana Scully, and two of our...associates." As the gray-haired woman examined Mulder's badge, she cautiously asked, "Is there some kind of problem?" "Actually, we hope you can help us," Derek replied as Mulder shot him an annoyed glance, "is your granddaughter or her husband home?" "Marie's upstairs resting. She didn't feel very well and came home from school early. Poor thing's expecting you know." "Could we see her?" "May I ask what this is all about?" "We're investigating an...incident...that took place up north a few nights ago," Scully hedged. "We're hoping that your granddaughter might be able to assist us." The old woman tentatively allowed the four strangers into the house. "May I ask what kind of incident?" With the usual charm and grace of a federal agent, Mulder replied bluntly, "A double murder at a roadside motel." As both Derek and Scully flinched, Nick just shook his head in amazement. With a gasp, the woman exclaimed, "Oh dear, how horrible!" Rapidly becoming suspicious, she then stated, "I don't think Marie would know anything about that." "Could you ask her to join us, ma'am. We'd like to ask her a few questions." As the woman headed upstairs to fetch Marie, Nick remarked to Mulder, "About as subtle as a brain hemorrhage, aren't you?" "Hey, if you don't like my techniques, leave." "Ouch! A little touchy there, Mulder?" "OK, let's just remain calm, gentlemen," Derek interjected. "I am calm," both men responded simultaneously. This caused Scully to roll her eyes toward the ceiling. Coming up alongside Mulder, she whispered, "Let me talk to the girl first." "What, you don't think I'm tactful enough either, Scully?" "I didn't say that, Mulder. I just think she may be more comfortable answering questions from a woman." Hearing footsteps, she turned toward the staircase while an obviously pregnant girl cautiously made her way down. "This is my granddaughter, Marie." "Hello, Marie," greeted Scully. "My name's Dana. This is my partner, Agent Mulder. We'd like to ask you some questions." After sitting on the couch with her grandmother, she replied, "OK." "You and your husband stayed at a motel in Oakland a few nights ago. Is that correct?" "Yes." "While you were there, did anything unusual occur?" Now squeezing her grandmother's hand, she paused before answering. "Yes, a man broke into our room." "Oh, dear! Why didn't you tell me about this?" "Sorry, grandma. We were scared and ran." "Marie," the agent continued, "did you know the man who broke into your room?" "No." "Did your husband, know him?" After a slight hesitation, which all four trained observers in the room noticed, the girl once again answered, "No." "Are you absolutely sure?" Derek probed. "Yes...I mean, no, Mario didn't know him either." "Did he threaten you?" "Yes." "How did he threaten you?" "He said he'd kill me." "Did your husband and the man fight?" With tears welling up in her eyes, she again replied, "Yes." "Did Mario kill the man?" "He said he was going to kill me." Scully then repeated, "Did Mario kill the man, Marie?" After a long pause, she replied, "I think so." "You think so?" asked Mulder. "Weren't you there?" "They...fell...out the window. I couldn't see. I was still up on the balcony." "So you're saying it was self defense?" "Yes." Unconvinced, Mulder then asked, "So why did Mario set the man's body on fire?" Knowing this accusation to be totally unsubstantiated caused Scully, Derek and Nick to all stare in his direction. Mulder simply ignored their glances. "Oh, dear God!" the grandmother exclaimed. Now sobbing, the girl replied, "Mario would never do anything like that." "But, Ms. Seraphim you just said that you couldn't see very well from your vantage point. How can you be so sure?" "Because Mario wouldn't do that!" Unfazed, Mulder continued, "How well do you know your husband?" Now getting angry, the girl wiped away a tear before snapping back, "Well enough to marry him, Agent Mulder." "Where did you meet?" "In school, back in Oakland." "How long ago?" "About eight months." "Where's he from originally?" "Somewhere back east," she lied. "Actually, there's no record of a Mario Seraphim -- if that's his real name -- being born ANYWHERE in the United States." "We love each other!" "MULDER!" Scully cautioned. "Are all these questions really necessary?" asked the grandmother. "You're upsetting Marie...in her condition..." As an obviously annoyed Scully looked on, her partner stated, "We're just trying to determine the truth, Mrs. Mancini. I think we'll have to ask your granddaughter to come with us for additional questioning." "Come with you? Why? She's answered all your questions." "I'm afraid we have more questions for her." ***** 4:23 P.M. A few minutes later, while walking down the street with several library books tucked under his arm, Mario saw four strangers, three men and a woman, leading Marie toward a nondescript car. Needless to say, he was not pleased. Dropping the books, he immediately broke into a dead run, covering a city block in only a few seconds. Before anyone saw him approaching, he was on top of them. "Let her go!" "MARIO!" Mulder, Nick, and Derek immediately grabbed the young man, attempting to hold his arms while the agent struggled to reach his handcuffs. Unable to force him down to his knees, they managed to push his chest up against a large tree. "Who are you people?" "Federal agents," responded the lanky brown-haired man. "Are you Mario Seraphim?" Ignoring the question, he instead asked, "Where are you taking Marie?" While tightening the cuffs around the boy's wrists, Mulder replied, "Downtown for questioning. And we have some questions for you too." "Let her go, she's innocent." "Sorry, buddy, we can't do that," answered Nick. "I'm responsible for her safety. Please let her go." "She'll be safe with us, Mr. Seraphim...as will you," offered Derek. After a few moments of silence, the young man calmly stated, "I'm sorry, but I can't let you take her," before snapping the hardened steel chain linking the handcuffs. His arms now free, he proceeded to slip the grasp of the three men. Having been placed in the back of the car by Scully, Marie saw the scuffle and called out, "Mario, don't hurt them!" However, the teen successfully continued to fend off the men, easily flipping Mulder onto his back with one arm while tossing Nick onto the hood of the Explorer with the other. Derek, meanwhile, was desperately grasping the back of the teen's shoulders -- and was nearly knocked out by a tidalwave of images flooding his mind -- glimpses of unearthly battlefields with scorched bodies strewn everywhere. Most unusual of all was that many of the fallen seemed to have immense wings attached to their backs. He also caught sight of a being resembling Mario Seraphim standing amidst the carnage with finely feathered appendages wrapped protectively around his bruised torso. The creature was also holding a large, bloody golden trident. This was the last image Derek saw before grabbing his head and crumpling to the ground. Seeing his friend collapse, Nick immediately went to his aid while Mulder and Scully drew their guns, training them on the uncontrollable teen. "OK...that's it...you've had your fun! Now get your hands up!" instructed Mulder from his knees. "I can't let you take her." "Hey, we're warning you! Get those hands up or we'll open fire!" Her shouts now muffled from within the sealed car, Marie continued to plead, "Mario, stop! Please don't hurt anyone!" Glancing toward Scully, the boy then noticed a small gold cross suspended from a thin chain around her neck. As a look of hesitation flickered across his face, he slowly raised his hands and allowed himself to be arrested. After reading him his rights, Mulder placed Mario -- now bound with two sets of handcuffs -- intothe car next to Marie. Nearby, Nick observed the proceedings with Derek who was back on his feet. "Damn, that kid must be seriously juiced on crack or angel dust." As a humorous thought passed through his mind, the Legacy Precept remarked, "I don't think it's quite that simple, Nick." ***** Sunnydale Police Headquarters 5:10 P.M. "Look at this place, Scully. I expect Andy Taylor and Barney Fife to walk in here any second." While glancing around the squad room, she replied, "It's a small town, Mulder. They probably don't have much need, not to mention budget, for the latest equipment." "No, Scully. There, you're wrong. I did some checking before we came here today. Did you know that Sunnydale has the highest incidence of unexplained deaths in the state of California? In fact, per capita, it may actually lead the nation in homicides." "C'mon, Mulder, here? It seems like such a quiet, picturesque community. If what you say is true, I'm sure we would have heard about it before now. Maybe your information's wrong." "That's just it, Scully. The Bureau doesn't have anything on Sunnydale. I got my info from non-official sources. It's almost as if there's a concerted effort to deliberately keep this place off the law enforcement radar screen." With a cynical expression on her face, his partner retorted, "What are you saying, Mulder? That some nameless, faceless conspiracy is at work here? Please, we've crossed that bridge before." "You said it, Scully. Not me. But let's just consider what else I've found out about this 'burb. Last year alone, the entire high school swim team drowned at the beach and, freakishly enough, during lunch at the same school, swarms of snakes mysteriously appeared from nowhere. I won't even mention the gang of drug addicts who killed several faculty members; the virgin-sacrificing cult arrested at the local college; the natural gas leaks that leveled a factory, a curio store, and a church; the terrorist attack with a rocket launcher at the mall; or the ten recent earthquakes centered here." Her mouth hanging open, it took Scully a few seconds to respond. "The Lone Gunmen told you all this stuff, didn't they?" "I don't see..." "Mulder, won't you at least accept the possibility that you may have gotten bad information." Now getting annoyed, the lanky agent replied, "OK, fine. Let's just say that all the stuff I just told you wasn't true. Then how do you explain the reaction we got when we brought those two in for questioning? The Sunnydale PD makes the NYPD look downright friendly." "Granted, the desk sergeant did look a bit annoyed." "ANNOYED? Scully, I thought we were going to end up in adjoining cells with the happy couple." Seeing this as an opportunity to change the subject, the woman remarked, "And speaking of them, why did you lean so hard...especially on the girl?" "Because I suspect they know something they're not telling us, especially the husband. For some reason, they left Oakland before the police could question them. They're probably also material witnesses to the homicide of the motel clerk. You do remember him, don't you Scully, middle-aged father of three?" "You don't have to remind me, Mulder. I just thought you were unusually rough on her, that's all. She seems like a mixed up kid with some major issues in her life." "Major issues? You mean like having a mad-dog killer for a husband? How'd you like how she kept telling him not to hurt us? Not exactly something an innocent person would need to be told. And did you get a look at his tattoo on his neck, Scully? Probably a gang mark." "Fine. We probably have enough to hold him...at least until we can make a positive ID and check for priors. But we'll have to cut her loose tonight. We just don't have anything to prove that she's anything more than a victim or possibly a witness who got scared and ran." After reluctantly agreeing with Scully's assessment, Mulder asked, "So where did loverboy tell you he was going with Dr. Doolittle?" After consciously counted to three in an effort to control her temper, Scully stated, "Assuming that you're referring to Nick and Dr. Rayne, they went to eat and will rejoin us later." ***** Sunnydale High School Library 5:25 P.M. "Hello? Is anybody home?" Looking up from a volume of 'Jane's Demonic Anthology,' Giles spied a pair of faces -- one belonging to an old friend -- that he hadn't seen in several months. "Derek! What brings you back to Sunnydale?" After shaking hands with his Oxford classmate, he turned to Nick. "Hi, Giles, how's it hangin'?" "Hanging? Oh yes, another one of your Yank expressions. I'm fine, Mr. Boyle. Thank you for asking." Then, focusing back on Derek, the Watcher inquired, "Would you like some tea?" "Yes, thank you, Rupert. Very much so." While fetching his ever-ready tea service, he heard Nick call after him, "You wouldn't happen to have any java, would you, Giles?" "No, but there may be some Taster's Choice around here somewhere." "Never mind, Giles. It's no big deal." Returning with a sterling silver tray, the librarian poured out three cups. "So, Derek, what brings you here...business or pleasure?" "Business, I'm afraid." "What exactly?" "I wish I could tell you, Rupert, but I'm not sure myself. I was wondering if we could use your computer set up?" "Oh, certainly. Willow just stepped out. I'm sure she wouldn't mind." Responding, "Thanks," Derek retrieved a cellular phone from his jacket and started dialing the Legacy house on a secure line. Nick, meanwhile, had gone behind the desk to use the PC's modem connection. "Hello, Alex? Yes, we're fine. The case is just taking a little longer than expected. We need you to do some checking for us. Nick's E-mailing the information to you now. Basically, we need to know whatever you can learn about a teen by the name of Mario Seraphim." Across the room, Giles quickly looked up from the book he was scanning, "Excuse me? Did you just say Mario Seraphim?" "Hold on, Alex." Turning, Derek asked, "Yes, Rupert, why?" Easing the student ID from the breast pocket of his tweed jacket, the librarian held it up and stated, "Because I think we'd better talk." Derek and Nick stared first at Giles and then at each other. "Alex, I'll call you right back." After hanging up, Derek remarked, "What did I tell you, Nick? Nothing's ever simple in this town." Slowly shaking his head in agreement, the Watcher remarked, "I'm afraid not." ***** Sunnydale Police Headquarters 5:56 P.M. "What really happened at that motel back in Oakland?" Chained to an unpadded, straight-backed metal chair in the center of the interrogation room, Mario replied, "What would you like to know?" "Well, for starters, did you know the guy you killed?" "I met him trying to strangle in my wife. Does that count?" "Don't wise off with me, kid," spat Mulder, "I mean before that." Raising his head to look directly at the agent, Mario then lied...sort of, anyhow, by replying, "No. Never saw him before in my life." Entering the room with two Dixie cups of black coffee, Scully handed one to her partner before asking, "Mario, do you know why the perpetrator would choose your room? After killing the desk clerk, it would have made more sense for him to empty the cash register or the office safe." "I don't know. Why don't you ask him?" Placing his face close to the boy's, Mulder growled, "Because he's a crispy critter in the morgue. You claim you killed him in self-defense. If that's true, why did you burn his body?" "I didn't burn his body." "Oh, what do you expect us to believe? That he spontaneously combusted?" "You said it, not me." "Now listen up, Mario. You'd better start filling in some of the puzzle here...and fast. So far, we have two dead bodies and one suspect...YOU!" Turning toward Scully, the teen asked, "Since when did it become a crime to defend your wife and unborn child against a psycho?" "We're just trying to understand exactly what transpired that night, Mr. Seraphim. Please try to look at it from our point of view -- you may be telling us the truth, or YOU may be responsible for the death of the motel clerk and the second unidentified man when HE tried to intervene." "I've answered all your questions, Agent Scully. What more can I tell you?" Flipping open a manila folder, her partner then pulled out a notepad, remarking, "For starters, how about where you're originally from?" "Back east." "Could you be just a BIT more specific." "Queens...in New York City." "OK...what year were you born?" "1982." "What are your parents' names?" "Ann and Mario." Quickly scanning the contents of the school's enrollment files, Mulder then asked, "Where's your father now?" "Dead." "What about your mother?" "Ditto. But I'm sure you already knew that." "What did your father do for a living?" While glancing around the room, Mario answered, "Odd jobs around the neighborhood." "Such as?" "He helped out people in trouble." "Sounds like a real good Samaritan type." Again looking directly at Mulder, the boy smirked before replying, "Yeah, I guess you could say that." "Did he ever serve in the military?" "Uh huh." "When?" "In Vietnam. They had him doing medical stuff." "Was he wounded?" "Yeah. He never liked to talk about it though." Casting a glance in Scully's direction, Mulder noticed that one of her eyebrows was now arched and that she was tapping her foot on the grungy tile floor. "Can I see you outside, Mulder?" After stepping into the hall, he closed the steel door behind them. "What's up, Scully?" "His answers just blew holes in your major mystery. Obviously the military records you've seen are wrong. His father was in Vietnam, not him. And their listing him as missing in action and presumed dead was obviously an error." "Well, there's still no record of HIM ever being born in New York City...or anywhere else." "Mulder, are you telling me that you're seriously considering holding this kid because some bureaucrat can't find his birth certificate. It happens." "Something's still wrong here, Scully...I can feel it. He's not telling us everything." "So what are you suggesting, Mulder?" "We can hold him 72 hours without charges until we can verify his story." "And what happens if we can't?" While unlocking the door, Mulder remarked, "Always the optimist, aren't you, Scully?" Back inside, he once again addressed the teen. "Well, Mario, it looks like you're going to be a guest here courtesy of the taxpayers of Sunnydale." "What do you mean?" In response, Scully stepped around Mulder, stating, "We need to verify what you've told us. It shouldn't be more than a day or two." "What about, Marie?" "Relax, we already sent her home," replied Mulder. "YOU WHAT?" As the teen unsuccessfully attempted to rise, Scully stated, "Calm down, Mr. Seraphim. Marie's back with her grandmother. She's fine." Dejectedly slumping back into the chair, he quickly glanced toward Scully and then toward the floor. In the dim light cast by the single hanging lightbulb, the woman thought she noticed a strange shadow manifest itself on the boy's face. However, she quickly dismissed it as a trick of the lighting. "No, she's not. She's not safe without me." Latching onto this remark, Mulder prodded from across the room, "You also said that this afternoon. What do you mean, 'she's not safe'? Safe from what? Who?" Realizing that the only way out of the room would be by going through the agents, Mario simply continued to silently stare downward. A few minutes later, unable to elicit another word from him, the agents left the room. Once outside, they decided to compare notes over a quick dinner. "So where do folks around here go for a burger?" Mulder asked a young deputy in the nearly deserted squad room. "You can try the place a couple of blocks over. Food's decent, pretty good music." "This place got a name?" "Yeah...the Bronze."