Title: The Dark Side of Zeppo
Author: Michael K. Donovan
E-mail: mike@paladon.com

Original script written by: Dan Vebber
Original script directed by: James Whitmore, Jr.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is a treatment of the third season episode, "The Zeppo". I tried to stay as close to the original as possible, especially with the dialogue, while still working a twist into the story. In places, the scenes match the originals exactly or with only minor changes. Thanks to AleXander Thompson of the Slayer Fanfic Archive. I used his transcript of the episode as a guide.


The red-eyed, blue-gray skinned demon slashed its claws through the thick, wispy fog in frustration. It snarled viciously as it stepped around the bodies of two of its fallen brethren and peered through the mist in search of its enemies.

Faith held her breath anxiously, carefully holding still in the shadows of a rocky alcove. Across the cave from her, Buffy waited in similar readiness atop a narrow ledge. Giles hovered in a corner, a cross in one hand and a vial of holy water in the other. Willow stepped forward, a long candle with a fluttering flame in her hand.

"Obscurate nos non diutius." She intoned steadily, blowing out the candle with a sharp breath.

A whistling wind arose suddenly and whipped through the cavern, carrying the thick, obscuring fog away with it. Within moments, the demon stood in the center of the cave, completely exposed. A low growl sounding in its throat, it crouched, wary of an attack.

Buffy leaped from her perch and tackled the creature. As the two hit the ground, Giles rushed forward, grabbing it by the arm. With Buffy on the other arm, they hoisted the beast up and drove it against the wall. In a burst of savagery, it gripped Giles by the shoulder and tossed him against the opposite wall with ease. He hit the stone hard and fell to the ground in an undignified pile.

"Now!" Buffy cried.

Faith dove from her alcove, a shining sword in her hands. Baring her teeth, she lunged forward, spearing the demon through the heart. Buffy released its twitching body and it fell to the cave floor, dead. Giles rolled to the side as the corpse settled, a look of revulsion on his face as he stared into its vacant eyes.

"I think that was the last." Giles sat up, adjusting his glasses and straightening his tie.

Faith inspected the tip of the ichor drenched blade in her hand with satisfaction and slowly lowered it to the floor. As Buffy bent to help Giles to his feet, Willow entered the main chamber with a carefully upheld smile on her face.

"Willow, you okay?" Buffy asked her, concerned.

"Yeah, I'm fine." She replied, rubbing her upper arms against a chill that had nothing to do with the air. "Th-the shaking is-is a side effect of the fear."

"Thank you." Giles said to Buffy, his glasses removed and the fingers of his opposite hand rubbing at his forehead.

"Well, if it wasn't for that clouding spell..." Buffy sighed in relief.

"Yeah, it went good!" Willow smiled happily, then glanced at the candle, "Nothing melted like last time."

"These babes were wicked rowdy." Faith shoved one of the corpses distastefully with the toe of her boot, "What's their deal?"

"I wish I knew." Giles crouched as the corpse Faith pushed rolled over on its back. His brow furrowed in thought, he studied its vile features carefully. "Most of my sources have dried up since the, uh, Council has relieved me of my duties. I was aware there was a nest here, but quite frankly, I expected it to be vampires. These, these are new."

"And improved." Buffy noted.

"Yes. I'm sorry." Giles stood hastily. "I should've had you better prepared, and I should never have allowed Willow and, uh..." he paused, looking around, "And, uh..."

"I'm good. We're fine." Xander stumbled out of a pile of garbage. His hands and the front of his shirt were coated with a thick, viscous black goo. "Just a little bit . . . dirty. Good show, everyone. Just great. I think we have a hit."

"Are you okay?" Willow asked in concern.

"Tip-top, really." Xander breathed out a shuddering breath, "If anyone sees my spine laying around, just try not to step on it."

Buffy looked him over with a worried look, "Xander, one of these days, you're gonna get yourself hurt."

"Or killed." Faith's eyebrows screwed up in a derisive expression.

"Or both." Buffy continued, "A-and, you know, with the pain and the death, maybe you shouldn't be leaping into the fray like that. M-maybe you should be...fray adjacent."

Xander fixed them both with a hurt look. "Excuse me? Who, at a crucial moment, distracted the lead demon by allowing her to pummel him about the head?"

"Yeah." Faith rolled her eyes, "That was real manly how you shrieked and all."

"I think you'll find that was more of a bellow." Xander declared proudly.

"Uh, what do we do with the trio here?" Buffy indicated the demon corpses, "Should we burn them?"

"I brought marshmallows." Willow piped cheerily.

Her friends eyed her skeptically.

"Occasionally, I'm callous and strange." Willow sniffed.

"I expect we can leave them." Giles slipped his glasses back on, "I'm more interested in finding out what they are, and whether we can expect more of their kind."

Buffy started for the cave entrance, with Faith close behind her, "I hope not. They're WAY too fit."

"I say bring 'em on!" Xander crowed with false bravado.

Willow circled round him and exited.

Giles stepped up beside Xander laying his hand on his young friend's shoulder. "Uh, Xander," he began, "I think in the future perhaps it would be best if you, you, uh, h-hung back to the rear of the battle, you know, for your own sake."

"But, gee, Mr. White," Xander grinned facetiously, "if Clark and Lois get all the good stories, I'll NEVER be a good reporter."

"Hmm?" Giles responded, bewildered.

"Jimmy Olsen joke, sir." Xander explained, "Pretty much gonna be lost on you, huh?"

"Sorry." Giles nodded an apology.

"Hey, it's okay."

As they passed through the cave's exit, Giles eyed the black goop on Xander's hands distastefully. "You will be taking a shower soon, I hope."

Xander attempted, unsuccessfully, to scrape the ooze from the front of his shirt. "After tonight, I can't imagine anything I'd want more."

* * *

The midday sun shone brightly through the trees of the schoolyard and birds chirped cheerfully in the sky. A pair of thick-chested seniors casually tossed a worn football back and forth between them.

"Hey, Doug, pass me one!" Xander shouted, waving his arms wildly over his head.

Doug blatantly ignored him, tossing the ball back to his friend.

Xander followed the ball longingly as it sailed easily into Les's waiting hands. "Les-man, I'm open! Les, buddy!"

Les, unconcerned, threw the ball back to Doug.

"Doug, right here, man. Right here." Xander beamed, despite the fact that Doug appeared to be about to throw to Les again. "Doug, please!"

Doug sighed and threw the ball high and long in his direction.

"Alright! It's all me!" Xander backpeddaled wildly, his eyes locked on the effortless spiral.

The ball landed awkwardly in his hands and bounced wildly out of his grasp. Wobbling madly, it thudded into the lap of a foul looking, stubble-chinned young man. The young man's lunch fell, scattered, to the ground.

Xander skidded to a halt directly in front of him. "Boy, I am SO sorry. Doug's arm is kinda like spaghetti. We're all so very sad for him. Is your lunch okay?"

The young man stood swiftly, coming nose to nose with Xander. "What are you, retarded?" he growled.

"No! No," Xander babbled. "I had to take that test when I was seven. A little slow in some stuff, mostly math and spatial relations, but certainly not challenged or anything. Can I get you another soda?"

"I oughtta cut your face open." The stubble-faced young man leaned in even closer, his eyes glittering with threat.

"Hey, hey, whoa, whoa, whoa..." Xander back off a step. "It was an accident. Cool down."

"You wanna be startin' somethin'?" the young man's lips thinned in an angry smirk.

"What? Starting something?" Xander felt the blood drain from his face as nervous energy rose to alarming levels, "Like that Michael Jackson song, right? That was a lot of fun. 'Too high to get over, yeah, yeah...' Remember that fun song?"

The stubbled young man lurched forward threateningly, causing Xander to stumble back nervously. "I get my buddies together, we're gonna kick your ass till it's a brand-new shape." He slammed the football into Xander's stomach hard. "Now get outta here."

Xander backed away quickly.

"Yo, man, the ball!" Doug shouted.

Xander threw the ball to him, half-heartedly.

"Boy, of all the humiliations you've had I've witnessed, that was the latest." Cordelia stepped into view, a smirk bending her meticulously glossed lips.

"I could've taken him." Xander pointed across the lawn at the surly young man he had hit with the football.

"Oh, please." Cordelia rolled her eyes in disbelief, "O'Toole would macrame' your face. He is a psycho. Which is still a lot cooler than being a wuss."

Xander peered over his shoulder. "Why is it that I've come face-to-face with vampires, demons, the most hideous creatures Hell ever spit out, and I'm still afraid of a little bully like Jack O'Toole?"

"Because, unlike all those creatures that you've come face-to-face with, Jack actually noticed you were there." Cordelia pointed out with a cruel smirk.

"Why am I surprised by how comforting you're not?" he sighed.

"It must be really hard when all your friends have, like, superpowers." She continued, enjoying his discomfort, "Slayer, werewolf, witches, vampires. And you're, like, this little nothing. You must feel like Jimmy Olsen."

"I was just talking to..." Xander chuckled, then recognized the barb, "Hey, mind your own business!"

"Ooo, I struck a nerve." She smiled smugly, "The boy that had no cool."

"I happen to be an integral part of that group." He declared hotly, "I happen to have a LOT to offer."

"Oh, please."

"I do!"

Cordelia shook her head. "Integral part of the group?" she mocked him openly, "Xander, you're the, the USELESS part of the group. You're the Zeppo. Cool - look it up. It's something that a sub-literate that's repeated twelfth grade three times has, and you don't."

Turning on her heel, she clutched her books to her chest, a satisfied smile on her face.

"There was no part of that that wasn't fun." She realized aloud.

* * *

Xander stalked along the sidewalk, fuming. Afternoon classes had not done a thing to dull his rage. It seethed inside him, hot and black, like boiling tar. "Cool." He spat the word aloud, venomously like it was a curse. "I mean, what is it? How do you get it? Who doesn't have it? And who decides who doesn't have it? What is the essence of cool?"

He continued to walk, only vaguely aware of where he was going. "What do I have that makes me different, makes me special?" he asked himself. "I'll tell you what I have. A first class, major mad on. And that appears to be about it."

His anger flared and he felt a hotness in his hands. Leaning against the gnarled trunk of a tree, he pressed his palms flat against the bark. There was a sizzling sound and the bark under his hands vaporized, dissolving into thin black mist. Staring, bewildered, at his hands then at the scarred tree trunk, he smiled craftily. Now, this was cool.

* * *

"The end of the world." Giles stated with chilling finality.

"Can they do that?" Buffy asked, stunned by the revelation.

"They seem fairly committed." Giles thumbed through a thick book. "The Sisterhood of Jhe is an Apocalypse cult. They exist solely to bring about the world's destruction, and we've not seen the last of them. More will follow."

"And they're here in Sunnydale for what?" she asked, "Demon Expo?"

Giles removed his glasses. "Buffy, this is no laughing matter." He regarded her seriously.

"Hence my no laughing." She agreed.

"I'm sorry." He apologized, slipping his glasses back on.

"Well, do we know why they're here?" Bufy questioned.

"I think so." Giles reached for another book. "Based on some artifacts I, I found with them, and, um, taking into account the current astral cycle..."

"Giles," Buffy interrupted, "I don't need to see the math."

Giles looked at her gravely. "They intend to summon forth a terrible demon. A harbringer that will herald the end the world."

"Harbringer?" she arched an eyebrow.

"With human sacrifice in hand the Harbringer will descend upon the earth" he read aloud from the book, "and . . . open the gate of darkness."

Buffy's jaw fell slack. "The Hellmouth. The one that opens..."

"About twenty feet from where you're standing."

"Human sacrifice . . ." Buffy puzzled, "So if we can stop the sacrifice, we can stop the Harbringer."

"Easier said than done, I'm afraid." Giles admitted grimly

* * *

Willow and Buffy strolled slowly up the front steps of the school.

"And if it opens?" Willow asked, a shadow of worry across her face.

"Do you remember the demon that almost got out the night I died?" Buffy reminded her.

"Every nightmare I have that doesn't revolve around academic failure or public nudity is about that thing." Willow nodded. "In fact, once I dreamt that it attacked me while I was late for a test and naked."

"Well, Giles says that one was a cake walk compared to what they're trying to bring out. Called it the Harboringer or something. The world will be destroyed if we don't stop it."

They reached the top of the steps and Buffy pushed the doors open.

"Do we know when this is supposed to happen?" the auburn-haired girl wondered.

"Giles is trying to narrow it down. I'm pretty sure we messed up their plans the first time at the cave." Buffy shrugged, "I-if you're up for it, we're heading into deep research mode."

"I'd be offended if you haven't already counted me in." Willow agreed selflessly.

"Thanks, Will. There's something about this one that...scares me." She put her arm around her friend, "I need my Willow."

"Oh, you don't have to be afraid..." she stopped, stunned, staring straight ahead.

Buffy followed her gaze. Xander stood, casually leaning against the corner of his locker, a wry and confident grin on his face. He was wearing a new, black leather jacket and a pair of black, wire framed sunglasses. The words, 'Bad to the Bone' were written in black silk screen across his tight, white T-shirt.

"Bench warming for the local Hell's Angels?" Buffy looked him over skeptically. "What's with the get-up?"

"This is my new thing." He smiled, smoothing his hand down over his chest. His head turned of its own accord, following a slender, blonde cheerleader as she walked down the hall. Surprisingly, she looked back.

"Your thing?" Willow raised her eyebrows and snapped her fingers to regain his attention.

Buffy frowned uncertainly, "Is this, like some kind of mid high-school crisis or something?"

"No, " he assured them with a wave of his hand, "This just my new look. It's time I had a change. I'm not afraid of guys like Jack O'Toole, anymore." His pupils took on a hard glitter. "Think of it as the start of a whole new attitude." His eyes brightened as quickly as they had gone dark. "What's the matter? You don't like it?"

Buffy attempted a smile. "Well, i-it's nice."

"Could you sound a little less enthused?" he sighed raggedly.

"Sorry." Buffy apologized.

"Evil." Willow intoned ominously.

Xanders face perked up. "Big?"

"Biggest." Buffy nodded, "Maybe more than I can handle."

"Then we'll handle it together." He tipped his shades forward and peered over the rims. "You know I'm here for you. I'm ready for anything."

* * *

Xander grumbled petulantly as he stormed down the street, another box of doughnuts in his hands.

"I'm sick of being an errand boy." He muttered, "If they had any idea what I can do now, they'd be begging me to help. For real." For some reason though, he didn't want them to know about his newfound power. He wanted to hoard it, keep it to himself like some delicious secret.

"Ooo, is some evil going on? Must be big for them to entrust you with this daredevil mission." An unmistakable voice mocked him.

"Cordelia." Xander sighed in irritation "Feel free to drop dead of a wasting disease in the next twenty seconds."

She strolled down the sidewalk, a gathering of clothing shop bags in each hand. "Ooo, again, I strike the nerve. I am the surgeon of mean."

He pushed past her. "I'm kinda busy right now, okay?"

"Right." She turned with him as he passed, a cruel smirk playing at her lips. "Buffy needs your help. Can you say 'expendable'?"

Xander whirled around to face her. Dark anger danced in his eyes. "You think you know everything." He growled.

"I think I know you." She looked him up and down with obvious distaste. "I don't know what you're trying to pull, but the mysterious, bad-boy loner routine died with James Dean. Get with the program."

Xander's face split in a leering smile that was little more than a showing of teeth. "I am the program now."

"Oh, what, you got a new jacket and some sunglasses, and now you're someone new?" she taunted, "Like anybody even cares about..."

A statuesque blonde approached Xander from behind and tapped him on the shoulder. "Hi, I'm Lysette." she beamed, "I saw you in the hall this morning?"

Xander turned, smiling. It was the cheerleader.

"Nice jacket." She cooed appreciatively, running her fingertips along the seams.

Strangely, her behavior didn't surprise him at all. "Thanks." He smirked triumphantly at Cordelia. She rolled her eyes in response.

"You busy right now?" Lysette asked, still mesmerized by the jacket.

"I DID have this thing . . ." he considered the doughnuts and shrugged, "But its no biggie. How would you like me to buy you something to eat?"

"Sure." She giggled.

"Oh, puh-lease." Cordelia groaned, "I can't believe this!"

Xander draped his arm possessively across Lysette's shoulders. "I guess some cheerleaders DO have taste." With a cocky grin, he shoved the unopened box of donuts into her hands, "Believe it."

Turning his back on her, he strutted away with a giggling Lysette on his arm. Cordelia turned the opposite way, mouthing the word 'whatever'.

* * *

"It's true." The grey-blue demoness hissed excitedly. "The Harbringer is here at long last."

"And the Vessel?" one of her sisters demanded eagerly.

"Not the one we had intended. But usable in its own way. Sometimes the wolf who wears the fleece feeds the deepest into the flock."

The demonic coven cackled in uproarious laughter, leaning back and waving their twisted claws at the full moon.

* * *

Music throbbed and pounded within the walls of the Bronze. Xander dropped his jacket over the back of a tall chair. Ignoring Lysette, he pressed his way toward the juice bar. Ending up close to a shapely brunette, he boldly squeezed behind her, nuzzling his cheek next to hers from behind. He waved to the bartender.

"I'm looking for something . . .hot." he grinned wolfishly at the brunette. She blushed, self-consciously and hastily retreated with her drink. As he peeked sidelong over her shoulder, he could tell that she was not entirely displeased.

He felt unusually good tonight. The air smelled sweet with the myriad perfumes of a hundred pretty girls and the music sank right to his bones.

"I'm bored." Lysette pouted.

"Yeah?" He was hardly sympathetic.

"Xaannderrr," she whined, wrapping her arms around his neck, "I thought we were going to go somewhere together. Without all these people around."

"If you want to leave, nobody's stopping you." He grumbled, disentangling himself irritably.

Upset, she slumped into a booth to sulk.

Angel stepped carefully through the crowd. He neared Xander and nudged him.

"I'm looking for Buffy." He said simply.

"Library, last I saw." Xander answered shortly, his dark eyes scanning the crowd.

Angel frowned at his lack of concern. "Something's happening. I've seen portents."

"The Apocalypse." Xander smirked knowingly. "They're on top of it."

Angel shook his head, obviously distressed. "I don't think they know what they're dealing with."

Xander continued to study the crowd, oblivious.

"It's probably best if you stay out of harm's way, anyway." The vampire patted Xander's shoulder and quickly exited.

Xander hardly noticed him leave. He was already searching out the brunette he had seen at the bar. He found her, just out of his direct line of sight, leaning casually against the wall and stirring her drink with a short red straw. She tilted her face up and looked in his direction, ducking her head down again when she noticed he was watching her.

Abandoning Lysette entirely, he headed directly for the brunette. She didn't look up, but she was aware of him.

"Hi." He leaned against the wall next to her, one arm positioned high.

She didn't look at him, but she smiled to herself.

"I'm Xander. Can I buy you a drink?" Normally, at this point, he would have slunk away with his tail between his legs, but tonight was different. Tonight he knew how things were going to turn out.

"I'd rather dance." She said in a soft voice.

"Anything you say." He grinned, taking her by the hand and pushing toward the dance floor.

She moved rhythmic and slow, still not paying direct attention to him. Something in him enjoyed the challenge, savoring her resistance, knowing that it was futile. Want it, have it, a voice slithered like dark silk in his mind.

"I usually go for older guys, you know." She looked disinterestedly past him, as if she were waiting for someone else.

"I have something of an old soul." He reached out and nudged her chin until she was looking directly up at him. "I know what you like. You like trouble, and danger."

"Are you a bad boy?" she smiled, leaning in enticingly close, the tip of a soft pink tongue peeking out between her teeth. "Bad enough for me?"

"Guys don't come any badder than me, I promise you." He nibbled softly on the edge of her lip and she met him in a deep kiss.

"I think that's just about enough, dork!" a strong hand grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around.

"Oh, Jack." The girl coughed in disgust.

Jack O'Toole glared menacingly at him, his jaw tightly clenched. "What are you doing with her?" he snarled.

Xander fought back the tide of fear that threatened to overwhelm him. Remembering his newfound strength, he stood his ground.

"What does it look like O'Toole?" he matched stares with the stubbled young man. "What does it have to do with you anyway?"

"She's my girlfriend. Punk!" Jack poked his finger hard into Xander's chest.

The brunette shrugged, non-committally and sauntered away, apparently bored. Xander felt his heart drop into his stomach.

"You and me is going to settle this man to man!" Jack gripped the collar of his shirt and dragged him hard toward the door. Bursting out into the alleyway, Xander was surprised at how chill the air felt.

Jack whipped a long, wide bladed hunting knife out of his belt and brandished it an inch and a half from Xander's face.

"Where do you want it?" he grinned evilly.

Xander felt the blood drain from his face. "What?" he breathed.

"Where do you want it?" O'toole repeated.

Xander backed away, fearfully, but Jack followed him with the calm confidence of a predator. "I'm fairly certain I don't want it at all, but, uh, thank you. It's a great knife, though. Although I think, uh, it may technically be a, a sword."

"She's called Katie." O'toole turned it back and forth slightly, watching the light gleam across the surface of the blade with admiration.

"You gave it a girl's name." Xander managed a weak smile. "How very serial killer of you. I think I should be going."

O'toole reached around Xander with the knife and hooked it behind his ear, forcing his head around. Xander felt his knees go weak with terror.

"Are you scared?" O'Toole sneered.

Xander thought he heard another voice echo the very same words. His attention immediately returned to the knife as he felt the tip of it trace along his jaw and up his cheek.

"Would that make you happy?" his voice quavered.

"You're ready to wet your pants, aren't you? You can't stand up to me?" Jack seemed to savor the fear he inspired, "Don't you feel pathetic?" He continued to trace the knife past Xander's mouth, back to his ear and around and down under his chin.

Yes, don't you? The wispy echoing voice sounded again.

"Mostly I feel Katie." He responded fearfully.

"You know what the difference between you and me is?" O'Toole growled angrily.

Xander swallowed nervously. "Again... Katie's springing to mind."

"Fear." Jack told him, his eyes steady and unblinking, "Who has the least fear."

That's not the only difference, the voice sounded again, this time stronger than before. Show him fear, it whispered, teach him what it truly means to be afraid.

"What do you think of that, Dork?" Jack shoved him back against the brick wall, Katie just touching the tender flesh of his neck.

Xander's terror hit a breaking point, transforming somewhere deep in the core of his being into a ball of dark rage. It rose like a column of flame within him, galvanizing him, burning away all else. And the whispering voice exulted.

His face a grimace of fury, he grabbed O'Toole's wrist and squeezed. Crying out, Jack dropped the knife and struggled to escape. But Xander would not release him.

"There's a world of difference between us, Jack." Xander grinned madly, his eyeballs turned entirely black. "And, right now, fear is one of the small points, I'm thinking."

Jack screamed and fought to escape. Xander watched his struggling curiously, a cruel smile playing on his lips. After a few moments, he grew tired of the performance. He slammed the bully against the wall to get his attention.

"Look at me, O'Toole." His voice was deep and threatening, more so than a normal human voice should have been.

Jack's eyes flew open, wide and unblinking. Xander's lips parted in a dark grin. "Look into my eyes, Jack. I want to show you something."

O'Toole's eyes widened even further and his mouth opened in a silent scream. His lips quivered and he began to weep softly. Xander released him and let him slide, whimpering, to the ground where he lay shivering. His pants were drenched with urine.

"See you at school tomorrow." Xander chuckled maliciously as he strolled casually down the alleyway.

* * *

Buffy traced her finger down the right hand page of the book that was open in her lap. "Sisterhood of Jhe. Race of female demons, fierce warriors..." she read aloud, then paused, making a face, "Eww...celebrate victory in battle by eating their foes. They couldn't just pour Gatorade on each other?"

Giles came out of his office carrying a heavy leather bag.

"The Council wouldn't even take my calls." He shook his head in disgust, "Idiots. Anything useful in the books?"

"Not wildly." Buffy flipped her book closed.

"We still have the Books of Pherion to go through." Willow did not sound very hopeful.

Giles nodded sympathetically.

Buffy set her book down on the table. "I'm getting itchy feet, Giles. We don't turn up something soon, I'm gonna hit the streets. Maybe check out Willy's."

"Fine." He agreed, picking up his overcoat.

"Where are you going?" Willow asked.

"Um, to try and contact the Spirit Guides. They exist out of time, but have knowledge of the future. Perhaps I can learn something of this Harbringer the Sisterhood is trying to conjure up. I have no idea if they will respond to my efforts, but I have to try. All we know is that the fate of the entire world rests on it."

He stopped suddenly, his face registering shock. "Did you eat all the jellies?" he asked, dumbfounded.

Buffy's head snapped up in mild panic.

"Did you want a jelly?" Willow asked innocently.

"I always have a jelly." Giles fretted petulantly, "I'm always the one that says 'let's have a jelly in the mix.'

"We're sorry." Willow apologized, then quickly pointed an accusing finger in Buffy's direction, "Buffy had three."

Buffy shot Willow a dark look.

"No matter." Giles grabbed up his bag, "If Xander makes another run..."

"No." Buffy shook her head, "Xander's out of this. He nearly got killed last time we fought. We can't have someone around who can't defend himself."

* * *

Xander strolled confidently through the graveyard on his way home, hoping, no, begging, for something to attack him. Something he could test himself against. But the graveyard was empty.

He savored the rage that twisted inside him. He rode the surge higher and higher, feeling new strength flow through him. It was intoxicating, like a drug.

Hopping nimbly atop a tombstone, he leaped an incredibly distance, reveling in the sheer joy of power. Landing smoothly atop another grave marker, he crouched low, in perfect balance and closed his eyes. He drank in the night, letting it flow over his senses like dark silk. The faint sound of a human voice wafted on the wind to his sharp ears. Curious, he bounded across the graveyard, silent as a shadow.

Giles stood before a towering mausoleum, a flickering candle in one hand. Speaking the final words of his incantation, he looked to the stone structure expectantly. Long, thin wisps of light seeped out of the air, coalescing into a single pulsing mass.

Giles spoke in latin, but he had mastered the language years ago and it was not difficult.

"Do not deny me, Spirit Guide." He said in the old tongue, "Let the wisdom of those who have passed be showered upon me."

The glowing cloud hovered slowly and a strange, otherworldly voice spoke to him, also in latin.

"These secrets belong to time and the dark regions. To reveal them would bring Chaos down upon the living Earth."

"The Harbringer must not be summoned!" he pleaded, "Our only hope lies in finding the Sisterhood of Jhe before they complete the ritual!"

A strong wind picked up from nowhere, blowing chill air across the graveyard. There was a distant rumble of thunder.

"Ask not of us questions whose answers lie open before you! The Harbringer is here. Disturb us no longer!"

Giles felt sick to his stomach as he watched the luminous cloud slowly dissipate in the dying wind. The Harbringer was already here, the realization struck a chord of panic within him. A set of deliberately audible footsteps came up behind him.

"Giles, hey..." Xander smiled strangely. "What's goin' on?"

"Oh, uh, I was just trying to, uh, gain access to the, um, Spirit Guides. Not going very well, I'm afraid." Giles began hastily packing his things, "Uh, what are you doing here?"

"Oh, just out for a walk." Xander replied, "Getting some air, you know?"

"Well then, you'd better be off then." Giles advised, "We're both well aware of how dangerous the graveyards can be at night. Wouldn't want you getting into trouble."

"I wouldn't dream of it." Xander smiled knowingly. "Guess I'll just get going then. Better safe than sorry." "That's a good idea." Giles said in a low voice, "Safety may become a rare thing indeed in the days to come.

* * *

"Tonight?" Buffy leaned over Willy's battered body anxiously.

They had gotten there before her. The Sisterhood had done a good job of trashing the place. Lucky for Willy, though, he was no stranger to punishment and had learned to be a survivor.

"No, but soon. This week definitely." He winced in pain, "That's what they said."

"Why did they do this?" she surveyed the shattered furniture and broken bottles scattered around the room.

"They were looking for Angel." He wheezed.

"Angel?" she frowned, "Why?"

"Said they were coming after you, too," he sat up weakly, "and nothing could stand in their way because of something called the Harbringer."

He convulsed in pain, coughing and holding his stomach.

"Oh, man..." he groaned.

"The ambulance is on its way." She looked him over with concern. He was hurt, but he would make it, she was sure.

"Look, kid, " he swallowed hard, "my clientele ain't exactly nuns and orphans, but I... I never seen anything like these demons."

"I'm gonna stop them." She declared resolutely.

"That Harbringer comes a knockin' they're gonna be the least of your problems is my train of thought. They said he's the king of evil. Not someone you want to mess with."

He winced in pain again and coughed, then swallowed again.

"If I were you... I'd go find Angel...go somewhere quiet together. I'd be thinking about how I wanna spend my last night on Earth."

* * *

Xander's dreams were filled with images of conquest. Small images at first, flirting with a pretty girl, facing down a bully, single handedly defending the entire group of his friends from various hosts of evils.

Gradually the scope of the dreams grew wider. He ruled Sunnydale benevolently, like a great hero. He would close the Hellmouth and cleanse the town of all the evil creatures. There were others who would have to be cleansed, as well. That nosey Principal Skinner for one. And all the jocks who had ever tormented him over the years, too.

He would do more than dole out punishments, however. Some might deserve rewards as well. His fevered mind mulled over thoughts of Buffy and how thoroughly he would reward her. There would be others like her, too, from all over the world. He would reward them all if the mood were upon him. The world would be remade into a Utopia and he would rule it like a god. Writhing restlessly in his bed, he growled unconsciously.

Again the scope of the dream shifted. There were things he had to do before he could put his plans into motion. Things that weaker parts of him were not comfortable with. He dreamt of blood now and running, chasing something on four legs. Again and again he pounced, bringing down new prey each time and draining it dry.

He followed one particularly interesting morsel, this one walking on two legs. Pouncing, he brought it down, but something inside him refused to let him feast. The urge to bite and rend was almost undeniable, but still he resisted. The prey struggled and escaped, leaving him drained from the inner struggle. He headed for home, resignedly. There would be other nights. And then the resistance would not be so strong.

* * *

Xander strolled down the hallway toward class, late. He had awoken late this morning, his skin reeking of livestock and blood crusted under his fingernails. If this had not been disturbing enough, he had missed the bus.

Opening the classroom door, he went straight to the first empty desk and sat down.

"Glad to see you could make it, Mr. Harris." The short, balding man behind the teacher's desk commented sarcastically.

Xander made a sour face and slumped in his chair.

"Sunglasses, Mr. Harris?" the teacher continued to harass him. "We're indoors."

"Yeah, I have a note from my doctor," he grinned, carelessly tossing a neatly folded, yellow paper airplane toward him. The note came into a nosedive right into the teacher's lap. "Says my eyes are . . . sensitive."

The class burst into a chorus of muffled laughter. The teacher stared at him dubiously as he unfolded the note. "Next time, Mr. Harris," he grudgingly allowed, "Be on time."

"Sure thing, Teach." He replied with a cocky grin.

"What happened to YOU this morning?" Buffy leaned forward in her seat.

"Last night." Xander looked over his shoulder at her, smirking. "I had a bit of a wild night."

"Yeah, I heard." She whispered, "Lysette Simmons? Come on Xander, I've seen blimps with less air in them." She regarded him shrewdly. "Something weird's been happening with you lately. You feeling okay?"

"I have no idea what you mean." He shrugged, "I feel great. Better than great, even. I feel grrreeaatt!"

"Heard you had a little run-in with Jack O'Toole, too. I wasn't sure you'd even be here today. He didn't hurt you much, did he?" She reached out and turned his face to the side, inspecting him for marks.

"He didn't hurt me at all." He jerked his chin back irritably. "I don't think he's going to hurt anyone ever again."

Buffy looked at him with deep concern. There was an alarming edge to his voice that she had never heard before. "Xander," she asked worriedly, "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine." He turned back to the front and sank down darkly in his chair.

After class, Xander and Buffy stopped by the cafeteria.

"You want something?" Xander offered, reaching into his pocket.

"No, thanks." She declined, "Hurry up, will you? I don't want to be late."

Xander nudged his way toward the snack bar. The guy in front of him turned too quickly and banged into Xander's shoulder.

"Hey, watch it, Dork!" Xander snarled, his temper flaring instantly.

"Relax, man." The guy frowned, "It was an accident."

"No, I'll tell you what an accident is." Xander leaned threateningly forward. "You being born."

"Back off, man!" the guy pushed him hard, but Xander barely budged.

With lightning quick reflexes, Xander grabbed the guy by the throat, bending him backwards over the counter. His other hand snaked out and wrapped around the neck of a glass ketchup bottle, smashing it against the counter's edge.

"I don't like your attitude." He pressed the jagged glass against the guy's throat, smearing him with ketchup. The guy squirmed, his face twisted in terror.

"Xander, stop it!" Buffy pulled on his arm. "Xander!"

Xander looked at her, uncomprehending. His face was suffused with savage rage and his muscles trembled with anger. Suddenly, he realized where he was. He looked around in confusion at the room full of stunned students. When his eyes settled on the young man under his grip, he jolted, startled, and the broken bottle tumbled from his fingers.

"Come on, Xander." Buffy whispered consolingly, tugging on his arm, "Let's get you somewhere quiet."

His head snapped up violently.

"Leave me alone!" he roared, ripping his am out of her grip and fleeing the room.

"Xander, wait!" Buffy called after him.

Bursting into the hall, he bolted through the bathroom door. Stumbling frantically into a stall, he hastily knelt and vomited forcefully into the toilet. He coughed on sour acid and bile, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. Sniffing, he slowly rose again and, dropping his sunglasses to the tiled floor, walked to the sink to splash some water on his face.

Scooping up double handfuls of icy tap water, he doused his face repeatedly. He pressed his palms against his face and pulled them slowly down his cheeks.

"What's happening to me?" he whispered, staring into the jet black eyes of his reflection.

"Don't you mean, what's happening to us?" the reflection asked, watching him piercingly. Its voice was the same as the one he had heard in the alley last night.

"What?" he stumbled back from the mirror, gaping. His reflection, however, stayed in place.

"We are one now, Xander." The reflection said, "Don't be afraid. You'll be amazed at what we can accomplish together."

"Who-What are you?" Xander asked, his mind swirling. "And don't tell me you come from the looking glass."

The reflection half smiled at the little joke. "You can call me . . . Zeppo, if you like. It doesn't really matter." The image grinned at the irony.

"Zeppo, huh?" Xander considered, "What are you, like my conscience?"

"You can think of it that way if you like. I'm here to change your life. Our life." His reflection said with absolute conviction, "Together we become something that is greater than the sum of its parts. No one will overlook us ever again."

Xander thought about what he had just heard and was not displeased. He was tired of being ignored, of being disregarded. Even his so-called friends were starting to shut him out lately. Maybe a change was in order. But then he remembered the scene in the cafeteria only a few minutes ago. His reflection was following his thought process and had an answer before he could voice the question.

"Our enemies must be punished, Xander." It explained calmly, "As an example to the others. To avoid having to hurt anyone else. As they say, if you want to make an omelette . . ."

Xander still was not convinced.

"Or would you rather let things go back to the way they were?" The reflection's voice became soft, insinuating, like a lover's whisper. "Now, men fear and respect you, women desire you, no one can contain you and no one can ignore you. Are you willing to throw all that away?"

"No." he answered resolutely, shaking his head slowly. "No."

The reflection smiled agreeably, thoroughly pleased.

* * *

Buffy entered the library, a frown furrowing her brow.

"Giles," she announced, "I think we have a problem."

Giles and Wesley stood facing each other in front of the library table.

"Whatever it is, Buffy, it will have to wait." Giles intoned grimly.

She stopped short, noting their serious expressions. "Why? What's up?"

Giles turned to face her, foreboding in his eyes. "The Harbringer is here."

"What? How?" her eyes widened, "What happened to needing a human sacrifice?"

"Apparently, the Sisterhood has already attained one." Wesley sniffed.

"There were a dozen dead cattle found at the stockyards this morning." Giles rubbed his forehead. "The corpses were gray and desiccated, drained of all their vital fluids."

"Vampires?" she suggested.

"No. ALL their fluids were drained. Spinal, brain, blood, everything."

"Sounds like a well rounded meal to me." She smirked.

"This is no laughing matter, Buffy. The Harbringer is feeding, building its power." The former Watcher took his glasses in hand and pinched the bridge of his nose. "And there's more. A student was attacked, as well, last night."

"What happened?" All mirth was gone from her voice.

"Thankfully, nothing more than a good scare. The student managed to escape. He described it as a creature of pure darkness, like a shadow."

"Willy said the Sisters were planning their move soon, before the end of the week. Any ideas on how to put a stop on their messenger boy?"

"I've already sent word to the Council." Wesley informed her, "They are having all the information they have on the Harbringer couriered here. It should arrive within a few days."

"Still too scared to use a fax machine, are they?" she quipped.

"It's not the Council who has the problem." Giles remarked astutely, eyeing Wesley.

"How does it feel to have the kettle call you black?" Buffy smirked at the younger Watcher.

Wesley favored her with a reserved, yet sour face. "Perhaps I will call them back and arrange for a more expedient means of transport."

The doors swung open and Faith strolled in.

"Faith, just who I was looking for." Giles greeted her.

Faith smirked crookedly and fixed him with a sidelong glance. "Man, I wish I had a nickel for every time I ever heard that." She grinned suggestively. "What's up?"

"The Harbringer has been summoned and I-" Giles paused and looked in Wesley's direction, "we, need you both on patrol as early as possible."

"Is right now early enough?" she arched an eyebrow, "I was starting to get the itch. I had a feeling something big was going down."

"Big doesn't begin to describe it." Buffy blew out a nervous breath, "The Harbringer's here and he's hungry."

"No problem." The dark-haired Slayer smirked, "I'll get right on it."

"Good." He nodded, "Buffy can join you when school lets out."

"Speaking of which," Buffy announced, "I have to get back to class. I'll make a stop in later so you can fill me in on anything you dig up between now and then." Waving, she quickly exited.

"Catch you later, then." Faith piled a few deadly odds and ends into a black bag and slung it over her shoulder.

"Be careful." Giles warned her as she headed for the door, "We have no idea what the Harbringer is capable of. If you find it, head back here immediately so we can form a plan. I don't want you taking it on alone."

"What?" she smirked, "Me? Get into a fight? No way!"

* * *

The demoness threw Faith hard against a chain link fence. The Slayer struggled, twisting out of its iron grip and snapped the beast's head hard to the side with a vicious backhand. She swept underhand with a sharp blow to the stomach then down for another head shot. The demoness caught the blow easily and grabbed her arm, throwing her to the ground.

Faith rolled and came up into a graceful roundhouse kick across its face. She continued her spin, bringing her other foot up, but, again the demoness blocked. Grabbing onto her jacket, it tossed her back against the fence. It slowed, leering evilly.

Behind the demon, four of its sisters closed in. Faith balled her hands into fists, determined not to go down without a fight. As the first demoness lunged, Xander rounded the corner casually.

"Xander!" Faith shouted, kicking her attacker aside, "Get the Hell out of here. Now!"

He looked up, shaken from some absorbing inner thought, and looked at her calmly.

"What the Hell are you staring at?!" she cried, ducking a wild swing, "GO!"

But it was too late. The demonesses noticed him now and turned on him, relishing the thought of easier prey.

Xander caught the boldest of them by the throat in mid-leap, heaving it back easily with one arm. The others of the small pack stood, stunned for a moment, but then Xander and Faith were upon them.

With wild savagery, he plowed through them, pounding into their tough hides with fists that had become as hard as steel. Faith had picked up a rusted iron bar and was swinging it with abandon. Three of the five were beaten back, two by Xander, one by Faith.

"Well, come on!" Faith shouted a challenge, brandishing her makeshift weapon, "You want to fight or not?!"

A group of maybe a dozen or more of the Sisterhood appeared from the same alley as the previous four had, grinning and snarling.

Faith's eyes widened. "Oh, sh--!"

"Come on!" Xander grabbed her by the arm and started running. Faith whipped the metal bar overhand at the demons and fled, close behind him.

They ran through a series of back streets and driveways until they reached Faith's motel. Cautiously watching behind them, they ran up the stairs and into her room. Xander swung the door shut with a dull thud.

"You think the Demon Mamas followed us?" Xander peeked out one window and then the other, but saw nothing.

"No, we're cool." She said, peeling off her jacket, "The bitch dislocated my shoulder, though."

She tossed her jacket aside, careful not to move her arm too much. Xander approached her, inspecting the misshapen joint.

"Hold me." She whispered.

He looked at her curiously, a smile playing at his lips. Want it, Have it, the dark silken voice sounded in his mind.

Taking his hand, she placed it on her upper arm and grabbed the sleeve of his jacket for leverage. Lunging forward, she forced the joint back into place with an audibly wet pop.

"That's better." She sniffed, rotating the arm gingerly, "She got me really wound up."

She looked at Xander and ran her hand slowly over his chest. Inhaling and exhaling deeply, she wove her fingers under the collar of his shirt.

"You did real good out there. Better than I thought you could. You been eating your Wheaties or something?" she eyed him lasciviously.

"You'll find that there are a lot of things you don't know about me." He wrapped on arm tightly around her waist and, leaning in, caressed the fingers of his free hand across her neck.

She grinned playfully, her lips hovering scant inches from his. "A fight like that and. . . no kill. . . I'm about ready to pop. You up for it?" She ran her hand teasingly down the back of his neck.

"Oh, I'm up." He leered. Want it, Have it, the voice crooned inside his brain.

She smiled at him and nuzzled closer. Grabbing his jaw forcefully, she kissed him hungrily. Efficiently she pushed off his jacket and tugged his shirt over his head. They locked in a passionate embrace and kissed each other hard. Turning him around, she shoved him toward the bed.

"Hold on." Xander broke the kiss and gripped her by the hands, "We do this my way."

"Don't worry." She strained, hungry for anther kiss, "I'll steer you around the curves."

"No." he met her with a steady stare, "My way or no way. I want it, I have it."

"Whatever, Hot Shot." She shrugged, sliding onto her back across the bed and tugging him down on top of her. "But if you're going to take the reins, you better know how to drive."

He grinned broadly down at her and kissed her deeply. Want her, Have her.

Hours later, Faith lay curled in his arms, her eyes sleepy and contented.

"That was pretty good." She stoked her fingertips lightly across his chest. "You've changed. I guess you do have some talents. I mean, you can fight and you can fu-"

He pressed his fingers to her lips, silencing her abruptly.

She was right, he HAD changed. But the transformation was not over. Not yet. He could feel it occurring slowly within him still. Best to lay low for a while, he considered, feed some more and grow stronger. It wouldn't be long now. Not long at all. And then he would spread his wings. The old Xander Harris had been like a caterpillar, stumbling through the world blind and lost. Now he had broken free of his cocoon and he was ready to fly.

"I gotta bail." He quickly slipped out of bed and hastily pulled on his clothes.

"Where are you going to go?" She sat up, holding the sheets tightly around her upper body.

"I've got things to do." He answered shortly as he opened the door.

"Call me." She said as the door closed behind him

* * *

Buffy stormed across the room away from Angel. She had stopped to pay him a short visit and he had dropped a bomb in her lap.

"I don't know what to do." Buffy pleaded, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Then let me decide for you." Angel's face was stern, "I can face this thing."

She shook her head. "You can't."

"Look," he took her by the arms "I, I can at least buy you enough time for Willow's spell to bind it."

She stared speechlessly at him.

"Buffy, this is worse than anything we've ever faced." His dark eyes were filled with pain. "It's the only way."

"I can't watch you die again." She whispered, her voice breaking.

He lifted his hand to her cheek and stroked it gently, looking deeply into her eyes.

"I love you." He said the words softly, as if he were saying good-bye.

Buffy clasped his hand. "I love you."

"Nothing can change that. Not even death."

She threw his hand aside and stepped back angrily.

"Don't talk to me like that! YOU may be ready to go, but I am not ready to lose you." She cried, narrowing her reddened eyes. "Okay, this is my fight, and if you won't do it my way, then you're..."

A resonant howl pierced the night sending shivers through their bones.

"What was that?" they said together.

Slipping out the door into the courtyard, they quickly ran into the street. The howl sounded again, blood-chillingly close. A short way down the street, under the cold light of a streetlamp, a circle of the Sisters of Jhe surrounded a lone figure.

"Oh my God!" Buffy cried, "It's Xander!"

With Angel at her side, she bolted toward the demons. Leaping into a flying kick, she caught one of them in the face and sent it flying. She landed in the middle of the group, ready for action.

"Xander, are you . . .all right?" she looked to him and froze in terror.

Xander stood amongst the Sisterhood of Jhe, a dark king. The whites of his eyes had turned jet black and his irises were flaming orange. His skin had a dark cast to it, she noted, and his teeth seemed longer and pointed as he stood grinning at her. The Sisters held obediently crouched behind his outstretched arm, glaring balefully at her.

"Buffy," he smiled ingratiatingly, "You know, we were hoping to see you tonight."

The demons swarmed him, crooning and running their claws admiringly across his body. Xander spread his arms, basking in their attention for a moment until he noticed Angel hovering in the darkness.

"What is HE doing here?" he asked darkly.

"We heard howling." She explained, "We came to see what happened."

"Oh, that." Xander seemed immediately mollified, "We were feeling a little hungry and there was nothing around." He swept his arm wide to indicate a dried, shriveled corpse of one of the demons lying discarded on the sidewalk. "So we had to get a volunteer."

He smiled benevolently down on his servants. "They'll all be volunteers before the night is over."

"And then what?" Buffy looked worried.

"Then we do whatever we want, Beautiful." He stepped close to her, his fingers tracing along the edges of her shoulders and up to her neck. He peered at Angel apologetically. "Of course, that means you'll have to die."

"Xander, there's something wrong with you." She told him, slipping away from his creeping hands. "Let's go talk to Giles, try to get you some help."

Xander shook his head. "We'll be going over to the library a little later. After we eat. There's a little present for us there that we can't wait to open." He giggled maliciously to himself.

"You're the Harbringer, aren't you?" Angel deduced. "Let Xander go."

"Xander doesn't want to go." His voice became suddenly deep and rumbling, beyond what a human throat could voice. "We're happy here. Once the Hellmouth is open we will truly be one. And then we'll get around to fulfilling a few of our . . ." His black eyes lingered caressingly on Buffy's figure, "fantasies."

"We'll stop you." Angel took Buffy by the hand and started backing slowly away, "Giles will know a way."

"Xander doesn't seem to think so." The Harbringer smirked, "And we're inclined to believe him. He has a keen sense for these things. Feel free to run to your Watcher, Buffy. You always do. We won't bother to chase you, but we will be along eventually. Bye."

Buffy couldn't tear her eyes away from the mockery that had once been her friend as Angel tugged insistently on her arm. Finally surrendering, she turned and ran with him as fast as she could. Even with the wind whistling in her ears, she still could not avoid hearing Xander's biting laughter echoing after her.

* * *

Giles knelt on the library floor, busily lighting candles along the edge of a large black, painted sigil. Eight rays radiated away from the sigil in the directions of the compass rose with four small semi-circles marking the cardinal directions. Three thin lines intersected in the center. A lit candle guttered at the end of each of the three lines, with a fourth positioned at the intersection.

The last candle in the circle lit, he took a deep breath and opened an old spell book.

"Terra, vente, ignis et pluvia." He chanted, "Cuncta quattuor numina, vos obsecro. Defendete nos a recente malo resoluto."

There was a faint noise, like a distance breeze, and a serious stillness settled over the room.

"There." He relaxed somewhat, "The sigil has been set. I hope the rest goes as easily."

"We're doing the binding spell from the Hebron's Almanac?" Willow asked, recognizing the preparations.

"Yes, but once it's ready," he answered, lighting a match and touching it to the wick of another candle. "you're to stay back and let me finish the recitation. Don't argue. I want you safe. Who knows what may come up from beneath us."

Willow crouched down and, taking a lighter from the top of Giles desk, started lighting more of the candles.

The doors burst open and Buffy and Angel came running through.

"Buffy," Giles head snapped up in concern. "Where's Faith?" I called her over an hour ago."

"Giles, we found the Harbringer!" she leaned on the corner of his desk, panting heavily. "It's got Xander."

Giles and Willow flocked to her, concerned.

"What do you mean 'it's got Xander'?" Willow's lip quivered worriedly.

"It doesn't have Xander." Angel clarified, "It IS Xander."

"My God." Giles breathed, "The human sacrifice . . .The cave where we first encountered them. They must have been summoning it then."

"And somehow it got into Xander." Buffy finished sadly, "You should have seen him Giles. We have to find a way to get him back."

Giles slumped heavily into a chair, looking like he was going to be sick.

"Giles, what is it?" Willow hovered over him.

"The fax from the council arrived earlier." He indicated a curled white banner of paper on the desk across the table. "It has a passage from the Book of Anion expressly detailing the only way to defeat the Harbringer."

Willow snatched up the paper, locating the passage almost immediately.

"And the darkest of dark beasts shall stand among them wearing the face of innocence corrupted." She recited, "And only with true peace shall the beast be put down. The Harbringer shall become as dust and fade into darkness forever and its cloven heart shall weep black blood."

"Cloven heart?" Buffy looked to Giles in disbelief.

"Yes," Giles' shoulders slumped, "The only way to destroy the Harbringer is to cut its heart in two."

The doors to the library opened again and Faith strolled cheerily through. Noting their woeful expressions, she stopped in her tracks.

"What's up with all of you?" she curled her lip, "Somebody die or something?"

* * *

Faith sat backwards in one of the library chairs, resting her chin in her hand. Her eyes sagged shut once or twice and she had to fight to stay awake. She was not unaccustomed to late nights, quite the opposite in fact, but this was so boring! Two hours and not a thing had come walking through the doors. Nothing to do but replace used up candles. Waiting for the fight to come to her was definitely not her style, but the others had assured her that it was the only way.

She heard a burst of whooping laughter from the hallway and her head snapped up. The others, Giles, Willow, Angel and Buffy, all heard it too and sprang to alertness.

"He's here." Buffy gripped the hilt of a sword tightly, apprehension obvious in her eyes.

The doors flew wide, seemingly of their own accord, and the thing that had once been Xander Harris strolled through. It held a twisted gray husk in his hands, the last of his demon servants, Buffy presumed, and regarded it sadly as he entered the library.

"You know, these things are like Chinese food." he commented to no one in particular and, for a moment, his voice sounded like the old Xander. "An hour later, you're hungry again." With an impish giggle, he carelessly tossed the almost weightless corpse aside.

Looking them over with his orange irised, jet black eyes, he shook his head in disappointment.

"We were really hoping you wouldn't do this." he swept his arm wide, slowly, indicating the five of them. "We would have rathered to avoid destroying you."

"Why?" Buffy pointed at him with the tip of her sword. "If you open the Hellmouth, we're all going to die anyway."

"WHEN we open the Hellmouth," he corrected with an admonishing finger.

His face turned pensive and dark, the dusky skin shining dully in the wan candlelight. "Killing you will not be an enjoyable experience. Ridiculously easy," he considered picking at an imagined burr in one of his jet black talons, "but not enjoyable."

Faith had crept around behind him as he was preoccupied with Buffy and raised her sword to strike. Without looking, Xander yawned and, with a flick of his wrist, sent her hurtling across the room to crash into a solid bookcase. Stumbling dizzily, she rose amongst a pile of disheveled books.

"Don't try that again." he warned plainly.

Willow's bottom lip quivered and she rushed forward angrily.

"Let Xander go!" she screamed, on the edge of tears, "Let him go you big . . . evil!"

"That ought to fix him." Faith commented blithely, holding her arm and leaning against the front desk.

The Harbringer looked benevolently at Willow and reached out to cup her face. Buffy and Angel moved to stop him, but she stopped them with an outstretched hand.

"Ah, Will," it said in Xander's voice, patting her cheek, "Xander let the Harbringer in by choice. He doesn't want it to leave, don't you see that?"

"I don't believe you." she choked, swallowing back her tears.

The Harbringer shrugged unconcerned.

"Oh well, enough chit-chat." he sighed, "You all have to die now." Throwing both arms wide, he sent out a circular wave of concussive force that ripped through the room with the strength of a tornado.

Candles were blown from their stands as Giles collided with the stairs and rolled up them. Angel and Buffy were thrown against the cage and Faith was blown out through the swinging doors. Willow, who had been standing at the eye of the storm, was merely knocked harshly on her bottom and pushed across the floor.

The Harbringer walked straight ahead and paused on the edge of the black sigil on the floor.

"You weren't going to try and contain me, were you?" he chuckled, boldly stepping into the circle.

Stretching his arms out in front of him, he shaped his thumbs and forefingers into a star. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back in concentration, muttering dark alien words under his breath. Slowly, painstakingly, he drew his hands apart. In the space between his fingers, the air shimmered and reddish light burst forth. A scream that sounded like the squealing of a hundred thousand pigs erupted in the air. The stench of brimstone was overpowering.

"He's opening the Hellmouth!" Giles shouted, pulling himself to his feet along the side of a tall bookcase.

Angel and Buffy dove at him simultaneously from forty-five degree angles. Absently, the Harbringer raised a hand and, catching Angel by the throat, slammed him into Buffy's airborne body. They hit the floor hard. Angel took the worst of the impact, smashing through the wooden banister.

Faith re-entered the room and seized the distraction, lunging at him with her sword. The blade lanced unerringly for a point directly behind his heart. Her arms jerked painfully and the sword bounced like it had hit a wall of steel. Her hand jerked upward as if clenched in an invisible fist, until her feet left the floor. She hung, dangling helpless in the air by her sprained wrist, the sword trapped in her fist by the invisible force.

Xander turned, leveling his gaze at her irritable.

"This is getting annoying." he growled. With a flick of his eyes, he sent her hurtling for the floor.

The invisible fist shot downward, snapping the rest of her body up behind it, before she landed heavily. The air was blasted from her lungs and she was jerked back into the air again by her wrist only to be slammed back down again. She was hoisted up a third time, blood dribbling from her ears and nose, bathed in the hellish light of the partially opened portal.

"NO!" Willow screamed, running forward, the words of a powerful incantation on her lips.

The Harbringer released Faith's battered body, letting it fall limply to the floor and lay still. She watched as he turned and stepped over Faith's still form, approaching her curiously. The words of her spell died on her lips and she shrank back fearfully. The constant shrieking made it hard to concentrate, almost impossible to cast a complicated spell.

"Xander," she whispered, her voice shaking, "You don't want to hurt me, do you?" She continued to back away, but he reached out his hand and drew her in. "Re-Remember how you used to come over to my house and I would let you eat all the cookies and tell my Mom we shared them?"

The Harbringer's fingers wrapped around her face, the tips of newly grown talons caressing her skin.

"We remember." it said, looking down at her wistfully. "We liked . . . cookies."

Buffy helped Angel to his feet and readied her sword. "Remember, go for the heart." she reminded him, steeling herself at the same time.

"Wait." Giles stayed them with an outstretched hand, his eyes fixed on Willow. "I think something's happening."

The Harbringer continued to caress her face with its shining ebon talons.

"Keep talking, Willow." Giles instructed. "Talk about all the things you remember about Xander."

She looked over her shoulder, fearfully, but understood and turned back to face the demon.

"Remember when you let me borrow your skateboard and I fell off right away at the end of your driveway?" she said to it, "You piggy backed me all the way home because you thought I'd be mad at you, remember that?"

The Harbringer released her suddenly, pressing the heels of its hands against the sides of its head and growling in agitation. "You skinned your knee." the demon whined, "We had to take you home. We didn't want to see you cry anymore. Why? Why did we . . .?"

Buffy carefully approached it, standing at Willow's side.

"Because you love her, Xander." she explained, hope blossoming within her. "Just like we all love you."

The Harbringer clutched its hands to its chest and crouched forward. Looking up at her, its face stricken, it spoke.

"You. . . love. . . m-us?" its eyes became imploring and Buffy could see black liquid welling up in them.

"Yes, Xander, " she emphasized his name, reaching out and touching her hand to his shoulder, "we do."

"NOOOOOO!" the Harbringer screamed, swinging an arm up and catching her with a powerful backhand. The blow launched her through the air and sent her crashing into a stack of shelves. On the back swing, it clipped Willow as well, throwing her to the floor.

"I wont let you do this!" the demon screamed, the red light from the Hellmouth casting stark shadows across its face, "You accomplish nothing!"

Angel rushed to Buffy's side, crouching to cradle her in his lap. She stirred, holding her right arm close to her body.

Giles knelt by a stunned Willow, watching the Harbringer shrewdly.

"Then why did you just refer to yourself as 'I'?" he asked poignantly.

The demon was taken aback. Giles stood, advancing on it.

"You are as much Xander Harris as you are the Harbringer, aren't you?" he realized aloud, "That's why that student got away last night. Xander will not kill."

The Harbringer's face clouded with worry. "No," it protested, "He is the Vessel. We are one now. This body is mine!"

"Then kill me." Giles challenged, spreading his arms wide in invitation.

The demon leered hatefully, drawing back its open palm for a fatal strike.

"Giles, no." Buffy struggled feebly to get to her feet.

The demon's claws descending with lightning speed across Giles face. Blood sprayed and the Watcher fell to one knee, holding the side of his neck. He rose again unsteadily, and grinned triumphantly.

"You see, you can't kill me." he declared, blood trickling from four long scratches down the side of his face and neck, "You can't kill anyone. Because Xander won't let you."

The demon roared deafeningly in his face, but Giles stood his ground.

"Xander is nothing!" it snarled ragefully, "He is just a body, I am the mind. Without me, he is nothing, LESS than nothing."

"And without him, you are nothing." Giles watched the demon carefully.

Grunting angrily, it sank to its knees, its fingers trembling. Giles noted with interest that the talons had receded and his hands looked more like Xander's had.

"Let him go, Harbringer." he said calmly. "You have lost. You will never be able to fulfill your mission like this. He's too strong for you. If you stay in his body, you will spend eternity locked in an inner struggle."

"No. No. No. No." the demon shook its head violently from side to side, not wanting to hear any more. "I am the Harbringer. Demon lords fall at my feet. I am invincible. I carry the Apocalypse on my coat tails."

"And you've been bested by the kindness and gentleness of a high school boy."

The Harbringer let its head sag and shoulders slump. Its body seemed to shift and a darkness, like a living shadow, became apparent. Slipping off his body like a dark vapor, the shadow wafted into the air and coalesced into a hideous black face with burning orange eyes and whiplike tentacles for hair. It hovered momentarily, watching them, committing their faces to memory and then flew through the half open Hellmouth with a piteous wail.

Xander stood slowly, looking again like his old self, his face blank. He walked, zombie-like, to the screaming portal and touched his hands to it. The screaming grew louder, as if the Hellmouth sensed what he was about to do. He squeezed the dusky red ball of light in his hands, compacting it. With his teeth clenched and his face twisted in pain, he used the last vestiges of the Harbringer's power to seal the Hellmouth closed again.

He collapsed to the floor exhausted and Willow and Buffy threw their arms around him. Beyond shame, he cried long wracking sobs into their shoulders, holding them to him desperately. They each stroked his head consolingly, joining in his tears.

* * *

Giles sat at a picnic table in the school's courtyard, calmly absorbing the pale morning sunlight. Buffy sat atop the table on one end, her right arm in a sling, and Willow perched comfortably on a grassy mound nearby. Centered almost exactly equidistant from all of them, Xander sat on the ground, his back pressed against a tree trunk and his eyes closed.

"Even after the Hellmouth was closed, you could still hear it screaming." Willow shuddered at the memory.

"But Faith's gonna be okay?" Oz asked Buffy.

"She was only out for a few minutes." She assured him, "She's not going to be joining the track team any time soon, but she'll be all right."

"I will never forget that thing's face." Willow shook her head. Then looking quickly to Xander, she looked apologetic, "Its REAL face, I mean."

"It's okay, Will." He half smirked, his eyelids cracking open tiredly. "I don't think ANYONE will forget it."

"Yes." Giles agreed

"I don't know how you managed." Buffy whispered in awe to Giles, "It was the bravest thing I've ever seen."

"Stupidest." The Watcher couldn't help but smile at her admiration. Turning his head away self consciously, he exposed long scratches along his cheek and neck to the sun. "But the world continues to turn."

"No one will ever know how close it came to stopping." Willow noted solemnly, "Never know what we did."

Xander rose, his face turning solemn.

"Look, I know I already said this." He spread his hands, his head drooping in remembered shame. "But I really want to thank you guys for what you did, especially you Giles."

"It's quite all right, Xander." The librarian responded.

"No, it's not." Xander's fist clenched, "I let that thing take over because I was weak. And it almost ended the world."

"The Harbringer is a powerful demon, a corrupter of souls. No one could be expected to resist that for long. You showed great virtue by lasting as long as you did."

"Yeah, that's me." He shook his head sadly, "Virtue Guy."

"If that thing had gotten someone else, Xander. We wouldn't have been able to stop it." Giles regarded him seriously, "It may have been weakness that allowed the Harbringer to control you, but, in the end, it was your strength that defeated it."

"Thanks, Giles." He smiled weakly.

He stretched and groaned. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm starved. I'm gonna grab a snack." He yawned, "Anyone want?"

"No, thank you." Giles answered quietly. The others declined also with silent shaking of their heads.

"Okay." He headed for the snack machine, sifting through a handful of change.

Cordelia walked across the schoolyard, veering deliberately to intersect his path.

"Ooo, look, it's Mr. Excitement. On another life-or-death doughnut mission, or are we just cruising for bimbos again, giving them lessons in lack of cool?" she quipped cruelly, then rolled her eyes in disgust, "Xander, when are you ever going to figure out who you are?"

He just smiled at her without saying a word. If only she knew. Of course, she doesn't have a clue.

"What?" she quirked her eyebrows in irritation.

He smiled more broadly and walked slowly around and past her.

"What?" she repeated, more confused now than irritated.

Xander kept walking and never looked back.

Cordelia's voice grew insistent. "What?!"

To The Escape Pod!

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