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A S.H.I.E.L.D. Against The Darkness

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Summary: A lot more people know what's actually going on in Sunnydale than you would have thought, and they're finally stepping in to prevent an apocalypse.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Marvel Universe > Ultimate UniverseGreywizardFR151052,6361016656,5092 Mar 1127 Aug 13No

Chapter Seven

Wolfram & Hart-controlled hospital, Los Angeles, CA

Saturday, August 16, 2003
7:40 p.m.


Angel, the one and only vampire with a soul, sat on a chair next to the comatose 'Cordelia Chase', and began to read one of his favorite books to her.

Since it was common knowledge how comatose people could still perceive sound somewhere in their subconscious – and the new CEO of the LA branch of Evil Incorporated had no clue the unconscious brunette before him was just a very expensive simulacrum of his former associate – he considered this time well spent, as the ensouled vampire began to read from his copy of the timeless classic known as 'Little Women'.

Even though he figured magazines like 'Vogue' or 'Marie Claire' were more to Cordelia's taste, there was no way Angel could force himself to read drivel like 'The Ten Best Ways of Pleasing a Man in Bed', even for the brunette seer he was fairly sure he was in love with.

It had been quite a few months now since 'Cordelia' had been returned to him, after briefly being kidnapped, and Angel still had no clue who the kidnappers had been, or what they'd had in mind by trying to steal his beloved out from right under his nose. Which was rather disturbing in and of itself, actually, as it meant that whoever his enemies were – they had some serious connections to be able to cover their tracks so completely.

Angel's Avengers had tried to find out who the bad guys had been, of course. Even Harmony, the undead ditz Wes had picked to be Angel's secretary, had pitched in to try to find out – as, despite being a soulless vampire, the blonde still considered Cordelia to be her best friend, and actively participated in making sure no one would ever be able to kidnap the comatose woman ever again.

Soulless vampires exhibiting positive human emotions. Go figure.

Anyway, Angel and his people had settled in fairly well at Wolfram & Hart by now. Gunn was excited over having become a lawyer, thanks to the knowledge upgrade the firm's scientists had implanted into his brain. Wesley was constantly pouring through his department's vaults, muttering over the various prophecies he'd uncovered. Lorne was currently either planning on a world tour, or trying to cut an album deal with Tom Jones – Angel honestly wasn't sure which.

Fred mostly kept on chattering about the various advances in medicines and physics she had discovered taking place in the firm's labs and enthusiastically crowing about how their discoveries would be able to improve the world. The ensouled vamp didn't understand any of the technical jargon, and hearing her babble on about it just made his head hurt. But Fred was obviously happy as a clam, so Angel managed to forebear as best he could.

Unfortunately, though, there was no ghostly Spike to annoy him and keep him occupied, and his son Connor was safely ensconced with the Reilly family, so that left Angel as the odd man out.

Thus, he had come here this evening, the same way he did every week – to keep Cordelia company, and to talk to her. Granted, there was a kind of relief in talking freely to his seer without having to listen to her typically snippy comebacks... however, that got real old, real fast. The vampire wanted his Vision Girl to *wake up*, damn it!

It was fortunate for Angel how it would never occur to him, in this or any other universe, that all he had to do was turn Cordelia into a vampire, stuff her soul back into her undead body by way of that annoying gypsy curse, and then infect her with some Mohra demon blood in order to make her human again. After all, it wasn't like Angel couldn't use the resources of Wolfram & Hart to procure the green liquid in question, despite how rare and difficult finding such demon warriors of the darkness was.

Because if such a plan had occurred to him, and he had tried it, and the fake Cordelia would have eventually woken up... Angel would have found out just what sort of utter fool he'd become, and just how easily the Senior Partners were currently manipulating him.

Not mention having attracted the attention of a now *very* highly trained, focused and extremely motivated group of Sunnydale survivors, who would most certainly have considered such an effort as an attack upon one of their own.

And who would have reacted to such an attack – quite violently.

~/~/~

The outskirts of Sunnydale, CA

The same time


Standing within the reassuring confines of a radiation suit, General Nick Fury – Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. – examined the ghost town that had undergone thermonuclear sterilization courtesy of an arsenal of neutron bombs he had requisitioned from Nellis Air Force Base. There was little movement above ground, apart from the swinging of dead tree branches thanks to the wind – but the one-eyed black man was not fooled by that. Fury knew that underground, by this point in time, it was an entirely different story.

{ God damn it. What do I have to *do* to put a lid on this damned place? } Fury cursed to himself. { There are no human beings around for at least fifty miles in any direction – and *still* the damned bloodsuckers show up here, drawn by the goddamn Hellmouth like moths to a flame... }

Indeed, a significant part of the problem was that it wasn't just the vampires. There were demons wandering freely throughout the town, now; shrugging off the radiation as easily as a tropical sunburn. The creatures' mystical nature allowed them to defy the laws of nature Fury lived by, and he was with quite uncomfortable with things that could not easily fit into his world-view.

{ Well, at least there are no more Bringers around as far as I know, anywhere in the entire world. Those eyeless, mouth-less pricks are one problem I can gladly do without... }

Nick Fury eventually turned around and made his way back to the helicopter that would return him to the Triskelion.

He had a lot of thinking to do.

~/~/~

Camp Lejeune, NC
USMC Force Reconnaissance Detachment (FORECON)

Sunday, August 17, 2003
12:30 p.m.


"Good afternoon, people," the slim, dark-skinned man in the well-starched standard-issue woodland pattern combat utility uniform with the flat black eagle insignia, indicating that he was a full colonel and an actual field (as opposed to a garrison) officer, said as he gave the five people waiting in the briefing room a quick, but thorough, evaluating look, trying to determine exactly what it was about them that had the brass taking a far more interested than usual concern in their training.

"My name is Colonel Joshua Morrison, and I'll be your liaison officer while you're receiving your training here on base," he introduced himself.

"Colonel Dugan has instructed me that, although your group will be receiving an extremely abridged version of the standard training Force Reconnaissance members undergo here, I am to make certain that you experience and appreciate all of the character-building aspects which every Marine stationed here enjoys during their tour of duty," Morrison informed the quintet with a hint of what most of the group immediately decided was an exceedingly evil smile.

"So, in order to ensure that the Colonel's orders are met, the base instructors are going to be running all of you through the standard orientation routines, in order for us to establish a baseline for each of your performances," Morrison said.

"Your guides will show you to your quarters, and I'll expect to see you at the training facilities in exactly forty-five minutes."

***

"All right, then. Since I've been informed that none of you people have ever experienced any actual military training, I'm going to provide you with a brief summation of what it is the United States Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance battalions do for a living," Colonel Morrison stated as he stood, three hours later, in the front of the small briefing room he and the Scoobies were currently utilizing, following their initial evaluations and tests.

And as an interesting historical sidebar – based on the concept that Marines are amphibious by nature, the initial evaluation had begun with a 25 m underwater swim, where each of the putative 'trainees' had experienced what the administrative section had apparently humorously designated as a 'deep water rifle retrieval exercise.' In other words, each of them had been required to retrieve and then carry two concrete cinder blocks from the bottom of the pool to the surface and then swim with it to a designated spot.

For a couple of Slayers, a vampire, a Super-Soldier and a witch who had all undergone the Dorsai Protocols and Psyche Curriculum, that hadn't been all that big a deal. But subsequent to that exercise came the 25 ft tower jump while wearing a full load-out of combat gear, followed by 30-minutes of treading water, which was in turn followed by a five-minute flotation exercise using their trousers and a timed 500 m swim. By which point, the quintet was no longer able to just shrug and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Except for Xander, who had exited the water apparently just as fresh as when he had entered it.

Then again, Harris had seemed to make it a point of pride in not doing anything in his life the normal way.

The five 'trainees' had then been given fifteen minutes to wash up and change into clean utilities before reporting to the briefing room, where the colonel was currently providing them with a relatively short summary of the group which was currently hosting them.

"Historically, Force Recon companies, detachments and platoons have performed both deep reconnaissance and direct action operations, performing unconventional special operations, in support of conventional warfare. Based on experience gained during the Vietnam war, Force Reconnaissance units typically performed either of two different types of missions, which were identified as either Key Hole or Sting Ray mission," Morrison said as he lectured the group.

"These practices subsequently became known contemporarily as 'deep reconnaissance', or green operations; and 'direct action', which are known as black operations," the good colonel continued, as he turned to give all the 'trainees' an evaluating look-over. "Key Hole ops were designed purely around reconnaissance and surveillance, and the units are typically lightly equipped and armed with defensive weapons with training in evasive techniques to break contact from the enemy should the need arise, since avoiding contact with the enemy was paramount.

"Sting Ray operations, on the other hand were the exact opposite of Key Hole missions – with goals more closely in line of offensive strikes, with FORECON operators being heavily armed and receiving artillery and/or naval gunfire support, where necessary and available," Morrison noted.

"And judging by the expressions on your faces, you're probably finding all of this background information as about as interesting as watching a documentary on the History Channel," the colonel stated, hiding a smirk as he saw the redhead, at least, trying to hide a self-conscious grimace at his apparently quite accurate evaluation of at least her mindset.

"Nonetheless, this briefing is what I would basically consider a courtesy call, informing you that by the time you've completed your training here, you'll have as much of an accurate and in-depth understanding of exactly what it is my people do as is possible for someone who is not an actual Force Reconnaissance member," he told them.

"All right. You'll have the rest of the day to yourselves, in order to prepare yourselves for the next three weeks of Force Recon training, which will begin at zero five thirty tomorrow morning" Morrison informed them.

"Dismissed."

The smile Morrison was wearing as he released them for the rest of the afternoon did not reassure any of the five Scoobies regarding their immediate future – not in the least.

~/~/~

Camp Lejeune mess hall

Later that evening


"You sure you're still okay about going through with all this, Spike?" Buffy asked, an expression of concern on her face as she, Willow and Faith joined their two male teammates at one of the tables in the mess hall, the group taking the opportunity to grab a quick bite to eat and relax a bit before their training began the next morning.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Slayer," the bleached blond-haired vampire responded nonchalantly.

"Long as I wear this little trinket Lady Strange gave me, there's nothing anyone needs to be concerned about," he assured the former object of his romantic affections, gesturing at the amulet currently hanging around his neck. "She said it'll protect me from all of the effects sunlight typically has on vampires, so aside from that and my needing to have my real meals in my quarters, everything's just peachy."

"Just don't forget to get it recharged every second week, Spike," Buffy reminded him of the limitations which have been built into the protection the Sorceress Supreme had provided him.

"'Cause I'd hate to see you go up in flames one day, just because you forgot to call her and get the batteries replaced," Buffy pointed out with an uneasy smile.

"Hey – maybe we should start carry graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate bars with us in our emergency supplies stash, along with Spike's blood," Xander suggested, his idea drawing puzzled frowns from Buffy and Willow, and amused grins from Spike and Faith, who had apparently immediately guessed what he had been implying with his suggestion.

"You know, so that if Spike does forget and goes up in flames, we can use the fire he starts to make s'mores," the former carpenter explained.

"Waste not, want not, I always say," Xander parroted the old proverb.

"Ow! Hey, no hitting, guys!" he could be heard complaining an instant later.

"Ow, Buff! No fair using Slayer strength! Seriously, that's cheating!"

~/~/~

Interrupting their training only for a four day interval during the Labor Day weekend, to allow Buffy to reassure herself that everything was prepared and in proper order for Dawn to begin her new academic year at the Brearley School on September 2 – and that her baby sister would be under the watchful eyes of Giles, Anya, Andrew and however many agents the Scoobies took for granted that Fury would have keeping track of the younger Summers sibling – the now officially designated 'Team Hellmouth' spent the next three weeks fully occupied with assimilating the numerous procedures and innumerable details they all needed to learn if they were going to successfully function while fighting as a S.H.I.E.L.D. team, as opposed to a group of individuals fighting in the same general area.

It was something they'd all agreed upon, after being 'drafted' by Fury all those months ago, despite both the vampire's and the Slayers' instinct to 'go it alone.' Xander and Willow had the best attitude towards team work, but Spike, Buffy and Faith were not that far behind – thanks to the admirable efforts of Dr. Leonard Samson and Dr. Karla Sofen, Fury's pet shrinks.

In any event, for the Assault Climbers Course, the five members of 'Team Hellmouth' spent four days learning the tactical climbing skills they needed to negotiate what their trainers referred to as 'high-risk, non-permissive environments,' which encompassed abseiling in wilderness, rural, and urban terrain, by making them climb what seemed like a never-ending series of cliff sights, rock slabs, quarries, buildings, bridges, dwellings, and various other man-made facilities.

Spike, for his part, had the time of his un-life, and explained his wide smile with the simple explanation, "Englishmen like climbing mountains."

Their hard-won successful completion of that course was immediately followed by the Applied Explosives Course, which outlined extensive discussions of the diverse compositions and theory of explosives and tamping methods – a course which brought a reflective and pensive half-smile to Xander's face as he remembered overseeing the creation and subsequent cautious and extremely vigilant packaging of the ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil bombs he'd successfully used against Mayor Wilkins after his Ascension into pure demon form.

It was enough to make Harris wish that *he* could have been the one to destroy Sunnydale High version 2.0 all those months ago, after the Seal of Danthalzar had oh-so-casually been gotten rid of – the symmetry would have been 'poetic' to his mind – but then the formerly one-eyed man knew he couldn't have everything his own way. Otherwise, a lot of people who were now dead would still be alive, and every soulless vampire out there would have been erased from existence by now.

Once that rather disturbing (because who would have thought so many different common household compounds could be used to make things go 'boom!' so energetically?) training course had been competed, Team Hellmouth had then proceeded on to the Dynamic Entry Course, where people were taught the various diverse methods of entering a room via explosive breaching – a technique which the other four team members all agreed that Xander had embraced *far* too enthusiastically for their comfort.

The phrase, 'what do you mean, I like blowing shit up far too much?' had made Colonel Morrison wonder, more than once, exactly what sort of fruitcakes Colonel Dugan and General Fury had sent his way.

The final course of their stay was the Dynamic Assault Course, a curriculum initially designed for enhancing all of their close quarters combat skills. In that course, the five members of Team Hellmouth quickly learned how to best apply their close quarters combat (CQC) skills in a low-light environment – not that Spike really needed to try all that hard at that one, given his superior undead eyesight and 123 years of fighting experience. Still, that course was one which Faith had been quite accurately described as being applicable to "pretty much fucking anywhere in Sunnydale," and one which could have been of great use during the Scoobies' earlier years.

With their instructors emphasizing advanced surgical and precision shooting with the standard issue M4 carbine and MEU(SOC) .45 caliber pistol, the party of five quickly learned to smoothly switch from one weapon to the other during failure drills in the close quarters battle environment of the "Shooting House", before then moving on to incorporate the various other weapons comprising the S.H.I.E.L.D. armory into their techniques, while simultaneously learning how to systematically clear a room and navigate through buildings as a team.

Buffy and Faith had both taken a while to get used to the idea of shooting at things with guns, of course. The blonde had had to get over her ingrained 'these things are never useful!' attitude, and the brunette had had to force herself to move past the painful memory of that drive-by shooting which she had barely evaded, back when she was living on the streets of Boston.

Still, once the Chosen Two had acquired the proper requisite hearing protection and had grown more familiar with the extremely loud and almost painful (at least to Slayer-enhanced ears) noise produced by their weapons, they had drawn astonished and near-envious attention from their various instructors at the almost unbelievable improvement in their expertise after just several hours practice.

The pleased and happy grins, similar to those of children running wild in a playground, both women wore after completing an exercise in the "Shooting House" had also elicited various reactions from Colonel Morrison and his people – ranging from pleased approval to uncertainty as to whether the base psychologists should be summoned post-haste – and they had become the source of almost equal amusement to the other three members of their team.

By the time the quintet of Sunnydale veterans left Camp Lejeune, at the end of their approximately four week stay, everyone agreed that they had gained any number of useful, and previously lacking skills, and were all were looking forward to the three days of leave assigned, as well as the more relaxed atmosphere they were anticipating finding at their next assignment.

~/~/~

Project Pegasus
Devil's Point, Wyoming

Monday, September 23, 2003


"Ah, hello there. It's wonderful to see you all again," Giles gave the newly arrived group a wide, welcoming smile as they gathered together in cafeteria adjacent to the complex's main atrium.

"It's good to see you, too, Giles," Buffy smiled as she gave her former Watcher a quick hug and a peck on the cheek, her actions matched by Willow, while Faith threw in a quick grope, and Xander and Spike settled for a simple handshake and smile, in lieu of the hug and kiss.

"General Fury had indicated that you were being detailed here for the next two weeks in order to help establish the basic parameters of the venture before us," the former Watcher addressed the new arrivals, once everyone had obtained their beverage of choice and were settled down around one of the tables in the cafeteria.

"That's right, Giles," Xander leaned back in his chair, nodding to indicate agreement with the British man's statement. "So, whatcha been up to lately?"

"Quite a lot. And, uhm, in order to clarify the magnitude of the task before us, I think I need to inform you that Project Pegasus has been designated as the focal point of responsibility for any artifact or item suspected of being of mystical origin, or of possibly having been mystically enhanced," Giles informed his intently listening audience.

"Which means that, at this point in time," Rupert went on, "according to the primary index Anya has managed to generate from the various fragmentary and, almost certainly, incomplete indices which we inherited from the various previous custodians when they transferred their inventory here, well…"

"Well, what, Giles?" Buffy asked before anyone else could.

Giles cleared his throat politely. "Well, there are, at a minimum, approximately three thousand, nine hundred, forty-three items located within the nine storage levels of this facility, which have been tentatively identified as magical to some greater or lesser degree.

"And I believe that, if anything, that estimate is on the low side of the true number of arcane items we will eventually be able to positively identify," he added with a frown.

{ And to make a bad situation even worse, this bloody cafeteria *still* hasn't been able to procure a source of tea whose taste doesn't approximate the scrapings from a box of cat litter, } Giles sourly reflected to himself as he took a brief moment of self-pity to focus his attention on his cup of tea before returning his attention to his protégées, whose reactions to his comments did not surprise him in the least.

"Damn! That many?"

"Goddess! Almost four thousand items?"

"Holy shit, Giles! Where'd they all come from?"

"Bloody hell, man! Is the beer good, at least?"

"Hell! That's one fuckin' big shitload of magic doohickeys, Jeeves."

"Yes, it quite definitely is, Faith," Giles agreed dryly while ignoring Spike, as the beer was yet another sore point.

"It is our task here to, initially, determine which of the items gathered here for evaluation truly are magical, and then subsequently evaluate them and try to identify what capabilities they might possess, as accurately as we can. Yes, uhm, as well as noting any quirks or idiosyncrasies which might be inherent to it, in order to avoid any possibility of any mundane person or group possibly acquiring possession of the item – and, and inadvertently initiating a cataclysm through improper use," Giles explained with a frown.

"Cataclysm? C'mon, Giles, this isn't Sunnydale! Don't you think that you might be exaggerating the risk potential of these things you've got stashed around here just a little bit, Giles?" Xander asked, his expression indicating that he believed that the former Watcher was overstating the seriousness of the situation.

"No, not in the slightest, Xander," Giles frowned and shook his head in disagreement with the former carpenter's statement.

"Here – can you tell me what this item might be?" the Englishman asked as he held up a photograph of a small bronze and crystalline objet d'art, apparently changing the subject of their discussion. "And what it's generally used for?"

"Uhm, that's a, uh, Darlinthian summoning crystal," Xander replied, after a brief moment's consideration of the picture in question. "It was typically used by Darlinthian war bands to open a portal to the demon dimension called, uh, Niph'shan'dush, or however you pronounce it – in order to unleash a horde of Gra'shalk demons.

"They're fairly easy to use, and if I'm remembering right, all you really have to do is employ the proper chant to get it to work," he finished up his evaluation of the item in question, his enhanced memory thanks to the super-soldier serum definitely coming in handy. "Why? Are we gonna go looking for that? 'Cause things could get really messy if that baby is activated before we can grab it."

"No, you're not going to be going out looking for it," Giles replied. "What I'm doing, is-is using it as an example to you all to emphasize the importance and magnitude of the tasks we will be performing here.

"The agent who recovered this item found it sitting on the desk of the principal at a middle school in Wheeling, West Virginia," Giles went on, his comment eliciting a gasp of horrified dismay from both Buffy and Willow, and a variety of obscene comments from the remaining members of the team.

"The woman in question had been using it as a paperweight, and had no idea of what the item actually was, or what it was capable of doing," the former Watcher explained. "Fortunately, General Fury's agent was able to sneak back in after the school closed for the night and managed to replace the crystal with a perfect replica.

"*That* is merely one example of what I expect we'll be discovering, once we begin reviewing the various pieces which have been gathered by the various agencies of the American government over the past several decades, and which have been transferred here for our perusal," Giles explained to his audience, who were all taking him a lot more seriously now.

~/~/~

Storage area, Project Pegasus

Wednesday, September 25, 2003


"Hey, Boss Tweed! What's in this crate, and where did it come from?" Faith called over to their former Watcher, frowns wrinkling both her own and Buffy's features as the two examined a large packing crate which was currently sitting off to one side of the complex's third level receiving dock.

The group had been inspecting the latest shipments that had arrived at the facility over the course of the past few months, when both Slayers had sensed something unusual about the container's contents.

"Are you, uhm, are you or Buffy sensing something *off* about the contents, Faith?" Rupert inquired, a somewhat hesitant tone evident on his voice.

"It's giving us both a major fucking case of the wiggins, G," Faith told him bluntly, as she and Buffy eyed the crate uncertainly, while the rest of their team began gathering around them, taking up positions which would allow them to provide support, should it prove needed. "There's something inside this fucker that's definitely hinky."

"Well, uh, that particular container was shipped here from, uh – Good Lord! It was shipped here from Sunnydale, by one of the teams General Fury had detailed to examine the town after we were evacuated, and before the entire city was irradiated by those neutron bomb devices he had utilized after the town was deserted," Giles noted in a clearly appalled tone of voice as he checked the inventory sheets.

"It says here that the field team which discovered it found it hidden inside a concealed sub-basement beneath the vineyard which Caleb had been using as his headquarters," Giles read off the notes accompanying the container.

"By the way, has anyone heard anything about what's up with that guy?" Xander asked, looking around.

"No,", "Nope,", "Uh-uh," were the various responses, before Buffy said, "Andrew mentioned that he's just disappeared, that no one's seen him since Sunnydale..."

"It's an axe of some sort. In the container," Rupert noted, refocusing their attention on the initial subject of discussion as he read the attached notes.

"Errr, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who discovered it noted that they were unable to separate the axe from the boulder in which it's currently embedded," he added as he finished reviewing the remaining related information. "Odd, that..."

"If we're gonna open this box up, guys, how 'bout, since my healing factor seems to work a bit faster than yours or Faith's does and both of you guys still consistently kick my ass when we spar, I be the one to break this thing open, Buff, with you and Faith ready to stomp any potential problems into paste, while Wills can stand back a bit to counter any possible mojo that might show up?" Xander suggested as he moved to stand between the two Slayers. "That way, Evil Dead, here, can make sure that nothing goes after Willow or Giles, and that it can't make a break for freedom, either."

"Okay, Xand, that sounds like a plan to me," Buffy nodded her approval at his suggestion. She might be the team leader, but that didn't mean she couldn't listen to any suggestions her friends might have, or include them if they appeared sound and reasonable. That night in Sunnydale when all the troops had mutinied over her previous leadership style had been quite the nasty wake-up call for the blonde Slayer, after all, and a good leader (which she was really trying very hard to become) always tried to learn from their mistakes.

"Everyone, get into position, like Xand suggested," the elder Slayer directed as she took up a position just to Xander's left, with Faith moving to the now massive Scooby's right, and Spike positioning himself between the container and Willow and Giles, with everyone's personal weapons and the redhead's spells poised and ready for use.

"Okay, then," Buffy said, as she readied herself, just as her teammates were doing. "On three, Xand, you pop the top and then back off right away, and the rest of us will be ready, if anything jumps out.

"One. Two. Three!" she counted down, and Xander levered the crowbar he was using down and to the side, forcing the container's top up and away from them, dropping to the floor and then rolling away from the container as everyone watched and waited for whatever might occur to happen.

After several seconds passed with nothing happening, Buffy and Faith both cautiously moved closer, lifting up on their toes to peer inside the crate as Xander rose to his feet and took up a supporting position that would allow him to back up either Slayer, should it become necessary.

"Holy shit! Are you feeling that thing, too, B?" Faith asked in a voice barely above a whisper, a quality that some people might label reverence coloring her words as she spoke.

"Yeah, Faith, I am," Buffy quietly confirmed her Chosen sibling's question as she nodded her head while still staring at the object inside the container, too.

"It sorta feels like it's calling to me," the blonde observed, with a hint of a frown. "But there's something else about it... it kinda feels like..."

"I feel like it's almost screaming for my attention," Faith commented, as she relaxed from the state of combat readiness she'd been in, a moment earlier.

"Uh, what exactly are you guys talking about?" Willow interjected, the puzzled expression on her face matching the others as they listened to the two Slayers' comments.

"This is the thing Caleb was taunting us about that was hidden somewhere in that winery he was working out of, I'm guessing," Faith answered, indicating the object which was still currently hidden inside the crate.

As Xander moved another several steps back to give the two women room to move, Buffy and Faith each took a handhold on the crate wall closest to them and yanked forward, ripping the crate's side off completely as though it were made of cardboard and exposing what appeared to be a modified, red-enameled lochaber axe, with its blade buried in a large boulder.

Because of their extensive familiarity with numerous ancient mythologies, the sight before them strongly reminded everyone present of the fabled sword in the stone, Excalibur, (or Caledfwlch, as some legends referred to it), giving them all a moment's pause before the Scoobies began moving forward for a closer examination.

This more careful inspection, closer up but still not touching, revealed that a flanged mace head had been fashioned into the axe's handle and that the last foot of the handle incorporated a large wooden stake, enabling the weapon to be manipulated in any of a variety of ways that its wielder might desire.

"Damn! That's one nasty-looking little play toy you've got there, Slayer," Spike observed, while maintaining a bit of distance between himself and the newly revealed artifact.

"What's the matter, Spike? Don't you like the ladies' new plaything?" Xander smirked at his sole male teammate.

"Actually, Whelp, the thing is kinda giving me the willies," the ensouled vampire admitted, Spike's comment causing both Giles and Willow to look over at him with a mixture of surprise and avid curiosity – while Buffy and Faith each paused in their own careful, not-yet-actually-physically-touching assessment of their discovery to focus their attention on their teammate's observation.

"What, exactly, do you mean by that, Spike?" Giles immediately inquired, his fascination in the potential answer obvious to everyone.

"It's…difficult to say, exactly, Watcher," Spike replied after the briefest of pauses.

"'Snot like I'm not completely comfortable being near the bloody thing, but at the same time, I'm not getting anywhere near the same reaction that a cross, or any other sanctified object, usually generates," he noted, his reflective answer and phrasing more evocative of the bookish and studious personality the ensouled vampire had possessed before being turned by Drusilla.

"I reckon that if you check that item out, Red, that you'll find some sort of blessing has either been laid upon it, or was incorporated into it when it was first forged," Spike suggested, a much more serious expression taking possession of his face as he gazed at the newly revealed weapon.

"Are any of you other guys sensing anything at all about this axe thingy?" Buffy asked, not taking her eyes away from the item under discussion as she checked with the remainder of her teammates.

"Sorry, but I got nada, Buff," Xander shook his head negatively. "Seriously, I can't sense bupkis comin' from that thing, good or bad; it's just a fancy-looking axe to me. Or whatever you wanna call it."

"I can sense some very vague sort of magic surrounding the item," Giles stated as he, too, continued to visually examine the object under discussion, "but it's too diffuse for me to identify.

"It seems to have a somewhat ambiguous, possibly divine, component to it," he added, "but aside from that, I-I-I can't be more precise without actually handling it, or resorting to more complex spells that I would need to consult some of text about."

"The axe has some very powerful spells bound to it, which I think are primarily to enhance its durability and make it a kind of holy weapon," Willow stated after several moments' further consideration.

"I won't be able to determine exactly what else it might be able to do without a much more detailed examination, using some very old and powerful spells I know the Coven possesses – but from what I can tell here and now, it's not any sort of evil artifact," the Witch declared with confident certainty. "If this was what the First was having Caleb prevent us from getting, it's not because it thought it could use it against us.

"Well, unless it was just using this thing as bait, to get us to come after it, so Caleb and its Bringers could ambush us," the witch suggested reflectively.

"Regardless, that's all I can tell you guys about what that thing can do, at the moment," Willow concluded her own analysis.

"Okay, then, Red," Faith said. "If no one else has any other ideas or suggestions, then I think I'm gonna try and pick it up, 'cause it actually feels like it's calling to me to take it.

""I still don't like it," Xander shook his head on disagreement. "Seriously, I don't. This reminds me way too much about of all those stories we heard about taking candy from strangers, when we were little kids!"

"It's not evil, Xander. I told you, whatever else it is – this Slayer-magnet axe thingy isn't evil," Willow insisted, causing Harris to roll his eyes in annoyance.

"What the hell, I'm gonna go for it. You guys ready, in case I got psycho again?" Faith asked, licking her lips uncertainly and giving her teammates a quick glance over her shoulder.

"We're ready whenever you are, Faith," Buffy answered as reassuringly as she could manage, while the others (even Xander) nodded their own agreement and assurances.

"Okay, then," the dark-haired Slayer nodded to herself, taking a deep breath before reaching down to grasp the center of the axe's handle. "Here goes –"

"God *damn*!"

A low-voiced, barely audible whisper escaped the brunette's lips as a dim, but clearly noticeable, glow surrounded both her and the axe the instant she touched the clearly mystical weapon before then quickly fading away.

"Holy shit, but I feel like I just downed a couple dozen double Red Bull espressos," Faith said as she turned to face her teammates, a wide smile on her face, the axe sliding out of the granite boulder in which it had been embedded without any resistance whatsoever as the brunette King Arthur'ed it out of the stone.

"This thing is simply fucking incredible," Faith declared as she apparently effortlessly spun the axe around in a series of maneuvers reminiscent of those preformed by military drill teams.

"It's like finding something that you hadn't even realized you lost," she added, as the others watched with a mixture of fascination and semi-professional interest.

A few moments later, apparently finally realizing she was the center of interest for everyone present, Faith asked, "You want to try it out, B?" as she held the axe out to her mystical sibling.

"Thanks for asking, Faith, but no thanks," Buffy slowly shook her head.

"Weird as it sounds, but I'm not feeling the inclination to grab that thing anymore," Buffy admitted somewhat thoughtfully. "Once you picked it up, I could feel the itch fade away, almost like that thing had decided it had found what it was looking for – which was you, apparently.

"Anyway, it's yours now," the blonde Slayer stated with a casual shrug.

"Well, as long as nothing bad's happened – I guess it looks like Dugan was right," Xander declared, drawing everyone's eyes to him and away from the two Slayers. "Since Faith found a new toy to play with almost as soon as we got here, there're probably loads of things here the rest of us could use, once we find them.

"So, why don't we get started on that, huh?" he suggested with a wide grin of anticipation.

***

True to the One Who See's prediction, the group soon found several more items which they could put to immediate use.

Willow discovered a mystical device identified in the card files as a shadow cloak, an item reputed to possess several diverse capabilities, which she was quite interested in further exploring.

Buffy had discovered a longsword which was alleged to have been recovered from a warlock's castle in Bavaria some fifty years earlier, and which had been identified as the Sword Kladenets (or 'Slayer' when translated from Russian), and she had immediately quite happily christened her new possession, 'Mr. Stabby."

Xander found a massive futuristic-looking rifle that somewhat resembled an M41A pulse rifle from the 'Aliens' movie, which one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. teams had come across in a previously undiscovered underground research facility located near the Calax Research and Development facilities, alongside blueprints for something identified as an 'exorcist gun.' The facility's ownership had eventually been traced to a consortium controlled by Obidiah Stane, Arthur Petrelli and an individual identified as Johann Schmidt, and once that little fact had come to light, Fury had immediately ordered *everything* in the facility seized and brought to Pegasus.

So it was with a great deal of reluctance that Team Hellmouth had to leave the Pegasus facility in order to head to Fort Benning and begin the next stage of their assigned training; but not before taking three days of leave, which General Fury actually ordered his five-member nascent team to take, so that they wouldn't slip into old bad habits.

~/~/~

Triskelion compound, New York, NY
Agents residence wing

Thursday, September 26, 2003


"Knock, knock?"

The sound of Xander's voice caused Cordelia Chase – the *real* one, not the fake still vegetating and being visited every week by the lonely and increasingly uptight Angel – to whirl around within her room. "Xander? XANDER!!"

Quick as a flash, the young woman raced to the doorway to give Harris a fierce hug. She had recovered enough from the coma and Jasmine's birth by now to be up and about, at least. Cordy still wasn't quite ready to run a marathon or anything, but she was no longer confined to a bed for her own good.

"I've missed you," Xander's muffled voice could be heard saying, as Cordelia finally let him go. He gave her a quick once-over and smiled, "You're looking good. Not that you ever don't, of course."

"Of course," Cordelia sniffed disdainfully, but also with a charming smile that contained no hint of malice. "When did you get back to New York?"

"Just now."

"Oh. Right. So, where's everyone else?"

"On down time, doing whatever suits," Xander shrugged. "Buffy's with Dawn. Willow's visiting Kennedy – not that I think anything's gonna really work out, there. Faith's gone somewhere with Giles, don't ask me why – 'cause I couldn't tell you. And as for Spike, he's decided to take up sun-bathing. Mentioned something or other about wanting to see if he'd freckle," Xander said with a mild snort of amusement.

"Spike? OUR Spike? As in the undead version of Sid Vicious, *sun-bathing*?" Cordelia demanded in sheer incredulity.

"Nobody told you about that amulet Clea Strange gave him so that Spike could walk in the daylight, huh?" Xander seemed far too amused over her ignorance for the brunette's liking. "So what have you been up to over the past month or so, Cor? Going to Broadway plays and fashion shows?"

"Jerk!!" Cordelia slapped him hard on the arm. Not that the Super-Soldier actually felt the blow, but it gave the brunette some minor sense of satisfaction. "If you must know, I've been in physical rehab – and attending counseling sessions with Dr. Sofen. I've been trying to decide what to do next."

Xander shrugged, guiding her over to the bed and a nearby chair. As they sat down, he asked, "So, does that mean you're heading back to LA soon?"

Cordelia hesitated. The sessions with Karla Sofen had made the Vision Girl (who hadn't received a single vision from the PTBs since waking up) face up to the fact that her situation just wasn't as simple as getting on a plane, and then throwing herself into Angel's arms as soon as she arrived home.

For one thing, Cordelia still had issues with Angel – and with everyone else in their little group – over not being able to tell how Jasmine had been in the driver's seat back then. The fallen PTB hadn't even done that good an acting job, and yet *nobody* had clued into the fact that that hadn't been her? However much she hated to admit it, that made Cordy wonder if Angel's Avengers actually knew her as well as she'd thought they did.

And then there was Connor. A boy she'd considered her own son, for a time. She'd fed him, bathed him, changed his diapers...and then her body had fucked him less than a year later. In her mind, Cordelia could still smell the aroma of his semen after he'd impregnated her, the soul of her embryonic daughter immediately excised and tossed aside before Jasmine's unholy essence had poured itself inside the physical shell.

Just so that the evil bitch could give birth to itself, take over the world and turn her into a vegetable...

And now, Connor didn't even remember her. Angel had effectively betrayed everyone for him by selling out to the Senior Partners, in order to give his son a normal, happy life. Cordelia honestly wasn't sure if she could prevent herself from blurting out what the vampire had done to the rest of the Fang Gang, if she went back to Los Angeles and confronted hem all.

And if she did that, it might tear the group apart, once Wes, Fred, Gunn and Lorne understood what Angel had done – all in the name of his suicidal, semi-crazed offspring known as the 'Miracle Child.'

"Not yet," Cordelia finally replied to Xander's question, a haunted look appearing on her face. "I just – I can't go back. At least not yet, I..."

"Hey, no pressure," Harris reassured his ex, as he hurriedly decided to change the subject. "So, how about I take you out to dinner at New York's fanciest restaurant tonight? It's totally on me."

"You want to take *me* out to dinner? Why?" Cordelia demanded. Because the last time he had done that, it was to Bucky's Fondue Hut in Sunnydale; and never had she been so embarrassed to enter such a low-class dive.

"Well, I thought we were friends again now, and since I only have three days' leave... no, uh, never mind. Just forget I asked..."

"Hey, wait a minute!" Cordelia grabbed hold of Xander's arm, preventing him from leaving. "That's not what I meant, you big dummy! I mean, sure, I'd like for us to have dinner together. But why do you want to go out with *me*? Why not Anya – you know, the woman you almost *married*?"

"It's been five months since Sunnydale got nuked, Cor. Ahn's moved on, and I guess so have I," Xander said simply. "Besides, it's been over eighteen months since that...that *nightmare*. If we were ever going to get past what happened that day and get back together, I figure Anya and I would have already done it by now. So maybe it's best to just accept that some mistakes can't ever be fixed, and move on. Anya has her life nowadays, and I have mine.. And I'd rather spend my time with you – unless you don't want me to, of course."

For the first time, Cordelia understood what Harris was trying to say. That he had nowhere else to go, and nowhere else he'd rather be – than be here with her. It was a weird feeling for Cordy to realize that, apart from the physical differences the Super-Soldier Serum had endowed, her high school boyfriend also appeared to now be quite different mentally as well; after all, there had been a time when Buffy and Willow had been Xander's *only* priority.

Even though neither of them had been his damn girlfriend. That had been *her* job!

"All right, fine," Cordelia said slowly. "Dinner. Tonight. You and me. Pick me up around seven-ish, and Xander? If you *dare* try to stand me up with some sort of Buffy- or Willow-related emergency, I *swear* that I'll cut off your balls with a rusty spoon!"

Harris looked somewhat surprised at the unexpected threat, but quickly dismissed it as a typical Cordy-ism. "Fine, then, it's a date. Well, not a *date* date, of course, uh, uhm, it's just two people having dinner. It's not like back in high school when I took you out to dinner and a movie, and then afterwards we used to fool around in the back seat of your dad's Beemer..."

Cordelia quickly cut off the surprisingly enjoyable reappearance of nervous Xander-babble, grabbing the guy by the arm and literally shoving him out of her room in order for Harris to cease embarrassing himself.

And yet, as she slammed the door shut and rested her back upon it, Cordelia Chase could not prevent a pleased smile from appearing on her face, as she contemplated what sort of dress to wear for dinner tonight.

Maybe she could even borrow a few things from Dr. Sofen, so as to look her absolute best for the evening...

Even though it was most definitely *not* a date!

~/~/~

Dakar's Ice Cream Boutique
New York, NY

Friday, September 27, 2003


"I think that that would be simply awesome, Buffy! So, why don 't you just call him and ask him out, right now? You could see if he's doing anything tonight or tomorrow night," Dawn declared enthusiastically as the two of them exited the shop, with the intentions of continuing their 'retail therapy session,' as Buffy had described their excursion when she had proposed it the previous night.

"After all, it's not as if he's actually dating that Foster woman, or anything. From what I heard some of the agents saying yesterday, she's accepted a staff position at one of the universities down in South America, because they've developing some sort of research program looking for black holes in the Southern hemisphere," the younger brunette informed her sister.

"I don't know, Dawnie," Buffy shook her head in a mix of uncertainty and minor apprehension about the potential significant change in her social life that she'd mentioned she was contemplating during the lunch break the two sisters were currently taking.

"Sometimes, it seems like I'm destined to be an old maid – because it seems like very relationship I've had just goes down in flaming wreckage," the blonde Chosen One sighed.

Having the funds available to be able to go out and shop whenever the urge might strike her, and not have to worrying about scrimping and evaluating every potential expense had done wonders when it came to improving both Summers women's attitudes towards life, and Buffy was intent on taking advantage of the current opportunity that had been offered her to do more bonding with her sister.

The fact was that she was feeling somewhat guilty about the way she had, at least to her way of thinking, basically abandoned her younger sibling for the past several weeks to the oversight of her friends and fellow coworkers while she had been undergoing the training Colonel Dugan had set up might also possibly have had something to do with her suggestion that they spend the day shopping.

"Well, that's mainly because the guys you chose all majorly sucked, one way or another," Dawn casually informed her sister with the all the finesse and diplomacy pretty much every member of the Scooby Gang possessed.

Which was to say, none at all.

Seeing her elder sibling rolling her eyes at her completely honest evaluation of the blonde's former boyfriends, Dawn realized that she could have been a tad more tactful in the choice of wording she'd made, but then mentally shrugged to herself and decide that Anya's style of tough love was exactly what Buffy needed to hear, if she was to break her streak of completely unsuitable, male companions.

"Face it, Buffy," she said, as the two headed towards a small shoe boutique they'd heard favorable comments about from some of the female agents Fury had assigned to shadow Dawn, "neither Angel or Spike was anything approaching a good choice for you.

"Angel brooded *way* too much for you to have ever seriously considered him as boyfriend material," she declared.

"Parker was just your typical college horndog, and you should have beaten him into a bloody pulp for the way he tossed you aside after he nailed you," the Key announced with a casual, offhand, Anya-like candor which brought a grudging smirk to Buffy's lips, even as she silently agreed with her sister's evaluation

"And Riley was a nice guy, but it was obvious after a while that he couldn't really deal with having a girlfriend who was so much stronger and obviously a way better fighter than he was," she noted

"And while I love Spike – solely in a big bloodsucking brother kind of way," Dawn immediately qualified her comment as she caught the semi-narrow-eyed glance Buffy gave her, "just like with Angel, even considering having a vampire for a boyfriend is the sort of thing that a vampire slayer should *not* be doing, *ever*"

"I really appreciate how you've given my romantic relationships so much consideration, Dawn," Buffy replied, the least bit sarcastically, as the brunette paused in her commentary concerning the Slayer's love life.

"You're welcome," Dawn shrugged unconcernedly, either not recognizing or simply ignoring Buffy's tone of voice.

"As far as the people you might consider dating, Spike is out, for reasons I already noted," Dawn continued, not giving her sister any time to develop any sort of explanation or rebuttal of her review, "and Xander has been stuck in the 'friend' zone you put him in, for the past six years.

"And even if you were considering maybe changing that particular evaluation because of how hot he's gotten since he got that Supersoldier treatment, he and Cordy have been getting a whole lot friendlier the past few weeks," the brunette pointed out, getting a nod of agreement regarding that observation from her sibling.

"As far as anyone else you could go out with is concerned, even though Rogers is definitely hot looking, he's not even in the ballpark of possibilities, because that would mean you would, literally, be dating someone who's our grandparents' age," Dawn noted with a delicate moue of disgust.

"Which is why you should be paying attention to me when I tell you that I think you should definitely give Thor a call," the brunette continued.

"He already knows about the supernatural side of things, he's used to women who can kick ass as well as any guy, he's not in the least intimidated because you're freakishly superstrong because of being the Slayer," she noted, totally ignoring Buffy's outraged "Hey!" in response to her wholly honest description of her sister's strength.

"And best of all, Thor's completely and totally hot, and he *so* doesn't deserve to be stuck with some tight ass like Foster," Dawn finished up her evaluation of the Ultimate .

"You're not completely wrong about everything you've been saying," Buffy grudgingly admitted as she considered Dawn's now apparently completed commentary.

"I'll at least give it some thought," she then conceded, trying to ignore Dawn's triumphant grin upon hearing her answer.

"You should call him right now, and see if he's free for dinner, either for tonight or tomorrow, if he's already got plans," Dawn immediately instructed her sister. "It doesn't have to be for anything fancy – you could just meet him for a quick sandwich or a drink."

"I don't know, Dawnie," Buffy shook her head uncertainly.

"No, you really should call him right now, while the idea's fresh in your mind," the Key insisted tenaciously, along with an emphatic nod.

"I suppose I could call him, if only to try and establish a good working relationship with the other main team," Buffy mused to herself.

"Good!" Dawn declared approvingly.

"Here! Call him right now!" she directed as she pulled out her own phone and offered it to Buffy.

"I've got his number in my contacts list, under 'Thor,'" she noted redundantly.

"Just why are you so insistent that I call him?" Buffy paused, suspicion and wariness coloring her voice as she took the brunette's phone from her hand.

"Because I think the two of you would be good for each other, and I think anyone else would be a disaster," Dawn replied. "Now call him."

"Okay," Buffy acquiesced as she began sorting through the contacts listings.

"Besides, you *so* need to get laid."

"Dawn! I do not!" The embarrassed outrage in Buffy's voice would have been evident to anyone hearing their conversation.

"Yes, you do! Now, call him!"
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