Eighteen months ago – Cleveland, Ohio
Xander locked the door of his apartment behind him and leant against it for a moment. The hallway was quiet; Willow and Buffy were both away, so their apartments were empty. Some days he enjoyed the fact that they all lived in the same building, one owned by the NSC and located on the same patch of land as the Headquarters and the School. Giles was on the floor above, as were Andrew and Faith. Dawn and a rotating schedule of the newly-minted Sunnydale slayers, whenever they were in town, held the top floor. Some days, like the day before, he definitely did not enjoy it.
Today was going to be a quiet day. He only had to make a trip to the hardware store and then he had a video chat at Headquarters between himself and two of his doubles at other NSC bases, after that he could take the afternoon for himself.
The hardware store was only two blocks away and he didn’t need anything too big so he chose to walk. The sun was out and attempting to shine through the cloud cover; he’d thrown on an extra over-shirt before leaving to keep out the cold. He nodded at a few of the kids hanging about in the street; they’d discovered in the time since NSC had built their Cleveland base that hanging around outside was safer than hanging around some of the other parts of the city; and carried on down the block to the store.
“Hey Xander, what got broke today?” the kid on the door of the store asked as he passed him a leaflet with the deals of the day highlighted.
“Just a door today, Ricky,” he answered with a grin and headed towards the aisle with the hinges, he’d forgotten to pick up extras the last time little Tiffany had thrown a tantrum and he’d had to replace the hinges on six doors.
After picking up several packs of hinges and then spotting a few other things he had to have, just in case, he headed towards the tills. The next part all happened so fast; first with the shouting and the guns and the shouting some more and the dead kid. Xander’s only thought was that he just wished that it wasn’t so mundane that he could do something about it; then he shook himself and got up to ‘be Xander’ as the girls would say.
“Hey,” he shouted to the lead goon who had a shotgun pointed in a store girl’s face, “how about you pick on someone your own size?”
The girl gasped as tears ran down her face. The lead goon turned to face him, gun still on the girl, and laughed.
“You?” he asked, looking Xander up and down, “what’s a Cyclops gonna do ‘bout it?”
Luckily Xander didn’t have to answer the question as cops suddenly swarmed the building; it looked like somebody had managed to hit the silent alarm pretty early on.
Mary Shannon was running late. Again. She hastily tied her hair back with an elastic, case file held between her teeth, as she burst through the door to the Wit Sec offices. She ignored Marshall rolling his eyes at her from his desk as Stan entered from the conference room.
“It’s about time,” he said, “you ready?”
Marshall stood and headed into the conference room, Mary following him and ignoring Stan.
There were two men at the table, one in Army combat gear and the other dressed in a check shirt, undershirt and jeans. Check shirt guy came with an eye patch; he was her new witness, Alexander Harris. She hadn’t gone far enough into the file for the Army explanation; just far enough to know there was no obvious service history for him.
Taking a seat across from the men she opened her file out on the table and pulled the contracts left out closer to her. Stan stood by the door and watched them all for a minute and then sighed, taking his seat.
“Right,” Mary said, taking a breath, “let’s get started, shall we?”
She’d managed to read a couple more paragraphs of the file – enough to know Harris had tried to play hero during a hardware store robbery that lead to some mafia don’s kid being implicated in the murder of the store’s greeter. Still nothing on why he was currently accompanied by an Army guy.
“Sure,” Harris answered with an easy grin, reaching his hand out across the table, “I’m Xander. The silent guy is Agent Li-”
He stopped suddenly due to an elbow to the gut and half laughed, half coughed, “Sorry, this guy is Finn.”
So, Harris and the Army guy, Finn, have a history strong enough that Harris is joking with him right before his life as he knows it comes to an end. That, or Harris doesn’t have it stuck in his mind yet that this is where it all changes.
“Mary,” she says as she shakes his hand, “I take it you’ve met Marshall and Stan?”
She watches him as he answers, launching into some spiel about how he got here and how they all met. He’s in his mid to maybe late twenties, with the eye patch it’s hard to tell. He dresses like a blue collar guy but his posture is all soldier – that’s maybe where Finn comes in; but there was no Army, or any other force, stretch in his one page potted history. He has an easy grin, but his eyes tell a harder ‘I’m not as easy going as I look’ type of story.
Big problem – he doesn’t look worried or nervous or scared or any of the numerous emotions sported by the many faces that have passed through this office. He looks like they’re just new friends meeting for coffee.
Finn sees her watching and catches her eye, shaking his head. Army guy doesn’t see the problem.
“Ok, then,” Mary breaks in as Harris is about to launch into some other amusing thing that happened on his way from Ohio, “I take it the process has been explained to you, maybe a little?”
Four hours later and she’s finally had Harris sign his life away to the government. Only to have said government turn around and change the game in the form of Riley Finn.
“Stan, did nobody explain this to her?” Finn asks giving Mary a sceptical look as he brings out his own phonebook sized document he seems to want her to sign.
“Didn’t have a chance to, you saw when she got here,” is Stan’s attempt at apologising for her.
“Hey!” she complains half-heartedly. She should know better, just when she thinks she’s got something sorted is always, always, when someone changes the game on her.
“Ok, Mary,” Finn sighs, leaning back in his chair, “this is where we introduce you to an even more little known agency than your own.”
He’s not kidding. The NSC is something she heard a whisper of once, two years ago. Even then that whisper was denied to death – and sometimes she thinks that maybe it was in one of Jinx’ jumbled drunken ramblings.
Harris is one of their high up muckety mucks, for all he dresses like a site foreman. And said muckety muck isn’t going to be playing by Wit Sec rules. Not completely. He’ll play when everything is ‘mundane’. But for undefined values of ‘not mundane’ he gets to walk back into to his life every other month like nothing ever happened.
“If he can do this, wander off back home when he wants to, why is he in Wit Sec in the first place?” is the only question she can come up with when asked.
At this Finn laughs and Harris grins and they answer in unison, “holiday.”
She’s lost count of how many times that’s she’s ranted to this week’s idiot that Wit Sec is not a holiday - it’s a new life, with all the responsibilities that life comes with. Only to have the tables turned on her. This time it apparently is a holiday. Once the trial is over Harris gets to go back to his life, apparently he’ll be safe enough in the security tight halls of NSC.
“So they send you to Albuquerque?” is all she can ask.
Mary’s had a bad day. So she’s doing what she often does these days after one of those. She’s stopping off at a local second-hand book store. Not for the books; for the advice. Somehow Harris, Xander, has become the guy she goes to when she needs someone other than Marshall to tell her to pull her head out of her ass.
She takes a seat by the mystery section while he speaks to a customer. She’s flicking through a Sherlock Holmes when he finishes and comes over.
“We do like it when people buy the books, you know,” he jibes, like he does every time. She knows she’ll end up leaving with something, most likely something that will help her think her problem through.
“Really?” she asks, all wide eyed and innocent, “and I thought I was in a library.”
“Funny as ever, Mary,” he says deadpan, “what can I do for you today?”
“You realise I’m the one that’s supposed to ask you that question?” she asks, carefully not looking him in the eye.
He nods, “I also realise that this is just your way of not answering me until you’re ready.”
She rolls her eyes as she stands and heads towards the history shelves for a quick browse for any new titles in that Marshall hasn’t read yet.
“Am I hard to like?” she asks, her back to him appearing engrossed in a book about the life and times of... Anne Boleyn? She puts the book down and turns to face him. He’s taken a seat back at the table she’d been at. He pats her chair and waits for her to saunter back over and sit down.
“Only when you make yourself that way,” he answers, she’s trained him not to beat around the bush.
“How do I not make myself that way?” she asks as she leans back in the chair to gaze at the ceiling fan as it whirs slowly.
“Learn to realise what it means when people react in a way you don’t want them to?” he ends in that questioning tone that makes
her wonder how he’s had this practice of dealing with her even before they met. Who he knows that’s just like her. She asks him.
“Me,” is the answer that comes from the doorway of the store. She’s blonde and tiny and looks more tired than Mary does at the end of a really bad day.
She enters the room and it feels as if she has the presence of ten or more, “everyone’s fine,” she says as she reaches them and places a hand on Xander’s shoulder.
“Buffy,” she says, hand out.
“Mary,” she answers, shaking her hand.
“I just need a minute before I go get Annie,” she says and Xander gets up and take her through to the back room.
Xander shuts the door behind them and pulls Buffy into a hug. She melts into him. Moments later she stands back, smoothing her shirt.
“Hey,” she smiles at him.
“Hey,” he says back grin on his face. It’s been two months since they saw each other last. She’s so busy being in charge and he’s so busy pretending to play by the rules. Even two months ago they saw each other for moments as she was heading out to stop this year’s apocalypse and he had been called in as backup at another site.
“I thought the summer was supposed to be quiet,” he says, at the business look on her face.
“So did I,” she moans, “Someone didn’t get the memo.”
“What’s happening?” he asks.
“What isn’t? We’re stretched so thin that Dawn’s by herself with only Uncle Neal for backup in New York and I’m having to use up one of our carefully planned outs for Annie,” she sighs as she brushes hair from her face.
“What do you need?” he asks, he would say no to nothing.
“I need you to break a rule,” he stiffens at this, even though he can’t hear a capital R – so it’s not a ‘Rule’ breaking, “I need you take care of a problem in Albuquerque.”
He relaxes. That’s the smallest of rules and is really only in place so that he doesn’t give Mary a heart attack. Any Albuquerque problems are supposed to be taken care of by roving slayers as the city doesn’t get much demon action.
“Done,” he says as he takes the file she’d pulled out of her briefcase; he takes a moment to snigger at Buffy with a briefcase and carefully ignores her rolling eyes; any sign of amusement means his job’s done; an amused slayer is a less stressed slayer.
Opening the file he takes in the top sheet at a glance, looks like some vamps causing a problem trying to muscle in on a local business. Just a nest to take out. A few years back no one would have let him handle this; these days it’s different, they know better what lowly humans can do.
Then he spots the name of the owner of the business; Peter Alpert, Mary’s sister’s fiancé, “Shit.”
“What’s the problem?” Buffy asks as she’s putting her briefcase back together.
“Just a little too close to Wit Sec on this one,” he says with a shrug, “Peter Alpert – he’s getting married to Mary’s sister.”
At Buffy’s frown he carries on, “Don’t worry about it – I can manage it without Mary finding out. Peter doesn’t know it’s vamps, right?” he asks, flipping further into the file.
“Nope, not a clue,” she says, heading to the door, “You ok with this?”
“Yeah, go, play at being mysterious!Buffy,” he grins.
“Stay safe,” she says as she leaves through the stores fire exit.
“Always,” he says into the air left behind.
He closes up the store early; Mary’s long gone, late for something or other. After everything is locked up tight he heads upstairs to his apartment for a quick bite to eat while he reads the file over properly. Tucking into a chicken pasta salad, he turns the pages of the thin file that had been created by a slayer passing through, one he hadn’t met yet; he’d been due to meet Megan in a week, but she’d been pulled out of state to help Faith with something.
It was a small nest; no more than ten at last count, the night previous; the oldest was only a few months vamped and was never going to be a Master. It looked like he’d been fired by Alpert right before his vamping and had taken to appearing as the lot closed to hassle Alpert. This hadn’t been spotted until the number of exsanguinations in Albuquerque had risen steeply and Megan had come in to have a look.
Finishing his salad he put the bowl in the sink, rinsing it and leaving it to wash later. He starts to load up; starting with the wrist braces the NSC had taken plans from Angel for, then a further stake in the back of his pants, a holy water gun in an ankle holster, his phone and a bunch of the pre-made potions from the NSC witches (most likely Willow if she knew they’d be coming to him) clipped to his belt. Lastly he tugged on a battered brown leather jacket that covered the braces and his belt but gave enough movement so as not to get in the way.
A quick look in the mirror by his door reminds him to change his eye patch from the one with the stores name on to a plain black one. Grabbing his keys he heads out to his car; these days a nondescript SUV that didn’t quite say government vehicle, but was enough to stop anyone jacking it.
He pulled into the street Alpert’s dealership was on and hovered at the curb half a block away to take everything in. It was just dark enough that vamps would be able to be out and about, street lights were beginning to flicker on and just in time a gang of about five men sauntered round the corner at the other end of the street. He recognised the leader from his obituary photo.
This time it looked like they were planning to do more than just hassle Alpert, a few of the men were carrying tire irons or just lengths of pipe. New enough vamps that they hadn’t realised yet that they didn’t need them – hopefully new enough not to see the stakes coming.
He was just about to get out of the car when Mary’s Ford Probe squeals round the corner to a stop just outside the dealership. Just great.
Mary’s bad day was pretty much forgotten now that she had something new to think about; Xander’s blonde friend. The one that makes him so good at being her... friend. Looks like a cheerleader but feels much more dangerous, and boy is that weird. Feels? What is she, a hippy dippy psychic?
She throws the Probe into reverse and out of the lot outside the bookstore looking to see if she can figure what car ‘Buffy’ came in; and that’s a fake name if ever she heard one. There are a few mom mobiles on the street and a Porsche with its top down at the crossroads just ahead; male driver that looks like he’s just asking to be pulled over.
All thoughts of where ‘Buffy’ might have gone are thrown from her head as her cell rings, Stan’s name flashing on the screen. “What now, Stan?” she answers with.
“Uh, well...,” she doesn’t even let him bluster his way to a point, “give me five minutes and I’ll be in.”
She throws her phone to the passenger seat and takes all the short cuts she knows from the bookstore to the office.
Half an hour later she’s finishing paperwork on a joint FBI thing that apparently couldn’t wait ‘til morning when her cell rings again; some days she wishes she could just throw the damn thing away.
Brandi this time, “What?”
“It’s Peter,” she whines.
Mary sighs, “What did you do now?”
“Oh, come on Mary, it’s not always me,” Brandi starts and before she can launch into a rant about how she’s all better now, better than Mary anyway, Mary stops her.
“What is it, Brandi? All I want to do now is go home and sink into a bath and forget about my day.”
“He didn’t want me to tell you, didn’t really want to go to any police at all, it’s just...” she pauses for a minute and Mary can practically hear her gathering courage until the next comes out so fast it takes a few seconds to decipher, “this guy he fired a while back is hassling him every night at closing and I think it’s dangerous.”
Once deciphered she checks the time on the corner of her computer screen, she’s got about fifteen minutes until Peter begins to close up. Deciding the FBI’s obsessive paperwork really can wait she tells Brandi she’ll be over as soon as she can, “but, couldn’t you have given me a little notice?”
She leaves a note for Stan, managing to duck out when his back is turned and races her Probe all the way to Peter’s lot. The first thing she notices is that five guys all decked out in black ‘tough guy’ clothes and carrying tire irons and metal piping are heading direct to the lot. In the back of her mind she spots a familiar looking car back to her left but ninety-eight per cent of her thoughts are on the thugs and Peter; who she can now see under the lights heading towards the gate to lock up.
She makes sure her gun and badge are clearly visible to anyone with mostly working eyesight in the fading daylight and just glowing streetlights and throws herself out of her car.
“Hi Peter,” she calls, looking at the gang.
“Uh, Mary,” he says, with that ‘what are you doing, Mary Shannon?’ tone he’s somehow managed to pick up in the short time they’ve known each other.
“Brandi called, said you’d need a hand closing up tonight,” she said in her blonde ditz voice ignoring his sigh, “although why you’d need a federal agent to help close a car lot, who knows?”
She almost thinks she’s maybe over done the shrug, just an innocent fed act when the guys start shuffling and hiding their weapons behind their backs.
“Are these guys helping too?” she hears a movement behind her, back where that car was, but ignores it – no one without backup looks away from a gang with weapons, not if they can help it. The guys in front look nervous suddenly; shifting even more and looking anywhere but her.
“Are you?” she asks, carefully not grinning.
“Uh, no ma’am,” the guy who looks to be in charge says, he looks vaguely familiar and she figures he’s the guy Peter fired, “We were just passing.”
“Well, I’d be on your way – who knows what a girl could think about five guys such as yourselves hanging around in the dark like this.” At this the men begin to head away, looking back every so often.
As they round the far corner she turns to Peter, “never seen a gang like that back off quite so quickly.”
Out of the corner of her eye she spots that the car on the other side of the street is empty.
Deciding to see what Mary would do, keeping out of the line of sight Xander hunkered down in his seat. He sees her going for that old Buffy classic, blonde ditz. It looks like it might work, but only so far. He slowly shifts and pushes open further his car door and slips out quietly. He knows Mary hears him but doesn’t show it beyond it slight twitch, she’s got good instincts, enough to know there’s something about these guys that means she shouldn’t turn her back on them.
The vamps spot him easily; it looks like even though he doesn’t deal with the Albuquerque nightlife the leader has heard at least a rumour of him and the nervousness is spreading across the rest. At this recognition they take the way out Mary offers them: scared off by a fed.
As Mary watches them round the corner he slips to the shadows developing and back around the corner to head them off.
It takes him ten minutes to track them down to a back alley near a bunch of warehouses. He goes in silently – he’s not Buffy and he’s not a teenager anymore, he doesn’t need to quip his way through a fight. They’re facing him in a row; he can see it ticking over in what brains they have – he’ll never take five of us. Before half of them have even finished the thought he’s let loose the braces; taking out one vamp and distracting another enough to dart in and take him out with the stake at his back. Down to three to one in five seconds; not bad. He might actually have to thank Angel one of these days.
The three left are beginning to look a little worried at the human with half his eyesight – maybe some of those rumours are true and it’s not just bringing the Slayers down on their heads that’s the problem here. There’s some muttering going on and then the two minions attempt to rush him at once; he shoots the squirt gun at the one heading for his blind side and fumbles his way through a fight with the other – not every vamp has fighting experience and this one certainly doesn’t. As this one crumbles to dust the other two; one wincing as he does; rush him again.
For a moment he thinks this might be it; as he’s pushed up against a wall. The end of one Xander Harris. What was he thinking taking on five vamps by himself? Even newbies.
Then he clears his head and shoves the stake still in his right hand into the guy with holy water burns and then it’s just him and the kid that was fired.
“That’s not possible!” the guy says, looking round at the piles of dust in the night, “He said you would be easy.”
“He?” suddenly this is looking like a set up – not just against Alpert, he would have been the bribe for the kid. This was against him and by the sounds of it, the NSC. This didn’t go well against all the other things that were apparently happening right now. It sounded like the next big bad was making a rush at them; and it knew where he was hidden.
Xander reached for his belt; squirting the vamp as he did to hide the movement. The gun ran out; helping him further – making it look like he was on the out.
He grabbed the third vial from the right and popped the cap off. He had only one chance to get this right, come on aim, don’t fail me now.
The vamp was busy laughing, “like I’m going to tell you. I know how it goes, get the bad guy monologue-ing and catch him off guard, not going to hap-”
Mid monologue Xander hit him in the eyes with the potion. As the vamp froze he grabbed his cell off his belt and speed dialled Buffy; keeping an eye on the alley at all times.
“We’ve got a problem,” he said as she answered.
“Another car?” she asked, groaning.
“Well, I will need a new one and any attachment to my previous vehicle needs erasing so Mary doesn’t track it, but no – that’s not the problem,” it wasn’t his fault the NSC went through cars almost as fast as it did bandages.
“What is it?” she asked and he could hear the car she was in slowing to a stop and Annie saying something.
“I got there to five of them, including the leader. Tracked them to an area I’m assuming is their base and took out four. The leader is currently under the spell of the purple gooey stuff after telling me, and I quote, ‘He said you would be easy’.”
“Shit,” Buffy muttered at the other end of the line.
“Yeah,” Xander said, massaging a temple.
“I can send a witch for him,” she said, and he could hear her tapping on a laptop or notebook, “Can you deal with the rest of the nest or do you need backup?”
“Nah, once the witch has been and gone I can mop up the rest with a standard nest infiltration,” he assured her.
“Ok,” she said, “you’ve got sixty seconds to witch and I’ll see you on the other side.”
“Got it,” he said and hung up.
Sixty seconds after confirmation the alley had an extra person in it, “Hey, Kit.”
“Hey, Xan,” she grinned and looked to the vamp, “looks like Willow’s version of this works extra well, normally there would be at least some movement in the eyes.”
Xander shrugged, “you know Wills.”
She grinned at him and went back to looking the camp over; after painting a symbol on his forehead in graveyard dirt she nodded to Xander and disappeared, taking the vamp with her.
Xander grinned and walked further into the night to track down the nest.
Slightly weirded out by the encounter at Peter’s work Mary was back at her desk looking up the plates on the mysterious car after having pulled the file on the guy Peter had fired; that file had been several levels above her own security level.
Before her eyes the screen that had just thrown up the information changed completely from a male face on the driver’s licence attached to the ownership papers to one Verity Lake of Santa Fe, vehicle stolen one week earlier.
She couldn’t figure if she was just tired and seeing things; but the picture that had shown for a second sure looked like one Alexander Harris.