Xander closed her eyes and cleared her mind as Ms. Calender had taught her to. First, she carefully focussed on her breathing. It wasn't so much about regulating it as using the patterns of the breathing as a focus. She started by counting each breath at the end of the exhalation and then as the breathing naturally grew more regulated in her concentration she moved to counting at the beginning of each inhalation. Soon, she didn't need to count at all.
Thoughts threatened to intrude upon her focus. Worries about what had been done to her by Ethan Rayne were never far away from her mind. Was she still Xander? Would she ever get her body back? Would she be able to adapt to spending the rest of her life as a female if she didn't? What lurked in the dark corners of her psyche? All common thoughts. But she had learned to let them slide by into oblivion when she needed to focus on something more immediate.
Then, with her mind clear and poised, she brought her focus fully inwards and reached to that amorphous ball of power that resided in the gut of every single magic-user and slowly worked at it to draw it out to her limbs. It was a laborious process, as it always was, always had been since Ms. Calender taught her the proper way of things, drawing out that power but nothing worth having ever came easily, life had taught her that much, and magic was something very much worth having.
And eventually it came, moving through her body in dribs and drabs as she slowly drew out as much of the ethereal energy as she could manage, till she was struggling more to keep the energy she'd pulled out to her hands under control. It was like trying to hold a pile of plates balanced on top of a pole: your balance had to be perfect because even the slightest deviation to any side would start a chain reaction that'd bring everything crashing down around you.
With the power drawn out, struggle as it was to do so, it was time to give it form and apply her will to the ends she wished. If the previous steps had been difficult, this was like trying to tow a bus by hand. If she'd stopped to think about it, she'd have wondered why it was so difficult when telekinesis had came to her so easily, but there was no room for such wonderings.
The next step after drawing the energy out was to focus on the element she was trying to summon. She had to fill her mind with the flame, be one with it, allow it to fill all her senses as she gave it her total focus. The flame was her and she was the flame. The power rushed out of her in a wave and with a gasp she opened her eyes to the world around her.
The candle sputtered for a moment and then went out.
"I don't understand," said Xander. "I did everything you told me to. Everything. And it didn't work. Again."
Ms. Calender frowned. "If I hadn't seen you use telekinesis, I'd say you simply had no potential," she said, drumming her fingers rhythmically against the tabletop in thought. "This is a simple task, a beginner's task, you shouldn't have a problem if you have magic in your blood."
"And yet here I am."
"Here you are," she agreed. "It doesn't make much sense but then you being as you are doesn't make much sense."
"I hate magic."
"That probably won't help," she said. "Hmm. I'm not sure what else we can try now. This is the classic starting exercise and if you fall at this hurdle it's a very bad idea to move on to more advanced magics."
Xander felt like screaming. It was just so frustrating. When she'd started off, it had been so easy. Telekinesis had came to her like she'd been born to it, within days she'd been able to lift multiple objects -- days! -- and yet here she was stumbling on some stupidly simple beginner's exercise that even a complete idiot should be able to manage. "I don't understand," she said finally between clenched teeth. "It makes no sense. None. I understand it, I feel the power, and it ends up as nothing."
Ms. Calender leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling for a moment. Incidentally, it gave Xander a somewhat pleasant view. Then she looked back at her. "It could be your mental state," she said. "I know you don't want to hear this but you're not who you were, Xander, and if you don't accept that, really accept it, it could get in the way of harnessing what magic you have inside you."
"You're right, I don't want to hear it," said Xander. "This isn't something I want to talk about."
"You'll have to face it someday, Xander. It isn't going to go away any time soon."
"I've faced it. I'm done with it. Time to move on."
"Xander . . . "
"You want someone who sits around brooding about stuff?" asked Xander. "Talk to he of the stupidly girly name. I'm done with that crap. I'm getting on with my life."
Ms. Calender sighed. "I'm not going to push you," she said. "I don't think this is healthy, but I won't push you."
"Thank you," said Xander. "Now, there's got to be something else I can try. Maybe I just don't have an affinity for the elements."
"Stranger things have happened," agreed Ms. Calender. "I'll have to do some research and see if I can find something. It might take a while, there aren't many who don't use this approach."
Xander sighed. So frustrating, but at least she'd deflected the touchy-feely crap for another day. She'd worked so hard to try and avoid confronting what had had happened to her and there was no way she was going to budge so much as a single step towards getting all in-touch with her feelings about it. She'd accepted that she was female, for now, and that was as far as it was going to go. Sure, she appreciated that Ms. Calender was trying to help, the woman was a good person and all that, but she just did not want to talk about it. At all.
"Are the arrangements for the party all in place?" asked Giles.
Xander thought about it for a moment, taking a quick look around the lounge area to make sure Buffy wasn't present before replying. "Well," she said. "We've got a cake, a place to hold it, some snacks, and the gang's pretty much all confirmed to show. I'd say we're good to go."
Giles smiled. "Good, good," he said. "Good to hear. I take it that Cordelia is still not attending?"
"I haven't heard any different. Does it matter?"
"I suppose not. They're hardly the closest of friends."
They fell into silence after that, which suited Xander just fine. Cordelia was not a topic of choice for her, to say the least, and silence was a much more pleasant alternative to ripping the scabs off those wounds, though she still had no idea why there were any wounds.
"Here comes Buffy," said Giles finally. "Now remember: discretion is the better part of valour".
"Rightio, Mr. Wordy McWord," said Xander quickly before Buffy got into range.
Xander frowned when she took a look at Buffy's face. She looked unsettled, off, and there was a definite air of fatigue about her, as if she hadn't been able to sleep properly, and the level of fatigue needed to be noticeable on a Slayer was great indeed. It really didn't bode well to see her knocked.
"You alright, Buffy?" asked Giles. "You seem a little fatigued."
"Rough night," said Buffy. "I had a dream that Drusilla was alive and she killed Angel. I-it just really freaked me out."
"Okay, that's freaksome," said Xander. "Buffy's dreams tend to come true and I have a nasty feeling about Drusilla if she ever stops being an invalid, not that I understand how she can be an invalid in the first place. Aren't vampires supposed to haver super-healing or something?"
"It depends on the age of the vampire," said Giles absently. "The longer they've existed the more demonic their physiology and they are hence possessed of greater rates of recovery amongst other things. Buffy, you feel this is a portent?"
"See, I don't know," said Buffy. "I don't wanna start a big freakout over nothing."
"But you are still worried," said Giles. "Best to be on alert, I think. If Drusilla is alive, it would, as Xander noted, a fairly cataclysmic state of affairs."
Judging by the look on Buffy's face it was time to lighten the atmosphere. "Again with the words Giles," said Xander. "Not much for economy of language are you? Couldn't you just say 'we'd be in trouble'?"
Giles gave Xander a look. Ah, yes, that was familiar: look number one, the 'what the hell did you just say, you colonial simpleton?' look. He just didn't appreciate her sense of humour. "Go to class, Xander," he said.
Xander stood up. "Gone," she said. She took two steps away and then turned back. "Notice the economy of phrasing: 'gone'. Simple Direct."
Hopefully that'd distract Buffy at least a little. She wasn't as good at playing the clown as she'd once been. It just didn't come as easily as it had before Halloween for some reason; maybe it was the breasts? She'd never seen any girls who acted the way she used to, maybe it was that.
Later that day Xander strolled into the library with Willow to the sight of a somewhat perturbed looking Buffy perched on the edge of the large table at the centre of the room talking to a thoughtful looking Giles.
"It's Happy Birthday Buffy!" said Willow before bounding over to the table and grabbing the Slayer up in a hug with a big smile plastered across her face. Then she tepped away from Buffy. "Not Happy Birthday Buffy?"
"I-it's just that, um, part of the nightmare Buffy had the other night actually transpired," said Giles.
"Which means Drusilla might be alive," said Buffy. "Giles, in my dream, I couldn't stop her. She blindsided me. A-Angel was gone before I knew what happened."
Xander hopped up to perch on top of the counter. "I read up about this," she said. "Slayer dreams are symbolic. There's no guarantee that what you see in them will match up with what actually happens."
"Absolutely," said Giles. "And even if she is alive, we can still protect Angel. Dreams aren't prophecies, Buffy. Y-you dreamt that the Master had risen, but you stopped it from happening."
"And the Master was a lot stronger than Drusilla," said Xander. "Lothos, too. You can take her, Buffy. Hell, if it comes down to it, so could Angel. He did sire her."
"Okay, that's all true," said Buffy, with an air of returning confidence. "But we're a step ahead now and I wanna stay that way."
"Absolutely," said Giles. "Let me read up on Drusilla, uh, see if she has any particular patterns." He started towards his office. "Why don't you meet me here at seven? We#ll map out a strategy."
"What am I supposed to do till then?"
"Go to classes, do your homework, have supper . . . "
"Right. Be that Buffy."
She hopped down from her perch, grabbed her bag, and walked out of the library.
"Well, that's not a perky birthday puppy," said Xander. "Tch, these vampires spoil everything, don't they?"
"So much for our surprise party," said Willow. "I bought little hats and everything."
"Oh, well," said Willow. "I guess I'll tell Oz."
"No, you won't," said Giles. "We're having a party tonight."
"I could be wrong," said Xander. "But I do believe that Giles just said we should go ahead even though Buffy is all mopey."
"Buffy's birthday part will go ahead as planned," said Giles. " Except I won't be wearing the little hat."
"But Buffy and Angel . . . "
"May well be in danger," said Giles. "As they have been before, and, I imagine, will be again. One thing I've learned in my tenure here on the Hellmouth is that there is no good time to relax. And Buffy's turning 17 just this once, and she deserves a party."
"You're a great man of our time," said Xander.
Willow smiled. "And anyway, Angel's coming. So she'll be able to protect him and have cake."
In the end, they left Ms. Calender at the library to lure Buffy to the party with her feminine wiles as they headed to the Bronze to set the party up. Well, not really, though Xander would have paid good money to see that, which was something probably best kept to herself unless she wanted a Slayer-sized glare or ten coming her way. Anyway, they all headed to the Bronze and secreted themselves around the place so that they could pull the stereotypical 'surprise' bit when Buffy showed up.
Well, when she finally showed up. They were running awfully late, which in Sunnydale tended to indicate that random demonic violence had broken out. Xander kinda hoped not because it'd be a bit of a downer on the whole birthday thing if Buffy had to whip some demon ass just to get to her birthday party.
Angel peeked out from behind a pillar. "Where is she?" he asked.
The rest looked up from behind the pool table they were crouched behind. "Shh!" said Willow. "I think I hear her coming."
It was at that point that a body came crashing through the window followed by a conbative looking Slayer. The vampire went at Buffy as she followed him she kicked him away and grabbed a drumstick from a nearby set. A moment later it was done and the vampire was dust in the wind.
"Surprise," said Xander flatly.
"That pretty much sums it up," said Oz.
"Oh, hey," said Xander. Then she snapped her fingers. "Hey, aren't you the guy Buffy bounced off the lockers a while back?"
"That's me, the amazing, bouncing Oz," he said as Giles and Angel went over to Buffy to see if she was alright. "Mind filling me in on what just happened?"
"Vampires are real," said Xander. "A lot of them live in Sunnydale." She waved at Willow and Oz. "Willow will fill you in on the rest."
Xander wasn't exactly overjoyed about Willow acquiring a boyfriend, what brother is when their sister starts on that sort of thing, but she remembered that Oz had jumped in front of Willow when bullets had started flying back during the assassin thing. That counted for a lot in her book. So she wasn't planning on giving the guy a hard time about it all unless he did something to hurt Willow. He did that and she'd hurt him in a much more literal sense of the word.
As Xander joined the others, Ms. Calender wandered in with a large, heavy-looking wooden box in her arms. "Hey," she said. "Can someone give me a hand here?"
Giles and Angel promptly did so and set the box down on a nearby table with a loud thud upon taking it from her.
"Those creeps left this behind," said Ms. Calender.
"What is it?" asked Buffy.
"I have no idea," said Giles. "Can, can it be opened?"
"Yeah," said Buffy. "This looks like a release right here."
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," said Xander. "Big, demonic-looking-"
She was cut off by the box opened and an armour-clad arm promptly lunged up from the boxt. Xander's reaction was quick, quicker than she was normally capable of, but the thing just ignored the grip she managed to get on its wrist and seized Buffy by the throat. Between Buffy, Angel, and Xander they managed to pull the arm off and force it back into the box but Xander couldn't imagine that it had been comfortable for Buffy.
"Well, clearly the Hellmouth's answer to 'what do you get the Slayer who has everything?'," said Xander, flexing her fingers to try and work out the kink that had developed in her hand.
"Good heavens," said Giles. "Buffy, are you all right?"
Buffy rubbed her throat. "Man, that thing had major grip," she said.
"W-what was that?" asked Willow.
"It looked like an arm," said Oz.
"It can't be," said Angel. "She wouldn't."
Xander frowned. She had a very bad feeling about that box and its contents. Like, oh, wait, that's a planet-destroying spaceship level bad feeling. "Care to share with the rest of the class?" she asked.
"It-it's a legend," said Angel. Giles show a look at the box with a look of dawning comprehension, though Xander was still missing the connection. "Way before my time, of a demon brought forth to rid the Earth of the plague of humanity . . . separate the righteous from the wicked . . . and to burn the righteous down. They call him the Judge."
"The Judge?" asked Giles, though it sounded to be a rhetorical question. "This is he?"
"Not all of him."
Buffy raised her hand. "Um, still needing backstory here," she said.
"Um . . . He, he, he couldn't be killed, yes?" said Giles, looking at Angel for confirmation. "A army was sent against him. Most of them died, but, uh, finally they were able to dismember him, but not kill him."
"The pieces were scattered," said Angel. "buried in every corner of the Earth."
"And now they're here," said Xander. "Yippee. I suppose now we know why Buffy was dreaming about Drusilla."
"She's just crazy enough to do it," said Angel, frowning even more deeply than usual.
"Do what?" asked Willow. " Reassemble the Judge?"
"And bring forth armageddon."
"We need to get this out of town," said Giles.
"Angel," said Ms. Calender.
There was a whole big emotional bit that came after that. Buffy didn't want Angel to go without her but also she couldn't just skip town for a few months to lug it across the Earth either. So they had the whole bit of pouty Buffy and Angel being ever so conspicuously brave and self-sacrificing. It made Xander want to barf. She remembered Angel's distinctly less than self-sacrificing attitude when Buffy when off to die at the hands of the Master.
And it was a real downer on the party when the birthday girl ran off to have a tearful farewell with her star-crossed lover . . . well, Xander didn't think they were lovers in the strictest sense of the word, but the sentiment applied.
Research on the Judge proved to be a monumentally depressing task. The information on the creature turned out to be a litany of horrors all greater than the last as the demon cut a swathe of destruction across the primitive world bringing death and destruction to all it laid eyes upon. The origins of the creature were unknown, its motives unknown beyond its obvious lust for death, and its limits, terrifyingly enough, were just as unknown. It had, at its peak, drained entire cities dry of life before it was finally stopped by an army ten thousand strong.
Now, ten thousand didn't sound like much, but when you looked at the dates . . . well, that was the equivalent of the day of it taking the combined forces of the Warsaw Pact to destroy one creature. It didn't exactly give Xander a warm, fuzzy feeling, more of a gnawing terror and a desire to head for the frozen wastes of Canada were there wasn't enough people to lure it in and she could live out the rest of her days as something other than demon fuel.
And there was a gnawing sensation of impending doom chewing away at the back of her mind like an overgrown rat. There were times she really wished she had a bit more control over her emotions.
"They should be back by now," said Giles.
"Maybe Buffy needed a few minutes to pull herself together," said Willow. "Poor Buffy, on her birthday and everything."
Xander grimaced. "Well, it could be worse," she said. "I'm not sure how, but I'm sure it could be."
"Xander!" said Willow. "You're tempting fate again."
"Sorry, sorry. Just saying."
The library doors opened and Buffy shuffled in. Xander did not like on her face. She did not like it one bit. "What happened?" she asked. "You've got a long face."
"Dru's guys ambushed us," said Buffy with a woe-is-me sort of expression and a shrug of her shoulders. "They've got the box."
"Where's Jenny?" asked Giles.
"Uh, she took Angel to get some clothes," said Buffy. "I-I had some here,"
"And we needed clothes because . . . "
"We got wet," said Buffy. "Giles, what do we know?"
"The more I study the Judge, the less I like him," said Giles, taking his glasses off to polish as he spoke. "His touch can literally burn the humanity out of you. A true creature of evil can survive the process. No human ever has."
Could a Sith Lord? Hmm. Now there was a question . . . and what a pointless one it was to wonder about at such an important time. Sith weren't real. The Judge was. Xander shook her head and focused on what was in front of him.
"Can this guy be stopped?" asked Buffy. "Without an army?"
"Um," said Giles. "No weapon forged can stop. Not very encouraging. If we could only stop them from assembling him."
"We need to find his weak spots, and we need to figure out where they'd be keeping him."
"This could take time."
"Better do a round robin," said Willow. "You want to go first, Buffy?"
Buffy nodded and headed off to the phone.
"Round robin?" asked Giles, with that befuddled, 'what are you damned kids talking about?' expression that Xander was ever so familiar with on his face.
"It's when everybody calls everybody else's mom and tells them they're staying at everyone's house," said Willow.
"Thus freeing us up for world saveage," finished Xander.
Willow smiled. "And all-night keggers!" she said. Giles stared. "What, only Xander gets to make dumb jokes?"
And so it began. Another night of research. At least she wasn't so easily bored by books anymore.
It turned out that the whole research thing was a bit of a waste of time. Instead of, you know, waiting to get the full picture and make a reasoned decision or anything sensible like that Buffy went haring off because of a dream she had when she fell asleep on top of a book. Somehow, Xander didn't think it was going to end well, but the die was cast the moment Buffy had the dream.
Predictably, she didn't return. Which lead to emergency search duties being dished out to all and sundry.
"Well, the bus depot was a total washout," said Xander as she re-entered the library. "And may I say what a lovely place to spend the night. What a vibrant cross-section of Americana."
That got her a few looks.
"No vampires transporting boxes?" asked a weary-looking Giles.
"No, but a four-hundred-pound wino offered to wash my hair," said Xander. "Which creeped me out on levels I didn't even know existed till then, joy be to my wonderful new body."
"Xander . . . "
Xander shrugged off the look of concern on Willow's face. "Any sign of Buffy?" she asked.
Willow shook her head and sighed. Wonderful. Knowing Buffy was taking years off her life, and not just in the 'getting your head caved in by a big, smelly demon' way.
"Do you think the Judge has been assembled?" asked Xander, though her gut was screaming yes.
"Yes," said Giles.
Xander frowned. "We have to do something," she said after a moment's thought. "We just have to."
"What can we do?" asked Ms. Calendar. "If Buffy and Angel couldn't handle whatever they ran into, I don't fancy the chances of the group normals. I don't know about you, but I'm a bit more breakable than the Slayer."
"Guess what?" said Xander. "If the Judge is out there and Buffy's already beaten, we're all dead anyway. I, for one, will go down swinging, and if we're lucky we might just pull something out of the bag and win the day, or, hey, maybe Buffy's not beaten and just needs a little help."
"Xander, please, listen," said Giles. "You got lucky once - yes, Xander, lucky! - with the Master, but there are some things you really can't bull your way through. The Judge is one of those."
"Yeah?" said Xander. "Well, I'm damned if I'm just going to sit on my thumbs like a good little girl and wait to see if Buffy turns up alive or not. You can sit around here all you want but I'm going to do something."
"Xander . . . "
"No, Xander's right!" said Willow, her eyes full of feeling. Ah, it was times like that which reminded Xander why he loved his oldest friend so much. She felt deeply. "My God you people are all . . . well, I'm upset, and I can't think of a mean word right now, but that's what you are, and we're going to the factory!"
They managed to go all of, oh, two steps of so, maybe three, before the library doors opened and Buffy trudged through looking cheerful in that way you could only manage when someone beat your puppy around the head with a lead pipe or something similar.
"We were just coming to rescue you," said Xander. "Uh, well, sort of."
"Well, some of us were," said Willow, sending a shirty look Giles' way.
"Well, I-I would-"
"Where's Angel?" interrupted Ms. Calender. Huh, now Xander thought of if, there was a distinct lack of walking corpses in the room. Not exactly a terrible thing in her eyes but not exactly expected either.
"He didn't check in with you guys?"
"No," said Giles.
Xander's lip twisted. Bad feeling time again. "What happened?" she asked.
"The Judge, i-is he . . . "
"No assembly required," said Buffy. "He's active."
"Oh, damn it.," whispered Giles as he began to compulsively polish his glasses.
He nearly killed us. Angel got us out."
"Why didn't you call? We, we, we thought . . . "
Buffy's expression twitched in a most expressive sort of way. "Well, we, we had to hide," she said quickly. "Uh, we got stuck in the sewer tunnels, and with the hiding, we just split up . . . Uh, no one's heard from him?"
"I'm sure he'll come by," said Willow.
"Yeah, I'm, I'm sure you're right."
"So what's the 411?" asked Xander, not really feeling the interest in Angel's fate. She didn't exactly want the guy dead but if he got dead, well, it would break her heart. "Is he as scary as the books make him sound? You being alive says no, but nice to hear it from the horse's mouth . . . not that you, you know, look like a horse, because you don't."
Buffy gave him a very queer look. "I can't tell you much," she said. "He's pretty big and when I touched him it was like I had a real bad fever, the sort that lays you up for days, but it wasn't insta-fry or anything. And he couldn't just zap us or I'd be lining a dustbuster somewhere."
"In time, that will change," said Giles. "He's still weak from being held comatose for so long. With each death he causes, he will grow in strength."
"Also, not the prettiest man in town."
"I better continue researching, must look for a weak spot," said Giles, looking somewhat foggy. "The rest of you should get to your classes."
"Yeah, I better go, too," said Ms. Calendar."
And so they went. Xander really didn't feel the joy about classes after a night fending off winos and druggies, but she doubted Giles would appreciate her skipping out. Willow went running after Buffy, topic of choice probably being Angel, and Xander went off to her ever so joyful physics class. Who'd got the bright idea to enrol her in an advanced class anyway?
The school day passed in a blur of boredom and yawning, and Xander soon found herself back in the library trawling through yet more piles of dusty old books as she searched for a solution to the Judge with the others. Not exactly the most fruitful of tasks. Invulnerable. No weapon forged can harm him. Evil beyond compare. Powerful beyond words. Monstrous beyond description. Yadda, yadda, yadda. It could only have been more over the top if James Earl Jones had been narrating the texts.
Eventually Xander grew tired. "Hey, Willow," she said. "Feel like a snack run? I think my eyes are going to go square if I don't take a break here."
Willow looked up from her book and blinked, looking somewhat befuddled for a moment before her eyes cleared. "Yeah," she said. "That sounds good."
Xander hopped down from the counter she'd been sprawled over. "Well, let's get going then," she said. "I need me some Twinkie goodness before the withdrawal symptoms set in. Hey, Giles, you want anything?"
He looked mildly horrified by the idea. "Should I ever feel the need to inhale a blob of mass-produced chemicals masquerading as food, you shall be the first to know," he said. "Though I suspect I would be better advised to contact the local mental health ward."
"Giles, Giles, Giles, I thought you were a man of taste? Those chemicals are the product of the most magnificent science and designed to produce the most wonderful of taste sensations."
"Like . . . hey, I see what you did there."
"Come on, Xander. I need a sugar rush to get me through this."
They got as far as approaching the double doors that were the Sunnydale High student's route to freedom before the lights went out, leaving Xander and Willow stood in the middle of a pitch-black corridor.
"Well, this isn't at all ominous," said Xander.
"What's going on?" asked Willow.
"Let's get back to the library," said Xander. "Safety in numbers."
"Willow," said a voice from behind them. "Xander."
Xander whirled around to face the voice immediately. It was Angel. Just the person . . . well, she didn't want to see him, but he might be useful. "Angel," she said. "Someone needs to tie a bell around your neck."
"Thank God you're okay," said Willow. "Did you see Buffy?"
"Yeah," he said. "What's up with the lights?"
"Snyder probably forgot to pay the bill," said Xander glibly. "So what's with the disappearing act? I mean, this time, specifically."
"Forget about that now. I . . . I got something to show you."
"Yeah, Willow," he said. "Go get the others."
Willow didn't need telling twice.
"And, Xander," said Angel. "Come here."
Xander frowned. Something felt . . . off. Why would Angel split them to show whatever he wanted to show to her while Willow went to the others? It wasn't like they were friends of any sort.
"You know," said Xander. "I think I'll pass on that. No offence, Angel, but I really don't like you . . . actually, yeah, offence."
Angel took a step forward. "What?" he asked. "Are you scared, Xander?"
Xander stayed static, though she could feel the flesh on the back of her neck coming up in goosebumps. "Of you?" asked Xander. "Hardly."
"I suppose not," said Angel. He took another step closer. "You were always brave if nothing else."
"You're giving off a real creepy stalker vibe here, Dead Boy," said Xander. "Shouldn't you be saving that for Buffy?"
"You wound me."
"Don't tempt me."
Ms. Calendar appeared from an adjacent corridor, wooden cross in hand. "Step away from him, Xander," she said, cross raised.
"Yeah, that sounds like a pretty good-"
Angel just moved. Xander reacted with reflexes that she didn't know she had to knock away the arm he grabbed at her throat with, but he was just too quick for her to get the other and he quickly reeled her in with a forearm pressed against her throat.
"Angel!" shouted Willow. Hadn't she gone to get the others?
"He's not Angel anymore," said Ms. Calendar. "Are you?"
"Wrong," said Angel, voice emphatic as he tightened his grip. "I am Angel. At last!"
And then a voice spoke in his mind. Now, it said. Act now while he believes himself in control!
Xander reacted to the cold voice without pause. She pulled the knife free from where she kept it tied, hidden, to her body with what little freedom of movement she had, and then plunged it back into his stomach before giving it a vicious twist. That slackened his grip just enough that she was able to pull her other arm free and drive an elbow into his gut with enough force to slacken his grip enough that she was able to pull free completely and dart away.
"You little bitch," he said. He pulled the knife out of his gut and tossed it aside. "For that, I'm going to make this really hurt."
"If you think you frighten me, you're very, very wrong," said Xander, feeling not entirely herself. "But if you truly wish for your miserable existence to be brought to its final end then please do continue."
"Big talk," said Angelus. "Real big talk for some freak who's got no bigger role in this than taking a message for Buffy."
"Why don't you give it to me yourself?"
Xander felt herself thaw ever so slightly in relief as Buffy appeared behind Angel. Suddenly, the situation looked a whole let less Game Over.
Angel spun on his heel to face her. "Well, it's not really the kind of message you tell," he said. "It sort of involves finding the bodies of all your friends."
"This can't be you/"
"Gee, we already covered that subject."
"Angel, there must be some part of you inside that still remembers who you are."
"Dream on, schoolgirl," he said before lunging forward to grab her by the shoulders. Buffy froze completely as Angelus kissed her violently before shoving her back against the wall and making his ever so dramatic exit. Xander went and collected her now bloodied knife. Hmm, could she use that for a curse? Maybe she'd read too many cheesy fantasy novels.
"Buffy, are you okay?" asked Willow.
Buffy didn't answer. She was too busy staring after Angel.
Giles paced. Up and down. Up and down. It was new behaviour. Normally when he was agitated he rubbed his glasses, but he seemed to have gone beyond that and reached a whole new level. He wasn't the only one looking displeased either. Buffy looked absolutely dejected, which was no great surprise, really, Willow looked upset, and Ms. Calendar just looked tired. Xander could sympathise with that; she was feeling the need for sleep too.
"And we're absolutely certain that, that Angel has reverted to his former self?" asked Giles.
"Well, unless you can think of another reason for him to come over all mass-murderer on us?" asked Xander. "I didn't much like the guy, but no."
"Giles, you wouldn't have believed him," said Willow. "He was so . . . He came here to kill us. And since when did you start carrying knives around, Xander?"
"Since I discovered that I lived in the town Van Helsing forgot," said Xander. "So what are we gonna do?"
"I'm leaning towards blind panic myself."
"Rupert, don't talk like that," said Ms. Calendar. "The kids."
"I'm sorry," he said, and out came the cloth to clean his glasses. "It's just that things are bad enough with the Judge here. Angel crossing over to the other side... I-I-I wasn't prepared for that."
"None of us were."
"Are you okay?" Willow asked Buffy.
Buffy shook her head. It was a pretty stupid question anyway, in Xander's eyes.
"Is there anything I can do?"
Buffy shook her head again. "I should've known," she said. "When I saw him at the house, he was different. The things he said . . . "
"What things?" asked Giles.
"But you didn't know he had turned bad?" asked Ms. Calendar.
"How did you know?" asked Xander. "I remember, you told me to get away from him before he'd done anything. You knew."
"Well, I saw his face."
Giles sat down heavily. "If only we knew how it happened," he said, looking as old as Xander had ever seen him look.
"What do you mean?" asked Buffy.
"Well, something set it off," said Giles. "Some, some, uh, event must've triggered his transformation. Well, if anyone would know, Buffy, it-it should be you."
"Well, did anything happen last night that, that might . . . "
"Giles, please, I can't," said Buffy.
"Buffy, I'm sorry, but we can't afford to . . . Buffy!"
Too late. When a Slayer wanted to be gone from somewhere, there was no catching them.
"Giles, shut up," said Willow.
Xander sighed. She'd had better days, that was for sure. Unstoppable demon after their hides, Angel gone evil, and Buffy a basket-case. It was all coming up shit. And unless someone had an ingenious flash of inspiration they were in some serious trouble. Apocalyptic trouble.
That cold voice in her mind spoke again. You know what you have to do it whispered, open yourself to what you know lays within you and this beast will fall as all weaklings fall before the strong.
Xander went very still. No-one noticed, too busy with the drama around them, but her entire body went tense. Voices in her head, she'd always dismissed it as instinct before, but this was just different. It sounded almost like a person, and that really, really couldn't be a good thing. Nothing good ever came of her having things other than herself in her head. Her thinking of herself as a her was proof of that. The hyena had been pretty damned bad, but it didn't have a thing on little Miss Sith Lord, who was the only one likely to, you know, talk.
Cease your endless prattling, said the voice. Realise that the power to defeat your enemy lays within you. Choose to use it or not. That is your decision.
Xander knew what she had to do. She had fought like a titan since Halloween to keep her mind her own, to not allow what she knew, instinctively, had been left behind to pollute her core self, and now she was faced with the choice of maintaining that defence or saving her friends.
It was no choice at all.
Decades of memories flooded into her mind and it was simply too much for a human mind to take in one fell swoop. The world went dark for Xander,
Xander opened her eyes and quickly squinted them shut again as she realised she had a splitting headache as the world came back into focus. "Ow," she said. "Just . . . ow."
"Xander!" cried Willow. "Are you okay?"
"That would be a no, captain," said Xander. "Some paracetamol would make it all better, though."
"I'll see what I can find," said Giles.
"What happened?" asked Ms. Calendar.
Xander opened her eyes again and ignored the pain that followed. "I know how to defeat the Judge," she said, swinging her legs over the side of the table and assuming a seated position. Good thing she didn't wear skirts, really. "It's easy. We should have seen it before."
"Forgive me for being doubtful," said Giles as he handed a glass of water and two wonderful little pills to Xander. "If it were that easy, I'd have thought the Judge would have been destroyed long ago."
"But there's the nub of it," said Xander before downing the pills. Ah, blessed relief. Well, in a few minutes. Hopefully. "It needs modern technology. No weapon forged, right? Well how many modern weapons are forged, hmm? Number's somewhere around zero, I reckon, unless you're a Slayer or something."
"So you think that firearms could defeat the Judge?" asked Giles. "It has the benefit of simplicity."
"I doubt that revolver you keep hidden will do the trick," said Xander in an off-hand sort of way. "The Judge is still a pretty nasty guy. We'll need something with punch."
Giles's eyes went rather wide at her knowing about his hidden weapon. Probably making a mental note to hide it in a better place, knowing him. "Ah."
"Military-grade explosive punch."
"That won't be easy to get," said Ms. Calendar, her pretty features twisted into a thoughtful frown. "Those boys don't give up their toys easily."
"You don't need the military to get military-grade bang-bang," said Xander with a smirk. "You just need the right chemicals and the ability to put them together just so and now blow yourself to itty-bitty pieces in the process."
"Please tell me you're not talking about making a fertiliser bomb."
"Oh, pshaw," said Xander with a dismissive wave of her hand. "How amateurish do you think I am? Anyway, we'd never get enough of it quickly enough without attracting the wrong sort of attention, and it's not exactly the sort of bomb we could deploy quickly or easily. We need something a little . . . smaller, in size."
"That sounds ominous," said Ms. Calendar.
Xander smiled. The memories that had been stuffed into her mind had to be good for something other than the inevitable nightmares, after all. A little time in the chemistry labs, a little more in the shop classes, and she'd have something whipped up. The school was empty so it was the perfect time to get it done, before those irritating teachers who'd have something to say about the manufacture of high explosives in their classrooms could stick their noses in.
Xander's dreams were mercifully dreamless that night, though she knew it couldn't possibly last. Her luck just didn't run that way.
"Happy Birthday, Buffy," said Xander. "I hope you like the colour."
"You painted a smiley face on the front," said Buffy. "What the hell? And what is it?"
"It's a rocket-propelled grenade," said Xander. "Except without the rocket bit, which is where your mighty Slayer muscles come in to play. Smiley end goes towards bad guy, and, uh, don't jostle it too much."
Xander didn't think it would blow up prematurely, but better not to take risks. It wasn't easy to make thermal detonators in a school chemistry lab that was at least a thousand years behind the curve for that sort of thing, and she'd never been the best with a lathe.
"But . . . a smiley face?"
"What can I say?" said Xander. "I was almost forty-eight hours without sleep and it seemed like a good idea."
"I almost dread to ask," said Giles, "but how big will the explosion be?"
"Well, it's sort of a shaped charge," said Xander. "So all but a very small amount of the explosive force should go forwards into the target, but the casing . . . well, you'll want to have something between you and it when it goes bang, because there'll be a nasty bit of shrapnel flying around."
"Never heard of something being 'sort of' a shaped charge before," said Oz, who had apparently been roped in to joining the gang by Willow. "Thought it was kinda binary."
"With proper manufacture, yes," said Xander. "With something that's been put together in shop class? Not so much."
"I'm not feeling the optimism here," said Buffy. "What's Plan B?"
"Oh God, oh God, make the bad man go away," said Xander. "We haven't got a Plan B for this guy."
"So I've got to throw a missile at him," said Buffy. "And we don't even know if the missile is going to work. Yay."
"Do you, uh . . . " said Ms Calendar from the doorway. They all looked at her. "Is there something I can do?"
"Get out," said Buffy.
"I-I just want to help."
Giles looked away. "She just said get out," he said.
"Wait," said Xander harshly. "What the hell? Is there some new drama I missed out on here or did everyone just go completely crazy when I wasn't looking?"
"She knew," said Buffy, staring down at the missile-looking weapon on the library table. "She knew Angel could turn, and she didn't say anything. She's not even Jenny Calendar really. She's a gypsy pretending to someone else."
Xander looked at Ms. Calendar, who bit her lip and nodded slowly. Xander sighed. "Well, isn't this just great," she said. "Anyone else got any group-breaking drama they want to get out of the way before he go fight the invulnerable demon of doom?"
"Xander . . . "
"What? No-one?" asked Xander. "Well, I've kinda got a confession to make, though it's nowhere near this, and I might as well get it all out while we're playing the pointless drama game. I kissed Cordelia. Or she kissed me. One of the two. It was just the once and she got all avoid-y when it was over with, but, hey, if we're playing the drama game then I might as well lodge an entry."
Utter silence followed. You could have heard a pin drop.
"Right," said Xander. "So now that's over with, can we get on with fighting the big bad demon and leave the pointless drama aside for a slightly more appropriate time? A house divided cannot stand and all that good, old wisdom you get from cheesy martial arts movies."
Buffy seemed too disoriented by what Xander had said to object, just as planned. Willow looked absolutely, spectacularly stunned. Xander doubted that Willow would look any more so if someone whacked her between the eyes with a tire iron. It was most spectacular.
The warehouse was deserted when they paid a visit. Good thing they didn't just blow the whole thing up from a distance, really.
"Knew it," said Buffy.
"We haven't a bead on where they would go?"
Buffy exhaled. "I don't know, uh . . . somewhere crowded, I guess," she said I mean, the Judge needs bodies, right?"
"The Bronze?" asked Willow
"Closed for repairs," said Xander. "Courtesy of a certain Slayer's birthday party getting ever so slightly out of hand."
Willow frowned. "So where else?" she asked. "Sunnydale isn't exactly the biggest of place, and people aren't exactly going to be lining up to be massacred."
"Uh, guys?" said Oz, raising his hand in a mock-classroom sort of way. "If I were gonna line up, I know where I'd go."
The mall. It was almost predictable really. When the Bronze is closed where do you find the greatest concentration of teenagers? The mall. Why vampires and other assorted nasties seemed to feel the need to go after teenagers was another question entirely, but it always seemed to be the case.
"Everybody keep back," said Buffy as they exited the elevator in true badass movie hero style. "Damage control only. Take out any lesser vamps if you can. I'll handle the Smurf."
Xander didn't much like the idea of taking orders from Buffy like some sort of soldier answering to their general, but, hell, it wasn't like she really fancied taking on anything more than a minion anyway. And when they entered the main area of the mall, her lack of desire to take on the big bad was just confirmed. Seeing a massive blue demon stood there with energy beams connecting it to every single person in the mall as it drained their life was more than slightly disturbing.
A crossbow bolt bounced off the demon's chest, disrupting its attack and allowing the crowds to scatter in screaming terror. "Who dares," it bellowed.
"Well, I think I got its attention," said Buffy.
Xander handed her the weapon. "Remember," she said. "Push the button and then throw."
"You're a fool," bellowed the Judge. "No weapon forged can stop me!"
"That was then," said Buffy. She raised the weapon to a throwing position. "This is now."
"What's that do?"
Angel and Drusilla took one look at what Buffy was hefting and leaped away from the Judge. The gang ducked. Buffy threw and ducked.
A massive wave of heat and light blew back over the ledge they were crouched behind as the ground shook beneath them. Glass fell around them like rain as the force of the explosion shattered every single window in the building.
"What happened to 'shaped charge'?" asked Oz.
"Must have got my sums wrong," said Xander with a shrug. She was somewhat less nonchalant on the inside. Thermal detonators weren't things you wanted to get your numbers wrong with.
They stood up, and Xander saw them all gaping at the scale of the destruction. She looked out herself. Ah.
"You destroyed the mall!"
"Actually, Buffy, I think you'll find that you destroyed the mall," said Xander. "I just gave you the tools."
The scale of destruction was impressive. It looked like something out a World War Two history book -- the London Blitz, or something similar.
"I don't suppose we need to worry about collecting the parts," said Giles. "I don't think there's anything more than a centimetre squared left."
Buffy darted off as Giles said that, presumably to go after Angelus. It had looked like he'd ran for it before the boom.
"What a day," said Xander. "I suppose at least it's over for now."
"For now," agreed Giles.
That night her nightmares took shape and identity. They were Mandalore, Revan, Malak, endless legions of faceless warriors both Mandalorian and Sith. They were war and darkness. They were planets burning over and over and over.
It was a long night.