Living History

Chapters 42 - 57

Author: Lizbeth Marcs <vblackheart[at]>

Summary: Some people have come a place far, far away and a time far, far ahead to ask for help on an urgent matter. The time? February 2008. The place? Moscow. The problem? They're in Cleveland, September 2003. And that's just the beginning of the trouble…

Author's Note: This is based on a challenge issued by Uncle Rand on the XanderZone list, so you know, right away, that it's Xander- centric. Beyond that I'm not telling.

Disclaimer: Is this necessary? I own nothing. ME/Fox owns everything. Deal.

Pairing: Kinda, sorta, depends on how hard you squint. Mostly friendship/adventure/humor rule the day.

Feedback: As always, thoughtful feedback is welcomed. Since this is a WiP that may take a looooong time to finish, I look forward to seeing what people have to say.

Archiving: On XanderZone is automatically granted since the challenge came from there. Everyone else please ask.

There's a glossary at the end of the story.

For the latest parts look at LiveJournal


To recap Uncle Rand's Challenge:

I've read a lot of stories on this group about Xander being the quiet hero, doing what he does without any thanks and I had a thought. What if a group of people, maybe a new group of Slayerettes, came from the future, via a spell that would send them to the time they needed to be, to save the world and were awestruck at meeting Xander, but thought Buffy was nothing special?


1) Set immediately after series finale.

2) No B/X or W/X! Story must be F/X or D/X.

3) No incredible inventions from the future for killing Vampires from a distance!

4) (Optional) Does Xander and whoever he is involved with go to the future with them when they return?

Judging by some discussion on this challenge, I'm adhering to the letter of the challenge, but probably not the intent. Heh. Typical.

Liz ;)

Latest addition

Chapter 42
Carrying the Reminder

Robin was coming out of the first floor bathroom when he felt an iron grip around his upper arm. "Faith, I thought…"

"Not Faith," said a decidedly male and angry voice. "Back yard. We need to talk right now."


"Unless you want to talk in front of the kids and trust me, you don't want that to happen."

Robin looked down into Xander's grim face and sighed. Given the fact Xander'd been unwillingly dragged into the middle of a personal fight between himself and Faith, he honestly couldn't blame the younger man for being upset.

*Problem is, I don't know who to believe. I doubt Faith would lie just to get back at me, but actions speak louder than words. The two of them barely talk about anything more than Slayer business.*

But if Faith was telling the truth about a past liaison with Xander and Xander was lying by saying that there was nothing at all? Hard to tell if it put either Faith or Xander in a bad light since it was obviously meaningless to both of them. Faith deserved a hell of a lot better than a meaningless one-night stand.

She deserved better than what even he gave her truth to tell, but it was for her benefit. She'd see that eventually.

"Robin," Xander warned.

"Fine," Robin sighed back as he turned to go through the kitchen out the back door. *Might as well get this over with. Just what I need is another damn fight over my sex life with Faith. You'd think he'd be more focused on what's important.*

They were barely in the backyard when Xander finally exploded. "What the hell was that?"

"You did walk in the middle of…"

"What the hell are you talking about? You walked in on Giles and me."

Robin shook his head quickly, deeply confused. "I thought you were talking business."

"We were and actually, and I'm not annoyed about you sweeping in, but Jesus Christ. Show a little damn respect."

Robin gave up. Once again he had no idea what was going on inside Xander's head. Huge shock, there. So, Xander wasn't upset about getting dragged into the middle of his fight with Faith. He wasn't upset about his untimely entrance into Giles's room. So what the hell…

"In case you missed it," Xander looked like he was warming up to his anger, "Giles is the head guy around here. Not you. Not me. Giles. He's the Watcher…"

"So am I," Robin quietly interrupted.

"Good for you, then. Must be a dream come true," Xander huffed. "But Giles has been around longer than you've been alive. So before you go tromping off into the house to assemble your crack team, you owe it to Giles to run those names by him first."

*Aahhh. Comprehension,* Robin nodded to himself. This was the same-old, same-old argument he'd been having with Xander for the past few weeks. He was doing his best to keep people focused and maintain discipline and Xander had once again decided that he was stepping on toes. This Scooby cliquishness had to stop.

Besides, he really, really wasn't in the mood to deal with Xander's petulant complaints, especially since his bad day had started off with such a spectacular bang.

"Look, I was just trying to get the ball rolling and…"

"Let me repeat: No one is going out to Erie until tomorrow." Xander began to pace as his voice dropped in volume and pitch. "That's plenty of time for you to come up with your list and run them by Giles, Buffy, and Faith. I don't know if you noticed, but this fun little operation is going to take some amount of planning. This isn't like we've got rampaging badness at City Hall and have to scramble in anything resembling an emergency-ish situation."

"Okay, okay." God, he really didn't feel like arguing the issue. "Sorry. I'll run the list by Giles. I just thought…"

"You'd make an executive decision," Xander nastily finished for him. "Middle of a battle situation, fine. Every single one of us in this house has made a decision based on a vote of one in the heat of the moment. I get that. I do. But this? Not an emergency. Not yet. Personally, I want to keep it that way and that means teamwork, not 'I am the law, like it or lump it.'"

"Point taken," Robin said tiredly.

His quick capitulation obviously took Xander by complete surprise, because all the anger seemed to drain out of him. "Oh. Good. Well," he let out a huff of breath, "that's it then. My work is done. For my next trick, I'll skydive off the roof."

Robin fought the urge to roll his eyes. Xander's never-ending quips from left field never ceased to amaze him. One minute, the guy's ranting, the next minute he's going for the Borscht. Instead, he chuckled and shook his head. "For a minute there, I thought you were going to ream me about this morning."

"Yeah, about that," Xander looked troubled, "I don't know what happened. I don't want to know what happened, but whatever it is, take my advice and go apologize."

"Excuse me?" Robin felt the stirring of annoyance. "You have no idea what prompted that fight."

Xander held his hands up. "Let me repeat: I don't want to know. At all. But…I don't know…whatever she did to get you that angry, just say you're sorry and make it up to her even if she was completely in the wrong. Get down on bended knee and…"

Annoyance transformed into anger. *That little prick. How dare he assume that Faith is the one…* "It's over between Faith and I, not that it's any of your business. And I don't appreciate…"

"WHAT?" Xander shouted. "It can't be over. Look, go back to her. Crawl. Grovel. Beg. Plead. Promise her anything. Just get her to take you back. I'm sure that…"

"I broke up with her," Robin snapped.

"ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?" Xander started pacing again. "You've flipped. That's the only explanation. The pressure's got to you." He stopped and looked at Robin with wide eyes. "Listen to me. You. Don't. Want. This. Tell her you changed your mind. Tell her you made a mistake."

"It wasn't a mistake," Robin grit through his teeth as he moved to get by his agitated opponent. *Speaking of pressure, what the hell does he think he's doing?*

The evil thought occurred that maybe Faith was telling the truth. And while he had a sneaking suspicion it meant nothing to her, he was willing to lay odds that it meant something to Xander. After all, Faith did say she popped his cherry.

Xander reached out and caught Robin's arm and tried to speak. Even though his mouth was moving, for once no sounds were coming out of it. Robin took advantage of the situation.

"Look, whatever it is you to had with Faith, you had. Ancient history. Get over it. You don't have the right to dictate how my relationship with her goes," Robin stated coldly.

"You don't know," Xander shook his head. "You don't know what you're doing. You have no idea what…"

"I know exactly what I'm doing. It had to be done." Robin yanked his arm out of Xander's tight grip and rubbed the ghost of Xander's fingerprints away. This made completely no sense. Xander seemed nearly distraught that he broke up with Faith. If Xander was still carrying a torch, his reaction was odd to say the least. Robin had no idea what to think.

"Why?" Xander stared at him in disbelief.

"Slayer. Watcher," Robin answered simply.


"Don't you see that as a little bit of a conflict?" Robin asked, fighting the urge to throw his hands in the air. "Can't you see how many problems that might cause when things get ugly? The fight is dangerous enough without…"

"So you'd throw your shot at happiness away just because it's dangerous?" Xander looked around. "I know you've done this a long time but, where the hell have you been? You can't just cut off any chance of…"

"There has to be some clear lines drawn." Robin had no idea why he was even bothering to explain.

"But Faith doesn't need a Watcher. Or Buffy. What they need are people who'll work with them, not hand them orders." Xander shook his head. "What the hell am I saying? You and Giles are outnumbered here. I'm thinking that should hold true for just about every Slayer in this house."

"What does that have to do with anything? And why the hell do you care?" Robin insisted, partially curious but mostly furious. "This is not Sunnydale. This is not your ad hoc club of demon hunters. This isn't a way to score with the ladies. This is the big league. It's serious business."

Xander stepped back, something in his face emotionally retreating. "Like it wasn't before? A lot of good people died," Xander's voice was soft, almost hurt.

"Which is my point," Robin insisted.

"What does this have to do with what you did to Faith?" Xander asked. Light dawned. "You think falling for her would distract you from your duty." He quietly added as he studied the ground, "You thought it was for the best so you just ripped her heart out. Just like that." He looked at Robin again, his eyes showing a hint of an ancient hurt. "At least you told her before it went too far, that's something I guess. No wonder she wanted to rip you apart for that selfish…"

"It's not selfish," Robin snapped.

"What else could it be?"

The certainty behind the question was enough to cause Robin to snap. "This is for her benefit and you know it."

Xander stood stunned a few moments before bursting out into an off-kilter laugh. Robin could feel something physical in it, something dark and violent that slapped at him and left him speechless. As suddenly as it started, the laughter was gone, snapped off like a light, leaving something behind that was running on cold fury. "I get it now. This is for her benefit. You're doing it all for her because it's what's best for her."

Robin stepped back under the unexpected onslaught. "That's right."

Xander stepped forward in response, good humor slipping back into face. "I've heard this story before. It's an oldie but a goodie." The smile turned sly. "Knew this guy, back in the old neighborhood. Had this girl. They were getting married, follow?"

"What does this…"

"Let me finish." The voice reached out like a whip, snapping off the end of Robin's sentence with smooth expertise. "Before he makes the big trip down the aisle, he runs into a fortune-teller with a crystal ball who promises him a peak into his big future. Now this guy's a dope. Big believer in the happily ever after complete with the rolling credits and the swelling music. There's a word for that."

"Naïve?" Robin managed to ask.

"Stupid," Xander corrected as he circled Robin.

The eyes staring at the principal were not the eyes of a man. Oh no. These were the eyes of a straight-up predator and that gaze was fixed on one Robin Wood, rooting him to the dying grass in the back yard.

This was not Xander. Whoever this was, it was not some smart-mouthed kid with more bravery than brains. This was someone who was far more intelligent, far more knowing, and far more understanding about the dark side of humanity than he let on. Xander wasn't evil, but Robin suddenly knew that he wasn't the good guy everyone thought he was.

"What he sees isn't a happily ever after." Xander was circling Robin in tight circles, predator eyes barely blinking. "What he sees is him killing his wife at the end of a marriage that spent decades in the ice age. He sees it and he knows it's going to come true. Want to know why?"


"Because he also figured out that he believes in happy endings for other people. Him? Not so much because this guy, like I said, is stupid. The biggest dumbass to walk the earth. And stupid people don't get happy endings. They get to be the sidekicks. They help make happy endings for other people by making them laugh, by screwing up, and, let's be blunt, dying horribly and senselessly at just the right moment to give the hero a chance to take center stage. Stupid people don't deserve happy endings."

Robin crossed his arms. "Never figured you for a snob. We should live happily ever after because we're the heroes, but no one else deserves it?" He shook his head. "What will the other people in the house say to hear you talking like this?"

Xander stopped and tilted his head in confusion, like he heard what Robin said but couldn't quite make sense of it. "Why are you interrupting? I'm telling you something important here."

"And you're talking nonsense." Robin turned to go, but was halted by the unforgiving iron grip around his arm.

"So, this guy dumps his girl. Because he's doing it for her you see. She's better off without him," Xander said casually, as if he wasn't holding Robin's arm and Robin wasn't doing his best to shake it off. "That was the plan, and as plans go it was a good one at the time. Didn't exactly work out, though."

Robin gave up. Xander was going to have his say and there was no point in trying to escape until he did. "Because, of course, he realized he was wrong and made it right and the happily ever after happened anyway. You're so predictable with the feel-good."

"No." Xander sounded confused again as he let go and stepped back, eyes blinking rapidly. "Girl's so hurt she gets self-destructive, which, if you know anything about Sunnydale after the sun sets, you know that can have some pretty fatal consequences."

"Could anywhere."

"Yeah, but only in Sunnydale could you be stabbed with a sword for it," Xander said absently.

"Hunh? What are you talking about?"

"This guy, he sees it. Hell, he's watching on the sidelines. Doesn't say a word. Not one. It's killing him because he's still crazy about her. Misses her like he's missing his own heart. But, as bad as she's being, he figures she's still better off because he knows, he knows this, he's the monster."

Robin could feel the corner of his mouth quirk up. "Unbelievable. You actually buy Buffy-and-Spike as a love affair? You heard her. He was only necessary for the mission."

Xander's confused again. "Spike? What does he have to do with this?"

Robin felt his face drop.

Xander shook his head. "Actually, you sort of got part of it right. Sooner or later, he can't take it any more because he still feels. Idiot can't shut off the emotions and hide the buttons she can push. So they sort of reach an understanding. She doesn't want to kill him any more, and he still loves her. They make it up, sort of, but nothing ever gets said because, hey, he's still a monster and she's still better off.'

Xander paused and gave Robin a knowing look. "She died anyway, you know."

"Not surprised. Sunnydale was dangerous at the end." Then it hit Robin and he could feel himself get angry. "So that's the punch line? 'She died anyway'? You are a piece of work, you know…"

"That's not the punch line," Xander waved him off. "Tragic, yes. Ironic, possibly. But it's not the punch line. The punch line is that after it's all said and done, and this guy is sitting alone in the dark feeling numb, this guy looks at me, he looks right at me and he admits that he didn't do it for her. Nope. At the end of the day he put himself, her, everyone around them through hell because he did it for himself."


"Himself. He did it because he didn't want to even try to not be a monster. He didn't want to try changing the outcome because it would've been too damn much work." Xander stepped forward, face and voice devoid of emotion. "What it boiled down to was this: in some part of his brain, some reptilian part of his brain, he decided she wasn't worth the effort. Now that's the punch line." He stepped back. "You may laugh now."

Robin slowly began backing away. "You are one sick bastard, you know that? What exactly are you trying to prove?"

Xander moved suddenly. Next thing the newest Watcher knew, Xander was in front of him, iron grip around the back of his neck, pulling his face down so their foreheads were touching.

"Oh, what have you done, Robin Wood? What have you done?"

Robin shivered as Xander's breath ghosted across his lips in that haunting and haunted voice. It was the kind of voice he imagined Spike used as he hunted down and cornered his mother in that subway car. His skin prickled in protest as every muscle locked into place.

"What a tangled web, what a pack of lies. You can lie to yourself, but you can't lie to me. Not to me, Robin Wood, never to me," Xander said quietly. "I figured you for a smart guy, Faith fuckage aside, but really you're no better than anyone else, are you? Hide behind your mission. Hide behind your titles. Hide behind your authority. Hide behind your top-notch education. Hide behind your demons. Take that away and what are you? Nothing."

"Stop it," Robin whispered.

"So broken. I wonder who broke you, Robin Wood. Was it Faith when she put her trust in you? Was it Buffy when she saved Spike from you? Or was it your mother when she had the nerve to die on you?" Xander breathed back, thumb working in gentle circles at the base of Robin's skull. It was as intimate as it was perverse.

"Leave my mother out of this." Robin tried to jerk away, but Xander without exerting any effort at all, kept him in place.

"That's okay, Robin Wood. I'll fix it. I'll make sure to fix it." Xander suddenly let go.

Robin stumbled back a step, eyes not leaving Xander's face.

As for Xander, his face expressed puzzlement, like he wasn't entirely sure why the two of them were talking in the back yard. Robin wasn't entirely sure what he expected, but the dead-eyed look of someone who felt nothing at all was definitely not it.

Xander's dark, knowing smile was back. "It's what I do you know. Fix things. Houses. Windows. People. I joke about it. Laugh about it. Put it down like it's nothing. Probably will die doing it, too. Because someone has to fix things, someone has to build something real. Everyone loves destroying things, but no one wants to build and no one wants clean up the mess of broken bones, broken hearts, and broken souls." He tilted his head again, confusion back. "Why is that, do you figure?"

"There is nothing to fix," Robin ground out. "This conversation is over."

Xander held up a finger, as if testing the direction of the wind. "Now that is where you're wrong." On that, he started chuckling that deep-throated, off-kilter laugh as he turned on his heel and strode back into the house. "Get your soldiers together and present them to Giles," Xander's voice floated back to him with a hint of sarcasm. "You've got a mission."

Robin stood in the back yard for a long time after Xander made his exit stage right. He tried not to think about the chaos that would follow if anyone else in the house realized that Xander was certifiably and dangerously insane.

Chapter 43
The Heart of the Matter

Catherine entered the temporary quarters with a sigh.

"How's it going?" Charlie asked from his position by the window.

"They're out in this eerie cemetery looking for the cavern entrance right now," Catherine said as she fell onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling.

"So you're sold then?"


There was a moment of silence before Charlie remarked, "J'Nal's doing the dance of joy. Well, maybe not a dance, more like a meditation. But he's smiling. I caught him."

"Great," Catherine said quietly.

She felt the bed dip.

"You could be happier about this."

Catherine grunted.

"There's a very good shot that we didn't screw up the timeline at all."

"Still not sure how I feel about that," Catherine admitted. "And we still don't know for sure."

"But our chances just got a lot better." When Catherine remained resolutely silent, Charlie dove in, "You're still upset about what Faith told you, aren't you?"

Catherine sat up, resting her face in her hands.

"Explains why they barely talk," Charlie muttered.

"I trust you."

Charlie looked at Catherine in surprise. "I hope so," the doctor said slowly. "We've known each other for how long?"

Catherine waved him off. "Not you. I mean, yes, I trust you, but that's not what I meant."

"So what did you mean?"

Catherine leaned back on her hands, her face still in thought. "Something I remember reading." She gave Charlie a sad smile. "You know what my family's like. Gotta know the history. Gotta know the facts."

"I'm beginning to think those are two different things," Charlie agreed.

"I've read every journal written by every member at one point or another," Catherine said as if he didn't speak. "Either for research purposes or for family study purposes, but reading Alexander's and Faith's journals is on the required reading list for everyone in the family."

Charlie kept silent, wondering where Catherine was going.

"There was this story? Adventure? Incident? I remember reading it and I thought at the time how strange it was. Why would 'I trust you' be so important?" Catherine gave her odd aborted smile at Charlie. "It's like that one line in a book you can't ever forget and becomes this big mystery on why it hit you so hard. 'I trust you' was that line for me."

"Are you going to tell me why? Or leave me guessing?" Charlie asked.

Catherine sounded distracted. "A little over two standard years from now, there's a demon loose in Cleveland."

"Now there's a shock. There's an unstable dimensional mystical convergence here."

"Yeah, but this demon? This demon's got these spines," here Catherine's fingers danced up her arms, "covered with some kind of poison. A normal person gets hit with it and they're immediately immobilized by violent seizures so the demon can eat them at their leisure. A Slayer can still move, but even they slow down. Remove the spines, Slayer healing kicks in and they eventually recover."

"But not a normal person?"

"No. Violent fevers, violent hallucinations, slow painful death that can drag out for weeks," Catherine answered.

"Go on."

"People in this house went toe-to-toe with it. Faith and Violet almost managed to kill it, but got hit with the spines, which left Alexander alone to face it."

"He got hit too."

"Yeah, but not before he killed it. Something four times his size with poison already circulating through his body. Can you imagine that?" A small amount of the family pride was still there as Catherine spoke. "Faith managed to remove everyone's spines, but not before Alexander had seizures."

"Well, since it happens only, what? Two standard years from now and he's still around after that, so we know he doesn't die," Charlie pointed out.

"That's not the point," Catherine said slowly. "He suffers for a week with these violent fevers and horrific hallucinations. I remember reading in Faith's journal that he was absolutely convinced that almost everyone was a monster trying to kill him. Some she remembered as real monsters he'd faced, some might've been imaginary."

"I heard 'almost.'"

"Three exceptions: her, Willow, and this mystically ensouled vampire named Spike who was around because he was delivering a package. Willow he seemed to see as these dark, twisted versions of the Willow he knew. A vampire. A murderous sorceress. A manipulative woman using magic for her own gain. Spike he didn't even see at all. But, he saw Faith and even stranger, he saw her as her, not as a twisted version of herself."

"Sounds like fun," Charlie muttered.

"Faith-then might see your sarcasm and raise it," Catherine admitted. "See, the thing that always confused me is that Faith seemed, I don't know, upset that he could see her. At that point they'd been working together more than two standard years, had already proven they were a good team, were responsible for a few younger Slayers that they trained in tandem. It didn't make any sense. I mean, I'd think she'd be happy that he could recognize her because that meant that maybe, just maybe, he was in love with her."

"Why would you think that?"

"I was a sappy romantic little girl."

Charlie snorted. "You. Romance. Is this before or after something tries to eat your head?"

"Hey! It was just the once," Catherine protested. When Charlie gave her a knowing look, she added, "Okay, twice." Charlie gave her raised eyebrows and she amended, "Fine. Three times."

"That you'll admit to."

"I admit it. I have rotten taste in men."

Charlie chuckled and shook his head. "Maybe you weren't wrong about him maybe already being in love with her. So, why don't you think that was the case?"

"Knowing what I know now? How can you even ask? Besides, I think he was involved with someone else at the time," Catherine shrugged. She scrubbed a hand through her hair. "I think I can see why Faith was bothered by it. I think it's because she thought he was seeing her as a monster. Not a make-believe one, but the woman who tried to kill him. It was like the fact he could see her as her meant that everything they'd gone through together ultimately changed nothing."

"She didn't say?" Charlie asked.

"No. No she never did," Catherine whispered. She continued in a louder voice. "Anyway, at one point she's alone in the room with Alexander he managed to get out of the bonds tying him down and makes a break for the door. Faith's forced to tackle him and drag him back to the bed, fighting him every step of the way. She eventually manages to pin him to the bed and while he's fighting to get her off, she's telling him that he's sick, he needs help, they're trying to help him, she knows he's in there somewhere…"

"If what you said is true, it's a wonder the situation didn't push him over the edge," Charlie commented. He thought about it. "It didn't, did it?"

"That's the odd part. The part I don't get. I mean, that I didn't get," Catherine fumbled. "He suddenly just went still and he's staring up at her."

"I can imagine what was going through his head," Charlie shuddered.

"No you can't. I don't think anyone can," Catherine corrected. "He says three words to her. Just three. 'I trust you.'"

Charlie let out a low whistle.

"I don't have to tell you that right after that Willow walked in and he's back into violent hallucinations. He manages to toss Faith aside and he charges Willow head-on." Catherine shook her head. "But the thing that got to me was Faith's reaction. It was almost like she didn't know what to do. Like those three words were these precious gifts. It just didn't make sense. At least it didn't make sense to me. I mean, why wouldn't he trust her? They must've been friends. They did work very closely together for a long time. So why would you work with someone you didn't trust?"

"You have your answer," Charlie said.

"No, I have my answer on why 'I trust you' meant something to Faith, but not the rest." Catherine looked down. "She never forgot that, you know. Every once in awhile she'd make reference to it, like somehow it became her touchstone, like it made her, I don't know, more real." She looked at Charlie. "Does that even make sense?"

"So how'd they save him?"

Catherine bit her lip. "There was a spell involved. A fairly gruesome one."

"Cure worse than the disease?"

"I doubt Alexander would agree, especially since he was back to his old self after a month," Catherine said. "But there's a damn good reason why every portrait in our time has Alexander dressed from the neck down."

Charlie slapped his head. "The scarring! I completely forgot! Well, that and I wasn't clear on the story behind it."

"Good thing," Catherine gave him a half-grin. "Can you imagine it now? One of us asking Willow about cutting those patterns into his skin to heal him? If you thought Alexander and Faith were traumatized by finding out what little they found out, I don't even want to imagine what Willow would be like if she found out that at some point in the future she'd have to nearly skin Alexander alive to save him."

"Betchya J'Nal remembered," Charlie muttered.

"Probably Ms. Tikri and Ruda, too," Catherine added. "But Ruda's got a good head on her shoulders and once she heard 2003 she knew to 'forget.' Plus, in Ruda's world any fight you can walk away from is a good one, so it wouldn't occur to her that this was something anyone should be warned about. As for Ms. Tikri? She strikes me as someone who'll do anything to make sure we have a home to get back to, so she probably threw out all those questions."

"You hope. And thanks for pointing out that I'm the dumb one."

"The dumb one who knows more about medicine than anyone I know," Catherine pointed out. She let out a sigh. "Don't feel bad. 'I trust you' has been practically burned into my brain since I first read it because it was such a mystery to me. Plus, I refreshed my memory before we made the jump."

"Because you wanted to ask about it," Charlie replied. When Catherine nodded, he added, "At least now you know."

"I only know Faith's side. Not Alexander's." She looked down. "I still don't know and will probably never know why he said 'I trust you' to the last person he'd ever say it to if he was in anything resembling his right mind."

"Think he would've answered you?" Charlie asked.

"I don't know," Catherine replied. "I honestly don't know. I might've gotten an answer, just not a truthful one."

"Sooooo, they're looking for the Grail?"

"That's an awkward change of subject."

"Seemed like the thing to do."

Catherine settled back. "Scouting actually. Seems that Giles believes we should follow the script Alexander 2008 left us, or as close as we can get given everything was pretty much made up out of whole cloth."

"Why bother?" Charlie asked.

"The way he explained it to me was that if Alexander thought it was important enough to say we were present at the Grail's discovery, then we should be present," Catherine said. "We're coming up with strategy once the Slayer team gets back from the scouting trip. We'll be going for the Grail tomorrow night. Or at least that's the plan."

"And we know it'll happen because our plans have gone off without a spanner in the works since we started this," Charlie said. "What does Alexander say?"

"Don't know. From what I understand he's been pretty much holed up in his room since yesterday afternoon. Sleeping, if you believe Andrew Wells."

"And why would you do that?"

Catherine started giggling. "He's guarding the entrance to their room like it's the entry to the Life After. I'm pretty sure if someone really wanted to get past him, it would be a classic match: yappy dogger versus a rex catilus. Entertaining, but a very short fight."

"I'm surprised it hasn't happened," Charlie chuckled.

"I think they've decided to find Andrew charming," Catherine lost her humor. "Prevailing opinion seems to be that Alexander needs the sleep, so they're letting him sleep."


Xander cracked open his eyes to see a blurry, up-close, intense face staring at him.

"YOW!" he yelled as he jerked back and landed on the floor with an impressive thump. "Ow, ow, ow, ow…" he moaned. Not from the impact of landing on the floor, but because of the pain in his right hand.

He brought the injured extremity up to his good eye and hissed. His knuckles looked like they'd seen the business end of a few knives and his hand was covered in blood.

"Xander? Are you okay?" Andrew's tremulous voice cut through the haze of pain.

Xander checked his clothes and saw his shirt was covered with blood, although he could see that the only injuries were on his hand. He sat up and saw his bed sheets were decorated as well.

"Xander?" Andrew asked.

Xander flexed his hand, hissing that the stiffness in the joints as the scabs painfully cracked.


He placed his left hand on the floor and let out a yelp when the palm came into contact with something sharply shard-like.


"I'm fine," Xander said absently as he scanned the floor of the room. *What the hell?*

The room's sole mirror was spider-webbed with cracks. Some of the glass had fallen out and was scattered across the hardwood floor. He closed his eyes, cringed against the bed, and hoped like hell there were no glass slivers embedded in his skin.

"What happened?" Andrew asked.

"I hit the mirror. Several times." Xander answered numbly.


*Why?* Damn good question. Probably because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

His throbbing right hand made sure to let him know that it wasn't going to be forgiving him any time soon for the abuse he laid down on it or the mirror.

And crawling into bed and promptly falling asleep after he finished showing the mirror who was boss? Definitely a bad plan all around.


"Got into a fight with Robin," Xander muttered.

Andrew looked from mirror to Xander and back again. "So you hit the mirror instead of hitting Robin." The roommate from hell nodded sagely. "That's soooo you."

Xander looked up at Andrew, not sure if the Annoying One was making fun of his blatant stupidity. Hitting Robin really would've been a lot smarter. Probably less painful, too.

How the fuck was he going to fix this mess?

Andrew crouched down so he was eye-level with the floored Xander, face full of a concern so deep that Xander was almost convinced that Andrew was something resembling sincere.

"Wanna talk about it?" Andrew asked. "I'm a good listener. I'm a really good listener. And I won't tell anyone anything ever. C'mon. You can lay it all on me. I'm good at that, you know. Doing the listening and the moral support. I can be Samwise to your Frodo."

Xander blinked at him, willing Andrew to just go away.

"Or-or-or not," Andrew hunched.

Xander looked back at the shattered glass. He really should get to his feet now. See if the mirror was completely unsalvageable. Maybe if he got some glue…

Andrew brightened. "Hey! I know! I could just sit here and say nothing. You know. In case you change your mind and need to…"

"Shower," Xander croaked.


Xander looked down at his crusted-over knuckles. "Shower? To clean this?" He thrust his clenched right fist under Andrew's nose and watched disinterestedly as the boy-man scrambled away in surprise.

"Right. Right. Ummm, I know a little first aid."

Xander felt his eyebrows draw tight as he did more of that annoying blinking thing at Andrew.

"Okay, maybe not. But I can…"

"I can fix it."


"I. Will. Fix. It."

"Oh. Right," Andrew nodded, beaming that odd smile at him as if confident that if anyone could fix it, whatever it was, Xander could. "I'll leave you to get cleaned up."

Andrew hopped to his feet at that and walked to the door adding, "Lisa called. They found the grave with the angel? It's pointing to a crypt."

"There's always a crypt," Xander muttered.

Andrew stopped and flashed Xander a pleased smile. "That's what I said."

"Birds of a feather. That's us," Xander said without emotion.

Andrew for some insane reason blushed at that as his smile stretched wider, as if he viewed what Xander said as a compliment. "I'll tell them you're up," he said as he bounced out of the room.

*Wait, wait! They've already checked out Erie? I told Robin to…* Xander looked at his alarm clock and realized with a start that it was 1 p.m., an hour before he walked into Giles's room to talk.

Shit. He slept almost 24 hours straight.

*Well, this is starting to look familiar. Get smacked in the gut, have a huge mental breakdown, rip into someone because they happen to be there, lay down some destruction on property. All I need is the empty bottle of Jack and bingo! History repeats.*

Xander groaned as the memory his meltdown in the backyard slammed into him at Mach 5. Robin had it coming but Christ Almighty! He gave Robin a piece of himself, exposed the wounds for him to see. Jesus. Robin had no right to see that. No one did. No one supposed to see…

*See what?*

That he was running on empty since Anya…

"It should've been you, Anya," he said to the broken mirror. "Catherine should be wanting to know about you. Not Faith. Definitely not me. I'm sorry."

No answer. That was okay. He wasn't expecting one. After all, he's not going to get a last good-bye with Anya, any more than Willow got her last good-bye with Tara. But Buffy, on the other hand, Buffy got her second chance with the Brooding One and got to play catch-up Riley.

*With my fucking luck, Spike'll be ringing our doorbell any day now with a, "'ello luv! Pip pip cheerio! I'm such a wanker!"*

He snorted a laugh, partly because he knew how unlikely that was and partly because he wouldn't be at all surprised if Bleachie turned up with alleged soul intact. Wouldn't that just be the ultimate kick in the head. One good thing though: if Spike turned up undead, he was pretty sure Willow'd be joining him on the train to Bittersville. Then again, maybe not. She's got a Kennedy-shaped teddy bear to help her forget.

*Little unfair. You know she didn't forget. Hell, remember how you guys talked on the road to rocket launcher city about how guilty she felt being happy with Ken?*

He's got to stop chasing himself in circles. He's got to clean the mess and fix…

Hand or mirror? Hand or mirror?

Mirror. Hand can wait.

He crawled over to some of the larger pieces on the floor and studied them a moment before fitting the edges together. One. Two. Three. Four. Eventually he got a reflective surface large enough for his head and a little background scenery in the form of the cracked ceiling.

*Gotta spackle that over,* Xander reminded himself as he leaned forward and took a good look at his reflection in the surface.

The edges of the glass may have fit perfectly, but his face was distorted. His image seemed to jump ever so slightly at each crack, like someone had outlined a picture of his features but moved the tracing paper at certain points so nothing was a perfect match.

He tried to manipulate the pieces to resolve the image, but his hands were shaking so hard that he scattered the glass. He looked dumbly at the mess he made, one accusing thought chasing him: *I can't fix this.*

Somewhere in there, he collapsed on the floor, not caring about the jagged pieces putting pressure on his left temple.

And for the first time since he lost his eye, his home, his Anya, and his life, he finally let himself finally fall apart.

Chapter 44
In the Garden of Forking Paths

Xander swiped at the condensation on the mirror, feeling better than he had since May when he realized that his life had been bisected by a world where Sunnydale was his world and a world where Sunnydale didn't exist. He studied himself for a moment, trying to see if his right eye had any telltale signs of his recent storm.

Nope. All he saw was one guy who looked like he needed another week's worth of sleep, but at least was freshly showered, shaved, and, most important, dressed. His first and last time--thankyousoverymuchly--of walking out of the bathroom with only a towel around his waist was most definitely never going to be repeated.

Sheesh. You'd think the Slayers would have something better to do than wait around for this particular bathroom to be free. Plus, he really didn't ever again need to hear Rona giggling like it was Christmas. He knew he wasn't exactly pretty but c'mon, he wasn't hideous, or at least he didn't think so.

He looked down at his clumsily wrapped right hand. He had no idea how he was going to operate bow or crossbow in the big to-do coming up. Although nothing was broken, the heated, swollen feeling of infected cuts and the painful bruising made it difficult for him to flex his knuckles. He didn't even want to think about the pain that would result from drawing his compound bow.

Xander closed his eyes and gave his head a hard shake. He hid up here as long as he dared. He was going to have to go down there and face the rest of the house. How the hell was he going to explain what happened to his hand? As for Robin…

*You can't fix everything.*

Meet the new mantra. Fix what you can; don't try hammering a nail into a brick wall; and learn to figure out what can be fixed and what would be a waste of a good penny nail.

Good grief. He sounded like his mother's framed Serenity Prayer, Carpenter's Edition, memorializing the last time his parents tried and spectacularly failed basic AA.

Still, it was apt. He'd been so damn busy running around trying to fix everything--the house, the weapons arsenal, his friendship with Willow, keeping the baby Slayers from mutinying, trying to keep Robin from becoming Heil Fuhrer, and now dealing with Future People bearing disturbing news--that it's a wonder he wasn't living in a rubber room.

Not that he didn't just come disturbingly close to winning himself one very long vacation in a secured facility. Frankly, he scared the hell out of himself. He doesn't even want to think about what was going through Robin's mind.

Screw it. He's not going to apologize about any of it. Robin shouldn't've mentioned the break-up with Faith. While he's at it, neither Faith nor Robin had any business yanking him in the middle of it in the first place. It really was none of his damn business. Only reason why he's bothering because he'd somehow made the situation with Faith one more thing he had to fix.

Really, fixing wasn't the issue. Avoidance was the issue and since he was the king of avoidance, all he had to do was avoid Faith. Simple.

He reached up with his left hand and gave his damp hair a hard scrub. He'll have to focus on dealing with one thing at a time from now on; otherwise he was going to spectacularly combust and leave bloody chunks of himself all over the house.

*Ewwwww! I actually got a mental image of that, especially since stupid crap like that could actually happen,* Xander winced. *I gotta get away from Hellmouths. Find myself a nice, normal bedroom community and become Alexander Harris, Stud Handyman to bored, rich, trophy wives looking for fun while the sugar daddy is on business trips.*

Okay, as plans go, not one of the best he'd had. Vaguely horrifying, but strangely comforting because it confirmed he still had a libido raring to go. Bonus, it was about as likely to happen as meeting Amy Yip at the water park and getting a blowjob from her underneath one of the slides.

And really, he needed to stop psyching himself up with stupid mental jokes just so he could face the world. Christ. If he can't take himself seriously, than no one else ever would. Then where would he be? Alexander Harris, Stud Handyman, balls optional, that's where.

To be brutally honest, he'd been balls-optional for a leeeetle too long. He kept trying to be 'the good guy' and all that did was make him the bad guy. That had to stop.

*One step at a time,* he reminded himself for the millionth time. Deal with Catherine's issues. Get her and her and her crew gone. Leave Cleveland and never come back. Instant make-you-own-future, sans specter of fatherhood, just add one bus ticket to anywhere but here.

*Coward,* his mind voted. *That's right. Run away like you always do. At least you're admitting it's really the fatherhood bit that's got you seriously freaked.*

Yeah, but his fatherhood meeting up with Faith's motherhood? Icing on the cake.

Xander took a deep breath to psyche himself up and stepped out of the bathroom. He stood uncertainly in the hall for a few seconds.

On second thought, he'll go downstairs when he'd damn good and ready to face all the disappointed looks on everyone's face because he got hysterical on Robin's ass like a scared little wuss.

He went into his room for more mental pep talking and jumped with a shout when he saw someone hunched over the remains of the mirror.

Correction. Former remains of the mirror. The mess was cleaned up and a new mirror was leaning against the wall.

"About time," Dawn remarked as she stood with dustpan and brush in her hand. "Thank god the floors are hardwood. Because I soooooo don't want to even think about dragging our ancient, two-ton vacuum cleaner up here."

"You didn't have to do that," Xander managed to squeeze out. "I would've…"

"…fixed it?" Dawn gave him a skeptical glance as she dumped the pan's contents into a wastepaper basket. "Sit."

Xander plopped onto the bed. Something in Dawn's voice really didn't leave him a lot of room to argue.

Dawn grabbed a plastic Tupperware container with her name on it--one of those things Andrew insisted they buy so everyone could be clear on who had what stuff, and although Andrew's suggestions were usually of the insane variety this one happened to be a good one--and joined Xander on the bed.

"Let me see," she ordered.



No mistaking the edge of warning in her voice. He held out his right hand.

"Geez, you're about as good at wrapping up your hand as you are at wrapping Christmas presents," Dawn complained as she removed the bandages.

"What are you doing?"

"Fixing it," Dawn said simply. "Don't be upset because no one woke you up. You've been running around nonstop and everyone decided you needed the sleep, not that Andrew was about to let anyone in the room. He mentioned to me that you'd cut up your hand so…" she let her explanation trail off into a shrug.

"Oh god," Xander slumped. He was afraid to ask, but he had to. "Did anyone overhear…"

"…you telling Robin to take a very long walk off a very short pier? Amazingly enough no, but everyone knows both of you got into it something fierce in the backyard," Dawn answered. She let out a low whistle when she saw the mess that was his knuckles. "You really should stop hitting solid objects when you're mad."

"Sorry," Xander mumbled.

"Don't apologize to me," Dawn cheerfully said as she unscrewed the hydrogen peroxide. With no warning at all, she spilled it on his knuckles, getting some on the bedspread in the process."

"Owww! Hey!" Xander yelped.

"Does it hurt?"

"Yes, yes yes!"

"Good," Dawn nodded as she grabbed his box of tissues and began soothing away the excess. "You're quite the hero. Popular opinion is that you finally snapped over Robin-I-Am-the-Boss-Wood so you've got a mess of Slayers declaring their undying love for you."

Xander was surprised about that. The usual prevailing opinion was that when he lost his temper he was either talking out his ass or exhibiting classic alpha male jealousy, so the fact that anyone was cheering him on was more than a little new.

As Dawn ripped the package open for a sterilized gauze square, she asked, "What really happened?"

"Why do you ask that?"

Dawn let out an irritated sigh as she unscrewed a tube of bacterial ointment. "Xander? You've been acting weirder than usual since you found out about Catherine."

"Can you blame me?"

Dawn looked up from smearing the medicine on the gauze and raised her eyebrows in an unasked question.

"Sorry. Pain in my hand is distracting," he weakly said to get her to stop looking at him.

Dawn pursed her lips, a sure sign she wasn't nearly done with him. "So who's the mother?"

"Wh-wh-what?" Xander sputtered out at the unexpected question.

"It's Faith, isn't it?" Dawn asked as casually as she would if she were asking about the weather.

"Why the hell would you say that?" Xander's mind furiously searched for a good way to shoot this thought right out of Dawn's head.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Catherine and her merry band practically worship the two of you, the two of you are in Moscow eight years from now--well, maybe--Faith and Robin conveniently break up--not that it wasn't coming--and you turn around and rip Robin apart in the backyard. Plus, it's been bugging me that there was something familiar about Catherine since she got here. She's got your smile, but she's definitely got Faith's eyes."

"Lot a leaps in logic kiddo," Xander lightly responded as he watched Dawn put the medicated gauze over his injured knuckles, surprised that the cool ointment actually felt somewhat soothing.

"I'm a regular Harriet the Spy, that's me," Dawn said grimly. "Remember our little talk back in Sunnydale about seeing things? Well, let's just say I learned at the feet of the master. You're lucky everyone's so caught up in their own drama because if anyone else was paying attention, they would've picked up on it."

No point in lying. "Faith knows."

Dawn glanced at him between tending to his injured knuckles. "That I didn't figure out, but then again, I don't really care what Faith thinks one way or the other. You I care about, so I'll pay attention to what's going on with you. Not that you've been a fountain of sharing since…" Dawn shook her head and looked away to snag a bandage to wrap his hand. "Sorry, I don't mean to get on you, but we need you and that means you need to start taking care of yourself because you'll be no good to anybody if you collapse like you did yesterday."

"Sorry," Xander apologized again.

"Again, not me you have to apologize to," Dawn huffed as she started wrapping.

"Don't tell anyone," Xander begged. "Look, it's not going to happen. Forewarned is forearmed, right?"

Dawn began neatly taping him up. "I won't," she promised.

Silence smothered the pair as Dawn finished. She put aside the silver scissors and studied her handiwork a few moments more before announcing, "I'll be downstairs. Come on down when you're ready. And don't worry, no one hates you, although I'm pretty sure Robin isn't about to propose."

As she stood up, Xander wanted to snatch her back to him into a hug, if only to prevent her from leaving. As he watched her put everything back into her personalized Tupperware, he wanted to say, *Don't go. Don't leave me to this.*

No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn't say it, partly because he just didn't know how to ask someone to save him and partly because he wasn't entirely sure what he was asking Dawn to save him from.

So he sat on the edge of the bed, feeling stupid and awkward, unable to shake the thought that once Dawn walked out his bedroom some part of her would leave him for good.

Her things gathered together, she spared a moment to study him and he found his breath catching.

There was something there, something ancient, something knowing, something watching. He saw it and he chilled at the thought that he wasn't looking at soon-to-be-17-year-old Dawnie, but at the Key who'd seen humanity emerge from the muck and would be there when the last human shut off the lights and left the universe. Some part of him wondered if the Key would die with Dawn or if it would return to its green glow-y state changed by its brush with humanity.

In that split second he knew: Dawn had stopped seeing him as just Xander and he'd never quite be able to look at Dawn the same way again. A gulf had opened between them, bridged only by those final dark days in Sunnydale when they believed they were the only two normal ones in a house full of superheroes or potential superheroes all with the great destinies ahead of them. He could feel his heart breaking at the very idea that this connection had severed while he wasn't looking. Worse, he couldn't figure out how it happened or even why.

"Xander…" Dawn began. She cleared her throat as if what she was going to say would hurt. "Look, if anyone can break all the rules when it comes to future pasts, you're the one who'll do it. So, yeah, I've got no doubt that if you've got your mind set on it, Faith and you will never happen."

"There's a 'but' in there."

Dawn grimaced. "It's just that if you run away from Faith, from us, even from Cleveland; if you start burning bridges because of what some book says or because it's exactly what you're not supposed to do, than you've already lost because you're still letting what you know about the future dictate everything you do and that means it still wins."

"Thanks for the Catch-22, Dawnie," Xander mumbled.

"Hey, you wanna give fate a black eye, be my guest," Dawn said gently. "But do it because your heart tells you it's really the right thing to do. Don't do it just because you think you should."

"Because following my heart is a strategy that's been a spectacular success."

Dawn clamped his jaw in an iron grip and he found himself forced to stare into Dawn's-old-but-not-old eyes. "You listen to me, Alexander Harris. You can doubt anything you want. Books. Prophecy. Fate. People. The evening news. But don't you ever, ever doubt your heart because if you do that, you won't be Xander any more."


"Promise me," Dawn hissed through narrow eyes.

"Pwommiss," Xander capitulated through smushed lips. Dawn let go and he rubbed his jaw. "For the record? Ow. Has Buffy been giving you squeeze-y lessons?"

Dawn's face settled into a soft sadness, mouth twitching slightly at his weak attempt at humor. She suddenly leaned down and kissed him on the forehead.

Xander blinked at her as she straightened back up.

"You know I love you, right? You know I just want you to be happy, whether its here in Cleveland with Faith or half-way around the world with someone you haven't met yet, right?" Dawn asked. "No matter what happens, no matter what the future brings, no matter what you decide to do, promise you won't ever forget that."

"I won't," he whispered, sounding lost even to himself.

Dawn nodded with closed eyes, her face fighting against showing any expression that would betray the thoughts in her head. Without another word she turned and left, abandoning Xander to sit alone on his bed, the ghost of her lips burning into his forehead like a goodbye.

Chapter 45
Today Is Not a Good Day To…

'X' marked the spot on the computer-generated calendar.

Buffy stepped back and studied her handiwork like it was a Picasso as she placed the red pen on Dawn's desk. It was the day before the day. No wonder why she was depressed…well, more depressed than usual. She stared at the row of neat, red Xs perfectly crossing the numbered squares. The scarlet letters' sudden capitulation to white space was jarring in the extreme.

September 20. Four months to the day…

Some hero. A white space in a calendar grid is enough to make her want to crawl under the covers and not come out until next year.

And tomorrow they're going to do it again, only this time they're going to get a grail instead of trying to kill the unkillable.

Four months. Four months trying to convince herself they won, but she's beginning to think that all they managed to do was hold the line. No one is living in shiny happy land, the world still needs Slayers, there are still demons, and there are still Hellmouths.


It's the plural bit that gets to her.

She spent most of her time in Sunnydale convinced she was the Slayer--emphasis on 'the'--fighting atop the one and only Hellmouth. Sunnydale falls into a pit of her making taking Spike, Anya, Amanda, and god knows how many stubborn people who refused to leave town with it and she finds out that there are more Hellmouths and they are active.

*You'd think someone might've mentioned this before,* Buffy dropped to the bed and rubbed her face with her hands.

Buffy peaked at the calendar over her fingertips. No wonder why Xander was hiding in his room. He was probably doing the same thing she was: dreading the four-month anniversary of the day when he crawled away from a nonexistent town with only the clothes on his back and a hole in his heart.

And they're supposed to go get the grail tomorrow? A good idea this isn't. She's a corpse waiting to happen and she really doubts that Xander's going to be all that focused either.

*All I need is an earthquake…wait, does Cleveland even get earthquakes? God I hope not, because Buffies and earthquakes equal big badness.*

She's worrying over nothing. She has to be. If someone, anyone were in any real danger, Future Xander would've said something.

Wouldn't he?

*Of course he would.*

She hoped.

*How wiggy is this? I'm pining my hopes on time travelers, future Xanders, and a journal I haven't even seen.*

"September 19," the calendar reminded her.

*September 20.* She shivered at the thought.

Should she say something? Or should she just shut up?

The bedroom door burst open causing Buffy to leap to her feet and grab the closest thing and throw it. The squeak that accompanied the pillow making contact announced that the intruder was none other than Dawn.

"Geez, jumpy much?" Dawn demanded as she rubbed her forehead. "That hurt."

"It was a pillow," Buffy protested.

"A pillow thrown at me with Slayer strength. Keep it up and I'm turning you in."

"Turning me in? To who?"

"I'm pretty sure there's an international U.N. treaty against throwing pillows at your sister just because she walked into her own room," Dawn huffed. "You didn't get that violent when I read your diary when I was like 11."

"You did not read my diary."

Dawn flashed her a wicked grin. "Oooooooh, Angel is sooooo hot. And mysterious. He's not dorky like all the other boys."

"Why you little…"

"Too bad his forehead sticks out an inch from his face. He looks like a total caveman or something. Can they do plastic surgery on vampires? Because I don't want my prom pictures to come out all yucky."

"I did not write that!" Buffy growled back while Dawn giggled. "And his forehead was like that because of the quality brood time." She froze. "Oh god, did I just say that?"

"Score!" Dawn did a little victory dance in the doorway.


"I got you to admit that Angel was less than perfect."

"You did not! Ooooo, you're such a brat." Despite herself, Buffy began to giggle in counterpoint to Dawn's radiant smile. "Where do you learn this stuff?"

"I blame Xander. Totally and completely and forever," Dawn admitted.

"Remind me to strangle him later."

"Awwww, c'mon. That wasn't even the worst insult in the repertoire," Dawn fake-pouted.

"I don't want to know." Buffy flopped onto the edge of the bed. "Is there a reason why you're here to annoy me? Is it boredom? Don't you have homework-y things to do? Chores? A bridge to jump off of because all the cool kids are doing it?"

"Homework is done. I paid Susan to do my chores. And jumping off bridges is waaaaaay overrated unless you're Wile E. Coyote," Dawn bounced over to sit next to her sister. "Here to tell you the big house meeting's about to start, so we have to boogie on down and get the 411 and show off our mad apocalyptic-honed planning skillz to Catherine."

"If you finish that with a 'yo' and flash me a gang symbol, I'm sending you to private school."

"Ooooooo, Catholic School Girl look. Kinky. I'll be beating college boys off with a stick."

"What? No boys!"

"Girls then."

"That's it. I'm sending you to military school. You're beginning to sound like Faith."

"Take that back," Dawn said without heat. "At least until I get my listing under 1-900-skank-ho."

"Awww, c'mon. She's a one-man woman now."

"Nuhn-uhn," Dawn corrected with a grin. "Robin and Faith are totally past tense."

"What? When?" Buffy sat up.

"Yesterday. You gotta move out from the rock you've been living under."

"I knew it! That's why Faith was being all weird yesterday." Buffy felt herself guiltily warming to the gossip. "I sooooo totally called that."

"But you didn't get in on the betting pool, so it doesn't count," Dawn grinned.

"Betting pool? There was a pool? No one told me."

"That's because you and Willow were the ones giving the news reports, so no pool for you," Dawn airily waved a hand. "You two really need to check and see who's listening before making with the girly gossip."

Buffy's shoulders slumped. "This is worse than home. Is it even possible to keep a secret around here?"

The cheerful expression disappeared from Dawn's face. "You'd be shocked." She gave her elder sister a poke in the ribs. "We going or not?"

"Okay, okay. Sheesh." Buffy stood as she ran her hands down her clothes to make sure she was neat and presentable. "Let's get it over with."

As she walked out of the room and into the hall, she mused how Dawn seemed happier since they hit Cleveland, like her life was coming together. Much as Buffy envied Dawn's ability to thrive despite everything that had been thrown at her, her optimism about life in general was infectious in the extreme. *Can I bottle that?* Buffy wondered with a chuckle.

She didn't notice Dawn throwing the calendar a worried look as the younger girl followed her out of the room.

Chapter 46
Crossing Words

Buffy inwardly winced when she realized that she was the last one to arrive for the house meeting. Actually, second to last. Xander was still AWOL from the house's general battle planning festivities.

She slid next to Giles. "Did I miss anything?"

The Watcher startled as he looked up from a piece of paper he had been studying with a frown. "What? Oh. Buffy. Glad you're here. Robin's worked up a short list of where he believes various members of our household will be able to contribute the most to retrieving the grail."

"Oh. Umm. That's good. I guess," Buffy fumbled. Then Giles's statement hit her. "Wait a sec. Did we already get plan-y? Because if we did..."

"No, no. There was some preliminary chatter with Xander about some of the traps he thinks might await us, but no actual planning," Giles assured her.

"Traps? What traps? No one said anything about traps. I knew about the cemetery scouting, but traps?" Buffy could feel her arm hairs stand attention. "I mean, I didn't expect just to waltz into wherever and pick up this grail thingamajig, but traps? We're knowingly walking into traps? Plural?"

"I do believe you've made something of a career out of it," Giles said affectionately. When he saw Buffy cartoon wince in response, Giles's expression quickly shifted to chagrin. "I was thinking more of your battle with the Master when you were 16, not..."

"Caleb," Buffy said softly. She looked up into Giles's face and saw the sympathy there, which somehow made her feel even worse.

"Rest assured, Xander does not believe these traps are anything approaching that level," Giles said quietly. "He believes if there were any real danger his future self would at the very least come out and say so. If nothing else that should be reassuring."

"You're right," Buffy felt her spine relax into the comforting notion, "I'm freaking over nothing."

"God, I hope so," Xander's voice interrupted. When Buffy squeaked and spun around at the unexpected interruption, he added with a grin, "because I would sooooo hate to become Snyderized."

"Snyderized?" Buffy asked.

"Eaten by a giant snake." Xander frowned. He looked like a soldier standing at parade rest with his hands clasped behind his back. "At least I'm pretty sure there's a giant snake. And it lives underground. And it hates walnuts."

"Snake. Underground," Buffy repeated with a nod. Her eyebrows drew tight. "Walnuts?"

"Walnuts," Xander confirmed.

"Well, that's pretty random," Buffy remarked.

"No kidding," Xander agreed.

"Why would you mention walnuts?"

"No clue," Xander shrugged.

"Just in case, we will be arming the party going belowground with walnuts," Giles interrupted. When Buffy and Xander looked at him, he added, "I do believe the plan was to throw the walnuts at the snake, if indeed there is a snake."

"Oooooh, this gets better and better," Buffy said with a disbelieving voice. "Your plan?" she asked as she nudged Xander.

"A really rotten plan," Xander glared at Giles as the Watcher fought to keep a straight face. "Let's just say I made a joke and certain other parties agreed it was worth a shot. Personally, I say we dump the walnuts and find an even bigger mongoose to help us out."

"I am comforted to know that you didn't sleep through all your literature classes," Giles said.

"Hunh?" Buffy and Xander asked in unison.

"Rudyard Kipling?" Giles prompted.

More blank looks.

Giles expression indicated that there was a monster headache in his immediate vicinity. "Dare I ask how you know about the noble mongoose?"

"There was this cartoon called 'Riki Tiki Tavi'..." Xander began.

"Stop. Please. Stop right there," Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. Buffy couldn't quite make out Giles's mumbled follow-up, but she definitely heard "bloody" and "educational system" and "philistines" somewhere in the mix.

Xander crossed his arms with a grin. "Now there's the Giles we all love and annoy."

*What the...* Buffy grabbed his right wrist and pulled his bandaged hand to her. "What happened?"

Xander shifted uncomfortably as Giles focused on the pair of them. "I, uh, cut it."

"On what? Ginsu knives?" Buffy asked.

There was a flash of something that resembled embarrassment in his face as he tugged at his captured hand. Buffy took the hint and let go as he answered, "Just some broken glass. It's nothing."

"Nothing? Good lord, Xander, your hand looks downright mummified. You should get it checked," Giles remonstrated. "Regardless of your assurances, it's fairly certain we'll be in for some sort of struggle tomorrow, so..."

"Look, it's fine." He held his injured hand up to his chest, left hand ineffectually covering the white bandage. "A little Advil and I'm good to go."

"When did this happen?" Buffy asked.

"Yesterday. Just drop it, okay?"

Buffy looked away and focused on the chattering group in the library. She was surprised to see Faith leaning back in her seat studying the three of them. The other Slayer gave no sign that she even noticed Buffy looking back at her.

Damn, damn, damn. So much for the familiar Xanderism of driving Giles nuts. He was covering. Three guesses on why Xander didn't want to talk about what happened and she was pretty sure the calendar told her everything she needed to know on that score. Great. *Distracted and injured. Can we keep him out of the fight?* Right. Like Catherine or Xander was going to let that happen. Robin may be nominally in charge, but this grail mess was their show near as she could tell.

"I would feel better if you had a doctor check you out," Giles insisted. "You don't have Slayer healing, so leaving it..."

"Who's injured?" Catherine materialized at Xander's right elbow.

The unexpected intrusion resulted in Xander looking increasingly trapped and--Buffy could relate a little to this--guiltily ashamed. *Oh, yeah. He knows the date all right,* Buffy thought.

"It's just minor. Why are we building a drama?" Xander asked.

"That doesn't look like 'minor.'" Now Charlie was joining in the fun. "Let me look."

Catherine gave Charlie a questioning look while Xander attempted a protest.

"That wasn't a request." Although Charlie's voice was mild, there was no mistaking the order. Xander held his hand out for inspection and allowed Charlie to turn it this way and that as he gently manipulated wrist and fingers. "Whelp, whatever you did, you did it up right. This needs to be fixed," the doctor huffed.

"Oh for god's sake," Xander yanked his hand out of Charlie's grasp with a wince. "I'm fine."

Charlie mouth ticked in disapproval as he looked at Catherine. "Oh yeah. Definitely one of your relatives."

"Bullying him into seeing a medic is not going to help, Charlie," Catherine said.

"Helllooooo, standing right here," Xander interrupted.

"Charlie is the professional," Giles cut in. "Perhaps you should..."

"Oh for Christ's sake! Will you drop it already?" Xander's exasperated voice echoed a little louder than he intended and he winced as ambient noise dropped to silence and all eyes fixed on him. He slowly turned his head, biting his lip as he did so. "Umm, hey. I'm here. So, if we're taking attendance, mark me down as tardy and let's just do whatever it is we're gonna do."

Robin got to his feet. "Now that we're all present and accounted for, let's begin." He cleared his throat. "First, as you may or may not know, Willow and Xander were able to determine that the grail is not in Moscow, but right here in Cleveland."

"Actually, that was just Xander," Willow interrupted, "I was a little too blue to think about anything."

"Did I mention that I was really sorry?" Xander asked over a round of giggles.

"Hey! I seem to remember reading it was my idea, too," Willow cheerfully waved while a couple of Slayers moved from giggling to chuckling. A few even gave her friendly pats on the shoulders. "'Sides, once I got used to the look, being blue for a few hours was kinda fun."

"She's thinking of trying it for Halloween," Kennedy grinned.

Robin knocked on the table to get everyone's attention. "Well, it doesn't matter who figured it out, the point is, the grail is here in Cleveland. Thanks to clues left behind in the journal, we were able to determine that its location is in the Erie Street Cemetery. We sent Kennedy with a small team to scout the area. Kennedy?"

Kennedy stood. "Well, first, I want to give credit to Susan for the successful start of the mission. She was the one that suggested we check the Web to see if there were any burial records before we headed out. We were able to find out that Highland Park Cemetery had the records. Even though they only take mail requests, we knocked on a few doors at City Hall and using our 'class genealogy project' cover, were able to obtain a list and map of Erie Street Cemetery."

Susan blushed scarlet as Buffy heard Xander mumble quietly, "Willow's having a good effect on her. I couldn't imagine her giving credit to someone else back in Sunnydale."

*Or maybe the ghost of Chloe haunts her on a regular basis,* Buffy thought.

"Despite that, it did take us a few hours to find the grave in question," Kennedy continued. "There were several Vasliks buried there, but only one with an Angel statue as a grave. The left wing pointed directly at a crypt, so we investigated. The interior of the crypt was dark..."

"As crypts often are when the resident vampire isn't stealing electricity from the city grid," Xander mumbled next to Buffy, forcing the blonde Slayer to stifle a nervous giggle.

"...and contained only one sarcophagus and some stone statuary with carved designs," Kennedy shot Xander a look, a clear sign that she'd heard his comment. "We were unable to find any entrances or exits to the crypt other than the door we broke...I mean opened by force. Andrea," Kennedy's slightly harder tone indicated that she wasn't at all happy with the younger Slayer in question, "decided that the answer was with the sarcophagus and shoved the cover off. That revealed a set of stone steps heading down."

"Good thinking," Robin nodded.

"Except that if she'd investigated the statues like we were, she would've known that designs included words that would have told us that," Kennedy said while Andrea's eyes shot daggers into the speaking Slayer's back.

*Wow. Kennedy sounds really angry,* Buffy thought while she sensed Giles and Xander preparing for crash positions on either side of her.

"I have a reeeeeeeally bad feeling about this," Xander said sotto voice. He cleared his throat, "Ummm, Kennedy. No offense, but I remember Giles and me digging up and jumping into a few graves before thinking while Willow and Buffy watched and ate popcorn back in the day." Giles opened his mouth to protest, but Xander shot him a look that was enough to get the Watcher to close his mouth. "Seems to me it was a pretty reasonable guess, so aren't you being a little hard..."

"The ground shook," Kennedy interrupted.

*Oh crap! Earthquake!* Buffy hugged herself even as her heart sank.

"What happened?" Catherine asked.

Kennedy took a deep breath to collect her thoughts and continued her report. "I'm no expert on earthquakes, but I know it when I feel it, so we decided to get out while the getting was good. We got about as far as the door when the shaking stopped."

"And..." Xander prompted.

Kennedy turned to Robin. "You didn't tell them?"

"I only just got your sketches five minutes before the meeting started." Robin picked up a sheaf of papers, looking slightly embarrassed. "I apologize in advance for springing this on everyone. I was a little distracted by...well, my mind wasn't on the game. It's no excuse, but I did speak to Giles before the meeting."

"The fault is entirely mine since it seems many of us are distracted of late and several of our company did need rest," Giles smoothly cut in. "Think of it this way: you'll be spared having to repeat the story several times since everyone is here."

Xander seemed irritated, but Buffy could see Giles's point, especially since she was definitely in the distracted column.

As Robin began passing the sketches around, Kennedy continued, "Well, we saw these...geez...I'm not sure how to describe it. They looked human-shaped, but they were made of dirt."

"Great, more sand-made objects," J'Nal grumbled. "Is there nothing on this deities-forsaken planet that isn't made of sand?"

Kennedy blinked a little at J'Nal's interruption, gave her head a hard shake, and continued. "Anyway, they just ringed the crypt and stood there."

"That's it?" Ruda asked. "They didn't try to attack you?"

"Only when we tried to leave," Kennedy said.

"So how'd you get away?" Dawn asked.

"Actually, we didn't," Kennedy tossed Andrea another furious look while the other Slayer maintained her own angry stare. "We all got captured, patted down, searched, tossed around, and generally swatted like we were chew toys. Then they frog marched us to just short of the cemetery gates and threw us over the fence."

"They were searching for the grail," Xander said with wonder. "What do you want to bet?"

"So, in short, you triggered a trap and they'll be just waiting for us to go walking in on their turf," Faith said. "Teeeeeerrific. Fan-fucking-tastic. Way to wake these things up from their dirt nap for nothing."

"Well, at least we know what the first trap is," Xander pointed out. "We didn't even know that much, so maybe Andrea doing what she did is not as bad as it looks."

"So let me get this straight," Buffy interrupted, "Any of us could've just walked into this crypt and retrieved to the grail without getting challenged on the way in? As traps go, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The idea is to keep you away, not let you in."

"But think about it: we're getting challenged after we leave," Xander interrupted. "Plus, getting in the crypt is just the start. We have to deal with a probably giant snake and god knows what else before even getting to the grail. Can you imagine getting involved with a long fight and then coming out to face that?"

"Snake?" Kennedy's head whipped around to face Xander. "What snake?"

"And not all of us are superheroes with the strength, speed, and stamina of an X-man," Andrew piped up.

"I hate snakes," Kennedy stated.

"And there's no guarantee that we're bagging the grail without a scratch," Faith tossed out. "Slayer or no, if we get into a serious rumble, I'm not going to be wicked happy about fighting my way back out. 'Sides, for all we know, these things might get really mean if they're able to sense that one of us has this grail."

"What they did to us wasn't mean?" Susan asked.

"They let you go without rearranging your face, right?" Faith pointed out. "If we go rob ourselves a grave, we might not be as lucky."

"Got bit by a copperhead when I was kid," Kennedy muttered ignoring the exchange.

"Someone has snake issues," Vi sing-songed.

"People!" Robin shouted, but the room ignored him as people began talking over one another.

"I'm not afraid of snakes," Kennedy insisted.

"Care to go to the pet store and prove it?" Tammi asked with a snicker.

"Well, that explains that," Xander commented.

"Explains what?" Dawn asked. "Kennedy's fear of snakes? I didn't even know she was..."

"Enough about the snakes!" Kennedy shouted.

"I'm soooo glad you weren't the resident Slayer at my high school graduation," Willow said.

"Are you following this?" Catherine asked J'nal asked helplessly.

"I have it recorded if he isn't," Tikri held up her memepad.

"Hey!" Kennedy shouted. "Can't you remove the bit about me and snakes?"

"What I'm trying to say," Xander's voice rose above the din, "is that it explains the whole 'the ground rises to protect the entrance' clue."

The room fell silent and everyone turned their attention to Xander. Buffy figured ants were attacking his ankles because he nervously fidgeted under the undivided attention.

"Clues?" Vi asked, breaking the silence.

"Unh, yeah. Clues," Xander hesitated under the increased laser-like focus of the gathered Slayers. "The first was the ground rising to protect the entrance, which, if I think about it, was soooo wrong. More like rising while we're trying to leave, but it kinda fits. The good news is that it explains why we probably will need to split up."

"Split up?" Catherine asked. "Is dividing our forces such a good..."

"When there's four people, probably not," Xander cut in. "But look around, we've got, what? Almost three dozen people here. We can't all go into the caverns cause that's a recipe for confusion if I ever heard one. If we split up, our welcoming committee will be kept busy fighting the aboveground team which would give the grail retrieval team a chance to escape with the goods."

"Assuming they don't throw us over the fence. Again," Susan huffed.

"In the meantime, the belowground team will be retrieving the grail," Robin cut in. "As Xander explained, we will, at minimum, be faced with a snake, possibly of monstrous proportions. Besides getting past the snake, we will have to navigate unfamiliar territory in near pitch-black conditions. While there is no indication of additional traps, we could still be tripped up by loose rocks, stones, geological formations, etcetera. These little things could make the difference between success and failure."

"Oh, this is so like a D&D game it's not funny," Andrew nodded as he took notes.

"Just so long as I don't get turned into a bloody dwarf..." Giles grumbled under his breath.

"Actually, that might not be far off the mark," Willow agreed as she gave Xander a wink. "I was research girl today and managed to dig up a partial map of Erie Cemetery that includes the caverns."

"Like to know how they did that without having the dirt pounded into them," Kennedy grumbled.

"I think you mean the snot pounded out of them," Faith corrected.

"Spoken like someone who didn't have actual dirt pounded into them this afternoon," Kennedy remarked.

"Actually, they didn't," Willow interrupted, as she stifled a smile. "When the local spelunking club went for a look-see back in the 70s, they got attacked by 'hippie gang members' as they were leaving. I found some newspaper articles online that mentioned it. What really seemed to confuse the police was that they were searched, but nothing was stolen. I mean, how do you call it a mugging when no one actually got mugged?"

"Notice how it never changes?" Xander asked rhetorically. "Hippie gang members, PCP gangs. Makes you wonder what they'll come up with next."

"May I present 'ecstasy fiends?' It's the latest in the long line of 'I-did't-see-that-did-I' excuses," Dawn offered.

"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that," Buffy said.

"What? I'm thinking it's a great excuse," Faith grinned. "Mind if I use that some time when dealing with the seriously freaked out?"

"Whatever," Dawn shrugged as she took her seat, not seeing or caring to see the ghost of a frown line appear between Faith's eyebrows at her dismissive tone.

"So we have a map from the spelunking club?" Xander asked.

"Partial map," Willow corrected. "They got in through a sinkhole that appeared near our crypt."

"What happened to the sinkhole?" Robin asked.

"Appears the local cemetery commission had it filled in." Willow flashed a mischievous grin before adding, "Turns out there were some shady characters that started using the sinkhole as a hangout, so it was done to discourage trespassers."

"Of the skanky, horny, tailed, scaled, toothy, bad-hair day, in-desperate-need-of-a-manicure-and-facial kind," Buffy remarked. "What do you want to bet?"

"I refuse to take a sucker's bet," Faith replied.

"Here, here," Xander agreed.

"What can we expect when we do down there?" Giles asked.

Buffy snapped her head around to look at Giles as next to her Xander shifted uncomfortably. *Looks like I'm not the only who thinks risking Giles is an idea of the bad. We've lost too much already and losing Giles...* She didn't dare finish the thought.

"A cavern network that isn't so much network-y as it is twist-y, at least near our crypt," Willow said. "In the part where they did map, there appears to be a main tunnel or 'road' with smaller tunnels that branch off and loop back. Even the branches off the branches loop back to where they started to give you an idea. There are a couple of dead-ends, but they don't go very far off the main tunnel."

"So a labyrinth, then," Giles said.

"Pretty much," Willow agreed.

"At least as far as they got. Still don't know what's waiting for us and it's still not exactly a clear roadmap to wherever the grail is," Xander pointed out.

"Ahhhh, but you wrote that the tunnels would take us straight to it," Robin replied. "So it seems that if we stick with the main tunnel, we won't get lost."

"Got one word: snake," Xander grimly countered. "Seems to me that it won't be that easy sticking to a 'safe area' if we get into a fight."

"This gets better, and better, and better," Kennedy sarcastically said as she passed the sketches over to Giles without sparing the papers a glance.

"I dare say, this does resemble a golem," Giles remarked as he adjusted his glasses and peered at the rough pictures only just now reaching his hand.

"A golem?" Catherine sat up, an edge of excitement in her voice. "A real golem? Really?"

"Oh-oh. Catherine wants to make friends," Ruda mock shivered.

"I've got it covered if that's the case," J'Nal said with a self-assured nod.

"Don't you dare," Catherine warned. Her voice recaptured its wonder as she added, "Imagine! A real golem."

"That's a real pain in my ass," Kennedy huffed. "Literally since I landed on a rock when I got tossed out of Erie earlier. A big rock."

"Those things aren't even close," Willow sniffed. "Those things look like gingerbread men without the icing smile goodness to go with. I know from golems and that's not it."

"You've seen a golem?" Robin asked with rising excitement.

"We have?" Buffy asked. "Only one I saw was in a college film class."

"Had one described to me something like a million times," Willow said, the sniff was definitely more pronounced. "Tell 'em Xander."

"Ahhh, yes. Granny Rosenberg's traveling collection of stories to scare the kiddies. Every time she pulled up for a visit, I didn't sleep for a month," Xander agreed as he peered over Giles's and Buffy's shoulders at the paper. "Yup, gotta concur with the Willster. These guys aren't even in the same area code."

"How would you guys know..." Robin began.

"Hell-ooooo! Rosenberg. Rosenberg. Sheesh," Willow crossed her arms.

"Ahhhh, c'mon Wills, cut Robin some slack," Xander soothed. "Half the time you forget you've bat mitzvahed. Of course," he added with a sheepish grin, "my family probably made you wanna forget. The ol' Harris family charm and parties...not a good mix."

"Hey!" Catherine protested. "I'll have you know that one thing my family knows how to do is throw a damn fine party."

Xander paused a moment, teeth worrying his bottom lip. "That's what I'm afraid of."

"Why would you be afraid of that?" Ruda asked.

"If you have to ask? Then I'm not so afraid," Xander relaxed.

"And they have the best antique liquor collection in the outer system," J'Nal added with a smile almost reaching beatific. "I must say the 2656 skatch your father broke out to toast to the success of this for the pallet."

"And now I'm back to be afraid again," Xander tensed.

"I'm pretty sure that's the last thing that went right for this mission," Charlie remarked.

Xander looked helplessly at Charlie. "Nope. Still not with the relief. 'Skatch' sounds like something you'd siphon into jugs and sell to kids in alleys."

"Ooooh, don't let Catherine's father hear you say that," Charlie snickered. "He's a little bit of an epicure when it comes to his vintage collection."

"I don't think it's the same for her, Xander."

Faith's soft voice snatched at Buffy's hearing and she looked across the room to see Faith's attention sharply focused on Xander. Xander must've heard it too, since he looked up only to meet Faith's odd stare. He quickly looked away and down at his shoes, as if he wasn't entirely sure how or even if he should respond. As for Catherine? She seemed puzzled by whatever nonverbal exchange had occurred as her eyes tracked back and forth between pair.

Buffy didn't even want to try to analyze Faith's deal. What surprised her was that somehow Faith knew the why behind Xander's discomfort. How that happened, she had no idea, except it seemed to point to the fact that the two actually had some sort of personal conversation sometime after they all washed up in Cleveland.

She really wanted to offer the extra push, do the friend thing, shake the man next to her, and point out: *Look, look. Catherine doesn't get it. That's good, right?*

Except she'd never acknowledged Xander's situation before, not even when it stared her in the face at the wedding that wasn't. To be honest, she wasn't entirely sure she had the right to say anything since she'd been clueless for years and later willfully blind to the reality of Harris family life.

*I hate this. One of my oldest friends and I have no idea what to say to him. How sad is it that Faith is doing my job?* She reached out to place a comforting hand on Xander's back and let it drop just short of her target. Yet another thing she wasn't sure she had a right to do anymore.

Somehow the rest of the room had missed that slender moment in the growing din as Willow loudly insisted that no way, no how was that thing in the sketches a golem; Kennedy argued with Vi and Lisa about her most-definitely-not-a-snake phobia; and Giles handed Charlie the sketches before marching over to Robin with a paper in his hand.

In short, the nice, orderly meeting was descending into chaos. *Not that it didn't get seriously off the track three exits ago,* Buffy mused.

"Enough!" Giles's concentrated exasperation shut down every conversation in mid-word. "Now is the time to focus and not one of us is doing that. There are a lot of us here and it's very easy to get distracted. But we must concentrate. Feel free to continue with this aimless prattling once we are finished with the business at hand, but right now is not the time."

Catherine's group uncomfortably shuffled, but kept silent. Some of the Slayers looked somewhat abashed, mostly because they'd never seen Giles snap. Xander, Buffy, and Willow exchanged glances, doing their best to hide their smirks. Giles snapping over raging short attention spans felt a lot like old times.

"Now that we have your attention," Robin said while Giles continued his not-another-word glare, "Let's recap: We obviously have creatures made of dirt that are supernaturally strong stationed at the entrance of our crypt. The crypt contains a set of stairs that will take us to the caverns. In the caverns we most likely have a giant snake that fears walnuts."

"Not fears," Xander corrected. "Hates. Big diff."

"We're armed and ready," Andrew practically saluted. "I went to the grocery store today and laid in a supply of Diamond Walnuts."

Xander rubbed his face in frustration. "This is not going to work," he said through the hands covering his face.

"You wouldn't've mentioned it if it wasn't important," Robin gleefully pointed out.

Xander peeked at Robin between over his fingertips before letting his hands drop. "It also could've been a joke."

"Reeeeeeaallllyyyy?" Robin grinned. "Why would you say that?"

"Because Assface has a very twisted sense of humor," Xander countered.

"At last you feel my pain," Robin nodded.

"Both of you..." Giles warned as he glared between the two men.

"Sorry," Xander muttered.

"Be that as it may, we do know that the main tunnel should take us directly to this grail. We don't know if we'll have to fight our way to it, or our way away from it," Robin continued. "Either way, there will be a fight."

"On two fronts," Willow dispiritedly pointed out.

Xander smacked his forehead with his injured hand and yelped, "Ow!"

"That's one way to get attention," Vi giggled.

Xander grimaced as he held his wrapped hand. "I just thought of something. We're going to need people who can read languages that aren't English."

Giles and Robin exchanged looks while Buffy felt the blood drain from her face. *Dear god, we're going to have to risk Giles!*

"Why do you say that?" Giles asked.

"There's writing..." Xander began. He shook his head and backtracked, "With everything else, this slipped my mind. Future me mentioned something about messages. There's one message around the edge that--oh crap, what did I say again--no one can translate. Wait. Wait. Not no one. No contemporary can translate. Contemporary. Yeah. That's the word. Plus, there's another message in the base that everyone can read."

"Sounds like the writing is on the grail itself," Robin said.

"But I don't specifically say that," Xander sounded distinctly worried. "For all we know, it could be around the edge of whatever it's on, assuming the grail's on something. The message in the base could also be talking about the base of whatever it's on. We don't know. Plus, we have no idea what it actually says. For all we know, it might say: 'Warning: People from 2003 should not touch this grail as it might cause your head to explode.'"

"Yuck," Willow grimaced. "Nice image there, Xander."

"You may be over thinking this..." Giles began.

"If no contemporary can read it, that means we probably will be able to translate it," Catherine calmly interrupted. "So I really don't see..."

Xander looked at her, took a deep breath, and admitted, "Look, I know you mean well. I also know that you're not one of the bad guys. But you're also desperate. Guess what? Day's going to come when we are too, because, hey, been there, done that a few thousand times. I'd feel a lot better if we had one of us down there translating along with you."

Buffy was pretty sure the resounding thunk indicated that every single jaw in the room had dropped open and hit the floor.

Catherine's hackles rose at that. "Are you suggesting that we'd deliberately put you or anyone in this house in danger?"

Xander raised his hands in a keep calm gesture. "I'm not saying you would and I don't believe you would, but you've got a job to do and that's to save whenever you're from. We've got keep here and now safe."

Buffy stiffened as Catherine's eyes squinted into a hard brown-eyed glare while members of her team veeeeery carefully took one step away from her tense body. *Oooooh, lookie! Appears Catherine inherited Xander's temper, too!* Having been at the other end of one pissed Xander and his tongue a handful of times over the years, she really did not want to see both Catheirne and Xander go at it. They'd be cleaning shredded body parts out of the floorboards for years.

God knows how it happened in the crowded room, but Faith managed to vacate her seat and suddenly insert herself between Catherine, whose jaw setting in a manner that Buffy knew meant she was about to let fly with some choice words, and Xander, whose own expression had closed down in warning if Catherine even thought of voicing her opinion in any way that might resemble rude.

"Yo, everyone just chill," Faith said as her face pinged between Xander and Catherine. "No need to show off what I'm pretty damn sure is one nasty-ass family temper. Don't do this to each other. Stop it. Please."

Buffy shook her head with surprise. *Please? Did Faith just say please?*

Xander started at Faith's second unexpected friend-ish performance. As his attention focused on Faith, his face was a mess of confused emotions that Buffy couldn't even begin to read.

*What the hell? That's weird. Faith is keeping Xander in check? What's going on? Did I wake up in the world without shrimp this morning?* She glanced at Willow, who seemed to be taking the whole business in stride like there was nothing particularly unusual going on. She was about to step in to offer vocal support for Faith's own please--*I can't believe she just said 'please,' we're so definitely shrimpless*--when she caught the expression on Dawn's face.

It wasn't so much an expression as an utter lack of expression as Dawn studied the tableau. She seemed to be trying to read the tense situation, reminding Buffy of the no-she-didn't-exist-then-yes-she-most-certainly-did little girl who'd sneak out of bed at night to listen to mom and dad fight in bad ol' days in an attempt to figure out real sitch.

Dawn must've felt Buffy's eyes boring into her, because the younger girl switched her gaze to her sister, gave her a half smile, and raised one shoulder in a half shrug as if to say, "I don't get it any more than you do."

"C'mon." Faith was continuing with her peacemaking attempt. "We're all family here, right? Let's, y'know, act like it."

The sound of Xander's one fake eye and one good eye rolling to heaven was practically audible as Catherine clenched her jaw and looked distinctly ashamed.

"Ooooor, not," Faith lamely finished, suddenly looking surprisingly young and unsure, as if she had just realized what she was doing and had taken herself completely by surprise. She shook her head and turned to Xander. If Buffy didn't know better, she'd almost say that Faith was pleading with him, "Whaddya say? Peace out until this shit gets settled?"

Xander uncertainly took a step back, eyebrows drawn tight with confusion. His mouth worked around what seemed to Buffy must be a million questions before he finally agreed, "Peace out."

There was a twitch of relief in Faith's face as she turned to Catherine and--almost as an afterthought Buffy thought--asked, "Peace out?"

Catherine wordlessly nodded.

"Good," Faith said quietly. Instead of returning to her former seat, she took up a station against the wall. Buffy couldn't help but notice that she stayed between Catherine and Xander, almost as if she were afraid a fight actually would break out between the two of them despite their assurances to keep their tempers in check.

"Catherine, please see Xander's point," Giles said. Buffy noticed that even though he was speaking to Catherine, he was looking at Faith with something approaching pleased surprise. "Would you do any less in our position?"

Catherine closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose before grudgingly admitting, "We probably wouldn't let us anywhere near the Grail."

"Then I hardly think our simple request to include our own translator is out of line," Giles mildly said.

"It is fair," Ruda agreed.

Catherine's expression softened as she looked at her Slayer. "That it is."

"Now that we have that settled," Robin clapped as he shot Faith his own proud glance, "what I have is a list of who will be going where." For whatever reason, he gave Xander a meaningful look, "Now, I made sure to run the assignments by Giles and we are in agreement. The teams are as follows..."

As the names got read out, Buffy noticed that all the heavy hitters and experienced fighters were going below while the less experienced Slayers stayed above to keep their new best friends distracted. *Smart, actually,* Buffy felt herself nodding.

She nodded her way through the list of the belowground team, which was topped by her own name, Faith, Kennedy, Vi, Lisa, Tammi, Xander, Willow, Robin...until she heard Giles's name.

"No!" She shouted. Robin's voice cut off and Buffy felt like crawling into a corner as everyone turned to face her. "I...I mean...what I mean to say..." she stumbled, took a breath and spit it out. "Wecan'taffordtoriskGilesbecausehe'stheonlyWatcheryWatcherwehaves ogetsomeoneelsetogosnakehunting."

Dead silence.

Xander leaned over. "Buffy? Please start breathing now. You're turning purple."

"Good Lord, Buffy, it isn't as if this is the first time I've been in the thick of things," Giles said, his eyes blinking quickly behind his glasses.

Buffy hoped no one noticed she was beginning to panic. "But we can't risk you because...because...well...just because...I mean...Hey! You got other things to do. Important things. Really important things. Like Watch. Yeah. And write. And ummm...supervise. You have to be supervisor-y Watcher-y guy otherwise it's all higgledy-piggledy badness."

"Do you just say higgledy-piggledy?" Willow asked.

"Buffy's right," Xander agreed.

"Now don't you start," Giles said with exasperation.

"We're top-heavy going down as it is," Xander said.

"It's like an Away Team with Captain Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov," Andrew agreed to show his support.

Xander blinked at Andrew and then recaptured his thought, "Giles, you're the only experienced Watcher around here, no offense Robin, so risking you is a pretty bad idea."

"I'm suddenly not expendable?" Giles asked, angrily drawing up to his full height.

"You never were," Willow quietly offered.

Giles's eyes pinged between Willow, Buffy, and Xander. For a sliver of a moment Buffy thought he might argue, but he must've seen something in their faces that forced him to rethink.

"Giles? Buffy's right. We need you," Willow pressed.

"Now more than ever," Robin heartily agreed. "You have the institutional memory of the Council and the expertise, and that's too important to risk."

"Not to mention you're the only one who knows where some of the Council bank accounts are buried and that you're the only one who can legally harass the international finance community to cough up the cash," Xander volunteered. He nudged Buffy in the ribs and added with a wicked grin, "You get hit by a bus, we're going to have to get real jobs and no one wants that."

Robin rolled his eyes while Giles barked a laugh, "At last, the truth is out." Giles shook his head and added, "Agreed. I won't go below. But," he held up a finger and his expression got serious, "I will be helping the Slayers aboveground."

Buffy opened her mouth to protest, but Xander cut her off, "Fair enough."

"Well, that's settled..." Giles began.

"Unh...actually, no. It's not." Xander nervously coughed. "We're still too top-heavy for the belowground team and we have too many of the less experienced Slayers fighting by themselves above."

Robin rubbed his forehead in frustration. "For heaven's sake. This is the list Giles and I agreed on. All of our best people needed below to help retrieve the grail."

Buffy saw something resembling hurt flick across Xander's face a moment before she heard a sharp intake of breath from one of the other Slayers. *Hunh? I don't get it. Robin's dead on in his assessment, so what's everyone's problem?*

Xander swallowed hard. "We can't send Buffy below either."

"What? Why?" Buffy exploded.

"Buff, you and Faith are the most experienced," Xander placed a slight emphasis on 'experienced,' "Slayers in the house. Having both of you fighting in the same spot is a bad idea. We can't risk both of you at the same time if we can at all help it."

"You seriously want me to be the little woman and stay home while all you big tough heroes go out and Slay the dragon?" Buffy crossed her arms with irritation as her mind piped up, *Hey, stupid! Weren't you just thinking that you and fighting right now is a bad, bad combination of the dead again variety?*

Xander stepped back under the onslaught. "One of you needs to be with aboveground team. You know, to be the lead-by-example type."

"So let Faith do it," Buffy huffed. Suddenly she wanted to really, really kill that snake just to prove that she hadn't lost the magic touch. If the snake wasn't immediately available, Xander was beginning to look like a nice replacement.

"I can't, B," Faith interrupted. "I gotta go down because I'm supposed to be there."

"Yeah, but if I'm hearing everything right, it was made up. I should..."

"Shouldn't," Faith crossed her arms in a mirror of Buffy's own stance. "Since Cyclopes pulled a Stephen King, he could've just as easily put you in Moscow and left me out of it."

Xander's head shot around and he was again regarding Faith with that unreadable look.

Faith saw and in response she squared her shoulders, looked right at Xander as if he were the one protesting, and said, "You're following the script as close as you can for everything else. I gotta think that there's a reason why I'm in 'Moscow' and B ain't."

"Oh?" Xander's voice was tight with tension. "And what reason would that be?"

"Fuck all if I know. You wrote it." Faith kept her voice even, but Buffy could swear she heard a slight tremor of nervousness there. "For all we know, maybe B saves everyone's ass because she ain't in the thick of things like me."

*Oh, look! No pressure! No pressure at all! Thanks a whole lot Faith! * Buffy thought as she swallowed hard. Having a mindless battle with a giant snake was looking so very much more attractive than it did even twenty minutes ago.

"Actually, Faith does make a very good point," Robin capitulated. "Keeping one of the big guns in reserve is a good move. Nice thinking, Faith."

"Unh, that was Xan..." Willow began.

"Maybe we should leave Kennedy upstairs, too," Xander interrupted.

"What? Why?" Kennedy protested. "I will kick that snake's ass...I mean tail...head...well, whatever a snake's got, I will kick it."

"Before or after you let out a girly scream?" Vi laughed.

"Can it Hattie," Kennedy growled.

"Kennedy, think about this," Xander pleaded. "You're the only one who really knows the lay of the land and have actually gone head-to-head with a dirt guards."

"Yeah, and it went soooo well the first time," Andrea sarcastically said.

"You know about as much as the rest of us about the tunnels and our snake," Xander pressed. "But you know more than the rest of us about what we're facing aboveground."

"Well, since Andrea and Tammi are aboveground anyway, makes no diff if I'm with 'em, right?" Susan asked rhetorically. "He's kinda got a point, Ken."

Kennedy looked mutinous for a moment, but Buffy could see her break when she made a very Willow-like 'mu' face. "Fine. But not," she pointed a warning finger at Vi, "because I'm avoiding the snake."

Vi held up her hands and beat back a smile.

"We're still short a translator," Robin pointed out.

"That's where I come in," Dawn was on her feet.

"No!" Buffy shouted. *I should've thought of this. No Giles means...*

"You weren't on the roster," Robin calmly said. "I thought you weren't..."

Dawn made a face. "Not interested in breaking any bones, no. But I'm a better choice than Giles anyway because I got a better grasp of languages than he does. Besides, I know more languages than he does."

"You do?" Catherine sat up at that, her attention focused sharply on Dawn. "I never read..."

"Family secret," Dawn airly tossed out. She added with a wicked grin, "I'm a regular key to all languages."

"Dawn!" Buffy snapped. "You are not..."

"Yes. I. Am." Dawn fixed her elder sister with a glare. "I'm mostly on the retirement track, but this is too important."

"I forbid..."

"I'm going to be 18 reeeaaaallllll soon, so don't push it," Dawn snarled.

"Girls!" Xander stepped between the sisters. "Dawn, Buffy's got a..."

"You were the one who pointed out that we needed a translator." Dawn vibrated with frustration. "I'm the only candidate, especially if it's a language no one can read and you know it, Harris."

"What if it's demonic?" Xander asked innocently. "Last I checked, you were hot stuff with the human languages, not so much on..."

"That's why Andrew's coming with," Dawn grinned.

"I am?/He is?" Andrew, Robin, Xander, Giles, Willow, Kennedy,, hell...everyone but Buffy asked at the same time.

"Yup." Dawn looked very much like a woman who knew she'd already won. "Andrew's the man for the demonic stuff and I'm the woman for everything else. If it'll make you feel any better, I'll make sure we're armed with swords and..."

"No!" Xander and Buffy shouted in unison.

"Why not?" Andrew practically whimpered. "If there's danger, we need weapons."

"No. Swords. For. You." Xander spit.

"I don't think you should be teamed up with Andrew at all," Buffy said. Xander turned his entire upper body around to face her since she was standing on his blind side, mouth set in a grim line as if to ask, *And why didn't you think of this four months ago?* Buffy felt something in her stomach curl up and die at the silent accusation.

"You don't trust me," Andrew said, his usually cheerful face radiating deep hurt. "Is it because of An..." As Xander jerked around to face Andrew, the younger man snapped his mouth shut.

Xander swallowed hard, but Buffy noticed a slight tremor in his hands. "You'll be surrounded by Slayers and we'll have Witchy Willow, Badass Robin, and Catherine's whole team watching your back. We'll all be armed. You should focus on any writing you might find instead of waving around a sword. Your job's too important."

"Oh." Andrew didn't sound entirely convinced.

"Dawn's not going," Buffy insisted.

"Buffy," God, Dawn's voice sounded so much like mom's it hurt, "There is no one else right now. I'll be fine. I promise to hide behind the Slayers, okay? I promise I'll be back."

"Buffy," Robin cut in, "we all know this is hard for you, but Dawn understands..."

Buffy held up her hands to cut him off, unable to tear her eyes away from the principal's face. He mercifully waited until she found her voice. It sounded rough to her own ears, "Take care of her."

"No need to worry," Robin said with assurance. "As Xander pointed out to me in private, if there were any real danger, he would've said something in the journal to warn us, isn't that right?"

All eyes turned to Xander. He nervously looked around. "That doesn't mean someone won't get hurt. It's still a fight and..."

"Overall, I have to admit, this might be a better line-up," Robin interrupted as he scribbled on a notepad. "Okay, new teams..."

Buffy was far less relaxed as he read the rosters. Giles, herself, Kennedy along with her scout team, and a handful of the newer girls were now aboveground. Faith, Xander, Willow, Robin, Dawn, Andrew, Vi, along with a handful of Slayers were going with Catherine's team below.

*Don't wig. Don't wig. Don't wig...* Buffy's mind circled the mantra. *Robin's right. If there were any real danger, Xander would've warned us.*

She let the thought hang there as Robin mentioned a field trip to the cemetery so the house could get a lay of the land and see if their dirt friends were still around and plans to meet after supper so they could talk hardcore strategy.

As the group broke up, Buffy watched Dawn lean down and whisper something to Andrew. She added silently to herself, *At least I hope Xander would.*

Chapter 47
Science Plays At Magic

Xander had an overwhelming urge to seek out and strangle Rod Serling as the meeting broke up. Andrew was right. His life was beginning to resemble a very badly run D&D game. All he needed was a singing sword and a pocket full of magic, and he'd be back in junior high with Jessie's maniacal grin staring at him over the DM screen.

And Faith…what the hell's going on there? What was she thinking? He watched the dark-haired Slayer out of the corner of his remaining eye as she scooted out of the room in an effort to make herself scarce, cutting off any chance for him to pull her aside and start asking some questions.

Considering that they had a million things to do before their assault on grail central tomorrow night, there was a very good chance that he wouldn't be able to catch her alone.

*Maybe a good thing. I'm not sure if I'm annoyed or just confused,* he thought.

"Do you need to talk?" Robin's voice said in his left ear.

Xander startled. *Will he stop it with the blindside?* He shook his head and turned around to face Robin. "About what?" he calmly asked.

Robin studied him through narrow eyes and Xander had a sneaking suspicion that the Woodster was sizing him up for a straightjacket.

Xander felt a flash of irritation. Jesus. His life was messy enough. He really wasn't in the mood to talk things through, especially since it really wasn't going to help. "I'm good. Could use a few weeks' more sleep, but I'm good."

Robin nodded and dropped his voice. "Let's try not to let personal problems spill over into business."

Xander dropped his voice as irritation simmered to slow boil. "Do I look like I'm 12?"

"Just so we're clear," Robin replied, still nodding.

*This is the beginning of one hell of an ice age,* Xander thought as he gave a curt nod back. As he watched Robin leave the room, he could feel anger turn to disappointment. Somewhere in there he failed, although god knows he's not sure how he failed. While he never fooled himself into believing he was the center of the universe and universally loved like Queen C, he usually didn't earn the active, personal dislike of anyone or anything.

*Mostly because you never mattered enough to people or demons for them to dislike you for you,* his mind cheerfully voted. "Unless you count Anya all of last year," he muttered to himself.

"How are you doing?" Buffy asked behind him.

He turned around and gave Buffy a strained smile.

She seemed to fold on herself. "I heard you mention Anya," she quietly said. "Are you okay?"

Xander was about to answer when the sounds of a first class squabble cut him off.

"Charlie…" Catherine began.

"And once again, yes I can." Charlie looked like a bulldog that wouldn't let go of bone.

"Trouble in paradise," Dawn said as she slid between her sister and Xander.

Catherine was trying again. "For the last time, we are not allowed…"

"And for the millionth time, in matters of medicine, I outrank you, Watcher." Charlie cut her off.

Catherine's back stiffened and she threw a look in Xander's direction. "In most instances, I agree, but…"

"No buts." Charlie pulled his keypad out of its holder and he began fiddling with a series of buttons. He turned and marched over to Xander, Buffy, and Dawn, with Catherine ineffectually trailing in his wake.

"Look, I'm not saying that I don't agree with you. I do. But the timeline…"

"Is not going to be any more screwed up than it already is if I take care of this," Charlie shot back without looking at her as he stopped in front of the trio. "Show me your hand," he ordered without looking at Xander.

"Ummmm, what are you going to do?" Xander asked.

"Fix it," Charlie replied shortly.

"Oh in the name of the Founders!" Catherine shouted in exasperation.

"He's standing right there. Why don't you ask him what he thinks? Better yet, why don't you also ask…"

"Here's my hand," Xander practically shouted as he shoved the bandaged appendage under his nose while Catherine stiffened. "Pulling Giles into this is a pretty bad idea."

Catherine gave him the eyebrows of what-the-hell while Charlie winced and muttered an apology about his temper.

"Giles?" Buffy prompted.

"Well, because he's, like, a Watcher Founder," Xander fumbled while his mind raced to come up with something. "You know? Founder is a big ol…well, it kinda applies to everyone in this house. Sort of. Because, you know, I'm a Founder, you're a Founder, Giles is a Founder, and hey! Wouldn't you like to be a Founder, too!"

Dawn rolled her eyes.

"Thank you Dr. Pepper for that commercial announcement," Buffy said with a wince.

Charlie was already working at the bandages. "Who wrapped this?" he snapped.

"I did," Dawn said.

Charlie gave her a half-smile. "Nice work. Looks like you've had a lot of practice."

"Then what's with angry voice?" Dawn crowded closer to get a better look at what Charlie was doing.

"Our medic isn't exactly known for his bedside manner," Catherine growled. "That's why we're stuck with him."

"Please. You'd walk all over someone who didn't yell back, Cat-a-rat," Charlie responded as he revealed the hamburger that passed for Xander's knuckles.

"Cat-a-rat?" Xander asked.

"What the students used to call me when I taught combat back at the academy," Catherine responded with a half-annoyed, half-amused smile. "They didn't know I knew, but…" she let the thought hang with a shrug.

"That's because you never fought fair," Ruda bounded into the conversation, watching Charlie as he worked. "She used to trick us into these situations we couldn't win? And then--whack--next thing anyone knew we had bruises."

"I was not that bad, little girl," Catherine sniffed.

"What's important is that you believe it," Ruda giggled, "Cat-a-rat."

"You taught Slayers," Buffy said slowly. "In a school-like setting?"

"This is where I interrupt," Charlie said, giving Buffy a meaningful look. "Bad enough there's too much information about us floating around here."

"It's just that…" Buffy began.

"Well, I must say, Dawn, not a bad job here, all things considering," Charlie interrupted, a clear move to shut down any more questions.

"You going to stitch him up?" Dawn asked.

"I've got this," Charlie held up his medical scanner. "Now that I know the problem, hold on." Very soon his fingers flew across the numbered pad on the scanner's surface inputting a series of numbers and equations. In between all this, he asked Xander some quick questions about height, weight, time of last meal, last major injury, and any chronic conditions with such lightening-fast speed that Xander found himself answering before even registering that the question had been asked.

A few moments into the Spanish Inquisition, Charlie allowed himself a smile of triumph.

"Got it!"

"Got what?" Xander asked.

Charlie hummed as he fished a clear tube out of a pouch hanging from his belt and snapped it into the scanner. A light, pink-ish liquid boiled into it, filling it completely. When the scanner beeped a completion, Charlie snapped the tube out and ordered, "Hold still."

"Wait…" Xander began, but his protest was cut off as Charlie slapped the tube right on his injury, forcing it into the skin.

"YEOOOWWW! OW OW OW!" Xander hollered as he snatched his hand back and clutched it to his chest. He felt someone brush past him and heard a thump accompanied by the sounds of one pissed off Slayer.


Xander looked up to see tiny Buffy holding Charlie up against the wall in a way that made it difficult for the doctor to breathe. Catherine and Ruda broke out of their paralysis and rushed to pull Buffy off their teammate. Ruda grabbed an arm while Catherine crouched into a position that suggested she was about to let loose with a kick at the back of Buffy's knees.

*Gottastopthisgottastopthisgottastopthis.* "Buffy, wait! I'm okay!" Xander shouted.

Ruda yanked one of Buffy's arms, forcing her to let go of Charlie, while Catherine backed off.

"You sure?" Buffy asked as she shook herself free from Ruda.

"Yeah," Xander assured her. It was then that he realized that his hand had stopped hurting completely, not even a reminding twitch of its forceful meeting with the mirror. He looked down at his knuckles and added with wonder, "More than, actually."

Dawn let out a low whistle. "It looks like it's already healing."

Giles burst into the room. "Good lord! What is that racket?"

"That's what I get for practicing modern medicine," Charlie hoarsely grumbled as he clutched at his throat.

"Next time explain what you're doing when you do it to the natives," Catherine said, as she checked Charlie over. "No lasting damage, but you're going to have one lovely bruise." She spared a glare for Buffy. "And next time, ask before you attack. Or at the very least use your brain. Considering who I am, do you honestly believe any of us would hurt Alexander?"

"Well, it looked hinky," Buffy huffed with arms crossed. "What was I supposed to think?"

"Guys!" Xander cut in. "Dawn's right. My hand is already healing."

"What?" Giles was still out of sorts, considering he came in at the end of the argument. Xander could practically imagine Giles's big brain was desperately casting about to latch on to something and miraculous healing seemed to be just the ticket.

Scuffle forgotten, Buffy and Giles crowded close and watched as cuts on Xander's knuckles seemed to knit themselves together.

It was Buffy's turn to let out a low whistle. "Almost as good as Slayer healing."

"How does it work?" Dawn demanded.

Catherine cleared her throat in warning.

The doctor caught it and deflated slightly. "I really can't get into the science of it because the pharmacological technology is, ummmm, not accessible at this time, but," he gave Catherine a slightly defiant look, "the basic idea is that I merely created a chemical compound that kicked his healing factors into overdrive."

"I'd hate to see this thing cross a Slayer," Dawn said.

"Works even better on a Slayer," Ruda teased, the earlier physical confrontation already forgiven and forgotten.

"Wow," Buffy said softly.

Charlie snapped to all business. "However, Alexander is not a Slayer, which means it will take something out of him. I recommend a good meal this evening and tomorrow morning, eight hours rest…"

"But…" Xander began.

"…with no excuses that you don't have time, geez Catherine, he really is one of your relatives, and drink lots of warm fluids. By the time we hit the cemetery tomorrow, you and your hand will be right as the precipitation on Novous."

"Or right as rain," Giles said, as he held Xander's rapidly healing hand closer to his face for inspection.

Charlie, Catherine, and Ruda exchanged glances. "I like ours better," Ruda finally announced. "You haven't lived until you've felt the precipitation on Novous."

Chapter 48
Spotlight on Rupert Giles

*Selected items from UNS Q&A session with Rupert Giles, leader of the Taran United Watcher's Council, pre-founding, circa September 2003. Camlin Tikri reporting.*

*The popular image of Wise Rupert Giles-rah is one of a man who is even-tempered, even-handed, and a dispassionate recorder of history. There is no doubt that his logical, calming influence on the more colorful personalities around him is one of the main reasons why the Taran United Watcher's Council managed to take root and eventually thrive. One can only imagine how he'd react upon hearing about the internal squabbles and differences in philosophy that eventually lead to the United Council's split.*

*One thing he probably wouldn't be is surprised.*

*He has no illusions about the people around him and is able to judge them in a cold, dispassionate light. He hails his allies for their strengths, even as he admits to their weaknesses.*

*For all his logic and intelligence, there is no question that he harbors a great affection for the people around him and that he trusts them to do no less than their best under trying circumstances. He is, in addition, highly protective of everyone under his gaze, ranging from fellow Watchers and senior Slayers to the youngest and newest people to join the household.*

*Wise Giles-rah does not bear the -sen title after his name as too many people claim him as a Guiding Light: from the Council Honoria to the Council Educationary; the Slayer Buffista, Faithist, and Unitan sects; the Slayer Judiciary Committee; and on and on and on. He is too important to be claimed by just one, and so he is claimed by all. Even in our day in age, Wise Giles-rah remains one of the few uniting influences on those who fight to protect humanity.*

*This fact would probably be the only thing that would surprise him.*

*Wise Giles-rah left behind him oceans of records, meticulously recording the trials and triumphs of the infant post-Sun'dayl world. Yet, for all those words, for all those records, he left little of his humanity behind for us to see. Meet the man behind the history in all his human, passionate glory in this exclusive UNS interview.*

UNS: I'm so pleased that I finally got you for an interview. You're a very difficult man to capture.

RG: Yes, well. I've been quite, quite busy. No rest for the wicked and weary.

UNS: Depending on whom you talk to, you're a bit of both.

RG: Pardon?

UNS: In my interviews I've gotten a…how can I say this? A very confusing picture of what goes on in this house.

RG: Rather not surprised. Frankly, I'm often befuddled by my colleagues' use of language. Honestly, how can something be 'of the bad' I ask you. What is wrong with simply saying 'bad?' I fear for future generations of Watchers. Imprecise use of language is clearly the cornerstone of your current dilemma.

UNS: Not to mention outright lies, fictional accounts in Watchers' journals…

RG: Ahhh, yes, well…I'm certain Xander had very good reasons for that. To be brutally honest, I actually found the journal entry in question to be very precisely worded indeed for our present-day purposes. Perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised. He can, after all, correctly use the word 'giddy' in a sentence that applies to himself.

UNS: Are you actually advocating his falsifying and altering records?

RG: Oh my, someone is quite touchy, aren't they? [leans forward to get a look at MemePad] Been doing a little creative editing, have we?

UNS: [snappish] Answer the question.

RG: I do believe you're taking your ire out on the wrong individual. I'm certain you could perhaps get a better answer if you asked Xander. [leans back with a slight grin] Provided he didn't rip your head off and then jump up and down on your gadget before you finished the question. [thinks about it] On second thought, perhaps I should pull him into this interview right now. I would pay very good money to see that.

UNS: [confused] You don't like me very much, do you?

RG: [looks at UNS over his vision correction apparatus] You? I don't know you at all. However, I suspect that you've been quite the disruptive influence. People talk to you and they walk away changed. Very rarely for the better, I might add.

UNS: [alarmed] Changed? What do you mean?

RG: The most immediate example that springs to mind is Robin. After your interview he breaks off his relationship with Faith. It was quite sudden and unexpected. Well, actually, I tell a lie. It was not unexpected, merely happened sooner than expected. [voice hardens] I'll have you know that I'm now out a good fifty quid. I bloody well called a Halloween break-up and I most certainly should've won the pool.

UNS: Pool? [nervous laughter] Oh, you're having a joke at my expense. I should've realized…

RG: I'm bloody well being serious. I find it rather curious that Robin speaks with you and then, just like dominoes, one event leads to another event, leads to yet another.

UNS: I, unh, what do you…

RG: [ticking points off on fingers] Robin breaks up with Faith. Xander, who's shown positively no interest in putting in for the betting pool, let alone saying 'boo' about the business, suddenly is pulled not just into witnessing the end of Robin's relationship with Faith, but also verbally attacks Robin over it, thereby further cementing Robin's belief that he was right in ending the relationship. Faith, for whatever reason, is now visibly supporting Xander, whereas before they may have simply agreed on certain things in house meetings, which, although this behavior is clearly confusing him to no end, may force him to re-evaluate Faith. [leans back] I find that rather fascinating, don't you?

UNS: [stumbles] I, unh, honestly…I don't see how…[hardens voice] Robin and I were merely talking about his philosophies about Watching and Slaying. It is most certainly not my fault if he had an epiphany during the interview.

RG: [half-smile] 'Epiphany' is such a marvelous word. I so hate to see it misused.

UNS: Are you accusing me of…

RG: [innocent expression, hand over heart] I? I accuse you of nothing, dear lady. Had Robin been merely a single case, I could find it in me to want to believe you. But let us consider the case of Buffy, shall we? By the time you were through with her, she began hiding in her room more often. Frankly, I thought it was well nigh impossible for her to retreat any more than she has done since we first came to this city, but somehow you managed to help her do just that.

UNS: [cringing] There may be…oh futch…there may have been a bit of a slip of a tongue on my part.

RG: Indeed? So Robin's case was not a slip of the tongue, I suppose?

UNS: The two incidents are unrelated! [stands] This interview is over!

RG: [stands, grabs UNS, forces UNS into her seat, leans over UNS in a threatening manner] Oh, I'm not finished with you quite yet. Andrew seems determined to step up his 'get Xander happy' campaign. Willow remains utterly mystified why you kept on her about relationships between various members of this household. Xander spent time after your interview threatening to roast Faith very slowly over an open pit, which is what makes his sudden involvement in Faith's personal life so surprising. I could continue the list, and much as I'm rather tempted to do so, I will merely point out that the only person who walked away from you more confident in herself was Dawn and only Vi remains unaffected by your touch. I would add Faith to the list of the unaffected, but it appears you got her in the end through Robin.

UNS: [raised eyebrow] That's a fairly thin thread of evidence. It wouldn't stand up in front of the Inter-Colonial Witnesser Ethical Committee.

RG: [returns to seat] If that's anything like the Press Complaints Commission in my native land, I'm fairly certain nothing less than a picture of you naked with a water buffalo as you accept scads of cash from a Saudi prince while singing 'O Canada!' at the top of your impressive and no doubt silicon-enhanced lungs would turn the tide in my favor.

UNS: [furious] Why you…[grabs breasts] I'll have you know that these are real.

RG: [unperturbed] The simple fact of the matter is, you are quite right. Most of the subtle changes can no doubt be blamed on misinformation, miscommunication, and in the case of Willow, the work of an incompetent tabloid reporter with only scandal mongering on her mind. [small smile] But I suspect you are not incompetent. I suspect quite the opposite, actually.

UNS: [taken aback] I, unh, thank you?

RG: You say whatever incident happened with Buffy was the result of slip of the tongue? [waves hand to stop UNS from speaking] I rather believe you there. You seemed quite embarrassed when I brought it up. But you clearly overstepped your bounds with Robin and what's more, you know it.

UNS: But…

RG: Please. Don't bother lying. You were far too defensive. [leans forward, troubled] The larger question that haunts me is, 'Why?'

UNS: [closes eyes] Off the record?

RG: You are the one holding the recording device. I see no choice for me in this scenario.

UNS: [small voice] I'm scared.

RG: [surprised] I don't understand.

UNS: [embarrassed] We're in the past and if we do something wrong… [starts again] If something goes wrong, we won't have a home. It'll be gone. All of it. Our lives. Our families. Our universe. Everything. And if that happens, no one knows what'll happen to us. We may be stuck here, or we might…we might…

RG: Cease to exist.

UNS: [nods] The thing is, I can't tell the others. They already think I can't pull my own weight, not that I want to pull my own weight, what I mean is…I don't know what I mean. The thing is they're worried about it, but if I say I'm worried about it they probably won't listen to me. I offered Catherine a suggestion to, you know, push things in the right direction but…well, most Watchers whatever Council they belong to are just too futching stubborn about what they think is right for their own good sometimes. I just…I just want to go home. I'm not a Slayer, I'm not a Watcher, Prima witch, or a doctor. I'm just me and I never, ever thought I'd be in a situation like this.

RG: That explains that then. But why are you talking to me?

UNS: You backed me in a corner and I just…look, the stuff with Willow? She was my third interview and I was still looking for a hook and that seemed the most likely because of my interview with Faith.

RG: Which no doubt is part of the reason why Xander was so furious after speaking to you.

UNS: Right. Buffy was a slip of the tongue, like I said and I honestly…it just popped out of my mouth. Dawn gave me a piece of her mind. And Violet…well…I can't say anything, except it's probably the one interview that went right.

RG: [looks doubtful]

UNS: It's the truth. Not that you have reason to believe me. [mutters] Hada, I wouldn't believe me either in your shoes.

RG: So at least tell me why you set out to sabotage Robin. It doesn't make any…[light dawns] Good Lord. Catherine's also shown an untoward interest in...I never would have suspected if it wasn't your blasted stunt. It's part of your timeline, isn't it?

UNS: You see…

RG: [waves hand] Good lord woman! Don't tell me! What I'm suspecting is…[stops] 'bad' is not quite the word I'm looking for. Surprising perhaps. [pauses] Or perhaps maybe not.

UNS: I don't…I don't understand.

RG: [leans back, looks thoughtful] In your poor attempt 'helping' history along, it occurs to me that you perhaps don't have the highest opinion of people. I sense a lack of trust that in the end humanity will muddle through without a deus ex machina in the form of pretty blonde reporters with captivating voices.

UNS: Things weren't right. They weren't what I've read and I was afraid that if I didn't do something

RG: [sadly] Things rarely are what they were, I suspect. Perhaps events would've unfolded the same way without your help. It was blindingly obvious that Robin and Faith were not long for this world due to their conflicting personalities. At best you may have moved up the timetable by a month. Perhaps two. [glares] Even though I firmly believe that it would've been precisely one month and 11 days.

UNS: [dispirited] So you think I violated my ethics, maybe ruined my career, all for nothing.

RG: [sighs] Hard to suss out, that. [pauses] The human heart is a funny old thing, Ms. Tikri. I've seen it accomplish great things and stumble into foolishness. It can work miracles or it can work curses. Following your heart…and I do believe you did that in this case…

UNS: Fear. It was fear.

RG: [smiles] That, too. But you're missing my point. The heart will have its way, whether it's tomorrow or next year or the year after that. I've seen hearts pull the world back from extinction. I've seen hearts lay down their lives in a ray burning of light when the hour was darkest. I've seen hearts be willing to tear themselves asunder and Slay the one they loved to save the world. I've seen not one, but two vampires fall in love with a Slayer and I've seen that Slayer express a certain amount of affection in return. I've seen witches fall in love with werewolves, other witches, and Slayers. I've seen a high school outcast fall in love with a vain beauty queen and a normal man fall in love with a 1,200-year-old ex-demon. None of them has walked away unchanged, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But the point is, the heart grows from that and in its own time discovers its happiness. It is well worth keeping in mind for future, I'd think.

UNS: [cynical] Quite the speech. Should I wave a flaming torch now to show my appreciation?

RG: [raises hands and smiles] You do sound quite like myself in my younger days. Although I've fairly certain I would've used the torch to set an old fuddy like myself on fire and then would've urinated on him while he writhed in pain.

UNS: [grins] Lovely way to ruin your image.

RG: [mischievous] But isn't the truth much more captivating?

UNS: [smiles] That it is. [pauses] I'll make you a deal. I come clean if you do.

RG: Oh?

UNS: What do you say we set the record straight? The whole truth and nothing but the truth. I'll even leave in this part of the interview

RG: [studies UNS] Deal. But only in the interest of setting the record straight on whatever god-awful assumptions your people make about us. [tilts head] I suppose that means I'll have to trust you, won't I?

UNS: [quietly] Deal. [louder] So, let's start. Again. [thinks about it] Why don't we start with this: is there anything you want to say to the people of the future?

RG: [looks directly ahead, slight smile on his face] From all the people who once were to all the people who will be: Hello…

Chapter 49
We Can't Rewind, We've Gone Too Far

Xander firmly told himself not to feel guilty about goofing off with Lisa and the Playstation. Everything that could be done had been done and all that was left to do was wait.

They scouted the cemetery last night and spotted the damaged crypt, but no dirt monsters; they broke into teams and came up with strategies, although he really wished someone would just forget about the damned walnuts already; and they went through final gear checks this morning.

Since sunset was still hours away, he was left with two options: bounce off the walls and wait, or get in some quality slacker time and wait.

Since bouncing off the walls meant his brain would betray him and actually start thinking about his very fucked-up life, slacker time with loud, computer-generated explosions and body counts seemed like the way to go.

Lisa whooped as her computer-generated woman stomped on his computer-generated male ass.

"Ahhhh, think you've won, hunh?" Xander nodded, eyes not leaving the screen, "Watch and learn. Your health points? Not so good. But I, the Joystick King, knoweth this: I will rise again with full health points and you will be sucking electrons."

"Joystick King, hunh?"

"King, Emperor, God, but all my friends simply call me your highness and worship at my feet," Xander said as his avatar popped back into existence. Zero on points, low on weapons and ammo, but full of health. He grinned. "Die! Diediediedie!"

Lisa's former ass-kicker exploded into a sticky red goo, allowing Xander to steal all her weapons and ammo.

"Ooooooh, I'll get even. You're not the only one who's mastered the joystick," Lisa grinned. "Mano-mano, may the best woman win."

Xander blinked and looked at her, just as Lisa's representative reformed and began beating on his electronic head. "Unh, don't know if you noticed but…"

"I noticed," Lisa said, tip of her tongue between her teeth as she concentrated, "but since I'm the only woman here, you are allowed to reach your own conclusions."

"Hey! No fair! Distracting me like that!" Xander was back to maneuvering his player in a desperate attempt to stay alive. "Cheater!"

"Says the guy that there's no such thing as cheating when it comes to Slaying," Lisa giggled.

"Video game! Video game! Different than Slaying!" Xander protested as he executed a perfect flying kick to Lisa's torso.

"Xander? Are you free?"

Xander looked up to see Giles standing in the doorway.

"Go ahead. I'm kicking your ass anyway," Lisa said with a snicker.

"You pause that game missy, because when I get my second wind…"

"I'll just kick your ass again."

"No respect, no respect," Xander grumbled good-naturedly as he ruffled Lisa's hair and the girl's giggle shot up to eleven on the loudness scale. He got up, wincing from the stiffness of sitting too long in one position, and hobbled over to Giles.

"Not here. I'd rather speak to you in private."

Xander shrugged and followed Giles through the kitchen and into the courtyard. He eased himself on the steps and watched Giles pace. "Easy there. You're gonna wear a hole in the ground."

"Xander, I've been thinking…"

"That's what you do," Xander interrupted. "Not a big announcement there, Giles."

"If you would let me finish," Giles snapped. He sighed. "Sorry. This has been a stressful time for all of us and the prospect of going into our first en masse battle since Sunnydale has not been balm for jangled nerves."

"Ms. Tikri must be driving you bats," Xander commented. When the Watcher gave him an irritated look, he mimed zipping his mouth shut.

Giles sighed and fought a smile. "It has been a stressful time, but I've been noticing more and more how stress sometimes brings out the worst and the best in some people."

"You're just noticing this now?" Xander asked. "Where the hell have you been? Even if seven years of nonstop shit raining down on your head didn't give you this big revelation, the last year should've pounded it through your skull."

"No need to get testy."

Xander winced. "Sorry. It's just that whenever someone starts a conversation like this, bad things are going to follow."

"Not in this case, at least I hope not." Giles watched Xander thoughtfully. "I know in our informal structure, we're all technically Watchers, including the Slayers with some experience. Sooner or later, we need to formalize the Council and its membership, if only to handle some of the difficult questions we face."

"Formalize," Xander repeated. He sighed and looked down to study his hands. "I'm not going to like this, am I?"

"That's just it. I don't know."

"You know, I thought about leaving," Xander admitted. "Just go off and live a normal life because I can, but…"

"But…" Giles urged as if he were hanging on Xander's every word.

Xander returned his gaze to Giles and admitted what had been bugging him about their brave new world since they landed in Cleveland. "I'm not in love with some of Robin's ideas and sometimes, I don't know, sometimes I think everyone is so busy looking at the big picture that they forget about all us little people trapped in the middle."

"I would think that our friends from the future might be loath to call you one of the 'little people.'"

"I'm not going to have my life dictated to me," Xander snarled.

"Yes. You never did let fate, destiny, or prophecy get in your way," Giles mused, thoughtful look back on his face. "Funny how I forgot that."

"Yeah, well, that's me. The ultimate screw-up," Xander shrugged.

"A screw-up who saved Buffy when she was sixteen even when every reliable prophecy insisted that she die," Giles commented.

Xander shifted uncomfortably under the unexpected compliment.

"The thing is, despite what little you know, I don't believe you will let it dictate your life."

"But I don't know anything about me, remember? Bastard enchanted that damn journal so I could only read what he thought I should read and nothing more," Xander said. "And what I read told me nothing, well, about me anyway."

"You also know that you become a Watcher and that Catherine is a direct descendant."

Xander convulsively swallowed. "Okay, those two things and one other thing, which I'm not getting into, but I don't know how I get there or even if I should go there."

Then Giles did the oddest thing: he eased himself onto the step next to Xander and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "A sensible attitude," he quietly said.

Xander's eyes narrowed as he turned to face Giles. "What's going on? You're suddenly looking at me like I'm Watcher material, aren't you? Is it because of the whole…"

"Frankly, I was thinking you were Watcher material since we got to Cleveland," Giles said with a wave of his hand. "But I didn't want to bring it up until you found your feet. We've all had some terrible losses, you especially, and no one was in any position to make any decisions."

"And I am now? Giles? I'm not even sure how I feel about what I know," Xander protested. "You're practically pushing me in a direction that I'm not sure…"

"Suits you, yes I know," Giles admitted. "And I'm not pushing you. It's your decision and you can change your mind at any time. I'm asking you to think about it."

"You must be desperate."

"I think you mean lucky."

Xander was pretty sure he looked as surprised as he felt.

"The fact is, the old Council always did concern itself with the big picture, the sweep of history, and the never-ending war against the darkness. Individual Slayers, individual Watchers were all interchangeable. We could all be replaced. A Slayer dies, a new one is Called. A Watcher dies…"

"..or is fired."

"…or is fired," Giles agreed with a smile, "and a new one is sent in to take his or her place. People don't matter. Emotions don't matter. Opinions don't matter. The greater good, or what the Council perceives is the greater good, that's what matters."

"Remind me again why I didn't like your Council buddies."

"Which is why we need you," Giles said. "Your insistence on individuals is a point-of-view that was sorely lacking. It's one that's doubly need now."

"I don't see why," Xander shrugged. "Slayers are even more replaceable now than they were before, that's if you follow Robin's and maybe even Buffy's reasoning."

"There may be more Slayers out there, but they are still people, something which tends to get lost while we focus on the big problems. Yet it seems to me you haven't forgotten. Much as you irritate Robin, you bring always bring up a number of salient points that are with listening to."

"And the fact that I irritate Robin isn't a nice bonus in your mind?" Xander asked slyly.

"Perish the thought. I always listen to both of you with the most impartial of minds and carefully weigh what you both have to say."

"Even if Robin would've been right at home with the old Council and I would've been shown the servant's entrance if I knocked on the front door," Xander responded with a grin.

"You would not have been shown the servant's entrance. They would've never let you on the grounds in the first place." Giles's responding grin was enough to tell Xander he was only sort of joking. "And that would've been their loss. I just don't want it to be ours."

"I'll think about it," Xander promised. "I really don't know right now."

"Take as long as you need," Giles said. "Whatever your answer, even if there's no answer at all, the offer will always stand." Giles stood up and brushed off his pants. "I must be getting inside. That awful Tikri woman wants to hear details about Buffy's early days as a Slayer and how you and Willow got involved."

"And you're just loving every minute," Xander stated.

"Certainly not," Giles sniffed. "I am merely trying to set the record straight. The misconceptions these people have about us are simply abominable."

"An outrage for the ages helped along by a little undiluted Faith," Xander agreed. Just as Giles was about to enter the door, he added, "Giles? Thanks. I will think about it, you know." Strangely enough, he realized that he actually meant it.

Giles ducked his head and Xander could almost imagine an indulgent smile on the man's face. "I have every confidence that you will. And you don't need to thank me. I think you should reserve the thanks for that extraordinary man you see in the mirror."

Chapter 50
Voices in the Dark

Buffy's eyes ached as she strained to catch Xander's and Willow's shadows in the group stealing across the lawn to the crypt. Part of her resented the fact that they were going on without her. Another part--a larger part--took unholy glee in reminding her just how many times she'd done the same thing without even looking back.

Kinda like how Xander and Willow weren't looking back as they cautiously climbed the steps with their team.

*September 20.*

But this is different than four-months-ago-to-the-day, right? She'll see them again and they'll talk about giant snakes with wiggy fears of walnuts and they'll show her the grail and each time the story will get bigger and better and the danger will get more dire, but only in the re-telling.



Unholy glee voice-in-her-head just laughed.

For the millionth time, Buffy drew out the rough sketch and looked down at what she would have to face: a pile of dirt in the shape of a man. No eyes. No nose. No mouth. No nothing.

But it'll be all right because these aren't Turok-Hans and the First Evil isn't laying in wait. These aren't even everyday run-of-the-mill vampires.

Everything will be fine. Of course it will. And there'll be happy endings for all, even for Catherine when she gets back and single-handedly defeats her big bad with her bestest friends at her side.

*Best of all, no one will have to die for it.*

She hoped.

Then something Andrew said before Dawn dragged him into the center of the grail retrieval team hit her. She'd fluffed it off as typical Andrew geek-speak, but right here in the dark it sounded too much like a prophecy:

*Today is a good day to die.*

She turned to watch the younger Slayers nervously check their weapons as Giles whispered last-minute instructions on how to grasp a sword or mace just so.

*September 20,* she thought, forcing thoughts of Spike, Anya, and the faces of departed Slayers-in-Training out of her mind. *No one should have to die, but if die I have to, today is as good a day as any.*


Faith stepped through the now-fixed door first and let her eyes adjust to the gloom. "Nope, nothing here," she called over her shoulder as she sheathed her sword and slung the scabbard across her back. For the thousandth time she checked to make sure her two throwing knives were sheathed and securely strapped on each leg. She tried not to wish that she had the spring-loaded dealie Ruda wore on her right arm to throw into the mix.

"Too much to hope that they left?" Barbara asked as the others on the grail retrieval team streamed in around her.

"What are you worried about?" Lisa asked. "We're not fighting the dirt men."

Sally whistled as she looked around. "Someone needs to hire a maid."

"Does anyone else notice that our open sarcophagus is now closed for business?" Xander asked. "The lid's been replaced."

"Guess they got that maid service, hunh?" Vi asked.

"Maybe our dirt guys shut it and fixed the door?" Faith suggested. "Makes sense if they don't want anyone sticking their noses where they shouldn't."

"Gotta love that devotion to civic duty," Robin remarked. "Okay kids, fun time over. Check weapons."

The other four present-day Slayers did as Robin ordered, giving their swords a final look before sheathing them and arranging the various weapons into something a little more comfortable to wear. Ruda, by contrast, bounced around with a grin, looking completely at ease wearing all the weapons Faith remembered from when she first saw her. The silver pin on her coat seemed to giggle in anticipation in the dim light.

Xander slipped the band of the headlamp over his head and snapped on the light. He quickly looped the strap of his crossbow over his right shoulder and adjusted the quiver slung crosswise across his back. He checked the sheathe holding the throwing axe on his right thigh and said, "I soooo need to learn how to use my left hand better."

Robin took up position by the door, his own headlamp already in place, with sword drawn while Charlie, Tikri, and J'Nal pooled around Catherine in the corner. Like their Cleveland counterparts, they were checking their weapons. Unlike their Cleveland counterparts, they did it with disciplined silence, although Tikri looked very nervous as she patted the dagger at her waist, her one weapon for self-protection.

"We ready?" Robin asked.

"How come you are all so calm?" Tikri asked. "I'm ready to throw up."

"Do it over there," Charlie pointed away from him.

"Okay, guys. Positions," Xander encouraged while Willow slipped into his line of sight with Dawn and Andrew tagging behind. Unlike everyone else, including J'Nal, all three were unarmed and unencumbered save for the headlamps on Dawn's and Andrew's heads and the backpack on Andrew's back.

Vi and Barbara braced themselves, leaning against the heavy, granite cover. When Robin gave the signal to the other team outside, they gave it a hard shove.

Faith breathed through her nose and kept a firm footing by standing in "mountain pose" as the first tremors hit, her handful of years in earthquake-prone California standing her in good stead. She noticed Xander and Willow, both life-long members of the shake-and-bake crowd, were already heading for the sarcophagus, moving as if the ground wasn't moving at all. Everyone else stumbled a little, taken by surprise by the suddenness of the earth's rebellion.

Robin recovered his feet and slammed the door shut just in time for Willow and Xander to reach the opening. While Willow peered down into the dark, Xander closed his eyes, gave his head a hard shake, and moved back a few steps.

Faith quickly joined Willow, jamming the band of her headlamp on her head. She toggled the switch and looked down. "Jesus," she breathed. "That is one steep fall."

"Unh-hunh," Willow absently agreed. With one word, "Luminous," Willow transformed herself into a walking flashlight.

Faith stepped back in surprise. It wasn't so much that she didn't like magic, just that the casual reminder of Willow's hidden power caused a prickle of unease along her spine. It was too easy to forget that this chirpy, cheerful, red-headed chick could do more damage with a single thought than Faith ever thought of trying in her 'the hell with the world' phase.

"You look like Tinkerbell," Xander joked as he moved forward to stand next to Willow. "Is there a single pore that isn't lit up like Vegas?"

"I think there's one at the end of my nose," Willow giggled as she looked at her hands, "Wow. This is just…Wow."

"See? On you it looks good," Xander nodded. "If I lit up like that? People would think I went swimming in radioactive sludge. Electric blue washes out my complexion."

*Jesus. He's not batting a fucking eyelash. Woman could tear him apart without getting her hands dirty and he's calling her fucking Tinkerbell.* Faith looked around. She noticed that Dawn and Andrew looked out-and-out terrified by the display. Even Robin and the other Slayers seemed as uneasy with the Witchy Willow reminder. Catherine's group, by contrast, acted like it was just another day at the office while they fixed their headlamps in place and turned on their lights. Then again, being from the future, Willow's light show was probably nothing big, Faith figured.

"Ready?" Robin asked with a hint of impatience.

"You first, just like we planned," Xander jerked his head towards Willow.

"See ya at the bottom," Willow agreed as Robin helped her over the side and set her on the top stairs. "Yeesh. This is going to be fun just getting down."

"Take your time. We don't need anyone getting hurt in the first five seconds," Robin cautioned as everyone gathered round to watch Willow's descent.

Faith noticed Xander peek down to watch Willow's progress, but he again did that odd close-eyes-shake-head-step-back routine. His right hand clenched the edge of the sarcophagus so hard that his knuckles were white.

*The hell? He's not afraid is he?* Faith wondered. Except it didn't quite fit with what she knew about him. *This guy plays with Slayers on a regular basis and manages to do his share of whup ass, so what's the deal?*

Faith could hear Willow's muttering voice fade as she descended. If she didn't know any better, she'd think that Willow was issuing a stream of swears that would make the world's ears burn were anyone able to pick out anything resembling a word. After a long wait, Willow called up, "Okay. At the bottom. Be careful because the stairs aren't so great. We need to file a complaint with the local disabilities commission because there is sooooo no wheelchair access."

"You've been hanging around Xander far too long," Robin shouted down while Xander stifled a laugh. The ex-principal turned to the rest of the group. "Okay, first me, then Catherine and her people, then the rest. Got it?" When he got silent nods in agreement, Robin sheathed his sword, pulled himself over the edge, and began his own descent.

Robin's trip was silent, so when he called up Faith jumped at the unexpected intrusion of his voice. "Willow's right. The stairs are tricky. We need to go down one at a time because one misstep, you'll tumble right to the bottom."

"And the last thing we need is to show our resemblance to domino-like things," Xander shouted down.

"Right in one," Robin's voice floated back. If Faith didn't know better, she'd think he sounded somewhat amused.

And so began the long process of the grail retrieval team descending into the darkness one-by-one and calling up their safe arrival to the next person.

Xander had fallen silent, occasionally looking down the opening, only to again back up and shake his head with eyes closed, as if he were overwhelmed with the very idea of walking down those stairs.

As the last of their team began the trip down below--baring Xander and Faith--the Slayer moved to Xander's side. "You're up next, Cyclops."

"I'll go down last," Xander said.

"Unh, no. Gotta bring up the rear in case we get trouble of the dirt kind from behind," Faith said. "Me superpowered chick, you not so much."

Xander looked into the hole again before squeezing his eyes tight. "I'm going to be a real long time, so you waiting up here is…"

"What's your deal?" Faith asked. "You ain't nervous are ya?"

Xander shot her and angry glare.

"I didn't call you chickenshit," Faith hastily added, "But I can tell you're not loving the idea…"

"The stairs are making me dizzy."

"…of going down…What?" Faith asked as her brain finally caught up with what Xander said.

Xander clenched his jaw, absolutely hating to admit what he obviously felt he had to admit. "Vertigo. I get it when I'm up high and there's nothing around for me to get my bearings."

"You have a thing about heights?"

"Didn't when I had two eyes."

Faith wanted to smack herself. "Awww, shit. I totally forgot."

"Says the woman who calls me Cyclops," Xander dispiritedly said. "Look, I've learned to deal with regular stairs and sidewalk curbs by just taking my time and thinking through what I'm doing. And if I'm in a tall building, I just don't go near the windows. But this," he waved helplessly down the stairs, "I've got no handholds, nothing to focus on going down, a lot of shadows. Basically, I'm fucked. Only way I can see going down is crawling down backwards using my hands and feet."

Faith couldn't imagine a more undignified way of announcing a weakness. "No you don't. You can use me."


"Easy. I go down first, you stick close and put your hands on my shoulders and focus on my back. We'll take it nice and slow."

"You're kidding."

"Nope. We'll get to the bottom with no trouble."

"But not necessarily in one piece," Xander protested. "Clutzy me with the bad one eye-hand coordination, remember? I trip, we go down, I die and you're at least dealing with broken bones."

"Not going to happen," Faith said with more certainty than she felt as she lightly leapt onto the opening's edge. "We'll be fine. Just you watch. Besides, I feel you slip? I can just brace myself against the walls on either side and you won't be going nowhere."

Xander frowned a moment as he studied Faith's face. "Okay. Worth a try."

"Right," Faith nodded. "Let's get into position."

"You ready?" Vi shouted up from the darkness.

"On our way. Keep your undies on," Faith shouted back as she held out her hand to help Xander get over the sarcophagus sides and onto the first step.

It took some doing to get started, but they were soon picking their way down the stairs. Xander's fingers dug into Faith's shoulders in a painfully tight grip that made even the Slayer wince, so she bit her lip and concentrated on the sound of his crossbow ticking against quiver of crossbow bolts on his back. His warm breath tickled past her right ear as she quietly said, "step," every time they moved down.

A few times Xander needed to pause and reorient himself as the angle and movement threatened to overwhelm his balance. Faith braced herself with her hands flat against the walls on either side while she sensed Xander bringing his breathing under control and adjusting the heft of his weapons. She suspected that had he been making the trip alone, he wouldn't have stopped to give himself time and that he was only calling the short breaks simply because he was afraid of getting her hurt if they fell.

A soft word from him, and they were off again, once more picking their way downward, Faith's rhythmic, "step…step…step," the only thing breaking the sound of shifting weapons.

During one such pause, the last one before they hit the bottom in fact, Faith found the nerve to ask the question that had been nagging her since Willow cast her spell. "Hey, X-man," she said quietly.

There was a pause before the whispered, "Yeah?"

"You and Willow. You guys are good buds, right?"

"Yeah." The whisper revealed both a question and a suspicion.

"So that's probably why you don't freak like everyone else when she struts her witchy stuff."

There was an uncomfortable shifting behind her accompanied by the sounds of weapons being adjusted, although she wasn't sure if it was Xander reacting to what she said or because he was trying to regain his sense of equilibrium.

"I mean," Faith tried to explain, "she's got a lot of power and that shit can be scary shit."

"Because she could wipe us all out with one word."

A shiver went down Faith's spine at the whispered acknowledgement that Xander knew, probably better than anyone else, what exactly Willow was capable of doing in bad circumstances. Shit. If Xander could say it…she'd heard vague stories about Willow doing some dark deeds with that power, but she didn't want to think too much about it because that would be too much like looking in a mirror.

"Yeah," she whispered back. "Something like that."

There was another pause before she felt Xander's chin resting on her shoulder, warm breath close, lips practically brushing her right ear, "Faith? Every single person in our happy little Slayer cult is capable of cold-blooded murder. All of us. Buffy. Robin. Giles. Andrew. Willow. You. Even me."

Faith swallowed and stared straight ahead and tried not to think about the point Xander was trying to make.

"I learned that lesson the hard way, so I make sure never to forget," Xander added quietly. "And neither should you."

He suddenly pulled back and in a louder voice he said, "I'm ready now."

Faith nodded with a shaky head and began, "Step…step…step…"

They didn't pause again or talk beyond that until the reached the bottom.

Chapter 51
Getting Down and Dirty

*This is not going well at all.*

Funny the things that go through your head while a dirt monster dribbles your head like a basketball.

*Nope. Definitely not well,* Buffy thought as she managed to squirm away, woozily retreating to the relative safety of three feet away.

Susan flew past her, airborne with a look of resignation on her face until she smacked into a tree.

Buffy incongruously giggled at the sight as the birdies twittering around her own head began singing in harmony with the birdies circling Susan's. She stumbled over to the younger woman, tripped, and fell across the prone Slayer.

"I changed me mind," Susan mumbled. "Bring on snake."

Buffy shook her head and forced her scrambled brains into coherence. No one expected the dirt guards to show up so fast. She figured there'd be a little breaking free of the ground a la new vampire, a little time to orient everyone so they can pick their targets.

But nooooooooo. Robin gives the sign, slams the door shut, and these guys just appear from thin air and go nuts.

How embarrassing. She's getting trounced by things made of dirt. Her street cred was going down. She could just see it now. Fighting a vampire and getting taunted by the ugly bumpy about not being willing to get down and dirty.

She was sooooo going to kill Xander for this. Dead. The deadest guy in deadonia by the time she was through with him.

Giles huffed up to her, eyeglasses skewed, and immediately dropped down to check both hers and Susan's status.

"I'm fine, I think," Buffy said as she slapped him away. "Susan's…"

"Better," the other Slayer shook her head and opened her eyes wide as she worked her jaw. "This Slayer healing is the shit."

"Glad you like it," Buffy rolled her eyes.

"Now that you're back, we have a significant problem," Giles said.

"Bigger than the one we got now? I can't wait," Buffy deadpanned.

"Our friends are heading for the crypt," Giles pointed out with a toss of his head. "Look."

Buffy vaulted to her feet and turned around in time to see the dirt thingies edging their way through the fighting Slayers. All of them were converging on one point. *How the hell do they know?* Buffy wondered as reality registered.

"Oh crap!" Buffy yelled. "Guys! They're going after the other team!"

"No shit!" Kennedy yelled back. "A hand over here would be really good right now!"

Buffy was off and running to Kennedy's aid. "KEEP THEM AWAY FROM THAT CRYPT!"


Xander felt disorientated picking his way through the cavern and wondered if he was two-eye having if he'd be having this much trouble. He didn't dare put a hand on his crossbow or load it. He was too afraid of tripping and sending a bolt flying through someone's head.

Willow softly glowed in the lead, hands at the ready like the magical prizefighter she was, as Robin and Vi flanked her with swords drawn in a protective move. J'Nal was in the rear and Xander imagined that his stance was probably similar as Ruda and Barbara guarded his back. Dawn and Andrew walked slightly ahead, Dawn resting a hand on Andrew's shoulder in an attempt to keep the other language expert steady. As for him, he was snuggled tight in the middle and wondered how the hell he happened to be surrounded by a warm cocoon of top-notch fighters.

The shadows seemed to leap and move as the multiple light sources picked out this detail and that, following the line of sight of everyone on their guard. More than once he felt his footing trip over things that weren't there. Yet just as he felt himself start to stumble Faith somehow appeared from nowhere to place a light, steadying hand at just the right spot in a movement so small that it could be easily missed.

*Why?* Xander wondered, as he felt himself nodding a silent thanks to Faith for again catching him. *Why the hell is she doing this?*

He didn't even want to consider that on some level Faith probably felt bad for him. Pity was the last thing he wanted or needed from anyone. God knows he'd been trying so hard to downplay the problems he'd had adjusting to one-eyed life to the point that he was laughing at jokes that didn't strike him as remotely funny. Maybe he'd been trying too hard. Maybe Robin had a point.

*Don't do this, not now,* Xander thought. But he hated feeling so… helpless. Not that he had never felt helpless before. It was feeling helpless over something as relatively minor as stumbling through an underground tunnel that bothered him.

"Looks like it gets wider up ahead." Faith again providing commentary for the blind. Or near-blind in this case.

The group moved into an opening almost as large as the library back at the motherhouse. Xander felt pathetically happy that the ground seemed relatively free of rock litter, leaving the granular dark soil clear enough for him to run laps if he wanted to.

Willow whispered a word and her candlepower shot up, casting the area in a soft blue-ish light bright enough to fool his eye into thinking it was an overcast day.

"GE. We bring good things to life," Faith nervously joked next to him.

Xander noticed Dawn putting on a brave face while Andrew cowered behind her. Hell, even Robin seemed off-balance and he didn't see Willow when…

He snapped off the thought and strode over to Willow's side. "Nice. Except I don't see a grail. Do you see a grail?"

"Dead end," Willow frowned as she slowly turned. "Maybe those three tunnels over there?"

"Except they lead away," Robin countered as he tapped his compass. "Summers is in that direction and I see a blank wall with some rocks in front of it."

"Maybe behind the rocks?" Catherine asked.

"Roll a D-20 to find out," Andrew said.

"Worth a shot," Xander agreed, pointedly ignoring Andrew. "Ladies?"

Ruda, Vi, Faith, Barbara, Lisa, and Sally got to work, shifting the rocks around with ample grunting punctuated by some colorful exclamations from Faith.

Catherine's instincts were on the money. The Slayers shifted an especially large boulder that revealed a new passage beyond. Near as Xander could tell, the fissure promised more cramped traveling of the single-file kind. An icicle finger of warning ran down his spine, a sure sign of some major mojo in the area. Last time he felt that was when Willow cast the spell spreading the Slayer power.

Faith swiped a sweaty strand of hair out of her eyes. "Next time? You move the fucking rocks. Big strong men my ass."

"You want me to open a jar of pickles and reach things off high shelves, I'm your man," Xander said, mentally forcing the icicle away. "You want me to be Superman? That's your job."

"You two will be arguing about who should have the babies next," Vi giggled.

"You mean the stork doesn't send 'em?" Dawn interrupted with a joke. "Damn. Lied to by society again."

Ruda shook her head in exasperation and zipped through the revealed the opening.

"Ruda!" Catherine shouted as she darted forward. She slammed into her Slayer just as girl reappeared.

"Ow!" Ruda complained rubbing a spot on her chest while Catherine bounced back a few steps from the force of the impact. She immediately brightened. "Hey guys! The passage isn't that long. There's an even bigger room on the other side and guess what? Graaaaail."

"Now is the time for me to roll a D-6," Andrew muttered.

Right on cue a low growl* echoed through the tunnels. (*Yaaaaaaawn!)

"Snake?" Andrew nervously asked.

Robin and Xander exchanged glances before agreeing in unison, "Snake."

"Shit," Faith commented.

"Teamwork that splinters the team…" Xander said quietly to himself. He added in a louder voice, "Okay, idea here: Catherine? Get your people inside. Dawn? Andrew? Go with them. Faith? Willow? You go, too. Rest of us will distract it."

Catherine nodded. "You heard him, you slugs. Let's get moving."

"Ooooo, tough talk. Kinky," Charlie waggled his eyebrows. Catherine's bark of a laugh was obviously what he was looking for and he flashed a grin of triumph as he moved to Ruda's side."

"It's coming together," J'Nal agreeably nodded. "I can feel it."

"Glad you can," Tikri said. Every little noise resulted in yet another small hop from the nervous reporter, putting Xander in mind of a jumpy bunny. She suspiciously looked down at the dagger. "Should have gone for the sword."

"You said you'd cut your own head off with it," Charlie said.

"You were the one who insisted on me bringing the sword and you were right," Tikri backed up, waving the knife in front of her as if she expected the snake to burst out of solid rock.

"Mostly because I was hoping you'd actually…"

"Charlie," Catherine warned in a not-so-friendly-now manner.

A long, drawn-out hiss* seemed to come from everywhere. (*Who woke me up? I was having this great dream about this hot babe and just when I was about to…Ooo. Hate that.)

"Not a chance." Faith got into fighting stance. "Sounds like you need all the help you can get."

"You heard her mister," Willow stomped over in resolve face.

"Between Robin, Vi, Lisa, Barbara, and Sally, we'll be fine," Xander argued back. He added in a lower tone as he watched Robin carefully approach the various entrances, listening intently for any telltale signs of movement, "Someone needs to watch Dawn's back. Ruda's got enough to worry about with her people."

Faith blew a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. "You're blowing steam up my skirt, aren't you?"

"You catch on fast," Willow agreed as her eyes narrowed.

"Is it working?" Xander asked.

Faith grimaced. "Looking at a ton of reasons why you're wrong starting with the fact you're supposed to be present and accounted for when they boost the grail."

A lazy hiss* made it harder for Xander to think of a good reason why he shouldn't retreat to relative safety of the grail's location. Another icicle finger ran up his spine. Oh. Right. Big-time magic. (*Mmmmm, hungry…hey? Do I smell food?)

"Unh, guys," Dawn said nervously.

"Now would be a very good time," Ruda practically stamped with frustration.

"I can't explain it," Xander said as he nervously scanned the immediate area. "Gut feeling tells me to stay put."

"Look, Xander, I can dig the whole 'you're-not-the-boss-of-me' deal you've got going with the frigging book, but Jesus…" Faith began.

"That's not…" Xander began his protest.

"Still can't tell where it's coming from," Robin interrupted. "So if we're getting into defensive positions, now is the time to do it."

Andrew drew out the bag of walnuts from his backpack, threw it in Xander's direction, and ran to Ruda's side. "Ithinkweneedtogetgoing," he breathlessly said.

Faith caught it in mid-flight and handed it off to Xander. "Gut feeling, hunh?"

"Gut feeling," Xander agreed.

Willow threw up her hands. "I hate when you do that. There's no arguing with you."

"Do I have to like it?" Faith asked.

"No." Xander reached out and grabbed Willow's elbow, ignoring Faith's slight start of surprise. "Willow? I'm getting a real bad vibe from the mojo around here."

Willow's eyebrows and drew tight. "Let me get this straight: You can sense the spell?"

"Unh, dunno," Xander fumbled, surprised that Willow was surprised he felt something. The press of magic was so strong he thought sure everyone felt it. "I just have the feeling that something laid a real whammy down back there, so be careful."

Faith's eyes tracked back and forth between the two of them. "I don't feel nothin'."

"You're not a witch, so why would you?" Willow asked as she grabbed Xander by his collar and pulled him down, staring intently into his face. "I don't get a threat off it. Not sure what I feel, actually. So how…"

"Me. Magic. Not good combo," Xander said. "I don't know."

"Could be a repel spell to keep you out," Willow nodded.

"Unh, could be. Gotta be a reason, right?" Xander agreed, suddenly getting the idea that admitting he felt something similar on Kingman's Bluff and during their battle with the First would be a very bad thing to admit. He let out a breath he didn't know he was holding when Willow seemed to buy it. Faith's eyes narrowed to slits, silently accusing him of laying a whooper on her during dire circumstances. *Great. Just great. When the hell did Faith even bother to learn figuring me out? Go glare at someone else Slaygirl,* Xander thought as he gave Faith a who-are-you-looking-at face.

Something that sounded a lot like a snarl* caused the three of them to jump. (*You know? I could use a snack. How long have I been sleeping anyway?)

"We have to move right now!" Catherine shouted.

Willow grimaced. "Fine. Be careful." She turned on her heel and joined Catherine and her nervous crew, Andrew, and Dawn.

"Faith?" Xander tentatively asked as the Slayer turned away. "Watch her back, too."

Faith looked over her shoulder, gave a slight nod, and moved to Catherine's group.

Xander turned, hefting the bag of walnuts in his hands. *Unbelievable. This is not going to work.*

Robin's dark hand reached out, grabbed the bag, and ripped it open.

"You can't be serious," Xander protested.

A hiss* followed by sounds of slithering movement caused his heart to leap into his throat. (*Heeeeeere protein, protein, protein.)

Robin paused before drawing out a handful of nuts. "Right about now, I'd throw nasty thoughts at the damn thing if I thought it would work."

"Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition," Vi agreed, holding out her hand for the bag.

Chapter 52
Meet the Frying Pan

They managed to beat back the dirty creatures to an area on the other side of the cemetery road using a lot of tai chi throwing moves.

It was something at least.

Buffy spun in a roundhouse kick and whooped when dirty guy stumbled back half a step. Her victory was short-lived as another one tackled her from behind. She managed to twist herself free of its grasp before hitting the ground. She rolled away and rocked herself back to her feet.

They were fighting three-to-one, not terrible odds but not great. Problem was they were also fighting things that didn't get tired unlike, say, a baker's dozen worth of Slayers and one Watcher.

Buffy drew a deep breath and retreated a little more, eyes fixed on the battle raging among the graves. *There has to be a weakness. There has to be,* she desperately thought. *At best we're fighting to a draw and time's on their side. They can wait us out and win.*

Try as hard as she might, she simply couldn't see a pattern. There was no landed punch, to strike, no kick that revealed a weak spot. She shouldn't have been surprised. In essence they were fighting animated inanimate objects, not flesh-and-blood things with Achilles heels.

Tammi got kicked out of play and momentum bounced her across the ground. Buffy took off to retrieve her and help her to her feet.

"So much for Xander's rule," Tammi grumbled as she grasped Buffy's hand.

"Xander's rule? I'm afraid to ask."

"When all else fails, go for the eyes. Everything has eyes."

"Yeesh," Buffy cringed. "Was this before or after Caleb?"

"Before." Tammi gave her head a hard shake. "Do you see eyes? I don't see eyes."

"Yeah, well, it is good advice," Buffy admitted, trying very hard to make the image of Xander's blood-covered agonized face go away. "Except, y'know, when it's not."

"GUYS!" Andrea screamed as seven dirt bags converged on her position.

"Time for me to hit them with my face a little more," Tammi remarked. "Coming?"

"In a sec. Trying to see if there's a fighting pattern or a weakness we can exploit," Buffy said, eyes desperately scanning the fight.

"Don't take too long, o great leader," Tammi snipped as she zipped back in the fray.

Buffy bit her lip. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon. Damn it! Show me something!"

Her desperate study was interrupted when she saw Giles backhanded to the ground. "Hey!" she yelled as she rocketed towards the offending thing. "Hands off my Watcher!"


Willow was glowing so brightly that was hard to make out her features.

Faith looked around the cavern and softly whistled as she took in the glittering multicolored stalactites and stalagmites, the ornate carvings on the walls, and the Grail--at long last with a capital 'G' in her mind--set on a raised stone platform. Only two words for it: Wicked. Awesome.

Catherine's eyes widened, her dark eyes reflecting the glory of the Grail. She hungrily surged forward, but was stopped when Faith's arm shot out, checking her in her progress.

The Watcher Honoria spun around into a fighting stance.

"Wait," Faith cautioned, "no way it's gonna be that easy."

"Sorry," Catherine hunched. "I just…we need…"

"I know," Faith nodded at her. She jerked her head to the walls. "Yo! Dawn! Are we just looking at pretty, or is there something useful over there?"

Dawn cautiously stepped forward, eyes scanning the carvings. "So far, pretty. Nothing so far…wait!" She touched the rock face, fingers tapping over the carvings. "I'm seeing something resembling ogham in this."

"Ogham?" Faith asked.

"Celtic alphabet." Dawn swore under her breath. "Not overly familiar with this one but at least I've seen it before. I can pick out the repeating pattern and I know a few words but…I need time."

"Take it," Faith agreed. "Andrew? Witchy-poo?"

"Witchy-poo?" Willow asked.

"We're going to check out the area around the Grail."

Catherine cleared her throat. "Excuse me, but I do believe…"

"Fine. J'Nal can come with," Faith sighed.

"But…" Catherine began her protest.

"Question. What happens if the snake gets by our backwatchers?" Faith asked as she mentally added, *Damn, I rock. Worth us taking a first look at this thing. I don't fucking care what Xander's journal says about it not belonging to us.*

Catherine studied her through narrowed eyes, a clear sign that the Watcher Honoria knew she was being played and played but good.

Faith maintained as close to an innocent expression as she could get.

"Ruda," Catherine started, eyes not leaving Faith's face, "stand guard at the entrance. Charlie, take Tikri off to the side and wait."

"But…" Charlie began.

"I don't want to risk you if I can help it," Catherine interrupted. "There's still fighting going on and we might need your skills later rather than sooner."

"Oh goody," Tikri muttered. "More quality time for the two of us."

Catherine leaned over. "For the record, I'm not happy about this."

"For the record, you said you wouldn't even be here if you were in our shoes." Faith suspected that her -rah and -sen titles were getting flushed down Catherine's mental toilet during this battle of wills. Fuck it. She wasn't in the mood for diplomacy games. Catherine can't deal? Her fucking problem.

Catherine let out an irritated huff of breath, drew her sword, and went to stand by Ruda.

Faith turned, grabbed Andrew by the scruff of the neck, ignored his squeaky protest, and cautiously approached the Grail. Time seemed to slow down as Faith let every Slayer sense reach out just in case whoever put the Grail here packed in one last punch to the gut. No one was more shocked than she was when the four of them reached the raised platform without one wiff of a trap.

"Too. Fucking. Easy." Faith glowered at the Grail as if it had ruined her good time.

"With you," Willow nodded as she slowly circled platform, no doubt looking for hidden surprises.

"I say count our blessings," Andrew said in a nervous-cheerful voice. "The D-8 came up in our favor."

"Oh crap!" Dawn's voice echoed. "Looks like there's another language tangled up with the ogham. I can't read it."

Faith's eyes didn't leave the Grail, mostly because she was afraid that a break in her attention might lead to trouble. "Why not?" she called back. "Not of this world?"

"Unh, sort of. It looks more demon-y than future-y, but I'm not sure," Dawn's answer echoed back.

"Andrew? Go look," Faith ordered.

The guy practically saluted and beat feet over to Dawn's position. Within moments everyone had an answer. "S'nargle. I sort of know this one. Looks like they were swapping letters and words between the two languages." Andrew's voice had shifted to certainty as he engaged the one talent he had over everyone else in Cleveland.

"Can you translate?" Willow asked.

"Sort of," Andrew said, his voice suddenly less sure, "I think between Dawn and me we've got a good chance at success."

"Do it. See if there's something we should know tucked in there," Faith said as Willow completed her circuit.

"I got nothin'," Willow frowned.

"No writing on the platform anywhere," J'Nal said. "Only writing I see is on the Grail itself."

Faith looked at Willow. "You wanna do it? Or should I?"

"Do you think that's wise?" J'Nal asked. "Maybe I should…"

"We'll do it," Faith stated. "Not that I'm hyped about the chances of us getting even close."

"Don't wanna do it any more than you do, but there's only one way we're going to find out if there's a trap of the booby kind," Willow pointed out.

"Right. Me Slayer. Me do," Faith nodded. She reached out, half expecting an axe to swoop down from the ceiling and cut her hand clean off.

What she got instead was a little bit of a shock.

Actually, it was more like a big shock.

Just as her fingertips crossed the edge of the stone platform, Faith felt an electric current drill its way through every nerve ending. She let out an agonized scream as her back hyperextended before she was blown across the room. The grey haze of pain shut down into black when she hit the rock wall.


Xander swiped away the sweat on his forehead with his left sleeve while his right hand clutched his handful of nuts.

ROOOOWWWWWWWL! (Know what I love? Dumb dinners. Staying put in the same place is just not smart.)

Christ, that thing sounded yooooooge.

"Anyone else feel like running?" Sally asked.

"If we start running, just follow the Violet-shaped blur," Vi nervously giggled.

"It's official. Things are now fucked," Xander grumbled.

RUMMMMMMROAR! (I'm gonna getchya little dinner. I'm gonna getchya right now…)

"They weren't before?" Robin asked as he poised himself for a first-class pitcher's throw.

"Vi's flying her geek colors. That's never of the good," Xander explained.

"Geek colors?" Robin asked.

Before Xander could answer, a reptilian snout poked its nose into their suddenly too-small retreat.

"Hol-eeee shit," Barbara prayed.

"That is One. Big. Snake," Robin agreed.

A tongue flicked out, causing Xander to jump.

"Hold your fire until we see the whites of its eyes," Robin ordered.

"Unh, Robin? We lost at Bunker Hill," Xander nervously said, "I slept through middle school and high school history and even I know that."

"Got a better idea?" Robin asked.

HISSSSSS! (One…two…three…ready or not, here I come!)

Xander turned his head to look at Robin to his right. "Can we run now?"

The snake thrust its head through at lightening speed, forcing the intrepid sextet to back up slightly faster.

HIIIIIIIISSSSSS! (Goody! I get to play with dinner!)

"Now!" Robin shouted.

All six let loose with--and Xander would be the first to admit this--a pathetically small volley of walnuts, all of which landed square on the snake's snout.

For a brief moment, the universe held its breath while the six waited to see what happened and the snake--which looked rather surprised for something that went through life with a fixed expression--stared back.

"Well, that went over about as well as a fart in a space suit," Xander dryly remarked.

RUR? (The hell?)

"You and your goddamn jokes," Robin hissed as Xander loaded his crossbow and everyone else drew their swords.

"I told you, but did you listen? Nooooooooo," Xander snarled back as he let loose with a bolt, aiming for the monster's eye. Never let it be said that he wasn't willing to use a tactic that was once used on himself to great effect.

The snake moved--*Christ! How can something that big slither so fast?--and the bolt missed its mark, bouncing harmlessly off the scales.

Xander retreated to load his crossbow again while Robin yelled, "Attack!" and lead the charge forward.

Chapter 53
Philosophy of the Slay:
A Group Project by Buffy Summers, Faith Lanoire, and Alexander Harris




"You know…" Kennedy sounded almost philosophical. A neat trick since she was also out of breath. "Being a Slayer? Not nearly as much fun as I thought it would be."




"Never is," Buffy replied. "Duck!"

"Duck? Where?" Kennedy asked.

A dirt monster slammed a fist into the back of Kennedy's head, knocking her down. In a smooth move, she rolled and back-flipped on to her feet.

"That never gets old." It was Buffy's turn to sound philosophical. She crouched as a hand whistled through the empty air over her head.

"Glad you're amused," Kennedy dryly replied.




"Yeah, well, I make fun because I love," Buffy said.




"Seriously, though," Kennedy threw a haymaker at the closest target. "How can you tell the difference between a good fight and a bad fight?"




Buffy scrambled to her feet, trying not to rub the bruise that she just knew was forming on her cheekbone. "A good fight…" she paused as she danced away from a rapidly arriving elbow to her face. She tried again. "A good fight is when you don't have to trowel on the make-up the next morning to hide the black-and-blue badness."

"Ahhhh," Kennedy nodded as she tore a small headstone out of the ground and tossed it at a dirt man's head. "And a bad fight?"

One of the dirty many grabbed Buffy by her collar and lifted her off the ground. She had just enough time to say, "I think this pretty much qualifies."



The world resolved into black and white. Faith shook her head to bring color back into her vision, only to have it explode into angry reds and bright oranges.

And pain. Can't forget the pain.

"Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck," she softly groaned.

"She's coming to!" shouted a male voice.

Faith blindly reached out, grabbed hold of some cloth, and shook. "Shut. Up."


A hand curled around her fistful of cloth. "Faith, you're strangling Charlie," a soft voice said.

Faith let go, registered the sound of someone falling backwards, and slit open her eyes to see the worried face of Catherine looking down at her.

"Welcome back to the world," the Watcher Honoria grinned. "Your flight was interrupted by a wall."

She heard some muffled sounds of fighting echoing through the chamber.

"Wha…" Faith began.

"We think they found the snake. Or it found them," Willow's worried face popped into view.

"Can you get up?" Catherine asked.

Faith crawled stiffly to her feet and felt the familiar kick followed by a tingle signaling that superfast healing was finally getting to work. While there was no way she'd be at 100 percent any time before tomorrow, at least she'll be able to move without passing out.

"Ruda?" Faith asked.

"Standing by the entrance in case the monster on the other side gets past the others," Catherine said. "You were injured just about the time the fight started, so she's staying put. She knows her duty."

"Go," Faith winced at the sound of her own voice echoing in her head. "Sounds to me if it gets by Xander, Robin, and the others we'll knee deep in the shit. I'll get over there as soon as I find my head."

Catherine nodded and swirled away.

Faith's vision greyed slightly and she felt Willow's hand catch her elbow.

"Turn down the light, will ya? You're not fucking helping," Faith complained.

"Sorry." Willow mumbled a word and killed her glow, plunging the cavern into darkness. Scattered headlamp lights indicated where everyone was.

"HEY!" several voices shouted in unison.

"I'll turn it on in a sec!" Willow shouted back, causing Faith to wince at the volume. "Faith's all headache-y, so let me help her first."

"Shit," Faith hissed as her hands slowly traveled up her face. She felt cuts and bruises, but no headband.

"Your personal light got a little crunchy in the fall," Willow said.

"Ah. An' whaddya doin' here?" Her mouth felt like it was full of cotton. "Grail?"

"J'Nal figured he better do some tests and see if he can't breach the barrier before we try again." Willow jerked her head in the direction Faith guessed the Grail was located.

The Slayer leaned against the cavern wall to get her bearings and--*slowly, slowly,* she reminded herself--opened her eyes a little wider and looked around.

In the center of the chamber J'Nal was pacing around the raised platform, hands gracefully gesturing in front of him, as the air around the Grail crackled and slightly glowed.

"He's exciting the molecules that are holding the spell together," Willow explained, not that Faith could really follow what she was saying. "It's not exactly an anti-spell, more like oblique force the makes the spell turn on itself. Think of it as hitting something at an angle instead of head on or in a T-crash."

"Do you understand it?" Faith asked.

Willow threw the other witch a worried look. "Sort of. The mechanics are pretty clear-cut, but I'm not entirely sure how you can do something like that without setting off a an out-of-control chain reaction."

"Which would be bad?"

"Ever hear of nuclear bomb?"

"Well, yeah."

"Same principle, only you've got it happening on a controlled, microscopic level. One wrong step and all the cute little booms become one big fatal boom."

"Terrific." Faith finally felt brave enough to stand on her feet without support. "Why didn't you do something like that before I stuck my finger in a goddamn light socket?"

"I didn't know you could do something like that," Willow admitted. "J'Nal explained it to me. Theory I get. Practice? Too scared to even try."

Faith swallowed down the nauseous feeling. "So what you're telling me is that their witch could beat our witch if it came to a smackdown?"

Willow's eyebrows lowered and there was a flash of something in her eyes that immediately made Faith regret even thinking of asking that question. Without a doubt, when it came to magic, Willow had a pride in her talents that could easily be of the before-the-fall variety.

"Tough call," all trace of Geek Girl was gone from Willow's voice. "It's not that he's more powerful, I know I have that on my side. It's just that he really knows how to use what he's got."

"Let's not test it," Faith quickly said.

Willow gave her a tight nod, and went over to Dawn and Andrew, once against powering up her inner light as she traversed the cavern.

Faith let out a breath, swiped her hair out of her face, and tried to calm her screaming Slayer sense. *Fuck me. And Xander called her Tinkerbell? Boy's an idiot or has a death wish. Can't figure out which.*


Barbara flipped way from the snake's flashing jaws. While a nice move, one Xander certainly could appreciate for its sheer Gold Medal-worthy beginning, if he were the Russian judge he'd be shaving points off for her landing.

Especially since she landed right into him.

He fell to the ground tangled up with one yelping Slayer and watched helplessly as his crossbow skittered away from him.

"Barbara," he began as he extracted himself and yanked the girl to her feet, "word of advice: when you're surrounded by people helping you fight in close quarters, do not go all 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.'"

"Sorry," she apologized.

Robin danced backwards and Xander discovered that he really, really wanted that sword in the other man's hands, especially since he'd lost his primary weapon and all he had was a tiny throwing axe that would do shit-all against a scale-clad monster with big sharp teeth.

Vi had managed to get close and give the snake a good jab with her sword, but didn't manage to draw blood.

HISSSSS! (Hey! Watch where you're sticking that thing!)

With a flick of a tail, Vi discovered that sliding on gravel hurt like hell, something Xander could've told her considering he'd had so much experience.

Robin reached his side, "Okay, walnuts didn't work. Can you remember anything else?"

Xander hungrily coveted his neighbor's sword, but since knocking Robin out and stealing his weapon was a good idea only in the world of video games, he would just have to live with the burning envy.

"Something about teamwork splitting the team…" Xander began.

"Guys! Help!" Lisa screamed as she kept smacking the snake in the snout as its tongue harassed her.

GGRRRRR! (Hold still little mousy. Hoooooold stiilllll….)

"Vi, Barbara, Sally! Help her!" Robin snapped while Xander desperately searched his brain for the words that he once believed were burned into it.

"Wait, that's it!" Xander reached out and grabbed Robin. "Teamwork that splinters the team. We have to split up again!"

"Are you out of your mind!" Robin yelled back.

"No, no! It makes sense," Xander waved at the cave that lead to the others. "If that thing is guarding the grail…"

"Looks more like it's trying to eat us," Robin pointed out.

"Whatever. But we have to get it away from the entrance and we've got four tunnels to choose from to make it chase us. The one we came in and the three spares," Xander said.

Four Slayers let out a unified yelp as the snake tried to scoop them up in one swallow.

Robin let out a huff of breath. "Worth a shot."

"Right," Xander nodded as he charged over to the Slayers. "Ladies, we gotta split up!"

"Head for one of the tunnels" Robin shouted as he followed Xander. "Make a lot of noise when you get in there so we'll be able to draw it down at least one of the passages."

"Are you nuts?" Sally bounced away from the snake on the balls of her feet, sword at the ready.

"We have to draw that thing away, so try to get it to chase you," Xander said as he edged for one of the three tunnels. "Maybe we can trap it in there and finish it off. Meet back here when you figure out that it's not chasing you."

"This has to be the stupidest idea," Vi growled as she grabbed Barbara and charged for one of the tunnels.

"Right!" Sally agreed as she grabbed Lisa and zipped to a different tunnel.

Xander sprinted to a tunnel while he heard Robin's sword make a dull metallic clang against the snake's skin, probably to distract monster-breath while they all made a break for it. He stumbled into the narrow passage and retreated from the entrance, looking around for some good-sized rocks to toss around.

He was probably going to go to hell for thinking this, but he really hoped that their slithery opponent would go after someone who was actually able to outrun it, say, a Slayer.

While his back was turned to the entrance, something heavy landed into his backside. Without thinking he twisted around, dropped into a crouch, and shot out a kick in a move Catherine taught him.

"Shit!" was followed very quickly by a metallic clanking sound.

As Xander spun back into a standing position, he saw the following:

1. Robin was on the ground clutching his knee and;

2. Robin was unarmed.

"What the hell are you doing here!" Xander shouted. "You're supposed to get your own damn tunnel!"

"I didn't know you were in here!" Robin shouted back. "Ow! Knee! Why…"

"I didn't know it was you," Xander helped Robin to his feet. "I thought you were the snake."

"And, what, kicking it in the nose is going to kill it?" Robin asked as he flexed his right knee.

"Worth a shot if you think you're going to be eaten," Xander pointed out. "I, uh, can you still run if you have to?"

"Hurts like a son of a bitch, but the adrenalin tells me I'll pay later instead of now," Robin gingerly put his weight on his right leg. "Nice shot, by the way."

"Yeah, well, while you're complimenting me, you're unarmed. We're both unarmed."

Robin glanced around, his light flashing among the rocks. "Well, that sucks. Can you see anything silver-ish?"

ROAAAAR? (Hey? Where'd everyone go?)

Xander could dimly hear the distant, echo-y voices of the girls yelling and shouting to get the snake's attention.

HIISSSSS! RAWL! (You know? I'm not happy about this. I'm hungry damn it!)

Xander and Robin exchanged glances as they saw the coils dance in front of the entrance to their passage.

"I was just thinking…" Xander began.

"That we're both really stupid for not each grabbing a Slayer to partner with us instead of ending up with each other while that thing decides if it wants white or dark meat?" Robin whispered back.

"Ooooh, you very much read my mind," Xander nodded. "Especially since if it comes after us, it'll get both white and dark meat."

"You just had to bring up that together we're a veritable feast for the monster pallet, didn't you?"

"Yeah, well, count on me to always find that lower place."

RRRRROOOOOAAAARRRR! (Come back here and fight you chickens! I'll take you all on!)

"That thing sounds angry," Robin observed.

"You think?"

GRRROWL! (I'm waiting!)

"What do you want to bet that thing's coming down this passage?" Xander asked.

"Not a bet. Because we're both stupid and deserve to get eaten."

"Speak for yourself paleface."

Robin blinked at him. "I'm pretty sure that's the first time someone's called me that."

"Would you prefer I call you MC Woodster?"

"You've never heard my 'Do the ABC' rap that I used back in my student-teaching days," Robin said. "All the first graders dug it."

Xander paused a moment, studying Robin's face. "You know what? I believe you."

SNUFFFLE. GRR. GRR. GRR. GRR. (Fine. Be like that. Eeeny-meeny-miny-mo.)

"If I didn't know any better…" Robin began.

"…you'd say it was doing an eeny-meeny-miny-mo dealie?" Xander asked. "Think we can hope for rock-paper-scissors?"

"Think it'll change the outcome?" Robin asked as he slowly began backing away.

"Probably not. But we can hope, right?" Xander asked as he kept pace with Robin's quiet back-away-slowly plan.


Upon seeing the snake thrust its very, very huge head into the entrance of their passage, Robin and Xander did what any sane, manly men with very strong survival instincts would do.

They turned tail and ran while letting out a very girly scream.


Rest assured it was a girly scream, even if the language wasn't what anyone would call lady-like.

ROWWWWLLLLLLL! (Oh goody! White and dark meat!)

"Move! Move! Move!" Xander yelled as he grabbed a falling behind Robin and yanked him forward.

"You move!" Robin yelled back while he grabbed Xander, who was now behind him, and yanked him forward.

Adrenalin must've been working overtime to improve Xander's eyesight in his one eye, since he was able scramble over and around the scattered obstacles without breaking his neck.

Then again, fear of a very painful death has a way of spurring men on to feats of superhuman greatness.

They both stumbled over random rocks that seemed placed just right to make running all but impossible. It didn't help that they were busy "helping" each other over the rough spots, although this helping seemed to mostly involve yanking and dragging the other guy over some pretty sharp surfaces.

It was a race to see what would kill them first: one angry, hungry, giant snake or blood loss because they were bleeding from multiple cuts and scrapes.

HISSSSSSSSSSS! (Crap! I'm stuck!)

As neither Robin or Xander spoke Parseltongue, er, Giant Snake, they were unaware that they were saved by the narrowing passage until Robin's taller body smacked its head on a low-hanging rock.

Xander, suddenly realizing that his comrade-in-terror had dropped like a sack of potatoes somewhere behind him, stopped and turned around. Good thing too, as he was less than three inches away from joining Robin in knocked out land.

"Robin," Xander desperately hissed as he ran to his fallen comrade's side.

HISS-RUR-HISSSSSSSSSSSS! (Goddamn it! What? Ow! Ow! I knew I picked the wrong meal! Should've gone with the faster food.)

Xander desperately tugged Robin into a sitting position as the principal's head lolled. He noticed the headlamp was well and truly cracked and that a trickle of blood was seeping from underneath the headband.

"Shit. Notnownotnownotnownotnow…" Xander prayed as he removed Robin's now-useless light source. As he steadied himself to try throwing the taller man over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, he registered that the snake hadn't caught them yet.

GROWL! (I can't believe this!)

While there was definitely sounds of one nutso, angry, possibly famished snake nearby, there was nothing sounding like slithering to go with it.

"Hunh," Xander said as the thought occurred to him. Knowing that what he was about to do probably wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done, he carefully laid Robin back down and picked his way back down the tunnel.

His light flashed ahead, picking up the iridescent scales. Xander froze and let the light traverse to the snake's head. Upon seeing its failed dinner plans so tantalizingly close, the snake opened and snapped shut its mouth in a thoroughly unfriendly manner.

But, and this was a big but, it didn't move forward, even though Xander could see the snake was doing its best by the way the muscles undulated underneath the skin.

"Heh." The sound escaped. Xander slapped a hand over his mouth, not quite able to stifle the very unmanly giggly laughter fighting to break free.

RUUUURRR! (Come closer pal and see how funny it is!)

Xander stood up. "What's big, ugly, has the brain of a walnut, and couldn't outwit gym teacher?"

The snake glared back. If Xander didn't know any better, he'd think the snake could understand him.

Not that it was at all possible, of course.

"Why," he said in an airy voice. "that would be you!" For good measure, he stuck his tongue out and did the hootchie dance that made him world famous in Kindergarten and made Willow laugh until milk blew out her nose.

GRRRRRR! (We'll see who's the walnut brain around here. Just you wait…)

Xander deliberately turned his back on snake breath, tossing over his shoulder, "Man! It's been so long since I got in some quality taunting. I sooooo needed that. Thanks for the funny. Worth every penny. Let's not do this again real soon."

GRUMP! (When I get out of here, you're first!)

"Yeah, yeah," Xander muttered as he crouched beside Robin. He gently lifted an eyelid to see what kind of concussion Robin had. The bright light shining in his eye seemed to bring Robin violently around and the former principal gagged slightly as if he were going to be sick.

"Ayup, a beaut you've got there," Xander grumbled. "Lucky me. I get to drag your ass all over the place."

Robin moaned.

"C'mon," Xander unhappily growled as he wrestled Robin into an unsteady standing position and pulled the other man's arm around his shoulders. "Let's take it one step at a time, 'kay?"

Robin wobbily nodded. "Where?"

"You. In a cavern. With a big rock," Xander stumbled a little under the other man's weight.


"You knocked yourself out, dummy," Xander began moving forward. He very quickly got the idea that this task was going to be a little bigger than he originally expected. Once again the one-eye having was causing problems with his balance, a balance that was made all the more precarious by Wood heavily hanging off his blind side.

"Couldda happen' to 'one," Robin protested.

"Maaaan, you've got to loose some weight," Xander muttered.

"S'all muscle."

"You mean Andrew's cooking. His mac 'n cheese recipe is a cardiologist's vacation home on a plate."

"That's to show how much he wuuuuuvs you."

"No. He wuvs Enrique Iglesias. I know because he talks in his sleep."

"He wuvs you and Enrique. On a half-shell. Wearing togas." Robin started giggling at the imagery in his head involving peeled grapes, lyres, and a disturbing number of strategically placed laurel leaves.

"Ugh, just when I think you can't get any weirder, you top my expectations."

"Nice Xander. Pretty Xander. Almost as pretty as me."

"Now I know you're delirious. I'm waaaaay prettier than you."

"In your dreams pal."

"Hey! Who's carrying who here?"



"Not carrying. Dragging."

"For someone with a bleeding head wound, you're pretty lucid about complaining."

"Fine." Robin pulled away and stood on his feet. He woozed back and forth until nearly toppling over. As Xander caught him before he hit the ground he said, "You know? I could've sworn there was only one floor a few minutes ago."

"And that boys and girls is a sign of a Class A concussion," Xander remarked as he hefted Robin to get a better grip on the man. "I should know. I'm the king of concussions. No. Wait. Only the prince. Giles has had more, but only because he's older."

"Headache," Robin gritted between his teeth as Xander started half-carrying, half-dragging him forward.

HISSSSSS! SNARL! (Get back here! You think you're escaping? Just you wait!)

"Oh shut uuuup," Xander muttered.

"Shhhh! Snake might hear you over the bells in my head."

"Please. Giganto monster it may be, but it's still a snake. My witty insults and razor sharp tongue are beyond the understanding of its smash-kill-eat walnut-sized brain."

GRRRUMMMMMP! (I heard that! I'll show you who's the walnut brain around here!)

Xander looked nervously over his shoulder. "Hey, teach, can snakes crawl backwards?"


"You sure?"

Robin moaned a bit as his dizzy, hurting brain tried to come up with a reassurance that would make sense. He settled for simple. "Yes."

"Even giant demonic snakes?"



"Yer an ass. But yer a good egg. Yer a good egg ass."

"Aaaaalighty then. I'll take it as a compliment given in the heat of the giddy moment where you realize that we've been saved by idiot luck."

"Or is that the ass of a good egg?"

"See? Now you're pushing it."

Chapter 54

Buffy heard a wail above the din of the fight. She spun around, ducking and weaving, trying to get a fix on the source. Lo and behold, she spotted that Andrea was down and clutching her wrist in a way that indicated major hurt.

*I gotta get to her before these guys do,* she thought as slid in and around her swinging opponents.

She could hear the girls yelling, and hollering, and hitting the enemy with everything they had. Swords had been tossed aside when it became clear that weapons didn't make a dent. Right now the fight was little more than a brawl as the Slayers fought to keep the dirt creatures busy and away from the crypt and the dirt creatures were doing their best to knock the girls out of commission.

*Talk about your mousetrap. I can't even begin to find a way out of this,* Buffy thought as she broke through to Andrea. She scooped the other Slayer up and scanned the fight for an opening that would let her get Andrea in the clear.

Then it hit her.

*Son of a…*

She was standing in an island of calm. No one and nothing was approaching her. There wasn't even any fighting in the immediate area.

*Wait, wait. They knock down someone who's been hitting at them all night and when she's helpless, they don't finish her off? They just leave her there?*

Then again, whenever any of them got knocked out of the fray the dirty uglies weren't exactly lumbering over for a coup de grace even when the coup was for the having.

*That makes utterly and completely no sense.*



"Yeah?" the girl sniffled.

"I'm going to put you down. Don't. Move."


"I'm putting you down on the ground. Right here. Don't move. Pretend you're knocked out."

"You're leaving me here?" Andrea twisted herself out of Buffy's arms, landing on the ground with a thump.

"No…no…I just want to…I think this isn't as bad as…"

"I heard about Sunnydale," Andrea accused as she got to her feet. "You let other girls die and you buried them in your backyard. You're not doing that to…"

Buffy reached out and yanked the girl to her. "Listen to me… nothing's going to happen to you. I won't let it happen."

A fist slammed down on her shoulder, sending her reeling to the ground. She saw one of the dirt guys scoop the struggling Andrea up and head into the darkness.

"NO!" Buffy shouted as she hopped to her feet. She took off in pursuit, desperate to get Andrea back. There was an off chance she was wrong and maybe these dirt thingies really were going to go for a kill.

The man made of dirt sped across the ground while Andrea twisted helplessly in its grip. Buffy was so focused on gaining on her quarry, that she didn't sense a second dirt monster was chasing her until it was too late. She felt herself lifted up and tossed over its shoulder.

"Let me down you big moose!" she shouted, pounding uselessly against its back.

Next thing she knew, she was airborne.

"I said let me down! Not throw me! Ooooooof!" Buffy rolled across the hardscrabble ground before coming to a stop on her stomach. She desperately shook her head and scrambled to her feet, half-expecting a finishing blow. So needless to say she was shocked when she realized that she was…

"Alone," she said quietly. She narrowed her eyes and looked around.

*Oooo, lookie there. The cemetery fence.* Problem was that she was on the wrong side of it if she wanted to charge back into the fight.

"Heh." Buffy slapped a hand over her mouth to prevent the laugh of relief from bubbling up. She was right.

"What's so funny," Andrea's voice demanded.

Buffy bounded a little closer to the fence, feeling a whole let better than she had since before the night began. "Where are you?"

"Over here," Andrea limped out of the shadows looking mightily pissed. "Just what did you think…"

Buffy grabbed the younger girl and pulled her into a hug. "I was right. I was right. I was right."

"Ow! Hey! Lemme go!" Andrea protested.

Buffy held the other girl out at arm's length, goofy grin spreading across her face. "Don't you get it? They're not trying to kill us."

"Sez you," Andrea backed away, rubbing her ass. "I'm black-and-blue all over."

"But you're alive," Buffy pointed out as she stepped back and studied the fence. "We're alive. They're just guards. More like robot-y guards. It's probably just a really simple spell and…crap…Willow's not here. Betchya they've only got simple instructions, like, no killing people in the cemetery unless they're grail-having."

"So, we're what? Fighting to the pain?" Andrea huffed as she gingerly held her injured wrist.

"Right now, yeah," Buffy said as she paced the fence. *Damn! Spikes at the top. I could probably clear it, but I'm not sure Andrea could.* "We have to get back."

"Whoa! Hold up!" Andrea protested. "I'm not keen on losing body parts."

Buffy let out an irritated breath as she glared at the other Slayer over her shoulder. "Right now, they're just trying to drive us away, probably so they have a clear shot at our friends."

"But you don't know that," Andrea pointed out.

"I don't want to test it," Buffy growled. "But it makes a twisted sort of sense because we've got stories--okay, only two examples, but still--where they toss people out but don't kill them, right? But who knows what's going to happen if our friends manage to get the grail in their hands. To the pain might turn into to the death and we have to destroy these guys before that happens."

Andrea dug in her heels. "You're guessing."

Buffy gave up, mostly because she was afraid of running out of time. "It's the best I got right now so unless you have a better idea? No? Look, you don't want to fight? Fine. But if you change your mind, I need someone to help me pass the word to the Slayers who are fighting. They need to know and we need to find a way to stop them before the grail makes its guest appearance." She turned on her heel and began running for the entrance.

Andrea watched her jog away, sour look on her face. "Forget it. I'm not going."

A twig cracked behind her.

"On second thought…" Andrea began as she chased after Buffy. "Hey! Wait up!"


Faith bounded over to Catherine feeling like a million bucks. "What's the news?" she demanded. "All I hear is distant growling."

"We think they've drawn the snake off," Catherine said.

Faith looked around. "Where? There's no damn place for it to go." Energy was thrumming through her body and she was getting that tingly-fight-and-fight-some-more feeling in her spine. She was so pumped and needed a good scrap to blow off the energy.

"I heard some snatches of shouting," Ruda volunteered, her eyes grimly fixed on the opening. "I think they're trying to trap it in the tunnels and then finish it off."

"Smart, that's smart," Faith nodded as she bounced on the balls of her feet. For the sheer hell of it, she took out one of her throwing knives and began flipping it between her two hands like a juggler.

Catherine's hand shot out and snatched the knife from her.

"Hey!" Faith protested.

"I take it you're feeling much better," Catherine dryly said.

"Yeah. Yeah. I feel great. Better than great. Never had the healing kick in so fast." She was about ready to climb the walls. If she didn't get any action soon, she was going to pop. "Hey! Think they need help killing something?"

"Unh-ooohhh," Ruda said as she stepped back. "Charlie O.D'd her."

"Hunh?" Faith leaned against the wall, foot digging into the dirt. Standing in one place was such a bitch.

"Faith?" Catherine reached out a hand and began gently rubbing her shoulder. "You're going to be…ummmmm…ookee?"

"What's an ookie? Is that like a noogie?" Faith started giggling. Christ. She was giggling. Something was seriously whacked.

"See, when you got knocked out, Charlie had to kick-start your Slayer healing because we needed you awake." Catherine sounded desperate. "He might've misjudged a little because we had no idea how bad you were injured and…"

"Wow. So this is the shit he pumped Xan-the-Man full of for the superfastest healing you will ever see this side of Wolverine?" Faith asked. She picked at her clothes feeling itchy all over. "Damn it. I can't stand still!"

"Faith, it'll be alright," Catherine soothed. "Take a deep breath through your nose and let it out through your mouth. Just concentrate on keeping your body calm."

"Is it gonna work?" Faith asked suspiciously. "Because I'm pretty sure when you shoot someone up with speed, breathing deep and keeping calm does not make the head rush go away."

"Hold still," Catherine kept her voice gentle as she studied Faith's eyes. "I need to get a better look…"

The Slayer winced against the bright light shining in her face, but she heard Catherine let out a sigh of relief.

"Your pupils are dilated only a little. Charlie misjudged only by a bit, so you were pretty seriously hurt. Give it about five minutes and your body will be a little calmer. Just let that Slayer metabolism cycle through it." Catherine was definitely putting on the Watcher voice. "Just concentrate and tell your body to behave until you feel better."

"No way it's that easy," Faith insisted.

"It's not. It's that hard," Catherine gently said.

Faith tightly shut her eyes closed and pulled on her prison experience of forcing herself to stay calm no matter how much shit was going on around her. While the prison therapy and anger management sessions could be too full of the self-esteem horseshit at times, she did manage to absorb lessons in exerting some self-control.

Strangely enough, Catherine's suggestion worked. Not completely. She still felt the jumpiness in her muscles, but she found that if she worked at it she could concentrate. Jesus, if she lost it because of some drug-induced boost she'd be a fucking disaster waiting to happen.

That meant trouble for everyone.

*Keep it tight, girlfriend,* Faith ordered herself as she fought to keep from fidgeting.

"We got it!" J'Nal shouted.

"Don't touch!" Catherine ordered J'Nal. "Wait 'til we're over there."

"Ruda, stay put," Faith said, forcing her jaws to relax.

Catherine began, "I think you should stay…"

"No chance, girlfriend. Rather be with numbers if I go kablooey, if you get my drift. Me 'n Ruda alone? One of us is gonna get hurt if I go psycho."

"It's a good idea," Ruda agreed with a shiver. "You remember what happened with Chalia when she got overdosed by accident."

"But that was an extreme case," Catherine reminded her.

"And Faith's isn't." A stubborn expression crossed Ruda's face. "Besides, it's her friends fighting out there, so she's entitled."

Catherine shook her head with a resigned sigh. "Since Ruda has decided on fair play, let's go."

Faith fought the urge to bound ahead of Catherine as they turned and headed for J'Nal. She could feel her muscles twitching underneath her skin and the rush of blood in her veins as she fought to keep her movements loose and normal. *This is minor? That's disturbing. Don't wanna see what would happen if Chucky-boy decided to really boost me into the stratosphere.*

She wondered how long it would take before she felt something resembling normal, because the last thing she needed was the ever-present threat of going ape at the wrong time to be dogging her.

J'Nal's eyes were fixed on the Grail as Faith and Catherine drew level with him. Willow appeared, practically hanging over Faith's shoulder to get a better look.

"OoOoOoOo! Pretty!" Willow said in a squeaky, excited voice.

Faith tilted her head and added, "Shiny, don't forget shiny."

"Very gold," Willow agreed.

"Aside from gold and shiny, why exactly are we thinking 'pretty?'" Faith asked, forcing herself to concentrate on the Grail. "Ain't nothing on it. No jewels. No nothin'. When I think Grail, I think jewels need to be involved."

"It's power that makes it pretty," Willow said.

"And there's a lot of it coming off the Grail in waves," J'Nal added.

"Yo! Squirt! Andrew! Have you found anything on the Grail over there?" Faith called.

"Not yet!" Dawn shouted back. "Only thing we have is that 'the gods' put it here, but nothing about the Grail itself, and definitely nothing resembling a user manual."

"I can't believe this," Andrew complained. "Xander sends us off on a D&D mission and we don't even have a Players' Handbook."

"Unh, yeah. Whatever." Faith's brain was too busy chasing itself in circles to even try figuring out what Andrew said. "Keep reading. Something's gotta come up somewhere in that mess."

"Right-o," Dawn agreed before she went back to her mumbled consultation with Andrew.

Catherine stood on her tiptoes, frowning into the cup portion. "There's writing etched in the bottom." She then rendered her judgment in an exclamation that made Faith and Willow jump. "F-tpah!"

"That sounds like 'fuck' if I ever heard it," Faith commented.

"What is it?" J'Nal asked.

"Not Lingua Commonality," Catherine unhappily said. "Looks more like Prima. Ancient Prima."

J'Nal's dark face scrunched in disapproval. "I'm going to pretend you didn't say that."

"It's a guess," Catherine quickly said. "A big guess. Because I don't know what the Prima language looks like. At all. Nope. Not me. Because me knowing? Not a good thing. I get that. Yup. Ignorant about all things written in Prima. No knowledge of written Prima here. Nosiree."

Willow and Faith regarded Catherine as she gave a sickly, hopeful smile at the increasingly displeased J'Nal.

"I'm going to pretend you don't officially know what you so obviously know because your family has contributed its share of Prima over the centuries," J'Nal finally said, warning in his voice. "And not because you almost mixed blood with one of us."

"Right in one," Catherine nodded sincerely as J'Nal turned away and continued frowning at the Grail.

"Smooooooth," Faith said with rolled eyes. "Very convincing. I truly believe you were telling the truth. No jury would convict you."

"Looks like the Harris babble gene has survived breeding with the saner members of the human race," Willow commented. "Nice to know that some dominant traits just don't go away. Thank you Biology 101 for teaching me about dominant traits. Thank god that was one class that wasn't taught by an evil professor, which is really good, because I just scared myself with an image of animating dead frogs ala Frankenstein and then cutting them up while they let out these zombie croaks."

Faith couldn't resist taking her shot. "Y'know, maybe not so much Xander. Could be the babbling comes from the mother's side of the family."

Catherine shot Faith a pointed look.

"I don't know any girl in the house who babbles like Xander when he gets going," Willow replied.

*Whoosh! Right over her fucking head,* Faith shook her head with a sigh. She clenched her hands behind her back, rhythmically squeezing and relaxing her entwined fingers. She could feel the jumpiness recede, but it was still there under the surface, like a subwoofer hum that just wouldn't go away.

"Much fun as this verbal spell of delusion is, someone still needs to take hold of the Grail," J'Nal said.

"Count me out. With my fucking luck, the Grail probably has it in for Slayers," Faith grumbled. "And since I'm pretty sure I can't handle more TLC from your doc..."

"Hey!" Charlie protested from the sidelines where he waited with Tikri.

"A good idea," Catherine agreed. "Well, it's you or me, J'Nal."

J'Nal's hand flicked out and snatched the Grail from its position before anyone could react. When she saw the Grail snuggled tight in J'Nal's arms, Faith tensed, half expecting some 'Indiana Jones' trap to let loose on the group's collective heads.

Catherine exploded. "What the hada did you think you were doing?"

"Solving our problem?" J'Nal's uncertain voice telegraphed that he knew that he'd earned Catherine's righteous smackdown.

"Do you have any idea what could have happened?" Catherine ranted. "How could you be so careless?"

"Ahhh, but nothing is happening, is it?" J'Nal pointed out.

Catherine huffed. "Lucky," she muttered.

Watcher Honoria mildly placated, J'Nal looked into the cup portion. "Very ancient Prima," he remarked. "Very difficult to translate. It's going to take a little bit."

"We don't have a 'little bit,'" Faith snapped. "I don't know if you noticed, but we got people scattered all over the place fighting god-knows-what so we can grab this thing. I saw we bust a move and haul ass before something does happen. Let's figure it out after we get back to the Mother Ship. Giles will be all over it like demon goo on your short hairs."

"Faith," Willow quietly interrupted. "There's a lot of power emanating from that Grail. It's a good idea to check it out." She paused and added with a grin, " 'Demon goo on your short hairs?' Heh. And ew! Not to mention, ouch."

"Very funny," Faith fidgeted.

"Perhaps we should wait until Dawn and Andrew are finished translating the wall?" Catherine prompted.

"I think we better get comfortable then," Faith countered. "Maybe the Grail can clue us in?"

"This iteration of Prima is not easy to interpret," J'Nal absently commented as he stared into the Grail. "Words can mean several things all at once. It's in how they're arranged and the flourishes on the individual letters that tells you the true meaning."

"Nice language," Faith grumbled.

"I'm trying to get a read off the Grail's power," J'Nal continued as if Faith hadn't spoke. "It's a shortcut, but one that is necessary since time is of the essence given the battles around us."

"Maybe I could help?" Willow offered almost shyly.

J'Nal's head shot up and Faith could swear she could see a twitch of a smile. "I'd be honored. Since it has been here for quite some time, perhaps you might be able to read the power signature better than I."

Willow stepped forward and gave the Grail a long, considering look before rendering her judgment. "Power I get, but nothing else. Kinda like the reading I get from this whole place. Can't tell if it's going to cause a problem or not."

J'Nal held the Grail out to Willow so she could take it.

Willow smiled and reached out to take the Grail from J'Nal.

In the space of that second, Faith's paranoid, pessimistic instincts kicked her in the gut. "No!" she shouted.

But she moved a fraction of a second to late to slap Willow's hand away.

Willow's fingertips barely brushed the surface of the Grail when she violently flung herself backwards. Correction: it was more like something had roughly jerked her back a few feet until she landed crumpled on the ground.

"Don't move," Faith ordered as she bounded over to the fallen witch.

A low keening sound came from the Willow-shaped mound.

"Willow?" Faith asked as she reached out a trembling hand.

Yet another brush of fingertips as Faith barely touched Willow's shoulder was enough to animate the witch. She scrambled back, her eyes a solid, cold black that froze Faith in place.

*That look…* Faith felt the remains of the drug high dissipate as her jumpy thoughts found something to focus on and her Slayer instincts started screaming that bad shit was going down.

As for Willow, she seemed utterly unaware of her surroundings as she stared down at her hands, rocking back and forth. "My hands. Oh my god. My hands. The blood…" her voice trailed off into a broken sob.

Faith didn't see Catherine and her people exchange quick looks behind her back as she forced herself to cautiously approach Willow.

Willow reached out and grabbed Faith by the front of her shirt and pulled her forward in a surprisingly strong grip, those coal black eyes not leaving the Slayer's face. "It's all over me, Faith. Look," she held up a perfectly clean hand for the Slayer's inspection, tears rolling down her face, "his blood's all over me. It's been on my hands all day. There was so much blood. The spell didn't say…"

Faith could hear someone creeping up behind her. "I said stay put," she snapped. The sound of movement stopped.

"He was right about me," Willow whispered, shell-shocked black eyes locked on Faith's face. "Monster. Vampire. Selfish bitch. But the poison. I had to…selfish…I'm selfish…he'll understand…you understand. Please tell me you understand. Please tell me he'll forgive me."

*What the hell is going on?* "Fuck. She's lost it. We have to get her out of here."

"It's the Grail." J'Nal sounded shaky. "I felt the surge of power when she touched it. The mystical signature clashed with the her native connection to this planet and must've affected her thought processes."

"Are you telling me the Grail short-circuited her brain?" Faith asked over her shoulder as Willow's tears snapped off. The witch was now humming something vaguely pop-y and folk-y, a tune Faith didn't recognize.

"I don't know," J'Nal admitted.

Willow giggled. "I love this song. I really love this song. No surprise it's number one." She was off humming again.

"Find the fuck out," Faith snarled. "Dawn? Andrew?"

"Yeah?" Dawn asked.

"You done reading that thing yet?"

"Make that a no," Dawn said. "The mix of ogham and what was that language again?"

"S'nargle," Andrew answered.

"Yeah, so it's making the translating tough going," Dawn said.

"Do you really need to finish it?" Faith asked hoping the answer would be no.

"No!" Andrew cheerfully volunteered.

"Yes," Dawn countered with a glare at her cavern buddy. "So far, nothing useful. Mostly 'and the gods did this' and the 'gods thus came forth,' the usual stuff, but I want to finish the translation to make sure we're not missing something."

"Spoilsport," Andrew pouted.

"I hate it when demons pop," Willow started scrubbing her hands through her hair, black eyes still in that thousand-mile stare. "When I said I missed demons that go 'poof,' I meant demons that go 'poof,' not 'pop.' I mean it's like glue-y glue. I swear I'm going to have to shave my head. That's not funny Joey! I noticed you were in the clear when Rona ran it through with a sword. Honestly, when I was your age I was more respect-y to people with more demon-y experience. Giles! I was so! "

*Keeeee-rist!* "Whatever the fuck is affecting Willow, you better figure it out," Faith snarled. "I don't want anyone else whammied by that thing, got it? So before it leaves here, find a way to stop its bizarre-o rays before it does whatever it does to someone else."

"I think we need to get her out of here," Catherine said nervously. "Get some distance between her and the Grail. Charlie?"


"Check her out," Catherine ordered.

Faith moved aside to let Charlie in with his metal remote full of blinking lights. She quickly scanned the cavern to find 'volunteers' to evacuate Willow. Dawn and Andrew were out, since they were still bickering over the writing on the wall. Catherine and friends were out since they had to figure out how to smother whatever the Grail was sending out. That left just her to get Willow out of here.

Oooh, not entirely comfortable with that thought.

"I found a book," Willow laughed as she held her empty hand out to Faith. "I can't believe it. This is the key. Do you know what this means?"

"There's a problem," Charlie muttered.

"You think?" Faith nastily countered.

"Her neuropathic signals keep overwriting themselves, which is activating the psycenter region in the center of her cerebral cortex. It appears be over stimulating the tempus node and causing it to misfire, which means that we don't just have a physiological problem, but a mystical one as well."

"Too many syllables," Faith growled. "Try again."

"If you go on the theory that all time happens at the same time…"

"Doc?" Faith interrupted. "Just tell me one thing: Can we fix her?"

"Not here," Charlie quickly answered; relieved he was spared trying to explain something that was clearly beyond Faith's grasp. "We need to get her someplace quiet so J'Nal and I can do a tandem healing. We have to tackle not just the physical, but the mystical as well and that's tricky."

"This is quiet. Sort of."

"Not quiet enough," J'Nal volunteered. "We need to isolate her as well because if something goes wrong, we might inadvertently cause harm not just to her but to anyone in the vicinity."

Fuck. This sounded uber-bad.

It didn't help that every option she had was not a good option. *Right, so what option is the least fucked-up?*

"Ruda!" Faith snapped.

The younger Slayer jogged over, her expression all attention. Faith suspected that she was barely suppressing the urge to bow, salute, or genuflect.

"I gotta get the Red One outta here, so I need you to do me a favor."

"Whatever you need," Ruda said.

Faith ignored the unspoken Lanoire-rah-sen she just knew was lurking at the end of the sentence. She jerked her head over at Dawn and Andrew, "Keep an eye on those two and make sure they get outta here in one piece."

"Of course I will." Ruda looked offended that Faith even thought she had to ask.

"I know you will, but, see, the thing is, I promised Xander special that I'd keep them and Willow safe." Faith noticed that the girl stood straighter at that, so she went with it. "But I gotta get Willow out 'cause right now she ain't safe. Since I can't be in two places at once…"

"They'll be fine," Ruda grinned. "I'll make sure. I promise you and Alexander special."

Faith couldn't resist grinning back. Whatever else Ruda was, she was most definitely a good kid. *Wonder how much Catherine is the reason for that.* She forced herself to her feet, feeling a certain weight on her shoulders. She had made her decision; she just hoped it was the right one. "Catherine, I'm gonna get Willow outta here."

"We'll work on the Grail. Make sure it won't cause harm when it leaves this place," Catherine agreed.

"You also might want to keep her away from the others," Charlie added. He gave Catherine a look as he added, "Her mind might be unhinged from this time period, which means she could be seeing the future."

Faith's heart sank. If Willow was seeing the future, just how much was she seeing?

This could only end one of two ways: bad or worse.

"Good luck," Charlie muttered.

Faith looked over at Willow, who was now sitting cross-legged and humming some sort of mantra as she stared into space with those black eyes. *I'm sure as hell gonna need it,* she silently agreed.


As he dragged Robin back into the cavern they had fled earlier, Xander could feel exhaustion--caused by the strain of keeping his one eye focused on finding the least rocky path to more stable ground, dragging the taller man over said rocky path, and the loss of the adrenalin boost he had when a snake was hot on his heels--settle over him like a thick blanket.

He could still hear the snake hissing and growling in its trap, as well as the sound of scattering rocks, probably caused by its tail lashing around, he figured. The acoustics gave the illusion that the snake was surrounding them and that any second coils would drop from the ceiling, entrapping both he and Robin.

"Xander!" Vi shouted as she sped across the cavern.

"Help me with Robin," Xander said.

Vi got on the other side of the injured man, lightening the load on Xander's shoulder. "What happened?" she asked with wide, worried eyes. "When we saw you two were missing…"

"The snake's trapped right now. Got stuck when the tunnel narrowed, so it's ready for a good Slaying. But first we gotta get Robin comfy."

"M'fine," Robin protested weakly as his head lolled. "Tired, tho'."

"Don't close your eyes. Don't even think of closing your eyes," Xander desperately ordered. "You've got a concussion and you have to stay awake until we get someone to look at you."

"How did Robin get hurt?" Lisa asked as they approached.

"The narrow tunnel that captured our snake cracked his head," Xander answered shortly. "His concussion is pretty bad."

The other three Slayers joined Vi and took Robin off his hands, leaning the former principal against the cavern wall.

Robin thanked them by throwing up with a sickening groan.

"Eeeeeew!" Barbara protested as she backed away in a dance step.

"Get used to it," Xander grimly said as he jumped forward to grab Robin as the other man began sinking to the ground. "Us non-Slayer types don't have your healing, so stuff like this happens. That's why I'm trying to stick with distance weapons. Less chance of sleeping through a fight that way."

"Is he going to be all right?" Sally asked.

Xander helped Robin settle to the ground and checked the other man's pupils. Robin mumbled a protest and began to shiver.

"Probably, but it's a pretty bad concussion," Xander said. "We have to keep him awake, no matter what." He looked around at the girls. "Sadly, we don't have anything on us to keep him warm, so that's about all we can do until we get him out of here."

"What are we going to do?" Vi asked. Over her shoulder, Barbara, Sally, and Lisa peered at him with wide eyes.

That's when it him: they were looking to him to come up with a plan. Great. Just great. He had to worry about Buffy, Giles, and the other Slayers fighting above ground; Faith, Willow, Dawn, and Catherine's team in the grail cavern; an injured Robin that had to get evacuated pronto; and one trapped, pissed snake.

Right. One step at a time.

"First off, someone get me my crossbow," Xander said.

Barbara dutifully jogged off to retrieve it.

"Next up, we gotta kill that snake," Xander said as Barbara returned with his crossbow and handed it to him.

"But Robin…" Sally protested.

"The snake is the bigger problem. Robin says it shouldn't be able to escape, but my gut tells me we should make sure," Xander interrupted. "I don't want to assume anything only to wind up snake kibble."

Robin moaned and shivered.

"Stay awake!" Xander snapped at Robin.

"Tryin'," Robin mumbled. "Cold."

Xander worriedly chewed his lip. "I need one of you to stay with him to make sure he stays awake. Vi? How about you?"

"Why me?" Vi squeaked.

"Because I also don't want to assume that rat-breath is our only trap," Xander said. He hastened to add when he saw open her mouth to protest again, "And don't tell me that I should trust that damn journal because I don't. Something's gone seriously wrong somewhere because nowhere did I say anyone would get this seriously hurt. So let's assume we're flying without a map."

"Okay," Vi said, not entirely mollified.

Xander reached out and grabbed her hand. "Vi? Of the four of you Slayers, you're the one with the most training. So I trust you to keep your head and your eyes peeled for trouble. Someone needs to stay with Robin and, if necessary, protect him. Okay?"

Vi let a nervous smile escape as she nodded, squaring her shoulders as she did so.

"Once we kill that snake, one of you is getting Robin out of here. The rest of us will stick around just in case there's a back-up booby trap," Xander looked at each of the girls in turn, trying not to think how young and how eager they all looked. "Sally, Barbara, Lisa? The four of us are going to make us some snakeskin boots."

The four Slayers crowded closer to get the details of the cavern layout and plot out a strategy for a righteous Slay.

Chapter 55
Windows Future and Past

Buffy stumbled backwards, more from exhaustion than any landed blow, and nearly tripped over a water spigot.

How many hours have they been fighting? Truthfully, it felt less like hours and more like days.

A dirt creature charged her and she managed to reach out and use its own momentum against it, sending it spinning away to the periphery of the brawl.

They were losing. The dirt monsters were managing to edge ever closer to the crypt despite everyone's best efforts.

Once upon a time, Buffy knew she would've blamed the loss of ground on the fact that the Slayers knew they were no longer fighting for their lives and would've been mentally, if not verbally, accusing them of holding back because of it.

But the muscle ache, painful bruises, and the desperate need to stop just for one second was a truth she couldn't escape. They were losing ground simply because everyone was stretched to the physical breaking point. Slayers were starting to be kidnapped and thrown over the fence. To give the other girls a lot of credit, they would invariably return, limping back into the fray to continue fighting.

Even Andrea was back in the thick of things, although Buffy suspected it was more of a case of peer pressure than anything else.

Plus, and this was the hard part to admit, she highly doubted the other girls were fighting just because of her sterling example. More likely they kept battling because, like her, they were afraid of what would happen if their friends walked into the middle of this mess with grail in hand.

She wearily ducked as a dirt monster took a wild swing at her head, nearly tripping as she did so. Her hand caught on the handle of the spigot, causing the water to explosively gush out of the tap.

Dirt monster rumbled away and focused on another nearby Slayer.

Buffy would've given chase, but her mouth was bone dry and she needed drink. She reached over to splash some of the flowing water to her face when she noticed it.


Thirst forgotten, her hand splashed into the rapidly expanding puddle. She grabbed a handful of mud and held it up to her disbelieving eyes before closing her hand into a fist.

*Mud! Mud! Mud! Mud! I am sooooo mentally challenged!*

She glanced around and noticed that all feints in her general direction had ceased.

"YES!" she shouted. It was a beautiful moment, as if the heavens had opened up, put her in the spotlight, and choirs of angels were singing the Halleluiah chorus.

For the sheer hell of it, she ducked under the gushing water, laughing like she really had lost all her marbles. Hair sopping, she charged into a knot of three dirt creatures, and gave her head a good, hard shake.

Watching them practically trip all over themselves to get away from the droplets looked a hell of a lot like victory.

*Ohhhhh, but it's not enough. It's not nearly enough,* Buffy thought as she scanned the battle. Hope must've been helping her eyesight, because she spotted Kennedy fighting back-to-back with Tammi. *Perfect!*

Buffy whipped off her wet coat, waving it over her head with a very 'Xena'-like battle cry, and charged at Kennedy and Tammi. The two Slayers looked up at the sound and the expression on both Kennedy's and Tammi's faces were clear: Buffy's gone bonkers.

Buffy skidded to a stop, breathlessly laughing as the dirt monsters backed away from her super-secret, extra-special weapon in the form of a wet head and a wet coat. "Water!" she shouted at the other two Slayers.

"Hunh?" Kennedy asked.

"Water! They're afraid of water!" Buffy shouted, barely able to contain her glee. She cracked it and cracked it but good. These dirt things were going down.

"Ken, she's right," Tammi said with wonder as she scanned the immediate area. "Look!"

"Well I'll be damned," Kennedy agreed as she noticed that the dirt creatures had backed off, giving the three gathered Slayers breathing room.

"You scouted earlier, right?" Buffy asked. Without waiting for an answer, she ploughed ahead, words tumbling quickly from her mouth. "Did you spot someplace where they'd keep tools and stuff? Like hoses?"

"There's a groundskeepers shed." Kennedy's mouth was beginning to stretch into a grin. "I betchya there's hoses there. Maybe some power sprayers to boot."

"Go get 'em," Buffy ordered. "Feel free to engage in destruction of property."

"What about you?" Tammi asked.

"I don't know where it is, so I'll let you get what we need. Grab anything you think will help. Hoses. Buckets. Anything that can throw water at these things," Buffy said as she watched the dirt creatures begin edging back into fighting range. "Me? I'm going to spread the word. Let's herd these yo-yos around the spigots so we'll have 'em in position when you come back."

"Calvary go!" Tammi whooped as she charged away from the fight at a dead run.

"Kids today," Kennedy grumbled good-naturedly as she followed in Tammi's wake.

Buffy bounced on the balls of her feet; grin splitting her face as she watched them go. Just as one dirt monster got within reach, Buffy turned that evil smile on her opponent.

"Oooooh, you are sooooo toasted," she cheerfully announced.

Then she thwapped it over its thick, rock-like head with her wet coat.


"Ooooh, such a pretty ass."

"Eeeep!" Faith squeaked as Willow reached down and took two handfuls.

She got a moan and an ass massage in response.

"Look, not so much do I mind you copping a feel, but can you do this shit when we're in private?" Faith asked as she stumbled out of the narrow passage into cavern beyond.

"Aaaaah, yesssss," Willow hissed as wandering fingers went for a back entry.

"That is it." Faith said as she got into the cavern where she left Xander, Robin, and the others. She plopped Willow on the ground with a glare. "Ain't like I've had my share of fun time with the ladies back in the day, but these days I prefer the ladies to have dicks if you get my drift."

Willow gave a good writhe and moan in response.

"Great, you're fucking getting laid while I'm trying to save your sorry ass."


Faith turned around and saw Xander jogging over to her followed by a phalanx of Slayers. Robin was injured and sitting on the ground, leaning against the cavern wall with an ashen pallor haunting his face. Whatever they were fighting was nowhere to be seen, although she could hear a distant growling and hissing echo that seemed to get closer and retreat.

A million questions she had, but right now she had a situation, so she squelched the urge to charge over to Robin's side to see if he was okay. "Yo! Keep the kids away from this shit. We got ourselves a huge problem," Faith shouted.

Xander halted and glanced behind him. "You heard her. Someone go stay with Robin. Rest of you, stay on alert," he ordered. "The snake may be trapped for now, but there might be other surprises and I'm not in the mood to get blindsided. You hear anything, you yell, okay?"

While the girls didn't quite salute, they definitely did has he ordered without question. Vi went and stood by Robin while the other three approached the entrances with swords at the ready.

Xander jogged the rest of the way over, his crossbow hanging from his right shoulder but not loaded. He didn't bother to look behind him to see if they did as he said.

"Dayum, way to go masterful there," Faith couldn't resist teasing. "Where's our trap?"

"No worries. Snake breath got itself stuck, so it's under control at the moment." Xander skidded to a stop and kneeled down next to the writhing Willow, placing his crossbow on the ground. "What happened? Is she hurt?" He recoiled and looked at Faith. "Her eyes...what...Faith?"

"Unh, it's a little complicated," Faith began. "See..."

Willow looked up. "Oooooo, you brought me a pretty boy." She looked over at her invisible partner. "You naughty, naughty girl."

"Willow?" Xander looked down and tenderly touched the witch's face with shaking fingers. "What's going on?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell..." Faith began.

Willow reached out and grabbed a handful of male crotch, resulting in the most surprised expression on Xander's face that Faith had ever seen. *Now that is fucking impressive. I thought I'd seen shocked when I screwed his brains out but...*

"Ahhhh, Willow?" Xander choked as Willow began to rub.

"It looks sooooo, delicious. I just want to eat that pretty cock right up," Willow groaned.

"And yeeoooooow!" Xander moved so fast that he was cowering behind Faith before the Slayer even registered that he moved. She was pretty sure that if scientists somewhere on planet earth were conducting experiments measuring the ambient irony in the atmosphere, this one moment probably shattered all the instruments in an impressive explosive display.

"What the hell is she doing?" Xander demanded as he peered at Willow over Faith's shoulder.

The sucking sounds coming from the prone witch's general direction weren't so much disgusting as they were hilarious. Or at least Faith thought they would've been hilarious if the setting weren't in the middle of one fucked-up situation.

"At a guess," Faith said, "I'd say she's having a threesome. You go girlfriend!"

"Goddamn it, I'm being serious!"

"So am I."


"Look, there's been a bit of a screw up..."

"Ya think?"

"Calm your shit down!" Faith turned around to face Xander, who was obviously exerting a hell of a lot of willpower to remain fixed on her face instead of looking over to watch his friend. "Willow touched the Grail and her brain went kablooey. Her eyes went dark and she just started saying shit."

"You mean she's having nonstop sex-a-thons since..."

"No, no," Faith waved her hands. "It's like she's skipping around having these conversations with people I don't know. Xander, Charlie thinks she's seeing the future."

From her location on the ground, Willow growled and whimpered and moaned and babbled words that Faith was shocked Willow even knew existed.

Xander took a step back and his face went white. "If that's true, that's a problem."

"No shit," Faith said. "Dawn and Andrew are still tied up with a translation on the cavern's walls and Catherine's people are trying to figure out what went wrong with the Grail in case Willow triggered something. So that left me to pull a 911 and get her the hell out of there in case proximity was the problem."

"Good thinking," Xander agreed. "Can they do something? For her?"

"They'll be able to heal her, but we've gotta get her someplace quiet so J'Nal and Charlie can do some sort of double-team healing."

"Right, right," Xander nodded. "I'm sure it'll be all..."

Willow let out a squeal and next thing Faith knew Xander had a clinging redhead hanging from his neck.

"Oh, no. Not again," he moaned. "I can't take..."

"Xander! You're alive!" She let go and stared up into his face, eyes spilling over with tears. "When we lost track of you in Nunavut, we thought they got you." She reached up and tenderly touched his face. "You grew a beard!"

"None of it?" Xander asked Faith.

Willow swatted him playfully. "Fine. Couldn't shave. On the run for your life. Excuses, excuses. What? You can't call me and ask to send a razor?"

"I can't see me in a beard," Xander remarked.

She reached out to Faith and captured the Slayer in a hug. Faith froze and looked at Xander over Willow's head.

"Faith, thank god you're alive, too. I didn't mean to leave you out," Willow said. She lowered her voice, "Thank you for taking care of him. No. No. Catherine and Jason are fine. As far as Catherine knows mommy and daddy were on a secret mission and would be home and Jason's too young to know anything, so they don't know that we thought you guys were..." the sentence ended with a sob.

"Mommy and daddy," Xander deadpanned.

"Aw, shit," Faith agreed. "That answers that question."

"You're being calm," Xander remarked.

"Says the guy who isn't doing an impressive display of a screaming mee-mee, so let's can the comments and find a way to duct tape her mouth."

Willow leaned back with a laugh. "You're kidding! You're pregnant again? Xander, what is it with you and the danger sex?" Willow whirled away and shouted, "Someone get Catherine!"

Released from Willow's embrace, Xander and Faith backed up until they felt rock behind them. They leaned against the cavern wall side-by-side as Willow began having the kind of conversation with someone named Cat that you'd have if the other person were a five-year-old. If Faith had her beloved Camels, and if Xander actually smoked, one of them would've lit up and passed the butt to their neighbor in that defeated way that only over-tired soldiers have.

"You know," Faith finally said as she drew very hard on the imaginary cigarette in her head, "it's not so much the pregnant that bugs the shit out of me. It's the again."

"Scary. You're starting to read my mind."

"Cyclops? Two words: Vas. Ectomy."

"Slaygirl? Four words: You. And. What. Army."

Willow had changed tact and was now dancing some sort of waltz with an invisible partner, laughing in a coy, giggly way that announced she was flirting.

"We've got to get her out of here, not that she knows she's here," Xander said. "If we run into more trouble..."

"She'll be in more trouble than we can deal with, gotchya," Faith agreed. "And we have to keep her the fuck away from everyone else until Charlie and J'Nal can fix her. The shit she's saying and those fucking eyes..."

"Yeah, scare the piss out of me, too," Xander agreed.

In the dim light of his headlamp, Faith could see that Xander was pale and his features drawn with worry, although given everything since she'd helped him down those stairs, she wasn't entirely sure if he was worried about something happening to Willow or Willow happening something.

Willow froze and next to her she sensed Xander tense. The witch slowly turned, her face frozen into a furious snarl.

"No," Xander whispered. "No, I can feel it..." And with that mysterious statement he was off and running, not in the opposite direction like any sensible human being, but straight at the redhead.

He made it halfway to her when Willow's hand flew out and pinned him against the cavern wall.

"Tell me." Willow's voice was furious, insistent, and murderous.

"Will--" Xander's voice chocked off as Willow's outstretched hand turned into a fist.

"Xander!" Vi screamed.

Faith broke out of her paralysis and charged with some vague hope of distracting the woman.

She didn't get very far before she, too, was pinned against the wall next to Xander.

"Wait...wait..." Faith began.

"Silence!" Willow floated closer, borne by some incomprehensible fury. "Since your mate is being uncooperative, you are going to tell me where they are."

Faith saw Vi sneaking up on Willow from behind and did her best to keep her eyes straight ahead. "Yo! I think you got us confused with someone..."

Willow spun around and knocked Vi backwards with a flick of her wrist, sending the Slayer hurtling into her teammates.

Too soon those cold black eyes were fixed on Faith's face. "Soooooo, thought you'd get one of your mindless minions to blindside me. Not. That. Easy."

She looked over at Xander, wondering why the hell he wasn't saying anything. The clenched jaw and wide staring eyes of someone in a hella lot of pain pretty much told her everything she needed to know. If Xander opened his mouth, it was only going to be to scream.

"Look, just tell me what the fuck you want," Faith said. "I can play games with the best of 'em. Just give me a little clue, y'know, Catholic school uniform, bigger than a breadbox, something so heavy that even God can't lift it. I'm all fucking ears over here."

Willow floated closer. "Your minions are frozen in place. Since they're innocents, I'll let them live, but you..." Willow let the unspoken threat hang there.

"I'm not a goddamn mind reader!" Faith exploded in exasperation. It was blindingly obvious that Willow wasn't hearing a damn thing she was saying.

"I can make this quick, or I can make this slow," Willow continued, her voice dropping into a danger zone. "You'll stop your lying and you will tell me where they are."

"Who? Just throw me a fucking bone..."

"Liar!" Willow snapped. She brought her hand up and closed it in a fist, causing Xander's mute form to jerk like he was being electrocuted. Faith looked next to her fought back a gasp.

His jaw was clenched and he wasn't yelling because his mouth was gone.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Faith whispered.

"Tell me what I want to know, or I will tear your mate apart in front of your eyes." Willow tilted her head and then burst out in a rough laughter. "Let me get this straight: You dissected 15 children and are hiding another 20 so you can perform your little ritual and I'm inhuman?"

"Ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuck," Faith's breath hitched as she struggled to get out of the magical hold. No dice. She could move her head and breathe in shallow gasps, but she couldn't break free. She looked over at the other Slayers but as promised, they were frozen in place, sort of like those bugs she'd see in amber. She wasn't even sure if they were aware of what was happening.

"Thank you," Willow said in a voice dripping with irony.

The sudden release collapsed Faith to the floor and she immediately tried to get to her feet. Nothing doing. Her bones felt rubberized and she could just barely move her head. Xander had likewise collapsed to the ground right in her line of sight, his mouth--*praise Jesus I'll never take the Lord's name in vain again*--was back. There was a blank look in his face that Faith didn't entirely like, mostly because it was the look of someone who was in so much pain that their mind had checked out for the duration.

"Since you were cooperative, I'll make it quick instead of slow," Willow said as she raised her hands.


"Well?" Catherine pushed.

"I'm translating as fast as I can," J'Nal snapped. "The interruptions aren't helping."

Catherine scanned the cavern, half-afraid that more trouble was lurking in the shadows. This was not going according to plan. Not the plan laid down in the strategy sessions. Not the plan laid down in the house meeting session. Not the plan laid down in Alexander's journal.

*What if we really did screw up the timeline? Then all of this is for nothing.* The Watcher Honoria shivered at the very idea.

Charlie nervously fidgeted next to her as he fiddled with his medical scanner. "I don't get it," he mumbled. "Nothing's happening to J'Nal. All his brain functions are normal."

"Which seems to support the idea that we're immune, but people from this time period aren't," Catherine said. "Wish that thing could get readings off inanimate mystical objects."

"That's why we got J'Nal," Charlie pointed out.

"Not that J'Nal knows what's going on, either," the witch said as he peered into the cup of the Grail.

"You two!" Catherine shouted at Dawn and Andrew. "How's it going over there?"

"Slowly!" Dawn shouted back. "And before you ask, neither one of us is feeling weird or anything, so whatever affected Willow isn't affecting us."

"Maybe it's not broadcasting," Tikri said as she crowded in close. "Maybe touching it triggers..."

"That much is pretty clear," Charlie interrupted.

"Let's be sure before we jump to conclusions," Catherine said. "The way things are going..."

J'Nal looked up, his mouth twisting comically, as he thumped the Grail down on the raised platform. "I don't believe it," he said.

"Oh crap!" Dawn shouted. "Hey guys? I think we found out what the problem is."

"Let me guess," J'Nal shouted back, "no one from Tara is allowed to touch the Grail?"

"If Tara is this wonderful blue marble that is known as earth? Yeah," Andrew answered as Dawn began to mutter a string of profanities. "We found something that looks like a warning."

"Which I bet is the warning echoed inside the lip of the Grail," J'Nal agreed.

Catherine took a deep breath, held it, counted to 10, and then let it slide out of her nose. "So what you're saying is we could've avoided this mess if we just waited."

"Looks like it," J'Nal said.

Catherine rubbed her temples in irritation. "You know? We're don't usually act like such rank amateurs. That's why we're still alive. Can someone tell me how the hada we let this situation get out of control? Especially since we could've avoided this whole thing if we let Dawn, Andrew, and J'Nal finish translating."

"I vote fear," Tikri said. "Fear is a very big motivator behind stupidity. Ask any politico."

"No excuse," Catherine snapped. "We're supposed to be professionals here, people. If I were Alexander and Faith, I'd be pretty futching sure that the all-knowing people of the future were idiots who undergo ritualistic shaving of the intelligence on a daily basis. Do you realize what we've done? We let Willow get hurt, maybe even grievously so. If history is at all even close to accurate about the depth of her relationship with Alexander, we've just made ourselves an enemy. And if we've made him an enemy, you can bet we're in for a rough ride if it turns out that we can't leave."

"But..." Charlie began.

"Ooooh, don't worry," Catherine snarled, "I've been as bad as the rest of you. But that stops. Right. Now. J'Nal!"

"Yes?" the witch said softly. He knew better than to even try placating her when she was in full temper.

"Tell me what the Grail says. And make sure your translation is accurate," Catherine warned with a glare.

"In essence, the engraving on the Grail says that this object is to be used 'beyond the time that is this time and in a place beyond this world,'" J'Nal quickly answered.

"Which means?" Catherine prompted.

"It's a Prima riddle tradition. In short, it's not meant for anyone here and now," J'Nal explained. "It adds a warning that if anyone here and now 'brushes the golden promise of power, the mind shall outgrow the mortal shell rooted in this time and place.'"

"Sounds like what happened," Catherine nodded. "Dawn! Did you hear him?"

"I caught a word here and there. The acoustics royally suck the big one," Dawn answered, keeping her voice at not-quite-a-yell. "But what I did hear is seems to track with what we just read. Pretty straightforward warning, well, as straightforward as stuff like this gets anyway."

"Let's hear it," Catherine ordered.

"'As the gods have hidden the Grail here for those who are yet-to-be, yea even as they stand in wonder at our works, they shall not have come to pass,' which I guess would totally describe you guys, since, like, you don't actually exist for real since none of you are actually born yet," Dawn said. "It goes on, 'those who are and who walk in this world shall reach out, but they shall be rebuffed'--which is pretty obvious given what happened to Willow--'and they shall find their minds wandering in worlds yet to come,' whatever that means."

"How sure are you about that translation?" Catherine pressed.

"Pretty sure. Not 100 percent, more like 80 percent," Dawn said.

"I'd say 90 percent," Andrew argued.

"We are not rolling a D-4 to see who's right, Andrew," Dawn grumped.

"Well, on the face of it, it looks like the two warnings coincide, so let's assume that no one from this time period can touch the Grail without big trouble paying a visit," Catherine decided. "Now, I want options on how we can keep that thing from posing a potential threat."

"Easy, don't let anyone touch it," Tikri shrugged. "Seems straightforward to me."

"Ahhhh, good intentions. We can play keep away all we'd like, but we still have to get it out of here and that means an increased chance of someone touching it who shouldn't," Catherine said.

"Can we go with better safe than sorry?" Dawn asked as she jogged over to the group with Andrew in tow. "I mean you are dealing with the Scooby Gang and a bunch of junior Scoobies-in-training."

"I don't follow," Catherine said.

"That means that if there's a way to make their lives even more difficult, they'll make it happen," Dawn replied. "Trust me. I've seen it more times than I can count."

J'Nal began rubbing his jaw thoughtfully. "So what you're saying is that a mystical entropomorphic event surrounds your friends and family..."

"A mystical what-a-what?" Dawn asked.

"It's like a force field," Andrew snorted, "everyone knows that."

...thereby causing all best laid plans to go awry? Interesting," J'Nal continued as if he hadn't heard the exchange.

"I say you use that as your excuse when you file your report," Tikri said. "I know I will when I report this story."

"Works for me!" Charlie announced, uncharacteristically agreeing with the witnesser.

"That. Is. Insane," Catherine gritted. She thought about it. "But just in case, J'Nal, is there a way to somehow block the Grail from harming someone from this time period if they happen to touch it?"

J'Nal thoughtfully studied the Grail a moment before rendering a judgment. "Yes and no. I can't prevent someone from actually touching the Grail and I can't prevent the Grail from engaging its mystical defenses in response."

"That sounded very much like a no," Catherine argued.

"What I can do is put a repel around the Grail," J'Nal said. "In essence, people are going to want to avoid touching it."

"Now that could work," Dawn interrupted. "Willow mentioned to me that she thought there was a Xander-shaped repel spell on this cavern because she and Faith couldn't convince him to even think of walking in here. So if you can lay a general whammy on the Grail, along with lots and lots of verbal warnings, I think you might be able to avoid trouble."

"Maybe," Andrew amended. "Depends on whether or not anyone is immune to Jedi mind tricks."

Catherine shook her head. "You think someone deliberately cast a spell to keep Alexander away from this place?"

"Willow thinks that," Dawn corrected. "It's just as likely that Xander thought he should stay with Robin and the other Slayers and Willow jumped to conclusions because as far as she's concerned magic can explain almost anything. It's a little bit of a blind spot with her."

"Either way, for the best probably," Catherine sighed.

"Preach it," Dawn agreed. "If Xander was here when Willow got whammied by the Grail, I guarantee he would've gone totally ape."

"They're that close?" Tikri asked, practically licking her chops.

"Xander would've been upset no matter who got hurt," Andrew puffed out his chest, "because he's just like that. He truly cares what happens to all of us because of his tender, tender heart. Which is still badly shattered because of..."

"Andrew," Dawn interrupted with a painful wince. "Yeah, Xander wouldn't've been happy no matter who got hurt, but Willow is part of a select group."

"Select group?" Catherine felt her heart sink.

"Yeah. People on the list get hurt? Xander pulls out the stops and no one wants to see that happen," Dawn shivered.

Catherine blinked at Dawn a moment before stating, "Just to let you know, if you meant that as comfort? I'm not feeling comfort."

Dawn stifled a grin. "Then I suggest you come up with a plan so you don't find out what a totally ape Xander will do to you if you don't fix Willow."

"Chivalry," Andrew sighed. "Xander's one of the few that truly does believe in the creed of the paladin hero."

"More like if you hurt his friends you're on his shit list for life, but okay, have it your way," Dawn patted Andrew's shoulder.

"And no one holds a grudge like your family," Charlie commented.

"Ohhh, yah. Definitely feeling not too good right now," Catherine admitted. "Well, we have a plan, so, J'nal, get to work on that repel spell."

"Stand back just in case," J'nal warned.

"I plan to stand very back," Charlie said. "Catherine? You really don't need me around for this, so I think I better try and catch up with Faith."

"Why?" Catherine asked.

"Willow is spouting snippets from the future. She's already stumbled across bits that apply directly to people in this household. Maybe someone from her future should take over babysitting duty from a certain present-day Slayer before that Slayer starts building a timeline?" Charlie asked.

"Fine. Go," Catherine agreed. As the medic turned to head for the opening still under Ruda's watchful guard, she added, "But if you don't see Faith or Willow when you poke your head out there, come back here on the double. I don't want you to get lost in these tunnels."

"Will do," Charlie agreed.

"Wait! I think we should go with," Andrew said.

"I think we should stay put," Dawn huffed with crossed arms.

"But why? Our job is done here. We've already saved the day. Now it's time for us to rest on our laurels and start composing Klingon operas about our deeds," Andrew said.

"How can I put this?" Dawn thoughtfully tapped her chin with a forefinger, "We can go out there with only a doctor and his medical scanner for protection, maybe running into whatever Xander and Robin are fighting, while we try to find Faith and Willow, neither of whom are exactly what you'd call sane on their best of days. Or," Dawn held up her finger, "we could stay put and be protected by Catherine, the expert fighter, Ruda, the Slayer, and J'nal, the powerful witch."

"When you put it that way..." Andrew sickly said.

"Yeah, that's what I thought, too," Dawn nodded.

"I'll ummm, go stand by Ruda. The Slayer," Andrew quickly said as he retreated.

"You could have gone with Charlie, you know," Catherine said to Dawn.

"No thanks," Dawn said firmly. "Given the way things are going? I'd rather take my chances with you guys. My name is Dawn, not Dumb."

Chapter 56
Command Decisions

When Charlie stepped out of the narrow tunnel, the first thing he noticed was a low, guttural chanting underscored by an even lower growl that echoed through his bones. There were scattered lights from the headlamps, but they seemed to float frozen in mid-air, as if the wearers were standing very still.

He cautiously turned his head toward the scattered lights, letting the beam cut through the darkness. The jumbled image that met his eyes was difficult to comprehend. The noiseless tangle of Slayers mixed in with Robin looked like they were frozen in mid-throw. The overlap of arms, legs, and torsos didn't make sense, especially since there was no sign that anyone was even moving through the air.

The only way to describe it was that they were just there.

The guttural chanting just kept going as if it's owner didn't even notice that Charlie standing in the cavern with a big ol' bull's eye on his head.

Despite the fact that his flesh was goosepimpling in terror, he kept scanning the area. *This is an incredibly stupid time to pretend you are anything approaching brave, you idiot,* his mind snippily told him. Logic managed to overrule the urge to run and get Ruda. The incessant chanting coupled with the low rumble in the darkness seemed to indicate that someone was in an awful lot of trouble. If whatever was out there planned to take a shot at him it would've done it by now.

Just when he was about to give up and get Ruda, his light settled on a scene that made his blood freeze. He saw Willow standing with hands poised. At a guess, she was the source of the chanting. Lying on the ground at her feet was…

*Oh, futch! Alexander and Faith!*

The kick in his gut told him that something had gone seriously wrong with Faith's plan to evacuate Willow before even more big trouble rained down on their heads. He quickly snapped out of his paralysis and began running towards the witch, hoping like hada that Willow's mind was trapped in the future and not aware of the present unfolding around her.

As he ran, he blindly punched a couple of quick keystrokes into his medical scanner, thanking all the gods of all the Colonies--including Catherine's now-helpless Founders--that he'd kept a particular J'nal-related treatment program in his scanner.

Luck was on his side since Willow didn't seem to see him as she muttered her incantation. Faith's breath began to desperately hitch as she labored to draw breath. The doctor registered that Alexander was not reacting at all, a very bad sign. He snapped the empty canister into his scanner and muttered, "Come on, come on, come on," as the viscous blue liquid filled it. The scanner hadn't even beeped completion when Charlie yanked it out and slammed the canister into the back of Willow's neck.

Willow stumbled back a few feet before collapsing in a fit of giggles. The moment the witch fell, Faith was on her feet and breathing hard. "What? How? Who?" the Slayer demanded.

Behind him, Charlie could hear the sound of bodies falling to the ground as four girlish voices sent up protests and one male voice loudly groaned in pain.

"I just chemically shut down her ability to do magic using a mild sedative," Charlie shortly explained as he kneeled next to the fallen Alexander. The other man immediately responded to the bright light shining in his face by blindly lashing out, catching Charlie in the temple. As the doctor fell back on his ass, Alexander began fighting to get upright. Faith intervened and forced the young man to lie back down on the ground.

"S'okay. We're cool. We're good," she urgently said as she kneeled over him. "Doc's trying to fix you up right."

"Whoh?" Alexander asked. By the way he was gasping for breath, Charlie could tell he was having a hard time breathing.

"Me. Faith."

Alexander seemed disoriented until he focused on the worried woman holding him in place and cringed. Faith responded by immediately releasing him in a move so quick that Charlie thought sure she'd been burnt by fire.

"Just tryin' to keep you from hurtin' yourself more," Faith said quietly as she got to her feet and stepped back for good measure.

Charlie turned his head to look for his medical scanner. He spotted it next to a headlamp, which must've come off Alexander's head when whatever Willow did to him happened. He grabbed both, checked the headlamp, and sighed with relief when he saw it was still working. Just at that moment, the sound of running caught his attention. He turned and saw four grim-looking girls thundering over to his position with swords drawn. "It's all right," he called out. "Willow can't do any harm right now."

"Xander okay?" One of the girls asked.

"I need to do a scan…" Charlie began.

"Girls, let the doc work," Faith interrupted. "Remember your orders. Vi, back to Robin. You guys, fan out. I've got this covered." When the girls hesitated, Faith added for emphasis, "Go. I'll make sure it's all right."

There was a grumbled protest, but Charlie saw one of the girls move to Robin's side while the others took up positions by several tunnel openings. Terrific. Looked like he had another patient.

"Youh ahl righ'?" Alexander asked as he waved weakly at Faith through labored breaths.

"I, unh, I'm okay. Still got the Slayer mojo." Faith sounded surprised he bothered to ask.

"Whiill? Ahl righ'?" Alexander managed to gasp out.

"Doc?" Faith asked. "Willow gonna be okay?"

"Yes." Charlie began as he stumbled over to the Slayer and Alexander. "She's temporarily shut down because the pharma is running interference, but we still have to get her out of here. What I did wasn't exactly the safest thing for her, especially since I don't have her medstats. I need to get her in the open so I can get a better look at her."

"That's doesn't sound none too good," Faith remarked.

"Both of you took quite a hit," the doctor ignored her as quickly scanned both Faith and Alexander. "Looks like that high you were fighting is now busy helping your Slayer heeling toss off the effects of Willow's spell."

"Don't mind sayin' that I'm relieved to hear I won't be going on a drug-induced rampage any time soon," Faith rolled her shoulders. "How bad is he?"

"The others?" Alexander interrupted. He winced as he tried to take a deep breath. "Ohkay?"

"They're good. Back to sentry duty like you told 'em," Faith assured him. She gave Charlie a sidewise look. "He's having a lotta trouble breathing, like he's got asthma or something."

"That's because the systemic paralysis Willow initiated on both of you is taking longer to wear off on him since he lacks your Slayer physical resistance. He'll be breathing normally in five or ten minutes," Charlie said as he tapped the readout scanner. "It doesn't help he's got bruised ribs and more than a few pulled muscles in the thoracic region. But, here's the good news, no broken bones and, best of all, no brain injury."

Alexander coughed a laugh. "Who'd know the diff?"

"Stop it," Faith snapped.

Alexander winced, clenched his teeth, and folded into fetal position as he fought to draw bigger gulps of air into his lungs. Faith grabbed Charlie and pulled him a little away. "He doesn't look good, so what's the real deal doc?" She held up a finger and in a warning tone added, "And don't Nixon me."

*Nixon must mean lie, judging by her tone,* Charlie guessed. "Bruises, contusions, internal soft-tissue trauma. Nothing I can't handle, like I told you," Charlie reassured her. "Good thing I gave him a treatment for his hand earlier. There were enough active metabolites from the pharma I gave him yesterday to act as a weak prophylactic."

Faith was silent a moment before rendering a thoughtful, "Hunh?"

"If I hadn't treated him for injuries to his hand, he'd be a lot worse off than he is now," Charlie replied as he focused on the scanner and, with a few button pushes, recalled the stored program for Alexander.

"Doc? Are you saying he could be dead right now if not for you?" There was an odd, strangled tone to Faith's voice as she asked the question.

*Step carefully old boy.* He looked down at Faith and deliberately said, "I didn't say that. Like I said, when the spell wears off he'll be able to get to his feet, but he'll be feeling it. I can give him a healing factor boost to help him shake off the effects of the spell along with an adrenal boost to get him on his feet faster. But there's a trade-off."

Faith slowly blinked and said, "So, you're gonna give him something that'll get him on his feet all Slayer-like, but he's gotta pay?"

"Not exactly right, but close enough for practicalities," Charlie nodded, pleased that Faith got the gist. "The thing is, the boost to his system will help him in the short run, but when he crashes he's going to crash hard."

"How long?"

"Within the next eight or nine standard hours."

Faith shook her head. "You know, any other day but today? I'd say no problem, but…"

"Ooooooh, I'm hearing you all on frequencies there," Charlie agreed.

"Run it by Xander. If he can live with it, we'll live with it," Faith said. "Once you've got him squared you better check on Robin."

"What's the problem?"

"Not 100 percent sure," Faith shuffled uncomfortably. "Things when batshit before I had a chance to ask."

"Right. Faith, Alexander will be fine. I promise. And if I can do anything for Robin, I will."

"Yeah, do what you can," Faith said absently as her worried gaze wandered until it settled on the Willow-shaped giggling mound.

Charlie reached out and grabbed her hand in a comforting move. Given the Slayer's startled reaction, it probably wasn't the best thing he could've done, but he held on just the same. "Don't blame her. She didn't know what she was doing."

"I'm not," Faith slowly replied, a shadow of something crossing her face. "But at some point, 'not in my right mind' ain't really an excuse for shit like this." She looked over at Alexander, who seemed to be finally be catching his breath, but the labored breathing made it clear that it wasn't easy for the man. "What just fucking kills me is he knew. He fucking knew she could tear him into bloody pieces just by thinking it was a damn fine idea and there'd be shit-all he could do about it. I just don't understand why he even bothers even trying when he knows…" She gave her head a hard shake and pulled her hand away. "Forget it. Ain't nothin'."

Given what Catherine had told him about Faith's on attempt on Alexander's life, Charlie knew that this was big deal to Faith no matter how hard she tried to shake it off. He also knew better than to even pretend to understand what she was talking about.

"Well, I seem to recall that history records that Alexander has quite the habit of stepping in front of bullets," he said casually. "Some people will try anything to keep people they care about safe and sane."

"Yeah, well, some people have more heart than brains, I guess," Faith's voice was testing and prodding in that not-terribly-subtle way most Slayers had. Charlie suspected she was trying to tease more information out of him.

Charlie turned away, forcing himself to focus on his first patient. "I'm a little worried about balancing this. Too little and it'll do no good. Too much and he'll be useless."

"Right. I'll motor out of your way." There was a pause. "What about Willow?"

"Temporarily declawed, like I said. And I do mean temporary. When we get to the surface, I'll administer a slightly stronger sedative that'll keep her mystical defenses in check and send her off to dreamland."

"I'll stick with Willow. Make sure she doesn't go wandering off." With that pronouncement, Faith's feet trudged across the gravelly soil until she reached the witch, who was now sitting as if she were meditating and making "oooooooom" sounds.

"Alexander?" Charlie asked as he kneeled next to the fallen man.

Alexander once again struggled to sit upright. Although he was still breathing as if he were winded, he seemed to be finally getting some oxygen into his system. "Not used to bein' cahll tha'."

"I'm going to give you some medication to ease the breathing," Charlie placed a supporting hand on his shoulder, "and a boost of adrenalin. Just a warning that when the boost wears off, you're going to drop like a rock."


"Long?" Charlie interrupted. When he got a nod in response, he added, "Hopefully, it'll hold you eight standard ours. I can't guarantee longer than that. And you'll still be feeling your injuries even until then, so…"

"Dho i'."

Charlie made short work of creating the necessary mix and forcing the filled pellet underneath the skin. "Better?" he asked.

"Good enough," Alexander winced as he started to get to his feet. He didn't say no when Charlie offered him an assisting hand.

"How's the breathing?" Charlie asked as he handed the taller man the headlamp.

"Feels like my lungs are loosening up. Thanks," Alexander nodded. He fixed the light's band around his head and winced at the movement. "Man, you weren't kidding about the ouchiness, were you? I feel like I've gone three rounds with a Mack truck and that the truck won."

"Take it easy for a little bit before you…" Charlie's instructions were interrupted by a screeching roar.

Alexander looked worriedly around, light from his headlamp bouncing off the glittering walls. "I hope that's the sound of a pissed off snake and not the sound of snake that just escaped."

"I better check on Robin."

"What about Willow?" Alexander demanded.

"I don't have time…look, consult with Faith. I have to check Robin first. Willow will be as fine as she can be until we get her aboveground."

Alexander frowned before he gave Charlie a curt nod. As Alexander made his way over to Faith and Willow, Charlie headed for Robin. He tried to ignore the echoing soundtrack of something lowly growling its displeasure in the darkness beyond the scattered headlamps. Even so, whatever it was in the tunnels sounded big and dangerous. The end result was that Charlie felt relief when he reached Robin, if only because there was a Slayer stationed right next to him. As he kneeled down to take a closer look at his new patient, relief immediately turned to worry. Charlie didn't like the lump topped by the wound or the way the man seemed out of it. The Slayer--*I think Faith called her…Vi? Wait, wait, not Violet! Is it?*--was doing her best to offer comfort as she kneeled next to Robin, but it was clear that she wasn't sure what she could do.

"Will he be okay?" the girl said.

"Violet, right?" Charlie asked tentatively. When the girl nodded, he swallowed hard and tried to forget everything he knew about the girl. "Well, let me scan and find out."

One quick look at the readouts was enough to elicit a groan from Charlie. Worry had know notched up to *I can't futching believe my futching luck.* Then again, the way things had been going since they landed in 2003, he really should just learn to relax when fate decided to take another schlitzer on his head.

"That isn't a happy sound," Violet remarked.

"That's because it isn't," Charlie said. "He's got a very serious concussion."

"We could've told you that," Violet said.

"Told you what?" Faith breathed over his shoulder.

"Yike!" Charlie squeaked. He didn't even sense Faith coming up behind him. Just then another furious growl echoed in the darkness.

"That must be the snake," Violet said casually. "Guys! See anything?"

A chorus of "nos" did nothing to set Charlie's mind at ease.

"I can't help Robin," Charlie explained as he did his best to refocus on the immediate problem.

"What? Why not? Just stick some dope in him like you did me and Xander," Faith demanded.

"Faith, even in my time period the brain is still considered a very delicate instrument," Charlie patiently explained. "Robin has a serious concussion. That translates to brain injury. I could try something, but that might lead to greater problems."

"But…" Faith began.

"Listen to me," Charlie interrupted impatiently. "He's not a Slayer and he doesn't have a Slayer's unique chemistry. I can't just 'shoot him full of dope,' whatever the hada 'dope' is, to boost something he doesn't have to take care of an injury that's tricky to treat under the best of circumstance."

"But Xander ain't a Slayer and…" Faith insisted.

"Alexander did not have any brain injuries. All his problems were straightforward cuts, scrapes, bruises, and temporary paralysis, even when the cause was mystical. That's a whole different conversation," Charlie was practically shouting his frustration. "Not only that, I already had a stored medical program for Alexander. I don't for Robin. I don't even want to try dealing with the concussion because nothing short of bed rest, fluids, and observation is going to help."

"Short supply around here."

Charlie looked up at the interruption and saw that Alexander had joined the knot around Robin. Willow was standing next to him jabbering in a foreign tongue that included an awful lot of clicks of the tongue.

"Faith?" Alexander said quietly. "Maybe we should just try to get Robin out of here."

Faith frowned at the man for a moment before directing a last question at Charlie. "You sure you can't do anything?"

"If he were a Slayer, I'd do for him what I did for you." Charlie shrugged his relief. Alexander's suggestion to evacuate Robin seemed to have calmed the elder Slayer down. "Hada, even if I had a stored medical program I might, just might, give it a shot just to see if I could at least get him on his feet."

"In short, two strikes against you already, so let's not go for a third," Alexander winced.

"Hunh?" Charlie asked.

"Baseball," Violet clarified as if it should mean something.

Charlie decided now was not the time to get distracted by asking for a clarification. "I'll be in the evacuation party. That's why I was out here to begin with. Someone needs to watch Willow very carefully."

"And better you than someone from the past," Faith nodded.

"What? Why?" Violet asked. Robin let out a low moan, which distracted Vi just enough so she could shush him and grab his hand.

Willow started giggling. "Stop it! Stop it! I'm trying to concentrate… oh don't flash your tongue stud at me, you little hussy minx…"

Alexander gave Willow a worried glance. "Count me in on not wanting to hear any more."

"Amen," Faith agreed. "Well, Willow needs to get out of here anyway, so what's one more injured person? You're going to have your hands full, even with the doc's help."

"I'm going to have my hands full?" Alexander's eyebrows shot up. "I. Don't. Think. So."

"Last I checked I was in better shape than you," Faith shot back. "You should move your ass out of here before you get hurt even more. Plus, you got, what? Eight hours before you pitch headfirst into the ground? You need outta here more than I do."

Charlie saw Alexander's face darken dangerously and braced himself for a full-on Catherine-like snit. Instead, what came out of his mouth was far calmer than what Catherine would even bother with.

"I'm not a Slayer, Faith."

"Which is exactly my point," Faith argued back.

"Unh-oh," Violet said under her breath.

"That's right. That is the point," Alexander agreed. "Look around. Something's gone wrong. People are injured, seriously injured, and there was nothing about that in Assface's little black book. That means we can't assume anything."

Light seemed to dawn on Faith's face. "Like we can't assume there ain't another trap just waiting to get us. Shit." She looked around the cavern with a grimace. "Yeah, there is definitely a more-than-you-can-chew situation with the Grail and Willow, so much as I hate the fucking idea you got a point…"

Alexander relaxed. "Glad you see it my way."

"So, we send one of the newbies out with Willow and Robin and tell…" Faith looked at Violet, "her how the Grail's makin' her talk shit. No one can make heads or tails of it."

"Nice catch," Violet commented. "Did you know your nose twitches when you lie?"

"Vi…" Alexander shook his head. "Actually, sending one of the other Slayers--someone not named Vi," Alexander fixed Violet with a look, "and who hasn't heard this conversation is a good idea."

"Of course it…it is?" Faith seemed taken by surprise.

"It is," Alexander confirmed.

"Excuse me, Violet," Charlie said as he got up. He hooked his arm gently behind Faith's and Alexander's backs, and pulled them away from Violet and Robin. Once he was what he hoped was far enough away from Violet to prevent her from hearing what he hoped she wouldn't, he said, "Much as I don't want to agree on a Slayer guard because of… well…I won't get into the very long list of reasons why involving too much information about the future getting out, I have to go along with it because I have to think of Willow's and Robin's safety first and me alone isn't enough to protect them if something goes wrong. But, Faith, I'm afraid you're the best choice."

"Why?" the Slayer demanded. "I think I should stay right here."

"Frankly, both you and Alexander are the only logical choices to help me with Willow. You are at least aware of some possible…unh… events," Charlie said in an urgent low voice. When both Alexander and Faith continued to look doubtful, Charlie quickly added, "Do you really want certain information about the two of you to get out?"

Faith and Alexander exchanged glances. That one movement told Charlie that he just won the argument.

"Fine," Faith said. "I'm in. I don't fucking like it, but I'm in."

Alexander glanced at Willow over Faith's shoulder as he said, "Just promise me you'll be careful."

"Unlike before? Yeah, well, I didn't do so hot back there," Faith kicked the granular soil.

"You did the best anyone could, hell, probably better than me," Alexander said. He didn't notice the surprised look on Faith's face as he continued. "If I were in your shoes, I would've panicked. You at least got her out of there and had a plan to deal." He took a breath, gave Faith a tight smile, and added, "I know you'll be fine. Just…I dunno…do what you've been doing, I guess."

"Let's just hope a spanner doesn't come along and make it even harder than it's already been," Charlie said. "Don't forget, we still have to get you out of here within the next eight standard hours."

Chapter 57
Not Exactly the 'A-Team'

The mood on the battlefield had subtly shifted to a festive affair. Instead of a fight, they now had a Slayer rodeo.

Buffy zipped between the different groups as they drove the dirt creatures to areas that just happened to be near water spigots. Part of her mission was to check up on everyone; part of it was to warn the others not to give in to temptation and start letting the water flow. She wanted to take these guys by surprise and she didn't want to chance that the Slayer squad's sudden interest in running water would give away the plan.

As she trundled over to what she'd dubbed the Key Group because of its proximity to the crypt, Giles fell into step next to her. "I dare say, Buffy, luck does seem to be on your side."

"Let's not count our monsters before they melt," Buffy said as she bounced over to the spigot. "All we know is they don't like water. If it doesn't work we might end up with killer mud pies."

"This afternoon is was Astroturf, tonight it's gooey goodness," Andrea giggled. She stopped. "Ummm, not that I'm planning to actually eat killer mud pies."

"Just keep them corralled," Buffy said with a resigned air.

Giles chuckled as Andrea wandered off. "At long last, you get to experience my pain."

"Your pain?" Buffy asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Rambunctious youngsters with a penchant for mangled metaphors," Giles clarified. "At least you didn't say 'count our hatched chickens before we break eggs to make an omelet.'"

"Oooooh, that's a good one!" Buffy grinned. "I'm totally gonna use that in conversation really soon."

"Hopeless," Giles sighed as he hid his grin.

Buffy leaned over and conspiratorially added, "I even promise to give you full credit."

"I do beg you not to bother."

At that moment Buffy spotted Kennedy speeding across the law with coiled hose around her shoulder.

"Calvary is here!" Kennedy announced as she dumped the hose at Buffy's feet.

Giles immediately began hooking the hose up to the spigot.

"Are the others ready?" Buffy prompted.

"Which is why calvary's gotta run. More hoses and buckets to deliver," Kennedy breathlessly explained. She tossed a half-wave, half-salute at Buffy and rendered a cheery, "See ya!" before taking off again.

"The woman does know how to make an entrance," Giles said good-naturedly as he stood up. "Well, do the honors?"

"Love to," Buffy said formally as she lifted the hose and took aim. She made sure to squeeze the rubber tight with one hand so the rushing water would be trapped until she was good and ready to let loose.

As Giles began turning on the spigot, Buffy called out, "Yoooo-hoooo! Dirt guys!"

This echoing call got the echoing response of female snickers. More than a few Slayers began grinning as they began driving the creatures closer to Buffy and her secret weapon.

When Buffy judged her adversaries were close enough, she let the trapped water loose with a shout of, "Surprise!"

Suffice to say there was a certain amount of crumbling in the opposing forces, coupled with scrambling panic, followed by the realization among the Slayers that they could now punch through their former tormenters.

To make a long story short, there was gleeful revenge to be had by all, up to an including the largest and most impressive of mud fight in Cleveland's troubled history.


It was a long, tense trek. Faith was torn between checking Robin every five seconds, keeping Willow from acting too fruit loops, scanning the darkness for a potential threat, and keeping an eye on Charlie behind her as he helped Robin over the rough spots.

Once they reached the stairs, Charlie set Robin down. A few quick words hammered out a plan: Willow could barely walk, which meant Faith had to carry her. She couldn't be trusted alone, which meant Charlie had to go with to keep an eye on the witch while Faith went back to retrieve a waiting Robin.

After repeated 'don't moves' and 'yell if there's troubles' to Robin, they started up the stairs with Faith wearing Charlie's headlamp and Willow slung over her shoulder in a classic fireman's carry. Charlie did his best to keep up by going up the stairs on all fours.

Willow was practically deadweight as she giggled and mumbled something Faith tried desperately not to hear as they climbed the narrow stairs. She could sense Robin below, still grumbling that he swears he won't move. She hoped nothing would hurt him before she could get back down to him.

Yeah, it was over between them, but hell, she still cared whether he lived or died. Maybe he had a point about Slayers and Watchers and maybe not. The point was he thought he was right and she had to live with it. Maybe it was kind of a sign of growth that as unhappy as she was about it, she wasn't tempted to force him to change his mind or make him regret it. She just hoped that someday they'd be able to look each other in the eye without remembering that someone somewhere had royally screwed the pooch. She wondered which one of them would be thinking that they got a raw deal when they looked back on that fight in the kitchen.

She was still just selfish enough to hope that it wouldn't be her.

"How are you doing?" Charlie whispered.

Faith didn't look over her shoulder. "Are you sure Robin'll be all right by himself down there?"

"Willow's more likely to go wandering off than Robin," Charlie reminded her. "Even if Robin got to his feet, he won't get far."

She knew that. She just hated that how she'd been backed into making decisions since she walked into the dark. Every single decision was either/or with very little and. All of it based on who is less hurt than someone else and who could survive five fucking minutes without her watching their back. She wondered if there also wasn't some subtle balancing act going on between who was less expendable than someone else, a subconscious weight that said Willow was less expendable than Dawn and Andrew. That Robin was more important to save than Xander. That she was more important than any of them because she's the one hauling ass when she's got nothing more than a few bruises to show for her pain.

But if she was dancing on the seesaw, she damn well knew that she wasn't dancing alone. Xander could be here instead of her and he practically shoved her in this direction by being something resembling logical.

The scariest thing about all this is the fact that if she stuck around and stuck it out, she would be dancing between checks and balances her entire life. Didn't matter what the personal relationships were between herself or anyone else. The fact is, the people back there with the Grail and the people dealing with the monsters were trusting her to not fuck up, even though a few of them knew just how badly she could fuck up without even trying.

Fuck. Maybe Robin does have a damn good point because she can't help but wonder if, on that deep-down level that she can't bear to look at, the journal and Catherine and Ruda and the -rah-sen bullshit and the screwed-up future hinted at in Willow's laughter was maybe pushing her to make this decision instead of that decision.

When Faith finally reached the top, she told Charlie to halt for a second so she could get the lay of the land. Doing her best to hold Willow in one place with one hand, she took that final step up and poked her head over the lip of the sarcophagus. She was extremely grateful when she saw that the crypt was exactly the way she left it, including no surprise visitors. With any luck, B already had things under control and it'll be easy breezing when she opened that door to the outside world.

Happy the coast was clear, the Slayer practically dragged the Witch over the lip of the sarcophagus and turned to help Charlie, only to find that the doc was doing just fine without her.

"I'm so proud of you."

Faith turned immediately back to Willow. Her voice sounded so…odd.

"Look at you," Willow regarded her with watery eyes, "you're such… when did you become an adult?" The redhead reached out a trembling hand and tenderly brushed aside a strand of Faith's hair and tucked it behind her ear.

"Now, now, I've a right to be worried," Willow continued, as a gentle finger slid down Faith's cheek and came to rest under her chin. "You look so much like your grandmother when she was your age." Willow giggled in a voice that hinted at the ghost of a much older woman. "Did I also mention you've got your grandfather's personality?"

Faith took a step back. Willow didn't seem threatening, but she'd just gotten a first class lesson in how this shit could turn on a dime.

"Your grandparents…" Willow closed her eyes as if she were fighting back tears. "They'd be proud of you." She opened her eyes and gave her a sad smile. "You didn't know your grandmother and you were so young when your grandfather passed, so I guess you'll have to take my word on that."

Faith froze, fascinated as Willow tilted her head and added, "I loved both of them you know. I loved them both so much and I just wish they were here to see you now." Maybe it was the trick of the light or maybe it was the ghost of what will be shining through, but Willow seemed so much older than she was. "They'd be worried, but they'd be proud of you. I know that. But this is your time and I know you'll be all right."

Faith opened her mouth to speak, but Willow moved and gently laid a trembling hand on her right arm. "I have a surprise for you. Now. Close your eyes."

"I don't think that's such a hot idea," Faith protested in a whisper.

"Shush! I said close them." Willow reached out and covered Faith's eyes with the palm of her hand. "Now, hold out your hands."

"I don't beeeelieve this," Faith muttered, her heart racing. Just the same, morbid curiosity forced her to do what Willow said. Robin was forgotten. The fact that Charlie was in the room was forgotten. Everyone working out the deal with the Grail, Xander and the Slayers waiting in the darkness below, Buffy and her people fighting outside, it all seemed unreal, like a story that was happening to someone else.

"Now, open your eyes."

Faith did as she was told. She half-expected to see something and was disappointed when her open palms remained as empty as they were when she first held them out.

Charlie interrupted. "I don't think…"

"Shush," Faith hissed. She could feel a string tugging her forward and she was powerless to resist. *Just a moment, one little moment and I'll…*

What? Depended on what waited at the other end of the string, she supposed.

Willow was rubbing her hands over the surface of something. "Your grandfather really did know his wood. I still can't believe how beautiful these carvings are."

*Xander?* Had to be. He was the only one she knew who was a freak about wood. He was all about the hardwood floors in the house, going on and on about rock maple and how they needed that high gloss finish so Slayers running riot through the house wouldn't do too much damage.

"I always thought he missed his calling," Willow continued. "He should've created things like this instead of…" Willow looked at her, a small hint of an old sorrow reflected in her eyes. "I'm sorry. I still…the fact he died alone so the others could get that cure out…I still feel guilty that I wasn't there to at least…I know I shouldn't but…"

*Someday he'll be some Slayer's first.* Goddamn Kennedy for putting that thought in her head. Goddamn Giles for making possibility a possible reality.

Willow shook her head, brave smile back in place. "Open it," she whispered.

Charlie shuffled nervously behind her, but didn't say anything.

"Don't wanna," Faith whispered back.

Well, whoever she was supposed to be did open the box because Willow's smile turned beatific. "Now that sword…" she laughed and shook her head. "Your grandmother marched right into that lair and won it from the keeper in a bet." The Witch tapped her head knowingly with a finger. "Your grandmother liked to pretend she was Slay hard play hard, but when she set her mind to it she knew how to sneak through the back door when the front door was barred."

Willow reached into what Faith assumed was the box, grasped something with two hands, and lifted it, stumbling under the nonexistent weight. "Beautiful, isn't it," Willow said as she gazed with awe up at the invisible sword in her hand. "Take it."

Faith just stood there, palms still outstretched because she didn't know how to grab swords she can't see.

Willow stepped away, since whoever she was talking to had taken the sword, and linked her hands behind her back. "I can see you feel the power." She chuckled indulgently. "No, your grandmother never did wield it. I asked her once why and she told me that it wasn't hers." Willow tilted her head. "I suppose it did belong to the keeper she won it from, but she was very clear that the sword was not for her but for you."

Faith swallowed hard.

Charlie groaned. "Faith, please…"

"Shush!" Willow waved. "I can't answer. It's a story I can't tell. Let an old witch keep her secrets, hmmm?" There was a twinkle in her eye. "I can tell you that she said someone told her it wasn't hers and that I'd know whose it was when the time came."

Faith could feel the cold shivers crawl up her back. Oh, yeah. She knew who told her the sword wasn't hers, and it wasn't no sword keeper either.

Willow mimed taking the sword into her hands and laying it in the box. "Funny how I only just now figured out what Faith meant," the redhead muttered. Her head came up. There was a twinkle in her eye and a mischievous smile gracing her lips. "Now your grandmother…end of the day she turned out to be a real hero. Only one of us that got public acknowledgement for being a hero."

And there it was: proof positive that some day she was going to have a last battle.

Willow chuckled. "Your grandmother never did do things by halves. Running into that mess the way she did…saved some people against all odds but still…"

"Oh futch," Charlie breathed. "Faith, please…"

Willow's face got serious. "I miss her. I miss him. More than ever these days but…" She gave Faith a sad smile. "I'll see them both soon enough and I'll tell them all about you."

Faith opened her mouth, although she wasn't entirely sure what she could possibly say.

"Now, now," Willow engulfed her in a hug, "allow me to be misty, eh?" She drew back and studied Faith's face. "You're a good girl, Kayleigh. You come from good people who were brave and strong and you are so much like both of them. You'll get this bastard. Wait and see." Willow exploded in laughter. "I can too swear like a…"

The witch suddenly jerked away and began yelling, "Andrew! How many times have I told you not to leave the ancient-y books on the floor? Do you know how much they cost? See? The pages are all ripped because Buffy stepped on it!"

Faith could only stand there like a mook as Willow talked to someone named Johanna about teaching Andrew a lesson about respect for property. She could still feel the weight of an invisible box holding a not-yet-existing weapon in her outstretched palms.

"Are you okay?" Charlie asked her.

*Now there's the question of the hour. Scratch that: it's the goddamn question of the fucking century.*

"Faith?" Charlie prompted.

Live fast, kick ass, and don't leave skid marks when you go. A motto that--and Faith had to admit this--served her maybe not too well, all things considered. Lacking anything better to live by, well, it was at least a philosophy she could hang her hat on.



Right here and right now in this crypt, holding this gift in the palms of her waiting hands, with tomorrow lurking on the other side of that crypt door, living for the moment wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough.

It was never going to be enough again.

"Lanoire-rah?" Charlie's voice sounded small and distant.

And if it wasn't enough for her, it wasn't enough for anyone else, was it? The future belonged to everyone, didn't it? And what you did right here and right now could give the future to someone or take it away.

*And once you take someone's future away, how the hell do you give it back?*

She felt a small touch on her shoulder. "Lanoire-rah-sen?"

"I'm fine." She dropped her hands, clenching them into fists so hard that the nails bit into the palm of her hands.

"I was worried," Charlie voice flooded with relief. "You went away for moment."

"Just a moment," Faith echoed. "Kayleigh. One of mine?"

"I can't tell you that," Charlie said quickly, but his guilty face gave her the answer she suspected.

"Will you be all right? With her?" Faith nodded in Willow's direction. The witch was miming something, as if she were picking things up and putting them on a shelf.

"No danger. You best get Robin," Charlie assured her.

Faith lightly leapt on to the edge of the crypt to prepare for another descent, but Charlie's voice halted her for a moment.

"I'm sorry, you know," the doctor looked genuinely sad, "it's not all bad. What Willow said…you've just heard the worst bits about…well, you know."

Faith looked down at the palms of her hands and for a moment she could almost see that lovingly created wooden box and that thing-of-beauty weapon. She wanted to laugh so long and so hard and never, ever stop.

Somewhen, somehow, and against all odds someone, maybe even more than one someone, was going to love her just because. That was worth everything she had just to have that much.

It was a selfish thought, true. But damn, it did feel some kind of good.

"Doc, if that's the worst the future has to offer then bring it on." She flashed the doctor a wicked grin and leapt away before Charlie could say anything more.

Crazy as it may sound to people who weren't Faith, she could only think as she bounded down the stairs, *Hey! Check me out, ma! Top of the fucking world!*


*This is the part where I call myself an idiot.*

What the hell was he thinking?

*Why, no, Faith. I think you should grab the wounded and run. I'll just stand here like a lump and let something evil snack on my steaming entrails. What steaming entrails? Why, the steaming entrails that will be all over the place when something evil rips my guts out. I've already been stabbed in the gut once. Don't need a repeat. Have you ever been stabbed in the gut? It sucks the big one…*

Somewhere in his panicked mental babble, he realized he was having an imaginary screaming hissy fit with an imaginary Faith who damn well did know what it was like to get stabbed in the gut. Since they both got stabbed by supernaturally strong whatevers, it was going to come down to who got stabbed with the bigger point-y thing.

*Yeah, well, you got stabbed with a pussy knife! I got stabbed with a sword. Okay, not a sword, but a really big knife! Top that one baby! *

Oh, wait. She got a coma. He got a dirty bandage and a chance to loudly bitch that he wanted to be gay.

*Yeah, well…at least you've got both your eyes!*

Ha! Let's see her beat that on the my-battle-scars-are-worse-than-your-battle-scars hit parade.

Dear god. He's already beginning to sound like his mother's father. *I was at Anzio you little prick! Don't tell me burning your hand hurt!*

You know? That whole thing about getting a vasectomy? Sounded better and better the more he poked at it.

"Xander?" Vi tentatively asked.


"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Why? Don't I look fine?"

"It's just, ummm, you're kind of smiling. Crazy flakes smiling."

"Vi? My scariest relative on this or any other planet, plus some of her best friends, are staying the week at our humble home and spending mucho quality time with us. I deserve parade for holding on to the tiniest of tiny threads of sanity I've got left."

"You're ranting."

"Yes. Yes I am. I've earned this rant," Xander huffed. "Ergo, I rant, therefore I'm still sane. Sort of."

Vi considered that a moment. "Oh. Well. As long as you're fine then."

"Now that that's settled…"

Whatever Xander was about to say was cut off by a screeching roar.*(*OW! OW! OW! OW!)

"You know," Vi nervously licked her lips, "I'm amazed we sorta forgot about the snake."

"Yeah, well, nothing a like little uproar and a few injuries to distract you from the little things," Xander said grimly.

Vi blinked at that. "That snake is a little thing?"

"Not so much, which means we better get to it then," Xander said absently. "Yo! Ladies! Anything?"

"There's movement," Barbara said nervously as she backed away from her cave opening.

"What?" Xander strode over to her, crossbow at the ready while he grabbed a bolt with his free hand. "When did it start?"

"I'm not sure," Barbara seemed embarrassed. "I got kinda distracted what with Willow and the spell, and Faith and you arguing about who was going to get Robin and Willow out, plus with all the roaring and noise and…"

"Ooooh! Way to go Barbara!" Sally shouted sarcastically. "Way to stay on the case!"

"Hey! I didn't hear you shouting a warning!" Vi snipped back at Sally while Lisa shouted a "yeah" to back Vi up.

"Ladies! Not now! Bigger problems!" Xander snapped. He turned to Barbara and could see the Slayer literally shrinking in on herself, as if she was something resembling worried that he'd land on her like a ton of bricks for not saying something sooner. "Look, Barbara, I'm not going to say it's okay because it's not. If our friend's made a break for it, our sitch just got a whole lot more complicated."

Barbara looked down and nodded.

"But I understand, okay? Besides, you aren't the only one who got distracted by everything." Did he sound reassuring? God, he hoped he sounded reassuring, because he didn't feel reassured at all. Even his not-at-all-Slayer hearing could pick up movement and growling in the echoes. "Let's just concentrate on the problem we've got right in front of us."

"How?" she asked.

There's Barbara looking at him with her big green eyes asking him that question. For the millionth time since he landed in Cleveland, Xander seriously wondered when the hell people started looking at him like he was an adult, because right about now he felt like he was fifteen again and dealing with vampires for the first time.

"Just listen for a sec and see if you can pinpoint where mouse-breath might be lurking." He turned around and faced the three other ashen-faced Slayers and added in a slightly louder voice. "Same goes for the rest of you."

"Ummmm, Xander?" Lisa asked as she took a step back.

"We all need to really listen."

"Xander?" Barbara tugged at his sleeve.

"Maybe between the five of us…"

Sally drew her sword. "Xander, I think…"

"Let me finish! I was going to say that between the five us we might be able to triangulate where that thing is."

Vi darted forward, grabbed Xander by the arm, and dragged him forward. "Would right behind you be a good enough guess?"

Xander jerked around just in time to see a very large forked tongue flick out of the cave. "Oh shit! Nice warning guys!"

ROOOOOOOOWL!*(*Walnut brain! You. Are. Going. Down.)

As the snake thrust its head through the opening, Xander could see that patches of its skin were rubbed raw and that it was bleeding from countless places. He figured rage must've been fueling the thing because the injuries sure as hell didn't seem to slow it down.

He retreated behind the girls and began loading the bolt. "Wait for an opening before you attack," he hissed. "No running right into that thing's teeth."

"Aim for the eyes, right?" Vi asked. She winced. "Ummm, sorry about that."

"Vi? Eyes are always a good place to start," Xander grimly replied while he took aim.

He would've had a clear shot, but the snake had ideas that didn't involve sitting pretty and letting itself get seriously clobbered by a one-eyed guy with a crossbow and four Slayers with swords. With a drawn-out hiss*, the snake charged straight for them. (*Wonder if you'll keep running after I bite your head off Walnut Brain.)

The five combatants scattered rather than risk getting scooped up in the snake's open jaws. When Xander felt he'd put enough distance between himself and the snake he turned, aimed…

…and noticed the snake was looking right at him.

SSssssssssss.*(*Know what pisses me off? You smell like you'll taste like dead, wet, rotten rat.)

Xander let loose with a bolt.

The snake charged.

He missed.

Xander zigged and barely avoided getting turned into lunch by a mere two feet.

He spun around and noticed that he was close enough to the snake to see yet another new detail. "Terrific," he muttered as he stumbled backwards, juggling the crossbow as he reached over his shoulder to grab a new bolt. "Hey guys! Looks like this thing's got superfast healing. There's new scales already growing in."

RUUUURSSSSSS.*(*And your voice? Gets. On. My. Nerves. You squeak worse than a mouse.)

The snake was busy orienting itself for a new angle of attack when Sally and Barbara zipped over to their target. He noticed that the two Slayers were worrying at the still bleeding areas just behind the snake's head with their swords.

"Lisa? Vi? You okay?" Xander asked as he looked desperately around.

"We're good," Vi shouted as she trotted over to him with Lisa in tow. "We're trying to figure out the best way to get at this thing. Not too sure swords are going to do more than get it angry."

GROWL!*(Owwwww! Hey! That hurts! Behave!)

Xander muttered a string of curses under his breath as he loaded his crossbow, took aim…

…and Sally stepped right into his line of fire.

"Damn it!" Xander shouted as he moved to get into a position that wouldn't take out a Slayer.

*Yeah, good luck with that. Barbara and Sally are all over…* "Barbara what the hell are your doing?" he yelled.

Barbara had somehow, don't ask him how, managed to get on top of the thrashing snake just behind its head. She held on a few seconds before she was unceremoniously tossed in his direction. Xander, Vi, and Lisa jumped out of the way as she landed with a grunt on the gravel ground.

"You know? I'm really sick and tired of getting tossed around," she snarled. "I suck at this Slayer thing."

Xander would've offered something reassuring had the snake not decided to make a run for their happy little group.

Five minutes of scrambling later, Xander once again found himself the focus of the snake's less-than-fuzzy intentions.

HIIIIISSSSSSSSS.*(*For the record? I'm going to win.)

"Unh, Xander?" Vi's voice echoed from an unseen shadow. "Is it me? Or does that snake really want you?"

"Suuuuuuure. Why not?" Xander rhetorically asked as he skittered to the right. He was not comforted to see the snake make a darting motion in the same direction, all while keeping its visible eye on his person. "Demon magnet man strikes again," he added bitterly

"Maybe it hates you because you got it stuck in the tunnels?" Lisa asked as she ran by the snake's nose and swiped at it with her sword. She twisted backwards when the snake rewarded her efforts with a snarl* and a tongue flick. (*Ooooo, but you smell gooooood.)

"Nope. I'm pretty sure my aftershave is involved." Xander carefully scanned the area and saw the triple cave openings to his left. *Terrific. Right on my blind side. I hate having one eye.* Figuring there was nothing for it, he attempted to skitter to the left, only to see the snake dart in the same direction and a little closer to his position. He growled with frustration. "I've decided. Change my aftershave. I should go with Old Spice instead of that Calvin Klein stuff Dawn says makes me stink good."

RUUURRRRRL!*(That explains the dead, wet, rotted rat smell.)

"Use Old Spice, you'll drive everyone away," Vi remarked as she appeared out of the shadows and moved over to Xander's blind side.

"What's wrong with Old Spice?" Xander asked as Vi grabbed him and yanked him away from yet another attempt on his life.

Vi began slowly herding him towards the cave openings. "It stinks. It reminds me of a boy that used to make fun of me. Plus, I'm allergic."

"Okay, how about something bug spray-ish. Think Off makes Demon Off or Demon Be-Gone?"


"Yike!" Vi and Xander shouted and stereo.

"CHARGE!" Lisa, Sally, and Barbara shouted as they descended on the snake's head, whacking and smacking for all they were worth.

It at least bought Vi and Xander some breathing room.

"We've got to get you out of here," Vi said quickly. "That snake is really out to get you."

"Yup. It sure is, which is why I've cooked up a cunning plan."

"Please tell me it involves you running for safety?" Vi pleaded. "I really don't want to have to break the news that I let you become snake food."

Xander's head snapped around and he fixed Vi with a deadly glare. "Let's get one thing straight: you don't 'let' me do anything, hear?"

Vi hunched her shoulders. "Sorry. I didn't mean to…what I mean is, that snake really is aiming for you and I couldn't stand it if you were hurt."

"Getting hurt's part of the game, Vi," Xander said quietly. "If you stick around you're going to have to learn that and fast."

Vi gave him a hesitant nod.

The snake chose that moment to try and run over the three pests between it and Walnut Brain. The three attacking Slayers were forced to scramble closer to Vi and Xander in an effort to form a human shield while Vi dragged Xander closer to the three cave openings.

"Vi!" Xander shouted in exasperation. "Let me go!"


"Now!" Xander roared.

Vi loosed her grip just enough to let Xander wiggle out of it. He hustled over to his human shield with Vi hot on his heels.

"Right. Quick plan guys. Vi! Stop trying to grab me and listen for a second, will you? We're going to make the snake's obsession work for us."

"How?" Sally asked.

"I'm going to play bait."

"Bait?" Barbara's eyes remained fixed on the snake, which had stopped charging. Its eyes remained fixed on them as its coils restlessly undulated and slithered. Xander could swear that monster was considering a new line of attack.

"But…" Vi began a protest.

"No buts." The tone in his voice managed to kill all debate. "See those caves behind us? I'm going to try to lure it back in there. Maybe try to get it stuck again."

"You only have two choices," Lisa pointed out. "You probably won't be able to get it to follow you down the cave you went in before."

"You guys went down the other two. Did they narrow at all?" Xander asked.

"Ours did. A lot," Vi said. "But it's not smooth running. We had to climb all over the place."

"Okay. Good. That's good," Xander nodded. "Vi, I'm going to run into the same cave you did. Make sure the snake sees me do it. Hold it just long enough to give me a good head start. Then, I want all three of you to back off and let it chase me."

"But…" Vi began again.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but we're not having a lot of luck even hurting that thing," Xander interrupted. "Sooner or later one of us is pulling a Jonah unless we stop it from actually moving so we can kill it once and for all. Does anyone have a better idea? No? Okay then. Vi? Which tunnel?"

Vi tried one more protest. "I don't like using you as bait. It's wrong."

"Yeah, well, if you used me as bait without asking, you'd have a point. Since I'm volunteering, wrongability doesn't come into play."

Vi shook her head and finally capitulated. "You're the Watcher."

"I don't want to even know how you found that out," Xander flatly.

"Hey! Watcher Xander!" Barbara grinned.

"Yayness!" Sally cheered.

"Does this mean I have to let you win when we play video games?" Lisa giggled.

The snake started a feint, which was good enough to get Sally, Barbara, and Lisa to scatter and for Vi to make one more attempt at dragging Xander to the caves.

"Okay, okay. I'm going," Xander huffed. "Remember: make sure it sees me 'escape.' Got it?"

"Got it," Vi saluted while the other three Slayers began running interference with the snake.

"Vi…" Xander warned.

"Let it see you. Make sure to hold it long enough to give you a good head start. Let it go."

Xander glared at her while Vi gave him a pinball smile.

"Make sure you do," he ordered. He jogged over to the cavern entrance Vi indicated and shouted, "Yo! Rat breath!"

RUR!*(*Ho-ho! Gotchya!)

"I'm out of here!" Xander shouted. He turned and scrambled into the entrance.

GROWL!*(*Coward! Get back here and fight!)

Vi tightened her grip on her sword and jumped into the fray. Between swings she announced, "Guys, change of plans."

"Change of plans?" Barbara asked.

"But Vi, Xander said…" Lisa began.

"Xander is dead meat if this thing catches him," Vi cut her off. "We're Slayers. Our job is to keep him safe. Got it?"

"Fine," Sally agreed as she breathlessly aimed for and missed the snake's nostril. "So what's the new plan?"

There was very Slayer glint in Vi's eyes. "Kick. Its. Ass."

"Kick its ass!" the other three Slayers roared.

And then the four pressed in for the kill, swinging their swords every step of the way.

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