The Return by  Janet and Sandy  CLICK HERE TO EMAIL THEM!

Sunnydale High School March 5, 1997 11:54p.m.

"Marissa, It worked! The ritual actually worked just like you said it would." Danny was nearly babbling in his excitement as he watched the stolen hand flaming brilliantly on the tile floor. He didn't see his new girlfriend's face shift to an almost bestial appearance as she drew softly closer to his unprotected back. "When will...", his words trailed off with a gasp as Marissa's freshly elongated fangs tore his throat open.

A tall, dark haired man stepped quietly from the shadows of the locker room as the boy's blood ran down the drain. "That was most unwise, my dear. You have deprived me of a potential servant." He effortlessly hauled the vampire from her prey, lifting her from the floor with his remaining good hand. "I trust you have an explanation for me?" His voice softened to nearly a purr.

The last bell had rung five minutes ago when Xander came shooting down the walk on his skateboard, oblivious to the dark suited stranger waiting just inside the school gate. The board went flying off into the shrubbery when the man grabbed his arm, yanking him to a stop.

"Whoa, what did you do that for?" the teen demanded. "Uh, sir." Xander tacked on uneasily once he'd taken in the air of quiet authority the stranger radiated.

"To get your attention. I believe skateboarding on school property is against the rules here, especially when one is late for classes." The man's quiet, measured tones were anything but reassuring "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Mr. Warden. The new Vice Principal in charge of instilling some discipline here. And you are?" he prompted.

"In deep trouble" he responded thinking, This is not a good way to start the day. No, not good at all. Mr. Warden, maintaining his painful grip on the boy's arm, steered him towards the office.

The two girls looked up from their conversation, when the dark haired boy banged his way through the door, snagging a chair across from them. "Will somebody please tell me this new vice principal is a monster and we're going to kill him?" Xander demanded in as reasonable a voice as he could manage after glancing around to be certain nobody but Buffy and Willow were in the library.

"Not exactly a monster, a demon really, and I'm afraid he can't be killed, merely banished." The slightly nervous tones of the school librarian drifting out of the back room startled all three teenagers so badly it took a second for them to assimilate what he'd just said.

As usual Buffy recovered first. "Wait a second. You mean the new VP really is a demon, like in lake of fire, servant of Satan? That type of demon?" She peered skeptically at the curly headed Englishman who had appeared in the doorway, ignoring Xander who was pounding quietly on the table telling anyone who cared to listen that he'd known it all along.

"Yes Buffy, that type of demon." He responded dryly, dropping the old leather-bound tome he carried on to the table between them. "He's actually called the Warden, rather cheeky using his real name, and he's summoned using an ancient rite called the Hand of Glory."

"Wow, I didn't think Mr. Snyder was that serious about cracking down on discipline." Willow marveled, referring to the paranoid little man who had taken over after Principal Flutey was eaten by a pack of possessed students.

"I don't think Principal Snyder called him. Danny Choi was found in the boy's locker room this morning drained white, along with all the paraphernalia necessary for the ritual. It was shortly after this that I was introduced to our new Vice Principal. It wasn't hard to make the connection. His hand still hasn't completely grown back from the last time he was banished."

"So what do you think he's doing in Sunnydale." Buffy demanded getting down to business.

"Well...since draining all the blood from his summoner isn't part of the Warden's usual pattern I assume our friend the Master had something to do with it." Giles looked sadly at the three teens. They had proven to be quite effective at battling the head vampire and he was proud of them but they had paid a high price. They are so young for this sort of thing. They should be worrying about dates not demons in high school. Except the Slayer of course. It's her destiny to worry about these things. "What really concerns me is what our friend could be planning that requires such a powerful ally."

All four conspirators jumped when the library's swinging doors were thrown open. "I wasn't aware classes were being held in the library today." The newcomer announced in a deceptively pleasant tone.

Not quite shaking off that deer in the headlights look Willow stammered something about looking up references for a report.

The Warden merely stared coldly at them. "In the future I would suggest you stop by class and get a pass first. No one is allowed in here during class time without a pass." He glared meaningfully at the only faculty member present and withdrew from the room, allowing the three to start breathing again.

By the time Xander got out of detention and made his way to Buffy's place in the early twilight the girls were already upstairs. Anyone looking at them would only see two giggling sixteen year olds making plans for the month they'd be spending together now that Willow's parents had left for Europe. The only difference was these two were planning a demon hunt. It wasn't much longer before their mentor showed up, explaining to Mrs. Summers that he was here to coach the children for a history exam.

"It's almost frightening how easily your mother is diverted." Giles commented polishing his glasses before turning to the thick file folder he'd placed on the desk in the corner.

"Yeah, I know. She's been frightening me for years." Buffy bounced restlessly on the foot of the bed. "Come on Giles, fess up. You said he'd been banished before. Are you planning to share or not?"

Putting his glasses back in place he blinked at the three expectant faces lined up at the foot of the bed. "Yes, of course. He was sent back by a Legacy priest using an altered form of the summoning. He added a bit of a twist of his own which is how the Warden's hand was burned up." He fumbled nervously with the papers. "Ahh, I don't suppose that clarified things very much did it?"

"Not at all." Xander replied helpfully. "What's the Legacy?"

"Well, you see, the Legacy is a very old and secret organization dedicated to protecting mankind from the forces of darkness. They battle demons, investigate paranormal phenomenon and help lay troubled spirits to rest. Sometimes they even take on vampires among other things." Giles paused, wondering how much to tell them and if it would be considered a violation of his oath of secrecy. Nonsense! They are my team in a sense and they have a need to know these things if they're to be of any help in this matter.

"So they're sort of like those guys in Ghostbusters." Xander broke in to the teacher's train of thought, seeming pleased to have figured something out.

Giles almost hated to correct him but he'd actually seen that movie and didn't want Xander making such a comparison in front of the men coming to assist them. "Well, not exactly."

Before he could gather his thoughts to try and make the children understand the seriousness of what the Legacy did, Buffy cut the librarian off. "Wait a sec here. What does this Legacy have to do with us? Hello. We were talking about how to banish this creep, I thought."

"Quite right. I'm glad you brought that up." Giles was relieved that it was Buffy who asked the question. It felt less like a betrayal to explain this to the Slayer. After all she had a tie to the Legacy whether she knew it or not. "They have a great deal to do with us. Centuries ago the Slayer was a part of the Legacy but it was decided it would be better if she worked alone so as to focus exclusively on vampires. A specialist from the Ruling House, the Watcher, was the only link maintained between them. I file reports with the nearest Legacy House on our activities and in return I have access to their database should I wish to use it. If necessary they can even send backup. The same team that banished the Warden before can be here by morning."

"Who says we need backup. Just tell us what to do and we'll off the guy."

"It's not that simple Xander. The Warden is a major power and I'm afraid he's a bit out of your league. Besides I called the nearest Legacy House for assistance as soon as school let out and they've probably already left. It's a long drive from San Francisco." Giles frowned at the trio on the bed. "These are experienced operatives and I need you to promise me you won't try anything foolish until they arrive."

"Don't fuss Giles, it's not like we've never dealt with a demon before. Uh, not that we're planning on dealing with this one." she tacked on hurriedly at his dark look. Buffy got up and raised her right hand, solemnly intoning, "I promise we won't try anything foolish."

The Master had begun to pace excitedly about the firelit cavern, filled with plans for his coming out. "You'll be able to handle the Slayer and her friends without harming them won't you? I am so looking forward to paying my respects in person." The vampire's bestial face was twisted into a look of unholy rapture.

The Warden glanced up from studying the blood ritual that would free his host, a trifle irritated at this questioning of his abilities. Ah well, these minor demons have to be reassured constantly but they do have their uses. And I know just the use I have in mind for this one. A thin, unpleasant smile fleeted across the Warden's face at the thought of his planned revenge on the priest once he'd finished here and tracked the boy down. "I don't believe the girl will be any problem. I've already concocted a plan that will keep her quite safely preoccupied while I prepare for our little ceremony." He closed the book abruptly. "If all goes well it should take less than a week to neutralize the opposition and then you'll be free to fulfill your end of our bargain."

The Master seemed startled for a moment then began to laugh. "Once I've been released it will be a simple matter for me to put the bite on the priest for you."

"He's not to be killed!" The Warden snapped sharply as he glared at the other.

"Of course not. I have done this before you know." The Master was offended at the thought that he might go too far with a victim. He drifted to the far side of the stone chamber that held him captive, his eyes growing dreamy. "I think I like the unwilling ones best. The horror in their eyes as they lie there, helplessly near death, while the blood that will revive them is forced down their throats."

He snapped back from his daydreams of brutalizing the innocent to the present as he whirled on his guest with a petulant complaint. "What I don't understand is why put the curse on him as well. After all, that will ruin him as a servant. Trust me. I know." His thoughts flitted briefly to the traitor, Angel. If the renegade thought he was suffering now, since that gypsy woman restored his soul to him, just wait until he got his hands on the ungrateful little whelp. I'll teach him true suffering once I'm free. Right before I kill him that is.

The Warden grabbed hold of the vampire's tunic collar, yanking him close to be sure he got the message. "Because I don't want to make him a servant, you idiot! I want to make him suffer! I want him to keep his soul so that it can die a little more with every life he must take to survive."

Later that night after Giles had gone home and Buffy's Mom, thinking Xander had caught a ride with the teacher, had gone to sleep the three teens crept towards the old cemetery. Willow said, "Ahh Buffy, I've just got one question." She continued in a rush, "Doesn't this qualify as the something foolish you promised Giles we wouldn't do?"

"Of course not. I'm the Slayer. I'm supposed to hang out in cemeteries after dark." Buffy rationalized.

"Yeah," Xander chipped in. "It's not like we're out looking for the guy."

"Then what are you doing out at this hour." A chillingly familiar voice asked from behind them. "It is after all a school night."

The Slayer's response was a series of flying kicks that could easily have killed an ordinary man had any of them connected. The Warden simply swatted her aside like an irritating gnat. Willow rushed to her friend's side while Xander, showing more courage than sense, stepped in to throw an awkward punch at their inhuman adversary. This time the Warden didn't even raise his good hand, merely turning his gleaming eyes on the boy to hurl him into the side of a mausoleum. There was a sick snapping sound as he crumpled to the ground, his leg twisted unnaturally beneath him.

To Willow's surprise she wasn't next. The Warden stared down at her pale heart shaped face and calmly informed her, "It's deplorable the way teenagers today run wild at night. I shall have to speak with your parents about this sort of behavior." He then turned and walked quietly away.

Buffy asked groggily from her lap, "Wha' happened? Where'd he go?"

"I'm not sure but I think he went to call our parents." Willow responded in a daze. "Gee, it's a good thing mine are in Europe."

San Francisco Legacy House March 6, 1997 5:43p.m.

Nick Boyle stood in the airy foyer beside his precept with his packed duffel bag slung carelessly at his feet and shouted up the stairs, "Hurry up Philip! I want to get there with enough spare time to grab a couple hours sleep before we have to meet these people."

"I am hurryin'." Philip yelled back as he appeared at the top of the stairs, struggling to hang onto his own duffel as he checked the contents of the small black bag he carried in his other hand. "You can't expect me t'go demon huntin' without m'tools."

"Philip is right. Don't be in too much of a rush. You'll have to approach the situation with caution." The precept was delayed from continuing by a fit of coughing.

Nick took advantage of the distraction to pick up his gear and back towards the door. As sorry as he felt for the misery his boss was going through, he had no intention of catching the same flu bug. "Don't fuss Derek, this isn't exactly our first demon. We've dealt with the Warden before. We can handle this."

Derek Rayne stuffed his handkerchief back into the pocket of the heavy gray sweater he wore, irritated at his own show of weakness. He hated being sick! "I didn't mean to imply otherwise. I'm only trying to make you understand that this time he'll be ready for the ritual Philip used before."

"We know all that Derek." Philip spoke soothingly as he passed his ailing godfather. "Get some rest and just worry about gettin' better. I promise I won' let Nick do anythin' foolish." The young priest ducked quickly past his indignant partner, laughing as Nick turned to chase him out to the car like they were still a pair of kids.

Derek shook his head ruefully at the antics of his young operatives but stopped when the motion set off the pounding in his head again. Noticing that Dominic was eyeing him with some concern as he closed the door behind the young men Derek nodded politely at the servant before heading upstairs in search of more aspirin. Hopefully it would lower his fever enough for him to get some sleep and get over this wretched bug.

As the pair drove through the night Philip began reading snatches of the files they'd been given, passing a few pertinent details along as he went. "It says here that in all the world there is only one Slayer born in each generation, always a young girl, t'battle all the vampires on earth."

"Sounds like a pretty big job." Nick commented, keeping his eyes on the semi trying to squeeze it's way into the left lane ahead of them.

"Accordin' t'these records the girl is gifted with superhuman strength an' agility which the Watcher trains her t'use in the fight." Philip closed his eyes and started to nervously finger his crucifix as Nick cut the intrusive trucker off with a burst of speed from the mustang's V-8. " I hope he did a good job, we might need the help. It says here that Sunnydale is built over the Hellmouth, some kind of center for all the dark energies in the world. If the Warden has found a way to draw on those energies he could be much more powerful than he was the last time we met."

Nick took a second to glance at his friend's grim face. "You scared?"

"Of the Warden? Of course not." Philip got quiet for a few miles, hoping that either the traffic would thin out soon or Nick would quit trying to pass every vehicle on the road. "Do ye think he's still mad about the hand?" he asked after a while.

"Let's just say you'd better keep a low profile until you're ready to send him back." Nick grinned slyly before turning his attention back to the road. I didn't think even Philip could get that pale.

"Can I help you?" the slender girl who sat working at the library's computer terminal asked when Nick poked his head in. He frowned uncertainly. He'd begun opening doors at random looking for someone after they'd gotten turned around up by the gym. This is definitely the library but there's no way this fragile looking kid's the slayer. He stepped forward anyway when Philip jostled him from behind.

"I hope so. There was a message waitin' at our hotel sayin' t'meet a Mr. Giles here this mornin'. Could ye tell us where we might be findin' 'im?" Philip laid his accent on thick, trying to cover the laugh that threatened to escape when he noticed the way the lass was staring at Nick. He'd seen enough of the girls at the parish school where he'd worked as a counselor three days a week get that look on their faces. He knew his friend was in trouble. A demon could be banished with the right prayers and incantations, a teenage crush was a much harder thing to get rid of. He knew. He'd tried it often enough!

"Uh, that would be me." Giles spoke up as he emerged from the stacks on the upper level. "...and you are?" He inquired, coming down the short flight of stairs to stand behind Willow. This can't be the team from San Francisco. The two men standing before him in old jeans and loose fitting work shirts looked to be only in their twenties They look more like grad students than seasoned demon hunters.

"Giles, we have to do something about this guy now!" Buffy yelled nearly an hour later, brushing a strand of dark blond hair out of her eyes. Frustrated by the proposed inactivity she turned her focus to the one area where she felt they should take action. "He told Mom that I needed therapy. She actually made an appointment! How can I be the Slayer if I have to waste time talking to some shrink?"

Giles sighed pinching the bridge of his nose to head off the migraine that was threatening to develop. "I don't know what I can do about that Buffy. He's convinced her this will solve all your so called behavior problems and put everything back the way it was before you learned you were the Slayer and it's not like I can offer her any alternatives. You know as well as I do that she could never handle the truth."

"I think we can help with that." Philip smiled reassuringly. "One of our teammates, Dr. Rachel Corrigan, is a psychiatrist. She can come out and meet with your mother t'calm her down while we try t'find somethin' we can use t'stop the Warden. Right now your job is t'wait an' t'watch fer the Warden t'make his move while we look fer a way t'send our old friend back where he belongs."

Nick lifted his head from his arms to glare across the table at the kid they expected him to work surveillance with. The little airhead was really getting on his nerves. I can't believe I'm going to say this. "Philip is right. We can't move against the Warden without some idea of what he's up to. If we move against him without knowing what he wants we risk playing right into his hands. Besides when things get rough I might not be able to protect you and I think you've pressed your luck far enough." He nodded pointedly at Xander's crutches.

Buffy bristled at the pointed hit. She already felt bad enough about what happened to Xander without having this cocky interloper rub it in. "You're going to protect us? Excuse me who invited who here?" Buffy inquired incredulously. It was really getting on her nerves the way this guy was trying to tell her what to do. "Come on, why don't you show us how tough a big bad SEAL can really be."

Philip looked almost as worried as Willow when Nick got up without hesitation to face Buffy in the center of the room. The two of them had been building towards this ever since the Slayer had come in, midway through her mentor's briefing, just in time to hear Nick criticizing the way she had handled last night's hunt. Now neither of them could contain themselves any longer. Too much. Philip wished the girl hadn't brought up the SEALs. That Mr. Giles hadn't read their background files and shared the information with his students. Nick could be sensitive about his involvement in the elite military unit and his reasons for leaving it.

"I really don't think that's necessary." Giles interjected uneasily. "Classes will be starting soon and we really need to make up some kind of schedule for those of you who will be keeping an eye on our target while Father Callaghan and I are looking for a way to send him back."

"This won't take long and you're always saying I need to train harder." Buffy countered, needing to do something, anything to let off some of the pressure of inactivity and the ex-SEAL made such a tempting practice dummy. Oh, I'm really going to enjoy this. She could almost taste how good it would feel to take this guy down a peg...or three.

"Nick, she's just a girl. You shouldn't be doin' this." Philip cautioned, seeing his friend's short fuse getting the better of him once again.

"You heard the girl, Philip. She needs the training. I won't hurt her." This kid needed a lesson in not underestimating her opponent before she got anybody else hurt. Or killed. Nick drew his gun from beneath his shirt, handing it to the priest, who simply stared at it.

"What do ya expect me t'do with this?" Philip raised disbelieving blue eyes to meet those of his friend.

"Shoot her if she wins." The ex-SEAL told him, rolling his eyes disparagingly at his slightly dense friend before letting the irritation creep back into his voice. "Just hang on to it. I'd rather it didn't go off during the demonstration."

"Hey, if you're not comfortable with guns I'll hang on to it." Xander chirped up, eyes alight with interest. The light died as the priest looked at the boy like he was out of his mind and tucked the weapon protectively into his waistband beneath the untucked edge of his red flannel shirt.

The two hotheads began to circle one another, throwing light punches to test each other's defenses. Nick feinted with his left while sweeping a leg around to take the kid down. It didn't work out quite like he'd planned when the Slayer caught his leg and twisted, throwing him to the floor as she danced aside and waited for him to get up.

Rolling back to his feet the ex-commando came in more cautiously, ignoring Xander's animated and unflattering running commentary. He hadn't been put down that neatly since basic training with the navy. It was going to get worse. He soon found he couldn't lay a hand or foot on the kid as she knuckled down to teach him a serious lesson in humility. The petite blond didn't have the same problem as she landed blow after blow, each one harder than the one before. This fight was rapidly becoming far more than a demonstration. Neither one of them was prepared to take orders from the other. Each one was being driven to prove themselves superior, and there was plainly nothing anyone could do to stop the competition.

The Slayer had just landed a solid kick to Nick's ribs that left him curled up on the floor gasping for breath when an outraged voice behind them demanded, "What's going on in here?"

The principal looked down, a bit disconcerted at the young man lying curled up on the floor. No, he's definitely too old to be a student here. "Who are you people and what are you doing on school property? What happened to him?" He zeroed in on Buffy as the usual center of any disturbance in his school. "Is this a fight I find you in, Miss Summers?"

Everyone but Nick and Willow were staring at the wizened little man in the doorway by now. She was too busy trying to help him sit up and he had all he could manage just trying to breathe. Giles hurriedly stepped forward to explain as Philip bent to haul his partner none too gently to his feet. Getting the man back up seemed to ease both his breathing and Willow's anxiety. It was plain he'd cracked at least one rib from the way he was clutching at his side and allowing them to support much of his weight but it was difficult to feel sorry for the man given the circumstances.

"These gentlemen are researchers from the Luna Foundation in San Francisco. They've come to study the history of the Hellmouth." Seeing that he at least had his superior's attention the librarian rushed on. "When the children learned Mr. Boyle used to be with your Navy SEALs they asked him to demonstrate some self defense techniques, and things got a little out of hand I'm afraid."

"You said yourself that it wasn't safe for a young girl to wander around here alone anymore. With an expert around I just thought he could give us a few lessons in how to protect ourselves." Buffy chimed in innocently, hoping to get herself out of trouble. If she happened to get her opponent into it in the process for the unauthorized activity on school grounds, well that would be a plus.

"From the look of things he needs a refresher course himself." The principal commented, causing Philip and Willow to tighten their grips on Nick as the barb made his muscles tense. The principal eyed the angry man warily, wondering if he was about to be attacked. When it was apparent nothing more was about to happen he continued. "I'm afraid, unless you get permission from the school board to be on the premises, you'll have to make do with the public library."

He turned to leave but paused long enough to glare at Buffy. "No more fights young lady. I'm not going to warn you again." The bizarre goings on at this school looked bad on his record and this girl always seemed to be on hand when something odd was happening.

The ringing of the first bell galvanized everyone. "I'll call Rachel as soon as I've seen t' Nick's ribs. She should be able t'get here by this evenin'." Philip tried to reassure the kids as he dragged an uncooperative Nick out the door alongside the three students.

"Don't worry, I'll call your mother and convince her not to do anything until she's talked to Dr. Corrigan." Giles called from the doorway as they all hurried away from him. He turned back to the brooding stillness of his library and it's vast collection on the occult. "In the meantime it looks like I've got work to do, and I'm apparently going to be doing it all by myself."

The shadows filling the firelit cavern seemed to dance with unholy glee that night as the Warden laughed. "I have dreamed of this! They are both here and this time they will be mine!"

The messenger who had brought news of the new arrivals shifted nervously closer to the wall at the strange reaction to a potential threat and turned pleading eyes to her Master.

"Just don't forget that the Slayer is mine." the Master interjected in a hard voice, motioning his servant out of the room. "And don't let your petty vengeance interfere with the plan."

"Don't give me orders." the Warden glared before turning to go, his half-formed hand clenching angrily at his side. "This plays just perfectly into my plans. I'll need the assistance of a mortal to complete my backup plan and I know just the one I want." His anger faded at the delicious thought of the anguish that backup plan would cause his foes if it had to be implemented. I almost hope something does go wrong, making it necessary to use the backup.

"Getting picky?" His host inquired snidely.

"Let's just say I prefer someone who I have already broken in a bit. It doesn't require so much of my attention to keep a familiar subject under control."

It was well past the witching hour before the Warden settled into the candlelit pentagram on the floor of the old house he was staying in. He chuckled quietly as he reached out with his senses, feeling the night for his prey. The vision filled his mind of his target tossing restlessly in his bed as the young warrior unconsciously fought the summons. The demon focused his thoughts until he saw the figure kick loose the tangled bedclothes and rise to dress with empty eyes. All that remained now was to wait.

It wasn't long before the front door swung open and the sleeper stood quietly before him. The demon rose smoothly to his feet and peered into his victim's eyes for a time, searching the soul that normally peered out from them. Searching for anything he might be able to use in controlling the boy. Soon he began to smile and gently reached out to run his ruined hand along the youngster's jaw in a possessive caress. "Ohhh yes, there is a great deal in here to work with." An unholy light filled his eyes and was briefly mirrored within his victim's as he placed a small part of himself within the wounded soul to bind it to him. He stepped back from the ex-SEAL once the task was completed.

"You are to return to your bed and remember nothing of this meeting until I call for you again. You belong to me now and this time we'll see to it the priest doesn't interfere." The demon's eyes continued to glow with a cold fire as he watched his newest plaything docilely turn away to do as his new master had bade him.

After school the next day the entire group was to compare notes on the surveillance, meeting in the motel room they had converted to a command post. The quest for a new spell to banish the Warden was proceeding slowly due to the difficulty of smuggling the books out of the school library to where one of the Legacy members waited outside the iron fence. The room looked like the aftermath of a bomb blast in an occult bookstore, and despite this they never seemed to have the volumes they wanted. Nearly two days of research and they'd still gotten nowhere. Their one consolation was that the Warden didn't seem in a hurry to do anything either.

Rachel couldn't help but grin as she entered with Buffy and surveyed the chaos. This was the first chance she'd had to join her colleagues since arriving the day before. She'd gotten into town late last night and had gone straight to see Mrs. Summers this morning. She had only just gotten away from the woman for this meeting.

There was a teenage boy, who must be Xander, in a chair by the door with his broken leg propped up on another chair. Philip had begun using the cast as a writing desk without realizing it sometime after the table had become buried beneath reference volumes. The white plaster cast was covered in arcane symbols and snatches of Latin. There was a man about her own age peering over the shoulder of an auburn haired girl who was perched cross-legged on one twin bed calling up files on Nick's laptop. Her grin faded to puzzlement as she noticed the laptop's owner was sprawled on the other bed with one arm thrown across his eyes and a frown creasing the only visible portion of his face. Books seemed to cover every flat surface with the exception of the second twin bed and it's obviously out of sorts occupant.

"Buffy! So how'd it go with the mom?" Xander called out, delighted at the interruption, before Rachel could ask what was going on with Nick. Spending the evening buried in books wasn't the teen's idea of fun even if it was necessary.

"Not bad. At least I'm not bound for a really soft room at the community hospital just yet." The Slayer replied, plopping herself down next to the other girl.

Philip found a scrap of paper to mark his place with and set his book aside to ask, "So that's all settled then?"

"It is for now but I think I'd better stick around for a few days. The Warden filled that woman's head with some pretty scary ideas about out of control teens and it's going to take a while to counter that. Mothers can get very protective of their daughters you know." The psychiatrist frowned, thinking of her own daughter who was only nine. "Besides with Kat at her grandparents for the next couple weeks home is a little too quiet."

"If you're trying to avoid quiet you came to the right place." Came the sarcastic comment from across the room.

When Rachel cocked an inquiring eyebrow his way, Philip explained. "Nick cracked three of his ribs in a fight with Buffy right after we met them yesterday. I don't think he's feelin' all that well." The priest shrugged and retreated back to his book, no longer quite so enthusiastic for a break. He'd already been on the receiving end of Nick's famous temper too many times today and didn't want to discuss it. He was grateful for the company now that classes were out though. He'd begun to feel like Nick was trying to start a fight with him and he really didn't want that.

The ex-SEAL sat up abruptly, scowling to hide the pain his sudden movement caused. "Maybe if somebody had warned me the kid had superhuman strength and reflexes I'd have had a chance!"

"I did tell ya about her. On the drive here." Philip defended himself, clearly hurt by the accusation in Nick's voice. He had told Nick about the girl and the unfairness of his words cut deeply.

Noting how uncomfortable the object of this budding family dispute was getting, Rachel decided to step in before things got any further out of hand and put things back on track. "Right now I don't think any of that matters. We've got a lot of work to do and probably not much more time. Let's get back to it people." She tried to turn everyone's attention back to finding an answer to their problem. She even went so far as to open the book on Xander's lap and tap the text for his attention as she passed him.

As the others settled back to their research, careful not to look at the angry outcast in the back of the small room, she quietly moved to stand near Nick, resting a hand on his shoulder. "I'm not even going to ask what you thought you were doing getting into a fight with a sixteen year old girl." Rachel declared quietly, chalking the incident up to just one more of the irrational stunts Nick tended to pull. "We need everyone carrying their own weight on this case. Do you need anything for the pain so that you can keep working?"

Rachel was a bit surprised when Nick shook off her hand and stormed off to the motel's tiny bathroom shouting, "I'm fine! Why can't everyone just leave me alone?" For a moment the only sound was the shower going on.

A quiet British voice broke the ensuing silence. "I'm afraid he's been like that all day. We finally had to have Willow take over the computer work because your friend just couldn't seem to stay focused on anything."

Nick leaned his head against the side of the shower letting the hot water beat down on him. The look on Philip's face when he'd snapped at him had made him feel sick inside. All the more so because he did remember Philip warning him about the Slayer's strength and later telling him not to fight her. He'd hurt Rachel's feelings too when she'd only been trying to help him. He couldn't understand it. He wasn't in that much pain, not more than he could handle anyway. He hadn’t even needed to take those pills that they’d given him after they X-rayed his ribs yesterday. Nick quietly banged his head against the tiles a couple times. It was just so hard to think! Deep within his mind something twisted laughed, and in a small office in the school down the street a demon smiled at the sick frustration it sensed through the binding.

The sleeper huddled silently behind the picket fence next to the bloodless corpse until the police car had passed. Then he slipped softly away into the shadows, his dark clothes blending seamlessly with the night. The children would discover his handiwork in the morning and hate forever the man who had brought this sickness into their lives. The sleeper didn't care. He had no morals, no thoughts even of his own. All that mattered was bringing his master the things he had asked for.

He hid the blood-filled container in the stolen backpack along with the other items he'd taken earlier from the little store with the faulty lock on the basement window. A frown creased his face as some nameless feeling stirred within him. It never reached the empty eyes as some power outside of himself battered the wayward emotion back into submission. It was almost dawn, soon he would have to return to his master, but there was still time to go in search of one more victim. He could not bear it if his master were disappointed in his night's work. The sleeper moved on, once more certain of the rightness of his mission.

The next morning the team had decided to risk the principal's wrath and do their research in the library. Of all people Xander had turned up the information that the next three nights there would be a dark alignment in the night skies. Whatever was going to happen they no longer had time to sneak books past the fence.

Nick was back at his laptop calling up everything he could think of that applied to either the Warden or Sunnydale's resident ghoul the Master but so far he'd only managed to duplicate Willow's work of the day before. The others were pretending his outburst hadn't happened and he was ashamed enough to make an effort to control his frustration. He grumbled a vaguely polite response when Rachel pushed a cup of coffee in front of him and quickly gulped down half of it. Maybe the caffeine will wake me up enough to concentrate. It must have been a rougher night than I thought.

Half a cup would have to do. The other half ended up all over the carpet when the Slayer came bursting through the door that separated them from the rest of the library and scared him a foot off the chair. OK, maybe I've had enough caffeine. Nick thought as his heart rate returned to normal. He dismissed the thought a moment later. Nah, there's no such thing as enough caffeine.

"I just heard something major disgusting in science class that could be important." The girl paused to watch the effect of her announcement, smirking a little over the spilled coffee.

"What might that be?" Giles prodded hoping to get past the dramatics and find out what was happening now.

"Somebody killed a bunch of pets last night, right in their yards, and drained all the blood!"

"According to the reports there are a lot of vampires here." Nick glared at the girl, angry over the useless interruption...and the spilled coffee. He'd really needed that coffee. "Maybe you've got one with a conscience."

"Thank you very much for stating the obvious. Any more feats of brainpower to show us today?" She asked, pointedly turning away from Nick to address her instructor. "Like I was saying, one of the dogs belonged to Sharon Thompson. She's really broken up about it. Anyway she says it's throat was slit wide open by some sicko. The cops think it was a hunting knife." Buffy looked over her shoulder at the simmering ex-SEAL. "That is not a vampire's style. Duh."

Giles was clearly embarrassed by his student's behavior but secretly shared her low opinion of the young man from the San Francisco House. "No, it's not. The Warden must be getting ready to perform the blood ritual I told you about. The one on freeing demons. I know I've seen the spell to counter it somewhere around here. We'll just have to keep searching. In the meantime you, Willow and Xander shouldn't let the Warden out of your sight. We need to know exactly when he makes his move." It didn't go unnoticed that the librarian was relying more heavily on his students than on the professionals he'd called in a few days earlier.

"That's a good idea. Three students hanging around the halls won't attract the attention a stranger would." Rachel quickly added her support to the plan.

She shook her head slightly in warning when her young associates both seemed ready to protest this arrangement. They needed Philip working with the old books and Nick's professionalism left something to be desired lately. At least the kids are finding some answers. Philip subsided uneasily while Nick slouched back into his chair with a resentful scowl at being left out of the action that was brewing outside the confines of the tiny research room. I'm gonna have to talk with him. This behavior is not normal, even for Nick.

Buffy made a face at him on her way back out, completely missing the silent exchange. "No problem. Xander's back in the detention room and Mr. Warden is in there keeping a personal eye on him. We can work that both ways."

Philip slammed the latest useless volume closed letting his head sink into his hands as he let out a low moan of frustration. Even his patience was starting to slip as evening slipped toward night and they still hadn't found the answer they were seeking. We know the book is here somewhere. Why can't we find it?

When Giles edged into the back room, burdened by yet another stack of possibilities, he found the young priest gazing steadily at the other source of his frustration. Sometime since the librarian had gone out to the main room Nick had fallen asleep over the book he was searching. Only his short brown hair showed over the pillow he'd made of his arms. "My god, this is the fourth time today. Does he have some sort of medical problem I should be aware of? Other than the cracked ribs that is?" The librarian was quietly amazed at such dereliction of duty from what he thought was a member of a crack team. Father Callaghan is such a good researcher, there's got to be some reason why he tolerates such an incompetent partner.

"It's the fifth time." Philip countered. "And no he doesn't, he's been a little off ever since we came here. Maybe he's comin' down with somethin'. It is flu season. Do you think we should pull Rachel or one of the kids back from stakeout duty t'help with the search? Rachel would be a good choice." Maybe she can figure out what Nick's problem is. Despite what he had said, Philip was certain whatever was bothering Nick wasn't so simple as a flu virus. He'd seen Nick before when he was feeling sick and he'd never behaved like this.

"No, that wouldn't be a good idea at all. Buffy's mother insisted on coming to the basketball game with the girls and your doctor friend needs to be there to reassure her. Besides as long as the Warden stays in the school I don't think he'll make a move until everyone has left." He paused with a sigh as he set down the armload of books. "It's your turn to wake him. The cafeteria is closed but I think there's a jar of instant coffee in the little refrigerator in my office. I'll go and make some up."

Giles popped his head back around the door before Philip could make a move toward his partner. "Unless you think tea would be better? I have some decent herbal teas that might be better for him. I mean if he's ill that is."

Philip smiled at the thought of how fast and how angry Nick would wake up if they tried to give him herb tea. "Coffee will be fine." He got up and rounded the table to see about getting Nick awake before the eager librarian could come up with any more potentially dangerous ways to help.

Nick hadn't even blinked the sleep from his eyes when Giles came back into the room looking quite perplexed at a small leather book in his hands. Philip inquired, "What's wrong? No coffee?"

"This is the book we've been looking for. The one I think might have what we need in it." He blinked at the book a few times as if unable to believe what he'd found, or rather where he had found it. "It was in the refrigerator where the milk used to be." The librarian concluded looking rather embarrassed.

Philip stared for a moment waiting for the punchline then quirked a smile. "Keep them in there often do ya?" he asked almost laughing in relief at the strange find.

"No, actually never." The librarian seemed a bit shaken at such an out of place occurrence, but dismissed it from his mind for the moment. They had work to do now that they had the proper tool in hand.

By the time Rachel and the girls talked Mrs. Summers into going home, while they went for ice cream, the school was deserted for the night. They slipped in through the door Giles had unlocked for them and headed for the library. Xander was posted in the hall outside the gym observing the Warden and Nick finally seemed to be awake enough to provide backup during the coming confrontation. They were ready for battle at last. After one last check to make certain they had all they needed the six of them set out for the gym.

Willow clung tightly to Nick's arm as they approached the gym. A faint red glow was emanating from the cracks beneath the double doors and they could hear the demon's voice faintly echoing in the empty room.

"I thought Xander was supposed to be here. Where is he?" Willow's voice was beginning to tremble.

"His crutches are right here so he can't be too far." Buffy announced grimly, holding up the crutches for all to see.

All eyes were immediately drawn to the glowing doors. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what must have happened.

Philip, who had changed into his roman collar and formal black suit, merely frowned. "Then the time for sneakin' around is over with." Armed with his crucifix in one hand and a vial of holy water in the other, he stepped into the gym to confront his nemesis. All the others could do was follow to provide the priest with emotional support and defend him against the unlikely possibility of an actual physical attack.

No time was wasted on greetings. All of Philip's training told him you don't talk to a demon. They would do anything to confuse and distract an exorcist. He began his chant even before the doors had swung closed in their wake, putting all his heart into the ancient banishment. For a moment the priest wasn't sure he'd gotten the hastily memorized words right.

The red glow that had built around the demon and his potential sacrifice began to pulsate wildly but the Warden didn't look at all pleased as his own incantation faltered to a halt. The demon roared as his head snapped around to focus on his foe. He had no time to deal with the pest now!

The glowing eyes fastened on Philip and the young priest could feel despair rising within him as old doubts floated to the surface of his mind. What place does a fallen priest have fighting something like this? Only someone who's truly righteous would have a chance. Not you. He faltered. You betrayed your vows and your God for pleasures of the flesh. You killed that poor woman using her like that and then running out on her. You didn't have the guts for that commitment either.

"NO!!" Philip screamed rejecting the thoughts. Knowing it was the demon trying to weaken him. God forgive me he nearly succeeded. "I will not let you do this t'me." He quickly started the banishment over, careful to keep his mind empty of everything but the task at hand. He seemed invincible. Unless you looked at his eyes. Those still held the brightness of tears unshed and all the anguish of a soul in torment.

The Warden began to pace within the confines of the blazing pentagram, his face contorted with his fury. He dared not cross the lines. That would mean an end to the ritual and he would have to start over tomorrow night. Instead he summoned a blazing wind from the pit to batter at his opponents.

Nick and Buffy both moved forward, working together for the first time on this case, to anchor Philip as the others were pinned to the walls. Their strength served to anchor his spirit as well as his body. This was right. He could do this. The winds faltered and stilled, leaving the loose debris left after the basketball game to float down all over the massive room.

Philip took this as a good sign and advanced to within a few feet of the creature, using the holy water now and moving between him and the boy tied to the vaulting horse the gymnastics class had left on the sidelines. The Warden had moved it to the center of the room to use as his altar. Xander could be an annoying little twit but he didn't deserve to be a sacrifice. His chanting grew in strength as the ceremonial candles at the Warden's feet blazed higher in defiance.

The others, now that they could move again, had spread out along the sidelines to cover all avenues of escape should their prey attempt to flee. He didn't. Instead, balls of flame began to rise from the candles at his feet and flung themselves wherever he pointed. Philip concentrated on what he was doing and allowed his two protectors to pull him about, out of the path of danger. His attention remained on the hellspawn before him. The scent of varnish blazing on the hardwood floor as it caught fire mingled with the cloying smell of blood from the arcane symbols on the walls. The banners put up to encourage the local team were all in flames and the demon himself had begun to burn from the combination of the flames and the holy water he was being periodically doused with. In the flickering demon light it was truly a vision of hell.

The demon's clothing and his very flesh had begun to blacken and curl when he threw back his head and began to laugh. "Insolent little cur, you won't have it so easy this time." Philip faltered to a halt uncertain what was happening. His focus had been broken again by the unexpected outburst. It looked as though he was winning but the demon didn't seem to be taking things very seriously. They all drew a breath of relief when the body immediately crumbled to dust.

The dust hadn't even settled when Nick spoke up, his voice strangely cold and harsh, "This time I prepared a retreat. One I might add you don't dare to attack for fear of hurting your friend."

The demon took advantage of the stunned moment when they all turned to gape at his new host body. His hands moved higher, grabbing the priest by that damnable collar and twisting. He might regret being so hasty later but at the moment he'd far rather throttle the life out of the brat than waste time on such intricate things as curses.

This was not acceptable to Buffy. She let go of Philip's arm and stepped back to get a better angle. She quickly used one of her patented side kicks to break the demon's hold. From the sound it made when her foot connected with Nick's side she'd also broken the ribs that had been cracked days earlier. Clutching the injured ribs the demon took off running. Leaving the others to free Xander and tend the gasping priest, Buffy put out the fires as quickly as possible before following in hot pursuit. The last thing she needed was to burn down another school.

Principal Snyder was on his way out of the building at long last. He was just passing the gym when one of Mr. Giles' visitors from San Francisco came bursting out, nearly knocking him over in his rush. Some days he thought the students and their teachers were both conspiring to make his job more difficult. It's nearly eleven o'clock! This is too much. He grabbed the stranger by one arm. "Hey, I thought I told you...Oww." He broke off as the man swung around and launched a short hard punch to his face, taking him in the nose and knocking him through the gym doors. The sight that greeted him there was unlike anything he'd seen in over twenty years of teaching. Just too much!! He thought gazing around himself as he tried to stop the blood streaming from his broken nose.

The Warden had begun to laugh by the time he reached the street. Even with the broken ribs this body was young and strong and fast. It's response to being confronted was instinctive. It had been a true pleasure taking a jab at that pompous ass, Snyder. Wonderful! This body has been trained at inflicting damage. It should be interesting finding out just how well trained.

A quiet looking man waiting at the bus stop looked up as the somewhat intoxicated looking young man came bounding out the school gate laughing hysterically. He frowned briefly and checked his watch. The bus wasn't due for a while anyway and this boy looked like he needed to hear what he had to say. The reverend is always telling us that if we can just reach one person it's worth all the slamming doors. "Excuse me." he called, approaching the stranger. "Do you know Jesus Christ?"

The Warden couldn't believe his good fortune. It looked like he wasn't going to have to wait to learn what this body was truly capable of. "All too well." The demon responded with a wicked grin as his first blow knocked the man to the pavement.

By the time the Slayer came charging out of the school only minutes later, the unfortunate stranger lay unconscious on the ground. His blood glistened darkly in the glare from the single street lamp. The boy was highly skilled indeed. The demon could hear bones breaking as he kicked the man. Now however wasn't the time for pleasure. There was still a chance to complete the ritual tomorrow night. But only if he remained free. He took one last kick at the do-gooder before fleeing into the night, trusting the evasion skills of his host body to leave his pursuer far behind.

It was nearly two in the morning before Philip and Rachel got back to their motel. The police had detained them for over two hours when they reached the scene in answer to Snyder's call and they were both exhausted. Rachel followed Philip into the room he and Nick had been sharing, snapping the light on as she shut the door behind them.

"It isn't over yet. One of us still has to call Derek and tell him what's happened." Rachel hoped that Philip would volunteer for the job but she wasn't counting on it. He'd been badly shaken by the sight of the man Nick had beaten outside of the school. The only thing Philip had said during the drive back to the motel was that it was all his fault. That he'd known something was wrong with Nick and he should have done something about it. Nothing she had said could make him believe otherwise.

"An' tell him what, Rachel? That Nick's been possessed and you've got half the Sunnydale police force out huntin' him like a rabid animal?" Philip demanded, giving way to the fear he felt for the man he considered a brother. The man he feared was lost to them. "What were you thinkin' tellin' 'em all those crazy things about Nick? They think he did all that in the gym. That he's some kind of madman!"

Rachel broke into this rising hysteria harshly. "I didn't tell them anything Nick hasn't actually done, though I admit it was out of context. Most of it anyway." Her thoughts went to the time Nick had opened fire at the magic props in the back of an empty nightclub when he couldn't contain his anger and frustration at not finding the man they were looking for. She had actually been afraid of him then. "What was I supposed to tell them? The truth? It's bad enough Giles got suspended for letting us in there. We didn't need to be hauled off by the police as some sort of crazed cultists."

When Philip sank down on the nearest bed and seemed to be listening she went on in a gentler tone. "The police have a better chance of finding him than we do. They aren't going to put him in jail if they think he's had some kind of mental breakdown. Getting him released from a hospital will be a lot easier than getting him released from jail for attempted murder." She smiled at the thought of another time she had truly doubted her colleague's sanity. "Besides, anybody who'd play Russian roulette with a ghost needs his head examined."

She was relieved when the priest finally cracked a smile. Philip had nearly gone through the roof on Nick when he came home from a visit to Belfast and heard about the risk his friend had taken on behalf of a dead woman. She brushed the long hair out of Philip's eyes in an uncharacteristic show of affection for the young priest. "Get some sleep. When they do find Nick you're going to have your work cut out for you. I'll call Derek from my room before I turn in. He'll want to be here." She wasn't looking forward to Derek's reaction to the news but it was better he take it out on her at this point than on Philip. She didn't think he could handle the precept's temper right now. She wasn't sure she could either.

Alex wasn't really surprised to find all the lights in the castle blazing at three in the morning. She just hoped whatever was going on was being handled. All she wanted to do was get a decent eight hours of sleep in her own bed. Convincing that spirit in San Ysidro that, no, the new tenants didn't like having their furniture rearranged in the middle of the night had been a job and a half. She sighed in exasperation. The guy at the charter boat place had been nearly as hard headed as the ghost but he'd finally agreed to bring her to the private dock below the castle despite the ungodly hour. Tomorrow would be soon enough to tell the others that she was back. If I'd known everybody was up I could have saved myself some trouble and phoned for the launch.

She'd barely gotten into the house when Derek came charging down the main staircase with his overnight bag in hand. He looked terrible. That flu bug must really be taking it's toll on him. Her curiosity got the better of her. She had to find out what could get their normally unflappable precept out of bed at this hour in his current condition. "What's going on? Where is everybody?"

Relief washed over the haggard features when he caught sight of her standing in the foyer. "Alex, I'm glad you're back! We need to leave for Sunnydale right away." He took her arm, turning her around to head back into the fog shrouded night. "I'll explain everything on the way. You're driving."

Deep within the wounded creature that was once a person, a consciousness had begun to stir. The Warden smiled from his hiding place beneath the dais of the old church. The shock was beginning to wear off of his host's mind. Soon the boy should find all the wonderful little surprises I've prepared for him. Pity his friend can't share in them. For now he'd have to stay out of sight but in a few hours when the search had lessened he had preparations to make. There was still a ceremony to get ready for. He was glad now that he hadn't succeeded in killing the exorcist. After the ritual he would have the pleasure of watching his newly freed associate turn the young priest into a blood drinker, unable to bear the sight of the cross he'd sworn to serve. For young Philip that will be nearly as great a torment as the one I've planned for my new pet.

Nick woke up shivering with cold. The wet stone beneath him had chilled him to the bone. Only once he was on his feet in a combat crouch did he take the time to wonder how he'd gotten from the gym to this dark cavern. The dim lights set high in the stone walls did little to cut through the billowing fog that separated him from reality. His hand slid instinctively to where his holster should be at the small of his back. His gun was gone. He had to find the others. The last thing he remembered was the Warden flaming like a torch. Something had obviously gone very wrong after that.

A noise drew him into one of the jagged corridors that branched from the main room. His eyes flickered about, on the lookout for attack. The warrior slipped towards the light streaming from what looked like an alcove.

The chill in his bones crept into his heart at the sight he beheld. The early morning sun was streaming through the window of a playroom. He knew this place. It was the finished attic in his parent's old house. The one directly above the master bedroom. This isn't happening. The little boy sitting on the floor in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons was him.

As the boy began bouncing excitedly around the room, miming the actions of his favorite heroes, Nick tried to step forward. To warn him. No. Please. You're gonna wake him up! His throat closed on the words before they could escape and an icy hand held him where he was. There would be no intervention and no escape. Too late. The man was in the room and had grabbed the boy by the back of his neck before the child even knew his sanctuary had been invaded.

His father's face was still flushed with alcohol. Lines of pain radiated out from his eyes. This was when he was most dangerous. That terrible time when the hangover first started to dig in. The first blow knocked the child to the floor. He tried to curl into a protective ball and wait it out but even this slight refuge was denied him this time. The man hauled him upright by twisting one thin arm and started slapping him. "You can't ever think of anyone but yourself, can you?" Jonathan Boyle shouted, losing control as he struck his only son harder and harder. "All I ask is a little peace and quiet when I'm home and my lousy kid can't even manage that. Am I gonna have to beat some consideration into you? Huh? Am I?"

He'd started shaking his small son too hard for the child to answer even if he'd had one to give the angry man. By now the young man on the threshold was in tears, feeling every blow his child-self suffered. Only his ears caught the word the child whimpered several minutes later as he lost consciousness under the renewed rain of blows. Mommy? She never came. She didn't dare.

He remembered this beating. One of the worst. He had woken up in a hospital bed and hadn't left it for a week. He hadn't been able to hear anything but ringing for days afterwards. Then even that small sound had left him. The whole time his parents acted like he really had fallen down the steep attic stairs like they had told the admitting nurse in the ER when they brought him in.

The doctor on duty that morning had treated this same child for suspicious injuries twice before in the past three months. This time he notified Child Protective Services, but it was hard to question a child who couldn't hear and hadn't learned to read or write yet. By the time the swelling in his brain had lessened and the boy could understand people again, the gentle woman who had sat by his bed and watched him draw with the crayons she brought had been removed from his case. Her superiors had been afraid of antagonizing a man of Jonathan Boyle's standing in the community. They had even dismissed the damningly violent drawings she'd kept as stemming from the boy's frustration at his hearing loss. A new caseworker had come to the house two months after the beating. He had plainly wanted Nick to confirm his father's story so he could close a file he felt the less experienced caseworker should never have opened. Even at that age Nick had known better than to try and tell a grownup anything they didn't want to hear. They wouldn't have believed him and it would only have made things worse.

The watcher started to back away as the eldritch grip that held him loosened. He nearly fell over the small woman standing behind him. Her hair was brushed forward to try and hide the bruises her husband had inflicted when he'd staggered home the night before. Nick backed away a few paces. This was not the way he remembered his mother looking. Her eyes had always been so tired and sad, not bitter and accusing like this woman's eyes. He had always been able to turn to his mother for comfort as a child but he couldn't imagine turning to this woman for anything.

"Why do you always have to antagonize him?" She demanded clutching the collar of her robe more tightly to her neck. "The girls never provoked him like that. You brought this down on us all. You realize you weren't even supposed to be born, don't you? We were a happy family with everything planned out. Then we got a little careless and all our plans got pushed aside for the baby. That's when he started drinking you know. When you came along. You ruined all our lives!"

He had always known he was an accident because he was so much younger than his two sisters but even Maureen, who hated him, had never pointed it out this cruelly. Nick started to back away, shaken by the verbal assault, but the woman followed.

"If it weren't for you I'd have been able to go back to school and I'd have had a career of my own instead of living off your Dad's social security." Her eyes blazed with hate as the woman played her final card. "Jenny killed herself because of you. If I'd gotten the abortion your father wanted me to have, then my beautiful little girl would still be alive." His mother began to cry, screaming the last words at him.

Nick could feel his world slipping, tilting beneath him. Shaking his head he held onto the only thing he was sure of in this strange, twisted world he'd awakened in. "Jenny loved me. She killed herself because of him not me. Just like Maureen ran away because of him. You're not real. None of this is real!" He turned away and ran before his fragile defenses could be unraveled any farther. He didn't get far before hard hands grabbed his shoulders and spun him around to stand at attention against the wall.

The wall of the grinder where thousands of SEAL trainees were put to the test by instructors trying to weed out those unfit for the teams. One of the night instructors was glaring menacingly into his eyes. "Do you know what it means when a SEAL dies, Boyle?" The man snarled.

It was the third day into the dreaded Hell Week. During this time he'd slept a grand total of two hours. He had been too cold to sleep during the first rest period the class was allowed, immersed to his neck in Coronado Bay. The pain and exhaustion of those days came crashing down on him, forcing him to relive the scene. His mind had drawn a complete blank. "N-no, Sir." He stammered out weakly.

"It means somebody screwed up! Just like Boyle here screwed up when he couldn't answer my simple question!" The man raised his voice to address the rest of the line before returning his focus to the hapless teen Nick had been back then. "There is no excuse for a SEAL to die in combat! You had better start paying attention to me boy. I will wash you out of this class before I let you graduate and get any good men killed. Hit the surf!" The man yelled, sending him running for a cold dip in the Pacific as punishment for not knowing the answer.

When he came out of the water he was no longer in Coronado or the cavern he'd woken up in, but by now he'd quit trying to understand what was happening to him and was merely trying to survive it. He wasn't surprised when someone grabbed him from behind and dragged him into an all too familiar jungle. Nick bit at the hand clamped over his mouth and began to twist and buck until the man lost his grip. It was a hollow victory.

When he staggered to his feet, hands raised to defend himself, the instructor's words still rang in his head. "When a SEAL gets killed it's because somebody screwed up." He was surrounded by the animated corpses of his platoon. The men who'd been killed because he screwed up.

Tom Anderson, who had always been fairly indifferent to the newcomer, shoved him hard enough to send the lighter man reeling to the other side of the hostile circle. "What did you think you were supposed to be doing up there, huh? Taking a walk in the park?" On the far side Riley Kincaid caught him by one shoulder and sent him spinning off in another direction, angrily informing him, "You were on point! That means you were supposed to be watching for any kind of trap. To warn us." Paul Kohler roughly fended off his staggering teammate, demanding, " How the hell did you get through BUDS without being able to spot an ambush that size?"

Thick, strong arms reached out and grabbed him before he could answer them. Nick found himself pinned with his back against someone's blood soaked chest, unable to get his arms up to defend himself. Jaimie Crandall's knife was a cold, unyielding pressure against the wildly throbbing artery in his neck. The weight-lifter tightened his grip, forcing most of the remaining air out of his captive's lungs. "Maybe he did see it and just decided to save himself." He suggested darkly, drawing a shallow line of pain down Nick's neck with the knife as he sent him reeling across the circle once more.

This time Nick caught his foot on a tree root and tumbled to the uneven ground midway across the clearing before he could be grabbed again. He clamped one hand to his neck trying to stop the line of blood trickling down his throat. "That's not the way it happened! Richter sold us out. There was nothing I could do." No one answered as he climbed to his feet gasping for breath his eyes wide and dark with shock.

"Yes, there was." The renegade CO spoke from behind him. "If you'd been doing your job those men would still be alive. Who sold you out shouldn't have made a difference." Nick whirled around to find his whereabouts had shifted again. The gunmetal gray walls of the debriefing room aboard the USS Nebraska greeted him. He knew every seam in these walls. This was where they had kept him for questioning after the extraction. They'd made him go over every detail of the operation, repeatedly, for days trying to figure out what went wrong. To assign blame for the deaths of an entire platoon.

"Face it kid, you weren't cut out for this. I told you that the day they saddled me with you after the Gulf War." Richter turned to address the officer behind the desk. "The kid was derelict in his duties. Just look at the blood still on his hands. He's a murderer, Skipper, and I say we make an example of him."

Nick glanced down, horrified to see Richter was right. Though his surroundings were shifting he wasn't. He still wore the street clothes he'd put on that morning only now they were covered in dirt from the jungle floor. At least he thought it was only that morning. His hands were slick from the blood Jamie's knife had drawn. My blood. No...this isn't really happening. Is it?

"I agree. This one has never been anything but a disappointment." The voice coming from behind the desk was enough to make Nick start shaking even through the cocoon of shock that had closed in around him. The man regarding him so intently was his father. This isn't how it happened. He was already dead. The SEALs were my chance to get out of his shadow. He was never a part of this! This can't be happening.

"You killed all those men just like you planned to kill me." The man got up and came to stand inches from his son's pale face. Nick's mind was screaming for him to run, to escape from the horror that he now realized was his own soul being torn open, but the eldritch grip he'd felt before was holding him again. Whatever was coming next he wasn't going to be allowed to run away from it.

"You didn't think I knew about that did you? You actually thought you could buy a gun from some guy in a back alley without somebody seeing you and telling me. I suppose I should be grateful you didn't get picked up by the cops and disgrace me any worse, pulling a stunt like that."

The disgust in the older man's voice was like a knife twisting in Nick's gut and he briefly, deliriously, wondered if it was possible to be sick to your stomach in a nightmare. He started shaking his head dumbly in denial. "That's not the way it was. I just wanted to stop the pain. I wasn’t going to kill you, I was going to kill me!" His voice began to rise in volume, anguish twisting his heart as tears began to flood the green eyes.

He remembered how scared he'd been, kneeling in the woods behind the house with the gun in his hands trying to find the courage to use it before the old man came back from his latest trip and tore into him again. He'd nearly done it when he heard someone coming toward him but managed to hide the weapon when he realized it was Dr. Rayne's voice calling him. The young precept had come to tell them about his father's death in Saskatchewan. He never knew what he'd interrupted or the guilty relief that washed through the fifteen year old when he was told the man he should have been able to look to for protection, the man he'd lived his childhood in fear of, wasn't coming back from this trip.

"Why didn't you? You never did have the guts to follow through on anything." The dead man regarded him coldly. "I never expected much from the girls but you were my son. You should have been special. My legacy. Instead your weakness shames me in front of my own House. I know all about your pitiful little future. You'll always be nobody and nothing. A burden on your House."

Nick slid down the wall at his back pulling his knees in close to his chest as the room shifted dizzily around him, taking on the familiar lines of the peaceful study room on Angel Island where he retreated when his work didn't require the Legacy's powerful computers. A soft moan forced it's way past his lips as his father's features melted into Derek's. Only it wasn't Derek. It can't be him. Even when his precept was angry with him there was always caring in the man's eyes. Not in this creature's eyes though. These eyes seemed to bore right through him, pinning him to the wall at his back.

"He's right you know. I knew when I let you into my House all that you'd been and ever would be. I'm psychic remember?" he teased cruelly. "I must have been a fool jeopardizing the Legacy like that, but you were Jonathan's son and I promised him that I would look out for you. You couldn't have survived in the real world by yourself."

"No more. Please, no more." Nick whispered brokenly to the demon he knew must be controlling events from somewhere. He'd been in the Legacy long enough to realize that possession was the only explanation for what was happening to him. He tucked his head tightly against his knees and covered his ears, ashamed of his pain, as harsh sobs wrenched their way from his throat. Please God, make it stop. He pleaded silently. It's all twisted up and I can't take this anymore. Someone, somewhere must have heard the pitiful little prayer. Mercifully, darkness stole across his mind before it could be broken completely.

Beneath the dais of an old church a demon smiled and stretched luxuriously. It didn't bother him that something had drawn a protective veil over his captive's mind. There would be plenty of time for more entertainment later. It was time to gather more supplies for the blood ritual before the enemy reinforcements could arrive. They would surely send some kind of help after the way he had beaten them and taken one of their own hostage.

"You admit you noticed Nick was acting strangely! You knew the Warden took control of him once before, but you didn't think it was important enough to look into! What were you thinking Philip?" The precept paced angrily in front of the young man sitting on the bed.

"I don' know Derek. I was busy with the research an' he just seemed out o' sorts from the hurt ribs. I wasn' thinkin'." The priest hunched his shoulders miserably, unable to meet the older man's eyes. At least only Rachel and Alex were witness to the fiery dressing down. Giles and the kids were in the motel suite's tiny front room monitoring the police scanner for any news about Nick.

"Come on Derek. You can't blame Philip for all of this." Rachel spoke up from the windowsill she had retreated to after Derek finished yelling at her for involving the police any further than the school principal already had. "Nick's done some pretty strange things without being possessed. I noticed the way Nick was acting too and didn't do anything, and I'm supposed to be trained in spotting abnormal behavior." The psychiatrist pointed out, feeling guilty both for her failure to help Nick and for letting Philip take the heat alone for the past quarter hour.

Derek's eyebrows shot up at the interruption but Alex broke in before he could respond. I've had just about enough of this! It's time someone put things in perspective here, she thought. "None of that matters now. Don't you see that until we can find Nick and free him, the Warden has a hostage he can use against us? The police are taking care of the finding angle." Her brown eyes shot sparks at her boss, daring him to say one more word about the police being involved. "Let's get to work on a way to get this demon out once they have him."

The awkward pause that followed was broken when Buffy poked her head through the door. "Uh...I really hate to interrupt whatever's going on here but I think you guys had better hear this."

A grim silence held the room when Derek snapped off the scanner and turned to face his people. Chatter over the police band had painted too clear a picture. A robbery interrupted, a clerk hospitalized with a fractured skull, and worst of all, an off duty cop shot in the stomach when he'd confronted the thief. All courtesy of their possessed comrade.

"I don't think we can wait any longer for the police to find Nick for us. Rachel, I want you to find out all you can about the condition of the victims and what items were stolen. Alex, take Miss Summers and search the cemetery. That seems to be a favorite hangout for the local night dwellers so be careful. Philip, you and Miss Rosenberg will check the local churches. The Warden might try for holy ground this time. Such a desecration would strengthen his spells." The precept hammered out his orders with precision, automatically taking charge of the situation. He was forced to pause briefly however when a coughing fit overtook him.

That was all the break Xander needed. "What about me? I mean I want to do something here too, you know."

"Yeah, I think everybody needs to pitch in. We've been talking and we all feel pretty bad about the way some of us treated your friend." The Slayer came to stand before the Legacy precept, almost shy in her effort to apologize. "At any rate I want you to know I'm sorry for the things I said, and did, to him."

"Well said, Buffy." Her mentor murmured from his corner.

Derek however merely raised an eyebrow as he straightened up, red faced from coughing, and stuffed his handkerchief back into his pocket, not quite ready to forgive any of them yet. "I'm sure Nick will be glad to hear it once he's himself again." He informed the girl coldly. His level gaze turned itself to the boy propped against the wall on his crutches. "You, Mr. Harris, I'd like to remain here listening to the police reports. I'll leave our cell phone numbers for you in case there's any news. Mr. Giles, you're with me." He tore off the sheet of note paper he'd been scribbling on and dropped it by the scanner as he exited the room, confident his orders would be carried out without question. There was no time to waste if they were to find Nick before the police did. They had all heard the dispatcher authorize the use of deadly force to bring down the potential cop killer.

The precept leaned his fevered head against the cool metal of the car door while he waited for the Watcher to join him. He wished his sight would kick in and give him some clue of where to start searching but he didn't really expect it to. The capricious talent rarely worked when he was ill and true to form it wasn't helping him now. We must find a way to save Nick. I will not pay this price for victory.

The grim atmosphere in the black range rover hadn't lightened two hours later when Rachel called to inform them that both the clerk and the police officer were expected to recover completely given time. The man from outside the school was the most serious case. He was on dialysis as a result of both kidneys being ruptured during the beating but reportedly was refusing to press any charges against his attacker.

"Get this Derek. He apparently told the nurses that Nick must be deeply disturbed to savagely attack a total stranger like he did. He said, 'The young man needs our prayers not our condemnation.'" The somewhat cynical psychiatrist informed her superior in disbelief. "Apparently he's some kind of door to door missionary. That's what the nurse said anyway."

"For Nick's sake I hope he continues to feel that way." Derek hung up without ceremony, making a mental note to have his lawyers take care of the man's medical expenses. The nervous figure in the passenger seat continued to scan the street for the red mustang, unwilling to call the attention of the critical precept to himself by asking about the conversation.

He was still cringing inside over the things his precept had had to say about endangering innocent children and revealing too much information to outsiders. Derek Rayne had made it quite clear that he was in charge of all Legacy matters in the area and was to be kept informed of all unusual occurrences. He had also made it clear that the librarian was to answer to him not the London House as long as he was in his territory. Despite the relative autonomy normally granted to the Watcher, Giles was disinclined to argue with the man in his current mood.

The Warden stood at the door to the sanctuary to survey his handiwork one last time before going to find a proper sacrifice. The simple wooden cross that covered half the front wall had been inverted and resecured. Below it the candles and incense he'd stolen that morning were laid out in the ancient shape of the pentagram. Most of the windows were cracked or broken allowing the spring winds to riffle through the room and play with the pages torn from the bibles and hymn books. The beautifully polished wooden pews had all been overturned. Some had even splintered as they fell against one another. That last had been quite difficult with three broken ribs but the demon had simply channeled the pain to the body's rightful owner and gone about his business.

"You realize that even if your friends manage a last minute rescue, your reputation is quite destroyed now. We've been quite a bad boy today." Though the demon spoke the words aloud, they echoed through the fog filled cavern where his captive was trapped within his own mind. To his disappointment the ex-SEAL lay unresponsive on the cold stone floor, gasping from the pain of drawing breath past the broken bones. Pity. I didn't think he'd break so easily. I had so many more things to show him.

The Warden stepped out into the gathering dusk. Then again I might still have the chance. As a soldier he'd know to save his strength until there's a real chance of breaking free. The boy was cunning and might well be up to something. Oddly enough, the notion that he hadn't won just yet put the demon in a good mood. He began to whistle jauntily as he went in search of an appropriate victim. A virgin can't be that hard to find in a backwards little place like this.

Willow walked slowly toward the old Baptist church on the next block, thinking about the handsome young man she'd been daydreaming about for the past few days. It isn't fair! The last guy I liked turned out to be a demon and now this one is possessed by one. She brushed the tears out of her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself the way that Buffy had taught her. We have to find him. He just wasn't ready for the Warden. That's all. If we can find him we can help him fight this. It was hard to be brave after all the dead ends they'd run into today. Even the Legacy people had started to sound discouraged as they checked in. The priest she'd been with had wanted to stay at St. John of the Woods long enough to say a prayer and light a candle for his friend. Not being Catholic, Willow had felt strange about hanging around and had promised her companion she'd wait for him outside the next church. She couldn't help feeling they were on the wrong track here but she'd wait for Philip before going in anyway.

She was so lost in thought she nearly screamed when she bumped into someone in the shadows beneath the oak tree leaning over the sidewalk. Then it was too late as a hand covered her mouth and the ex-SEAL's strong arms began to drag her down the empty street. "It looks like this is my lucky night. I thought I'd actually have to go looking for a sacrifice and here one walks right into my arms." The cruel delight sounded foreign coming from Nick, making her freeze in terror just long enough for him to cover the short distance to the old church.

Willow stared round eyed at her captor as the demon secured her to the alter with lengths plastic encased wire from a stolen clothesline. "Please Nick, don't let him do this! You can fight back. Giles said you beat him before!" She fought to hold back her tears, hoping to break through to the handsome stranger. To delay the demon until Father Callaghan got there. It couldn't take that long to say a prayer for someone after all. Please God, I know it's really strange to hear a Jewish girl in a Baptist church asking you to send a Catholic priest, but if you could do this just this once I swear I'll go to Temple every Sabbath and never break another commandment ever again.

She watched with growing horror as the demon laughed at her and raised a heavy knife to his own left wrist. "Sorry, but you've confused this one with his partner. I'm afraid our friend Nicholas is quite unable to save even himself just now. Isn't that right, Nick?" The demon allowed the boy to see what was happening as he savagely ripped a six inch gash across the wrist and down his forearm. He could feel the captive soul shrinking back in horror from the method of his own impending death. The Warden was laughing again as he turned to write on the white plaster walls with the blood streaming from the deep wound.

This was too much for the sixteen year old. She closed her eyes tightly as she finished her prayer. Just please if you plan to send help, send it fast!

Her eyes popped open again almost immediately. Hard as it was to watch what was happening, not knowing was worse. The Warden wrote quickly, filling the walls with the dark symbols ritual required. When the bright arterial blood didn't flow rapidly enough to keep pace he angrily made a nearly identical gash in the right forearm, barely able to control the blade with the damaged left hand.

"You should be more careful. If he loses too much blood he could die before you're through with him." Willow informed the creature with a false calm designed to irritate it and buy time for them both.

Ignoring her, he finished the symbols with unnatural speed. Her captor came back to the alter and smiled Nick's quirky smile at her. "I'm afraid neither of you are that lucky. He'll die very shortly, but not before you. It should be quite a blow to his teammates. Not only will they lose their friend but they'll have to live with the knowledge he's damned to hell because his soul was possessed at the moment of his death." The crooked smile vanished as the Warden raised the knife above her, blood dripping from the slashed wrists onto her. Willow turned her face away to escape the dripping blood and closed her eyes so she wouldn't have to see the knife fall. "Don't worry my dear, by dying in an unholy rite you'll have an eternity in hell with him to pursue your little infatuation."

Philip glanced anxiously up the street hoping to catch sight of Willow from the stairs. It had grown dark while he was inside and he felt guilty for leaving the girl alone for so long and inexplicably frantic at not seeing her waiting for him. The local priest had approached him when he had finished his prayers, concerned by the tears he'd been unable to hold back any longer. Still stinging from his precept's hard words he'd gratefully accepted the chance to unburden his soul through confession. An’ the man didna believe a word of it. Such thin's aren't part o' his world.

He'd been trying to find a polite way to excuse himself from the man's kindly speech about the demons men make for themselves when he'd been seized with fear that something was terribly wrong. He'd finally taken the card he was offered for some local crisis center and run from the church. Philip saw no one at all on the dark street and cursed himself for splitting the team up. Damn you for a weak fool, Philip Callaghan. If anythin's happened t'the lass it'll be all yer own fault. When first one then two police cars turned silently into the street, lights flashing, he knew beyond any doubt where both missing persons were. He began to run, covering the distance to the old church faster than he'd ever covered the length of a soccer field. He was not, however, as fast as the patrol cars or their armed occupants.

The priest burst through the double doors, screaming his friend's name as the nearest officer caught him across the chest with both arms. The officer pushed him to the floor, pinning him face down, out of harm’s way. The other three opened fire on the pale figure swaying unsteadily at the alter, blood streaming down the arms that held the knife over the terrified girl. Philip twisted his head, frantically trying to see what was happening as the cell phone in his jacket pocket started to ring.

The sharp trill of her cell phone nearly made Alex jump out of her skin. The sun had barely set when they'd been attacked by a lone vampire looking for a snack. Her companion had taken care of it with reassuring ease but the encounter had left them both a little jumpy. Before she even had a chance to say hello, Buffy snatched the phone from her hand.

"This had better be good news, Xander. It's starting to get creepy out here." The Slayer snapped turning a slow circle as she spoke, wooden stake in hand, to watch for anything that might have mistaken the phone for a dinner bell.

"And it's always a pleasure to talk to you too, Buffy." Xander replied with smooth sarcasm before getting down to business. "You're outta there. Some busybody on Crescent Drive spotted a young guy grab a girl off the street and called the cops. She also said that he stole her clothesline. Chatter on the scanner says it's our boy. The bossman wants everybody to rendezvous at the hospital. Uh, could you guys come pick me up on your way there?"

Buffy grabbed Alex's hand and, without any explanation, headed for the older woman's car, still talking on the confiscated phone. "Why meet there?"

"The cops called for an ambulance. They said it didn't look like the suspect was gonna make it. They said he slit his wrists." The boy paused uncomfortably. "I couldn't get a hold of Willow or Father Callaghan but the cops just ran a check on him. Whatever went down he was part of it."

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