Xander blinked as he pulled his car onto the turn-off and into Sunnydale and came completely under the umbrella of the hellmouth. He was really growing to despise that feeling. As his senses grew more attuned, the feeling of disconnection as the darkness swamped him grew. It was not a pleasant feeling at all, somewhat akin to how a normal person would feel if you blinded one of their eyes or rendered them unable to see colours beyond a very narrow range, perhaps. If it wasn't for Buffy and Willow being here, he wouldn't even consider coming back, to be honest.
By the time he reached the car park for the block of apartments that Giles lived in, the sun was going down and Xander could feel the vague stirrings in the Force as the vampires and demons shook off their daylight enforced stupor and grew active. He'd grown much more attuned to demonic energies over the course of his summer travels with Faith, but even now he could do no more than sense the general disturbances of the energies coming active all over the town here on the hellmouth.
As he pulled into a parking spot, he morphed into a she. They were used to seeing Rachel around here, and the less attention garnered, the better really. She'd gotten enough attention to last a dozen lifetimes travelling with Faith these last few months. That girl just didn't know the meaning of the word subtle. Still, it was going to be strange not having her around anymore after spending the last few months living in each other's pockets. You just get used to having people around and then when they're not . . . well, she'd miss Faith.
As she approached the apartment, the familiar feeling of Giles's presence popped into her mind and she smiled. It would be good to see him again after recent events, a return to normality, even if it was only temporary. It took a few minutes of fishing around in her pockets to find her keys but she soon let herself in.
"Hey, Giles," she said. "I'm back."
The apartment was exactly as she'd left it, right down to Giles sitting in the comfortable chair with a thick book in hand and a cup of tea resting on the arm of the chair. He immediately lowered his book and looked up at the sound of Rachel's voice.
"Ah, hello, Rachel," he said, with a warm smile. "It's good to see you back. I don't, ah, suppose Faith's come back with you?"
Rachel shot Giles a puzzled look as she answered, "no. Why do you ask?"
Giles rolled his eyes. "Wesley's been going frantic since she disappeared with you," he said. "He's certain that the Council are going to fire him what with losing one Slayer and having the other tell him to bugger off."
"Buffy said that?" asked Rachel, hanging her coat on the rack near the door.
"Well, not in those words," admitted Giles. "But the sentiment was there. He hasn't exactly been well-liked since the Faith incident, as you know, but he's been truly insufferable since Faith disappeared and he just pushed Buffy too far, I suppose."
"Huh," said Rachel, momentarily speechless. "Well, Faith shouldn't be too hard to find. Just follow the trail of chaos."
"I take it you've had an eventful summer, then?"
"Giles, she started a riot in a gay club," said Rachel. "A full-on riot. She claims it wasn't her fault but I know better. There's no way a riot started in the vicinity of Faith without her involvement."
Giles just shook his head. "I'm not sure I want to know," he said. "Especially when it comes to your presence at a gay club . . . "
Rachel shot Giles a mock-glare. By his standards, that was a fairly good wind-up. "Female form, G-man."
"Yes, well," he said with a cough. "As interesting as that story likely is, it's not one I really want to hear."
Rachel just smirked as the way that night had ended up playing out came to mind. Oh, yeah, definitely interesting.
"Do I dare even ask how you've spent your summer?" asked Giles.
"Well, it's been interesting," said Rachel. "Seen a lot of places, killed a lot of demons, and generally stirred up a lot of trouble with Faith. "
Giles shot her a wolfish grin. "Sounds like some of the more reputable times of my youth," he said. "Except you probably had a bit more power on your side."
"And then there was Oxnard . . . " said Rachel, trailing off as some rather unpleasant memories came to the fore, her face screwing up in a rather disgusted expression as she remembered some of the gorier sights.
Now that got her Giles complete and undisturbed attention. "You were there?" he asked. "The demon-hunting community has worked itself into quite the tizzy over what happened there."
"And the other places, I guess," said Rachel, slumping down onto the couch.
"Yes," said Giles. "You . . . you know what's going on? No-one seems to have even the faintest idea. The demon hunters who manage to be there for the attacks . . . well, they've never managed to get out alive."
"It's not demons, Giles," said Rachel. "It's aliens."
"Aliens?" asked Giles, looking incredibly less than convinced. "Are you quite sure?"
"Well they sure as hell ain't human," said Rachel. "And they don't have any demonic energy about them. What else could they be?"
"I . . . I don't know," admitted Giles, "but it does seem rather unlikely, doesn't it?"
"Tell that to the military," said Rachel. "They've got it down as being aliens and have a multi-national secret army devoted to dealing with it. And please don't tell anyone about this or they'll get pissy."
"Why do I have the feeling that I'm not going to like what you have to tell me about this?" asked Giles.
"Probably because you're not," said Rachel. "In short, they've, ah, conscripted me."
"I have the sudden urge to slam my head against the wall repeatedly," murmured Giles, as he stood up and moved to the kitchen area.
"It's not that bad, Giles," said Rachel. "I mean . . . well, ok, I'm kinda struggling to come up with a good side here."
"I need a drink . . . " said Giles, pulling a half-empty bottle of highly expensive looking scotch from a cupboard. "Can't you get out of this?"
"Probably," said Rachel.
"But you're not going to are you?" asked Giles, before gulping down a good-sized shot of scotch. "That would be sensible and God knows American teenagers don't do sensible."
"I can't walk away from this, Giles," said Rachel. "I can't walk away from it any more than I could walk away from the vampire slaying back in high school. I wouldn't be able to look in the mirror."
"Bloody teenagers," said Giles with a heartfelt sigh. "Bad enough when they do drink and drugs, but you? You find a good old-fashioned war to get involved in."
Rachel just shrugged.
"And what are the casualty rates of this little organisation then, hmm?" asked Giles. "Considering that they probably have no idea what they're doing, I bet they're something to behold."
"Well . . . okay, you're right on that one," admitted Rachel. "If you'd seen these aliens in action, you'd understand. We're horribly outgunned here, Giles. These aliens are only a few major discoveries removed from Star Wars level technology."
"Yet you still sign up to fight them," said Giles. "How very typical."
"I am not a child," said Rachel frostily. "If anyone on this planet is qualified to take on an alien invasion force, it's me."
"I . . . yes, you're right," sighed Giles. "But I don't have to like it. Despite everything, you are still only eighteen years old, and that is far too young to be sent off to war as far as I'm concerned."
"That hasn't stopped anyone in the past," said Rachel. "And if it makes you feel any better, Revan and Malak weren't much older when they went to war against the Mandalorians."
"And that turned out so well, didn't it?" said Giles, before knocking back another shot of scotch.
"Well, no," admitted Rachel. "But I think I'm a bit more stable than either of those two. I'm not daft enough to think myself invulnerable to the things that beat them."
Giles fell silent for a while as he poured himself another shot and returned to his chair. By the time he replied, he had a thoughtful look on his face as the initial shock of Rachel's announcement faded away. "Do you really think this is a good idea?" he asked.
"It's necessary," said Rachel. "And it's not like Buffy can't keep a lid on the hellmouth without me holding her hand."
Xander was awake and ready to start bright and early the next morning. He simply had too much to do to lounge around in bed all day like he normally would given the chance. Anyway, getting used to that sort of life would be incredibly counter-productive when X-COM called. He had a feeling that sleep was something that would be in very short supply for him soon enough. Not something he was looking forward to but compared to the whole death and destruction aspects - not such a big deal, really.
The day was mostly spent at his desk, feverishly typing at his computer as he tried to expand his already written journals into a comprehensive series of texts on the Jedi Order, everything from philosophy to history. It was a huge task but it was the only option he had really. He had to leave behind some sort of legacy to enable the teaching of Jedi in the future in case he bought the farm, and he did not have the time or the materials to construct a holocron. He wasn't even sure how he could construct a holocron with modern materials in all honesty, but he was pretty sure that he wouldn't be able to afford it.
It certainly wasn't perfect - or even good - but then again it would be a cold day in hell before some random aliens took him down for keeps. He really wished that his scanner's character recognition software didn't suck though. Having his writing show up as symbol font when he tried to scan in his handwritten notes was just insulting really. Accurate, but insulting. It was kinda tempting to handwrite the whole lot. Anyone who'd have the patience to work through that mess would really deserve to become a Jedi assuming that they didn't turn to the Dark Side out of sheer frustration.
Eventually he was roused from his work by the sound of Giles jabbering away on the phone about Spike. Hmm. Well, it seemed as good a time as any to break. As fast as he could type these days, he was making rapid progress. And Spike being back in Sunnydale was big news. He hadn't seen the bleached blunder since, oh, it must have been when Angelus was running around trying to end the world. Good times. Simpler times anyway. No worries about Sith or alien invasions back then, just demons trying to end the world.
"Yes, well I'll research it as best I can," Xander heard Giles say as he entered the main living area. "You've done all you can for tonight. Why don't you go to bed."
A minute later and the phone was back on the hook.
"So what's up, Giles?" asked Xander. "Spike causing trouble again, I take it?"
"Yes, it seems that way," said Giles absently, as he started to pull books off one of his shelves. "He's got some mad idea in his head about finding the Gem of Amara."
"I've never heard of it," admitted Xander.
"I'm not surprised," said Giles, flipping a book open. "It's a rather obscure legend outside of vampire circles and no-one really believes that it exists."
"So what's it supposed to do?" asked Xander. "Super-powers?"
"Something like that," said Giles. "According to legends, it renders a vampire immune to both stakes and sunlight as I recall."
"Oh. Well, that's just peachy," said Xander. "Looks like it's time for a good old-fashioned research party."
The next couple of hours passed in silence broken only by the sounds of pages turning and the occasional 'pass me that book' as Xander and Giles worked their way through the various books Giles owned on demonic legends. Eventually this silence was broken by the sound of Giles uttering an absolutely vile oath.
"You found something, I take it?" asked Xander.
"The Gem of Amara resides in the valley of the sun," quoted Giles. "Bloody typical."
"Any mention of exactly where it is?" asked Xander.
"No," said Giles. "That would be too easy. I'm going to try and get in touch with Buffy and warn her."
Getting in touch with Buffy proved to be a complete bust as no-one answered the phone at her place. In the end they had to wait till the next day to go and physically meet Buffy. Xander was finding it difficult to take the whole thing seriously. A vampire immune to sunlight and staking was bad, yes, but fire, decapitation, and holy water would still work well enough as far as he could tell. It was just a case of shifting your approach to something that was a few thousand years less out of date in terms of the weapons used.
Anyway, this all led to a most amusing situation where Buffy stumbled into the room she shared with Willow and had her top halfway undone before she realised that Xander and Giles were in the room. Combine her rather bleary-eyed appearance and the scent that Xander picked up from her - as much as he didn't want to, he couldn't help but pick some things up no matter how hard he clamped down on the enhanced wolf senses - and it was pretty obvious what she'd been up to the night before.
"Giles, I didn't know you were here," she stammered, not seeming to notice Xander who was sprawled out on Willow's bed.
"I couldn't tell," he said dryly.
"I was studying at the library. All Saturday night," stammered Buffy, garnering a rather sceptical look from Giles. "Uh, you know what. I'm an adult now and it's none of your business what I do."
"Still funny to hear you make the obvious excuses though, Buff'," drawled Xander.
"Xander!" called out Buffy. "When did you get back into town? And why didn't you call me, you mutant?"
"I haven't been in town long," said Xander. "And when we're done with Spike I really need to talk to you and Willow about some stuff."
"What is it?"
"Later Buff'," said Xander. "I think Giles's head is about to explode unless he gets you to actually, you know, listen to him. Just for a change."
"Quite," said Giles. "We found a passage in one of my books which indicates that the gem may well be in a crypt here in Sunnydale."
"That's if the 'valley of the sun' means Sunnydale," said Xander.
"It seems that Spike might know what it's about," said Giles.
"Why don't you guys try and find out where the gem is?" said Buffy. "I'll try and get Spike before he gets to the gem."
"I'll get started," said Giles, heading out. Xander started to move to follow but was stayed by Giles shaking his head. Xander guessed that he wanted him to stick around just in case. Extra firepower and all that. He began to settle back down till he saw Willow looking at Buffy with an eager look in her eye and it wasn't all that difficult to figure out what was coming: girl-talk.
"I'll just wait outside," said Xander. "I may turn into a girl, but girl-talk? A step too far."
And then he matched action with words. He really didn't want to hear the details of whatever Buffy was up to right now. He wasn't interested in her these days, but she had still been his first real crush back before things had gotten decidedly weird for him, and he didn't want to hear the details of her love-life. It wasn't that long before she came out of the room and then they started off on their hunt for Spike.
Xander fumed as he listened to this Parker Abrams twerp thoroughly belittle Buffy and her feelings, discarding her like a used kleenex. The wolf inside him howled with rage as someone it considered pack was treated so abominably. It wanted to tear this pathetic creature limb from limb and feast on his entrails, and Xander couldn't really argue the sentiment at all. His presence in the Force . . . it reeked of sleaze and a lot of similarly unpleasant things. Xander doubted that this Parker had a drop of human empathy in his body. It was all about his wants, his lusts, and the hell with the girls he hurt satisfying them.
He allowed his attention to wander pretty quickly. He did not want to hear this. Not one bit. It just wasn't his business really. With that in mind, he stepped away, though he could still hear their conversation despite his best efforts. Hmm, that was an interesting spot of mould on that wall facing away from them.
"Wow," said a British-accented voice. "That was pathetic."
Xander whirled around just in time to see Spike punch Buffy in the face and knock her down to the ground.
"Birds singing, squirrels making lots of rotten little squirrels," said Spike. "Sun beaming down in a nice, non-fatal way. It's very exciting, I can't wait to see-"
What Spike couldn't wait to see was cut off as Xander slammed a knee into the vampire's solar plexus, doubling him up, and then slamming his elbow down into the base of Spike's skull.
"I've been wanting to do this for a long time," noted Xander absently, as he lashed out with a vicious kick to Spike's midsection that impacted with a satisfying crunching sound and lifted the vampire from the ground.
Xander watched in mild amusement as the vampire groggily lifted himself back onto his feet. That amusement soon faded to surprise and no small amount of horror when the vampire's wounds visibly healed and he stood up straight and sneered at Xander.
"Have to do better than that, whelp," he said.
Well, that was worse than he'd expected. Healing broken ribs in a few seconds was going to make this fight difficult.
"How about this?" asked Buffy cockily as she rammed a stake into Spike, who didn't even try to defend himself.
Spike just pushed her away and the wound disappeared in seconds. "Oh, do it again. It tickles. You know, in a good way."
And then he lunged forwards, taking full advantage of Buffy's momentary shock and beating her down to the ground with a quick one-two of punches to the head followed by a roundhouse kick that caught her flush on the jaw. Xander immediately stepped into Spike's path before he could follow up the attack and proceeded to fend the vampire off till Buffy was back on her feet. He really wanted to just draw his lightsabre and cut the blond bastard in two, but it would just draw too much attention to use a weapon like that in broad daylight, even in Sunnydale.
"We need to get the gem away from him, Buffy," noted Xander, as slid out of the way of a left-hook and thudded a knee into Spike's diaphragm and staggered him back a few steps. Not that he had the faintest idea where the gem was on Spike's person.
Buffy followed up the attack and knocked Spike to the ground with a sweep-kick before he rolled away and back to his feet. They then moved together and attacked in concert. Xander threw a straight punch that Spike managed to deflect with his forearm but that effort left him open to Buffy's straight kick to the gut that doubled him up slightly and forced him back a couple of steps. Xander was already moving in to take advantage as the blow stuck home and immediately rattled Spike's head back and forth with a one-two combination of punches before stiffening his fingers and thrusting them into Spike's throat, causing vampire to gag.
Why a vampire - someone who didn't need to breath - would gag was beyond Xander but he wasn't going to miss the opportunity. He grabbed Spike's arm with his left hand and with one sharp motion he brought his right arm up in a strike that shattered the vampire's elbow. Spike roared in pain and staggered back, clutching protectively at his damaged arm. And the flash of light from his finger gave it away.
"The ring," said Buffy before leaping forward and grabbed hold of Spike's arm after delivering a series of quick punches that knocked him off-balance.
"You take it off me like this and we'll both burn, Slayer," said Spike, his face twisted in an ugly snarl.
"Really?" asked Buffy. "Let's see."
And with that she pulled the ring off Spike's finger. The vampire's face immediately twisted in pain as he began to smoke and he quickly ran off, crying in agony, before jumping into a nearby manhole that conveniently happened to be open. Yeah, they'd both burn. Lying little shit.
"Well, that wasn't so bad," said Xander. "Should have brought some holy water with me though."
"It's pretty," said Buffy, looking at the ring she was turning over in her hands. "I thought it would be all ugly and, you know, vampirey looking."
"Yeah," said Xander. "We should go tell Giles we've got the ring."
"I like it," said Willow.
"It's small," said Oz.
"It's also very dangerous," said Giles. "And we're destroying it."
"We don't destroy it," said Buffy, her gaze firmly fixed on the ring.
"What . . . oh, you've got to be fucking kidding me," said Xander, ignoring Willow's gesture to not say anything. "You're going to give it to Deadboy? That's beyond stupid."
Buffy turned an irate gaze onto Xander. "And why is it so stupid?" she asked, her eyes flashing with suppressed anger.
"Remember back in junior year?" asked Xander. "Yeah, Angelus? Trying to end the world? All that fun?"
"That won't happen again," said Buffy dismissively.
"Because he's never going to feel happy again for the rest of eternity?" asked Xander. "Give it a rest, Buffy. And even if he doesn't go evil on us, you've still got the problem of, oh, every vampire in the bloody world going after him for the ring when word gets around that he has it."
"Angel can take care of himself."
"Not disputing that," said Xander. "He's always been best at looking out for number one. But so can Spike. Still got his ass kicked."
"I'm not changing my mind," said Buffy. "This is the edge that Angel needs."
"Buffy, are you sure?" asked Giles. "This is a big risk."
"I'm sure," she said.
"I've got that gig in LA," said Oz. "I could swing by and drop it off."
"Thanks," said Buffy.
"Fine," said Xander. "But don't expect me to come and save your ass if Angelus comes calling with shiny new invulnerability powers. I won't be here anyway."
"What?" asked Willow, her voice sharp. "What do you mean you won't be here?"
Xander winced, "well, this isn't exactly how I planned on telling you, but I won't be around here for much longer. Got some other stuff I have to deal with and I probably won't be around much for a long while."
Willow looked absolutely pole-axed, like she couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What?" she said, her eyes glistening. "How . . . how long will you be gone? Where are you going?"
"Probably years," said Xander. "Doubt I'll be back any time soon. And where I'm going . . . it might be best you don't know. You guys are like me, you tend to find trouble, and I don't want you finding this trouble."
"I'm the Slayer, Xander," said Buffy, previous argument forgotten. "I can handle whatever it is."
Xander turned an implacable gaze onto Buffy. "No, Buffy. You're needed here on the hellmouth. There'll be no point in me helping stop these guys if some demon comes along and throws the gates of hell open, will there?"
"Xander, I want to know why you're leaving," said Willow, her expression resolute.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Willow."
"I don't care if it's a good idea!"
"You might as well just tell them, Xander," said Giles. "They won't accept no for an answer. You wouldn't."
Xander sighed deeply. "Fine, I'll tell them. You've all heard of what happened at Oxnard right? Town destroyed, people brutally killed, and all that?"
"Demons, right?" asked Oz.
"No, Oz," said Xander, "not demons."
"Humans did that?" asked Buffy, looking absolutely horrified.
"No. It wasn't humans either," said Xander. "It was aliens."
"Are you sure, Xander?" asked Willow. "I mean, I trust you and all . . . but aliens?"
Xander shook his head. "I can tell a demon from a human without even seeing them, Willow, and those things didn't look human and sure as hell didn't feel demonic. Don't know about you but I've never seen a human that looks like a giant snake-man hybrid."
Willow blinked. "Real aliens . . . "
"Yeah," said Xander, "and they're not at all friendly. Big on the death and destruction, not so big on the 'we come in peace'."
"And you're going to fight those things?" asked Buffy. "Alone?"
"Not alone," said Xander. "I've signed up with . . . a group, funded by the world's governments to fight these things. I'd appreciate it if you kept that to yourselves, by the way."
"This is absolutely insane," said Buffy flatly. "Aliens? Secret armies? It's like something out of the X-Files."
"I remember a time when I thought the whole idea of vampires and demons being real was ridiculous," said Xander. "Hell, wasn't that long ago that Jedi and Sith were characters in a movie series and nothing more."
"Okay, you've made your point," said Buffy with a pout. "I still don't like it though."
Xander shrugged. "Isn't much to like really. Earth's being invaded by killer aliens, not much to be happy about there."
"I don't want you to go, Xander," said Willow plaintively.
"I don't want to go, either," said Xander. "But I can't just stand by and watch now that I know what's going on."
The rest of the conversation continued in that manner for a long time. Willow did not like the idea of Xander leaving town and not coming back for years on end, and Buffy just couldn't quite wrap her head around the idea of aliens being real and invading the Earth. Oz, of course, was far too cool to be flustered by all this and just took it in stride with the occasional, brief comment thrown in for the hell of it.
Just under two weeks later, the call came, and Xander left for the X-COM training facility in the Rocky Mountains. He left behind several books and an enchanted stone that would glow in the presence of the Force sensitive with Giles as well as a letter for Faith when she next came by. Those arrangements were far from ideal but they gave the world a chance should he not make it out of this war alive. As for Faith, well, she was a big-city girl at heart and after a year cooped up in Sunnydale she had the wanderlust in her. He didn't expect to see her in Sunnydale again any time soon but the letter would be there waiting for her when she turned up.
He didn't take much with him to X-COM, his clothes and his weapons were the only real possessions he took with him. He did, however, take much of the advanced technology retrieved from Malak with him. The group had little use for such equipment and no way to make use of it once the ammunition was depleted so he would donate it to X-COM's scientists and see what they made of it. Probably not a lot considering how advanced the stuff was but you never know.