xxmagex (xxmagex) wrote,

The Road Back Part 57b


*******

Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. The same time


Gwen Raiden knew she was in real trouble, as the rest of the Fang Gang gathered around her body - which had been blasted backwards into the glass doors of the weapons cabinet, from the latest vision to assault her mind.

It had been a fairly slow night up until now; everyone but Cordelia had been present, and Angel’s Avengers had been talking about setting up a surprise party for Ms. Chase - whose birthday was just a few weeks away. Off to one side, Darla had been feeding Connor and talking with Angel about Wolfram & Hart's latest offensive to steal their baby...which had been interrupted by a sudden legal attack on the firm by the U.S. government, led by a newly recruited government attorney...

Lindsey McDonald. The only lawyer to ever successfully get away from the evil law firm, apparently.

But then Gwen’s head had almost exploded, and now the Electra Girl found herself outside her own body in a rather bizarre case of astral projection.

“Gwen? Gwen!!” Gunn shouted, cursing as he went to reach down and touch her - and then he hurriedly back off, knowing that to do so would kill him.

“She’s still alive. She's still breathing, and her heart's still beating,” Darla said, handing Connor off to his father and ignoring the lethal electric shocks as she examined the comatose brunette for herself. Darla stepped back, her heart beating once or twice from the shocks as she calmed herself down.

“This - is getting too weird,” Gwen muttered, before she tried to get everyone’s attention but failed miserably. Desperate, she stood right in front of Wesley - but the British man walked right through her astral form. “Yuck!”

“We gotta get Gwen to a hospital!” Charles sounded very worried.

“What do you think the doctors there are gonna do, Gunn? I’ll tell you what they’ll do - the same thing they did with Cordelia a few years ago, when she had a vision overload thanks to that demon named Vocah. They’ll put Gwen into a smelly hospital bed, hook up all kinds of machines to her body, and eventually tell us that they don’t understand what’s going on - and that they can’t help her,” Angel said pessimistically.

“But-” Charles started to protest.

“No, Gunn, trust me; we gotta solve this ourselves,” Angel said firmly. “Call Lorne and tell him to get over here pronto. Wes, you hit the books. I’ll check on Cordelia, make sure something like this hasn’t happened to her as well. Darla, help me move Gwen to the couch...”

Ms. Raiden could only watch helplessly, as Angel handed off Connor to Wesley and the Angel Investigations crew swung into action. It turned out that Cordelia was more-or-less fine, and had received the same vision she had; of a three-eyed Skilosh demon which was about to attack a bus full of people. So Angel reluctantly had to go out and play hero, and there was nothing to do except wait until Lorne showed up.

“Jumping Judas on a unicycle. What happened here?” the Host of Caritas demanded, as the anagogic demon walked through the front doors of the hotel. “I was right in the middle of some serious wedding preparations, guys and girls, when I got your phone call. What gives?”

“Gwen’s in a coma,” said Gunn, the worry obvious to everyone present. “Just after she had another one of those goddamn visions. You gotta do something, man!”

“Ooh, I'm picking up some hardcore woo-woo vibes in the room. This ain't medical, kids. It's mystical,” Lorne said regretfully. He closed his eyes and held up his arms, using long-ignored Pylean techniques to try to figure out what was wrong with the vision girl.

“Are you picking up anything?” Wesley asked, putting down the latest tome he’d been reading.

“Nope. Not a darn thing,” Lorne reported, which caused Gwen’s astral form to sigh in exasperation.

“Well, try again!” Gunn ordered him roughly.

“Ah, sorry if I didn’t make myself clear, big guy; but when I said I wasn’t picking up anything, I mean that literally. Gwen’s not in there anymore.”

“Well, yeah, I already knew that!” Ms. Raiden barked out regarding Lorne’s comment, even though no one heard her.

“What do ya mean, she’s not in there anymore?!” Charles looked like he was officially starting to freak out.

“I mean your girl is gone, Slim Jim. As in the lights are on, but no one’s home right now,” the Host of Caritas pointed at Gwen’s body. “And there’s nothing *I* can do about that.”

“So what exactly are you saying, Lorne? Gwen’s essence is currently astral-projecting, or something like that?” Wesley asked, the ex-Watcher’s big squishy lobes working overtime to try to figure out a solution to this problem.

“Yes! That’s it! I’m astral projecting! Now, just figure out a way to put me back in my body! Call the Siberians on this, if you have to!” Gwen shouted loudly, albeit pointlessly.

“That’s one possibility,” Lorne nodded in reply to Wesley’s question. “I got some people I need to talk to who might be able to help. I’ll be back - just make sure ya keep our beautiful young thief here alive until then, okay?”

“We’ll do our best,” Wes promised, just as Connor began to cry and Darla took her infant son upstairs for some peace and quiet; leaving the black man and the Englishman alone. “Charles?”

“She might die, man. She might die tonight, and I never even told Gwen how I really feel about her,” Gunn shook his head, looking as if he was trapped in the middle of a nightmare.

“I’m sure she knows, Gunn. Just about everyone around here does by now. I mean, it’s hardly a secret that you two have been growing...closer...over the past few months,” Wesley said rather awkwardly.

“Still shoulda said something, English,” Gunn responded hollowly. “Guess I forgot how short life can be, after I hooked up with you guys. Back when I was leading my own crew, I’d have told her in a frickin’ heartbeat. I’ve gotten soft, that’s what it is!”

“Oh, damn it, Gunn - will you *stop* with the stupid blame game and pity party already?!” Gwen shouted. “I’m not gonna die! I...uh-oh...” the ghostly young woman trailed off, as black smoke suddenly materialized in front of her.

The smoke then solidified into a silver-colored, armored demon. “Hi there. Name’s Skip.”

“Skip?” Gwen repeated in amazement. “Who ever heard of a demon named Skip?”

“Well, what can I tell you? My mother was a comedienne,” Skip shrugged. Then he caught sight of the body on the couch and nodded to himself. “You’re Gwen Raiden, right? Sorry it took me so long to get here, traffic was a real bitch.”

“Whatever. Okay, pal, let’s hear it; exactly who are you? And did the Siberians send you to help me?” Gwen demanded. “If they did, I’m actually kinda surprised. I wouldn’t have thought Marcum would be able to talk Jarhead into it!”

“You have questions. I get that. And I'll answer them, too, promise - but first, we gotta get out of here,” Skip said.

“Why?” Gwen said suspiciously. Then she stripped off the glove from her right arm.

“Bottom line? You don't belong here anymore,” Skip said rather cryptically. “Come on.” He reached out to grab her shoulder, and Gwen instantly blasted him with her powers...

...or at least she tried to, but nothing happened. There was no lightning barrage, not even a spark of electricity. Gwen couldn’t believe it as she muttered, “What the-?”

“Astral projection. Your powers are tied to your body, which you’re currently not inhabiting,” Skip explained, looking regretful. “Lemme cut to the chase, Ms. Raiden - you can stay here, or you can come with me. But you choose door number one, then you’re gonna die very soon. On account of a human body can’t last without its soul for too long. So what’s it gonna be?”

“Can you *really* help me?” Gwen demanded.

“It’s why I’m here,” Skip nodded.

“All right, then tell Wes and Gunn here-” the Electra Girl started to say.

“Sorry, no can do. I'm not a messenger; I'm just a guide,” the evil demon mercenary lied with a perfectly straight face. “Now, you coming or not?”

Gwen thought about it for a few seconds. Even though she hated to admit it, she was scared; in fact, more scared than she had ever been in her entire life. She felt helpless without her powers; trapped and alone, apart from this demon stranger who had literally shown up out of nowhere. Did she dare trust him?

Slowly, Gwen nodded. Without a word, Skip put a huge silver hand on her shoulder, and both human and demon vanished with a flash of blue light.

*******

A place where nothing is as what it seems. A moment later


Gwen looked around, blinking to clear the flash of blue light from her eyes. “What the-? Is this the Gulag?” the female seer demanded, looking around the deserted room which looked exactly like STW headquarters in Georgetown, Washington D.C. She then turned around to face Skip. “I thought this was a demon no-go zone. So what gives?”

“Ah, maybe I should explain; this isn’t actually the mortal realm. It’s - well, I guess you could call it the astral plane,” Skip explained. “It’s not the real deal, just a construct - something we thought you’d find at least somewhat reassuring.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Gwen demanded.

Skip shrugged. “The Powers That Be.”

“The same people who’ve been slowly killing me, with all the visions that I’ve been getting lately?” Ms. Raiden demanded sarcastically. “Look, let’s cut the crap. Why did you bring me here?!”

“To give you a choice, but we’ll get into that a bit later. First off, I’ve got something to show you.” With that, Skip activated the room’s projector screen and killed the lights as the show got started.

“That’s me,” Gwen said suspiciously, seeing herself creeping through some dark building. “And Cordelia? Hang on - this is the night I got the visions from her!” Gwen exclaimed, seeing herself slap a gloved hand over Cordelia’s lips. And then the Native American artifact hanging around Ms. Chase’s neck started to glow like a supernova, as blue light flowed from Cordy’s mouth all over the thief’s body.

“Yep. This is where it happened; the big cosmic whoops. That girl was never meant to give you her visions,” Skip said gravely, but inwardly he was laughing over how easy all this was turning out to be.

“So, then, why’d it happen? Better yet, why did the Powers *let* it happen?” Gwen demanded.

“The big stuff like life and death, that sort of thing, they’ve got a handle on. Free will, though, that’s a totally different kettle of fish. And humans have free will in spades, even though they’re lacking in other areas. See, thing is - the visions are an ancient, powerful force. Demons are the only ones who can withstand them; or even half-demons, like that guy named Doyle. You’ve heard of him, right?”

“Yeah,” Gwen nodded. “He was the one who got the visions for Angel before Cordelia.”

“And then that Vision Boy died, but we’re kinda getting off the point. This,” Skip gestured towards the screen, where the scene with Cordelia and Gwen had been frozen, “this is the night that your life changed for the worse. You had a good thing going with the Men in Black; you were part of a team, and you did what you did best. Namely, steal stuff for a good cause. But after what happened at that museum? Your destiny went off-track in a huge way.”

“What are you talking about? Hall - sorry, Harris - he said that I was *supposed* to end up with Angel and his friends. So what if I hooked up with them a year or so early?” Ms. Raiden asked suspiciously.

“Ah, well, that’s the thing. That guy, the so-called Timetripper? Don’t forget how he’s freely admitted that he doesn’t know everything regarding what happened in Los Angeles, in that other timeline,” Skip said candidly. “According to the original cosmic design, you were meant to meet up with the vampire and his crew, sure. That guy named Gunn? He was supposed to help you get that L.I.S.A. thing, to get your powers under control. To let you actually be able to touch another human being. Never gonna happen now, though.”

“What Lisa thing? What are you talking about?” Gwen asked with mixed confusion and hope in her voice.

“Doesn’t matter, my point is - you were meant to meet those people, but not the way you did. Not as a seer as well as a thief,” Skip said truthfully. “Ms. Raiden, the truth is that ever since history reset itself - you were meant to accomplish great things with the secret agent men, not die from something you never should have gotten in the first place. That’s why we’re here. That’s what the Powers are offering you - a chance to make that happen.”

Gwen couldn’t believe it. “Are you telling me the PTBs can actually turn back time, and prevent me from ever getting the visions that night?”

“Actually, they don't go for that - much. Think of it more as 'writing over history',” Skip shrugged. “Accept what the Powers are offering and from this moment on, you get back to living the life you’ve always wanted. As in no pain medication, no visions, no dying. Well, not for a long time, anyway.”

“What about Charles?” Gwen demanded. “In this brand new life you’re offering me, would we still have a chance to be together one day?”

Even though the mercenary demon said nothing, his silence nonetheless spoke volumes.

“Okay, then, forget it!” Gwen said angrily.

“Gwen - do you mind if I call you that? Thanks,” Skip said hurriedly at perceiving the brunette’s nod. “Look, lemme explain to you exactly how this works. If you say no to the Powers’ offer, then you’ll go back inside your body - and you *won’t* wake up again. Ever. You’ll just lie there, unable to move, unable to speak - until the next vision hits you, and then you’ll die. So tell me this - do you *really* want to choose that road? Because that’s the only other option available now. Your friends in Los Angeles and Washington - they’ll try to help you, to save you - but they’ll fail.”

“How do you know that?”

“Have you even looked at the state of your brain lately?” Skip demanded. “What with all the damage, it’s too late for conventional or even mystical cures anymore. Live or die, Gwen. You’ve got to decide. Right now.”

A few moments later, after Skip obligingly let her see what was going on within the Hyperion hotel right now - namely, Gunn furiously demanding to know how the hell it had ever come to this, and why she hadn’t told him how bad the brain damage had become - Gwen Raiden made her choice.

*******

Raiden residence, Los Angeles, California. The same time in a different place


Gwen woke up alone in her bed, the annoying sound of the landline telephone’s buzzing having interrupted her pleasant dream. “Hello?”

“Good evening, Ms. Raiden. Did I call at a bad time?” the voice of Esther Marcum said over the line.

“No, I was just fast asleep. What’s up?” Gwen yawned. She didn’t find it odd that Esther was openly calling her at her apartment, something the black woman hadn’t done since the female thief had joined Angel Investigations; because Gwen had made her choice, and decided to accept Skip’s offer. Which meant that (in her mind) she had never been cursed with the visions last year.

“We have a situation in New York, I’m afraid. Mr. Howard and his friends are on the scene to handle it, but since we have a potential Ascension on our hands...” Esther started to say.

“A what? No, never mind - I don’t care,” Gwen said rudely, annoyed at having been woken up just now. “Look, do you need me to steal something or not?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

“Well, then, call me when you do. On account of I’m still a bit pissed off regarding that last job I did for you people. You remember, that thing with those Nyazian scrolls?” Gwen complained, referring to the job that (in the real world) she and Gunn had done together.

Esther chuckled, the spy handler knew how to deal with her pet thief. “Would an extra five thousand dollars to cover your costs help in smoothing ruffled feathers a little?”

“Well, it’s a start,” Gwen said, dialing down the annoyance. “I suppose.”

“You’re just upset that we gave away those scrolls to Angel for nothing, aren’t you?”

“Hey, he’s a freaking vampire!” Gwen shot back, her ire climbing once more. “Okay, Ha - Howard convinced me that the darn thing’s not a target, since he has a soul now. But since when are we in the business of *helping* the damn bloodsuckers?”

“Since an innocent unborn child’s life was at stake,” Esther replied sharply. “As a parent, I can sympathize with Angel’s desperation for information back then. And Mr. Howard made it clear that if we *didn’t* help his undead friend, our little arrangement was over. Such is the art of compromise, Ms. Raiden; you should bear that in mind, as well as ask Angel if he knows anything that might help us with the New York Ascension.”

“Fine. And call me again when you actually need me, on account of this conversation is officially over. How’s *that* for compromise?!” Gwen snarled, and slammed down the telephone receiver.

In a foul mood, Gwen got up, got dressed and made herself a late-night snack. But try as she might, the young woman couldn’t get the phone conversation with Esther out of her mind. < Damn it, what’s wrong with me? Why the hell do I feel like I just woke upon the wrong side of the universe or something? >

Unable to answer that question, Gwen left her apartment and got on her specially modified motorbike, taking a drive to clear her head. Without fully realising where she was going, Ms. Raiden soon found herself roaring down Hyperion Boulevard and screeching to a halt in front of the Hyperion hotel. < 'Kay, this is gettin’ weird. I know Marcum wanted me to check in with the Deadite, but since when am I in such a hurry to obey orders like this? >

Almost feeling as if she was caught up in some sort of dream, Gwen slowly made her way inside the hotel. Angel - or a more haggard-looking version of him, anyway - looked up from the couch after sensing her arrival. “Can I help you?”

“I sure as heck hope so,” Gwen said irascibly. “Name’s Gwen Raiden, I’m with Siberian Trip Wire.”

Angel instantly shot up. “What’s wrong? Is Xander in trouble?”

“I dunno. Maybe. Did anyone tell you he’s in New York, trying to stop something called a...an Ascension, I think my boss called it?” Gwen asked.

Angel’s eyes went wide with horrified understanding, before he turned around and rushed up the stairs without a word. Confused, Gwen followed him - wondering all the while why this place felt so *familiar*. Because the thief knew for a fact that she had never set foot inside this hotel even once, before today.

“Gunn? Gunn!” Angel shouted, as he opened the door to one of the hotel rooms. “I need your help!”

“Who’s this?” Gwen gestured at the black man laying stiff as a board on the bed with his eyes closed.

Angel briefly turned back to face her. “My seer, Charles Gunn.”

Gwen frowned. “I thought you had some brunette chick who was your connection to the PTBs?”

“Cordelia? She died. The visions killed her, but not before she passed them onto her boyfriend...Gunn! Wake up!” Angel shouted at the new Vision Boy.

The bald black man kept his eyes firmly shut, though. Then Gunn started muttering to himself, mumbling something in a strange language.

“Damn it! I gotta go find Wes - stay here and keep an eye on him for me, will you? If Gunn says anything comprehensible, write it down on that piece of paper over there!” Angel said quickly, before vanishing out the door.

“You okay, fella?” Gwen asked, not really expecting a reply. Although, oddly enough, she got one.

“The visions. Nothing I could do,” Gunn said in a near-whisper, his eyes still firmly shut. “Not my fault. Couldn’t save her. Couldn’t save me. Not my fault. Not my fault...”

< This guy is seriously whacked, > Gwen thought to herself, sinking to her knees beside the bed. < It can’t have been that long since he started getting the visions, either; how did he get so loopy so fast? >

“Can’t help. Can’t help. That Box. Soldier Guy. The Slayer. Can’t help,” Gunn muttered thickly.

“Hey. It’s gonna be okay, pal...” Gwen said compassionately. She leaned closer, their lips almost touching. “It’s gonna be...okay...”

And just like that, a blue light erupted from Gunn’s mouth into Gwen’s as the thief suddenly fell over from the shock factor.

“I remember...” Gwen said in amazement as she got up off her ass, and stared at Skip - who had appeared out of nowhere within the hotel suite. “The visions? They belong to *me*, not him!”

“We made a deal, Gwen. You gave up the visions, not to mention the certain death that goes with them, and you get to live your life. Call me crazy, but I thought that was a pretty fair trade, myself,” Skip said chidingly.

“Screw that,” Gwen said scornfully. “You never said that I’d be trading my life for Gunn’s! That wasn’t part of the deal!”

“You *do* know that old saying about how you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, right?” Skip riposted even as he thought to himself, < Okay, we’re almost there. I just need to trick her into willingly let me do what I’m being paid for, before putting an end to this dumb dream of hers... >

“I don’t care - the price is too high. Damn it! Isn’t there some way I can keep my vision powers and live? Some kind of loophole you can exploit?” Gwen demanded.

“Maybe I wasn’t entirely clear on the matter before, but humans are not strong enough to harbor the visions! Period. Even the Powers That Be can't change this particular fact,” Skip said, before looking at her reflectively. “But having said that...there might be one *tiny* loophole of the type you’re looking for.”

“What is it?”

“Okay, bear with me. It’s just barely possible that you could keep the visions and live - by becoming part demon,” Skip said gravely, entering the final stretch of his little song and dance act.

“WHAT?” Gwen shouted, instantly recalling what Skip had said about Doyle earlier on.

“Yeah. Don’t get me wrong, the process isn't easy; heck, it'll make the vision pain feel like a stroll through Candyland. And even after the pain subsides, the effects of the transition will be numerous and unpredictable. You may never be able to lead a normal human life again,” Skip told the Electra Girl.

“Like the life I lead now is even remotely what you might call ‘normal’?” Gwen shot back, turning around to glance at Gunn; who was now frozen in time. < Oh, what the hell. It’s either this or dying - or else watch Gunn go nuts, and eventually die. >

“Demonize me already.”

< At last! > Skip thought to himself greedily before saying, “It was an honor being your guide, Gwen Raiden.” He then raised his hand; an intense blue light illuminated the room and Gwen stumbled back, screaming in pain.

*******

Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, California. A few seconds later


On the couch in the hotel’s lobby Gwen’s body arched up, even as she started screaming in pain. Gunn rushed to her side at once, as the rest of the gang came running as well.

Cordelia, who had finally arrived at the hotel after hearing the situation regarding her fellow seer, said, “What's happening to her?”

“I dunno! Gwen, can you hear me?” Gunn demanded.

Gwen opened her eyes, gasped, and then grabbed hold of her head. “No horns...” the brunette said, despite the strange look it earned her from the others. Gwen then checked out her backside, before smiling up at Gunn. “No tail, either. Oh, thank God!”

Angel looked at the others, but no one was willing to volunteer an opinion on the Vision Girl’s weird behavior. “Gwen, are you feeling okay? And - why do you smell different now?” the ensouled vampire asked in confusion.

“Long story, but bottom line - I’ve become part demon,” Gwen answered hurriedly, before getting up off of the couch.

“WHAT?” Angel, Darla, Wes, Cordy and Gunn all shouted at the same time.

“Yeah. Huh, I wonder...” Gwen mused, before taking off her gloves. She tried to let loose with a lightning bolt, but - nothing happened. “Holy crap. The electricity - I think it’s gone. I might actually be able to - reach out and touch someone...”

That was all Gunn needed to hear before he grabbed Gwen and plunged his lips onto hers, savoring her touch, her taste, her - everything.

Perhaps not surprisingly, for the next three days Angel’s Avengers saw no sign of either Charles Gunn or Gwen Raiden, after the new couple had disappeared inside the black man’s bedroom upstairs.

*******

New York City, New York. A few hours later


Xander rubbed his forehead as he leaned up against the alley wall. Oz and Fred stood nearby as Kennedy walked towards to them whistling, brushing some dust off her jacket.

“So, how did it go?” Fred asked.

“The vamp was recruited by our guy, just like those floppy-eared demons said. However, the bloodsucker didn’t know jack who’s pulling the middleman demon’s strings. All he knew was that he was going to get a call soon, regarding the when and where. No, that’s not entirely accurate; he *did* tell me what he’d done with the down-payment he’d already gotten for the job, but since I doubt anyone here cares...”

“What number was the middleman going to call?” Xander asked.

Kennedy tossed him a cell phone. “In addition to the down-payment, that demon handed out a free cell phone.”

“Lots of bucks being put into this project,” Oz commented. “Should be a way to trace them.”

“Yeah, and I think we know someone who can do it,” Xander answered thoughtfully.

*******

The STW office conference room. A few minutes later


Agent Fletcher was typing away on his laptop when there was a knock on the door. Malcolm looked up and said, “Harris, Gunny was wondering when you would check in. He was starting to worry.”

Xander chuckled. “Mother Hen worry, or normal worry?”

“Normal worry, he hasn’t gotten into Mother Hen territory yet.”

“Well, you can let him know we’ve got a lead. Actually, it’s a lead that’s right up your alley.”

“Do tell, what do you have?”

“We found the recruiter for the Ascension wannabe. It looks like he’s spending money like there’s no tomorrow, which may actually be the case.”

“And you want to know where he’s getting the money from?”

“You got it. Can you do anything with this stuff?” Xander asked as he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket.

“You know, before I became an FBI agent -- I was an accountant. Even within the Bureau, my first couple of assignments involved cracking white collar business fraud.” Fletcher reached out his hand. “It’ll be good getting back to my roots for a while. Lemme see what I can find.”

*******

The same place. Several hours later


“Got him,” Fletcher said succinctly, as the others sitting at the table looked up at him while Malcolm entered the room. On the table in front of them were various folders and the cell phone that they had taken from the vampire.

“You found our mage?” Oz asked.

“Yes. I couldn’t track the money - at least, not at first. However, there was something more tangible to trace.”

“The cell phone,” Fred said knowingly.

“Yeah, I figured the perp would have had to buy a lot of them,” Fletcher said. “So I tracked down the serial number of the one we had. I then determined the lot number, and I then tracked the lot. I thought that since whoever was behind this was buying a large number of phones, they’d buy in bulk to cut down on cost.”

“And did they?” Xander asked.

“You bet - never underestimate the power of a green eyeshade mindset. Anyway, the lot was bought by a corporation based out of Boston. Now, that corporation had no direct connection to the Empire State Building that I could find. However, I thought the name was worth noting.”

“And that was?” Kennedy asked.

“Crowley Imports Limited.”

Zabuto raised an eyebrow. “Crowley Imports? Now that’s interesting.” He turned to the others. “Not only was Bernard Crowley the Watcher for the 1970s Slayer Nikki Wood, but his distantly related ancestor Alastair Crowley was an occultist born in England during the 1870s. He was...unconventional, to say the least. Alastair Crowley was roundly denounced during his lifetime as the wickedest man in the world.”

“That’s quite a rap. So who would want to name a company after him?” Kennedy asked.

“Particularly since it was incorporated in his lifetime, in fact - less than a year before his death,” Fletcher continued on. “I tried to follow the phone lot, but the trail went cold when Crowley Limited took control of them.”

“A dead end, then?” Gunny asked as he walked in behind Fletcher.

“No, I started looking for connections between the import company and anybody in the Empire State Building. I found a few links.”

“And?” Xander prompted.

“Most of them are normal, the kind of things you would find in the normal course of business. However, one link stood out from the crowd.” Fletcher leaned down and slid a manila folder across the desk. “Thelema Trading was incorporated the very same month as Crowley Imports. It even used the same law firm.”

Xander looked up. “Wolfram & Hart?”

“Bingo. I think we have our connection,” Fletcher answered.

Xander leaned back, massaging his temples. “It all fits. And how much does anyone wanna bet that Old Man Crowley is not, in fact, actually dead?”

Suddenly, the cell phone on the conference table started vibrating. Everyone exchanged looks, before Kennedy spoke first. “Ah, did we give anyone this number?”

“No,” Oz replied.

“So someone calling is calling the vamp,” Xander said bluntly, as he reached for the phone before anyone could stop him. “Yes.”

Xander listened for a few seconds. “Where? Okay, when? How much more? Okay.” He then hung up. He turned to the group. “Hopefully, he bought it. And looks like the pure demon wannabe needs muscle at an airport - I couldn’t ask which one, the middleman seemed to think the vampire would know. Anyway, wherever it is, he wants his muscle there at midnight.”

Fletcher spoke up, “I think I might know the answer to that one.” He leaned over and pulled open one of the folders. “Here. Crowley Imports maintains a hangar at a private airport on Long Island. They have to file a flight plan before they can use the airport. If they’re flying something in, they have to follow procedure to avoid arousing suspicions...”

*******

The STW office conference room. December 22, 2011


Smithers, Fletcher and Zabuto were watching a series of monitors that had been hastily set up within the conference room, during the last half-hour. On them were a series of images from infrared cameras on the drones flying over the airport in question, as the clock struck midnight.

“This looks like the place; given the number of vampires wandering around, that tells me that something is about to happen here,” Smithers commented. “Their lack of body heat stands out quite dramatically in comparison to the demons and everyone else, doesn’t it?”

At the same time, Xander responded by a radio as he watched the same scene they were also, only through his own eyes and without having to use the cameras of the drones. “Hell yeah, it’s bloodsucker central down there. Not to mention what looks like quite a few demons.”

“We’re tracking an inbound plane, about ten minutes out,” Fletcher said. “I suspect that’s what they’re all waiting for.”

“Good guess, they sure seem to be getting ready for something,” Xander replied.

“Any sign of Mr. Crowley?” Smithers asked from the conference room.

“Not yet, but odds are he won’t be far. This is too big for him to miss,” Fred said excitedly as she lay on the ground next to Xander, Oz and the STW commandos, watching the airport.

“Back in Sunnydale, the Mayor took a personal interest in the Box of Gavrock, so I figure that Crowley will do the same here,” Xander commented. He was still annoyed to this day over how Mr. Trick had managed to distract both Angel and himself while Wilkins had transported his Box to a safe place (which had *not* been City Hall) back then, but still - there was no point on dwelling on past mistakes now.

Besides, good old Dick had gotten what was coming to him soon afterwards, even if that version of the Ascension had cost Faith her life.

“Yes, so when Crowley shows up, we make our move. That way, we don’t have to go looking for him. He’s been hiding for a long time, so no doubt he’s very good at it,” Fletcher stated.

After roughly ten or eleven minutes, the roar of a loud engine signalled the approach of a small private jet. The jet landed and taxied to where the demons and vampires were waiting. While the jet was doing that, Xander and the others hurried into the jeeps that were sitting nearby.

The jet came fully to a stop, the hatch opened up and the steps extended out from the plane. A demon wearing a suit and glasses stepped out, as weird as that looked to the casual observer, and started walking down the steps.

From a nearby hangar, a Rolls Royce pulled out and started driving towards the plane.

“Showtime,” Fletcher said into his microphone. “Everyone, GO!!”

The Rolls Royce stopped a few yards away from the steps, and the demon walked towards it. The chauffeur came out from the driver’s seat to the rear door, and opened it up. A young woman in a business suit subsequently stepped out of the limo.

“Do you have it?” she asked.

The demon middleman nodded. “Of course. Does he have the money?”

The woman looked into the Rolls Royce. She reached in, and took a satchel from what appeared to be a middle-aged man sitting inside the car. The female turned around and handed the satchel to the demon, as the chauffeur got back behind the wheel.

The demon middleman opened up the satchel and looked in. “Good...” He then turned to the jet and nodded. A pair of demons emerged, carrying down the steps a large chest with strange-looking, mystical carvings on it.

The demons got to the Rolls Royce and placed the Box of Gavrock on the ground in front of the young woman. They opened it up a crack. The woman looked back into the Rolls Royce and nodded. Two vampires stepped forward from the group surrounding the jet, taking custody of the Box and anticipating their pay now that the deal had been sealed...

But as the old saying goes, when you assume - it always makes an ass out of you and me.

A series of bright lights came on, as the government jeeps emerged from behind the hangars around the jet. “Federal agents!! Drop your weapons and get on the ground, NOW!!” a voice boomed out from a loudspeaker somewhere.

“Get in!!” the woman shouted at the two vampires, before they climbed into the back seat of the Rolls Royce with the Box. She then slammed the car door shut behind her, before the vehicle sped away from the jet.

STW commandos surrounded the demons and vampires that remained behind, while a military helicopter hovered in front of the jet - its guns more than enough incentive for the pilot not to try anything stupid.

For his part, the glasses-wearing demon middleman looked around, before he dropped the satchel of money and raised his hands in resignation. < I *knew* I should have refused to take part in any of this... >

Not far away, the Rolls Royce made its way through the narrow road between hangars. The tires skidded, as the Rolls Royce quickly turned the corner into another street. The limo stopped suddenly, though - the brakes protesting madly against the quick halt, with a loud squeal filling the night air.

Standing twenty yards down the alley was Kennedy, twirling an axe in her hands. She smirked at the sight before her. “A Rolls Royce, huh? Me, I prefer a Bentley.”

A few seconds later, the Rolls accelerated straight at her. “Oh, goody!” Kennedy started running at the enemy vehicle.

As the Rolls got closer, Kennedy tensed - and then leapt inhumanly high into the air. As she started her ascent, she brought down the axe and embedded it in the hood of the car, going all the way through to the engine block. From deep inside the vehicle, the sound of someone cursing loudly could be heard...

The Rolls Royce started swerving from side to side, hitting the hangar walls as it did. The limo then slammed into a group of garbage cans before coming to a rest, the hood flipping open. Kennedy landed on her feet several yards away, and smiled at her handiwork.

“I don’t care what Daddy says, I would have totally *ruled* at the Olympic Games last year!” the brunette said exuberantly.

“Slayer.”

Kennedy turned and barely managed to avoid the chauffeur swinging at her with a pipe.

“Stay still!” she - no, it growled, as Kennedy could now see it was a demon of some kind as part of the human disguise (its sunglasses) was missing.

“No, a demon that can’t hit me can’t hurt me. I like it that way.”

“I like it the other way.”

Kennedy turned around in response to the statement from behind her. The woman in the business suit was standing there, vamped out. “What do you know, the charm Mr. Crowley gave me worked - you didn’t even sense me at all.” The female vamp subsequently punched Kennedy hard.

“Looks like I can hurt you; and if I can, Boris can too,” the vampire said as the chauffeur/demon swung the pipe again, knocking Kennedy off her feet. She rolled to left as the vampiress followed up with a kick to the Slayer’s midsection.

An attempt at a second kick was stopped, when Kennedy grabbed the inbound foot. She flipped the vampire onto its back, as the Chosen One scurried up - dodging the pipe from her demon attacker as she did so. < Where the hell is my backup, damn it? >

She kicked out at Boris - a name one wouldn’t normally associate with a female-looking chauffeur, but what the hell. The demon grunted in response and dropped the pipe. Kennedy followed up with a series of punches that Boris vainly tried to block...

Boris blinked and tried to get her bearings when the beating finally, blessedly stopped. But - that was when she saw the hood of the Rolls headed straight towards her face. A loud thud reverberated through the alley, as the hood finished its journey to Boris’ face. Boris quickly fell forward onto the ground, not moving once she arrived there.

“Now, where did that undead bitch go?” Kennedy wondered.

“Behind you,” was the reply to the Slayer’s question, as the undead woman grabbed Kennedy’s throat.

“Night’s not been a total waste, the boss got the Box - and I’m about to bag me a Slayer!” she hissed, as the female vampire bared her fangs. Suddenly, her eyes went wide. “Noooo!”

The soulless demon exploded into dust, her inner skeleton visible for one timeless moment before the ashes slowly settled onto the ground.

“I. Don’t. Think. So,” Xander said firmly, as he put away the stake he had just used on the female vampire.

Kennedy got her bearings, dusting the remains of the vampiress off her. “Thanks, TT, I owe you. You saved my butt, pal!”

Xander nodded, he was almost as high as a kite right now from all the extra meds he’d taken to ensure the pain from Kennedy’s presence was no longer an issue - but he was still able to concentrate enough to say, “And to think that this time, I kept both eyes!”

Kennedy frowned and was about to ask a question, when she saw movement from the back of the Rolls Royce. “Oh yeah, almost forgot.” She stalked over to the limo and yanked out what appeared to be a middle-aged man - but who was most definitely a lot older than that. The two piles of dust she ignored, figuring those vampires who had jumped into the back seat had gotten exactly what they deserved anyway.

“Hey, fella. Merry Christmas, how you liking the Big Apple so far?” Kennedy drawled sarcastically.

Crowley struggled for a second. “Slayer,” he almost hissed at Kennedy. He then saw Xander and stopped resisting. “You. The Timetripper, you have no idea what you’ve just done...”

“Really? 'Cause I’m feeling *stoked* from stopping an Ascension before it even got started!” Harris giggled, causing Kennedy to look concerned at him. “Sure, bit of an anti-climax and all, but then I’m not gonna complain about that...”

*******

The STW office conference room. Two hours later


“So, Crowley’s on his way to Gitmo?” Cleburne asked, his image on the main video screen in the conference room.

“Saw him off myself. He’s in a military transport, fully sedated and on his way to his new home,” Gunny replied.

“Good. I hear the welcoming committee is eagerly waiting for him,” Cleburne said. “Was he any more forthcoming with the comments he made, when the kid and the Slayer nabbed him?”

Fletcher shook his head. “No, he clammed up afterwards completely. Not one word even when he banged his head, while they were putting him on the plane.”

“Guess I’m not surprised. All right, I’ll keep you notified of what the interrogators at Gitmo find out,” Cleburne commented. “And FYI, Crowley Imports Limited offices are being raided across the nation. Fletcher, I imagine that should give you quite a bit to follow up on. Zabuto, Smithers, your Watcher buddies are doing the same over in England. They tell me they’ve found stuff that’s causing *quite* a bit of interest.”

“That should keep them happy. Maybe they can reward us, 'cause I for one have got some ideas regarding a vacation in the Bahamas!” Kennedy said with a chuckle.

“Yes, Kennedy, I am sure that the Council would be most eager to accommodate you on that,” Zabuto said with a headshake. He turned back to the screen, “And may I inquire about the materials seized?”

“On their way to Warehouse 13 by heavily armed transport, we’ve seized them and want experts ready to study them. Smithers, could you supply recommendations from the Watchers about how to deal with them?”

“Certainly, General. I’ve already contacted London and they are forwarding a list of experts and suggestions to you,” Smithers replied.

“Oh joy, more night time reading for me.”

“Don’t worry, Mother Hen,” Xander spoke up, having come down from his drug-induced high earlier on. “I’m sure you can tape the Walker Texas Ranger Christmas special and watch it later.” The group chuckled at the jibe.

Cleburne smirked back at Xander. “If you want, kid, I’ll even get you a copy of it. And on that note, I’ll expect you, Wolfie and Ms. Burkle back home in Virginia tomorrow. Mr. Zabuto, Ms. Greene, thank you for all your help. Gunny will be coordinating getting you back to Cleveland, so good luck and good hunting.” The STW Director quickly reached off screen and the video monitor turned black.

“Is he always that friendly?” Kennedy asked.

“That’s General Cleburne on a good day, actually,” Gunny commented. “Come on, I’ll call for a car to drive you two to the airport.”

“Okay, but not before I put that demon bar I visited out of business first,” Kennedy decided. She recalled exactly what that bartender had said within the establishment, just a few scant hours ago - about one of her predecessors failing to complete the job, back in the era of disco and blaxploitation.

And even if that hadn’t been an issue, there had been a sufficient number of soulless vampires in there in order to make this her best visit to New York *ever*.

*******

A place where nothing need be what it seems. December 24, 2001


Anya counted the money in her hands while she did the “Dance of Capitalist Superiority” within the Magic Box. Life for her was not too bad right now, all things considered.

“Get your groove on, girl.”

Anya looked up in surprise to see a black-haired beauty in a red tank top and jeans staring at her from the doorway. < What’s she doing here? We’re closed! >

Anya then frowned, she was *sure* she had locked the front entrance to the magic store. Still, a sale was a sale as the shopkeeper quickly straightened up and greeted her customer. “Welcome to the Magic Box, please come in and spend your money here.”

“Not here for anything to do with money, demon girl,” the raven-haired female teen said, as she folded her arms over her chest. “Name’s Faith, and I’m here to give you some advice.”

“Advice? What advice?”

“Namely, that you got a shot with him; so don’t blow it. You made it to the playoffs. Competition is tough, sure, but you’re still in the game. Heck, you played the game pretty well during the first go-around.”

Anya frowned in confusion. “What?’

Dream Faith smiled. “Don’t worry, you can wake up now.”

Anya immediately shot up in bed within her apartment. She looked around the darkened bedroom, and saw Andrew sleeping beside her. Jumping to the wrong conclusion, Anya muttered, “Oh. Well, that can’t be good, can it?”

-tbc-

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