Written by Michael K. Donovan
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all the characters that appear on the show are the exclusive property of Joss Whedon, the WB and Mutant Enemy, Inc.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The character of Gabriel was introduced in a previous story I wrote entitled 'Divergent Paths'.
* * *
"So you can help me?" Gabriel asked the ancient looking woman. She crouched before him in the seat of a large wicker chair, which, for all intents and purposes, was a throne. She was frighteningly thin, with dark brown skin that was marked with an intricate pattern of fine wrinkles. Her eyes were like tiny black jewels embedded in the folds of her face and were alive with vibrancy and intelligence. He could hear a disturbing, hollow rattle in her lungs as she breathed, but when he looked at her, he could see a resilient inner strength that sustained her frail form.
Gabriel had left Sunnydale two months ago and been following the habits of the gypsy band for the last three weeks, watching and waiting. They were not like the gypsies of Europe, choosing to live modern lives and meeting with the rest of their band only once every month, during the full moon. After tonight's meeting, they would put on their business suits and drive away in their flashy sports cars, returning to their lives in the city once again until next month.
He had been surprised to find a traditional gypsy band in this part of North America, let alone one as ancient and knowledgeable as the Qu'ayarvi band. After tailing one of their members for miles along an intricate and convoluted route, he had found their secret meeting place. The guards had met him with stern refusal and drawn pistols, but the elderly woman, the clan's leader had insisted that he be allowed entrance. She had taken him to an opulent motor home which was parked at the center of the camp and served as both her home and audience room. The odd setting mattered little to Gabriel. At the moment, his mind was consumed with only one thing.
"Help you? Yes," The wizened woman regarded him shrewdly, "but not in the way that you believe."
"What do you mean?" he asked desperately. This had to work. Time was already running out. "You're the troupe mother. You must know the ancient rights."
"Oh, I do, young man, I do." She answered, shaking her head, "But you are not ready."
"Please you must help me." He pleaded, "I have to go back. I need to change the past." His shoulders sagged under the weight of his guilt. Just over two months ago his father had been killed and Gabriel felt it had been his fault. Since then, he had spent every waking moment looking for a way to change things. This might have been his only chance to set things right again.
"You live too much in yesterday. You would do better to think about tomorrow." The troupe mother shifted stiffly in her huge wicker chair and handed him a cup and saucer from the stand next to her. "Here, a cup of tea will help calm you."
"I don't care about tomorrow." He accepted the tea cup only to quickly lay it aside. "To hell with tomorrow! I need to do something about yesterday."
The elderly woman's dark eyes glittered knowingly. "To hell with tomorrow, you say. That's an interesting choice of words. Be warned. You may not care about tomorrow, but tomorrow is determined by today and today is determined by yesterday. Change the past and you will change the future."
"That's exactly what I intend to do." He answered with unwavering conviction.
"I see that I cannot dissuade you." The woman sighed, "And let it never be said that the Qu'ayarvi have refused assistance to a living seventh son. I will help you."
Gabriel relaxed visibly. He was one step closer to his goal now. The old woman fished around along a stack of small shelves beside her, gathering a handful of powder packets and herbs. Sitting forward, she pointed with a gnarled finger. "Hand me that book on the wall behind you. And the silver bowl, as well."
Obediently, he retrieved the two items and handed them to her. Setting up a circle of candles on a footstool before her, she lit them and placed a metal tripod over the flames. The elderly woman then set the silver bowl atop the tripod and filled it with water from a water skin. She poured three packets of powder into the warming water and tossed two more into Gabriel's lap. "Put this in your tea and drink it. The water should be ready by then."
Gabriel eyed the powders warily. Recent events had made him distrustful of unknown substances.
"Come now." The troupe mother pressed with a commanding wave of her hand. "You've come this far. Are you afraid to take this small step?"
Mustering his resolve, he tore the corners of each of the packets and poured them into his teacup. The powders dissolved quickly in the hot tea. The drink tasted strong and bitter and by the time he had finished it, the herbal mixture in the bowl was beginning to steam.
"Now, " the woman urged him to lean over the bowl with her. "Look into the bowl and think about where you want to be and what it is you want to do."
Gabriel closed his eyes and let the steam bathe his face and fill his lungs. It made his head feel light and a wave of prickling tingles rushed over him. He remembered standing before the portal to the demon dimension. The Sword of Seals, the weapon which had opened the portal in the first place, jutted from the forehead of a terrible, tentacled demon. He was holding tightly to his father's hands, the only thing keeping the man from being drawn across the rift by the retreating, dying creature. But then a bone broke in his arm and he had lost his grip. His father had been dragged screaming through the portal seconds before the Sword scraped across the threshold and sealed it behind him. The Sword was the key. With it, he could save his father. The gypsy mother's words wafted hauntingly through his mind. Change the past and you will change the future. The future . . .
A tingling sensation washed over him and his body clenched tightly against itself. He felt like he was falling. The feeling rushed over him in dizzying waves and he thought his stomach might rebel. Just as the strain grew too great, the disorienting sickness abruptly ceased. Gabriel opened his eyes and found that he was lying on the ground and that the gypsy troupe was nowhere to be seen. He stood up slowly in a world that was not his own, careful to be sure of his footing on the unfamiliar, broken, blasted ground. The air carried a whiff of sulfur and the skies were dark, shot through with streaks of glowing red. Overhead, the moon was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a creature that looked like a giant manta ray sailed by and released a terrifying shriek. Quickly, he bolted and ducked behind a sharp outcropping of rock to hide.
His mind was clouded in obscuring fog. Everything was gone, his past, even his name. He couldn't remember who he was, but he knew that something was wrong.
Breathing heavily in panic, he pressed an open palm to the center of his chest. "Where am I?"
* * *
He had been walking for what seemed like hours. Everywhere he went, he found the same thing. Seared earth, burnt out and abandoned buildings, and the wreckage of old vehicles. Gradually, portions of his memory had returned as he walked, filling in the blank spots in his head like pieces to a puzzle. He remembered the gypsy troupe mother and the spell she had cast on him. But this wasn't what he had wished for. He crawled down a jagged slope of upturned pavement and approached a scorched and twisted metal road sign. He ran his hand slowly over its cold surface, leaving trails in the soot with his fingers. A brightly colored banner had been emblazoned boldly across the blasted metal with blue and yellow spray paint. 'The Human Resistance Lives!' it read. Rubbing off more of the soot, he read the lettering underneath.
"Over here!" a woman's voice shouted in the distance, "Just over this hill. I can feel it."
A series of voices answered her, getting close by the sound of it. A group of silhouettes crested a distant ridge. One of them raised a weapon to its shoulder and a dull pop sounded. Instantly, a piece of the brick next to Gabriel shattered, spraying debris in all directions. Gabriel dove into a roll and started running.
Crouching low, he narrowly avoided a volley of gunfire. He whipped around the corner of an old building and broke into the open. The ground exploded in front of him in a hail of sparks and odd, sharp, ricochet sounds. They were gaining on him. He had to find cover. Fast.
He circled the rusted shell of an old truck and slipped inside another building. Grabbing up a broken board, he backed into a shadowed corner, between an open window and the doorway.
"Over here." One of them directed, "It went inside that building."
Their voices were getting closer; they knew where he was hiding. He could hear the pounding of their heavy boots, the jingling of their metal gear, even the harshness of their breaths. Getting closer and closer. Gripping his makeshift club tightly, he waited for the first of them to enter the doorway.
A shadow fell into the room and he reacted. He swung with strength born of fear and connected solidly with the man's face. The wooden board cracked and the man collapsed with a strangled moan.
"He's got a weapon!" another of his pursuers shouted. "Hustle! Hustle! Move in!"
Gabriel smashed his fist into the speaker's throat and shoved him sprawling head over heels. A bullet bounced off the doorjamb, barely an inch above his head as he snapped a sharp kick into another's chest. Ducking back inside, he leaped for the window. More bullets bounced off the wall as he sailed through and hit the ground, scrambling to escape.
A heavy weight hit him from behind, strong hands grasping for his throat, and he stumbled forward. Acting purely on instinct, he drove a hard elbow back into his attacker's ribs and was rewarded with a high-pitched, animal-like yelp. Spinning, he threw the attacker off him and sent it tumbling with a solid kick. He bounded down the slope, jumping over a deep crevasse. As his feet connected with the ground on the other side, a tall, beautiful dark-haired girl with strangely familiar green eyes stepped in front of him, her fist cocked, and slammed her knuckles into his chin. The solid impact, combined with his own forward momentum, knocked him flat.
"Don't move!" the girl commanded, whipping out a strange looking shotgun and holding it steadily pointed at his head.
Looking closely at her, he felt like he was in a bad action movie. The girl wore a battered police helmet, painted black and decorated with streaks of red. There was a small greenish scope, similar to the night vision goggles he had once read about, that hung over one of her almond shaped, emerald green eyes. Her clothes were black, a makeshift uniform of some sort, with swatches of red and mismatched pieces of metal armor attached at various points on her body. The toes of her boots were capped in worn metal as were the knuckles of her fingerless leather gloves.
"Get up." She commanded sternly, pressing the barrel of the gun to his forehead.
Raising his hands in surrender, he complied. The green eyed girl backed off a step and kept her weapon trained unerringly on a point directly between his eyes as he rose. The sweat on his body turned chill with fear. He looked down the cold metal barrel of the gun and closed his eyes, waiting for the bullet that would end his life.
"What are you waiting for, Alex?" an unfamiliar girl's voice asked teasingly. "You going to do him or are we going to sit here until nightfall?"
A few of the dozen or so soldiers raised their voices in assent, joking amongst themselves. Gabriel's fear evolved into outrage and anger. They were laughing at the thought of murdering him! Opening his eyes, he fixed Alex with a baleful glare. Their eyes met and a surge of strong familiarity shot through him.
"No." the helmeted girl's pink lips tightened momentarily, "There's something different about this one. We'll take him prisoner." With a practiced flip of her wrist, she holstered her weapon against her thigh and started back up the hill.
A young soldier approached Alex cautiously. "Do you think that's such a good idea?"
Her hand shot out in an instant, catching the young man around the throat. Pulling him in until they were face to face, she tightened her grip.
"Who is the commander of this squadron, Private?" she demanded, her voice as hard and dangerous as sharpened steel.
"Y-You are." The soldier coughed.
"Then, as long as I am, you will obey my orders. Understand?" With one hand, she threw him back into the arms of his comrades as if he weighed no more than a child. "Dar, get the prisoner ready for transport."
A short, slender girl with honey blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes hopped down the small hill with a cheery smile. She wore the same type of uniform as the others, but made of lighter material and adorned with far less metal. The only exception was the knuckles of the gloves she wore on her delicate looking hands. She had no helmet, preferring instead a red and black streaked headband to hold the short, spiky hair out of her eyes. Like Alex, something about her seemed familiar to him. Had he known them at one time? She stooped to fish a length of rope out of a bag at her side and winced, rubbing gingerly at her ribs.
"Nice kick back there, Jackrabbit." She smiled in a way that was both shy and yet wolfish, "I'll have to pay you back for it sometime."
He looked pointedly at the rope in her hand, refusing to speak.
"Okay, then." Dar shrugged, unconcerned. "You can be quiet all you want. Makes no diff to me." She reached up and nudged his head back. "Chin up, please."
He slowly looked up at the black and red sky with a resigned sigh. At this point he didn't really have much choice. Something as hard as steel and swift as a lightning bolt collided with his jaw. The world jerked violently and went hazy. His knees buckled and he dropped to the hard ground. He could distantly hear the blonde girl humming contently to herself as she efficiently flipped him over on his belly and tied his wrists and thumbs together. The rough jostling was all it took to push him over the edge into sheer blackness.
He awoke in a dimly lit rectangular room. There was a dull hum in his ears and every few seconds, the room felt like it bounced. This isn't in a room, he realized, it's some sort of vehicle. And it's moving. Gabriel sat up swiftly and instantly regretted it. His skull throbbed with a splitting headache. When he tried to reach for his temples, he found his hands couldn't move. Distantly, he remembered that he was a prisoner. While he was unconscious, someone had bound his ankles together, too.
"Hey, he's up." a young man's voice noted. Gabriel heard the sound as if his ears were filled with water. "Looks like you didn't hit him hard enough, Dar. I think you're slipping."
"Pfff, yeah, right." The petite girl gave the commenter a good-natured shove, "You want to let me have a try on YOUR jaw?"
The squadron was seated on a pair of long benches facing each other like in a subway. The black haired girl with the police helmet sat away from the others, in the seat across from him. Dar squeezed down the aisle and sat next to Gabriel. "Hey, Jackrabbit," she piped, reaching out and poking his head with a slim finger, "How's your melon?"
Hissing in irritation, he jerked away from her.
"You sure he's clean, Alex?" Dar leaned around him and peered into his eyes, squinting as if looking through a dirty window. "Check out these eyes. Never seen a human with yellow in his eyes before. You think he can talk? It'd be a real waste if he's a flatline. He's a looker."
"He's human, just maybe a little more so than most, that's all. And he can talk." Alex stated flatly from her seat, "He just doesn't want to." She sat with her hand resting on her helmet on the seat beside her. Her soft, black hair was swept carelessly over one shoulder and her sharp green eyes were locked on Gabriel. "Do you?"
"I don't make a habit of talking to people who try to shoot me." He declared coldly, fixing her with an accusing glare.
"If I was the one who took a shot at you back there, you'd be feeding the scavengers right now, " she snorted, "or worse."
"So why didn't you?" he frowned.
"Because, I got a sense from you." She looked him over curiously, "I know you're a good person. I just don't know why, yet."
"You got a 'sense'?" he saw it in her now, a power similar to his own Second Sight, but the pain in his head refused to allow him to look deeper.
"Alex gets a feel for people." Dar leaned across him excitedly and prodded Alex's shoulder. "She's real good at it. Sniffs demons out better than any of the trackers. Something about you got her radar freaking. That's why we were after you." She grinned, tracing a fingertip across Gabriel's bruised jaw. "Either that or Alex has finally decided to catch herself a man."
Alex scowled at the comment, but the others in the squadron chuckled guardedly. "Let me apologize for them." Alex spread her hands. "It's been a long patrol. They're just blowing off some steam."
Dar sidled up next to him. "Yeah, Jackrabbit, no sweat. We're all a bunch of pussycats at heart."
"My name is Gabriel." He grumbled. The name came back to him in an instant, as if he had never forgotten it.
"Gabriel, huh?" the blonde smiled, "I like that. I'm Dar, short for Darlene."
"Short for everything!" one of her teammates called jokingly.
"Shut it, Cavanaugh!" she returned, smirking over her shoulder.
Gabriel shifted uncomfortably, wiggling his arms to get the blood moving again.
Looking him over carefully, Alex pursed her lips in thought. "How did you stay alive out there for this long?" she asked suspiciously, "You a collaborator or something?"
"A what?" his brows knitted together in confusion.
"You don't know what a collaborator is?" Darlene giggled uproariously, "You MUST be a flatline. It wasn't always this way, but nowadays, if you're human, you're either part of the Resistance, a collaborator or dead."
"And you're all part of this Resistance?" he arched an eyebrow dubiously. None of them appeared to be much older than he was.
"Hellooo," she made a tapping motion toward his skull, "home base to squadron!? What do you think, that I wear this get-up because it compliments my figure? Which it does, incidentally."
"We hunt the demons." Alex stated, tapping a slender finger to her temple. "I feel 'em out and then we blow them to bits."
Frowning, he looked at the dark haired girl, earnestly. "How long has it been like this?"
"The darkness, the sky looking like its on fire, demons walking around freely, all of it." He watched her face carefully. There was something about her that made him want to trust her. Despite her gruff demeanor, she was brave, intelligent and straightforward, he could see it in her, all of which made her the best choice to ask questions of.
"Who knows?" Darlene interjected, "Alex's older than anyone else here and it's been this way since she can remember. My big brother was born just after the millenium and even he doesn't remember. All this is old news, Gabriel. You really have been out of the game. Where have you been all your life?"
After the millenium. The words rang in his mind like a gong. After meaning it had already occurred and not recently by his impression. Somehow, something had gone wrong with the gypsy spell and it had sent him into the future instead of the past. But the future was a nightmare. He shook his head slowly in disbelief.
"Ever hear of a guy named Van Winkle?" he chuckled bitterly.
"Who?" both girls made a distasteful face.
"Never mind." He turned away from them, and stared into the wall. His mind was in turmoil, whirling with the implications of his predicament. Darlene quickly grew bored and climbed down the aisle to sit with the rest of her comrades. Alex remained. He could feel her eyes on him, studying him with curious detachment.
The vehicle slowed and came to a jarring halt. Halfway up the length of the wall, a door opened downward with a hiss of released pressure, forming a ramp way to the ground.
"All right, everybody out. We made it again." Alex shouted the command, rising to her feet. "We're home."
The soldiers cheered, happily clapping each other on the back, and scampered down the ramp. Gabriel rolled to one side, but couldn't get to his feet. Dar watched him struggle comically for a moment before her face broke in a wide grin.
"Let me give you a hand." She suggested. With only moderate effort, she bent down and scooped him up over her shoulder. Gabriel didn't bother to protest. It would make no difference, he knew. Best to endure the humiliation and find out what was going on.
They entered a wide, windowless chamber, brightly lit by circular overhead lights and lined with what appeared to be fire extinguisher pipes along the ceiling. There was a certain coldness to the room, a sterility that caused his nose to wrinkle. Looking back, he noticed that the vehicle they had come out of looked like a short subway car, only sleeker. That explained the lack of windows. Wherever he was now, it was underground.
Alex was the last to leave the car. She exited behind Dar, watching him as he hung unceremoniously, his head dangling down by the petite blonde's belt. Simultaneously, the two girls came to a halt.
"How went the hunt?" a deep male voice asked in a friendly tone.
"Better than usual." Darlene bobbed Gabriel's limp body on her shoulder, "Look what I found? You think they'll let me keep him?" Snickering, she slapped him pertly in the rump.
Gabriel straightened in outrage, his eyes widening and his face flushing.
"That's enough, Dar." Alex pulled Gabriel off her friend's shoulder and set him on his feet. Smoothly, she slipped a keen edged knife out of her boot and sliced through the bonds around his ankles then removed the ropes around his wrists and thumbs. "I'll take care of him from here."
"Oh, you're no fun." Darlene pouted.
Gabriel stepped from foot to foot a few times, rubbing his arms, reveling in the renewed blood flow. He nodded his thanks to Alex and looked over her shoulder at the man who had spoken earlier. He appeared to be in his mid twenties and he was tall, taller than Gabriel, with jet black hair that fell in an unruly mass to just past his shoulders. His eyes were equally dark, with serious brows and a thin, straight scar running between them. An intricate blue pattern was tattooed over his left eye. Sporting a well kept black goatee and a pair of gold hoop earrings in each ear, he reminded Gabriel somewhat of the Gypsy men of the Qu'ayarvi. He wore the same type of uniform as the others, save that where theirs were red, his was a tawny gold.
"Who is this?" he regarded Gabriel suspiciously, his hand slipping down to the butt of a pistol at his belt.
"His name is Gabriel." Alex stepped protectively in front of him. "He's a toplander. We found him on the outskirts."
The dark-haired young man shook his head. "He's no toplander. Look at him. I had more scars than he does by the time I was five. Any toplander as old as this would either go feral or flatline by now."
"Lay off, Cole." Alex snapped a little to quickly, "It doesn't matter where he's from. What matters is that he is here now. I'm taking him into the central complex." She pressed her fist to her chin in troubled thought. "Besides, I have to give my report to the Head Director."
"What do you think they're going to do with him, Alex?" Cole questioned seriously, "You know he's just going to get dumped topside again. Even if he is any good to us, we can't afford the security risk."
"I don't care." She stated firmly, "I found him, so I decide what to do with him."
"Fine." Cole folded his arms across his chest angrily, "Do what you want. Once the Council finds out he's here it won't matter anyway. Why do you have to be so damn infuriating?"
"Once in a while, Cole, a soldier has to act on faith. This is no ordinary toplander. I can feel it." She took Gabriel gently by the arm, turning her back to Cole. "Are you all right to walk?" When he nodded, she guided him toward a clean, well-lit hallway.
Cole stared at them as they walked, painfully aware of her hand on the toplander's arm. Alex was a gruff girl, more accustomed to breaking men's arms than holding them. He didn't like the way she was so steadfastly protective of the toplander without knowing, or even wanting to know, a thing about him. Fuming, he stalked away. Darlene, rolling her eyes toward the roof, shrugged helplessly, and headed for her quarters with a carefree smile.
"Don't worry about Cole, Gabriel." Alex assured him as they walked, "He's Terakan. They're born that way."
"Terakan?" he asked, "As in the Order of Teraka?"
"Yeah," she shrugged, "Or what's left of it. Some people say he'll be their next leader, but I don't think so. A purebred human could never lead the Order."
"Where are we going?' Gabriel asked as they turned down another corridor. The architecture became more rounded as they traveled deeper into the base. With wide cylindrical hallways, it made him feel like he was walking in a giant tube.
"To see someone important." She answered shortly. Her footsteps grew more hurried and her eyes were locked straight ahead. Anticipation was apparent on her face.
They approached a rectangular metal door. Faintly painted runes were scrawled along the outline of the door and a roughly hand-carved wooden sign was posted in the center. "The Rosenbergs," was painted across it in crooked, childlike letters. It was an odd combination, the dark mystery of sorcery alongside something as innocuous as a child's craft.
Alex stopped at the door and pounded on it with the heel of her fist. The latch rattled from the other side and the heavy door creaked open. A small, plump woman, perhaps in her fifties, with short, gray-streaked, auburn hair and coffee brown eyes, smiled when she saw Alex and pulled her into a loving hug. There was an indefinable familiarity about the old woman, much stronger than what he had felt when he had first encountered Alex or Dar.
"Alex, you're back!" the woman exclaimed, on the edge of joyful tears, "We were so worried for you."
"Hey, you know no grubby demon can take me, Nanna." Alex straightened her back and proudly thumped herself on the chest.
"Of course not, but I still worry." The old woman regarded her with an incongruously youthful pride.
"I want you to meet someone." Alex pulled Gabriel into view by the arm, "Nanna, this is . . ."
"Gabriel." The middle aged woman gasped, her hand flying to her mouth and her eyes widening as she stumbled back. Gabriel recognized her suddenly, his heart leaping against his ribs. One look at her face and a rush of memory resurfaced in a flood of images and feelings. He knew that she had looked familiar, but he'd had no idea why until now.
"Nanna! What's wrong?" Alex grasped the woman's arm fearfully.
"Go inside, child." Nanna gestured sharply, "Get your uncle!"
Alex bounded into the interior of the room, quick to obey. When she was gone, the middle aged woman recovered, straightening.
"Gabriel," she smiled warmly, reaching out and touching her fingers to his face. "It's been so long. What happened to you?"
"Willow." He clasped her hands and held them tightly to his lips. He was so glad to finally find someone in this madness that he recognized. Almost.
"But you're not him." Willow whispered sadly. "Or not the Gabriel I think you are, at least."
"Willow, what happened here?" he asked seriously, "Why are you so . . . "
"Old?" she finished for him with a wry smirk. Even in her mid fifties, Willow still retained her childlike innocence. "A better question might be why are you still so young?" Tugging on his hands, she led him inside.
Alex returned, dragging a wiry, gray haired, gray bearded man wearing a bright yellow bathrobe and loose black pants, into the room with her. He was short and stocky with sparse gray hairs sprouting all over his body.
The grizzled man fretted and fussed under Alex's attention, grumbling sleepily and rubbing at his beard. The old man stopped when he saw Gabriel, and took a step back in surprise.
"Whoa." He blurted mildly, his voice rich and deep, "You're back."
"Back?" Alex frowned, "Do you two know him?"
Willow jumped to respond before her husband. "We knew someone very much like him." She explained, "A long time ago. Alex, why don't you run along and give your report to the Head Director. Then maybe you could check on Darlene. I feel better when you're around to keep an eye on her."
"Wait a minute. SOMETHING is going on here." Alex reasoned cannily, "Why won't you tell me?"
"Alex," the old man intoned deeply, "Do what your aunt says. Please."
Alex looked suspicious, but dutifully obeyed, slowly walking out the door. When the door closed behind her, Willow breathed a sigh of relief. "I can't believe she left so agreeably. It's not like her to ignore a mystery."
"She knows something's up." The gray haired man shrugged knowingly, "She's got that look in her eyes. One way or another, she'll find out what it is. The question isn't what we tell her, but how much."
Willow paused in troubled thought, then, remembering her guest, snapped out of it.
"Gabriel," she smiled, "You remember Oz, don't you?"
Gabriel clasped Oz's thick hand in his own. It gratified him to see the two of them still together after all this time. Even if, to him, it was hardly any time at all. "How could I forget?" he smiled.
Oz fished a battered pair of spectacles out of the pocket of his robe and put them on. Leaning forward, he squinted at Gabriel. "I knew there was something different about you. Or maybe not different enough. What do you think, Willow, dear? Clone maybe?"
The old witch rubbed her chin in thought. "No. No, I don't think so." She held a clear crystal up to her eye and looked in Gabriel's direction with the other eye closed. "I don't sense a seeming or anything. What we're seeing is real."
Oz quirked his nose a few times. "Smells like the real thing, too. If you're a spy, Gabriel, then you're a damn good one."
Willow scratched her head. "So where did you come from? What do you remember, Gabriel?" She led him to a plush chair and gently urged him to sit, taking the seat opposite him.
Gabriel sat down, holding his head in his hands. It was all so blurry, like the canvas of his memory had been smeared by an inept hand, but, after a moment of concentration, he was able to recall. "I was with a band of gypsies. The troupe mother cast a spell that was supposed to send me back in time."
"A tempus enchantment. They're tricky work." Willow smoothed her hands down over the front of her dress and folded her fingers in her lap, "But instead of sending you into the past it sent you here. What year was it then?"
"It wasn't long after the first time I met both of you." He paused remembering a little more, painful memories this time, "After my father . . . died. In 1999."
"Makes sense." Willow and Oz nodded to one another. "Before the turn of the millenium."
Oz smiled broadly and patted Gabriel roughly on the knee, squeezing into the chair next to his wife, "That was thirty-five years ago, Gabriel. My kids are older than you."
"Thirty-five years?" Gabriel echoed softly, "You have kids now?"
"You bet. Two of them." The grizzled man grinned proudly, "My oldest, Marcus, teaches sorcery to the students at the academy. They call him a techno-wizard, a real expert with magic and machines. He takes after his mother. And you've already met Darlene, by now."
The blonde girl who had knocked him out. She was a half-were. No wonder she was so strong.
Willow stroked her hand appreciatively across the back of his shoulders.
"What happened?" Gabriel asked , "How did everything get . . . like this?"
"No one really knows for sure." Oz tugged absently at his steel gray beard. "What we do know is that at the turn of the millenium, Mayor Wilkins succeeded with the Ascension and became known as Emperor after that. He opened the Hellmouth somehow and brought a flood of demons through. The first ones were hideous creatures. We called them Burrowers. They carved massive tunnels through the earth and lead their brethren to establish bases all over the world, all attached to the Hellmouth like spokes in a wheel. Not long after that, the Tower grew up around the Hellmouth and we were caught up in a full scale war."
"Tower?" Gabriel queried, relaxing in his seat somewhat. Now that he was getting a better understanding of the situation, it felt like he was regaining some small measure of control over his life.
"A huge living mountain that became like a base of operations for the Emperor and his demons." Oz answered, "We gathered as many people together to fight them as we could and formed the Human Resistance Movement back in '02. Things were pretty rocky at first, but it got better. We were actually winning for a while. It's more like a stalemate now."
Willow rubbed at her eyes and rose quickly. "I-I'll get us something to drink." She said with a tight voice, and scurried quickly into the next room.
Oz adjusted his spectacles, his eyes following her sadly. "It still hurts her to think about it sometimes. She'll be fine in a few minutes." He explained, turning back to face Gabriel. "Do you remember Xander?"
Gabriel nodded, frowning as the name triggered another small resurgence of memories.
"He went into politics right after the turn of the millenium." He whispered with a mild smirk, "Yeah, I know, none of us believed it at first either. Xander was never really any good at politicking, but when it came to blunt honesty, he was the man. There were so many empty promises and lies being spread around by politicians trying to explain what was happening. People really took to him. He got elected to the Senate back in 2009. Damndest thing I ever saw."
He straightened in his chair and fixed his robe, taking a moment to go over the facts in his head. It seemed like it had all happened an entire lifetime ago.
"With him and Buffy working together, support for the Resistance skyrocketed." He continued, "All of a sudden, we had scientists developing new weapons to use against the demons, strategists to lead the troops and more soldiers than we could count. People were tired of being preyed on, I guess."
His eyes went distant as he looked back over the years at memories both pleasant and painful. "Things went in our favor for years. The two of them made a great team, her on the military side, him on the political side. We had the best fighters the world had to offer and with Senator Harris keeping everyone's spirits afloat, we were almost guaranteed to win. I think that's why the Emperor got so desperate. During Xander's Freedom Day speech, he sent an army of demons on a suicide run. We killed a hundreds of them, the stench was ungodly, but a few still got through. They assassinated him in front of the entire free world."
"Oh, my God." Gabriel whispered, his jaw sagging open. Death was something he had only recently become acquainted with when his father had passed. Hearing about it in reference to someone else he knew was a little disturbing. He took a deep breath to steady himself.
Oz stood up and started pacing slowly back and forth, his hands clasped behind his back. "In all the confusion that followed, support for the Resistance fell apart. The demons took back huge sections of territory and the different branches of the Movement lost contact with each other. Everything was in chaos. We know there are other resistance forces out there all over the globe, carrying on their own fight, but we have no way of communicating with them or even finding out where they are."
"Where was Buffy throughout all this?" Gabriel was almost too afraid to ask.
"Oh, she was fine." Oz shrugged it off as if it were nothing important. "Just a little busy, that's all. A baby can be a real handful."
"Baby?" Gabriel gawked, "Buffy had a baby?"
"Yeah, a girl." Oz smirked proudly, "Cutest little thing outside of my own two. Tough as nails, too. Don't you think?"
Gabriel swallowed, hard. "Alex?"
"Good guess. How did you know?"
"I got a weird feeling from her when they captured me. It was a lot like the feeling I got from Buffy the first time I saw her. It didn't make a whole lot of sense until now. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, huh?"
"She's the best soldier I've ever seen, and that includes her mother." Oz agreed, "Buffy would have been proud."
"Would have been?" Gabriel repeated, the words like a knell of doom in his ears.
The pride in Oz's eyes clouded over with fresh sadness. "She was killed twelve years ago. When the first demons came through the Hellmouth, before the Resistance was around, they established what we call Hellspires. Think of them as living extensions of the Hellmouth all connected to the Tower as if it's a brain or a heart. Each one allows more demon matter to come through and instantly transport to anyplace where a Hellspire exists. They tried to raise a new one in Washington. Buffy charged in there totally fearless and blew the damn thing to bits. Did quite a job on the Emperor, too."
He smiled wistfully, moisture gathering in his eyes. "Willow and I have been taking care of Alex ever since."
Gabriel's chest tightened painfully. Of all the things that he had imagined, this was the worst. He couldn't believe it. "How could she die?" he questioned, his voice heavy with sorrow. "She was the Slayer."
"Yeah, I did a lot of thinking about that." Oz nodded slowly, "She was older than any other Slayer on record. Forty-one, if I remember correctly. Kicking demon butt is no party once you hit that age, believe you me. As time went on, Buffy spent more and more time in the planning room than in actual battle. I think she knew we needed a Slayer in the field. Self sacrifice seems like something she'd do. Just don't tell Willow I said that. When she lets herself think of it, she likes to believe that it was all just a big mistake. I think it was the most heroic thing I've ever witnessed."
"It must have worked then, did it? I mean you have Alex fighting for you now."
"It did, but Alex is no Slayer. Even if she had been, she was only eight at the time, too young to step up." Oz continued to pace, tugging thoughtfully at his beard. "We had a new Slayer within a month. And she lasted about three."
"Killed by a two headed gate demon." he explained sadly, "Damn girl was just too careless. Another one arrived a month and a half after that. She survived almost a year. There were three more after her. None of them lasted more than two years. No one knows where the current Slayer is anymore. She ran from us when we contacted her and she's been missing for almost six years now."
"So, in the end, she died for nothing." Gabriel felt drained. Calling this place a nightmare was being kind. He had landed in hell, pure and simple.
"Yeah," he stopped tugging on his beard and let his hand fall to his side, "But I try not to look at it that way. You let yourself get down around here and you'll never get back up. The trick is to find the little pockets of goodness and cherish them. I have Alex and my own kids. Oh, and Willow, of course. Which reminds me. WILLOOWW! You can come out now!"
The sweet old woman popped her head into the room almost immediately. "Oh, are you finished talking?" she mentioned innocently, "I was just coming back."
"Gabriel is pretty well filled in on what's changed around here." Oz announced, "I think maybe we should take him to the briefing room, figure out what to do with him."
"Does he know EVERYTHING?" she clasped her husband's hands and peered up at him.
"He knows enough." Oz assured her.
"What's in the briefing room?" Gabriel rose slowly out of his chair.
"There's someone else you should meet." Willow laid her hand on his shoulder and guided him toward the door as Oz took up the rear. Gabriel tried not to notice the nervous quiver in her fingers.
The door to the briefing room was an old, heavy portal, made entirely out of dull, dark metal. Willow paused before it and looked to her husband.
"Do you think we should knock first?" she asked uneasily.
Oz raised a bushy gray eyebrow, "You think he'll be any less surprised?"
"No," she agreed, "I guess you're right."
Gabriel reached for the door handle. Oz quickly stepped in front of him.
"Under the circumstances, maybe I should go in first." he suggested.
"Who is this guy?" Gabriel frowned, "And why do you both seem so afraid of him?"
"I wouldn't exactly say afraid. More like careful." Oz quirked a half smirk, "Sometimes even good people fly off the handle under the right circumstances."
Oz pushed the heavy door open and led the other two inside. The room was dark, lit for the moment only by a wan overhead lamp. A shadowed figure leaned over a large oval table in the center of the room, a wired listening device held up to his ear. The figure didn't even look up as they entered.
"Hey, Angel." Oz greeted, carefully. Gabriel frowned at the obvious caution in his friend's voice.
"Oz," Angel still didn't look up, "Just who I wanted to see. Come here and listen to these transmissions we intercepted. See if your hearing can pick up anything mine can't."
"I don't think this is the best time." Oz declined, "There's someone here to see you."
Angel finally raised his head, his face blank. Almost instantly, he noticed Gabriel and his eyes locked on the young man, narrowed with anger. Gabriel met his gaze steadily.
The vampire looked exactly like he had in 1999. But Gabriel could see the passage of time in his eyes, he could sense the pain and suffering that had been ground into the vampire in recent years. The last time they had seen each other, Gabriel wouldn't have called him an enemy, but not exactly a friend, either. Something told him that, for Angel, the distinction was not so difficult to make anymore. Stepping out slowly from behind the table, Angel walked slowly over to him.
"It's Gabriel." Willow pointed out, encouraged by the vampire's apparent calm.
The blow came too quick for any of them to see. One minute Gabriel was standing, the next he was sitting on the floor holding his jaw.
"What the hell are you doing here?!" Angel snarled, his voice strained with emotion. "You have no right!"
Gabriel jumped to his feet, ready to retaliate. Willow took hold of Gabriel's arm, concerned while Oz subtly slipped between the vampire and the seventh son.
"Now hold on there, Angel." he held his hands up non-threateningly. "This isn't the same Gabriel we knew. Look at him. He got lost in time somehow and I think we should try to help him."
Angel glared at the auburn-haired young man as realization slowly set in. "Help him? Why?"
"Because he needs it." Oz looked him in the eye meaningfully, "Calm down."
"You're right." Angel let the tension ease from his face and clasped Oz by the arm, his muscles relaxing, "Thank you." He turned to Gabriel and offered his hand. "I'm sorry."
Gabriel warily accepted the handshake, forcing his anger under control. "What did I do to you?" he asked carefully. The ramifications of his situation were still sinking in. He hadn't even considered the thought that he might still be alive in this time period. On the bright side, it probably meant that, at some point, he would get back home.
"It's not important." Angel shook his head dismissively, turning back to the oval table, his left eye twitching uncontrollably, "We have too many other things to worry about now to dredge up ancient history."
Oz cocked his head, picking up an alarming note in Angel's voice. "What's up?"
Angel sighed, rubbing his hands down his face. "There's something big going down. Fides is planning something, but I can't figure out what it is."
"Fee-dez?" Gabriel questioned, frowning at the odd sound of the name.
Angel fixed him with a reproachful stare at the interruption, but Oz quickly interceded.
"After the Emperor bought the farm, his top demon henchman took over." He explained to Gabriel, "She's no crossbreed like the usual spawn we meet up with. She's a full-fledged demon, what we call a first class force. Her name is Fides and she's been running the show for over ten years now. If she's planning something, it can't be good." He turned back to Angel.
"You want to organize a recon mission?" he suggested.
"We may have no other choice." Angel traced his finger alone a faint line drawn on a blue print map. "There's a new data storage facility in the middle of the old skirmish zone, but we'd need a crack computer expert on the team."
"Darlene's the best around. Did Alex report on their patrol yet? How bad was her squadron when they got in?"
"Not too bad, " Angel considered, "They lost Martinez and Durst. Plus a few minor injuries, but not bad. It's little early to be sending them out again, though, don't you think?"
Oz shook his head sadly, and tugged thoughtfully at his beard. "Trust me, no one would like to see Red Squadron get some R and R more than me, but there doesn't seem to be any alternative. Who else has such a skilled and well rounded team?"
"The mission can wait a few days." Angel stated, "Give them a chance to unwind a little. Call a meeting in an hour. You and I can work out a basic plan and figure out who else we need in on this before then. We'll make an official announcement about our new guest then."
"Wait a minute." Gabriel raised his hand, "How am I supposed to get home?"
Angel's eye started twitching again as Oz turned to Gabriel and smiled. "We'll see what we can do for you. But the three of us have some other things to talk over first. You can wait here for now, if you want. We'll set you up in some temporary quarters later."
Angel and Willow walked to the door while Oz went to a case of circular disks and withdrew one. He handed it to Gabriel.
"Gabriel," Oz regarded him gravely, "It's probably best if we keep it a secret where you really come from for now. As far as anyone else needs to know, you're just a fortunate toplander, okay? The last thing we need is a wild rumor flying around and getting everyone all worked up."
"Even if the rumor is true?" Gabriel smirked sardonically.
"Truth is the worst kind of rumor." Oz set a portable computer on the table before him and indicated a thin slot beneath the slightly curved view screen. "Put it in here. It has enough information to fill you in on a few of the things you'll need to know if anyone's going to believe your story."
"I hope you're right." He answered.
Oz turned to Angel. "Think he needs a new name to go with the identity?"
"Too late." Gabriel informed him, slipping the shiny disk into the slot. "I already told the blonde girl my name." Immediately, a menu appeared on the view screen. At least computers don't seem to have changed too much, he thought, relieved.
"Well, then I guess that's that." The grizzled old man chuckled lightheartedly, "If my little girl knows your name then you can bet that everyone else in the base knows it too. We'll get together and work out a believable story for you before the meeting, okay?"
"All right." Gabriel scrolled around the computer's interface using a little analog control on the front of the machine and started quickly getting the hang of its design.
"See you later, Gabriel." Oz rejoined his wife and Angel at the door. "We won't leave you here for long."
"Wait, Oz." Gabriel looked up from the computer console, "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Uh, yeah, sure." The old werewolf seemed a bit uncomfortable.
Angel and Willow exited the room, leaving Gabriel and Oz alone.
"So what do you want to talk about?" Oz asked, "You worried about keeping up appearances while you're here?"
"No, it's not that." Gabriel answered, turning his chair to face the other man, "And it's not that I don't appreciate your help, but . . ."
"You want to know what that thing with Angel was all about." Oz finished for him with a smirk.
Gabriel nodded softly.
"After Buffy was killed, he started drinking. A lot." The bearded man explained, "He's dry now, but it took a lot of work. When he sees you, he sees the past and when he sees the past, he sees her. It's not easy for him. He's not the barrel of laughs he used to be." Oz sighed, "It doesn't really help that the two of you had some . . . political differences."
"I see." Gabriel nodded, "Was I was part of the Resistance Movement?"
"No." Oz shook his head sadly, "You were kind of an independent until . . ."
"What?" Gabriel regarded him seriously.
"You died. You were killed a long time ago. That's why seeing you again has been so . . . unexpected."
The news was upsetting to Gabriel in a removed sort of way. He had already been told about Xander and Buffy being dead. Extending the scope of that horror to include himself was not really a big step.
"Look, Oz." The seventh son looked at him earnestly, "I want to thank you for trying to help me. I can see that you all have your hands full. I wish I could help."
"Don't mention it." Oz smirked cryptically, "It's the least I-we could do. Study the disk. It's important that we get you up to speed."
Opening the door, he paused to wave and then exited, leaving Gabriel alone to sift through a veritable mountain of data.
Outside, Oz patted Angel's shoulder compassionately. "That wasn't as bad as I thought it would be." he smirked. "Aside from that little outburst at the beginning, you handled yourself pretty well."
"I still don't trust him." the vampire grumbled, "Once a coward, always a coward."
"Like you said, " Oz smiled at him, a flash of teeth through his wiry steel gray beard, "We'll just have to wait and see."
"Why didn't you tell him?" Willow's forehead wrinkled in confusion, "You know, about . . ."
"Because there's no need." Angel responded tersely, "I want him out of here as soon as possible. And I don't want either of you telling him, either. It will only make more problems. If you can work out a spell that will send him back, then there's no need to complicate things. Do you think you can do it?"
Willow's face contorted cutely, despite her age, as she considered. "I've never done a tempus spell before, but I've got one in my books. It might take a while to translate it, though."
"Good, get started on it right away. Oz and I will work out the plans for the raid."
Willow rubbed her finger across her bottom lip, her brown eyes filled with worry. "Is Gabriel going to be all right? There's so much he has to get used to."
"He'll be fine." Angel scoffed, a little bitterly, "He's taken care of himself before, I have no doubt that he can do it again."
"I hope you're right." she whispered gravely.
* * *
An hour later, the leaders of eight of the ten squadrons were assembled in the briefing room, seated around the perimeter of the large oval table. Angel sat at one end of the table wearing the official uniform of his office and brooding, his eyes hidden in shadow. Oz sat next to him in his usual seat, wearing an overlong dress coat adorned with rows of medals and award ribbons. He seemed more relaxed than any of the others, amusedly watching and listening to the different leaders of the various squadrons as they muttered and surmised amongst themselves about the nature of the meeting.
Certainly, they knew who it was about, everyone in the base had heard about the strange, young toplander that Red Squadron had brought in, but the question on their minds was why. Next to Oz, Gabriel sat deliberately still, his gaze trained absently on the center of the table. The room bristled with tension as each of the squad leaders turned his or her eyes, silent and furtive, in the young man's direction, hoping to somehow glean a small measure of understanding from his uneasy countenance.
One in particular watched him intently. Sitting across the table, next to Angel, the black-haired gypsy reclined easily in his chair, leaning forward with his hands folded under his chin and his dark eyes narrowed in suspicion. Aside from Angel, he appeared to be the least impressed by the newcomer's presence.
Gabriel was beginning to feel very uncomfortable, not to mention unwelcome. He couldn't wait for this to be over. Another of the squad leaders took his place at the table. Only one seat remained empty. It was obvious the meeting would not begin until it was filled.
The heavy door flew open and slammed back against the wall and Alex rushed inside, breathless. Smiling a greeting at the assembled leaders, she slipped into the empty seat next to Gabriel and carelessly shoved her thick black hair back out of her face.
"Hey." She greeted him, bumping her chair forward under her. It grated noisily against the floor, shattering the tense silence. Every other person in the room, Gabriel in particular, flinched at the harshness of the sound.
"How are you?" she grinned, feigning ignorance of her faux pas.
"Better, I think." He kept his face calm, but his eyes glittered in appreciation for the respite and a faint smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth.
"You're late, Alexandra." Angel glared at her reproachfully.
Impervious to all the other warning looks directed at her, she became strangely subdued under his authoritative gaze. Of all the people in the base, he was the only one who called her by her given name. She hated it.
When she was young, her mother used to talk about how she had known Angel since before the Resistance was ever formed and how he had been one of her closest and most loyal friends. The way she had told the stories, he had seemed genuinely friendly, not the sour, hard-ass that Alex and the other squad leaders had come to know. Maybe her mother's memory had been lees than accurate.
As a child, evincing the first signs of her extraordinary perception, Alex had sensed that he and her mother had once been lovers. Before she learned that vampires were sterile, she had often wondered if he might be her father. After all, he had been a soldier in the Resistance as long as her mother had and they had fought side by side for much of the early part of the war. She could sometimes see a mild resemblance between herself and him. They also both shared a driven dedication to the cause, to the exclusion of all else sometimes. When she had come right out and asked her mother about it, though, Buffy had been politely evasive, telling her only that her father had been killed before she was born and that they would talk about him when she was older. Only by the time Alex was older, her mother was dead, just like her father.
"I apologize, Head Director." She offered demurely.
"It's all right." Oz smiled, reaching over and giving her hand a squeeze with his own thick paw. "You've had a rough couple of weeks. Angel realizes that. Don't you, Angel?"
The vampire's eyes were once again trained on Gabriel. "Let's get this meeting under way." He grumbled tersely.
Oz smirked and shrugged helplessly to his adopted daughter. Apparently it was the closest thing she was going to get to an apology. Angel lifted a heavy wooden cylinder in his hand and tapped it on a small metal disk on the table with a resonant thumping sound.
"I call this council meeting to order on the fourteenth day of June, 2035." He announced, "Head Director Angel and Director Oz presiding. Are all in attendance?"
Oz rose to his feet formally and straightened his long overcoat. "Director Willow and Academy Master Marcus forward their apologies and regretfully decline the council's invitation."
He sat down and Angel nodded, making a perfunctory note in the official log. The announcement was just a formality. He had already known who would be in attendance and who wouldn't. Willow was busy with a task that he, himself, had assigned her and Marcus hadn't attended council since he had taken over instructing at the academy for his mother two years ago.
"Then lets gets started. I'm sure you are all aware of the successful return of Red Squadron. Two of their members, Juan Martinez and Andrew Durst were killed in the line of duty. Reparations are being arranged for their families and the duty roster has been adjusted accordingly. Director Oz will name replacements before the next briefing. Are there any objections?" Angel raised the wooden cylinder and held it, hovering over the metal disk.
"None? Good." He allowed the cylinder to thump once. "Next order of business."
"I'm sure you are all aware of the young man that was brought in with Red Squadron this afternoon." Oz took over, gesturing toward Gabriel who continued to sit, still and silent. "He's a toplander who got separated from his band and he'll be staying here at the base until we can make arrangements to have him transported to one of the habitation centers."
Angel nodded slightly to himself. He and Oz had discussed what kind of story they were going to come up with to explain Gabriel's sudden appearance. They had both agreed to keep it simple. With little to make the story interesting, most people would forget about him in a matter of days.
"His name is Gabriel . . ." Oz trailed off and looked worriedly to Angel. In their haste to manufacture a background for him, they had forgotten to supply him with a new last name. Rupert Giles was one of the founding members of the Resistance and the surname was well-known. Another Giles on site would certainly bring up some unwanted questions.
"Van Winkle." Alex supplied, "At least that's what he said when we found him." She turned to Gabriel, "That IS your name, isn't it?"
At a loss for words, Gabriel simply nodded. Not his first choice for last names, but at least the fortunate misunderstanding had covered up their mistake.
"Yes, you're right." Oz took command of the table again with a wry smirk, "His name is Gabriel Van Winkle."
Angel watched as the different squad leaders each looked to Gabriel then to one another in curiosity and disbelief. It would be safest for everyone involved to have him sent on his way as soon as possible, he decided arbitrarily. Personally, he couldn't have wanted it more. The Human Resistance was the embodiment of everything that his dear Buffy had stood for and, now, sitting less than five feet away from him was the epitome of its downfall. It was hard being this close to him without doing anything about it. He caught himself glaring at the young man again and forced himself to look away.
THIS boy was innocent, he reminded himself. He had no idea what he would one day become. The vampire toyed idly with the idea of reaching across the table and snapping his neck in front of the entire council. It would certainly change things in the present, but he wasn't so sure about the past. No, killing him probably wouldn't change the past, he reasoned. And if it would, he probably couldn't bring himself to do it, even if it would bring her back. Besides, who knew what other changes could occur. Time paradoxes gave him a headache.
"Angel," a low, gravelly voice asked softly, "You all right?"
He snapped out of his self indulgent mental wanderings and looked up. Oz gave his arm a squeeze and, seeing that he was aware again, smiled. Angel smiled back briefly in thanks then turned his attention back to the meeting.
"Are there any comments?" he held the wooden cylinder up again, just inches over the metal disk. "No? Good."
"Next item, then." he was glad to get that short episode behind him. Gabriel's appearance unnerved him, but lying to his soldiers made him feel worse. He would be counting the seconds until the irritating young man was finally gone again for good.
"Director Oz and myself have assembled plans for a proposed recon mission set to launch in four days." he announced, "It will require the cooperation of both Red and Gold Squadrons. We will understand completely if there is anyone, particularly from Red Squad, who wishes to abstain."
Alex and the dark-haired gypsy each nodded their acceptance.
"I don't think anyone from my team will abstain." Alex declared proudly, "They're all good, tough people."
"Gold squadron is always ready." Cole asserted, equally proud.
"Excellent." Angel sifted through a small stack of papers before him. "Everyone will be briefed shortly before the mission. Until then, relax and enjoy yourselves." He raised the cylinder again, "Meeting adjourned?"
Oz reached out and stayed the vampire's hand. "I'd like to close this meeting if you don't mind, Angel."
The burly, gray haired man stood and cleared his throat uneasily, accepting the wooden cylinder from Angel. "I've already decided on one of the replacements for Red Squadron." He turned to the auburn-haired young man, "Gabriel, you said you wanted to help earlier. Are you ready to back that up?"
Gabriel's mouth sagged open, too stunned to answer. But he found he didn't have to, as the dark-haired gypsy jumped to his feet, his fists planted knuckle down on the tabletop. At the head of the table Angel was equally shocked and outraged.
"You can't be serious!" Cole shouted angrily, "He's a toplander! He won't last more than five minutes in the field. There are plenty of good recruits at the Academy who are ready for a squad assignment. What about McGuinness? Or Reese?"
Oz's expression remained patient but unimpressed and, realizing who he was talking to, Cole quickly reined in his temper. "With all due respect, Director," he forced his hands to unclench, "He has no idea of our battle procedures or any of our techniques. Darlene said he wasn't even carrying a gun when they found him."
Oz regarded him steadily. "Then I leave it up to you to teach him, Commander. You have four days to get him up to speed. Use the time wisely, you may be surprised."
"He's not even part of my squad!" Cole complained, "Why should I be the one training him?"
"Because you're the one who doubts his ability." Oz answered, plainly. He wasn't entirely sure of his motivation for doing this, but he would see it through. "If, in four days, you still think he's unfit, for whatever reason, then I will replace him with a soldier of your choosing. No questions asked." Cole might not like the idea, but Oz trusted him to give an honest appraisal of Gabriel's ability.
Cole sank back into his seat, still not pleased, but not ready to question a superior's decision again.
"Does anyone else have an objection?" Oz made a cursory glance across the faces of the ten squad leaders, but none of them spoke up. Alex smiled and winked at her adoptive father. He then turned his eyes in Angel's direction, expecting at least token resistance from the embittered vampire. "Do you object, Head Director?"
Angel sat very still, his hard eyes glaring holes through his fellow Director. Oz had been a close friend for decades and he knew, without a doubt, how Angel felt about Gabriel. The vampire couldn't believe what he had just done. Take it up in private, he cautioned himself silently, there's no use in starting an argument in front of the whole council, "Four days." He allowed, his mouth turned down grimly. "If he's still here, that is."
Gabriel watched the exchange, both spoken and silent, and wondered again what his future self had done to become such a tense point for Angel, and why no one seemed willing to tell him about it. Silently, he made a mental note to do a little nosing around and find out the exact details for himself.
Director Oz turned and regarded him seriously. "And what about you, Toplander Gabriel?" he asked with a wink. "Do you accept?"
Gabriel swallowed nervously and let his eyes fall to the floor. The only thing on his mind up until now had been getting home, but now that it seemed like a less immediate possibility, he understood that his time and energy would probably be better spent concentrating on the present. Worrying about the past was what had gotten him into this situation in the first place.
"I'm not a soldier." he hedged, feeling the combined gazes of the entire council bearing down on him.
"Already noted and addressed." Oz pressed, "Are you in or out?"
"I may not be a soldier, " he looked up into Oz's gray bearded face, "but I'll do my best to become one, I promise."
A series of appreciative nods and murmurs ran through the squad leaders and Alex cheered openly. The only ones who seemed displeased with his answer were Angel and Cole.
"That's everything then." Oz thumped the cylinder down on the metal disk shortly. "Meeting adjourned."
The squad leaders rose from their seats and, pausing for a moment to shake Gabriel's hand and congratulate him, filed out of the room. Gabriel hovered, lost for a moment, not sure whether to stay or go, feeling welcome with neither option. Alex grabbed him by the arm excitedly and started for the door.
"I can't believe this!" she grinned, "Oz assigned you to my squadron and you've only been here for one day! You must have really made a good impression on him. I TOLD him you were a good guy."
"Yeah," Gabriel followed her passively, his attention still focused on the only two who remained behind. He had been as surprised as anyone upon hearing Oz's request. He wondered what the older man was up to.
* * *
"What in the hell do you think you're doing?" Angel demanded, his voice held tightly under control, "Have I done something so that you feel the need to do this to me?" He leaned heavily over the council table, his knuckles white with anger.
Oz raised his hands defensively. "I knew this wasn't going to sit well with you, Old Friend, and I apologize, but we can't condemn him for a crime he hasn't even committed yet."
"So you just give him a chance to do it all over again?" Angel threw his arms in the air in outrage, and turned his back to Oz, "I just don't understand this. How could you assign him to her squadron?"
"I don't understand it, either, really." Oz admitted softly, "But it's something I had to do."
"I don't like it, Oz." the vampire kept facing away from his friend, but began to calm, "I don't want him near her, not after what he did to Buffy, but you already know that and there's no point in repeating it."
"Look at it this way," the old grizzled werewolf patted Angel consolingly on the shoulder, "This is too much of a coincidence to just be an accident. He MUST be here for a reason. What if this is his chance to make up for the past? You of all people know that one evil act does not necessarily condemn a man."
"No," Angel's shoulders slumped. "I guess you're right. But, I still don't trust him."
"I have a good feeling about him, Angel. You won't have to worry about any trouble." he said with a reassuring smile. I hope, he added silently.
* * *
"Come on. Now that you're part of my squad, we have to get you outfitted," Alex suggested, leading Gabriel down a long hallway away from the briefing room.
They came upon a small office with a prominent front desk and a large metal cage along the back. Inside the cage were stacks upon stacks of coded boxes and folded black uniforms. A young man, maybe twenty years old, sat behind the counter, reading a book. He was naturally pale with sad looking dark blue eyes and chestnut brown hair that hung in careless sprigs down across the lenses of his small wireframe glasses.
Alex leaned against the front desk and rapped her knuckles sharply on the hard wood. The boy snapped to attention, whipping off his reading glasses and dropping his book, and raised his hand in a panicked salute.
"Commander Summers!" he exclaimed, his back ramrod straight, "I didn't hear you come in."
"At ease, Byron." She smirked, "I'm not here for inspection, just to get my friend here outfitted."
The dark haired young man coughed uncomfortably and cleared his throat. "Sure. I mean, absolutely. Just step inside."
He hastily swung a section of the counter aside and ushered them both into the back.
"He joining Red Squadron?" he asked Alex, ignoring Gabriel entirely, "I heard you lost a couple while you were out on patrol."
"Yeah." She answered, her green eyes studying the codes scribbled on the sides of the many boxes. "Martinez and Durst. Both of them took a lot of demons with them before they went, though. They died good deaths."
Good deaths?, Gabriel wondered to himself, Is there any such thing?
"I'll have to size you up." Byron said to Gabriel, "If you'll just get up on the stool there."
He slipped a long, worn, measuring tape out of his pocket and held it up to the light. "You look like a thirty-two light. Maybe a thirty-four. What do you think, Alex?"
"Sure." She sniffed, uninterested, "Sounds fine to me. Toss me the keys. I want to dig around in back a little."
As Gabriel mounted the wooden stool, Byron paused.
"You know that's not allowed, Alex." He pointed out, "Only one of the Directors or myself can go back there. I could get in real trouble if you got caught."
"Oh, come on, Byron." She smiled, "I've been back there a dozen times before and you never, once, got in trouble. Give me the keys."
Small red circles arose on Byron's cheeks and he grudgingly surrendered the small keyring to her.
"If anyone comes along, you have to get out of there. Fast." He instructed her, "I mean it."
"Sure thing, Byron." She slipped the correct keycard through the slot and snapped the door open. "You know I'd never get you in trouble."
Gabriel watched as she carelessly hauled a box down off the stacks and, pulling the top off it, began nosing around inside. Byron's cheeks reddened further. The boy had a crush on her, Gabriel realized, while she thought of him more like a younger brother or some other dear relation. She was a beautiful girl and he wondered how many other young men around the base had to suffer a similar fate. Byron crouched and skillfully used the tape to measure first the length of his foot and then the width, marking the results down on a small notepad.
"I don't think I've ever seen you around before. What are you? An explosives expert like Martinez?" he asked conversationally as he obtained his measurements with sharp movements and keen pencil strokes.
"What?" Gabriel asked dumbly.
"You know, your specialty?" Byron didn't bother to look up at him, engrossed in his work, "What is it?"
"Oh, well I guess I don't really have one." Gabriel answered, "I like to do all kinds of things."
"You don't have a specialty? Everyone has a specialty." Byron paused and eyed him skeptically. "Hey Alex, what end of the Academy did this guy fall out of?"
Behind the cage wall, Alex stumbled over a tall narrow box with a vehement curse, knocking it to the floor.
"He never went to the Academy, By. He's a toplander." She called through the steel mesh of the cage, "There's nothing but junk back here. Where do you hide the good stuff?"
Byron gawked at Gabriel, his jaw hanging wide open. "THIS is the toplander you brought in? How did he get assigned to a squadron?"
"Oz's idea." She explained, "So where IS all the good gear?"
"This is unbelievable. I thought you looked a bit out of place. Arms up please." He waited for Gabriel to spread his arms and whipped the measuring tape around his chest, "Munitions have been moved downstairs. I think Director Angel got wind of your unauthorized 'borrowings'."
"What a load of Devil piss!" she spat, shoving another box with her foot. "I'm a squad commander. I SHOULD have access to the best guns in the base." She walked out of the caged area and slammed the door irritably behind her.
"Maybe you should ask Marcus for a little trial-wear." The young man remarked wryly, "Word is he's working on something new. Something that even Darlene doesn't know about. I think he's the only person alive who can lock her out of his data systems."
"Forget about it. Dar's the best there is." she declared with a proud smile, "She could crack his protocols just like anyone else's. It just happens to be that, as her big brother, he can get away with a lot more physical threatening. She stays away from his files by choice. I would too, if I were her. So, are you done with him yet?"
Byron frowned and shrugged, tucking his tape back into his pocket. Digging around in a long red box, he withdrew a neatly folded uniform and a pair of hardy, metal capped boots, all streaked with the bright crimson markings of Red Squadron.
"Here, " he said, tossing the bundle to Gabriel who caught it easily, "Just like I thought, thirty-two light. Just had to make sure, that's all."
"Your quarters are in F-14." He dropped a small plastic keycard into one of Gabriel's new boots. "You'll probably have to wait for your weapons though."
"Thanks Byron." Alex smiled at the pale young man, patting him affectionately on the shoulder, and waved, then took Gabriel by the arm, "I'll see you later. Sorry about the mess."
Byron watched the pair leave, a wistful look in his eyes, and waved half-heartedly.
* * *
Alex lead Gabriel across a metal catwalk, overlooking a wide chamber with three huge cylinders that almost reached to the ceiling. A number of people dressed in white lab coats stood at a collection of tables, each diligently working on a piece of mechanical equipment.
Gabriel gripped the railing of the catwalk and looked over the edge, "What is this place?"
"Tech-land." She answered, pointing down at the three huge vats, "The tanks are full of holy water. See that valve down there?"
He nodded, following her finger to a complicated apparatus attached to one end of the three tanks. It was fitted with numerous coiling tubes and etched with mystical runes.
"The pump runs ground water through a filter and purifies it, then it's blessed as it passes through that special valve. When you go through the stuff as fast as we do, it's always good to have a lot on hand."
Gabriel sighed in disbelief. Automated holy water. The idea seemed sacrilegious. This reality just kept getting stranger.
Down on the main floor, a group of young men and women in white lab coats crowded around a rectangular table.
"What are they doing?" he squinted, attempting to look over one of the workers' shoulders.
"This where they research the new weaponry." Alex continued walking along the catwalk, "Marcus designs most of it, but the tech-heads do a lot of the work."
Gabriel followed her out of the chamber and into another cylindrical corridor, "What's down there?"
At the end of a short hallway, he could see a small room with three human-sized bronze statues standing atop a dais.
"It's a memorial." Alex answered shortly, "That's where they put my mother's statue after she died."
"Oh." Gabriel regretted mentioning it, "I didn't know."
"No biggie." She assured him, "It's not like I ever cry about it. A statue's just a statue as far as I'm concerned."
She was quick to fall back on her tough girl front, he noted. Would Buffy have turned out the same way if she had been raised in this hell?
They walked a little farther until they rounded a bend in the corridor.
"The firing range is over this way." Alex indicated a wide archway which lead into a well-lit open area. Distantly, Gabriel could hear the muted pops of gunfire.
"Here, I'll drop your uniform off at your quarters for you." She took his uniform and boots from him and handed him back his keycard, "You better hurry. Cole's probably already there waiting for you."
Gabriel sighed uneasily and nodded, slipping the keycard into his pocket.
"What?" Alex asked, "You're not worried about Cole are you? He may be a Terakan, but he's got a level head, not to mention that he's one of the best gunners in the base. Oz was right in sending you to him. You'll be fine."
"No." he answered, "It's not that. I'm just feeling a little overwhelmed by all this, that's all."
"Trust me, " she smiled, "Being a soldier has GOT to be better than where you used to live. Besides, how different can it be?"
"You have no idea." He smirked ironically to himself as he waved and headed down the corridor toward the firing range, "I'll see you later."
His comment was not lost on her, and she frowned in thought, watching him as he went.
The firing range consisted of a long series of cubicles arranged along one side of the room, with human shaped target dummies set at varying distances away from them on the other side. Gabriel wandered into the room warily amid a steady tattoo of dull pops.
Cole stepped out of one of the cubicles, comfortably holding a sleek looking black handgun, unlike anything Gabriel had ever seen before, in one hand.
"Finally, you're here." The dark-haired gypsy eyed him darkly. "Let's get down to business."
He indicated one of the closer cubicles. Gabriel stepped inside with Cole right beside him.
"That is a target." Cole pointed toward the other side of the room at a torso shaped dummy set about halfway down. "This is a gun." He flipped the pistol around and held it out to Gabriel for inspection, "Specifically, it's a PL-112. The PL stands for Polarized Light. We're only using practice ammo right now, but, normally it fires standard photon charged rounds."
"What?" Gabriel raised his eyebrows, lost.
"Photon charged." Cole repeated impatiently, "The bullets are laced with light particles and blessed with holy water for an added kick against demon opponents. Have you ever even fired a gun before?"
"No." he lied. The guns he had fired had been nothing compared to the PL-112, so he didn't really think of it as an untruth.
"It's really simple." the dark haired man wrapped his fingers around the butt of the pistol and raised it to arms length, aiming down the lane for the far-off target. Curling his index finger around the trigger, he squeezed and there was a sharp bang and a small flash of blue-white light. A neat hole exploded in the direct center of the target dummy's chest. "There, " he said, flipping the gun around and handing it to Gabriel, "You try it."
Gabriel accepted the weapon with both hands. It was surprisingly light and felt awkward in his grip. Mimicking Cole's movement, he raised the gun and aimed, squeezing the trigger. A shot exploded from the weapon's muzzle and Gabriel jumped, sending the bullet flying widely off the mark.
Cole grabbed the gun to steady it, laughing reproachfully.
"Hold it still this time!" he barked, shaking his head critically. "And don't blink your eyes. You'll lose the target that way." He positioned the gun at shoulder height and pressed Gabriel's free hand to his wrist for support. "Now keep your eye on the target . . . and just squeeze the trigger."
Gabriel took his time on his second attempt, carefully sighting down the length of the gun. Aiming, he fired, his eyes steadily focused and his arm only bucking enough to absorb the recoil. Cole arched an eyebrow at the hole that was now punched through the target's shoulder.
"Not bad." he allowed grudgingly.
"Just lucky, I guess." Gabriel shrugged, smiling slightly with pride.
"The Order has a saying that a warrior makes his own luck. Do that again." Cole commanded, pressing a button and sliding the target farther back, almost half way to the opposite wall "In the chest this time."
Gabriel obeyed, blasting a small hole in the dummy's upper chest, not far from where Cole had hit it. He was quickly adapting to the feel of the gun in his hand and how it reacted when he fired. Not so different at all from the guns he had learned to use years ago.
"Again." The gypsy demanded quickly, setting the target all the way back.
Gabriel concentrated, squinting his eyes and clenching the gun tightly in his hand. He focused on the dummy's forehead, a point that was almost too small to see at this distance, and squeezed the trigger.
"I can't believe it." Cole's amazement began to push through his resentment, as he noted the neat hole that had appeared in the dummy's forehead. "You're a natural marksman. Let's try you on something else."
They went through a range of different weapons. High powered, mechanized crossbows, rifles, shotguns and an array of specialized handguns. After a few practice shots, Gabriel took to each of them with ease, baffling Cole. The squad leader continued to test Gabriel's limits for hours, never failing to be surprised.
"I guess that's enough for today." he realized, relenting at last.
"Good." Gabriel yawned, "I'm bushed."
"Don't sleep too soundly." Cole advised, "I set you up for hand-to-hand training in the morning."
"And who might be in charge of that, " he asked sardonically, "as if I didn't already know?"
"Good guess," Cole grinned, "Dar's the best melee fighter we've got, other than Alex. And I think she likes you. When she gets her hands on you, you better be wearing something . . . secure."
Gabriel groaned as Cole continued to chuckle.
"You know what, Gabriel?" the dark haired man regarded him soberly.
"You're not such a bad guy, after all. I'm sorry I gave you a hard time earlier. It's just that Alex is too damn stubborn sometimes. She can't always see when she could be making a mistake."
"Don't worry about it." Gabriel shrugged it off, "It's good that you look out for her. You really like her, don't you?"
"Is it that obvious?" he asked sheepishly.
"Not to everyone, but I'm pretty quick at picking up on things."
"I've noticed." Cole smirked, "What do you think I should do?"
"Be good to her and let her have her space. She's stubborn, but, give her time and she'll figure things out for herself." Gabriel's eyes hazed as his mind traveled back to what, to him, had only been a few months ago. Alex's stubbornness reminded him of her mother. His memory was still very cloudy, but he could remember her face perfectly. "I knew a girl like her once. Women like that don't come along very often, maybe once in a lifetime. Sometimes you don't even realize it until she's gone."
Cole looked at him sympathetically. "You sound like you've got some regrets." he clapped his hand to Gabriel's shoulder in a comradely manner, "You'll have to tell me about it sometime."
"Tell you what. If I can make it through these next four days, you can buy me a drink and I'll be happy to share a few stories." Gabriel stretched, holding out his hand to the dark eyed gypsy, "Agreed?"
"Agreed." Cole shook his hand and nodded.
* * *
Gabriel proceeded sleepily along the barracks hallways, following the directions Alex had given him earlier. F-11. . .F-12. . .F-13. . .F-14. He pulled the keycard out of his pocket and slipped it through the slot. With a short beep and a muted hiss, the door slid open on hydraulic runners. He stepped inside and let the door close behind him.
The room was dark and it took him a moment to find the light switch. Locating an inset sphere on the wall, he slowly rolled it upwards and watched as a dull ambient light turned on and gradually increased.
The chamber was small and octagonal, with a box shaped dresser that doubled as a desk and a low flat palette that served as a bed. Alex had dropped off the box containing his uniform as she had promised, leaving it at the foot of his bed. Shoving it onto the floor, he crawled under the gray sheets. It wasn't much, but he didn't care at this point. After the day he had had, he needed a good, long sleep. Desperately.
He laid his head back and closed his eyes, pulling the sheets up over his head. Sleep did not come right away, however. His mind churned with the events of the day. In the span of less than twenty four hours, his whole world had changed, literally. Everyone he had known in his former life was either dead or completely different. He had more in common with their children now than them.
His mind continued to drift and he thought of Alex. Alexandra Summers. She resembled her mother in many ways, but he wondered who her father could have been. Angel was not capable of fathering children, so who, then? Her dark hair and name pointed him in an unthought of direction. Xander? Oz had said that Xander and Buffy had been very close. Had they . . .? No, Buffy had never thought of him as anything more than a friend. But war had a way of stirring up people's emotions. God knew everything else in this time period was stranger than fiction.
The world was a hellish nightmare, the human race was fighting a losing battle with a neverending army of demons, Oz and Willow had children older than himself, Buffy and Xander were both dead and Angel harbored a violent grudge against him.
In his own time, Gabriel had felt a peculiar kinship with the tortured vampire, a kinship that may have one day developed into friendship. But things had changed since then. His future self had done something to sour Angel toward him. Gabriel knew it wasn't his fault, but he couldn't help but feel responsible for what he might someday do. He could only imagine what it could have been.
* * *
Angel paced back and forth before the three bronze statues, a nearly empty bottle of home-brewed liquor dangling in his hand. Just a sip, he had told himself, just to take the edge off. He tried to forget that he hadn't touched a drink in almost ten years. But the edge wouldn't ease with just one sip, so one became many and then he had ended up here. This place had become like a church to him. It wasn't a real church, of course, but certainly as sacred to him. Moreso even, since God seemed to have turned his back on the world when the skies became swallowed in fire.
He stopped and looked up at the faces of the three statues thoughtfully. These were his source of spiritual strength now. Giles' statue reminded him to be patient and wise, as well as dedicated to his responsibilities. Next to that, in the middle, Xander's nobly cast visage represented perseverance and the uncanny luck of foolish optimism. Last and certainly most important, the wellspring of his courage and the thing which gave him the strength to carry on his life from day to day. Buffy's bronze face seemed to look down on him with beatific awareness. He could almost see her again sometimes, even hear her voice. It was all in his imagination, he knew. But he didn't care. Imagination was all he really had left of her now.
"He's here again." He told the statues with a voice that was heavy with trepidation, "Somehow, he's back and I don't know what to do about it."
The three statues listened in silence.
"It's all so strange." He continued morosely, "Everyone is so accepting of him. Oz is actually happy to see him. Am I the only one who sees the danger? Am I the only one who cares?"
Climbing up onto the dais, he stood on the edge and regarded each statue at eye level.
"Xander, " he spoke to the center statue as if it were a living, breathing version of his old friend, "without you none of us would be here. You saw us through the long, hard beginning of this road and continue to inspire us. I promise I won't let him tear it all apart again."
He took a sideways step and came face to face with Giles' statue.
"And Giles, I know if you were still here, you would be defending him. The way you always did." He bowed his head slowly, "But you weren't here when it happened. You couldn't understand what he did. Even now, I'm not even sure if I understand it myself."
Shuffling unsteadily, he teetered for an instant and latched his arms around the neck of Buffy's statue, hanging drowsily from it. Pulling himself back to a standing position, he pressed his forehead against the cold metal.
"And you, " he whispered, tears gathering in the back of his throat, "You, you, you, I miss you. I miss you more than I miss the stars in the sky, more than the sun that no one gets to see anymore. But Alexandra's here. She's a good girl. She reminds me so much of you. You'd be so glad to see how well Oz and Willow have taken care of her."
Salty tears welled up in the corners of his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. He pressed his fingertips against Buffy's bronze features, holding precariously to the statue to steady himself.
"I'm trying to be forgiving." He choked, raising the bottle to his lips and sucking back another mouthful of harsh, burning alcohol, "I want to be strong, like you were, but it's just too hard this time."
Pressing his cheek against her unyielding shoulder, he released his hold with one arm and let his hand with the bottle swing wide.
"I hope you'll understand. " he whispered low and tight-voiced, "I'll never be able to forgive the man who killed you."
* * *
Gabriel stood before the open Hellmouth, his arms and legs outstretched, trying to hold back a flood of demons. They pushed relentlessly forward, slowly gaining ground, and soon they would be through.
Someone walked into his peripheral. It was Buffy, older than he remembered her and horribly burned, too badly to still be alive. She watched him calmly with her blackened visage, not making a sound. There was another figure beside her, unnoticed until now. It was his father, Peter, and he was burned as badly as Buffy was.
The demons pushed harder and Gabriel was forced to take a step back.
"Help me!" he cried, straining against the steadily increasing force of the tide of demons.
As one, Buffy and Peter shook their heads in negation.
"This is your problem." Their cracked lips hissed the words. They stood, still as statues, their eyes staring accusingly at him.
"I don't understand. How is this my fault?" Gabriel fell back another step.
The scorched pair continued to watch him impassively.
"Answer me!" Gabriel demanded, his hands slipping and losing his hold on the demonic mass. The darkness flooded forward, engulfing him like a tidal wave.
"NNNOOOOOO!!!" he jolted upright in bed, breathing heavily and bathed in chill sweat. A small red light blinked on and off in a regular rhythm near where his head had lain. It was an alarm. He was supposed to get up early for . . .something. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He felt a little sick when he finally did.
Had the dream been prophetic? Or was it just that, a dream. Although genetically predisposed to such psychic sensitivity, he had never had a prophetic dream before. He wished he'd had the foresight to ask Buffy what they were like. Now, he might never get the chance.
A sharp rapping sounded at his door and he jumped nervously.
"Gabriel, are you in there?" a light feminine voice called from the other side of the door.
It was Darlene, he realized distantly. He rose with a yawn and a groan. Rubbing his eyes, he touched the keypad that controlled his door. It slid open, revealing a chipper, peppy Darlene. She stood smiling, wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit adorned with strips of crimson ribbon and various mismatched crests. She fidgeting excitedly on the spot, her hands tangled together in front of her.
"What happened to you?" she gawped and poked him playfully. "You're still in the same clothes as yesterday!"
He looked down at himself sleepily.
"Yeah," he breathed around a yawn, stretching, "I was up late."
"RREEAALLYY?" she slipped into the room, eyes alight with curiosity. "You weren't with Alex, were you?"
"No." he shook his head, "Weapons training with Cole." He squinted at her and pressed his hand against his head. "Why are you here again?"
"I'm in charge of your hand-to-hand training, cutie." She beamed, "But it looks like you forgot."
"I didn't forget." He grumbled, reaching over and snapping off the blinking red alarm light, "I just slept in a little that's all."
"Great," she clapped her hands together, "Get up. Get a shower and come on. Time's a wastin'!"
She herded him through a narrow metal door into a small tube shaped chamber and closed it behind him. To his left, there was a square, hinged door on the wall and on his right, a cylindrical knob marked with a single, red notch and a bowl containing three bars of soap.
"Throw your uniform in the chute." Darlene shouted through the door, "Then pull out the knob and turn it left for hot and right for cold!"
Dully, he pulled off his uniform and, balling it up, stuffed it into the small, sealed chute. He tugged on the knob and screamed immediately as a cascade of lukewarm water poured steadily down his back. Outside, he could hear Darlene's mischievous giggle. Sourly, he grabbed up a white bar of soap and began to wash.
* * *
Twenty-five minutes later, Gabriel stood in the center of what looked like an octagonal boxing ring, dressed in a sturdy training outfit that reminded him of the gi he used to wear in his master's dojo when he had trained in Japan. The walls were festooned with training gear and apparatus, all of it for practical use. Young men and women, academy students, he surmised, wandered in and out of the room at a regular rate. As he let his mind wander, Darlene paced back and forth along the outer edge of the ring dutifully explaining the rules of engagement.
"You pretty well just have to stay a little shy of the major nerve centers and cripple points and everything else is just standard sparring." She finished quickly, "Gabriel, are you listening to me?"
"What?" he snapped out of his daze, "Oh, yeah. Don't cripple you. Got it."
"Cripple ME?" she grinned incredulously, "Sweetie, these rules are for your benefit. You won't be able to touch me unless I want you to." She easily hopped over the top rope and sidled up to him. "Which we can discuss a little later."
"Let's just get started, shall we?" he looked down at her seriously.
"Sure." She agreed with a shrug, falling into an easy fighting stance, "Don't forget that you can beg for quarter if you need it."
He mirrored her stance and held his hands up loose and ready.
Wasting no time, she dove forward. He tried to sidestep, but she was too quick and agile. Gripping him around the waste, she flipped him over her hip and slammed him to the mat with surprising strength. Kneeling over him, she raised her tiny fist and snapped it downward, stopping just short of his nose.
"That was a hip toss." She explained with a chuckle, casually rising and walking back to lean against the ropes. Hovering near the doorways, a few stray students paused curiously to see how badly Darlene would trounce the unfortunate toplander.
He sat up and rose into his fighting stance, beckoning for her to come on again. She obliged, and in only a few moments more than it had taken the first time, he was flat on his back with her fist pressed into his throat.
"This is getting fun. You men always think you're going to take me because I'm a girl." She giggled, shaking her head ruefully, and retook her place on the ropes. "Stupid."
Three more times, she dropped him and pulled a strike to one of his vitals, taking only slightly longer each time. The students nodded amongst themselves in admiration.
"Don't make this TOO easy, Gabriel." She chided, "I might get bored with you. Then I'll have to find a new playmate."
Frustrated, Gabriel slammed the flat of his hand against the mat and bounced to his feet. He didn't like this. In her arrogance, she was purposely trying to humiliate him to prove that she was the better fighter. And he WAS making it too easy for her, he realized. She was right, he had let her small size and slight frame lull him into a false sense of confidence, let his own arrogance blind him to the facts of the situation.
So far, she had defeated him using her advantage in speed and leverage, turning his greater size and weight against him. Silently, he decided it was time to press his own advantages. His reach far outdistanced hers and he was stronger too. If he could keep her at a distance, he could rob her of the ability to use her grappling skill against him.
In Japan, Gabriel's sensei had taught him to use his particular vision to read his opponents and act accordingly. If an opponent were to telegraph an attack, it would show first in the eyes. Locking his gaze to Darlene's, he raised his hands and advanced.
"Still haven't had enough, huh?" she grinned confidently, basking in the attention of the slowly growing audience. "All right. Come here so I can throw you down again."
He didn't answer her, instead choosing to strike out with his fists. Darlene quickly ducked and slipped inside his reach. Just as he had anticipated. Driving upward with a knee, he caught her hard in the stomach and, hooking his foot around behind her ankle, flipped her leg out from under her and dropped her roughly onto her back. A chorus of impressed murmurs rippled through the gathering students and a few even clapped.
He leaned down, until his face was only inches away from hers. "Let me know if you want to be given quarter." He smiled.
Growling, she smashed her forehead into the bridge of his nose and threw him back. He rolled and sprang to his feet, ignoring the pain, and readied his fists.
"Okay, kid gloves are off, now." Dar informed him, her confident grin firmly back in place. "There's no WAY I'm letting a toplander get away with something like that. Time for you to feel some serious pain."
She stalked him more cautiously this time, leading with lightning fast jabs and swift kicks. Each time she attacked, she tried to get in on him to execute a throw. He danced around her moves skillfully doing his best to keep her at arm's length.
"I haven't forgiven you for that punch when you first found me." He reminded her, throwing a fast right at her head.
"That was nothing compared to what I'm going to do to you today." She slapped the punch aside, spinning around into a savage backfist.
The blow caught him across the face and he stumbled, bouncing back against the ropes. Whipping his arms from side to side, he desperately blocked several follow-up attacks, allowing only one weakened strike through. It caught him on the nose, however, and he felt the familiar warmth of blood gathering in the back of his throat.
"Face it Gabriel," she advised cheerfully, "You can't beat me. Except maybe for Alex, I'm the best in the base."
She jumped forward into a kick, narrowly missing his lower ribs. She drew up short as he feinted with a kick of his own, switching tactics at the last second and stomping down hard on her foot, pinning it to the mat. "Not anymore." His fist swooped up under her chin and smashed into her delicate jaw, her whole body going rigid with the strain of the blow. She fell back onto the mat with a squeak and a groan, her foot still pinned under Gabriel's.
The spectators gasped in awe as he crouched down and helped her sit up. Her blue eyes were a little glassy, and she looked at him, stunned.
"You okay?" he asked softly, concern showing in his eyes.
"That . . . was a nice. . . hit." She congratulated him haltingly, rotating her neck gingerly, "I totally didn't see it coming."
Carefully, he slipped his hands under her arms and lifted her easily to her feet, "Come on, let's walk you around a little until you get your feet back under you again."
"My guts feel like they're in all the wrong places." She groaned, "Help me to the showers. I think I'm going to throw up."
He draped her arm over his shoulder and set her on her feet. Walking her carefully, he headed in the direction of the shower room. Behind him, the gathered students continued to stare in awe.
* * *
The four days of testing passed quickly and Gabriel more than met all the requirements. On the morning of the fifth day, he had been inducted into Red Squadron and given the rank of Private. Red and Gold Squadrons had been summoned to assemble at the main sub-train loading area. Thirty-two soldiers, none of them older than twenty-four, and all armed to the teeth. Gabriel had been given his choice of weapons shortly before the assembly. The young man had opted for a pair of PL-122 pistols and a long, serrated knife, which he tucked into the top of his boot.
While most of the soldiers were being seen off by family members and friends, Gabriel stood patiently waiting, alone. Any mission could be a soldier's last and most prepared themselves as if it would be. Alex and Darlene said their goodbyes to Oz and moved on to his wife. Willow hugged Darlene first, then Alex, smiling a tearful farewell to both girls. Then she looked to Gabriel and an even deeper sadness settled in her eyes.
"Good bye Gabriel." She whispered, her voice strained with emotion.
"Thank you, Willow." He smiled kindly at the middle aged woman.
The members of Gold Squadron loaded onto the first sub-train car. Cole paused in the doorway, looking alternately between Gabriel and Alex. Gabriel caught his attention and nodded meaningfully toward Alex. The Gold Squad commander smirked and favored him with a short wave before joining his soldiers inside.
"Well, I guess we're off." Alex announced as her troops slowly filed into the second sub-train. "Bye, Nanna, Oz. We'll be good, honest."
Darlene, Gabriel and Alex were the last of Red Squadron to board the transport car. Willow waved, a tear in her eye, and pressed her hand against her mouth. Beside her, Oz wrapped a thick arm around her shoulders and waved good-bye with a reassuring smile.
Standing back, away from the assembly, Angel lurked, cloaked in the shadow of a dark corridor with his hands jammed deep into his pockets. His eyes narrowed as he watched Gabriel enter the sub-train. "You'd better do it right this time." he murmured softly.
* * *
"Come on, Darlene." Alex urged, calling her friend by her full name. "We don't have much time."
"Hey, what are you expecting, a miracle?" Dar shot back from her precarious position beneath the computer console. "A mere mortal like myself needs time. Or would you rather see this thing blow up in our faces before we download byte one?"
"Just hurry it up. This place is making me nervous."
They had slipped into the enemy installation without a hitch. Cole and his squad had taken up guard positions along the corridor that would serve as their escape route while Red Squadron had gone on ahead and infiltrated the main data repository. The demon architecture was chaotic and convoluted with odd shaped tunnels and warped passages. Alex hated these places. To her, they were wholly unnatural, a reflection of the dark and twisted minds of the demons who built them.
Gabriel stood close to a small service door, something akin to a living valve, identical in appearance to the one Cole's team was watching on the opposite end of the room. He could see thick fluids pumping through the wall, driven by some dark, hidden heart, and a fine map work of veins and nerves. He had been told that demons didn't build with inorganic materials, but he had never imagined this.
"Disgusting, isn't it?" Alex remarked, noting his expression. "That's what they do with their dead. They grow them into structures like this. I'll be glad when we blow it up."
He shuddered slightly, nodding in agreement to her sentiment.
"There, got it!" Darlene tugged on her pliers with a dull snap and a tiny spit of sparks, a short length of severed wire trapped between the tips. Sliding out from under the console, she quickly hopped into the operator's chair and began tapping keys wildly. After slipping a shiny circular disk into the drive, she began transferring files. "It should just be a few minutes now."
"How are we doing for time, McGuinness?" Alex turned to the other new member of the squad, a boy who Gabriel estimated to be no older than sixteen.
"Four minutes, fifty-one seconds." McGuinness answered, fingering a small digital timepiece nervously.
"Damn it!" Alex swore, "Get a move on, Dar. We have to get out of here."
"I'm trying. It's this damn machine!" Darlene complained, "Probably hasn't seen a tech since it was installed. Just once, I'd like to see a demon that's not a total technological simpleton."
The door next to Gabriel gave a shudder and quietly split into three panels which slid back into the wall.
Alex caught the movement out of the corner of her eye and whipped out her shotgun.
"Down!" she shouted to Gabriel, lining up her shot and pulling the trigger in the span of half a second.
Gabriel dodged an instant before a leathery, blue-skinned demon entered through the door and raised its talons to strike. An instant after that, it's face exploded in a flash of blue-white light.
Gabriel straightened, looking stunned at the headless corpse as it collapsed, twitching, to the floor.
"Thanks." he said in a low, breathless voice.
Alex walked past him and inspected the wall where her bullet had ricocheted and opened a small hole. Gabriel noted with disgust that the hole was bleeding.
"Damn it!" she hissed between clenched teeth, "Cavanaugh, contact Gold Squadron, tell them to get out. Now. We'll be right behind them."
"What's going on?" Gabriel watched in confusion as she bounded for the door, her shotgun drawn and under her arm.
"I cut the wall." she explained, prying open the door and peering cautiously down the hallway. "These buildings feel pain. They know we're here now."
Cavanaugh removed his earpiece and looked to his leader apologetically. "I have Gold Squadron on the box, Commander. They say they aren't going anywhere until we're done."
"Give me that!" she growled, hastily snatching the communications device out of his hands and holding the receiver to her ear. "You listen here, Cole! I am the ranking officer on this mission and I say you and your team bug out. NOW!" She spat in rage and threw the equipment to the ground, "Damn that Terakan! He's pretending to lose the transmission."
She strode over to the computer console and placed her hand on Darlene's shoulder.
"Come on, Dar." she instructed resignedly, "We've got to clear out."
"Just one more minute." The petite blond begged, "There's something big here. I'm almost in."
"We can't afford the time, Dar." Alex shook her head, "I said --"
The rest of her sentence was lost in the tumult of a score of muffled gunshots from the other side of the escape door. Gold Squadron was under attack. Alex, her shotgun readied, leaped for the door, gesturing for Gabriel to follow. Turning halfway around to face him, she stopped in mid-motion and her eyes flew wide. With a flurry pounding footsteps and blood-curdling battle cries, almost a dozen purple-skinned demons leaped over Gabriel and into the room through the open service door. Scrunching her face into a grimace, Alex raised her shotgun, firing, and took one of them through the stomach in mid-air. Diving into a roll, she fired again blindly into the mass. As one, the creatures landed, and bounded away in all directions.
All around her, bullets whizzed and demons screamed in rage and pain. Something hard struck her in the back of the head, throwing her face first onto the floor. As she rose to her knees, a tall, sinewy demon with shiny, black barbs along its forearms and calves stepped arrogantly into the room and fixed Alex with a deadly glare. It was well over eight feet tall and leanly muscled, with tiny inter-linked blue-black plates covering every inch of its flesh, like armor. A pair of whip-like tentacles sprouted from the backs of its shoulders, swaying gracefully like tails of cats. The creature's face was almost elegant by demon standards, with narrow, cat-like eyes and high, jutting cheekbones. More thin, shiny tentacles hung from its head like hair, each one encased in the same tiny armored plates. If pressed to venture a guess, Alex would have classified it as female. The demon's face was twisted with hatred and disdain as it looked down at her with burning, blood red eyes.
"You've all just made the biggest mistake of your lives." The demon's voice was harsh and whispering and carried a disturbing, resonant echo as if it were two voices overlaid.
"Oh, God." Alex whispered, her skin going cold with horror, "It's her. Fides the Terrible."
The monstrosity advanced on Alex like a juggernaut, her supple, armored legs pounding taloned feet into the floor as it came, stray bullets deflecting, unnoticed, off her hide. Alex leveled her shotgun and fired. Through a cloud of smoke, she could see that the demoness had not even slowed. She fired again and again to no effect, emptying her entire load of shells, the last at point blank range. Diving desperately, she narrowly avoided being crushed by the demoness' charge. Rolling to her feet, she came up next to Darlene.
"I got it!" the small blonde gleefully held up the disk in her hand.
"Great, let's go! We're in way over our heads." Alex grabbed her by the arm and started to run, but Darlene hesitated.
"I have to scramble the data tracks or they'll know what we were here for."
Slipping a fresh shell into her shotgun, Alex offhandedly blasted a hole clean through the console.
"Happy, now?" she smirked, pulling her friend along with her.
The door they had been planning to use for their escape burst open and Cole and his squad backed into the chamber, retreating and firing their weapons down the hallway. An emaciated, four armed demon leaped forward heedlessly and grabbed onto a young scar-faced Terakan. Cole reacted purely on instinct, firing two quick shots from his pistol. The first bullet grazed the demon's shoulder, knocking it aside enough so that the second bullet caught it full in the chin. Nodding gravely to his scarred teammate, he limped further into the room, his soldiers in tight, disciplined formation around him.
Their escape route blocked, Alex and Darlene made a break for the other side of the room, but were cut off as Fides stepped directly into their path.
"You're all dead!" Fides snarled gleefully, intercepting a Red Squadron soldier with the slithering smoothness of a serpent and hoisting her into the air by the head. The young woman screamed as Fides chuckled darkly and tightened her two handed grip, squeezing the life out of her.
"What do we do now?!" Dar cried in panic, averting her eyes and fleeing with Alex as the demon bit into the dead woman's shoulder with a grinding crunch.
"There has to be another way out." Alex coolly scanned the room. Eight demons lay dead at their feet, but ten more had poured in through the open service door in the meantime. Only the valiant and tenacious efforts of Cole and his Gold Squadron were keeping them from being completely overrun.
She reached into her pack and pulled out a head sized lump of explosive, eyeing the outer wall speculatively. They had only brought the one and it had been intended for destroying the whole structure once they had escaped, too big to just blow a hole through a wall.
Gabriel skipped backward, unloading a full clip from each of his handguns into the body of an attacking demon.
"There's too many of them!" he shouted over the tumult of combat. "How are we supposed to get out?!"
"Explosive's too big to put a hole in the wall." Alex hefted the mass of wires and short green tubes, "We'd blow ourselves to pieces!"
Gabriel eyed her shrewdly and looked over her shoulder as the towering Fides cornered two more of their teammates. He slipped his pistols into his belt and, grabbing her pack in one hand and the explosive device in the other, raced toward the giant creature.
He whistled shrilly and waved his arms to get her attention. "Hey, ugly!" he shouted, "You want a real fight?"
Fides paused, peering slowly over her shoulder.
"You've got to be kidding me." she chuckled derisively.
The demon watched him, puzzled for a moment, then, grinning with a naggingly familiar bloodlust, whirled about and surged forward. Gabriel backed away unsteadily, his face filled with trepidation.
"What the hell does he think he's doing?" Alex thumbed a fresh load of shells into her shotgun and took aim. She fired three shots in quick succession, but they bounced harmlessly off the creature's thick carapace amid an explosion of sparks.
Cole noticed what was going on and fired also, scoring on the demon general's armored hide with no effect.
Fides dipped her head, snorting steam through tiny, slitted nostrils as she stormed forward. Gabriel pressed his back against the outer wall, trapped, his eyes locked on the serpentine beast that was quickly bearing down on him.
"Come on, you useless piece of garbage!" he challenged, waving Alex's pack in its face like a flag.
"Nowhere left to run, little mortal!" Fides exulted, "Now it's time for you to die."
The demon lunged forward, her strong, sinewy arms spread wide. Gabriel dove between her feet, slapping the bomb against its midsection as he went, and whipped around, springing into a backwards run and firing a hail of bullets into the demoness' back. Alex, Darlene and Cole also opened fire on the creature.
Unbalanced from the multiple impacts, Fides fell forward, pinning the explosive between her body and the wall. Gabriel dove to the floor, face first, and threw his hands over his head. Instinctively, the other squad members did likewise, ducking for cover wherever they could find it. There was a muffled crump and a flash of white light and the entire building shook as the demoness was launched, howling, back through the air with the force of a missile. Her long, wiry form hurtled across the room, bellowing in outrage, flattening a half-dozen of its dark kin and smashing clean through the opposite wall. A cool breeze poured into the chamber as bloody ichor ran freely from the edges of a ragged, smoking hole in the outer wall where the bomb had gone off. Everyone in the room, demon and human alike, was stunned into silence.
"That was amazing!" Darlene marveled with a short cough, unplugging her fingers from her ears.
"Congratulate me later." Gabriel smiled through the smoke, "Let's just get out of here. Fast."
Alex bent to scoop up the wounded body of one of the two Fides had backed into the corner and ran for the opening, pausing only long enough to fire a bullet into the back of a retreating demon. Gold Squadron and the rest of Alex's team streamed out behind her.
Fides' outraged shriek followed them out into the open air. Gabriel hovered by the makeshift doorway and looked back uneasily. There was something chillingly familiar about the serpentine demon, a half-buried memory that struggled to resurface. The huge creature sat up, slow but apparently unhurt, her eyes bursting into flame as she glared at him through the smoke and debris.
"YOU." she raised a scaly arm and pointed at Gabriel with a taloned finger, an unmistakable command to her demon followers. "KILL THEM!!"
"Gabriel, come on!" Darlene grabbed him by the arm and pulled.
He stumbled absently after her, his attention fastened on Fides as she rose, staggering, to her feet. As the first of the demoness' stunned servants began to take up pursuit, Gabriel tore his eyes away and broke into a headlong run.
* * *
The fleeing squadrons crested a steep hill and hastily rushed down the other side.
"I think we can stop running now." Alex slowed down to a walk and leaned against the gnarled bark of a twisted, leafless tree, "Looks like we lost them."
"No," Cole disagreed, limping, his breathing labored, "We keep going until we get to the sub-train tube. Who knows how long we have before they send out scouts to find us."
"Look, Cole, " Alex looked to him seriously, "We're all run down. You look like you're ready to collapse. And don't forget, my people only got in four days ago. I think we can afford a short rest. We'll set up a small perimeter and let the medics give everyone a once-over. What do you say?"
"Maybe you're right." He answered tiredly, pressing his back to the twisted tree and sliding slowly to sit on the ground. "Everyone, at ease for now. Lasseter, Jones and Silverberg, I want you three to go out about a quarter mile and set up a triangular watch perimeter. At the first sign of any kind of pursuit, we're getting the hell out of here."
The three Gold Squadron soldiers obeyed wordlessly, readying their weapons and heading out in three divergent directions.
Cole looked a little pale in the face, and he was holding a wound in his side and another along his leg. Gabriel was surprised that he had managed to run as far as he did unassisted. He was even more surprised that the man still had the presence of mind to be giving orders.
Alex motioned to her team medic. "Ostby, take a look at him." She pointed to Cole, "Then go through our own team starting with Cavanaugh. He took a bit of a bruising back there."
Gabriel sat on the hard earth and tried to relax. Tried was the operative word. He could still hear Fides' terrible voice echoing in his ears. Ever since they had escaped, he had had a foreboding feeling deep in his stomach.
"What do you think is in these files?" Darlene wondered, plunking down across from him, the data disk in her hand.
"Must be pretty important stuff, considering Fides' appearance." Cole reasoned as Ostby busily wrapped his thigh with bandages, "I don't think anyone's reported meeting her face to face since the twenties."
"Yeah, that thing totally gave me the wig." Alex began disassembling her shotgun with practiced efficiency and carefully cleaning it out with a soft, dirty cloth. "I nailed it dead-bang with an entire clip and it didn't even slow down."
She pulled her helmet off her head and sucked air wetly through her teeth in dismay, dropping it to the sparse grass. A large crack ran almost halfway up the back of it, nearly splitting the helmet in two.
"Damn it!" she swore, "I love this helmet!"
"Be glad that wasn't your head." Cole chuckled, "That's what helmets are for."
Darlene slowly flipped the data disk end over end with the fingers of one hand, munching on a ration bar with the other, "Maybe this has something to do with the start of the war. You know, the reason behind the whole thing."
Alex and Cole looked to each other and rolled their eyes in exasperation.
"There IS no reason behind the war, Dar." Alex argued, sighting down the detached barrel of her shotgun. "Demons kill. That's what they do. They have no other motivation."
"I'm telling you, the invasion was no accident. They had this planned long before the millenium." Darlene insisted, stuffing the last half of the ration bar into her mouth.
"Oh no, not your crazy conspiracy theory again?" Alex shook her head, smiling patronizingly, while rubbing carefully at a small burr in her gun's loading mechanism with a tiny file.
"Conspiracy theory?" Gabriel asked curiously.
"Forget about it, Gabriel." Cole took a long drink from a metal cup, as Ostby finished tending to his side, "You don't want to know, trust me. Darlene has these crazy ideas that the war started with a planned invasion."
"It's not crazy!" Darlene slapped him smartly across the back of the head, sending him forward, choking. "If you ever saw the things that I have on the World Network, you'd believe me. There are secret records out there, left over from the old era and, if you know what you are doing, you can access them easy enough. Dozens of eye witness proofs of organized demon activity before the turn of the millennium."
She sat down across from Gabriel excitedly, her hands a blur of motion as she got deeper into her story. "You see there were these two special agents, a man and a woman, and they traveled around documenting the demon plot. They kept video records as proof. I'm telling you, the truth is out there."
"Oh, come on, Dar!" Alex giggled, slipping the strap of her now-reassembled shotgun over her shoulder. "If there was so much proof of the demons, then why wasn't the Resistance formed before 2002?"
"That's just it." The blonde leapt to her feet fervently, "The government was trying to cover everything up, to keep the citizens in the dark, you know, so they could make a deal with the demons or something. I think they even went so far as to put some of them in positions of political power as part of the deal."
"Darlene!" Alex squealed, holding her ribs, "Stop it, I can't breathe anymore."
Cole slumped over in a fit of laughter, pressing his hand gingerly to his side.
"It's true!" Darlene shook her fist in frustration, "The Emperor was just a small time Mayor in some backwater town before he started the war."
"The Emperor was human, then, Dar." Alex shook her head patronizingly, "He became a demon after he completed an Ascension ritual."
"What about this other guy I heard about? They made him king of a country called Irack, like, a hundred years ago. They called him Sodom Insane. Tell me that doesn't scream 'demon' at you."
"I believe you, Darlene." Gabriel patted her shoulder comfortingly.
"See." Darlene stuck her tongue out at the other two, "At least somebody here has a brain."
Alex sat up, wiping tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes, while Darlene dug out another ration bar and threw it at Cole. The Terakan caught it with a deft hand and smiled his thanks mockingly to her.
"All right, everybody, " Alex shouted loud enough for the soldiers of both troops to hear, "ten minutes to catch your breath then we haul out to the sub-train tube."
Gabriel stood up and strolled slowly down the far side of the hill, his heart finally starting to calm. He was almost starting to get used to the constant, faint stink of ash and sulfur. Compared to the stuffiness of the base, the air was fresh out here. He squatted in the sparse grass and folded his arms over his knees. Looking out over the wasted landscape, he wondered what it might once have looked like.
Off in the distance, he could make out what might have been a riverbed and, beyond that the worn down walls of a shallow valley. It might almost have been nice to look at if one could forget the hellfire in the sky and the way the huge tracks of charred and broken rock along the ground resembled ragged scars. God, he wanted to go home.
A pair of soft footsteps approached him slowly from behind. He felt a vague tingling sensation crawl up his spine and he didn't have to turn around to know who it was.
"Alex." He greeted her softly without turning around.
"Hey." She sat down next to him, "Whatcha lookin' at?"
"Nothing." He replied distantly, staring into the distance, "Just looking. Thinking about home."
"You miss the surface." She deduced, "It must be hard for you, living underground now."
"What? Uh, yeah." He had almost forgotten who he was supposed to be, "It's like a whole different world." In a way, it was true. It wasn't a lie, at least.
"Yeah, well, you'll get used to it soon." She smirked, "You just gotta roll with the punches and deal."
Just gotta roll with the punches and deal, the words echoed in his mind, freeing another wave of memories. Someone else had said that to him once. He had been sitting on a hill, staring out at a distant highway, thinking about home, Scotland this time. Buffy had found him, despite that fact that he had wanted to be alone, and she had changed his mind about leaving Sunnydale in a matter of minutes. Her charm and strength of will had enamoured him from that very instant, a fact that had almost been lost in the tumult of the disaster that was to follow. He could see the same traits in her daughter, a familiarity that made him suddenly miss her.
Alex was laying back on her elbows staring out at the horizon with her shotgun balanced across her stomach, habitually close to her hands. Her eyes wandered upward and her face lit with wonder.
"Wow." She gaped, "Look at THAT."
Overhead, the eternal murk that was the sky had thinned and, in a small area, clear night sky and a scattering of stars were visible.
Alex pulled a hand-sized set of binoculars out of her pack, setting them to her eyes and peering into the sky.
"This is really cool." she marveled at the small celestial miracle. "Here, take a look."
She offered the binoculars to Gabriel, her face beaming. Gabriel accepted them, shrugging half-heartedly. It was only a small patch, but from what he had seen of this world, perhaps it was the best they could get.
"Sometimes I forget that there's a real sky behind all that hellsmog." she continued, "The stars look like little jewels. Especially that bright red one."
"That's not a star." Gabriel commented, viewing it through the binoculars, "It's a planet."
"What?" Alex frowned, confused.
"It's a planet." he repeated absently, handing her binoculars back, "Venus, specifically."
"How do you know these things?"
"When I was just a boy, my Father used to show me the stars all the time. They sort of remind me of him." His voice tightened with remembered guilt.
She cocked her head and fixed him with a sidelong look. "You must have grown up far from here. This is only the second time I've ever seen the stars. You make it sound like you saw them every night."
"Uh, no." he avoided the question clumsily, "I just made sure I saw them every chance I got, that's all."
"So what happened to your Dad?" she fingered a small round stone for a moment before flicking it down the hillside.
"He's . . . gone." He answered slowly, the pain still fresh in his memory, "He died two months ago." Again, he was able to tell the truth while still maintaining his cover.
"My Dad's dead, too. Sorry." She said the words with an easiness that he found a little disturbing. Hearing about the death of a loved one was commonplace in this world, he realized, and she had probably become inured to it over time. "I guess that's how you ended up here, huh?"
"You could say that, yeah." he smiled bittersweetly to himself. He looked at her carefully, a knot of agitation turning in his stomach, "Do you remember much about your father?"
Alex shrugged, leaning back on her elbows, "Not really. I know that he was killed just before I was born. And I know that Mom didn't really take it well. She was always good to me, taught me to be the soldier I am. But she cried a lot. She used to cry for hours when she thought no one was around. Then some trouble would come up and she'd put on what she called 'her game face' and everything would seem all right."
Killed before she was born . . .Xander had been assassinated around that time. Perhaps once the gangly young man had given up trying to win her heart and concentrated on something bigger, he had finally caught her attention.
"You sound like you were close." He said, noting how similar she seemed to her mother now, as she reclined comfortably in the dry grass.
"We were." She smiled wistfully, "My Mom was the best. No matter how busy she got with the council, she still had time for me. I didn't really need my Dad as long as she was around, but I still wish I could have known him."
He found himself thinking again about the last time he had seen Buffy and how he had left Sunnydale without even saying goodbye to her. He had been so overwhelmed with loss and guilt then, he wouldn't allow himself to even think of her. It seemed so trivial now, considering the state of the world. He was pleased to see that despite trying conditions, Buffy had been able to stay close to her daughter.
"It must have really hurt you when she was killed." He said, feeling sorry for her.
She saw the sentiment in his eyes and frowned.
"Yeah, well it kinda sucked, sure," she shrugged, unconcerned, "but, like I said, I don't cry."
"Never?" he smirked incredulously, "That hardly seems healthy."
"Healthy or not, that's the way it is." She squinted at him, studying his face, "You remind me of someone when you smile like that. I don't know what it is, but I've sensed something familiar about you ever since we found you on the outskirts."
"I have the Second Sight." He turned his face away from her self-consciously, "This 'Sense' that you have sounds a lot like it. Maybe that's what you're seeing."
"Mom used to tell me that I inherited some of her Slayer intuition and that, because of it, we would always be aware of one another even without all our other senses. I get the same feeling from you."
Gabriel shook his head and shrugged helplessly. "There are a lot of things in this world that can't be explained. I was born with powers very much like the Slayer's. The similar energies can interact sometimes."
When he had met Buffy for the first time, he had experienced a similar feeling. Any time they had been near one another, each had experienced an unmistakable recognition of the other's power.
"I don't know." She scrutinized him more closely. "You're different from the rest of us. All this seems so new to you."
He turned his gaze uneasily to the sky, avoiding her eyes. She suspected something, certainly, and he had no idea how much longer he could keep his promise to Oz and continue to lie to her. How would she react if he told her he was from the past, that he had known her mother when she was younger than Alex was now.
"Hey there, you two. Check out the funky sky." Darlene interrupted to Gabriel's utter relief, approaching from behind them with her usual carefree grin firmly in place. "What's with the private meeting? Or did I just answer my own question?"
"Nothing going on here that you have to worry about interrupting." Alex assured her, hopping to her feet. "I'll go see if Cole is ready and then we can get moving."
Again, Alex covered a brief moment of vulnerability with gruffness. Leaving Gabriel and Darlene behind, she loped down the hillside and started barking orders to the rest of her squadron.
Watching her for a moment, Gabriel felt a nagging question resurfaced within him, something he had felt the need to know since he had arrived in this tortured time. It was time to stop asking questions and get the answers himself. Alone with Darlene, he turned his back to the others and leaned his head close to her ear.
"Darlene? " he asked in a low voice, "I need to ask you a favor."
Favoring him with a flash of bright teeth and a coquettish giggle, she reached up and hooked her hands around the back of his neck. "Anything you want, Private," she grinned, her eyes lambent and hungry looking, "but I think we should wait until we get back to base where we can have some privacy."
Blinking in surprise and his cheeks flushing scarlet, he tugged her hands apart and held them away from his body. "Actually, I was hoping you could help me with a little research I've been wanting to do. Private research."
Her glittering blue eyes lit up with a hunger of a different sort. "You want me to hack somebody's files?" she inquired, intrigue obvious in her voice.
"Maybe." He answered, careful to keep his voice from being heard. "We'll talk about it later. Meet me in my room after we get back."
"Now there's an offer I wouldn't refuse." She chuckled, winking broadly as she walked around him and rejoined the two squadrons.
* * *
Angel sat back in his curved leather chair and watched the wall of surveillance screens grimly. He saw how Red Squadron had returned through the main sub train tube only a few minutes ago. One of their members had been missing, probably dead, and a few of them nursed minor injuries. Their faces had been bright, however, which boded well for the success of their mission. But HE was still with them. Distantly, Angel had hoped that the demons would have gotten lucky and relieved him of the young man's vexing presence.
There was a timid knock on the door of the briefing room.
"Come in." he called, turning in his chair sharply to face the doorway.
The metal portal opened with a soft gasp and a worn and dirty young man stepped carefully into the room. He was wearing a newly broken in Red Squadron uniform.
"Uh, Director. I have the information that was retrieved on the mission." He held out a small, shiny disk between trembling fingers. "Commander Summers asked me to tell you that she will be in with her full report before the day is out."
Angel's left eye twitched unconsciously. Commander Summers. The words brought back painful memories for an instant.
"Come in, please." Angel walked over and accepted the disk. "McGuinness, isn't it? How did your first assignment with your new squadron go?"
"Good, I guess, Sir." McGuinness answered as Angel turned and began thumbing through a small holder filled with similar disks. "It was a lot different from the Academy simulations, that's for sure, but I think I did all right. Not as good as Private Van Winkle, though. Everything happened so fast. I don't know how he did it."
Angel paused in his sorting, his back turned to the boy. It took him an instant to realize the bot was talking about Gabriel. "Did what?" he asked evenly.
"He saved the whole troop, Sir." McGuinness marveled, "We were trapped inside the data storage building with this huge demon. Gabriel rushed it like it was nothing. The thing must have been ten feet tall. Bullets couldn't hurt it, so he blew it up with the demolition explosive. I thought we were all going to be dead, but he pulled us out of there like a pro."
"Really." Angel commented darkly, his left eye twitching wildly, "Thank you, Private. That will be all."
McGuinness grew wary of Angel's darkening mood and exited with only a short salute. Angel eased back down into his chair and steepled his hands before him. It was happening again. He could see it already. The events of twenty years ago were reoccurring, only with a new generation this time. Gabriel's appearance had screamed danger at him from the very first moment Angel had seen him. Now he was more convinced than ever. As soon as he was finished scanning the new data disk, he would make a point to check in with Willow and see how she was doing on translating the spell to send Gabriel back home. This time, things would be different.