Matsumi Miyamoto growled in his high-pitched, pitiful voice. Nothing here to inspire the fear a Samurai warrior should bring forth. Even the weak and clueless body that now held the spirit of his former employer, Rojin, the traitor that had double-crossed him and watched as he died, snorted in derision. Miyamoto held the advantage in *that* at least – he remembered who he had been, and what he had been capable of. He could even still do some if it. Rojin’s spirit was buried too deep inside this other man to do him any good.
But at least Rojin’s spirit rested inside a *man’s* body. Even as powerless and overweight as that body was, it could take down a gangly teenaged girl. And that, for some reason, was where Miyamoto had found himself when his own spirit dove through the portal and returned to the land of the living.
He wasn’t sure what had gone wrong. In the séance, Elena had assured him that she would find a body that met his specifications. He had already guided her to the place where she would find the Talisman that would open the Void, allowing his spirit at last to take its revenge on Rojin. He had clearly outlined his requirements – height, weight, age, build – everything he would need in a new body. So when the portal opened, he was certain he would need only to follow his finely honed spiritual senses to where the spirit of Rojin now resided, and slay his current body. It wasn’t quite the same as it would have been if he could have killed the real man, back in Feudal Japan, but as revenge went, it would have to do.
Instead, when he arrived in the land of the living, Matsumi found his spirit had taken full possession of the body of a fifteen year old *girl*. And not even one in very good physical shape, for that matter. She was skinny, with oddly colored stringy hair, and an addiction to some weed-filled cylinders that had weakened her lungs. He sighed – all his efforts to return to the Void and try again with another body had been in vain – he was stuck in this one until he either completed his task, or killed it trying, he supposed. The Samurai had a fairly good idea of which it would be, too. When he attempted to remove the Talisman, it burned his fingers. So, ignoring the body’s craving for those cylinders, he located the ritual knife he’d had Elena hide for him (at least she’d managed to get *that* right), and set off to find his sworn enemy.
Now, here he stood, the borrowed body bruised and beaten, clutching the knife in a last ditch effort to wreak his revenge. At first, the middle-aged body that unknowingly held Rojin tried to negotiate with the obviously disturbed young girl that had cornered him in the alley. Miyamoto grinned at that memory, causing the girl’s swollen face to look even more distorted. He’d gotten in a few solid blows before the big fool began to defend himself. The blood running down the front of the white shirt the man wore bore witness to that. But muttering something about having played football, the grossly overweight man soon realized he *could* defend himself, and that appeared to be his only choice. Thus the damage to Matsumi’s temporary home. Still, a knife beat fists, if used properly, and knives were something the Samurai knew how to use properly. With a gleam in his eye, he raised his weapon and bore down on his enemy.
The vision of something sharp and deadly and aimed at his chest seemed to spur the big man into actions normally beyond his capabilities. He dodged and bobbed, shooting a hand out to grab that of the girl. As he managed to pull the knife from her grip, he heard something break, and from the corner of his eye, saw an object fall to the ground. Then he decided that the world would be better off without teenaged punks who tried to murder respectable accountants in back alleys, and with a vitriol that might have been the first stirrings of the Feudal Warlord awakening within him, the former football player turned the knife on his attacker. Seeing the bloody result of his actions, he sprinted in panic out of the alley, reached his Explorer, and puked all over the front tire.
Before his blade struck its target, the Samurai heard a snap, and felt his spirit pulling away from the body and plunging back into the Void. Who knew how many lifetimes it would take him to find Rojin again? And he’d been SO close…
Miriam Hoffstettler couldn’t help but wonder how she’d ended up in this alley, laying on the ground amidst the smell of garbage and urine. The last time she was aware of her surroundings, she’d been at her Aunt’s apartment, searching her drawers for cigarettes, since Miri had run out. Her aunt was a little flaky, but apparently not a smoker. But, geez, her stomach hurt! She peered down – the amount of blood pouring from that hole in her abdomen could have something to do with it, she surmised. Funny – it was hurting less now, and things were getting a bit grey around the edges. A metallic gleam caught her eye, and she pushed herself to focus on that. Oh, yeah, the necklace she’d pinched from Aunt Elena’s dresser.
When the Scooby gang came across Miri’s body two hours later, her unseeing stare was still aimed at the Talisman.
“Definitely not the work of vamps,” Buffy declared, kneeling beside the body. “Although I’m surprised the smell of all this blood didn’t draw any of them.”
“Must be a big meeting at the Hellmouth or something,” Willow said, trying hard to keep her eyes away from the parts of the dead girl that normally wouldn’t be visible in public – like her stomach lining. “They’re all busy. Does she look familiar to you?”
Xander bent down and picked something up. “I think she’s like, a sophomore or something. She hangs with the druggie crowd.” He glanced briefly at the corpse. “Uh, used to hang with. I’m sure I’ve seen her around school.” Straightening, he held out his discovery. “Take a look at this.”
A strange medallion on a heavy chain hung from his fingers. The two girls moved in to study it more closely. “You think it has anything to do with who or what carved her up?”
Willow frowned, her research and study look. “Those look like runes of some kind around the outside. Wasn’t there a break-in of some sort over at the museum last week? Pieces of a Feudal Japanese collection missing? Some of this writing could be Japanese, I think.”
“We could check the police records, but remember, this is Sunny-Hell. Even if there *was* a report filed, if this thing has any magical properties at all, the report has now mysteriously disappeared.” Buffy shrugged. Their town seemed to give the phrase “Turn a blind eye” a new intensity of meaning. Between the mystical powers that battled over the Hellmouth, and the citizenry’s ability to ignore almost anything out of the ordinary, if it weren’t for Giles and his monitoring of unusual happenings, even the Scooby gang themselves would be clueless about many of the major supernatural events in their hometown. “Xander, hang onto it. We can show it to Giles when we get back.” Obediently, the young man stuffed the medallion in his pants pocket.
Unfortunately, there were other things of more importance to occupy the trio before they could return to Giles’, and once they got back there, it took a while to stop the bleeding. The Watcher applied ice to Willow’s bruises, and bandaged Xander’s arm, and they were all exhausted. Really, an apparent *regular* murder of a girl with questionable associates and a funny looking necklace were the least of their worries, and it was no big surprise they’d completely forgotten about it. Xander only remembered the thing when he emptied his pockets before shedding his pants and collapsing on his bed. He tossed it onto his dresser to be dealt with in the morning.
Somehow, even with the stitches and bruised ribs, Xander always felt better in the morning. He stretched like an overgrown cat, only wincing slightly at the pain that reminded him what parts he had injured *this* time. *Sort of a self-renewing self*, he thought sleepily. *Stupid optimism, new every morning*.
The medallion on his dresser arrested his gaze. It didn’t look really broken, but the catch seemed stuck open. He dug around in his top dresser drawer, pulling out at last a paperclip and a small screwdriver. After a few minutes of futile fiddling with an unbent paperclip, he took the screwdriver to the catch, and then – *voila*! – fixed medallion.
After showering, he pulled on his favorite baggy cargos, a tee shirt and a loose button down, and ran a comb through his wavy hair, making little real difference. He looked again at the medallion – if he stuck it in his pocket, he’d probably forget it again, and they really did need Giles to look at it. The most logical place to carry a necklace, Xander reasoned, is around the neck. Fastening the catch, he tucked the medallion into his tee shirt. Something odd sort of vibrated through his body, and as he looked down at himself, he heard his own voice asking, in a strange cadence, “Don’t you ever iron your clothes?” He sat down hard on his bed.
“So, let me get this right,” Willow said slowly, looking askance at her childhood friend. “You’ve been possessed by the spirit of an old lady, who seems to be channeling Cordelia Chase?”
“Excuse me, but I was only 48 when I died. I really resent that. Just because I’m not a teenager, like you are…” It was Xander’s voice, but not really. It was slightly higher pitched, and just a hair short of singsong. “And ‘possessed’ has such a nasty ring to it. I’m just borrowing Alexander’s body for a little while, to get a last message to my daughter. I was on my way to talk to her when the accident occurred, and I waited a long time to get through the portal so I could finish that trip.” She almost seemed to turn and look at herself. “I’m sorry, dear, but they don’t seem to be getting it, and I’d really like to be on our way.” For a moment, the expression looked more like Xander’s, and he nodded.
“And you came through this ‘portal’ and into Xander exactly how?” Buffy’s patience was never kept on a very long leash, and had just about reached the end of its tether.
The woman inside Xander’s body sniffed and looked down his nose at her. “The portal opened; I was waiting; I came through. I have no idea what opened it, not do I care. I want to go see my daughter.”
“Excuse me, um, madam,” Giles interrupted, “But I’ve never know a possessed person to be conversant with the spirit within them, nor to have *any* control when possessed. How do we know you’re not a, um,” the watcher cleared his throat and had the grace to look uncomfortable, “uh, mental aberration?”
“Thanks a lot, G-Man,” the younger man protested. “Next time I get possessed by a nice old, uh, a neat lady, see if I tell *you*.” The other three stared as Xander patted himself on the knee. “Thank you, dear.” The spirit within looked at the Watcher with disdain, an expression he’d really never thought Xander himself capable of, then settled into a patient smile. “I’m afraid I’m not a very strong personality, unlike most of the others waiting for the portal to open. The one time I stood up for myself in life, I ended the day dead, so I haven't had much practice. It’s one of the reasons I need to talk to my Kelli, but that’s for her ears only. I simply happened to be the only one of the waiting to be present when the portal opened this time, so I got through. I couldn’t fight my way ahead of the others. I really can’t wrest control of his body away from Mr. Harris, either, but he’s been nice enough to share with me.” She patted him again, and the expression went from her benignly tolerant smile to a purely Xander sheepish blush and grin, and back again, in seconds.
Willow heard unknown information hinted at, and immediately wanted more. “Excuse me, Mrs.” She stopped – the spirit within Xander had yet to identify herself.
“Oh, where are my manners?” Xander fretted in that other voice. He stood up prissily. “Sarah Jamison, pleased to meet you all.” She began to extend her hand, but reconsidered and curtseyed, the already awkward gesture made all the more so when performed by Xander’s body. Then she sat back down.
After a moment of stunned speechlessness, Willow recovered. “Mrs. Jamison, you said there are others waiting to return. How many?”
She frowned. “Bunches. Lots of people die with unfinished business, you know. Although, after ten or twenty years, some of them give up and go on. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway. The portal doesn’t open very often – it’s been several years since the last time - until that Ancient Chinaman – wait, no, he was Japanese – left a few days ago.”
Giles appeared to also be intrigued. “And you don’t know what causes this portal to open?”
She shrugged eloquently. “The Jap seemed to know, but he wasn’t sharing anything, outside of the fact that he’d soon be leaving. Then he did. There are rumors, of course. They say there are several controls that can switch the portal open, but most of them are only activated by accident. That’s why there’s no waiting list or order – if it opens and you’re there, you go. I was there; I came.” She turned sort of inward again, and her voice grew plaintive. “Could we go see Kelli now?”
Xander nodded, and his body language changed again. “I promised her we’d find her daughter, and it turns out her son-in-law’s listed in the local phone book.” Sarah’s demeanor reemerged. “Once I complete my mission, I go back, and Alexander can have his body to himself again.” Xander’s expression again. “Not that I don’t like you, but I would appreciate that.”
Buffy shook her head – it was like watching a game of ping pong all played in a single spot. Her mind was having trouble bouncing between the two personalities. “Can we come along?” Not that Xander seemed to be in any trouble with the spirit, but this WAS Sunnydale, and you just never knew.
The slayer could have sworn she saw them *both* nod at the same time.
Giles’ car stopped in front of a terribly middle-class home, in a hopelessly white-bread neighborhood. Mrs. Jamison had been telling them about her daughter’s bohemian college career on the way over, and Willow seemed intrigued by the girl’s cheerful but blatant rebelliousness. Buffy, on the other hand, was too busy watching her friend switching back and forth between Xander and Sarah to pay much attention to the actual narrative. He would ramble on, waving his hands for emphasis, and then suddenly interrupt himself with a question, which he would then in turn answer. There was no doubt in any of these exchanges where Xander ended, and Sarah began. It was mind-boggling, and Buffy was not a girl whose mind could easily be boggled.
“So anyway, she and Daniel decided to get married after they’d lived together for two years, and…” Sarah noticed the car had stopped, and looked out the window. “Are you sure this is the right address?” she asked Giles in dismay. The Watcher answered affirmatively, and the woman’s expression fell. “This is just what I feared.” She climbed out of the car, giving directions. “All of you stay out here – this has to be private.”
Xander returned to speak. “Uhm, Mrs. J – I can’t really stay out here.”
She smiled indulgently. “Of course not, dear. I meant the rest of them. I can’t do this without you. In fact, you’d better do the talking, to start with. I’ll join in when Kelli seems ready.”
Xander took back over, and strode with determination to the front door. A pretty young woman who looked to be around thirty answered, baby on her hip. Her welcoming smile turned quickly to a startled expression, and she pulled the young man in, closing the door behind him.
“This should be interesting,” Giles muttered, expressing the feeling they all shared.
Xander fidgeted nervously after knocking. “Don’t fidget,” Sarah whispered to him, “It makes people not trust you.” So he concentrated on standing still and looking as honorable as humanly possible.
The door swung open, and the woman that answered smiled in a carefully distant way. “Can I help you?”
“Are you Kelli Denton?” Xander asked, still straining to hold his body still in a trust-worthy way. When she smiled a bit more freely and nodded, he looked in her eyes. “I’m here with a message from your mother, Sarah.” The woman gasped and dragged him through the door, shutting and locking it behind him.
Once she had him inside, Kelli lost all expression of welcome. “What kind of a scam is this?” she demanded angrily. “My mother died over ten years ago, soon after my wedding.”
“I know,” Xander said, praying this girl wasn’t a “hit first, ask questions later” type, like Buffy tended to be. “She was in an auto accident, on her way over here to talk to you about something important. She didn’t tell me what it was, though.”
All the tension went out of the young woman’s body, and she looked incredibly sad. “So you really don’t have a message from her, you’re just here to torment me.” She sank into an overstuffed couch, and the baby in her arms squirmed loose and worked her way to the floor, sitting for a moment in consideration of what to do with her newfound freedom. The mother looked at Xander with tear-filled eyes. “You have no idea how much I miss her – how hard it’s been to do all this without her advice and help. You had to get my hopes up. Thanks, loads,” Kelli finished bitterly.
Xander saw the picture on the top of the piano – a middle-aged couple, the woman smiling serenely. She had silver blond hair and smoky grey eyes, and he knew already why he’d liked Sarah so much – even her photo projected warmth. “Kelli?” he said, hesitantly – except it wasn’t Xander talking.
The other woman was still studying her knees. “Yeah?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose. That’s why they call them ‘accidents’.”
The teary face rose slowly. “How’d you do that?” she demanded, anger and fear fighting for dominance in her voice.
“Do what?” Sarah countered.
“There – you did it again! You sound just like her – almost.” Fear seemed to be winning.
“Because it is me, sweetheart. Through no fault of his own, as far as I know, Alexander here happened to be on the receiving end when my spirit came through the portal. He’s what people call ‘possessed’. Although we’re more or less both in here together right now – I’ve never been very good at taking over.”
“Yeah,” Xander quipped, “Sort of a spiritual time-share, but we both drew the same week.” In spite of herself, Kelli grinned briefly.
“He’s a nice young man, isn’t he?” Sarah looked around. “Reminds me of what you used to be like – nice, but not very much the *same* as most people.” She sat down primly on the edge of a chair. “Do you still draw, sweetie?”
“Do I -? Huh?” Kelli stood up suddenly, sweeping the baby off the ground and away from the wall socket she was studying. “As if I have time.” She tucked the distressed little girl onto her hip, jiggling the child to stop her tears, and sat again. “It’s all I can do to keep up with this one and her brother. I haven’t drawn in years.”
“What about the poetry? Do you still write? I saved that piece you had published in the *Times*, you know, even though I never did understand it.”
Kelli seemed to have forgotten her mother was currently housed in a teenaged boy’s body. “Geez, Mom – all I write these days are grocery lists. I didn’t think you cared for my ‘creative urges’ as you used to call them.”
Sarah looked sad. “I was just jealous. Did you know that I wanted to be a writer?” Kelli shook her head slowly. “Yes. Your father didn’t really approve, though. He was fine as long as it was a hobby, but when I got a letter from a publisher about my novel, he blew his top. I was in the process of leaving him when I had the accident. I wanted to come warn you never to give up on your dreams, to keep trying to sell your comic strip and poetry, and then I was going to New York to talk to the publisher. I didn’t make it, on either count.”
“And now,” Kelli looked down at her daughter, “I’ve become exactly what you tried to warn me about, huh?” She looked up at her mother from under her lashes. “You know, Dad never did tell us why you had all your suitcases with you when you were hit.” She looked at her knees again. “He died two years ago – cancer.”
Sarah sighed. “That’s too bad. He wasn’t a bad man, honey. He just didn’t understand. It’s hard for someone who got all his joy from working with his hands according to someone else’s plans, like your father did, to understand the ‘creative urge’.” Kelli’s little smile breezed across her face again at the familiar phrase. Her mother caught her eye, and the younger woman gasped. The tall dark haired young man had somehow managed to look just like a petite middle-aged blonde woman with grey eyes. She blinked, and the boy was there again. Her mother’s cadences shook her back to attention. “It’s not too late, for you, anyway. Daniel loved your talent, and I think he’d still support you. You can work on your stuff during the baby’s naps, when the little boy…” She trailed off, looking around.
“He’s at preschool,” Kelli offered.
“When the boy’s at preschool,” Sarah finished.
“His name is Jeffery, mom. He looks a lot like you. And this,” she patted the now dozing baby on the back, “is Sarah.”
Xander’s body stood up and walked over to the couch. Sarah stroked her namesake gently. “You owe it to them, honey. You can’t be the very best mom if you aren’t everything you really want to be. Promise?”
Kelli’s eyes were watery. “I promise.”
Xander shuddered heavily, and Kelli hopped to her feet, apparently ready to catch him if he fainted. He shook his head and looked into her teary eyes.
“She’s gone now, isn’t she?” Kelli asked. He nodded. “Thank you,” she said, smiling through her tears.
“You had a really cool mom,” Xander grinned at her, trying to lose the empty feeling Sarah’s departure had left inside him. Suddenly, he shuddered again. Kelli reached for his arm.
“Alexander? Alexander, are you alright?”
Hard, cold brown eyes stared out from Xander’s face as he shook the woman’s hand free.
“He’s not here right now,” he growled, in a vaguely accented voice.
If there was one thing Marco Suarez had learned in his years on the force, it was to observe quickly, make logical decisions, and move on. That, and how to hit the ground running – that was the only reason he’d managed to dive over the three spirits that stood closer to the portal and make it through first.
He looked around – typical middle class home, stunned woman, sleeping baby – nothing that needed his attention here. The woman touched his arm.
“Alexander? Alexander, are you alright?”
Ahh – the name of the body he now possessed. A clue. He shook free of the hand. “He’s not here right now.” Then the former LAPD lieutenant figured out a use for the woman. “Where am I, right now?”
“Maple Street Station – it’s a small subdivision on the edge of Sunnydale. Why?”
Her puzzled nod gave him his second clue, and a plan. He needed a vehicle – Sunnydale was not too far from LA. He needed to be in LA. Looking out the front window, he saw two girls and a man waiting on the sidewalk. Beside a car. Probably for him – uh, Alexander. A car…
“Thank you, ma’am. ‘Scuse me.” Squaring his shoulders, he marched out the door, and toward the waiting group.
“Xander,” the blonde called, walking toward him.
*Ahh- Alexander has a nickname.* Marco filed the information, taking a quick but thorough look at the girl. *And nice looking friends – a little young, but looks strong. My type. Too bad I have other plans.* He nodded, managing to look as if he wasn’t completely ignoring her, while scanning for what he needed inside the car. Keys – in the ignition. Hopefully, Alexander’s – Xander’s – friends would forgive him for what the lieutenant was about to do.
Suarez smiled a grim and humorless smile at the group, and announced, “I have an appointment to keep. Can’t chat.” Then he hopped in the car, and turned the starter.
The Citroën coughed a few times, and reluctantly began to chug away. If the three others hadn’t been in shock, they could easily have caught it and jumped inside. “Great – what a piece of crap,” Marco commented, and looking in the rearview mirror, he saw the defensive and angry expression on the older gentleman’s face. Oh, well, at least he knew now who to return the car to when he was finished. If he lived that long…
Willow wiggled her fingers at the little girl in the car seat, and the baby giggled obligingly.
“I can’t believe Xander Harris stole my car!” Giles complained for the twentieth time.
“Giles,” Buffy sighed, “Get over it. He did – we’ve established that fact. Can we move on to *why*?” She shifted again, still trying to find a comfortable place for her legs, around the Duplo blocks and coloring books that littered the back seat of the mini-van. They were extremely fortunate that Kelli Denton was willing to drive them all back to Giles’ place.
Willow elicited another giggle from her seatmate before chiming in. “Was it just me, or did Xander seem awfully serious to you guys? Like he had a goal, and we weren’t about to get in the way of it?”
“Well, he *did* have a goal – my automobile,” Giles offered from the front passenger seat, sulkily.
“That’ll teach you to leave the keys in it,” Buffy muttered unsympathetically from the back seat. “And you’re right, Will – that was a distinctly un-Xander-like attitude he was sporting when he came out. Mrs. Denton, uh, Kelli – did anything unusual happen after you talked to your mother?”
The woman driving nodded immediately. “Oh, yes. Mother told me what she’d wanted to say, and all of a sudden – POOF – she was gone. I think your friend was there for a few minutes after she left, and he was very nice. Then, next thing I know, he’s asking me where he is. And his voice was all different, too.”
“Yeah – he sounded like he had a Spanish accent, to me. Not strong, but definitely not like anything I’ve ever heard from Xander.” Willow had picked up a stuffed animal, and was swooping it down on the baby’s stomach then pulling it away, to the child’s great joy.
“So it would seem that when Sarah left, Xander’s ‘vacancy’ sign lit up, and a new spirit came through the portal,” Buffy surmised.
“Oh, bliss. Not only does he have my car, but he’s probably possessed by the spirit of someone who is as we speak heading to the Mexican border with it.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. Her Watcher was being such a – man, for lack of a better word. All about their cars. As if that ugly thing was anything to get excited about. Secretly, she agreed with the evaluation of whatever spirit currently occupied Xander’s body regarding Giles’ vehicle. But even *she* had tact enough not to bring it up – often.
Marco slid out from under the vehicle and peered under the hood. Everything looked much better, now. The owner of the Citroën – one ‘Rupert Giles,’ according to the registration - at least had a set of tools in the trunk. Of course, considering the shape the points and plugs had been in, he probably had no idea how to use them. The trunk also contained a very old looking broadsword, and numerous wooden stakes. This Rupert Giles must live an interesting life. Suarez turned the key, and the engine purred. Much better.
He’d managed to find a deserted gas station along the highway between Sunnydale and LA, and to get the car there before the engine choked completely on the accumulated crud developed in months, if not years, of benign neglect. The former cop also spent a few minutes acquainting himself with the contents of the wallet that came with the body he now occupied. According to the driver’s license, that of one Alexander LaVelle Harris, age 17. Sunnydale High School student I.D. Several photographs of the two attractive young ladies that had been beside the car, and one of a different young man. A very old, very unused condom. Four dollars. In other words, nothing remarkable, nothing useful. It figured.
Gunning the now responsive car, Marco headed for LA.
Marco Suarez had been a good cop. He’d worked his way up from the desk to the beat, from Patrolman to Lieutenant. Finally, his application was accepted, and he was transferred to Special Operations. He had a steady girlfriend, Marah, and a nice apartment. He loved everything about his life – everything except his new partner, Kyle Martinson.
Kyle was big and blonde, a former All-City wrestler in High School, and obviously over-fond of himself. It was good thing that Kyle liked Kyle, because no one else did. Internal Affairs visited him on a regular basis, but never seemed to find anything that would stick long enough to get rid of him. Most of his former partners wouldn’t talk about him or to him. At least one had ended up dead. There was some question about exactly *what* had happened to another – she was officially listed as a missing person. Martinson was an equal opportunity hatemonger – he disliked Hispanics, Jews, blacks and women, and anyone else that was different from him. Other officers would cross the street to avoid him. But Kyle apparently led a charmed life, and being married to the Assistant Police Chief’s daughter didn’t hurt him much either. There was a poll going around the station about what kind of drugs the girl must have been taking the day he proposed. The man could have posed for a cartoon villain, but there was absolutely nothing funny about him.
Soon, the single dark spot in Marco’s perfect life was joined by others. First, Marah became close with the officer’s wives. This could have been a good thing, since he really hoped to propose to her, but the women had this tendency to talk a lot about the downside of their lives. Like wondering every night if their husband would come home from work hungry, or in a body bag. They made sure Marah knew that while the risks were high for *any* cop, members of the LAPD Special Operations Unit had a shorter life expectancy than most. And so, he and Marah began to fight about his job – constantly.
Before long, he was given an assignment that required he move to a cockroach-infested project in the Barrio for an unspecified period of time. While this sort of thing was the epitome of ‘undercover’, after his wonderful clean luxurious current apartment, it struck him as hardship duty. And why, exactly, did he have to live in the slums to infiltrate this operation, while Kyle was able to remain in his upscale ranch in Fullerton? It was not really a great surprise to find Marah packing her bags to leave, even as he was packing his own. He’d never seen her again.
The target of the operation that he’d been assigned to was Carleton Perez – cousin to a big name South American arms smuggler, looking to set up a North American branch of the family business. Marco was to try and get in the door as a runner, and Kyle as a customer (which at least explained the place in Fullerton – Marco was thankful his partner didn’t get moved into someplace even *nicer* while he himself was battling the rats for his breakfast cereal). Kyle would take a “shine” to Marco, and see that Perez moved him up in responsibility. When both were in position, they’d wire Martinson, get a confession, and take down the entire operation.
Everything went well – too well, Marco realized now, in hindsight. As the weeks ground by, he felt Perez was growing to trust him, and Kyle seemed to be stetting up for “the big sale” without difficulty. The night of the takedown, he was nervous, but not unduly so. After all, they had a plan. Unfortunately, he and Martinson didn’t have the *same* plan.
It all happened so fast that he was staring down the business end of Martinson’s gun before he was even aware he’d been double-crossed by his partner. “See,” the big blonde tossed over his shoulder to Perez, “I told you he didn’t suspect anything.”
“Jesus, Kyle – what are you doing? The guys in the van can hear everything.” Suarez was whispering in the hopes that this was just some new variation on the original plan, and not what it appeared to be. Because if it was what it seemed, the listening team should be bursting in any minute to rescue him.
“Oh, such a shame – my wire *broke* just a few minutes ago. And the team in the van won’t be coming around to save your ass anytime soon. In fact, you were stupid enough to kill them with *your* service piece, which will be found on your dead body. I couldn’t dare break cover when Perez was defending himself against your threats – it’s too bad you got greedy, but it can happen to the best cops.” The grin on Martinson’s florid face was enough to make Marco queasy, had the situation not already done so.
There was nothing in life that Marco Suarez hated more than dirty cops – except maybe the fact that he died branded as one, unfairly. The instant before his spirit left his body, he vowed to come back somehow, and set this all straight.
Cordelia Chase was *bored*. After all, once you’d done Rodeo Drive, been seen at all the latest clubs, and shopped every mall at least twice, what was there to *do* in LA? Apparently, all the agents looking for gorgeous young faces to star in the next “Scream” had taken the summer off. At least back home, the Cordettes would be calling regularly, checking on what they should wear and whom they should be wearing it with. There was always the Bronze – not as exciting as Spago, but she knew more people there, and they *admired* her. Most of them, anyway. Here, she’d run out of things to do. Her aunt had to go back to work, and couldn’t entertain her this week, but at least had the decency to leave her the BMW. So Cordelia Chase had reduced herself to walking along the pier at Manhattan Beach, picking out which expensive house she would own after she graduated from High School. She was about ready to go back to Aunt Cecily’s house and *watch TV*, for heaven’s sake, when she spotted a familiar figure. And although she’d never be caught dead in Sunnydale trying to catch his attention, on a beach full of people who didn’t know how special she was, he was the best she could do. She sidled up beside him, waiting for him to tear his eyes from the pay-per-view telescope thingy.
Marco had spent a couple of hours in the library at the microfiche, checking out articles from the time of his death. Apparently, due to the undercover nature of the operation, the circumstances and investigation behind his death were kept fairly quiet. What the articles *didn’t* say said a lot. “Killed in the line of duty,” “Small ceremony, closed to the public” – Marco knew what all those things meant. He’d seen how they buried disgraced cops before him – quickly, quietly, and usually no one but family came. No officer wanted to be too closely associated with a dirty cop in the eyes of the brass. The listening team also got small mention, which made sense – if you thought a cop killed two others, you wouldn’t want to advertise it in the story of their deaths, and so would best keep it all low key.
He was surprised when he came across a small article about Perez, and saw a quote from Detective Mike Collier, an officer of no small repute and responsibility who often worked as liaison between Special Operations and the rest of the force. “We think he has ties inside the Department,” Collier was quoted as saying, referring to the South American, “and may be responsible for the death of one highly respected officer and his team already.” If this was a veiled reference to his own death and the members of the listening team, Marco hoped it meant that not all his friends saw him as having gone to the other side first.
Suarez also pulled the Haynes Directory, and looked up his ex-partner. As he suspected, the address showed that Martinson was living down along Manhattan Beach – awful nice digs for a police department salary, even if he’d made it all the way to the *head* of the Special Ops Section in the last five years, not a likely scenario. He changed Harris’ four dollars for quarters at the front desk, and headed over to the pier.
“I know I’m beautiful, but I can’t believe you followed me all the way to LA, Xander. Dreaming big, huh?” Marco looked up from the telescope to see the brunette girl leaning on her elbow against the railing. Her smile held a hint of disdain, and although Marco found her mildly attractive, he still didn’t like her. He had a feel for people that way – too bad he hadn’t listened to it with Martinson. He narrowed his eyes at her.
“I’m kind of busy right now, miss. If you don’t mind.” He lowered his head back to the eyepiece.
Cordelia raised an eyebrow. “Miss? Pretty formal for a girl you’ve known since kindergarten, don’t you think? Oh, I get it. Super-Dweeb wasn’t working for you, so you decided to try the Miss Manners approach, huh? Trust me, Harris, there still isn’t a girl alive that’s gonna fall for you. I think it’s a hormonal imbalance in your system or something.”
Marco growled deep in Xander’s throat, and turned dark angry eyes on the girl. “If I didn’t have an important mission here, I’d take the time to take you down a peg or two. You need it. Your impression of your own importance reminds me of someone else I really hated, and you’re lucky my business with him takes precedence. I’m done here. Get over yourself, little girl.” Cordelia’s jaw hit her knees as she watched Xander Harris march angrily off the pier and into the parking area, fading from her sight.
“When the hell did he grow the backbone?” she wondered aloud. “And that sexy accent?” Hearing what she’d just said, the cheerleader shook her head. “I must really need some rest.”
“Yeah, Buffy, I know we’re hardly friends or anything, but I thought you might want to know that your puppy got loose, and he’s running around LA.”
“Cordelia, things are hard enough for me right now without wasting my time on your cryptic little insults. Explain that, or go away. Your choice.” Buffy needed a long-distance call from Cordelia Chase right now about as much as she needed major surgery without anesthesia.
“I could just let Harris here go running around acting all masterful and in charge until he gets himself killed or something, but I thought I’d be of some help and report him to his Keepers before he hurt something.” Cordelia was beginning to regret ever calling the other girl, but if she were to be perfectly honest, the way Xander looked at her, and the way he’d acted, kind of scared her. The only person she knew to turn to who’d even care was Buffy. Willow probably wouldn’t even take her call.
“Xander’s there? In LA?”
“Well, gimme a ‘duh’! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. You really *are* a natural blonde, huh?” When Buffy didn’t even respond, Cordy went on. “He was talking with this funny accent, and all hot about some ‘mission,’ but I’ve known him for a long time, and it was definitely Xander Harris.”
Buffy had to get to Giles’ place. “Thanks Cord. I owe ya.” She hung up before Cordelia could think of what to say to such a stunning response.
“One of my weirder days,” the cheerleader mused as she stared at the receiver in her hand. “Maybe I will watch TV after all.”
“It certainly has good pickup,” Giles offered, swerving the rented Toyota out of the way of the woman applying her mascara on the freeway.
“It’s not the Citroën, that’s the best I can say for it,” Buffy replied, miffed.
“You know full well we couldn’t afford to rent that red Mustang convertible, so try to make do,” Giles snapped back.
“It could be worse,” Willow offered from the back seat, “It could be some ugly color, like grey.”
Buffy turned to glare at her friend. “Wills, it’s *silver*. Silver is just grey with a little ambition.” She faced forward, focusing again on their task. “So, we have to find Xander in the huge city of Los Angles, we only know where Cordelia saw him *hours* ago, he’s wearing a personality we don’t know and has a mission we can’t guess. Could be harder, I guess. At least we know what *car* to look for.” She shot a sidelong glance at her Watcher, who appeared to be biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself from responding. Rather, he pretended not to hear the last comment.
“What precisely do we know about Xander’s current personality?” the older man mused.
“He’s definitely a ‘he,’” Willow ventured. “Did you see the way he walked? That was either a guy or a serious butch.”
“Yeah, the whole car thing was seriously male, too,” Buffy said, “Except it would have been more likely if he’d gone for, say, a red Mustang convertible.” She smirked while Giles gave her a poisonous glare. “Wonder if he’s a good guy or bad?”
“Well, he stole Giles’ car, and dissed Cordy…” Willow thought out loud.
Buffy turned to look at the redhead. “You’re right – it’s too evenly balanced right now to call. Could go either way.”
“Excuse me,” the Watcher interrupted. “Stealing my car was a *good* thing?”
“Oh, geez, you’re even more right – that means everything he’s done is good. That’s a relief. At least he’s on the side of the light.”
Giles’ mouth was open to respond when Willow sang out from the backseat, “This is the exit, according to MapQuest. We need to go west to reach the Manhattan Beach pier.” At least briefly, the bickering came to an end.
Marco sat on the bench, mentally working out his plan. It would be easier if he could trust someone else – this was going to be hard to pull off alone. He might be able to talk to Detective Collier, although the positive mention in the article was veiled enough – he could have been talking about anyone. Besides, how likely was the detective to believe a total stranger – a seventeen-year-old kid, no less – about evidence that a cop in his department was dirty, and had killed and framed his own partner? Right – and pigs can fly. No, Suarez would just have to figure out a way to do it all alone. He just hoped he wouldn’t harm Harris’ body in the process.
He didn’t really notice the people who approached him until the girl sat beside him on the bench. “I don’t know who you are, but you have something that belongs to a friend of mine, and I’m here to help him get it back.” Marco heard the older man clear his throat. “Oh, yeah, you need to give Giles back his car, too.”
“Look, I’ll do my best to take care of your friend’s body, but you can’t help me, and I’m not going back till I’m done.” Marco went to stand, but found a firm grip on his forearm was preventing his action. He twisted in a way that would have easily freed him from a grown man’s hold, thinking this little girl couldn’t hang on, but hang on she did. “Let go,” he growled, annoyed.
“I don’t think so,” the blonde replied, standing and with a quick motion tossing the young man’s body over her shoulder and flat on the ground, landing on his chest and pinning him down. Marco brought his legs up, getting the girl in a scissor hold and flipping her over, pinning her in return. She twisted and bucked beneath him, pulling free and bouncing to a fighting stance. He jumped up and faced off with her.
“Lover’s spat,” the redheaded girl standing watching explained to a concerned and curious onlooker. Buffy swept her leg around, but Xander’s body jumped away, twisting in the air and landing behind her. Marco grabbed her wrist and twisted her arm behind her back, pulling her to his chest.
“Must be a very passionate relationship,” the watching passerby commented before moving on.
“I didn’t think Xander’s body was strong enough to beat me,” Buffy gasped, not quite in pain, but certainly in discomfort.
“Can I trust you if I let you go?” Marco asked her. She nodded, and shook her arms out when he released them. “Your friend Xander is stronger than you give him credit for,” Marco continued. “His legs are pretty powerful, he’s got strong abs and good glutes.”
Willow giggled. “He thinks Xan has a nice butt,” she explained to Buffy.
Marco frowned. “I wouldn’t have put it that way.”
“I would,” Willow sighed wistfully. The cop looked at her, confused, then shrugged and went on.
“He could use some upper body work, though. You might want to tell him to try swimming – it’s good for the chest and back.”
“If you’re done assessing Xander’s body could you tell us what you plan to do with it?” Giles pitched in, still not trusting the spirit that stole his car.
Marco seemed to actually notice the Watcher for the first time. “Oh, hi. Thanks for letting me use your Citroën. I adjusted the points and plugs for you – it should run better. But you need to get the tires aligned, and make sure you change the oil every 3,000 miles. And it could use a pint job, of course. That thing’s a classic. You need to take care of it.” Giles visibly inflated, smiling happily. No one else had ever appreciated his car before.
“Thank you, sir. Now, could you tell us why you’re here and what you have planned? Perhaps we can be of assistance, and retrieve our own Mr. Harris in the process.” Giles estimation of the spirit had obviously risen enormously in the past few minutes.
Marco grunted, and his good humor of a few moments ago vanished. He ran his hand through Xander’s hair. “My name’s Marco Suarez – formerly Lieutenant Suarez, LAPD Special Operations.” He paused, realizing how unlikely his story might sound.
“And you’re dead, right?” Willow didn’t sound like she had a problem dealing with that fact, which sort of surprised the late cop. When his face showed this, she shrugged. “You aren’t the first spirit that’s visited this way, although we got to see more of Xander, last time.”
Marco nodded – he was dead, but right now alive and living in the body of a seventeen-year-old boy. Statements claiming strange things were no longer cause for distress, or even pause. He continued. “I was killed by my partner, and framed as a dirty cop. I came back to set the record straight.”
“And we can help! I can fight, Willow’s great with the computer, and Giles is Research Guy.” Buffy was bouncing up and down in her excitement She caught her Watcher’s expression of disapproval. “What? It doesn’t sound any harder than dusting vamps.” She tried a wheedling tone. “And it’ll get us Xander back. C’mon, Giles, pleeease?”
“Vamps?” Marco held up his hand. “Wait – I don’t think I want to know.” He’d realized he couldn’t do anything alone, but should he involve these children? But still – they seemed competent, and the blonde was certainly strong. And pretty. And the older man seemed responsible enough. Surely he would protest if he thought they’d be endangered. Marco’s gut said to trust them. He looked up into Buffy’s eyes and nodded slowly.
The Slayer was still bouncing. The thought of helping set something straight, to bring justice where it was due, excited her. This was the stuff of *Nash Bridges*. And this Marco guy was a hunk. Buffy stopped bouncing. A dead hunk. A dead hunk that looked just like Xander. Who, physically, anyway, *was* Xander. Did that mean Xander was a hunk? She shook her head, and began to bounce again. Justice. *Nash Bridges*. Cool.
“I was able to access those databases you suggested,” Willow told Marco several hours later. “Here are the official reports from the LAPD on the whole thing.”
The late cop paged through the printouts. “How were you able to get these? Was this legal?”
Giles moved to Marco’s side. “Which would you prefer – the information, or the answer to that question?” At the other man’s startled expression, Giles offered, “I’ve learned not to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Marco grunted, and Willow continued as if she’d never been interrupted.
“The reports indicate that Kyle Martinson was highly investigated – some members of Internal Affairs thought he was your accomplice, while other officers are on record as suspecting the truth – that he set you up. But the evidence against him wasn’t there, and the evidence against you, while weak, was. Finally, they were ordered by the Assistant Police Chief to close down the investigation.”
“Kyle’s wifey must have whined to Daddy,” Marco muttered.
“That was four years ago,” Willow went on. “Your buddy Kyle laid low for a bit, then bought his wife a nice new Jag and moved to Manhattan Beach from Fullerton.” She handed Marco some more papers. “Here’s the tax records. Oh, and I have a couple of account numbers for some overseas banks that should be helpful.” At the looks she was getting from both the cop and the librarian, Willow shrugged. “Some people aren’t very careful with their e-mail. What they don’t know about technology catches them every time.”
Marco leafed through the pages. “Why couldn’t Internal Affairs find all this?”
“Kyle knew the system. He sat on everything until he was sure no one was looking anymore, then he managed to conjure a ‘rich distant relative’ who left him lots of money. Everything stunk a bit, but the system wasn’t set up to investigate the smell properly. Nobody trusted him, but there was no way to reopen the file without something more than suspicion.” Willow looked at the Xander-shaped cop blankly. “This isn’t the movies – there isn’t always a happy ending, and justice isn’t always served.”
Suarez glanced again at the papers. “It will be,” he growled. Motioning to the others, he gathered them together. “Here’s the plan…”
Buffy stood nervously at the door of the house, trying not to look awed by the luxury displayed there. Then she thought about the character she was here to portray, and allowed the awed expression after all, even cranking it up a notch. A woman, attractive, but obviously fighting encroaching middle age with everything money could buy, answered the door.
“Hi!” Buffy said brightly and a bit breathlessly, “Is Mr. Martins – uh, Kyle, here?” *Think ‘dumb blonde,’ Buffy reminded herself.*
“Uh, no, Ms. - ?” the woman responded.
“You must be his assistant,” the Slayer pressed on, trying to say it the way Harmony would. “Mr. Mar, I mean, Kyle, told me he was a biggie in the industry, so of course he’d have an assistant, “ she continued, more or less to herself. “Is he here? I’m really looking forward to this. I’m a little nervous,” she whispered conspiratorially to the older woman, “but Kyle says I’m a natural.” She flashed another totally vapid smile.
“A natural *what*? I’m his *wife*, and he doesn’t have any assistant. And what industry?” Right now, Mrs. Martinson appeared only annoyed at the girl in her foyer. Buffy planned to change that.
“Why, a natural *actress*, of course. He told me to meet him here today, at,” she looked at her watch, “ten. And he was going to take some pictures, have me read. Maybe teach me some things.” Buffy wasn’t sure how, but she managed to say that last phrase both innocently and suggestively at the same time. Now, the older woman’s anger looked like it was directed at the intended target.
“That sonofa – he promised after last time, he wouldn’t mess around anymore. And jail bait, even! See if I get Daddy to help him out if he gets caught *this* time.”
Buffy tried not to grin as she pulled a small piece of paper out of her pocket. “Ooops. Is today the 15th?” She looked innocently at the fuming woman. “I may have been supposed to be here tomorrow.” Willow had managed to track down a standing appointment that Sheila Martinson had the following day, so it would appear her husband had intended to do the dirty with Buffy while he knew she was away from home. The straw was obviously the one that broke the camel’s back.
“Leave!” the older woman yelled, enraged, “And don’t come back – tomorrow, EVER!” She slammed the door behind the Slayer.
Buffy felt a need for a shower, almost. The sad thing was, there were girls like that on every corner, she was sure. But her spirits lifted again – Kyle Martinson would have one less ally in his fight, now.
Giles cracked his back. Due to a lack of funds, they had spent the night in the cars, the girls in the rental and he and Marco in the Citroën. The former cop had known of a quiet but safe place they could park, and the two men had taken turns keeping watch, just in case. Now, while Buffy was off cracking one of Martinson’s pillars of support, he, Willow and Suarez were trying to recruit one of their own.
“Yes, ma’am,” the librarian addressed the desk officer, “it’s true we don’t have an appointment with Detective Collier, but we think we have some information he might find interesting, having to do with a case.” As the only visible adult, Giles had been selected to speak for the trio, although Marco planned to take over once inside. The defensive and protective sergeant finally picked up the phone.
Mike Collier sighed loudly when he saw the teenagers and the man in tweed. “Information he might find interesting,” was what Sergeant Stevens had said they’d promised. Probably another bogus UFO sighting, or something equally inane. Still, his job was as a public servant, and they were public. Time for servitude. “How can I help you?”
“Actually, we believe we can help *you*,” the older man said in a clipped and precise British accent. “We think we may have some useful information about the death of Marco Suarez, five years ago.”
The Suarez case had never set right with Collier, but IAD had shut it down without listening to his misgivings. He knew that without anything solid to the contrary, they had to leave it the way it appeared – that Suarez was killed while attempting to play both sides of an undercover deal. But the fact that Kyle Martinson was his partner and had managed to walk away free of blame was enough to rouse Collier’s suspicions, even if nothing else had done so. Martinson was slime, pure and simple – and Suarez wasn’t. Two and two was coming out five in that case, but he couldn’t find the place where the numbers had been changed, and he’d been all but told to erase the equation. “Come into my office,” the detective invited the group. “You have my attention.”
“And you came by these documents exactly *how*?” Mike Collier quizzed the teenagers. They had stumbled all over each other in the telling of the story, with the boy doing most of the talking.
“My cousin sent a lot of information to my mother just before he was killed, sir,” Marco answered with a tight smile. “We followed up on some of it. Willow’s very good with the Internet.”
“Willow,” the detective said pointedly, peering over the top of the papers he held, “Had better watch out that she doesn’t get caught doing something illegal.” He softened his warning with a wry smile, and the redhead sank into the chair and studied her knees, embarrassed. “I can verify all of this through more, um, ‘acceptable’ sources, though. And it’s certainly – enlightening.” Collier believed he was speaking with Marco Suarez’s cousin, Alex, and a group of his friends from school. The British man was never completely explained, however. Perhaps none of them were of driving age yet. “I need you to stay out of it, though.” The entire group glared at him. The phone on his desk, which Collier answered immediately, cut off any response. He thought for a few minutes after hanging up, then looked up. “There’s some girl in the front, waiting for you guys. I promise to follow-up on all this,” He waved the papers at them. “Now go home, and let me handle it.” They stood, and shuffled out of the office.
They met Buffy in the lobby, but no one spoke until they were outside. “How’d it go?” Marco asked.
Buffy grinned. “She’s pissed. Apparently, I’m not the first side order he’s taken out.” She smirked again. “He won’t be getting any home-cookin’ for a while, either, if I read her right.”
Marco scowled. “I don’t care about his sex life,” he answered sharply, emphasizing the fact he was indeed not Xander. “I only care that she’ll be out of the way when this all goes down.”
“She’s not interested in saving his butt anymore,” Buffy confirmed. “How’d Collier react?”
“He seems to believe us,” Giles answered thoughtfully, “but I’m sure he’s a busy man. It could be weeks, even months before he has time to follow through.”
“And what happens to Xander until then? Not that I don’t like Marco, “ Willow went on apologetically, “but he hasn’t been my best friend since kindergarten, and Xander has. And as long as he’s here, he’s not. Xander, I mean. Xander’s not – Marco is. Here. I mean…”
“Deep breath, Wills.” Buffy put her hand on the redhead’s shoulder.
“I believe we should go get something to eat, and discuss this all further,” Giles offered.
“I completely trust Collier. Once I saw him brush off the source of those documents Willow provided, I knew he was hot on it.” Marco was playing with his French fries while the girls ate ice cream and Giles sipped his coffee.
“You mean, he might have…” Willow was struck speechless at the thought of what the detective might have done to a computer hacker. “Oh, God. Hard time. Ten to twenty. My picture could have wound up in the Post Office. They could send me to the Big House!”
“I’ve been to Cordelia’s, Will. It’s not really that bad, if you ignore who lives there.” Where was Xander when a well-placed joke was needed? Buffy looked over at the cop wearing their friend’s body. In there, somewhere – and probably not back soon, either. She could empathize with Willow’s distress, and she didn’t even have a crush on the boy like the hacker did.
“I’m betting he got right on it,” Suarez continued, impervious to the reactions he’d provoked. He looked at his watch. “With the kind of information we gave him, he could start the process almost right away. I’m assuming I can’t leave until he at least gets permission to reopen the investigation.” Suddenly, Xander’s deep brown eyes went wide, and his head jerked up. Then he slumped bonelessly back in the chair.
“I assume the file is reopened,” Giles said mildly, as Buffy and Willow rushed over to catch the boy before he fell. “I wonder if Xander will return now?”
Suddenly, Xander’s body shuddered heavily, and he opened his eyes. Disoriented, the boy looked from Buffy on his right to Willow on his left. Both girls were kneeling beside him and trying to keep him upright in the chair.
*Whoa!*, thought Samuel “Sammy” Williamson. *These two are pretty hot!*
Out loud, in an accent that Willow later said reminded her of the Fresh Prince, Sammy announced, “I think I’m gonna like it here!”
Buffy stood up and backed away. “Don’t get a happy, bud. We’re just here to see you get what you wanted and then go away.”
Willow sat down hard on the ground. “Still no Xander,” she observed mournfully.
“Now that I’ve seen you, I think I’ve found what I wanted,” Sammy replied smoothly.
*Keep your paws off of her, pal*, someone shouted in Sammy’s mind, *Or I’ll find a way to make you walk into a wall or something.* Sammy shook his head, wondering why he was hearing things. He turned and looked at the redhead sitting cross-legged on the ground. *She’s off limits, too. No touchie.*
“Who are you?” he asked aloud.
Giles began to speak, but Sammy held up Xander’s hand, listening to the voice inside first. *The name’s Xander Harris, hotshot, and you’re wearing my body. Those are my friends, and I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but you mess with any of them, and I’ll find a way to make the rest of your visit here a living hell, trust me.*
*Defensive*, Sammy answered him mentally. *How do you know I’m only here for a visit?*
*Been there, already done that*, Xander replied. *Except the first time, I could talk. Last time, I could only watch. This time, I guess I can only talk to you. You’d better tell them I’m in here.*
After he was shushed, Giles began watching the being wearing Xander’s body closely. He seemed to be having some type of internal struggle, if the play of emotions across the boy’s face was any indication. After a few moments of expressive silence, he looked up, and announced, “Xander’s here.”
Willow jumped her feet eagerly. “Where?”
Sammy pointed to his head. “Here. I can hear him, inside.”
The redhead stood on her tiptoes and looked into Xander’s ear. “You okay in there?” she yelled from only a few inches away.
Sammy flinched and pulled back. “Ouch! We’re sharing the ears,” a moment passed, “Willow; it’s just the mouth he can’t use right now. He can hear you fine.” The girl blushed. “And,” Sammy turned to the blonde after another brief introspection, “he says to tell you that if he still has bruises from that fight on the pier when he gets his body back, you owe him big time.” Sammy turned internal again for a moment. “No, I’m not tellin’ her she owes you *that*. I hardly know the girl.”
“Yup, that’s Xander,” the Slayer confirmed.
“Does he have any idea why he seems to be operating as a sort of spiritual Days Inn right now?” Giles asked. “And by the way, who are *you*, and what is your quest?”
A short pause. “Xander says he’s as clueless as the rest of you. My name’s Sammy Williamson, and I need to see my woman.”
Oh, Gawd,” Buffy moaned dramatically. “A Neanderthal sexist pig. This is the scariest persona so far.” She rolled her eyes. “ ‘My woman.’ Let’s be a little more degrading to the female of the species.”
“I meant that as a loving kind of thang, girl. Back off. Who you think you are, anyway? Gloria Steinem or somthin’?”
“Uhm, excuse me, Mr. Sammy, sir, how long have you been waiting to return?” Giles felt the need to change the subject quickly before fisticuffs ensued, as seemed always imminent when Buffy was riled.
He got a distant look on his face. “I’ve been gone seventeen long years. They say you don’t notice time passing in the afterlife, but you do when you have something you’re trying to get back for. I had Gloria.”
“This one is a romance. Oh, tell us,” Willow begged eagerly, bouncing to one of the chairs. Buffy rolled her eyes. But Sammy needed little encouragement.
“I grew up poor, and didn’t do so good in school, but I was good with a pool cue and the ladies liked me. I dropped out of high school and drifted from place to place, makin’ money playin’ pool. I’d stay in a particular bar for as long as it seemed ripe, then I’d move on. But one night, in a new bar in a small town, I met the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid my eyes on. I was a goner from the first.”
“Gloria?” the redhead had to ask.
“Gloria,” Sammy confirmed. “She was something else – eyes as dark as night, and,” he started to motion with his hands, “round in all the right places. She had the most beautiful…” He stopped himself, catching Buffy’s glare. He cleared his throat. “Anyway, she was perfect. And she was always nice to everybody. There was only one problem – she was married. He was a jackass, though. He beat her, some. She was in a miserable life, but she refused to let it get to her.”
Sammy paused to gather his thoughts. *Hey,* Xander interrupted mentally, *I want to hear more about the round parts, personally.*
Willow was murmuring to Buffy. “Look, you can tell Xander must be talking to him. He’s probably comforting him – he doesn’t have such a great home life either, you know.”
*Can it, pervert,* Sammy responded to his body-mate. *Besides, women don’t want to hear about other women’s sexiness. You’ll never score that way.*
*I think I’m going to enjoy having you here,* Xander responded in awe. *I can use the tips.*
*If you still haven’t gotten anywhere with either of those two, I’d say that’s a given,* Sammy chided. Looking up, he noticed the others watching him expectantly, and realized how long he’d been silent. “So,” he went on, as if the long pause hadn’t occurred, “We’d talk. She’d tell me about her dreams, and how things were gonna get better, she knew it. I couldn’t help but fall for her. Soon we were meeting secretly, whenever we could. I promised her we’d go someplace and start over – we’d be happy. I was just savin’ up to get us far enough away that Hank, her husband, wouldn’t be able to find us.” Sammy’s eyes grew misty. “Then one night, she told me she was pregnant. She hadn’t let Hank touch her in weeks, and he was starting to get antsy about it, but she’d been able to hold him off so far. Still, we knew it was time to make our move. There was our baby to think about, now, too.”
Even Giles was caught up in the tale, in spite of himself. “And what happened then?” he asked, then looked away slightly at the crooked grin Buffy shot his way. “Well, we can’t help the man if we don’t know the whole story,” the librarian responded defensively.
“Hank walked in. He’d been askin’ around, even had one of his friends follow us. He hit Gloria, hard, when she stood up to him. I tried to defend her, but he was lot bigger than me. I got away from him – a couple of times, actually. But I wasn’t leaving without her, and she was having trouble getting’ up. I think he busted her leg when he kicked her. Anyway, we ended up in the kitchen, and he grabbed a knife off the counter, and,” the face that was so familiar, yet alien, forced a pained smile, “here I am, seventeen years later.”
“I hate to be pragmatic here,” Giles said, “but how can you be sure Hank didn’t go back and kill Gloria, also?”
“He wouldn’t have unfinished business then, right?” Willow surmised. “Gloria woulda been there with him, right?”
Sammy shrugged. “That’s what I kinda figured, anyway.”
“So, what exactly was the name of this small town you met Gloria in, anyhow?” Buffy asked, wondering what her mom would say if it was somewhere across the country. *Hey, Mom, Xander, Giles, Willow and I are going to Florida – catch ya later!* Yeah, sure.
It was odd, Willow mused. She was used to Xander leaning over her shoulder while she searched the net – but he even seemed to be *breathing* differently with Sammy in his body. She really hoped they could figure out what was opening his body to these rotating spirits, and that they would do it before someone dangerous or insane ended up inside him.
They had returned to Sunnydale, after calling Detective Collier for an update, and learning that the case against Kyle Martinson was already proceeding, and that Martinson’s wife was cooperating with the investigation. Now they were in the library, and Willow was tracking details on both Sammy’s death and the whereabouts of his lost love.
The papers weren’t terribly helpful – a jealous husband’s murder of his wife’s lover wasn’t exactly front-page news, unless they were famous people. Seventeen year old police reports or coroner’s reports weren’t on the ‘Net, either. There was no listing in Sunnydale for a Gloria Cardwell, which had been her married name, nor for Gloria Stevens, her maiden name.
“It seems I’m gone and forgotten,” Sammy said mournfully. “Gloria probably left town, too.”
“But Hank couldn’t, if he was arrested,” Willow said, thoughtfully. “Chances are, he couldn’t afford a fancy lawyer to get him off, and he’s still in the Sunnydale Prison.” She did a quick search, hacked through a few security protocols, and pulled up the records. “Hank Cardwell, Second Degree Murder – twenty years. Up twice for parole, both times denied due to a poor prison record.” Willow looked up from the screen. “Seems Hank has fallen in with a bad crowd in prison – not like they have a group of Boy Scouts there anyway. But he’s currently the prime suspect in the murder of another inmate, and the trial is scheduled for next month, so chances are, he’s not gonna be walking around Sunnydale for a considerable length of time, even after his original sentence is served.”
*Whew,* Xander said to Sammy. *I don’t know how long you’re gonna be here, but I really was counting on getting my deposit back on the bod when I was through with it, and if you or your honey’s ex break it, I can’t.* Sammy was still considering his response when Willow picked up again.
“Here we go – emergency contact: ex-wife, Gloria,” she grinned from ear to ear, “Williamson!”
“She took my name? Freaky! So where do we find her?”
They didn’t call first. What would they say? “Hey, we’re here with your dead lover in our friend’s body, and he wanted to see you and find out how you and his illegitimate child were doing?” Somehow, it didn’t seem like the right way to approach the situation. They just went.
“Xander wants to know if this feels familiar to any of you. What the hell is he talking about?” Sammy asked, as they waited at the door of the condominium on the edge of town. Willow shrugged, but Buffy grinned.
“Sarah,” the Slayer murmured, but the answer at the door cut off further discussion.
“Gloria,” Sammy breathed, awed.
The woman at the door was around forty, but still very attractive. The color of coffee with cream, her skin was flawless, and her eyes were, as Sammy had said, dark as night. Her figure was a bit soft around the edges, and there were wrinkles around the dark eyes, but her hair was stylishly cut, and her clothes fit her well.
Xander wolf-whistled in Sammy’s head, much the to spirit’s annoyance. *You’re too much like I was at your age, boy, don’t end up like I did.*
*Was she worth dying for?* Xander asked, genuinely curious. Then he caught a glimpse of Buffy through their shared eyes, and said, *Then again, never mind. I think I understand.* Sammy didn’t answer, back to being enthralled by his first look at his lost love after so many years.
“Gloria,” he said again.
“Do I know you?” the woman asked, confused. “Because if you’re here to see my daughter, she’s at some meeting or another, and won’t be home for a while.”
*She doesn’t know who you are, Sams. You look like me, ‘member?*
Buffy stared at the woman, who struck her as vaguely familiar. “Williamson?” she whispered to herself.
Giles stepped up. “Ms. Williamson,” he began, “we have some interesting and slightly unbelievable things to share with you. Would you mind if we came in?”
“Do I know you?” the woman asked again, this time directed at Giles.
“I’m the librarian at Sunnydale High, ma’am. But this has nothing to do with the school.”
“Come on in,” the confusion still on her face, Gloria stepped aside as the man and the teenagers entered her home. The blonde girl was the last through the door, and once inside, she turned anxiously to the older woman.
“Don’t ever do that again,” she said forcefully. “Don’t ever invite total strangers in your home. It’s dangerous.”
“Uh, Buffy?” the redhead interjected softly. “Not helping our case here. Back off.”
The blonde girl shrugged. “Occupational hazard.”
Gloria Williamson was more than confused. A group of kids her daughter’s age and the high school librarian had just come to her home, then one had lectured her about letting them in. The boy knew her name. They were too well dressed to live in this area, and she was pretty sure she’d never seen them before. She sat down hard on the couch.
“Gloria,” the boy said again, “You’re still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.”
His voice had a tone to it she hadn’t heard in years. He looked at her the same way only one man in her life had ever looked at her. But he was just a kid – a white kid from the better part of town. He wasn’t her Sammy.
The kid went on. “We were gonna go to Atlantic City, weren’t we, baby? I knew I could get a good job there, make lots of money. We almost made it, too. Another hour or two, we’da been outta here, and Hank would’ve never found us.” He was kneeling before her.
“Sammy? You can’t be my Sammy.” The tears were running down her face. “I don’t know who you are, but you came here to torture me, didn’t you? Why, after all these years?”
“It’s me, baby.” And she could see him. Instead of a white teenaged boy, she could see her dead lover kneeling before her – his sparkling brown eyes in his even browner face; his tight dark curls against his scalp. She almost reached out to touch them, but she drew back.
“No. He’s gone. Stop it.” She was crying in earnest, now.
“Ms. Williamson,” the librarian said gently, “Sammy’s spirit is occupying the body of this young man. We’re here because his spirit couldn’t rest until he saw you again. It seems incredible, but I promise you, it’s true.”
Sammy took her hands, and she could even feel the calloused palm he’d had on the left hand from years of sliding a cue across it. “And our baby, too. You did have the baby, right? I’ve spent years wondering if it was a boy or a girl.”
Gloria couldn’t fight it anymore. Her heart knew, even if her eyes told her otherwise, this was her Sammy. “She’s beautiful, Sammy. She looks like both of us, and she has your smile. And she’s so *smart* - you’d be really proud of her. You know she’s gonna go to college? They’re even calling *her*!” He moved to sit beside her, sliding his arm around her shoulder.
“Hey, you’re the smartest girl I ever knew, baby. You’re the only one who ever caught me, weren’t you?” She giggled like the young girl she’d once been, and he couldn’t help himself – Sammy pulled Gloria to him, and kissed her.
The front door slammed open, and closed again, and a beautiful black girl strode into the room, then stopped, frozen by shock. “Mom? Why are you kissing,” the couple broke apart, and the girl’s already shocked face went pale with recognition, “XANDER HARRIS?”
Sharlayne. Sharlayne Williamson. The co-captain of the cheerleading squad, and one of the most popular girls in Sunnydale High. The group sat in a frozen tableau, the young boy with his arms around the older woman, the girl too stunned to move. *Sammy?* Xander finally choked out. *When you’re done with my body, just kill it, okay? I’ll never live this one down.*
“Williamson! I knew that name was familiar,” Buffy recalled out loud.
“This really isn’t what it looks like,” Willow offered at the same time.
“What the *hell* is the freak brigade doing in my house, let alone one of them kissing *my mother*?” Sharlayne demanded shrilly over top the others.
*Let me die now. Please let me die now,* Xander was chanting inside Sammy’s brain.
“Sammy, that’s our daughter,” Gloria whispered proudly to her dead lover. “She has your spark – see?” Noticing the noise level in the room rising as everyone spoke and no one listened, the older woman then took control. “QUIET!”
All eyes were upon her. She’d pulled herself from Xander’s arms and was standing in the center of the living room. “Thank you,” she went on at a normal volume. “Sharlayne, you remember when I told you that Hank wasn’t your father, and that your real father was dead?”
The girl nodded. She remembered how relieved she’d been when her mother explained that she had nothing to do with the big scary man that they went to visit in the prison every now and then. Over the years, Sharlayne had made up romantic stories about her real dad. But what did that have to do with – this?
“I’d like you to meet your real father.” Gloria motioned to Sammy, who stood and took her hand. “Samuel Williamson.”
Okay, her mom had officially lost it. “Mom, he can’t be my dad. His name is Xander Harris, he goes to Sunnydale, and he’s a year *younger* than I am, even. Oh, God, does this mean you *slept* with him?” Sharlayne held her head in her hands. What would the others think? She’d have to leave town… “Besides, you said my dad was dead,” she finished, head still down.
Gloria was looking mournfully back and forth between her shell-shocked daughter and the body that housed the spirit of her dead love. Buffy saw Giles leaning eagerly forward, trying hard not to start throwing information at the girl before her parents had a chance to explain. The Slayer could tell, however, that the two were a bit overcome, and stared pointedly at her Watcher. “Go for it, Explanation Man.”
Giles was thrilled to be given free reign. He stood, going into full lecture mode. “Ms. Williamson, your father is indeed dead, but the spirits of those who died with unfinished business are sometimes given the opportunity to return and set things right. Mr. Harris here has inadvertently opened some kind of gateway to the spirit world, and your father is the third such persona that has inhabited his body in recent days. Sammy’s entire reason for returning was to see you and your mother, and assure himself you were doing well.” He turned to Sammy and gestured. “Is there anything you’d like to say for yourself now?”
The spirit grinned, and turned to his long lost child. “Sharlayne?” She wouldn’t look at him. “Such a pretty name.” He paused, smiling proudly, then went on. “I couldn’t rest, knowin’ you and your mom were alone, or worse yet, that Hank had something to do with either of ya. I had to know. As for the kid, outside the kiss you saw, he’s never had anything to do with Gloria, and that kiss was all me.” He moved forward, touching her hair. “You look like her,” he said softly, “but you’re tough, like me, ain’t ya? Don’t get too tough, baby. It won’t keep ya from getting’ hurt, it’ll just hurt in different ways.” He lifted her chin, and she could see something she couldn’t quite put her finger on – a medium-height dark skinned man with tight Jheri curls was standing there, instead of the tall pale dark-haired boy she knew should be. Then he was gone again. She jumped up from the chair.
“Daddy?” He opened his arms, and she melted against his chest, sobbing.
*This could be worth so much social currency, if it were just really me,* Xander was babbling in his head. *I have my arms around Sharlayne Williamson, the cheerleader. I need pictures, man.*
*You think the first teenaged male thought about my baby girl, I’ll hurt you so bad in so many ways, you won’t want your body back,* Sammy threatened him. Xander deigned not to respond. Finally they pulled apart, and the others gathered around.
“You know he’ll be leaving any minute now,” Willow said softly to Buffy. “I wonder what we’ll get next?” As if in response, Xander’s body shuddered deeply, and when he looked up, his eyes were different.
“Sammy’s gone now,” the boy said in his normal speaking voice. “We should be going before…” And he shuddered again, and his eyes rolled back in his head. His knees started to give way, and Buffy grabbed him by the collar. But her grip was off, and she caught her fingers in the chain around his neck, which stayed in her hand when Xander’s body crumpled to the floor.
Still clutching the chain, she dropped to her knees beside the fallen boy, with Willow on the other side of him. “Xander,” the redhead called. “Xander? You in there?” Sharlayne stood nervously at his feet, wringing her hands. Gloria was kneading Giles’ arm. Finally his eyelids fluttered, then opened.
Buffy tensed. “Who are you?” Unconsciously, she wrapped the chain around her knuckles, preparing an unpleasant surprise should this personality prove to be hostile.
“Now would be a good time to reinvent myself as charming and debonair, right?” Xander asked, a tad weakly. Both Willow and Buffy called out his name, and threw themselves at him, hugging him fiercely. “On second thought, right now, it’s good to be me.”
For a woman who barely knew them, Gloria Williamson proved to be quite hospitable. She’d made a pot of coffee, and they were sipping it while discussing the whole situation. Xander sat on the couch, happily tucked between Buffy and Willow, who claimed they were monitoring to make sure he remained *him*. The talisman was on the coffee table. They’d decided it must have been the gateway that had opened Xander’s body to its otherworldly visitors, and Giles had confirmed that it was most likely a magical artifact, purloined from the museum exhibit.
“I don’t really believe in the supernatural,” Gloria said, thoughtfully, “Or I didn’t, before this. But I must say, there seems to be more to it than I imagined.”
“You have *no* idea,” Buffy said quietly, setting the trio on the couch off into gales of giggles. Giles glared at them, set his cup down firmly, and stood up.
“You ladies will have to excuse us. It’s been an eventful past couple of days, and I believe my young friends are suffering from mild exhaustion.” He reprimanded them with his eyes, which caused them all to try and force on serious expressions. Buffy’s failed first, and she soon set the other two to laughing again.
Willow stood up, torn between her desire to be good and please Giles, and the giddiness that came with finally having solved Xander’s revolving personality problem. “Tired,” she spit out around her giggles. “Real tired.”
Buffy stood and pulled Xander up after her. “Too pooped to pop,” the Slayer said nonsensically, and the Slayerettes almost fell over.
“You realize,” Xander said breathlessly, when he’d finally slowed down and recovered slightly, “this wouldn’t be so funny if we weren’t tired. Giles is probably right.” He turned to Sharlayne’s mother. “I’m glad Sammy got to see you again. He was cool.”
Gloria took his outstretched hand and instead of shaking it, pulled him to her, kissing him on the cheek. “You were a dear to let him use your body,” she said, politely ignoring his blush.
Recovering quickly, Xander turned to Sharlayne, holding his arms open. “For old time’s sake?” he asked, hopefully.
Her expression spoke volumes, all of them insulting. “As if. Get a life, weirdo, and next time, not my father’s.”
The boy sighed. “Sammy’d probably find a way to come back again and kill me, anyhow.” He turned to the girls. “Let’s go.” He looked back at the cheerleader. “You aren’t going to tell anyone from school about this, right?”
She snorted. “It’d do more damage to my reputation than yours, loser.”
He stared at her. “Is the cheerleader thing catching? ‘Cause you just sounded exactly like Cordelia Chase.” Not waiting for an answer, he trailed his friends to Giles’ car and crawled in.
Frank Ricardo shook himself out, rising from the awkward position he’d landed in. He’d been SO close. He could feel his spirit enter the body at the other end of the portal. It had been a young, strong body, too. Then, just as quickly as he’d been there, he’d been gone again, and back in this place. “Damn,” he snarled. Noticing another spirit looking at him curiously, he growled, “Whatcha staring at, freak?” The other scurried away.
The only thing he liked about this place, the fact that business undone was a ticket back to finish, just blew up in his face. Somehow, he’d been there and been pulled back. He knew it wasn’t anything other than random chance. There was no judgment involved in the selection process. They didn’t care what your business was, just that your spirit was unsettled by the lack of completion. “Closure,” one of the pantywaists that seemed to abound in this place had called it. Well, he lacked closure. He’d wanted to close the mouths of every one of those people who’d testified against him. He’d made the vow as he’d fried in that damn chair – he was gonna get them all. And he’d been so close.
Frank dusted the non-existent dust off his non-existent body. He’d just have to keep watching for the next portal, the next body to open up. The chance for revenge would be his – soon.
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